It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn - Pennumbra (manatapped) (2024)

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Rating:
  • Mature
Archive Warning:
  • Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Category:
  • F/M
Fandom:
Relationships:
  • Barnaby "Bunny" Brooks Jr./Original Female Character
  • Background Canon/Canon Ships
Characters:
  • Original Female Character(s)
  • Barnaby "Bunny" Brooks Jr.
  • Kaburagi T. Kotetsu
  • Keith Goodman
  • Ryan Goldsmith
  • Karina Lyle
  • Nathan Seymour
  • Ivan Karelin
  • Huang Pao-Lin
  • Antonio Lopez
  • Agnes Joubert
  • Yuri Petrov
Additional Tags:
  • Original Female Hero - Freeform
  • Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence
  • Pre-Season/Series 02
  • The AU Where S2 Is Just A Nightmare We Can All Wake Up From
  • Cherry-Picking S2 And Shoving Things I Don't Like Down The Garbage Disposal
  • Self-Indulgent But Like In A Chill Way
  • A Billion Tiny Headcanons
  • Canon-Typical Violence
  • substance use and abuse
  • anxiety and depression
  • A Very Medium-Burn Romance
  • coworkers to idiots to lovers
  • It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
  • Oh Look Another Angsty Longfic About Unhealed Trauma
  • from me?
  • Who Could Have Predicted This?
  • No Beta We Die Like Cis
  • Now Including Commissioned Art
Language:
English
Series:
Part 1 of To The Darkness, We Answer With Light
Stats:
Published:
2024-03-14
Updated:
2024-07-07
Words:
54,786
Chapters:
9/?
Comments:
20
Kudos:
7
Hits:
210

It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn

Pennumbra (manatapped)

Summary:

"Hey, it's Kotetsu, the member of Tiger and Bunny who eats his jelly beans in reverse rainbow order. What? Another new hero? She's actually kinda neat, and Bunny seems to have taken a real shining to her! She showed up just in time, too - a NEXT is killing people in the middle of the night, and us heroes have to stop them! Next time on Tiger and Bunny: It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn. Hey, I got that one right!"

--

Same town, new hero. An AU that diverges after The Rising, following the career of Stern Bild's newest hero as she navigates stardom, falls into an unexpected relationship, and comes to terms with things she convinced herself she's healed from.

Chapter 1: Obligatory Boring Info and Disclaimers

Chapter Text

Legal Stuff: Canon characters, names, places, etc, are property of Sunrise/Viz Media/Netflix/whoever. I only own my OCs and the bullsh*t I put them through.

----

A Few Things To Know About This AU:

1. According to S2, Ep25, the first day of the new hero season is October 1st, but to accommodate some plot points, I’ve moved it to approximately July 1st, as it always made more sense to me that they would end/start seasons in the middle of the year.


2. Magical Cat, He Is Thomas, and Mr. Black aren’t part of the story, at least at this point, and so the last hero to join the crew is Golden Ryan. I might include the S2 heroes in later arcs/books, but at this point, I really don’t plan to.

3. Related to #2, this story begins on the first day of the season *after *Ryan joins the crew, which means approximately a year has passed since The Rising. I’m going to try to keep everyone’s ages in line with this expanded timeline, but I’m bound to be a little off at some point. (And, we don’t really have ages for most of the characters, so I’m winging it according to headcanons.)


4. Related to #2 and #3, Ryan completed his first year as a hero at Apollon Media, and was then transferred to/hired by Titan Industry. Kotetsu was re-instated to the First League after Justice Day, and spent the rest of the season as usual.


4. While I will be including some minor plot points and character development from S2, I’m going to ignore most of it. There’s a lot I didn’t vibe with (looking at you, whoever wrote the Unspeakable Thing that happens to Yuri), so I’m just going to do what fandom does best and ignore/rewrite the things I don’t like.

