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I finally managed to pound this one out. It's a little rougher than I like, but perfect is the enemy of posted, as it were. I hope y'all don't mind.

One more episode. It will be extra bonus-sized, and also will break my usual tradition of only having a single POV in an episode, just to warn you. I promise to remember to cut the text. :)

All Lies Lead to the Truth

"I told Watson I was angry with her finally," Megan said, fiddling with a wrinkle of her jeans.

Pearl's eyebrows rose with attention. "And how did that go?"

Megan sighed and let her head fall back in her chair. "She asked me why."


"I told her, just like we practiced," Megan said, still looking up at the ceiling. When Pearl didn't answer, she said, "I said because I felt like she could have done more to help me. That everything I remembered since the point where the company got bought and the 'company therapist' started working on everyone was that I felt abandoned and alone."

Pearl nodded. "How did you feel telling her that?"
Read more... )

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I'm so sorry for missing last week! The summer is kind of hectic and my schedule for late June and all of July left me without a lot of brain. Plus the next several episodes are hard to write. At some point in the near future, I will double up a week and get you two eps to makes up for the missed one.

If you're in the Boston area today (Saturday August 9, 2014) and are at all inclined toward suit-wearing or watching suit-wearing butch-type people strut their stuff, I and a number of very attractive individuals will be modeling Saint Harridan's clothing tonight at 11 pm at a nightclub called Machine on Boylston Street. Come on out and enjoy the eye candy!

Denial Is Policy

Megan sat down hesitantly in the big chair in Pearl's office. It felt familiar. It looked familiar. It even smelled familiar.

Pearl sat down in her chair and smiled at Megan. Her iron gray hair was pulled back in a braid, and if the lines in her face were deeper than when last they met, Megan really couldn't say.

Megan fidgeted with the sideseam of her jeans for a moment, then said, hesitantly, "I found your name and number in my address book. Under my mattress. I mean, my address book was under my mattress. I never put anything there. But it was there." She ran out of words and let the silence dribble in.

Pearl studied her for a moment, then said, "Why did you call me when you found it?"

Megan looked away. "I asked Ir-- Watson about you. She said you were my therapist."

Pearl let the sentence hang between them for a long time. Then she said, slowly and clearly, "Megan, what have you lost?"

The enormity of the question collapsed in on Megan, and she went down under the weight, bending forward almost to her knees, face in (too-big) hands, and trying to choke back the tears that were suddenly there. When that threatened to make her (too-big) throat explode with agony, she finally let out a bellow of pain that echoed throughout her (too-big) chest and rattled her ribs and the small bones of her face. Caught somewhere in that sound was the word Everything.

At some point, Pearl pushed a box of tissues into easy reach, and Megan used most of its contents over the next twenty minutes of unleashed misery.

When the paroxysm passed, Megan sat quietly for a while, worn out, staring at the massive handful of tissues she was apparently compressing with the aim of making them into diamonds. She focused on the black smears across the surface of one, and she held it out to Pearl as if displaying an uncharacteristic shit produced by one of Watson's cats.

"This. That's eyeliner," she said. "I hate it. It makes me want to retch. But I'm terrified of being seen without it now. I hate myself for messing up my fucking makeup. I hate makeup. I can't… I don't think I ever wore it before. Except maybe when I was 13, before I grew too big to be a woman."

Pearl glanced briefly at the offending tissue, then watched Megan's face for the rest of the rant. She said, "I don't think you did either. What do you mean when you say you grew too big to be a woman?"

"I…" Megan reached for the explanation and there was nothing there. It was just like something had been dropped into her brain and left there, like a Lego brick to be stepped on in the dark. No attachment, no rhyme or reason. "... I don't know." She hated the sound of her voice. Her inner, utterly baffled, child.

Pearl leaned forward a little. "You know what's been happening around the world, right?"

Megan nodded. "Aliens invaded. They got a bunch of psionic paras to work for them."

"The aliens also provided the psions with power enhancers, but failed to provide them with any training." Pearl folded her hands together in her lap. "What you just experienced is happening to a lot of people right now. The official term for it is, ironically, 'alien thought syndrome.' Which is the psychiatric establishment's attempt to categorize what happens when a telepathic para meddles with someone else's mind."

Megan exhaled a sharp laugh. "We all need t-shirts: 'The aliens invaded and all I got were these lousy thoughts that aren't mine.'"

Pearl smiled. "I suspect something like that may happen. You might find some online communities starting, or, if you're interested, I can probably find you a therapy group focused around it."

Megan hiccoughed around a leftover sob. "Not yet, I think."

"That's okay." Pearl leaned forward and put her hand on Megan's. "This is hard stuff, but I want to encourage you to think about what you're thinking behind things that you're saying. Our normal thoughts have a sense of connection to one another, or at least to ourselves. These… items dropped into our brains by other people have that same sense of disconnection you just felt. That's how you tell what's yours, and what's someone else's."

Megan couldn't stop herself from asking, "How do I get rid of them?"

Pearl squeezed her hand. "You don't, I'm afraid. But you learn to think around them. Eventually, a lot of people learn to put them in a box and forget most of them."

"Oh," Megan said in a very small voice. "Oh."

Pearl sat back in her seat and watched her again.

Megan sifted through the detritus of tumbled thoughts that kept flying through her head, and noticed a few that were "aliens," just like Pearl said. She finally asked, after a few minutes of feeling vertiginously aware of her own mind's activity, "Can you please tell me what kinds of things we were talking about… before? Because I've tried to remember, but I can't."

"You will, with time," Pearl said. "No one can take away your memories. They can try to divert you away from them, they can try to block them off, but in the end, your mind is your own, and you will find your own way back to them. That is to say, no, I can't tell you, but I can help you remember."

Megan nodded. She'd expected that, really. A sudden thought, all her own, warm and furry with all the proper lines of connection, came to her. It was so comforting to have one she knew was hers that she cuddled it close, and said, "I know we're almost out of time, but can I say hi to the dogs?"

Pearl broke into the biggest smile yet. "At least Mulder and Scully remain unforgettable. Sure, let me go get them for you."

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"No," Jane said tiredly. "It can't be me."

"Why not?" Lady Justice asked. "You can be psionic. You have been plenty in the past."

"Because no one should trust me with a power that could dement the whole city," Jane said, covering her eyes with a hand. "Because I may look like I'm holding it together and am like I was ten or fifteen years ago, but I'm not."

Ira rubbed his face and looked around at the group of dissidents, awkwardly dreading the possibility of Jane Liberty crying and just wanting to say anything to turn attention away from her. "All right, Lady J, Jane knows best on this point. The question is, if not Jane, then who?"

"I wish we had some idea of what the deadline is," Madeline said, stopping herself from playing with the beaded fringe of the scarf on the couch arm.

"I'm sure our sources feel the same way," Pearl said, steepling her fingers thoughtfully. "I can say that I don't know anyone who qualifies as a 'powerful psi' though. Not among my acquaintances, nor among my clients."

Lady J sat back in her chair and pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead. "Ideas, Madame?"

Madame glanced at X, and they both shook their heads. "The Oracle doesn't qualify as 'psi' and wouldn't consent to be used that way anyway. And I can't think of anyone else. It's so frustrating that Renata is up on that spaceship."

Andrea fiddled with her teacup. "Tinkermel says he's ready. Everyone else has said they're set. We have to move quickly, given Renata's warning. What about…" She drifted off, staring toward the kitchen, where the younger people were putting together a snack for the group. "What about Kendis? Is her power psionic? If it is, is she powerful enough to work through Tinkermel's device?"

Everyone turned to stare at Andrea for a long moment.

"Well?" she snapped irritably. "Can't you imagine how much it would help people to have their minds cleared or boosted or whatever it is she does after all this mess?" She waved a hand around, generally indicating the city.

Ira nodded at Andrea, grinning and giving her arm a little friendly squeeze that made her smile. Damn, that was a nice smile.

Lady J said, "Jane, what do you think? You're the power expert here."

Jane gave her a weary nod. "I think she projects in the psi spectrum, and I know she's powerful. Convincing her, though, is going to be a chore."

Lady Justice pushed herself to her feet and said, "You leave that part to me," with a wry little grimace. "I'm good at being persuasive, remember?" She strode toward the kitchen.

"Oh, I remember," Jane murmured, resting her head against the wing of the chair and shutting her eyes.

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Revolution By Committee

"All right, folks," Lady Justice said, self-consciously smoothing her strangely stylish iron gray hair (Ira couldn't remember the last time it was that neatly done) and mock-cracking her knobbly knuckles. "I certainly have some news, and I get the impression some of you do too."

Madame Destiny, looking better and younger than Ira had seen her in a long time (even before he lost his sight), dimpled in Ira's direction, then sobered and said, "Well, I think most of you know the big news here." She gestured over at X, who, while still immaculately pressed and dressed, looked haggard around the edges. X's cheekbones and jawline were just a little more pronounced than Ira thought they had been, and there was the hint of dark circles under the terribly perceptive eyes. "X has taken on the burden of the Oracle."

Pearl reached for X's hand and squeezed it gently. X turned a wan smile on her and returned the caress.

"How is it going?" Madeline asked. "I remember when we first found you, Madame, back in '62 or '63. Things were rather out of hand."

"Madame has been extremely helpful," X said smoothly.

"One of my issues," Madame said with a smile, "was that the previous 'vessel' had died and I'd had absolutely no introduction or guidance. The Oracle came into me out of the blue, and I'm very lucky to have kept my sanity."

Madeline nodded. "It was touch and go."

"It was," Madame admitted. "But that was a long time ago, and besides, the wench is fine now." She smiled. "The other bit of information is that we have some Mystikai support. Financial support from two of the local Reptilian-Americans, safe houses offered by the Family -- you may not know, but their homes are heavily shielded from emotional emanations by magic -- and an offer of physical participation in any actual combat from the youngest of the Reptilian-Americans."

"Well, that's something," Madeline said, eyebrows high. "I can't recall a dragon getting involved in our doings since the War."

"They're a standoffish bunch," Jane Liberty said from the depths of one of Madame's overstuffed chairs. "And the safe houses are good. Any limitations on who can take them up on it?"

"Not that Zoltan mentioned," Madame said, "but I expect that he'll be the gatekeeper." She gestured to Ira. "Go on, Ira, you're bursting."

"Oh, well," he said, feeling a little abashed. He knew he'd been grinning like a loon through the whole proceedings. "Everyone's probably guessed it. Jane, Madeline, and Lady J took me off and got my silly old eyes fixed the other day."

There were exclamations of delight all around, a clap on the shoulder and a handshake from the burly black man Ira guessed was Tinkermel, applause from the handicapped thirtyish black woman he figured was Kendis, a hug from Pearl, a radiant grin from X, and even a lightly-perfumed kiss on the cheek from the tall, beautiful Hispanic woman who had to be Angelica.

When everyone had settled back down, Andrea patted his hand and smiled at him. It had been a long time since he'd seen her smile at him. Really, had she ever? Since he couldn't remember their married life at all, it was pretty much a new experience to him. She was an angular old lady now, but that smile led him to believe she must have been quite a looker once.

"Well!" Lady J exclaimed. "That was the sort of thing we need in these meetings more often."

"Definitely lifts the energy," Angelica said. "What have you got, Lady J?"

"I've had a messenger from Hel," Lady J said. In response to the very odd looks that came over the faces of Kendis, Angelica, and Tinkermel, she laughed and said, "Doctor Hel Blau, the Sentient Airship."

This only slightly cleared Kendis and Angelica's faces. Tinkermel's face broke into a broad smile, and he said to the two women, "I'll explain later why that's just so awesome." Ira wasn't sure how a man that big could squeak like that.

"In any case," Lady J continued, "she was able to do a high pass over Wonder City and environs with her cameras going -- she doesn't normally come near the place these days, but did it as a favor to us -- and her messenger brought me not only the photos but Hel's analysis of them." Lady J held up a rolled poster and said, "She's overlaid a map of the city on this set of photos, and marked where they've hidden the major receiving and transmitting station. She also detected that they've got backup transmitters -- she spotted the generators and antennae -- in the tent revival camp."

"Which is horrible, but not much of a surprise," Angelica said. "The Shining Brethren are behind the God Squads roaming my neighborhood and other areas of the city."

X nodded. "One of my friends refers to the God Squads also as Mod Squads. She says she's pretty sure there's at least one telepath in each group, and they're altering the minds of troublemakers."

Ira wondered what friend that was who had that kind of insight.