Specific Notes On This Book:

So, the fragmented drafts of this series have been sitting untouched and unpolished in the depths of the cloud since early 2015 according to the Scrivener file. I think I posted the first few chapters either here or on FF, but subsequently deleted them between then and now. I was recently reminiscing about my love of the show to a friend, and decided to crack open the crusty dusty file and have another go at it now that my pre-frontal cortex has finished developing (allegedly).

This was obviously conceptualized years before season 2 came out, and look, I’m not saying Ouroboros hacked into my Dropbox and read the early drafts, but there *are* a suspicious amount of similarities between the trajectory of this story and several plot points from S2, as you’ll see eventually. Please bear with me and sort of suspend your disbelief. Or, maybe consider this an AU of S2, because that’s honestly what I’m doing at this point.

There will be some Greek interspersed throughout the fic, and I will include translations in my author's notes at the end of every chapter. While I am learning Greek as a second language independent of this fic, I will inevitably mess up the translations and/or Romanization, so if there are any fluent Greek speakers here who spot a mistake, please let me know and I’ll correct it. Ευχαριστώ!

I will always put trigger warnings at the beginning of each chapter. This fic deals with some heavy things, so please protect your peace above all.

Finally, I’m a very slow updater. I’m chronically ill and I have to spend my spoons judiciously, so please forgive how long this will inevitably take to plod along. (RIP to my WoW fic that’s been dormant for almost 6 months at this point.) I’m hopeful that I can keep inspired and motivated, but just expect some time in between updates.

Anywho, if you made it this far, I hope you enjoy, and please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think! I’m a simple, vain creature who thrives on any and all feedback! Thank you for reading, you’re the literal best!

Xoxo,
Jess

Chapter 2: The First Step Is Always The Hardest

Notes:

***Trigger Warnings for: gun violence, blood.***

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“Another day, another bank robbery. Well, the masks sure aren’t getting any better.”

The woman behind the counter of the newsstand shakes out her newspaper, trying to move some air through the humid summer evening. Last televised crime of the season, the article states, where the thieves in cheap Halloween masks - old, leathery nuns, this time - blew out the back wall of the bank and absconded with nearly a million Sterndollars. But of course, the heroes gave chase, captured the bad guys, and cinched some last-minute points.

Cut and dry, really, same ol’ song and dance. She turns to the next page - maybe the Second League heroes got a cat down from a tree or something.

“Hot off the presses,” a man says, slapping down a box on the counter before her. She looks up at him over the edge of the newspaper, unimpressed.

“I’m not expecting any deliveries today. I just restocked hero cards this morning.”

“Oh, you’ll want these, believe me.”

The woman raises an eyebrow at the delivery man in askance - it’s too hot for cryptic nonsense - and he just grins, cracking open the box and angling it towards her. Stack after stack of pristine cards, freshly printed by the stench of the ink, featuring a black-clad figure on a deep purple background.

“And who the hell is she supposed to be?”

Twilight falls over Stern Bild, not even the muggy haze of midsummer dulling the rush of traffic and commerce. The sun hasn’t yet set completely, instead slowly sinking behind the tallest buildings, hiding behind Justice Tower and throwing half of the Medaille area into blessed shade. It’s by all accounts a normal evening, citizens rushing about to grab dinner or commute home, or to get to their jobs if they work later shifts. The City That Never Sleeps, some call it, or, depending on who you ask, The City That Never Gets A Chance To Breathe.

And there, right on queue, the giant screens all across the city spring to life, the HeroTV logo blazing bright against the coming night. People pause where they stand, all eyes turning to watch - after all, it is the first day of the new season. There are scattered mumblings, about favorite heroes ranking lower than they should, about over-hyped heroes hogging all the glory, undeservedly of course. No one is especially surprised that Blue Rose won this year, she’d been killing it in the ratings all season, but a lot of people were hoping this would be the year Barnaby won again. Third place is nothing to scoff at, but after his stellar debut season, and Wild Tiger’s promotion back to First League, it’s safe to say his fans expected more.

Still, the city is enraptured by the start of the broadcast. Cars slow and idle at traffic lights, families gather around their TV sets, and the patrons of the Hero Bar raise a toast towards the screens.

“It’s that time again, Stern Bild! We’re coming to you live from South Bronze, where a bus full of tourists has been hijacked by armed gunmen! What an exciting opening day of the new season!”

A HeroTV helicopter closes in on the bus in question, one of those gimmicky double-decker buses with open-air seating on the top level, and zooms in on the panicked faces of the bus passengers as they sit frozen at gunpoint. A mother folds herself over her small child, tears streaming down her face, and couples cling to each other whispering quiet prayers. One of the gunmen is half-visible through the wide windows of the tour bus, hefting an automatic rifle with the careless abandon of someone young and co*cky who thinks they’ve gotten off scot-free. The bus weaves in and out of traffic on the freeway, cars and commercial vehicles swerving to avoid them and leaving chaos in their wake.

“Our heroes have been mobilized and are in hot pursuit, but it’s anyone’s guess who will claim the points for being first on the scene. Why, here comes our reigning Queen of Heroes now, the ice queen herself, Blue Rose!”

Another camera at a different angle catches Blue Rose speeding down the freeway, all business. Where the hijacked bus is a swaying, clumsy beast, Blue Rose is graceful and calculated as she weaves her motorcycle through traffic, slipping as agilely around stalled cars as the proverbial cat chasing a mouse.

“And here comes the Wind Wizard himself!” A shot of Sky High racing along the skyline, angling slightly towards the camera to give his signature salute. “Sky High ranked fourth at the end of last season - I don’t think I’m the only one hoping he soars even higher this year!”

Somewhere north of the action, along a conveniently closed section of highway at the edge of Silver Stage, an armored transport vehicle rolls to a screeching stop. It’s sleek and black, like a high-speed bullet train, the undercarriage lit by pulsing purple lights. The door on the side hisses open, and a figure emerges, armored heels clicking against the asphalt as they sprint to the edge of the Stage and look down over the lowest level of the city.

“—come in, Qu— —ight — do you cop—?”

“I read you, but the signal is weak.” The young woman adjusts the sleek earpiece hidden in her right ear, but no luck, just a faint, high-pitched whine. A chopper flies overhead, probably the one she’s waiting on if the way it circles overhead is any indication. Nerves flutter in her gut as static crackles in her ear. Muffled words, then a loud pop.

“How about now?”

“Loud and clear, Miss Agnes,” the woman responds, tapping the side of the clear visor that wraps around her face over her eyes. The visor zeros in on the freeway below, sensors locking onto the bus as it barrels towards her, and gives her all kinds of statistics - how fast it’s going, its maximum speed and how much it weighs, even an educated guess on how quickly it’s burning fuel. Sparks fly from one of the front wheels, the tire shredding and wearing down to the metal, but the driver seems to know something about handling large commercial vehicles, correcting for the loss of the wheel and continuing to plow through anyone in his way. Judging by the speed, and the distance, it should pass under in…

“The bus is almost to you. Camera hot in five, four…”

"Í tán í epí tás,” the woman whispers to herself.

Either with it, or on it. An invocation of courage passed down from her ancestors, one she wishes her mother was here to deliver as she has so many times before. But she’s alone on the edge of the Stage, the edge of the known world, the wind rising up from the rivers and scouring her clean.

This is the new beginning.

It has to be.

“…one.”

“Woah, wait just a minute, folks - who is that? Is everyone at home seeing this?”

The broadcast cuts to the camera on the circling helicopter, a wide shot of the now-empty edge of Silver Stage where the woman stands perfectly posed, raising an eyebrow at the chopper like she hadn’t noticed it was there. The shot is perfect, she can tell by the bright rectangle in the lower right edge of her vision, one of the massive screens broadcasting to a populated intersection on Bronze Stage.