Angelica briefly closed her eyes and laid two manicured fingers on the gold cross at her throat. "More reason to avoid them," she said.

"Yes, indeed," Lady J said. "The key here is that we'll need to somehow take out the main transmitter, I think. But I'm not sure what to do beyond that. I mean, they could just replace it."

"We need a coordinated attack," Pearl said. "Not just superheroic action, but information warfare. We need to explain to people what's happening."

The group collectively frowned into silence.

Hesitantly, Tinkermel said, "Well, I think I've got something that might help."

Every head turned to him.

He fished in one of the inner pockets of his biker jacket (it was lined in purple silk, Ira noticed, bemused) and extracted a small plastic ball, about the size of the tip of his thumb. It was strung on a piece of black rat-tail. Inside the ball was a constant swirl of pink glitter. "This," he began.

"Is fabulous," Kendis said, staring at the swirl. "How have you got it doing that?"

"If you hush, girl, I will tell you," Tinkermel said with a disapproving glower.

Angelica nudged Kendis with her elbow. "Give him his big reveal."

"Thank you," he said, then turned his attention back to the ball dangling from his fingers. "This is my Omni-directional Personal Venus Nega Charm. It gives off similar emanations to what's transmitted through those rings, but in a way that interferes with the waveforms. So it significantly reduces the effects of the transmitters on anyone wearing it." He smiled at Kendis. "And the generator vibrates very slightly at the center of the globe, moving the glitter, so you always know if it's working or not."

"That's amazing," Madeline breathed. "You've tested it?"

"You bet," he said, beaming proudly. "I developed a detection device for the emanations, and when I'm wearing the Venus Nega Charm, the quantity of emanations that reach me are reduced by almost 75%."

"Oh!" Angelica exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. "Oh, I know someone who could really use that."

"So do I," Ira said, thinking of Simon's sad whine.

"That's terrific work!" Lady J said, rising and coming over to shake Tinkermel's hand, which seemed to daze him. "Just terrific."

"Say," Andrea piped up suddenly, "do you think you could do something like that on a larger scale? Because that might just could help the sort of thing Pearl was talking about, freeing some minds so they'll be receptive to a little knowledge about what's going on."

Tinkermel's massive brow settled into a frown. "I'd need the materials, and a bigger space to build."

"Well, we have offers of financial help," Lady J said. "Think about what you'd need, while the rest of us think about how to get that for you."

"I'll do that," Tinkermel said. "Meanwhile, I've brought Nega Charms for everyone." He pulled out a handful of them, all in different glitter colors, and handed them around with a grin. "You all tell me right away if you have any strange effects from wearing them. I didn't notice any, but I don't have the powers some of you do."

X picked up a silver Nega Charm, examined it for a moment, then handed it to Madame Destiny with a smile and a little shake of the head. Madame nodded and took it for herself.

Ira took a rainbow glitter one and slung it around his neck. He did feel better.

"Well, this has definitely been productive and no mistake," Lady J said. "Anyone have anything else?"

Jane stirred in her chair. "I was wondering if anyone had room to put me up for a little while," she said.

Lady J gave her a sympathetic grimace, while everyone else looked startled.

"Dottie and I are great friends," Jane said, "and I'd like us to stay that way. Her place is really only big enough for one, and I'm not the easiest person to live with. So, anyone willing to give an old girl a break?"

"No room," Kendis said briefly, and Ira was startled by the undercurrent of hostility in her voice. He glanced aside at Jane, who smiled, just a little, very oddly.

"We don't have a viable guest room right now," Pearl said. "My partner is coping with all this--" she waved over her head "--by renovating everything."

Ira could practically feel Andrea gathering herself to make an offer -- she'd told him that she and Jane disliked each other from something that happened long ago, but she liked Lady J a great deal -- when Angelica said, "I have room!" with the biggest, most starstruck smile Ira had seen in a long time.

Kendis looked aside at Angelica as if she'd grown a second head.

Jane smiled gratefully at Angelica across the room, and that settled that, then and there.

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Here's a little movement and action in Wonder City for the new year!

The Inevitable Law of Revelation

The sight of the massive leather-clad bulk of TinkerMel seated on Madame Destiny's floral sofa, sipping tea from a tiny china teacup, very nearly reduced Angelica to helpless giggles.

"I'm very glad to meet you, Angelica," Lady Justice said, shaking her hand firmly. The old woman was less unkempt than that old newspaper article had implied: her hair was recently cut and washed, so that it was an iron-grey, wavy mass a little shy of her shoulders, and her clothes were old, but certainly clean and there was a neatly mended tear in one knee of the woman's jeans. "Now, Pearl has briefed you, right?" Lady Justice had the keenest, bluest eyes Angelica had ever seen.

"Yes, ma'am," Angelica said, using the honorific automatically. "And I'm fine with your power."

"You can just call me Lady J, or whatever you like, dear," Lady Justice said with a grin.

"You need to get used to being 'ma'am'ed again, Lady J," said a balding elderly man sitting in a straight chair next to the chair Lady J had risen from. He looked mostly in their direction, but his gaze was vague. His smile, however, was utterly charming. "You're the bosslady here."

Everyone settled down and Pearl made introductions to which Angelica attended carefully. The old man next to Lady J was Ira Feldstein, formerly the hero Mister Metropolitan. Madame Destiny was their elderly hostess, and she looked both sick and exhausted. X, Madame's apprentice, was a dashing spark of light in the room, genderqueer as hell and dressed to the nines. And the young, plain Asian woman with the terribly old eyes was Madeline Fukuda, the biggest single-person U.S. scandal of the Second World War. Ah.

No wonder Pearl was recruiting younger people. Poor X.

"All right," Lady J said, limping back to her chair and settling into it. "Let's summarize for our new folks, Angelica and Mel."

"Alien invasion," X said, with a gesture upward.

"A little too succinct, dear," Madame said, sipping her tea.

"Noooo," Angelica said. "That makes sense, actually. I'm guessing they've infiltrated the government and that's where we're getting the little mobs of men in black?"

"Your guess is as good as ours," Madeline said with a little shrug. "We know it's aliens from questioning in the Oracle. How they're controlling things so invisibly and making everything so wrong is still a mystery to us."

"I think I can help with that," Mel rumbled, carefully setting the teacup down on the table and reaching into one of his many inner jacket pockets. He set one of the rings he'd confiscated down on the table, and then held up a little plexiglass display case with another one of the rings taken apart and exploded like a display skull, each miniscule piece attached to a slender pin.

The group leaned in close, but couldn't really make anything of the rings out, though Pearl said, "Wait, isn't that one of those promise rings that the men in black have been handing out? Some of my patients have been wearing them."

"Yes," Mel said. "They're not transmitters, which is what I thought they were originally. I've dissected a dozen of them in various ways. They're similar to the TeslaNet receiver-transformers, absorbing some sort of ambient energy and then transmitting it to the wearer in concentrated form. I can't tell you what the energy is, though." Angelica knew how hard that last sentence had been for him -- Mel prided himself on being able to figure out any device.

The group stared at Mel for a moment. Then, Angelica, thinking of Simon, said, "Could there also be... larger versions of the rings that don't need to be touching someone?"

Ira turned his head toward her, his face lighting up. "Like a speaker system? To focus it on somewhere in particular? Watson said something about the Marigold Lane house being worse for whatever-it-is than elsewhere. And it felt worse."

Mel chewed his lower lip, scowling down at the exploded ring. "Yes, I think so. A repeater type of technology."

"Technologically-enhanced mind control?" Pearl said. When everyone looked at her, appalled, she said, "Well, that's what we're all thinking, isn't it?"

Mel nodded heavily. "I can also tell you this: whoever made this is either human or well-versed in human technology. I've seen some alien tech, and this is totally down-home."

Lady J sighed. "That means the involvement of someone who's made a special study of paranormal powers and 'improbable physics', like Professor Canis."

"Who is missing," Madame noted. "So not her."

"That would explain why I couldn't figure out the energies," Mel mumbled to himself, looking a little pleased. He tucked his show-and-tell items back into his coat. "But Professor Canis has written extensively about her work. I'll do some research, see what I can find."

X had turned very pale, Angelica noticed, but wasn't saying anything.

"If the aliens are projecting something down at us," Madeline said quietly, "then we really do need to get to their ship or ships. Or into orbit at least. And we don't have anyone who can do that."

Madame nodded. "That was the thing we were bringing to the table: we either couldn't contact the superhero teams we know, or they couldn't help us for some reason."

Madeline said, "There are a couple of small, young teams, but all of them are street-focused vigilante types. We don't have any cosmic heroes willing, able, or available."

"Speaking of cosmics," X said, "the Young Cosmics have been forbidden to engage in any major actions by their backer. So no help there. Though..." X's lips compressed into a line and the word cut off. "No, no help there."

Ira said sadly, "Watson Holmes said she didn't want to draw attention to us, since she felt there was attention being paid to her household. I... saw some very disturbing things. That poor boy, Simon... so reduced..."

Feldstein! Angelica didn't quite snap her fingers with realization. Of course! Ira was Suzanne's father-in-law.

She was so distracted by her epiphany that she nearly missed Lady Justice raising her head and saying, distinctly, "We have one last hope, ladies and gentlemen, and it's a damnable long shot."

This managed to rivet everyone's attention.

Lady J turned to Pearl and Angelica. "Do either of you know anyone who's got a knack for focusing other people's minds?"

The two women looked at each other quizzically. Angelica pursed her lips and said, "What do you think about Kendis?"

Pearl made a surprised noise and said, "What is she registered as?"

"I have no idea," Angelica said, "but she once said that if she ever took a superhero name it would be 'Ginkgo Biloba.' Students hire her to sit in the next room when they take exams and shi... stuff like that."

"She works at that para nursing home," Pearl said, rubbing one of her thumb joints thoughtfully.

Angelica looked at Lady J, and she had to admit that there was something thrilling about being the focus of that woman's intense gaze, being the person appealed to for expertise. Yeah, okay, Lady Justice was awesome. "I think so. I don't know how much control of it she's got, though."

"It's worth a try," Lady J said. "All right, I need you, Angelica, to bring that friend of yours to the Stars 'n' Garters Cafe Saturday morning. And I'll need you too, Madeline."

"What are you going to do?" Madame said, a little worried.

Lady J smiled grimly, cracking her knobby knuckles. "A little jailbreaking."

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Committing to Sparkle Motion

"Just the person I was hoping to find!"

Angelica looked up from editing her manager's excuse for a budget spreadsheet and recognized the not-quite-elderly Asian woman standing in front of her receptionist's desk at the Queer Energy Community Center. "Oh, hey, Pearl," she said, briefly admiring the therapist's purple tie-dyed silk scarf and many-shades-of-purple crazy quilt jacket. "What can I do for you?"

"I need to talk to you about something that isn't business for the center," Pearl said sedately. Pearl did everything sedately, as far as Angelica could tell.

"Well, technically, I'm off the clock right now," Angelica said, saving her work on the spreadsheet and logging out of the computer with a few quick keystrokes. "We can walk and talk, if you want. I just have to fix my face."

Pearl nodded and followed her to the ladies room. Angelica looked at herself in the mirror and scowled -- she had a bad habit of chewing her lips while she revised Jed's chaotic documents, which played havoc with her lipstick, of course. She opened her purse -- noted to herself that she needed to switch purses, because this was her trusty winter bag, and she needed something lighter and brighter now it was spring -- and pulled out her makeup case. In the mirror, she could see Pearl glancing under the stall doors for feet.

"So," Pearl said, leaning her hip against the counter, "how are things with you?"

Angelica managed not to sigh. There was no rushing Pearl. "Same old, same old," she said, repairing her eyeliner. "Still going to classes when I can afford it. Still single. Well, mostly," she amended a little guiltily, thinking of Simon, and thinking of the date she was looking forward to on Friday.

Pearl nodded, watching Angelica's face, her back to the mirror. She had a habit of really listening to people, even when she wasn't "on duty." It made it easy to tell her more than one really meant to.

Angelica put away her eyeliner pencil and fished for her lipstick. "How about you?"

Pearl pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I'm busier than ever right now," she said. "I mean, yes, I'm glad to have a full slate of clients. But I'm frustrated. I like to be doing some good with my sessions, and people keep coming to me with the same problems, week after week."

Angelica shot a look at the older woman. "Yeah, I hear there are other businesses that are really booming right now," she said slowly, thinking of her friends and acquaintances who were sex workers. "People aren't happy."