Oh, the breeze is perfect, a paid actor, ruffling the lush black velvet that hangs in a strip from each armored pauldron, billowing out like it’s stirred by a carefully-angled fan at a photoshoot. The setting sun glints off the metal of her headpiece, modeled like the front of a Grecian warrior’s helmet, its silver laurel leaves disappearing into her black hair where it’s pulled back into a long braid slung over her shoulder. Agnes must be loving this shot, the lone mystery hero teetering on the edge of the Stage where the wind itself is a force to be reckoned with.

But god, the cool air off the river does nothing to counteract wearing an all black bodysuit in high summer, even though her arms and upper thighs are bare, even if the sculpted armor protecting her torso does have some cooling tech built in. Also, of course, not helped by thigh-high black boots with barely-impractical heels, armored only to the knees, the rest a slick black spandex held up and connected to the bodysuit by a series of straps and metal rings.

The Daughter of Darkness, Queen of the Night, the execs at Gaia Medical dubbed her, but right now, she feels more like The Queen of Sweating To Death.

Oh well, as long as she looks good for the cameras.

She stands motionless, seeing herself as the whole city now sees her, smiling like she knows something they don’t, and remembers to flash her sponsor logos. MAYBELLINE STERN BILD on the flat armor over one forearm, tilted towards the camera as she puts one hand on her hip, and MEIJI on the other, crossed over her stomach as she reaches up to touch the Mercedes-Benz logo nestled in the dip in the armor over her breasts. It glows a deep purple, the same color as her lipstick.

“Perfect placement,” Agnes says in her ear. “Time this right and we might pull our highest opening day ratings since Barnaby premiered.”

Ah, right, the bus. The woman looks away from her unrecognizable visage plastered for the whole city to see - the whole world, maybe - and finds the bus as it hurtles down the freeway. She looks down, and the sensors in her visor calculate the distance to the tarmac below, stats scrolling by in rapid succession. She runs the numbers quickly in her head, then looks back at the chopper and winks coyly at the camera, a gloved finger to her lips.

Don’t tell the bad guys, the gesture says.

Simple geometry, she tells herself, and a move she’s done a thousand times since she was five. All under control.

Breathe in, breathe out.

The sun dips below the skyline, plunging the city into shadow, and she jumps.

A simple front-flip off the concrete guardrail, velvet streaming behind her, the wind in her ears even louder than her heartbeat. Distantly, she registers Mario reacting to her leap, imagines the shocked and excited gasps of the viewers, and hopes she looks more confident than she feels.

The bus approaches, the driver seemingly oblivious to the hero hurtling towards him, and the empty tarmac of the freeway rushes up to meet her.

Give me a good show, Agnes told her this afternoon.

Make them notice you, and you’ll have a home at Gaia for a long time, Mr. Vicks said through her transport’s comm as they raced across Silver Stage when the call came through.

Just be careful, her dad said, choking back tears as the last boarding call went out at the train station.

Don’t f*ck this up, she ordered to her own reflection in the bathroom mirror this morning.

Please let this work, she thinks to herself now.

At the last possible second, she activates her powers. The blue glow of the NEXT aura smothers the pale blue of her irises, and she feels the silken caress of her powers manifesting. Dark, velveteen shadow slinks up from her armored toes, cleaving to her like a second skin. It’s black as midnight, and as solid and transparent as a pane of glass, with flickers of deep purple marbling the surface in an ever-changing pattern that has always reminded her of the Aurora Borealis. She covers herself from head to toe with her power, armor on top of armor, the darkness wrapping around in an embrace not unlike a welcoming hug.

And there’s the bus, just as she calculated.

She slams into the open roof as the bus passes into the deepening shadow of Silver Stage, her armor softening the blow and the nano-metal hydraulics in her boots taking care of the rest. It’s still a shock to her system, the sudden loss of momentum, but she’s trained for this, over and over in the simulation chamber and leaping from the loft in her apartment.

She’s a hero now, damnit, a little fall is nothing.