"That, my dear, is an understatement," Pearl said with a raised eyebrow. "Water riots in LA, food riots in a dozen other cities, and general violence to self and others on the rise."

"Prices on everything on the rise too," Angelica said, applying the darker red lipstick and studying the effect in the mirror. "I know so many people who're out of work right now."

"How's your grandmother doing in all this?" Pearl said, and Angelica was touched that the therapist had remembered her grandmother.

"She's holding on all right," Angelica said with a little smile. "Tough old bird, my abuelita. She says I'm her only family left."

Pearl looked startled. "Did something happen to your mother and sisters?"

"Yeah," Angelica said, a sarcastic twist to her voice. "They went to one of those tent revivals for this 'Shining Brethren Church' and came out born again or some shit. Abuelita says that I'm the only one who's stayed in the Church, so I'm her only family, even if I've done some other things people might not think of as Catholic." She shrugged and put her lipstick away.

"Ah," Pearl said. "Look, Angelica, I'm not going to dance around the subject. I've got some friends who are... well, they're ex-superheroes, and we're trying to figure out how to make things better. But we're mostly... well, old people. It would be good to have a younger perspective."

Angelica examined her face in the mirror one more time, then turned to Pearl. "You know, in my neighborhood, there're these guys all in black who wander around 'saving' people," she said gravely. "They're government agents. They could mess up my life, the lives of everyone I know, really bad."

Pearl let her gaze drop, nodded, and stood up straight. "I understand completely."

"When and where?" Angelica said, snapping her purse shut.

Pearl blinked at her, startled. "What?"

"When do you people meet and where?" Angelica said, slinging her purse over her shoulder and adjusting the neckline of her blouse. "Because I'm tired of living in fear. Even just talking about it with some people who still have their minds would help."

Pearl smiled. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"

"Yes," Angelica said, grinning down at the older woman. "I wanted to see if you'd jump to the conclusion."

"We're getting together this Thursday around 7," Pearl said, shaking her head. "Why don't you come over to my place and we can drive there together?"

"Sounds good. I'll be by around 6?" Angelica pulled her StarSeed out of a pocket in her purse and popped the appointment into her calendar.

"Excellent," Pearl said, leading the way out of the rest room.

Turning the corner to the main reception area, they almost collided with a massive wall of a man in faded jeans and well-worn leather who was clearly in a heated conversation. He was a light-skinned black man, so the flush of rage was clearly visible in his cheeks.

"You don't bring this shit in here!" he bellowed. In one enormous hand, he held a stack of pamphlets, and in the other, a fistful of silver-colored rings.

The other man, a nervous white man in a black wool car coat and khakis, said, "I have every right to bring what I want to the community center!"

Angelica peered at the pamphlets. The title, in large friendly sans serif letters, informed her that "You too can be cured!" She glimpsed the outline of a white hand with a black cross in the center of it in the top corner of the front cover, and saw the word "homosexuality" in the line of text along the bottom of the page. She bit down on a curse.

The large man's biker jacket and keys jingled violently as he tore the entire stack of pamphlets in half. "This is private property, you little fucker. You do not bring shit like this into a queer safe space." He doubled the stack and tore it in half again. "You do not bring in shit like that and not expect to be called on it." He shoved the quartered mass of paper into a recycling bin, threw the rings on the floor, and brought the heel of his steel-toed boot down on them with a satisfying crunch. "And you do not expect to be welcomed ever again." He loomed over the man, fists bunched, leather creaking.

With an incoherent cry about a lawyer, the man fled out the front doors like his pants were on fire.

"Sorry, ladies," the big man rumbled to them. "Sorry, Angelica. I know I don't really have the right to kick someone out..."

"Pearl, this is Mel, one of our addiction counselors," Angelica said, "who has every right to throw someone like that out of our center, as far as I'm concerned."

"What a pleasure. Pearl Wong," she said, extending her hand.

"The therapist?" he said, his big fingers almost completely engulfing Pearl's hand. "One of my friends goes to you. He says you're great."

"Thank you," Pearl said. "That was admirable handling, and very cathartic to watch."

"Thanks," Mel said, stepping back and kneeling down to pick up the metallic mess on the floor. "Huh!" he exclaimed.

"What?" Angelica said, retrieving a dustpan and brush for him from the broom closet.

He picked up one of the broken rings, and held it up for the women to look at. Angelica and Pearl obligingly squinted, and Angelica said, "Is that... circuitry?"

He nodded. Then he bent back down and picked up one of the rings that escaped his boot's wrath. Standing, he opened his biker jacket. Angelica was delighted to see the purple silk lining was arrayed with an amazing number of pockets. Mel ran a broad brown finger over a row of pockets with cylindrical objects tucked into them, then selected one. He flicked his wrist and the cylinder extended into a sparkly pink wand about a foot and a half long. It played a few sprightly notes when it hit full extension.

Pearl watched him wave his wand over the ring for a few seconds. "Will that tell you what the circuitry does?"

Mel nodded again, and said, "In a general sort of way. It will tell me what it's doing right now." Rings of hot pink light appeared, moving toward the tip of the wand, and the wand played another little tune. "And it's a transmitter."

"A transmitter," Pearl said, peering at the ring. "Of what, do you think?"

Mel's jaw set and he gently collapsed the wand back into its pocket. "I don't know, but I'm fuckin' well going to find out." He bent and swept all the pieces into the dustpan, then dumped the contents into a paper bag he produced from another pocket. He nodded to them. "Good night, ladies," he said, then stomped out the front door, displaying the back of his leather jacket to them, where the name TINKERMEL was spelled out in purple rhinestones.

They watched him go, and when the door shut, Angelica said thoughtfully, "He might be another good one for your 'group therapy.'"

Pearl grimaced at her. "Don't call it that! I'm hardly the leader there."

Angelica raised both eyebrows at that. "Who is?"

"You'll find out Thursday night," Pearl said, heading for the door. "See you then. And bring Mel if you've a mind to."


I've been a little lax on new characters in this volume. I hope to make this up. :)

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Am I Invisible? Am I Inaudible?

The group reconvened a few days later in Madame's living room, after X had called them all to let them know that Madame had recovered from the session with the Oracle.

"The question of the day is," Madeline said, "now that we know, what do we do about the alien invasion?"

Ira sipped his tea. He couldn't stop himself from squinting to see his companions' faces and being frustrated, as always, by his blindness. Finally, he said, "Well, who can we contact who can take on an alien... is it an armada? Or one ship? I mean, if they're somehow... controlling things, do they need an armada?"

"Unfortunately, the Oracle is never precise," Madame said.

"And always obscure," X muttered.

"Does it really matter?" Pearl said. "Either it's one ship or many. Either they're in orbit or hidden somewhere on Earth. The facts are that they are, I think, meddling with people's minds, and I'll tell you this as mental health professional: if someone doesn't stop it soon, there will, in fact, be irreparable damage done to thousands, if not millions, of people."

There was a silence, and Lady Justice said, "Is what you're seeing that bad, Pearl?"

Pearl cleared her throat. "I have clients coming to me, week after week, who just don't remember what they said the week before. It's like they're all being reset to be maximally screwed up." Ira could tell from the waver in her voice that she was upset. "Some of them stop coming to me because they've forgotten I exist. And... I've been talking to other therapists in town, and we all agree that the rate of attempted suicides has at least tripled."

"Oh," Lady J said, and they all sat in silence again.

"I tried calling the Gold Stars," Madeline said. "They're still 'on a mission in space'. I tried calling Ruth, too, but there's no answer at home and there's... someone else in charge of her company right now. And it's not Ms. Revelle."

"They've been on that mission for at least 6 months," X said. "Sophie mentioned that Ruth had gone with them. I tried the Guardians. They're currently unavailable and, uh, I think they're compromised."

Madame snorted mirthlessly. "I think that's safe to say, given that their voicemail message is full of Biblical verses, and while I think most of the Guardians are, in fact, Christian, none of them have ever been so... forward about it."

Ira grappled at something in the back of his mind for a moment and finally said, "Mental!" out loud. Then he was sure everyone was looking at him, and felt his face heat up. "I... was just thinking. If it's a mental thing, why don't we ask a telepath?"

"Do you know any these days?" Lady J said.

"Yes!" Ira said. "At least, I've worked with one. Two years ago, that killer, remember? We had someone I was told was the Class 10 telepath networking us."

"Renata Scott!" Madeline said. "Of course! Do you have a way to get in touch with her? Because... well, I know her but Ruth always handled the contact."

"I don't," Ira said, slumping in defeat. Then he straightened up. "But I know someone who does! I can't count on Suzanne right now, but I bet Watson Holmes knows how to get hold of her."

"Okay," Lady J said, sounding businesslike and leaderly, "we have one person to contact. Ira, that's your job. Who else?"

Ira was noticing a lot of silence in this meeting.

"Well, let's list some of the other groups we have contacts with," Lady J said patiently. "For me, there's the Lightning Family, the Solarians, the Animal Kings, the Regulars..."

"The Regulars are just a neighborhood group," Madeline said.

"They might be under the radar of whatever is going on," Pearl said.

"They're not going to be able to fight an alien invasion," Madeline pursued.

"We're just brainstorming," Pearl said, "so let's not pooh-pooh anything right now."

Madeline said, "All right. Well, then, while we're at it, let's talk not only Wonder City and environs, but beyond. I know the Blazers in New York, and the Patriots in Philadelphia."

"The Minutemen and the Stormriders in Boston," Ira said. "I know the Minutemen's founder."

"What about that group you know in Britain, Madame?" Lady J said. "The Next Generation?"

"Have you seen the things people are saying about the UK right now?" X said. "People are saying that the cities in the UK make them believe in a zombie apocalypse. Except, you know, without all the parts falling off."

"I hadn't heard," Ira said, and there was a general murmur of agreement.

"There's nothing in the news, but there's a lot of talk online," X said. "People in the rural areas are avoiding the cities and warning other people to avoid them too, because everyone in the big cities is acting really... robot-like. No thought, no conversation... no crime, but I'm not sure about the trade-off there."

"Hmm," Madame said. "The Next Gen was based in London last I heard, too."

"What is it with London anyway?" Lady J said. "They're as bad as Tokyo with apocalypses."

X said, slowly, "There's also the Young Cosmics." Ira thought X must have looked around the room before saying, hurriedly, "I know they're not very... together. But I know they're not totally under control AND they have a Class 10 elemental, an unclassable intellect, a speedster, and a android with a range of Class 6 powers. If they can't search space, they can at least canvass Earth for the aliens, right?"

Lady J exhaled. "All right, X, you contact the Young Cosmics. Madeline, are there any other folks in the Tens who might be helpful?"

Madeline paused in a way Ira suspected was thoughtful. "Jennifer Lombardi might be helpful. Her power is, ah, being able to see everywhere at once. I can't think of a better person to have a look around. Though she's a little... random sometimes."

Lady J made a noise of agreement. "That sounds good. Also, I've been thinking that maybe we need some more people who're... under the radar like us. I mean, no one pays special attention to us. But we're... some of us are old and not very mobile. It would be good to get some more young folks in so X doesn't end up doing our footwork all the time."

X laughed, Ira thought, just a little bitterly.

"I think I can help with that," Pearl said. "And I can do it without even violating patient privacy. I know a woman who's a receptionist at Queer Energy. It's a sort of community center and low-income clinic for paras -- mostly queer people, but some not. I bet she knows some folks, but I think she'd also be good for adding to our little cadre."

"Oh, are you thinking of Angelica?" Madeline said. Presumably Pearl nodded, because Madeline went on with, "She's a smart cookie -- a good ideas person."

"Okay," Lady J said, clapping her hands together lightly, "I think we have the start of a plan. If X will give me a hand with Parapedia, Madame and I will put our heads together to see what other groups we can call, and make some of those calls."

Ira nodded, smiling. "It's good to be working with you again, Lady Justice," he said, giving her shadow a sloppy salute.

She leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. "And it's good to have something to do, isn't it?"

Ira nodded, thinking that perhaps he'd just go actually visit Watson Holmes. After all, didn't she live in the same building with Simon? Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone -- or two conundrums with one bus fare, at least.


Trying very hard to remember that Ira is blind while I write. Please let me know if you notice any slips.

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The Truth Is Out There

Ira was both prepared and relieved when the light of the Oracle permeated the room. As that time more than two years earlier, the strange, harsh, bluish light returned his vision in youthful clarity. He was able to see the other people who had all gathered of their own accord in Madame Destiny's workroom: Madame's androgynous Asian assistant, X, who was wearing a plain blue buttondown shirt and tailored black trousers; Lady Justice, whose unkempt grey hair was roughly tidied back with bobby pins and whose face looked like a topographic map of some mountainous place in the unflattering light; Madeline Fukuda, who still looked as young and lovely as she had the first time Ira had met her in the 1950s, though, perhaps, the lines around her eyes were more pronounced with worry and sadness; and the woman to whom he'd just been introduced, Pearl Wong, X's grandmother, who did, in fact, look a great deal like X except very definitely a woman in her mid-60s, with all the wrinkles and grey hair to go with it.

Madame was sitting in her accustomed chair, her back ramrod straight, her eyes wide and glowing with Oracle-light. Ira saw that she'd aged shockingly since the last time he'd been able to see her; she looked exhausted. There was a long pause after the light came up, and Ira could see that her shoulders and head were trembling very slightly. Finally, with almost a little sigh, the Oracle said, "SPEAK."

X stepped into Madame's line of sight and said, "Oracle, those gathered in this room have observed strange happenings in the world. We would like to ask you about the source of these happenings."


X had briefed them before the session, while Madame was preparing alone in the room: the Oracle only took yes/no questions right now, especially from a large group, because Madame's endurance was not what it used to be, and one should assume that the Oracle will know the circumstances around one's question, because delay for lengthy explanations would only tax Madame more. X glanced around the room to make sure everyone was ready, then gestured to Ira, who had drawn the straw to ask the first question.

Ira briefly reflected on the fact that X apparently knew about the Oracle's ability to clear the vision of the blind, given the gesture, then shook himself and said, "Has there been a major reorganization of the timeline in the past two years that is causing the odd behaviors I've observed?"

The Oracle turned Madame's head slowly to consider him. "NO, IRA FELDSTEIN."

Ira said, "Thank you," and looked at Lady Justice.

Lady J chewed her lower lip for a moment, then said, "Is there a single person responsible for the behavior changes?"

The Oracle again turned Madame's head, and Ira fancied the hesitation was a little longer. "NO, DOROTHY SANDERSON."

She nodded briefly and said, "Thanks."

X looked at Madeline, who drew a long breath and said, "Is the government at the root of the new behaviors?"

The Oracle said, without hesitating, "NO, MADELINE FUKUDA."

After Madeline had muttered her thanks, everyone looked at Pearl. She looked around at the rest of them, and said, "Does it come from the skies?"

Everyone stared at Pearl. Ira recalled her mentioning something her therapy clients had been saying lately.

The Oracle snapped Madame's head around to look at her, and said, "YES, PEARL WONG."

Now they all stared at the Oracle. Ira noticed that Madame's tremors were worse, and there were tears tracking down her face. X apparently noticed as well, moving forward to put a hand over Madame's wrist and a finger on her pulse.

Madame's face turned up to X and the Oracle said, "YOU HAVE NOT ASKED, EMPTY VESSEL."

X stared into Madame's possessed face, and glanced at Pearl. "Have we been invaded?"

Again, no delay. "YES, EMPTY VESSEL."

X nodded, then said, "You should go."

Ira saw the Oracle sweep an unreadable gaze over the group. Then the light went out and Ira's vision returned to its usual blurry glow. He heard a scuffle and X let out a pained exhalation.

"A little help here?" X said with an audible effort to sound calm.

"Let me," Madeline said, and Ira could see her move rapidly across the room, trailed by someone he assumed was Pearl. Certainly, he knew, Lady J hadn't moved that fast or well since the stroke. "Get her a glass of water," Madeline added. He heard X jog out of the room.

"What's wrong?" Ira said, keeping his seat with difficulty.

"Madame collapsed," Lady J murmured. "Let the kids handle it, Ira. We'd just be in the way."

Ira reached out toward her, and Lady J took his hand. They gripped each other's hands tightly, their ancient superstrength and invulnerability keeping them safe from one another. "It's another invasion," Ira said in a low voice, tuning out the quiet hustle around Madame.

"It seems like we get them about once a decade, doesn't it?" Lady J said. "I mean the really big ones."

"They're changing the world this time. It's just... just..." Ira stopped.

"It's kind of like the Great Gulf, without the time manipulation, isn't it?" Lady J said, giving his hand a squeeze.

"Yeah," Ira said, wiping at his eyes where they were watering. "But without the time manipulation, it won't be as bad. It can't."


Author's Note:

Being the vessel of a cosmic entity is hard work.

Don't forget to vote for Wonder City Stories at Top Webfiction!

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Careful to Tuck Their Shrouds Neatly About Them

"So G has moved out," Pearl said, folding her hands in her lap.  "How are you with that?"

Megan shrugged one shoulder.    "It's her life."

Pearl raised an eyebrow at that, and let the silence stretch out.

"She's angry, you know," Megan said, looking down at her knees.  "She says she's mostly angry at Watson for not doing anything for months, despite knowing that G was possessed.  And I kind of wonder why Watson didn't do anything."

"Have you asked her?" Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said, plucking at her jeans.  "She said she's really bad at being decisive about people she cares for.  She was worried that maybe she was misreading the situation, and says she has always second-guessed her instincts about family and friends, because she was so often wrong about her parents and her sister."

"Do you believe her?"

"Yeah," Megan said, her voice coming out flat.  

Pearl cocked her head.  "I'm not sure I believe you."

Megan started to bang her fist into her thigh, and caught herself before doing it on the broken leg, because jarring the leg was an experience she didn't enjoy.  She settled for grasping frustratedly at the air.  "I don't know whether to believe me or not.  I don't know whether to believe her or not.  I want to trust that she'd always have my back, you know?"  She sighed.  "She's the first person in forever I've wanted to have my back."

"Not G?" Pearl said.

"Not G," Megan said, heaving a large sigh.  "Not G.  I didn't have time, really, to get that far with G.  I'm not sure how much of the woman I met and slept with and lived in the same building with I actually ever knew."

"I'm sorry," Pearl said.  "That sounds incredibly painful to realize."

"It is," Megan said, rubbing her throat and frowning.  Her throat hurt suddenly, like she'd strained all the muscles leading up to her mouth.

"So now there's an empty apartment?" Pearl said.

"Actually," Megan said, glad for the distraction, "G told me she found a subletter.  I only found out who it was this morning."

Pearl raised both eyebrows at her tone.  "Not a welcome addition to the big house on Marigold Lane?"

Megan huffed.  "It's Lizzie.  Tin Lizzie?"

"The woman from the Wonderful House?" Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said, throwing up her hands in despair.  "The crazy, crazy chick from Wonderful House.  The one who stabbed her dad -- who, to be fair, was assaulting her -- on national TV."

"Well," Pearl said, "it sounds like your house is one place where she might feel safe."

Megan froze, staring into space, then slumped.  "Yeah," she said.  "Yeah, I guess that might have something to do with it.  I mean, Simon's across the hall, and I'm downstairs, and Mr. Hammer is in the carriage house, and our landlord is a fucking vampire, after all..."

Pearl watched Megan as the sentence drifted to a stop.  Their gazes met and Megan nodded sharply.

"So what else is keeping you up at night?" Pearl said after a moment.

Megan had noticed in the mirror this morning that there were some serious dark circles under her eyes; she hadn't really expected Pearl to miss them either.  "I guess," she said slowly, "the big thing is the Merlin."

"The Merlin?" Pearl said, and Megan remembered she hadn't told Pearl yet.

"The first day I was in Wonder City," Megan said, "almost as soon as I stepped off the bus, some guy tried to mug me.  I heard him coming, from above, and I got him down on the ground, smashed his flight harness.  And then this other guy... this guy in a hood and cloak showed up on the roof, called me 'Citizen' and said he'd been chasing the Merlin for... a while, I guess, days or weeks or something.  So I handed the Merlin over to him."  She inhaled slowly, and exhaled again.  "And that guy in the hood was the serial killer."

"Oh, that's very hard. I'm so sorry," Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said. "Thanks."

Pearl said, "Did the Merlin give you any indication he was in fear for his life?"

"No," Megan said. "I think he thought the guy was a real superhero. He just seemed resigned."

"So -- and I don't mean this flippantly at all -- you're upset because you aren't a mindreader?" Pearl said.

"No," Megan said, her voice catching on her rage. "I'm angry because I reacted entirely to his white male authority: he was up on the rooftop, speaking down to me, addressing me in what I can see now was a parody of comic book heroes from World War 2. He was on his own turf, laying down the law. And I just rolled over without question and let him take the Merlin. I should have doubted him. I should have called the police. I'm an eight-foot-tall superstrong, invulnerable queer feminist of color, raised by an eight-foot-tall superstrong, invulnerable lesbian feminist, and I just fucking rolled over for the Man. And the Man did what he does best: kill people. Kill some poor, stupid, middle-aged crook who didn't deserve to be hauled down to the river and strangled."

Megan discovered that her hands were shaking, and she balled them up on her knees. But when she did that, she couldn't do anything about the hot tears that were suddenly running down her cheeks.

Pearl leaned over and pushed the tissue box closer. Megan carefully uncurled her fingers and pulled a tissue from the box to blot her eyes and nose.

"I'm having nightmares," Megan said finally. "I can't stop reading articles about the victims and searching for more information about them. Did you know that they're investigating a murder in fucking Acapulco as possibly being connected to the killer? They think it may have been his first murder, back when he was in high school and went down there for Spring Break."

Pearl's brow furrowed with concern. "Have you ever had this sort of reaction before?"

"Yes," Megan said wearily, "And I ran away from Berkeley because of it."

"Are you thinking of leaving Wonder City?" Pearl said.

"Yes," Megan said, staring at her lap. "I just... a new city, where I don't know anyone..."

"That's what you did coming here, right?" Pearl said. "You had all your things in a backpack and you took a Greyhound across the country, found a job the next morning, and an apartment a week later. What's to stop you from doing it again?"

Megan rubbed her face with her hands. "Watson, I guess. I mean, I know I want to see how this turns out."

"Is she really the only thing keeping you here?" Pearl said.

"No," Megan admitted. "There's Simon, who's the best friend I've ever had. And G, even though she's not here right now. And I like my job, I like working with my hands, and I think I've just about convinced one of the carpenters to take me on as an apprentice. And I like my apartment, and I have a good landlord, and..." She shrugged. "I guess I don't want to leave all that much."

"That sounds like a good analysis," Pearl said. She gestured apologetically at the clock. Megan saw they had less than five minutes left. Then Pearl added, "So have you revisited your feelings about spandex in light of recent events?'

Megan snorted and said, "Oh, yeah."

Pearl said, "What do you think, then?"

Megan waved a hand.  "Being para makes normal problems huge and life-threatening.  It doesn't matter whether we're wearing spandex or not.  And I can't fucking get away from it, because I have these stupid powers."

Pearl smiled.  "Well, that's progress in the direction you wanted to go, right?"

"Also," Megan grumbled, "all paras are freaking insane."

Pearl said, mildly, "Well, it's job security for me.  Do you mind if I let the dogs in now?"


Note from the Author:

Megan just keeps acquiring more angst, alas. Just to let y'all know, we now have only 3 episodes left for volume 2, which means we will wind up this story just before my birthday at the end of the month, timing which I did not, actually, plan, but which is lovely nonetheless.

Also, thanks very much for donations received this past month!

Wonder City has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Crowdfunding Award! Thank you! Now, y'all should go check out all the nominees for fiction, webcomics, art, poetry, patron, and other projects. And then VOTE!

And remember to vote for WCS at Top Webfiction!

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Case Studies

7:00 am, Wonder City, PA

Pearl Wong woke, as she did many mornings, with the weight of her Irish Setter Scully's longing gaze upon her. Scully's red-furred chin rested on the edge of the bed until she perceived that Pearl was awake, at which point, Scully turned two full spins of excitement, her tail thumping against the bed as it passed by, her long fur waving in the breeze of her speed. The excitement woke the shorthaired brown rescue mutt Mulder, who promptly fell off the bed (as he did most mornings), sprang to his feet, and barked in outrage at the bed for ejecting him.

Pearl sat up and caught up the fuzzy end of her sleeping braid, beginning automatically to take it apart.

"Morning," Pearl's wife Rosemary grumbled into her pillow. When Mulder forgot to stop barking, she bellowed, "Shut it!"

Mulder sat down and grinned at them from the foot of the bed. Scully gazed at him a moment, almost scornfully, then turned her gaze back to Pearl. She, at least, knew from whose hand the dog kibble flowed.