She lands in a graceful crouch in the middle of the aisle, steadying herself on the nearest seat, and straightens up, tossing her braid over her shoulder.

“What the hell was that?”

“I dunno, man, just keep your eyes on the road!”

Each seat has a small screen embedded in the back of the headrest, and the woman watches several dozen copies of herself stride down the aisle to the stairs leading down into the enclosed first level of the bus. She catches movement out of the corner of her eye, a red car driving the wrong way down the now-deserted freeway, and the sensors on her visor tell her there’s something in the air above her - at this, she allows herself to smile, but only for a moment.

Work to do, people to prove wrong.

“Whoever this mystery hero is, she claims the honor of earning the first points of the season for being first on the scene! Not since Barnaby debuted four years ago has there been such an unexpected and thrilling season opener!”

Twenty-five points, not a fortune, but no small feat, either. And she’s just getting started.

Still enshrouded in her shadow armor, she slips down the spiral staircase and swings over the metal handrail, landing a kick square to the chest of the gunman closest to the stairs. He goes flying towards the back of the bus, his gun skittering away under one of the seats, and the already shaken passengers cry out in shock and fear. Two tourists in ‘I Love SB’ shirts, a man and a woman, leap up from the nearest seats and grab the gunman’s arms, holding him down and making sure he doesn't cause any more trouble.

Ugh, this won’t allow for any good shots - the windows of the bus are pretty tall and wrap all the way around, but the gunmen smashed out the overhead lights and most of the emergency lights as well, and it’s getting darker by the second outside. Couldn’t they have hijacked something a little more photogenic?

A motorcycle zips past the bus, and something collides with the right side with enough force that the driver has to correct with a string of profanity thrown in that general direction. Something else lands on the roof in a flash of pink, and damnit, she’s running out of time.

To his credit, the second gunman - she counts four in total, with the one crumpled in the back but not including the driver - looks hesitant to open fire in a bus full of innocent civilians, but she grabs his gun and knocks him out cold before he gets a chance to change his mind. The other two have no such qualms, and spray a hail of bullets indiscriminately. Glass shatters and people shriek, and the woman surges forward, shifting her power and banishing her armor, instead summoning an arced wall of shadow that she pushes in front of her like a riot shield. The bullets collide impotently against it, and she continues to advance towards the front of the bus.

“Get behind me,” she urges the people nearest to her, sparing one hand to momentarily gesture towards the back of the bus. They look up at her, dazed, before recognizing the glow of her eyes, and they scramble up from cowering between the seats and move behind her.

It’s slow going, both hands held in front of her, breaking into a sweat that has nothing to do with the heat. The gunmen came prepared, it seems, unloading several magazines into her shield between the two of them, but she holds fast, pushing forward until there’s barely a few feet between her and the front of the bus.

Glass shatters at the back of the bus, and the woman turns to look over her shoulder, hoping the gunman she kicked hasn’t overpowered the tourists. The hiss of a wire retracting tells her all she needs to know.

“Ah, sorry, folks!” Wild Tiger makes a placating gesture with both hands, a poor attempt at soothing the civilians, but the woman can’t help but smirk. They don’t call him the Crusher For Justice for nothing, after all.

In the few moments she’s distracted by the other hero, the driver, only a few feet from the woman, reaches into the waistband of his pants and pulls out a handgun. It’s only the wide arc of his arm that catches her eye, but not soon enough. The bullet grazes her shoulder, digging into the bare skin below her pauldron and above the upper hem of her glove.

It stings, no, it burns, but there’s too much adrenaline coursing through her to register the wound as anything more than an annoyance. This is why all heroes should have full-body suits, cleavage and gratuitous ass shots be damned. No time for that, though.

“Okay, that’s enough,” she says, shoving her shadow shield forward with one arm, boxing the two remaining gunmen down into the stairs, and yanking the key out of the ignition with the other. The bus judders and lurches, throwing the passengers around as it fishtails. Wild Tiger loses his balance and crashes down the aisle, and someone comes thudding down the stairs, metal shrieking on metal in a tangle of limbs.

“Late to the party, boys,” the woman says, back pressed to the windshield as the bus screeches to a final, rubber-burning stop in the middle of the deserted freeway. “I would’ve saved you a crook or two if I knew you were going to take this long.”

One of the gunmen wedged down on the stairs scrambles for his gun, but the woman kicks the lever next to the steering wheel and the doors open, spilling both of the men out onto the asphalt. The driver still has his handgun, but Wild Tiger lassos his wrist with his grappling hook, pulling the shot wide so it pierces the ceiling instead.

“End of the line, dirtbag,” the woman says, picking him up by the front of his jacket and tossing him out the open doors. He lands in a heap with the others, and the woman jumps off the bus after him, landing on the tips of her toes with a dancer’s flourish.

“Woah, and there she is, our mystery hero clad all in black!” A chopper swoops overhead, a spotlight landing on the woman as she kicks the gun away from one of the gunmen and drags him by the scruff of his jumpsuit to pile him on top of the driver, who’s decided the jig is up and is already folding his hands behind his head.

“Stay down, malakas,” she commands, planting her boot on his back, and he nods hurriedly.

“I ain’t moving lady, I’m a statue, I swear.”

“Good boy.”

All in all, a pretty clean sweep. Taking the key out was a risk - she didn’t have enough information on the exact model of this bus, whether this was one of the older ones that cut power to the wheels immediately, or one of the newer ones that slowed to a gradual stop, but the gamble paid off. Two out cold on the bus, two out here whimpering on the sidewalk, and—

“Hey, wait, I thought I counted five of these guys?” Wild Tiger steps off the bus, his partner right behind him.

“There were five, old man—“

But the woman is already off running, her visor scanning the surrounding area for any signs of the fifth gunman. The highway is empty of people but full of cars, abandoned when word of the chase hit the big screens - plenty of places to hide, and to ambush. Her arm throbs in reminder - day one and she’s already getting her costume bloody - but she ignores it with grit teeth. She jumps up on top of an SUV, its doors open and its emergency lights blinking, and tries to get eyes on the man.

“Stop right there, criminal!”

A targeted whirlwind explodes a good hundred yards down the freeway, and a shape goes flying. Sky High zips past, a trail of exhaust following, and dodges out of the path of gunfire levied at him.

“Hey man, the party bus is that-a way.” A streak of gold leaps from one of the abandoned cars, landing on all fours, and the gunman gets off a half dozen more shots in that general direction before he’s flattened into the tarmac like a marionette with all its strings cut. “Boom! Kiss my boots!”

“And a stunning capture from the Wandering Gravity Prince, Golden Ryan! He came in second last season, but at this rate, he’ll be the King of Heroes in no time at all!”

“Damn right I will!” Golden Ryan straightens up from his crouch and grabs the gunman by the scruff of his neck, hauling him upright and turning to face the woman. His helmet parts to reveal a handsome young man, more or less her age, wearing a sh*t-eating grin. “Well hello there, Tall, Dark, and Ass-Kicking.”

“Oh, can it, pretty boy,” the woman scoffs, rolling her eyes and leaping off the SUV to sprint back to the bus. She does her best to pretend the back of her neck isn’t burning in a blush.

“Oho, she thinks I’m pretty!”

Dragon Kid and Fire Emblem are escorting tourists off the bus, and Wild Tiger and Barnaby are each handing one of the gunmen off to the police. She still nets maximum points for rescuing hostages, and the points for capturing the driver, even though she swears the second guy from the stairs was hers when she put him into the pile with the driver. Oh well, she thinks, let Agnes sort out the tally - the most important thing is no one seems hurt beyond a few bumps and bruises, maybe a shallow cut or two from the shattered glass.