"I swear," Rosemary said, rolling over and sitting up to rub her eyes, "I swear Mulder is sleeping on the couch tonight."

"Liar," Pearl said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "Ow!" she said, as her hip popped painfully and audibly.

"You have got to get to the doctor about your arthritis," Rosemary said, returning the buss.

"When you go to the eye doctor for a checkup, my darling pot," Pearl said, using the headboard to lever herself to her feet while her knees crackled a symphony.

"At this rate, neither of us will ever make an appointment, kettle," Rosemary said, scratching her fingers vigorously through her short silver hair.

"We'll manage, somehow," Pearl said, wobbling her way into the bathroom while her joints loosened up.

7:42 am

"Your grandchild is on the phone," Rosemary said from the door.

Mulder and Scully cavorted cheerfully around Pearl's feet in the yard, hopelessly tangling their leashes, as always. "What's up?" she asked as she revolved slowly in order to avoid becoming a Maypole.

"Your son is on the warpath again, I think," Rosemary said. "The story was brief and oh-so-carefree. Something about needing a real career."

"He's feeling insecure, I suppose, with his company 'rightsizing'," Pearl said. "Scully, sit! Come take Mulder, would you? I'll go in."

Rosemary descended into the yard, taking the leashes from Pearl in passing. "I feel bad for that poor kid. Can't you get Jim to lay off some?"

"Do you think Jim listens to his mother the evil lezzzzzbian?" Pearl said, not for the first time. "He thinks the whole thing is my fault anyway." She stepped into the kitchen and picked up the phone -- a landline, another sign they were ancient, Pearl thought.

"What's up, sweetheart?" she said.

"Hi, Grandma." Her grandchild X's carefully androgynous voice was crisp and passionless over the line. "My father just called to rant at me."

"Up early, isn't he?"

"On the train, apparently," X said. "It's one of his days in New York."

"Nice to air the family business on the train," Pearl said, then tightened her mouth. "What did he say?"

"It was just the usual," X said. "Paraphrased, it is his considered opinion that I am wasting my life with this para stuff, that I need to stop playing games and finish my degree so I can get out and start working the wage slave mines like he does."

Pearl sighed. This had been a war since X had turned 13 and come into not only zir para abilities but also zir opinion that zir birth sex was not necessarily the gender zie wanted to perform. Jim had, in fact, blamed Pearl for putting "strange ideas into the child's head" and Jim's wife had stopped speaking to Pearl for two solid (blessed) years. They'd discussed sending X to some sort of school that would "re-educate" zir, but gave up the idea when the Gold Stars showed up on their doorstep to discuss X's future. If the Gold Stars had gotten a tip from a certain therapist for paras, that was neither here nor there. "Honey, you know he's doing it because he's worried about his own job. It's all projection."

X echoed her sigh. "I know. And I tell myself these things. Somehow, it makes it better if you say them, though."

"Come over for dinner," Pearl said. "Rosemary is planning to make that casserole you like so much."

"Really?" X said.

"Really?" Rosemary mouthed silently from the doorway. Pearl flapped a hand at her.

"Really," Pearl said. "Come on, sweetheart. It's been a few weeks since we saw you." When X hesitated, she added, "Bring Madame if you like."

X said, "I'll be there around 6," and made no further mention of Madame, so neither did Pearl. That was a complicated relationship Pearl didn't want to touch.

"We'll look forward to it," Pearl said, and they hung up. She looked at Rosemary. "Zie sounds so down, poor baby. I just thought..."

"I'll put the soybeans on to soak," Rosemary said with a little smile. "You've got a couple of new clients coming in this morning, right?"

"Oh!" Pearl said. "Right!" She hurried off to her office.

9:14 am

"The thing is," Robert said, "the thing is, you see, I mean, you can see that my para power is flying, right? There on my para reg card."

Pearl didn't glance at her copy of his card but kept her gaze fixed steadily on the light-skinned young man. He wasn't spandex team material -- too angular of body and face, all nose, chin, and elbows. He was dressed in a brown blazer over a blue oxford shirt and khaki trousers, the perfect IT middle manager look. But he was wringing his long knobby hands as he spoke. "I saw that you can fly, yes," she said.

"Well, the thing is," he said again, "is that I'm afraid of heights." He winced, clearly anticipating derision of some sort.

"That sounds like a very difficult thing to deal with," Pearl said, sincerely feeling that it must be difficult as hell.

He glanced at her face, and she willed her expression concerned and friendly. Then he looked back at his knotted hands. "I've been afraid of heights since I was a kid. And I didn't get my power until I was... I didn't know I had my power till I was 16." He swung his hands down between his knees in frustration. "Everyone tells me, 'Oh, you'll love it once you do it. Oh, I wish I had your power, I've always wanted to fly.' I tell them I'd be glad to give it to them, and they just tell me that I haven't tried hard enough."

"What do you feel when you try?" Pearl said, trying not to be distracted by the constant motion of his hands.

His shoulders hunched. "Like I'm going to die," he said. "I get up too high and I start thinking, 'What if my power just stopped working? What if I started to fall and couldn't concentrate enough to fly to save myself?' And I'm sure I'm going to fall at any moment, and I get dizzy looking at the ground. Once I threw up." He ran his hands through his thinning brown hair.

Pearl said, "What do you want out of coming to me?"

Robert sighed, despairingly. "I told my wife I wanted to learn how to fly." He looked from side to side furtively, as if his wife might be hiding behind the aspidistra. "But I really want to learn how not to care that I can't fly."

10:33 am

Pearl was sitting, making notes, when Rosemary stuck her head in. "Your son is on the phone."

Pearl put her head down on her desk very gently and started to laugh. "Oh, this is going to be a family sort of day, isn't it?" This started Mulder barking from another room.

"Just think how much easier it would be for them to get hold of you if you actually carried your cell phone," Rosemary said.

"Tell him I'm working," Pearl said, sitting up and picking her pen back up. "I'll call him this evening. Late. Mulder, shut up!"

Rosemary mimed taking notes on a handheld pad, striking a feminine pose with her knees together as if she were wearing a narrow skirt. It looked very odd on her square, broad-shouldered, butch frame. "Yes, ma'am. And would you like coffee, ma'am?"

It made Pearl giggle to recall that actually, Rosemary had been a secretary and had worn those outfits. "Sweet and blonde, just like you ain't, sugar."

"Ma'am!" Rosemary said, clutching at her bosom. "Keep that up and I'll call Human Resources on you!" She turned and marched out, tossing her head as she went.

Pearl put her head back down and laughed some more.

11:07 am

The young Asian woman in the chair opposite Pearl was tired-eyed and silent. She sat with her shoulders hunched and her hands clenched together on her lap, her smooth black hair caught back in an untidy ponytail.

Pearl let the silence rest for a few moments; they'd done the initial introductions professionally enough. Now it was in her new client's court.

"I got your name from the union," Tala said finally. "I came to you because you were the only Asian on the list of therapists."

Pearl nodded. "That's how I get some of my clients."

"I work for...--" Tala caught herself, choked a little, then went on, "-- worked for Dr. Marine. Have you heard of her?"

Pearl sorted back through her memory, and vaguely recalled the name belonging to one of the so-called mad scientists who was one of the sorts that straddled the line between hero and villain. There was something else that wasn't quite coming back... "Yes, I've heard of her."

"You may remember that she committed suicide two months ago," Tala said, drawing her ponytail over her shoulder and worrying the ends.

Memory dawned, and Pearl said, "Yes, yes, I do remember that news article." It had been, according to her letters sent to every major media outlet in the world, motivated almost entirely by making a political statement. She had wanted to echo the self-immolations of Buddhist monks, apparently, only more... spectacular.

"She was... I mean... I had to..." Tala twisted the end of her ponytail around and around her index finger. "I don't know how to say this."

"Take your time," Pearl said, watching the young woman with a studied air of serenity.

"I was her assistant," Tala said finally, brown eyes bleak. "Her lead assistant. I... helped her build that machine."

"The one that...?"

Tala nodded wordlessly.

Pearl grimaced in sympathy. "That must be a terribly hard thing to deal with."

"I didn't know," Tala said, in a despair somewhere beyond tears. Her hands dropped into her lap, her shoulders collapsed in on her. "I didn't know," she whispered.

"Don't you think that was more her doing than yours?" Pearl said, trying for eye contact.

"Shouldn't I have guessed? Or something?" Tala said. "She had me building it in pieces, in components. She told me they were for some new 'great invention'. It would solve all the world's problems. When you work for these people, you learn to just nod and say, 'Yes, Doctor,' but you never think they'll..." She pressed the heel of her hand to her mouth to stifled whatever she was about to say.

"You never think they'll... what?" Pearl echoed.

"You never think they'll actually die," Tala said, staring down at the floor. "Lab accidents, I expect them, everyone talks about the ones that blow themselves up by accident. But no one... no one talks about the ones that do it on purpose."

Pearl nodded. "It's more common than you think, because no one talks about it. And your situation... it's more common than you might think too."

Tala looked up hopefully. "Do you... could I talk to someone else like me? Do you think?"

"Yes," Pearl said. "Definitely. I'll get those contacts for you. Let's talk right now about how you're feeling about all this."

12:20 pm

Pearl reclined on the couch with an icepack on her head.

"Tough one?" Rosemary said from the doorway of the living room.

"God, yes," Pearl muttered. "It's a day of tough ones so far, with no end in sight."

"I'm going downtown for a bit," Rosemary said, walking in and bending down to kiss Pearl. "Marilyn wants my opinion on a new case and is willing to pay my consulting fees, so it must be a big one."

Pearl smiled and peeked out from under the icepack. "Well, you be careful. Dodge alien spaceships and random god wannabes, okay?"

"You know me," Rosemary said with a wink. "Caution is my spandex name."

After the front door clicked shut, Pearl meditated on the issue of her son and grandchild. X was an adult, of course, and Jim had no means of affecting zir life except by guilt and haranguing. Jim's wife was especially good at the haranguing... when she wasn't out golfing or drinking with her colleagues in the sales and marketing department at Wondera Pharma. Jim was on the verge of being laid off his job, which had had him traveling from Wonder City to either Philadelphia or New York more days of the month than not for the last couple of years. Things were not, Pearl suspected, hunky-dory between the two of them, especially since X had come out.

Scully's cold nose poked into Pearl's ear and snuffled there curiously. Pearl jumped upright with a, "Yaagh!" that only made Scully thump her tail on the floor and Mulder start barking and bounding around the room.

The eternal issue of therapists and superheroes alike, Pearl thought, getting up and taking the dogs outside. We want to save everyone. But no one can be saved without their permission.

There, Mulder ran around and around the yard, staring at the sky in the eternally baffled way that won him his name. Pearl said, aloud, "The truth is out there, right?"

Scully gave her an almost offended look.

1:50 pm

"So, last time we met, you were just about to go home to visit your parents," Pearl said. "How did that go?"

The tall, lanky, 30-something white woman in the chair opposite crossed her lovely legs, smoothed her taupe pencil skirt, and gave Pearl a wry smile. "About as well as you might think," Shelley said in a smoky voice.

"I can think of any number of ways it could have gone," Pearl said. "I'm very imaginative that way."

Her client waved a long hand, slim silver bangles clashing at her wrist. "'You're the descendant of a hundred heroes! You're King Arthur and Cu Chulainn and Brian Boru and Robin Hood reborn! You're our son who will save the world! How could you do this to us?'" She sighed. "I mean, what do you say to something like that?"

"What did you say?" Pearl said.

Shelley grimaced. "Exactly what we worked out I could say. 'Mom, Dad, I'm much happier living as a woman than I ever was as a man. I love you and I hope you can come to accept me as your daughter.'" Her voice wavered over some of the words, and she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "The only thing my mother didn't do was faint. I think she was too angry. My father did a good white boy imitation of... that guy on that show in the 70s. You know, the one that was always claiming he was having a heart attack?"

"Oh, yes, 'Sanford and Son' I think," Pearl said. "Did you have an ER run?"

"Very nearly," Shelley said with a short, humorless laugh, running fingers through her long, wavy blonde hair. "I think they were too afraid I might try to come with them, though."

"How are you doing?" Pearl said, bringing them back to the point of it all.

Shelley's thin smile closed down and she set her square, heroic jaw. "I've got an appointment for the first doctor I need to convince to get the damned surgery."

"You've been putting that off," Pearl said gently. "And you had a lot of reasons for that."

"Daddy dearest put the worst of them to rest," Shelley said. "On the condition that I never darken their door again, he's giving me all the money that I would normally inherit when he dies."

"That's very unkind," Pearl said. "How does that make you feel?"

"Fucking furious," Shelley said, crumpling the tissue in her fist. "It makes me want to get it all in small bills so I can throw every one of them in his face."

"Anything else?" Pearl said, cocking her head slightly.

Shelley's shoulders slumped, and she pressed the tissue to her mouth to stifle a sob. "Like I'm dying inside."

3:00 pm

The house landline was ringing when she got back in from giving the dogs their afternoon walk. This inspired Mulder to howl dissonantly along with the electronic ring. Scully sat down and stared at him as if he was an interesting new species and she was contemplating writing a paper on him.

Pearl glanced at the caller ID box, hesitated for a moment over her son's number, then picked up the phone.


"I thought I was going to have to leave another message," Jim said testily.

"Good afternoon to you too," Pearl said. "How are you?"

"Out of a damn job," he said. "I got my walking papers today."

"Oh, Jim, I'm so sorry," Pearl said. She was, though at least that worry was over. Given what some of her clients said, the anticipation of a layoff was often much, much worse than actually getting the news.

He sighed, mostly exasperated. She could hear street noises in the background. "Well, I knew I wasn't long for the company. The new manager had made that clear enough. Look, Mom, that's not what I'm calling about. I want you to talk sense into Kristine."

Pearl said warily, "What about?" Though she knew, of course.

"She needs to stop playing around," he said. "It was all right when she was a teenager, but she's never going to amount to anything hanging out with that old con artist. She's got to finish college! She's got to wake up and smell the coffee!"

"And you think that any amount of talking is going to convince anyone of anything they may not be ready to hear?" Pearl said.

"Stop it with the therapy voice, Mom," he snapped. "I mean it. She needs to learn to dress professionally..."

"By which you mean 'like a woman'," Pearl said, trying to keep the boredom out of her voice.

"Yes, like a woman!" he said. "Because that's what she is!"

"No, Jim," Pearl said gently. "Your child is whatever she, he, or zie chooses to be. Not what you decide is right."

"She's can't go on like this!" he shouted. After a brief, embarrassed pause, he added in a lower voice, "She's barely para at all, but somehow believes she's some sort of superhero. When that old bitch who brainwashed her finally kicks off, she's going to be homeless, broke, and hungry."

"Look, Jim," Pearl said. "I don't have time for this debate again. I think you and Lucille need to decide whether you want to have a child or you want to have had a daughter. Because Kris is not going to keep playing this game with you. Zie is an adult, and has, surprise, surprise, life plans and even financial security well in hand, with people who accept zir for who zie is. Given how little acceptance you've extended to me and Rosemary, I'm not particularly surprised by your reaction to Kris." She bit her tongue. That last was unworthy of her. But it was useless to deny it.

He said, "She can't divorce her parents. I mean, I couldn't just drop you because I think your lifestyle is atrocious, no matter how much I wanted to."

"No, Jim," Pearl said, more gently. "You couldn't divorce your mother. But Kris? May just decide that life is saner and more pleasant without you in it. And from what I've seen and heard, I couldn't argue with zir at all."

He was silent. She heard the traffic in the background again. Then he said, "You really think that... she'd cut us out of her life?"

Pearl restrained a sigh. "No, Jim. I think zie might cut you out of zir life if you don't start accepting zir life on zir terms."

"Those are stupid words," he muttered.

"And you're being a stupid man," she snapped, losing all patience. "Now look, I have to go because --" she bit down on the petty urge to say unlike you I have a job "-- I have a client coming in. You think about your life, James Wong, and for once in your life, think about who and what you really want in it." And she hung up.

Mulder and Scully were seated side-by-side, staring up at her with big, soft, brown eyes, tails thumping tentatively. She crouched down and put an arm around each of them, pressing her face into Scully's red shoulder. "How did I raise that child?" she said. "How?"

4:16 pm

"Don wants a divorce," Melinda said in a flat, exhausted voice.

Pearl managed to restrain her sigh. She'd been expecting this for months. "I'm so sorry, Melinda. That sounds very painful."

Melinda, a curvy biracial woman with pale brown skin and corkscrew curls, pressed her fingertips to the center of her forehead. "He says no matter how much I say I'll try, I never spent any time with him. Or the kids, he always adds as an afterthought. He says I take care of other people more than my own family."

"He's said all this before," Pearl said.

"I know, I know," Melinda said. "But what am I supposed to do? I didn't ask those... those people from the future to come back and reengineer my body like this when I was 35. I didn't ask to automatically teleport wherever someone the future people think is important is in danger. I hate this life! I hate what they did to me! They didn't even ask. And what am I supposed to do when I'm already there, let them die?"

"Of course not," Pearl said. "You have to do what you feel is the right thing."

"Exactly!" Melinda pressed the heels of her hands into her temples. "He wants me to move out. He wants to keep the house, for the kids, he says, and he wants the kids." She turned despairing hazel eyes on Pearl. "He says that if I don't fight for the kids, he'll let me have visitation and all, but if I do, he'll push for supervised visitation only. And that's one step to losing them entirely." She bit her lip as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Pearl leaned over and pushed the tissue box into reach. Melinda took one and wiped her eyes and nose. She whispered, "I don't want to lose them. Oh, Pearl, I don't want to lose them at all. Or Don. I want everything to go back the way it was before."

Pearl said, "Did you try asking them?"

"You know I have that 'emergency radio' thing in my head, right? Beam across time and space? So I ask them every night," Melinda said, the tears coming faster and harder, her next inhalation shaking her whole body with the sobbing catches in her throat. "Every. Damn. Night. I ask them to take it away, to give it to someone else, to give me my life back." She let out an incoherent sound of pain. "They kept saying no. And last night, they didn't answer at all."

5:47 pm

Rosemary handed Pearl a cup of lavender tea and a square of dark chocolate. "You look like you need that right about now," she said.

Pearl somehow wrangled the cup to her lips over the heads of the interested dogs curled up in her lap (and spilling over onto the rest of the sofa). "I look that bad, huh?"

"Let's just say that I woke up with a sexygenarian this morning and came home to an octagenarian." Rosemary slid away into the kitchen.

"I am wounded to the quick, you mean old woman," Pearl said, popping the chocolate into her mouth to get it away from the long pink tongue that snaked "sneakily" out of Mulder's muzzle.

"Vicious, that's me," Rosemary said, making noises that included opening and shutting the oven. Then she came back and produced a rawhide chew for each animal, and they heartlessly abandoned Pearl with eager barks and whines. Rosemary took advantage of the newly freed sofa space and settled in next to Pearl, putting an arm around her and pulling her close.

They sat together quietly and watched Scully make off with her chew to one of her very secret hiding places, while Mulder took his over to a floor lamp. He set the chew on the floor and carefully pawed the electrical cord over it. Scully returned and sat to watch him fiddle with the electrical cord, pushing it one way with his nose and the other with his paw. Finally, he sat back, barked sharply to declare his satisfaction, and trotted proudly away into the kitchen.

Scully glanced over her shoulder at her humans with the look of someone who had been reminded of her lottery winnings, then went, picked up Mulder's chewtoy, and took it away to her hiding place as well.

The doorbell rang. Pearl pecked Rosemary on the cheek and got to her feet, setting the remains of her tea on the side table. "Tell me I don't really look ancient," she said to her wife.

Rosemary smiled up at her in that rakish way that had made Pearl's heart turn over when they first met. "You're still the most beautiful woman in the world."

"Even though I'm a grandma?" Pearl said.

"You just keep getting more beautiful," Rosemary said, reaching out to stroke her hand. "Now go be a grandma or I'm'a take you to bed, woman."

Pearl was still laughing when she opened the door to X, who was wearing a lavender silk shirt, sharply tailored black jacket, and black trousers. Zie was also holding a bottle of wine that zie pressed into Pearl's hands before hugging zir grandmother. "I had a premonition we'd want that. See, my power is useful sometimes isn't it?"

"Come on in, you," Pearl said, hugging X tighter. "We'll help you get a head start on... what was it he said last time? Being a drunk in the gutter, right? All for one and one for all in this family."

Scully barked once in agreement.


From the Author:
Apparently, April comes later in the year than anyone thought.

Seriously, I'm sorry for all the delays, but finally, I give you the third of the four promised Interludes. The fourth IS in progress, and I hope that I will be posting it as a short series in January or possibly in February, which is when I expect Volume 2 to reach its conclusion.

wonder_city: (Default)
Spooky Action at a Distance

It had been a long day with more clients than I usually saw: a few small emergencies with an almost entirely nonverbal teenager who was acting out strangely (she had started having menstrual migraines, and couldn't find a way to communicate it to her mother) and a young man with severe cerebral palsy who his grandmother suspected was being abused or bullied at his school (and who was). Heavier stuff than usual, but good and useful.

I was trying to decide whether or not to take my end-of-day meds. I thought I would probably sleep fairly well, and I didn't have any sense of lingering connection to any of the kids. I try to avoid taking my "as needed" medications too often. As I have learned over the years, telepaths medicate -- or self-medicate, or are medicated -- a great deal. If you are unfortunate enough to be a lower-class teenager of color with telepathy, you either end up in an institution, like I did, or you learn to self-medicate with whatever comes to hand. We're very fond of central nervous system depressants, and the easiest to come by is, of course, alcohol. Drink and maybe you won't hear what everyone is thinking of you. Drink and maybe you can't feel everyone else's pain. Drink yourself into a stupor and maybe you won't have someone else's dreams.

I didn't have a chance to take it up before I found myself in a lockdown unit. The doctors spent years trying to find the perfect cocktail of medications to shut me down without admitting they were shutting me down. No one wanted to believe in my telepathy -- paras were still thought of as all being like the World War 2 bulletproofs well into the 1980s, and the less showy powers put a lot of people in denial. The idea that there might be someone who could rifle through your brain as easily as most people rifle through cluttered drawers... well, I can understand the drugs.

Still, they made a lot of mistakes. Costly mistakes. Mistakes that traumatized a lot of staff and patients around me, and one grand mistake that left me wide open, like a phone left off the hook, like a microphone left switched on, and half a city experiencing electroshock therapy without any helpful medications. Ruth has never told me how many people died that day, and I have never looked it up, but it was the key event that put me into her capable hands.

So you might understand when I say that I try to find alternatives to medications. Because all medications interact with your particular state of being at that moment, and one never knows when you'll have a side effect you've never had before. I was far, far under Wonder City, but I could still walk in and out of the minds of just about everyone there, by intent or accident.

One of the very best alternatives I've found is the Internet. I understand this is pretty common.

So there I was, in my fuzzy garnet robe and matching slippers, sipping chamomile-mint tea and spending the early evening looking at cute animal pictures and horrible autocorrect errors. And I was struck by a fancy to pop over and look at the Wonderful House website.

My sisters would give me the side-eye if they knew I was turning into such a junkie for that show. Hell, I give myself the side-eye some days.

You see, they post video clips on the site, so you can always get more Wonderful House than just the hour once a week. They say that every week, they film over a thousand hours of footage. They have staff on the video feeds all the time, picking out snippets that were interesting enough to end up on the show. And then they have to sift through all of those and edit them together to make the show. Meanwhile, Terabytes of video end up on the virtual cutting room floor. So they share some of the gems.

The first one I ran into was "Brandon's Bathroom," and he's always a giant train wreck, so of course I clicked.

He was talking to the camera, sitting on the closed toilet in his unspeakably filthy and cluttered bathroom. He was flushed of face, wearing just a pair of shorts, his blond hair even more mussed and cowlicked than usual. He clutched a large Wonder Beer and stared down at it moodily.

"I'm glad I've got you to talk to, man," he slurred. "Everyone here hates me."

"Haters gonna hate, man," a strange man's voice said, and I realized it was the cameraman who he was so friendly with. "You're successful, you have more fans online than they do -- you'll always be better than they are and they know it."

Brandon smiled briefly at the camera and drank from the can. Then he stared at it again, and the smile oozed off his face. His mouth trembled a little, and his eyes were oddly bright -- I think he was on the verge of tears. "But they really hate me," he said, gesturing with the can and sloshing some of it on himself. His voice broke. "I didn't know you could be alone in a house full of people."

"Dude, it doesn't matter," the cameraman said, reaching out and patting Brandon's shoulder. "You just have to get through all three months and you've got a wad of cash to blow on a spring break trip or something. And everyone you meet will love you." He paused. "All the girls you meet will love you, too."