The two tourists who jumped on the guy she kicked to the back of the bus exit last, dragging the gunman with them. They’re pretty rugged, military or law enforcement if she had to guess by their builds and stoicism in the face of danger, and lucky them, ending up in the middle of a crime on what’s presumably their vacation. They nod at her knowingly, professional to professional, like they all don’t know it’s her first day on the job. She nods back.

“sh*t luck,” the man mumbles as he shoves the gunman forward, “you more than me, though, kid.”

The gunman really is a kid, barely eighteen if she had to guess, and she frowns, wondering with detached curiosity how someone so young could get so deep into a situation like this. She feels for him, but only insofar as she can for a guy who had an automatic rifle pressed to her chest not ten minutes ago. He shuffles awkwardly, cradling his arm against his chest, and oh, sh*t

“Get away from me, all of you!” he shouts, pointing a handgun directly at the woman’s head, close enough that she can see a bead of sweat dripping down his forehead from his hairline. She holds her hands up slowly, eyes darting from the gun to the position of his feet to the angle of his arms.

“Hey, kid! Woah, woah, woah,” Wild Tiger says, the nearest hero to them, with his hands held up in innocence and pleading. Barnaby, never far from his partner, edges in closer, but throws his hands up when the kid swings his gun and barks for him to stop.

There’s a solution here, one that doesn’t end with either of them dead or bleeding - sh*t, she’s already bleeding - and her career over before it begins. All the de-escalation training she sat through doesn't mean a damn thing if the kid can’t pick a target.

“Eyes on me, darling,” the woman says, craning her neck to get into the gunman’s line of view without moving her body. He flinches and points the gun at her again, bringing up his other arm to brace it as it shakes. Oh, this was so much easier in the training simulator, in the controlled environment of the practice runs staged by her company. Guns never look as deadly as they do when they’re pointed at you. “That’s it, just you and me.”

“Don’t come any closer!” He shouts, finger trembling on the trigger. He aims to the left, at someone behind her that she can’t see, and she doesn’t dare turn her head. “I’ll kill any one of you if you move, I swear it.”

Damnit, she’s losing him. There’s a crowd of civilians here, and not much to take cover behind. He hefted the assault rifle confidently when the odds were in his favor, but with the way he’s trembling, she has to wonder if he’s ever really held a gun before today.

There’s a camera zoomed in on her at this exact moment, she just knows it, tight enough that she can almost feel the eyes of the entire city on her, on this unknown and as-of-yet unproven hero. Anyone can punch someone out and take the keys out of a bus ignition, but she was hired to be a hero, not just dumb muscle. Too many people are counting on her for her to f*ck it up on day one.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Remember your persona, make the sponsors proud.

She draws in her eyebrows and pokes out her lower lip in a wounded pout.

“Now don’t going swinging your gun at other people, darling, you’re gonna make me think you don’t like me.” Another half step, a slight tilt of her head, the slightest flex of her fingers to keep his attention away from the fact that she’s getting closer to him. Like a magician with a magic trick, she thinks, keep their eyes away from what you’re really doing. Color rises in the kid’s cheeks, and he takes a shuddering breath in.

There, a crack in his big-man-with-the-gun facade, she can work with this. She’d been eighteen once, and remembers the rollercoaster of late adolescence - invincible one day and doing anything for someone to give you a scrap of affection the next. Knowing everything and understanding nothing, doing whatever you can to feel alive, consequences be damned.

“You’re a good man, aren’t you?” she says carefully. Bite your lip, another half-step forward. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“I’m a— I’m not —“ He wipes his eyes with a shaking hand. “Stay back!”

“This all went a little sideways, didn’t it, sweet thing?” She purrs. “Got in with the wrong crowd, believed them when they said it was a straight-forward job. Rob some tourists, pawn the stolen goods, home by bedtime?”

He blinks back tears, and - poor thing - his lower lip trembles a little when he sniffs. This is somebody’s son, she thinks absently, someone’s high school crush. Not a hardened criminal like she’d braced herself for, like every broadcast makes every perp out to be. She shakes her head a little - he’s pointing a gun at her, no time let her heart bleed all over the situation.