Brandon hiccoughed and smiled again. "Yeah," he said.

"You just have to man up, B," the cameraman said. "Suck it up. You're the only one with balls in this house, and you know it."

"Almost literally," Brandon hooted, scratching his crotch. The video chose that spot to freeze on, and ended. I scrolled it off quickly, before my eyes rolled clear out of my head.

The next clip that caught my eye was, "An Evening Event," so I clicked it. There was a longish buffering time, and then the words, "Welcome to the Wonderful Live Feed," flashed up. The picture came on too fast for me to realize what I'd done and then I was there.

I have tried again and again to describe what it's like to end up in this sort of situation, with no warning and no defenses and no meds. It's never quite enough to convey it, but I'll try again.

Imagine you suddenly have twenty pairs of legs, twenty pairs of eyes, twenty pairs of arms. You have twenty heads and twenty bodies, twenty pairs of ears, twenty noses. You are feeling through twenty skins, every itch and pain and pressure and heat and cold.

Think about how much sensory information you don't pay attention to every moment -- the sounds and rhythms and stinks and scents and lights and colors and shadows, the touch of your clothing, of the chair under you, of your hair on your forehead or the back of your neck. Think about not having those filters, and then think about having all that for twenty people. And you will understand that people's thoughts are not the thing that puts me in a fetal position when I'm surprised.

And I'm caught, like a fly in a spider's web, every kick or struggle done without leverage, every motion away getting me more firmly caught in the web.

I've spent years working out coping mechanisms to get me out of situations like this. I studied with all the most experienced (mostly self-taught) telepaths in the world. I worked with alien telepaths that Ruth took me to visit, who had all sorts of techniques and defenses taught to them in their schools from the first day they're born. I have figured out how to shut down the input, but it takes time and a fucking lot of effort.

I'm wet. I'm freezing. My toes are numb. My sinuses ache with cold wind. I don't have a heavy jacket. The wind cuts right through me. Rain stings my face. My head hurts. My feet hurt. My fingers hurt. My teeth hurt.

Put a blanket on it, mug it, shove it through a door, slam the door. Every inch of my body will throb with pain for a week.

Too many voices. The director shouting, the generators thrumming, Brandon's huh huh huh laugh like nails on chalkboard. Jeshri's voice, light and breathy. Cameramen and women chattering. Shrieking feedback from a microphone. Tom's voice, low and blunt. The truck engine whines. The onlookers muttering. Simon's voice, husky and resonant. The shattering of a police siren. Screams from the onlookers, cheers from the crew. Lizzie's voice, strained and sharp.

I have to be deaf, deaf, deaf. I stick my fingers in my mental ears. I stuff cotton in my mental ears. I swath my mental head in layers of soundproofing. I focus on the sounds of my home: the hums of the computers, the low strains of Billie Holiday telling me that the systems had detected my distress and had set off my focus-assisting programs.

Everything stinks: sweat and diesel fumes and hot metal and menstrual blood and food and cigarettes and nausea and makeup and warm plastic and ozone and cheap beer and fear and desire and sour milk and garbage...

Pinch my nose shut. Duck under the surface of water. Anything to stop that visceral assault on my lizard brain. Sweet jasmine incense was burning not far from where I sat, wreathing me in its comforting smoke.

Too bright. Too many colors. Too much movement.

Close each set of eyes until I can actually see.

Simon is draped over the stone wall behind the house in his Gold Stars jacket and tight black hipster jeans. Jeshri is standing near him, hugging herself in her Wonder City U hoodie and black yoga pants and knee-high black boots. Lizzie, in a bomber jacket and jeans, is speaking to them in a furtive way, glancing around to make sure no cameras are near. Tom, shivering in a t-shirt and jeans, is being harangued by the director. I can't tell what they're supposed to be shooting out here in the back yard, in the horrible March weather. The sound people are huddled together for warmth with the camera crew. Brandon is chatting with them and drinking beer, flirting outrageously with one of the female sound engineers. The director claps his hands and everyone drags tiredly into position, production assistants fluttering around them like startled pigeons.

I close the last set of eyes and open my own. Now I can hear thoughts -- just surface thoughts, fleeting scattered things that come with several layers of meaning, memories, and disordered images. It takes some time, but I start sifting them out into distinct, coherent thought-bytes.

I hate this. I hate this. I'm so cold and tired. Poor kid didn't even give her time to shower or change she smells of sweat and terror and oh she's on the rag too poor kid. She looks like hell how dare they put her up here for the shoot? Everyone thinks she looks terrible... Should short out the generators and give us all a break. I haven't been working out this week I must look like shit why can't I put on a damn jacket? So tired, so tired, just get it over with... Oh christ you asshole just make up your mind how you want to shoot this one and get it over with we're all freezing our balls off. Beer beer beer wow nice how can she have cleavage in winter clothes? This fucking camera is fucking up again the picture's shit oh he's going to rip me a new one if he gets another day of shit footage... Want a cig, want a cig, god, why can't I just light up here? So hungry, but I'm out of points for the day, so I shouldn't go near the catering table, everyone will remind me of that huge lunch I had...

Then, from out of this morass, an icy-sharp-stinging-hate stabbed me behind the eye:
I'd like to feel her throat in my hands. It would feel so good, and I would crush it so slowly, and she would try to hurt me...

This was accompanied by vivid memories of doing exactly this thing. Memories. Plural.

Usually, I don't shut things down fast. It sometimes backlashes on me if I pull out of a big group situation too fast. But I have been in the minds of too many murderers in my life to want to spend any more time in this one's mind.

I came to with one of the maintenance robots -- Eliot -- gently shaking my shoulder and saying, "Renata? Renata? You are safe here, Renata, please wake up." It had very careful programming for situations like this.

I missed my dog Liza anyway, and her big cold worried nose poking under my chin and in my ear with loud snuffles and tiny little fretting whines, and the happy little dance she did with her front paws when I woke up.

My arm was bruised where I caught myself on the floor, and my hip was bruised where the arm of the chair had caught me as I threw myself sideways in unconscious physical mimicry of my psychic reaction. I had the taste of bile in my mouth, but I did not appear to have tossed my supper, for which I was grateful.

It took me a few moments to get myself back into my chair, leaning on Eliot to get there. I sat there, breathing deeply and slowly, for a long several minutes. Finally, I drank the rest of my tea, cold, to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

The browser window had been shut down in the emergency procedures. I stared at the blank computer desktop, trying to think of what to do.

The police were out. Even if I were willing to trust them to do the right thing, my information was vague and, more damning, telepathic. No one can legally act on a telepath's tip.

I was clicking open my telephone menu before remembering that Ruth was off-planet, searching for cures for Sophie.

I flipped down my telephone contacts, and selected one.

The phone rang twice before the deep, comforting tones of my therapist answered. "Pearl Wong, can I help you?"

"Pearl, it's Renata," I said, pleased that my voice wasn't shaking.

"What's happened?" she said, and I could feel her focus in on me keenly.

"I did something stupid, Pearl," I said. "I stumbled into a live feed of a film crew."

"Oh," she said, and there was a touch of relief. "How did getting out go?"

"Badly," I said. I took a deep breath again. "I know where that serial killer is, Pearl."

"I see," Pearl said, and the relief was snuffed out. "How are you feeling?"

"Shaky and sick," I said. "I'm planning to eat something for grounding and go for a swim later to clear things out."

"Sounds like a good plan," she said. "How about your meds?"

"I'm going to see how I feel after food," I said.

"Don't be too conservative," Pearl said in a light, reminding sort of way. One reason I love her is that she doesn't get maternal at me. I have quite enough people trying to be my mama; I don't need to pay someone to do it too.

"I won't," I said. "Pearl, what do I do?"

Pearl said, "Do you want to talk about where he is?"

"He's... someone on the set of It's a Wonderful House," I said. "I can't be more specific. There were a lot of people. It could have, I suppose, even been someone watching the filming, so even one of the neighbors? Or a passerby. Or... this isn't very specific, is it?"

"That's one of your curses, Renata," Pearl said wryly. "Specificity is hard-won with you. But this gives me some ideas of where to go with the information."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes," Pearl said. She paused, then said, slowly, "What I'm thinking about isn't strictly professional, but I think the situation warrants a little break. I won't mention you."

"Okay," I said, rubbing my face to remind myself where I was. "Okay."

"I promise that I will find someone who will listen to this, Renata," Pearl said.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, thank you."

"Right," she said. There was a pregnant pause.

I knew what she was expecting. "I promise I won't go spelunking," I said. "I don't want to. I don't want to see inside that man's head again."

"All right," she said. "I'll let you know what I hear back, okay?"

"Okay. And I'll go get something to eat." I did another deep breath. "Thanks, Pearl."

"It's what I'm here for," she said.

"One more thing," I said.

"Hm?" Pearl said.

I said, "I think I'm ready for that new dog now."


From the Author:
I got up way too early this morning to be entertaining, alas.

Remember that, through May, I'm running the commenting incentive again, because reading your comments is the most fun on the Internet I have all day. So if I get 50 total comments in May, I will post twice weekly through June. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through July too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through August.

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Cold Storage

"Who are you trying to rescue?" Pearl said into the silence after Megan's narrative of her latest investigatory adventures.

"Pardon?" Megan said, braking on her track of wondering about Sator's.

Pearl leaned on the arm of her chair and tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Who are you trying to rescue?" she repeated.

"Well, G, of course," Megan said, frowning.

"How do you feel about G?" Pearl said.

"I..." Megan shut her mouth with a snap and thought for a moment. "I'm angry. And frustrated because I can't be angry at her while she's out of her head."

"Underneath that," Pearl said. "Go deeper."

Megan pursed her lips and considered. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I... I just can't."

Pearl watched her for a moment. "How do you feel about Watson?"

Megan was beginning to feel a little whiplash. "I like her. And she's... intimidating. Because she's older, and because she's smarter than I am."

"What is G's full name?"

Megan tried to remember. Surely it had been on the diploma on the wall. But... no, she'd only looked at the school and the degree, not the name. "I don't know."

"How do you feel about Simon?"


"How do you feel about Simon?"

"I... he's my best friend." She paused, then said more quietly, "He's my only friend."

"G's not your friend?"

"No. Yes. I don't know." Megan clenched her hands tightly. "I don't know anything about her. Happy?"

"Why are you trying to... as your... well, you just said Simon was your only friend, so, as your acquaintance Tizemt said... be G's magical person of color?"

Megan could feel her fingernails biting into her palms. "Because she's someone I know who is having something horrible happen to her."

"You would do this for anyone you knew?"

"Yes! No. I don't know."

Pearl leaned forward. "Who are you trying to rescue?"

"Tanya, of course!" Megan shouted. "Tanya! That's who you want me to say, right? My roommate who was cut to pieces by a crazy evil man. There you have it. I'm trying to rescue Tanya."

Pearl was silent, resting her laced fingers in her lap.

Megan fumed, a few tears trickling down her face. That made her angrier. "If I'd been there, I could have saved her, I could have stopped him. If I'd been in spandex, I could have stopped them all, and wouldn't have been as easy to kill as the teammate they killed. I might have been their conscience. Maybe I could have even saved Annette."

Pearl still didn't say anything.

Megan looked around the room, anywhere but at her therapist. "Tanya was my roommate freshman year, you know. We were one of those rare sets that worked out all right, that liked each other. She had this power, something about being able to analyze molecular structures. She was an archaeology major. Joked about calling herself 'Carbon-14'." She scrubbed at her face with the heel of one hand. "I puppydogged after her for a year before I finally got up the guts to ask her out on a date. And she was very... kind... when she told me she was sorry she was straight. And then we didn't talk until most of the way through our sophomore years, and I'd gotten over her enough to date around some, and she'd started dating Boyd in the meantime."

"When did you move in together?" Pearl asked.

"Not till senior year," Megan said. "Her relationship with Boyd was always weird. I didn't like him at all. I met Annette through him -- they were part of the same team. Tanya didn't like Annette, and I didn't like Boyd." She rubbed her fingers through her hair. "It wasn't long after their team had secretly gone villain -- and they'd started to be even more obviously nasty -- that we each talked the other out of our relationships. And then we broke up with them, and then Tanya died."

Pearl studied her face. "Where does the guilt come from?"

Megan felt like she should be scrambling desperately to pull her sheets back up over her ugly mind. "Because I wasn't there," she said. "And because I'd always been anti-Boyd. I hated his guts. He told me once... when Tanya wasn't in the room... that he knew I didn't like him, and that he thought it was all sour grapes, because he got her and I didn't. And... he was at least a little right."

"Did you stop talking to her about Boyd after that?" Pearl said.

"Well... yeah. I did. I didn't want to seem... jealous." Megan exhaled heavily. "I guess that was what he was trying to get me to do, huh?"

"Sounds like it." Pearl rubbed the arm of her chair with her thumb. "What happened after Tanya was killed?"

Megan's shoulders slumped. "There was a lot of questions. Boyd, being the ex, was first on the suspect list. I was second, though I really didn't have the means to cut up bodies with lasers, so I was a distant second. Annette... showed up to comfort me." She felt her mouth twisting in embarrassment, regret, anger. "She said he'd disappeared, gone off the deep end, she was very sorry they hadn't known, she was very sorry..."

"Did you move out of that apartment?" Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said, her voice dropping. "I moved in with Annette. Mom... didn't like it, but you know, when Mom says she doesn't like it..."

"You do it anyway?" Pearl said with a little smile.

Megan made a noise of agreement, her gaze fixed on her clenched fists.

"How long?"

"I stayed... almost through graduation. I almost didn't graduate because my grades went into the shitter. But Mom had a little chat with the administration, and they agreed to give me a pass/fail semester at the end." Megan gritted her teeth against the memory, the harrowing expectation of her mother's crushing disappointment, and how startled she'd been to receive, instead, sympathy from her emotional monolith of a parent. "Annette was... she never let me forget that I'd broken up with her. And she managed to convince me... partly... mostly... that Tanya's death was my fault. That the breakup pushed Boyd over the edge, or something."

Pearl said, "That sounds like she was very manipulative."

"Yeah," Megan said. "And what pisses me off now, and embarrasses the hell out of me, was that I believed her. The oldest trick in the misogyny textbook, that victim-blaming shit."

"Sometimes, when one is in a difficult situation," Pearl said carefully, "and when one has had a terrible shock, it's easier to believe the cultural messages than fight them."

"I guess," Megan said, unconvinced. She started mentally going over her memories of those months.

When she'd been silent for a couple of minutes, Pearl said, eyebrows raised, "What's happening in there right now?"

"I guess... I'm just thinking about it for the first time in a... couple of years," Megan said. "It's kind of like... you know that tingly sort of pain you get when you press a sore spot on your gum? It hurts, but it also pushes other neurons in a way that almost feels good?"

"Yes," Pearl said. "That's what thinking about that time is like?"

"Yeah. Except... the 'good' feeling --" she did the airquotes "-- is mostly bad. Self-indulgent. Guilty."


"I think," Megan said slowly, "that maybe I don't like spandex because... my idea of superheroing reminds me too much of how I felt during that time with Annette."

"Which was?"

"Important," Megan said in a low voice. "Like I was the center of someone's world. Which I was, in a terrifying, obsessive way. Like it got me attention -- from Annette, and from my mother, who didn't approve of any of it and was worried about me for the first time in my life. Like I had friends, lots of friends, who liked us as a couple, who we spent all our time with. I had an exciting, people-filled life, and a lot of approval because I was with Annette."

"Do you miss it?"

"Yes," Megan almost snarled. "It was a high. It wasn't real, and that was even better because it was all in my head -- the way sex is better when it's in your head too. It was better than spandex. I didn't have to fight supervillains for it. I just had to dance attendance on Annette, and it all came to me. And there was an edge of danger, too -- what if I missed something she wanted? What if I pissed her off? Would she leave? The drama, Pearl, the drama was everything. It was addictive as hell." She reached for the tissue box and used a handful to mop the trickles that ran down her face. "And I don't ever want it back. Except I do."

Pearl put her head to one side and watched Megan for a moment, then said, gently, "Who are you trying to rescue?"

"Oh," Megan said, surprised, into her tissues. "Myself."


Note from the Author:

That was... way harder to write than I expected.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction!
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"I know we spoke on the phone a bit, but I'd like to hear more detail on what brings you here today," Pearl Wong, licensed clinical social worker, said, leaning back in her chair and folding her hands on top of her appointment book.

Megan grimaced and ran a hand through her hair, resettling herself in the giant chair provided. She took the opportunity to study the therapist across the coffee table. Megan guessed Pearl to be in her early 60s, her face pleasantly lined around mouth and eyes, her iron gray hair caught back into a long, thick braid that reached her waist. Pearl wore a loose batiked blouse in burgundy and royal blue over dark gray slacks. There were a few silver and copper bangles on her left wrist, though her right wrist was bare, and a single three-metal band on the ring finger of her left hand. Her necklace was an understated delicate silver filigree piece with a clear pale green cabochon in the center.

She wondered idly what Pearl's para power was.

"I, um, well, I've gotten into a relationship that's kind of... messed up," Megan said. The clear sharpening of Pearl's attentiveness made Megan hesitate briefly, and then she plunged on. "I got involved with an older woman. She's intelligent and charismatic and butch, with a pretty minor para power, and a career as an architect. And things were fun. I mean, the sex was great and she was really amazing herself... though I guess kind of withdrawn and hard to read sometimes." She paused, leaning forward, elbows on knees.

"How did that make you feel?" Pearl said.

Megan tried to think about that. "I guess... I guess I just assumed it was a butch thing. And an older woman thing. I mean, I guess I'm still in the whole overshare-in-an-instant state of mind from college and I assumed that... you, know, grownups don't do that." She laughed a little. "Whatever that means."

"No, I think that's an interesting insight," Pearl said. "How do you think it affects the dynamic of your relationship?"

"The dynamic...," Megan started, then thumped her palm against her forehead. "Oh, yes. Puts her in a one-up powerwise. I'm sharing, she's not. Yeah."

"And are you the higher-rated para power?" Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said, feeling miserable. "And I'm physically larger. And stuff like that." She put her head in her hands. "I haven't even gotten to the really messed-up part yet."

"Okay, why don't we bookmark this for later and you go on?" Pearl said.

"Sure," Megan said, and paused to take a sip from the small cup of water on the table beside her. "Anyway. She was always standoffish that way, but -- okay, now I have to tell you that I don't date people who are in spandex. I won't. And I... I don't really want to talk about that today."

"All right," Pearl said imperturbably.

"So I ask everyone I get involved with if they're in spandex," Megan said. "And... well, she lied to me. Said she wasn't."

"Did that really surprise you?" Pearl said.

"What do you mean?" Megan said, blinking.

"Do you expect everyone who is in spandex to be honest with you?" Pearl said.

"I... uh... yeah?" Megan said, feeling like a fool.

Pearl smiled a little and said, "What I'm really asking is this: are you asking because you expect a true answer, or are you asking to assuage an anxiety and don't actually expect truth, just the answer you want to hear?"

"Oh." Megan sat back and stared at the coffee table. It was polished burlwood, uneven around the edges, the grain appealingly complex. "Oh."

Pearl let her think quietly for a moment, then said, "How did you find out she lied to you?"

Megan shook her head and smiled grimly. "She transformed in front of me. We were in that scrum in downtown back before Christmas."

"Ah. Yes. I saw you in the paper," Pearl said, serene.

"Not going to ask which one was her?" Megan said before she could stop herself.

"I'm not in the business of secret identities," Pearl said with just a hint of an edge.

"Sorry," Megan said.

"It's all right," Pearl said. "So, I'm guessing you were a little busy at the time. How did you deal with it afterward?"

"I avoided her for days," Megan said, starting to feel embarrassed by it all. It really was childish. "I finally went to talk to her. And that's the weirdest, most messed-up part."

"The discussion?" Pearl said.

"Yeah," Megan said. "She... told me that she didn't technically lie to me because she herself isn't technically in spandex. She's possessed by some crazy ghost from the 40s who wants to use G to be the superhero she could never be."

"Do you believe her?" Pearl said.

"I... think so. No, I know so. She and this other person just aren't at all alike. And I..." Megan looked down at the floor, face burning. "I snuck into her apartment last week while she was at work. I... told myself it was because I missed her cats. But there's this... little corner of her bedroom that's set up like some sort of bizarre shrine. It's a little antique vanity with... with makeup and hair spray and jewelry scattered all over it. On the table part, hanging up over the corners of the mirror, and the chair has this baby blue ruffled pillow on it. It smells of baby powder and perfume and... it wasn't there before." She realized her hands were shaking and clenched them together hard.

Pearl watched her for a moment, then said, "What's happening now? In your head, I mean."

"I guess," Megan said, then stopped because her voice was shaking almost as hard as her hands had been. She swallowed and took a couple of deep breaths, then went on, "I guess I'm feeling like... like she was someone I could really have... and she's being taken away by this... this thing, this disease, almost, that's taking her over. And I think she asked me for help, but I'm not sure, and I don't know what I can do anyway." She swallowed hard again. "Her... her other girlfriend and I have been asking around, looking for someone to help get the ghost out of her."

Pearl quirked one eyebrow. Megan braced herself for the inevitable question, but Pearl only said, "And how is that going?"

Megan shrugged, feeling savage about the whole thing. "The first guy told us his 'ethics' wouldn't let him help unless she asked him for help. The next person we talked to -- a woman, a psychic at Holy Moly -- said that 'revenants' of this sort were difficult and dangerous to take on, and that we had to let things take their own course. We tried another person whose card was on the board at Holy Moly, but she won't return our calls." She gripped her knees until her knuckles went pale. "I don't even know if I should help. One of my friends asked me if I was really comfortable being G's magical negro..." She looked up, catching herself, and said, "Uh..."

"I'm familiar with the term," Pearl said, waving a hand. "It sounds like you have a lot of anger and grief around this. And perhaps," she added, raising that eyebrow again, "not just around this?"

Megan sighed and nodded reluctantly. She really, really didn't want to get into this. Not right now. Not involving G. But it did involve G, and it involved Tanya, and Annette, and everyone else that had ever been fucked over by being in spandex.

"What do you want most out of this situation?" Pearl said. "Let's say in El Mundo Bueno."

Megan gave her a crooked smile. "I want G back so I can find out if there could ever be an 'us'."

"And how about in the real world?" Pearl said. "What do you think the absolute best you could hope for at this very moment would be?"

Megan dropped her gaze to the floor. "I want to help. No. No, that's not right. I want some measure of control about what's going on. I want to feel involved so I can... I don't know... feel better about myself somehow."

"Is that the current situation, or history speaking?" Pearl said.

"History," Megan said heavily.

Megan could feel Pearl studying her. Then Pearl said, "Shall we bookmark the history conversation for next time then?"

Megan nodded. Her mouth felt thick and her eyes felt heavy and her throat was constricted tightly and painfully.

There was another pause. Pearl said, "Are you all right?"

Megan nodded, then shook her head, then, much to her disgust, began to cry. Little choked noises kept finding their way out of her. Pearl expertly slid a box of tissues under her groping hand.

After a few minutes, Megan blew her nose and said, shakily, "I'm so goddamn snot-ridden when I cry."

Pearl said, "Everyone is. It's only Hollywood that wants to make you think that some people weep perfect tears."

Megan laughed and hiccoughed and wiped her face on her sleeve. "Our hour is up, isn't it?"

"Yes," Pearl said. "The bathroom is through that door there, at the end of the hall, if you want to splash some water on your face."

"Thanks." Megan accordingly found the little pale green bathroom and leaned over the small basin. She returned to the therapy room a few minutes later, looking blotchy but feeling better.

"Do you mind dogs?" Pearl asked as she stood to walk Megan out. "Because I think my wife has let ours in."

"No, I don't mind dogs at all," Megan said, thinking of Simon.

"Come on then," Pearl said, and opened the door.

A sleek brown mutt scampered into the room immediately. It circled the room, staring at the ceiling, and therefore collided with Megan's legs. It bounced off and sat down abruptly. It stared at her for a moment, then began to pant and look around. A second dog, an Irish setter with a somewhat skeptical expression peered around the corner to eye the brown dog. Finally, it trotted over to sniff Megan's proffered hand and submit to ear skritiches.

"What are their names?" Megan said, giving the brown dog a sidelong glance and settling on rubbing the setter's head.

Pearl smiled. "Mulder and Scully. He got his name because he always looks up. You can probably imagine how she got hers."

Megan gave Scully a final pat and straightened up. "Are they therapy dogs then?" she said, following Pearl to the door.

Pearl shook her hand and held the door. "All dogs are. Didn't you know?"


From the Author:
Wonder City Stories has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Award! Voting starts tomorrow -- I'll post a link when I have it. I would adore it if you voted for Wonder City.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.


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