“You’re not a killer,” she says, taking that last step towards him. “You didn’t shoot me on the bus, and you won’t shoot me now.”

The woman reaches a hand out, slowly so as not to spook him, and wraps her fingers around the barrel of the gun.

“Put it down.”

“I — I can’t —“

“Sure you can, it’s easy. No mess, no fuss, just let it go.”

His grip slackens, and oh god, she did it, she actually de-escalated—

Something changes in the kid’s eyes as she pulls on the barrel of the gun, and there’s only a split second to react. She pushes upwards as he pulls the trigger, the shot ringing hollow in the silence and drawing shrieks from the civilians somewhere behind her. Both Barnaby and Wild Tiger leap forward, but she knees the kid in the gut, instinctual, and prises the gun from his vice-like grip.

“Wrong choice, kid,” she says, shoving him to the ground face-first and digging her knee into his back to keep him down. Ejecting the clip from the gun, she tosses them both aside and sighs theatrically. “I really thought we had something, just then.”

He’s easy to haul up, a sobbing, blubbering mess, and the cops come forward to take him.

“All yours, boys,” she says, waving dismissively to Barnaby and Wild Tiger and turning away from them to face the crowd of civilians huddled together and just now peeking out from behind the police barricade. The shot went skyward, thank god, and no one looks any worse for the wear. There’s a long moment of silence where the civilians regard her with everything from fear to confusion to awe.

And then someone starts clapping.

The cheers rise up, beginning from the tourists and spreading to the cops and EMTs. It takes a moment to register…they’re cheering for her. She did it. Stopped the bus, handled the criminals, and no one got seriously hurt.

As if to remind her, her arm throbs, and she looks down at the wound. Too much blood to tell for sure how bad it is, but she’s alive and mostly unscathed and…

And maybe she is cut out to be a hero after all.

“Well done, hero” Agnes says in her ear, and childlike elation fills her in a tingling rush, because she actually f*cking did it.

A chopper circles low, probably delivering Mario for a post-crime interview, and she looks up from her wound to the camera and shrugs, rolling her eyes to mean, ‘Well, what can you do?’. Like she didn’t just get shot.

But she smiles wide, raising her arms like a gymnast that just stuck a tricky landing, and soaks in the cheers and applause.

“That was incredible!” A familiar voice, and she half-turns, catching a glimpse of Sky High as he lands a few yards from her. He’s grinning wide under that helmet, she can tell by the softness at the edge of his words, and she laughs to herself when she sees his arms twitch like he wants to reach out and hug her but catches himself at the last moment.

“I know,” she says, winking at him.

“And that’s that, ladies and gentlemen! The first crime of the new hero season is officially over! What a wild ride! What a premier!”

Mario rushes over, a cameraman on his heels, and he thrusts the microphone towards her.

“And you, what an entrance! That fall must have been — I, I don’t even know how high! My heart is still pounding!”

The cameraman swings around, framing her and Mario against the backdrop of the grateful tourists who certainly won’t forget this vacation anytime soon. In the background, Origami Cyclone strikes a modest pose in the margins of the shot, present but unobtrusive.

“But enough about me. After that breathtaking display, I know everyone here and watching at home is dying to know - just who are you?”

The woman shifts into her practiced pose - sponsors showing, chin up, chest out, eyes locked dead center of the camera lens - and summons a swirling vortex of shadow around her raised arm.

Breathe in, breathe out.

“My name is Queen Midnight, and I’ve come to purge this city of evil.”

It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn - Pennumbra (manatapped) (1) It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn - Pennumbra (manatapped) (2) It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn - Pennumbra (manatapped) (3)

Art by the amazing @moonfist! (Seriously, go commission them on Fiverr, they're awesome!)

Notes:

Í tán í epí tás - "Either [with] it [your shield], or on it."
Meaning "either you will win the battle, or you will die and then be carried back home on your shield; but you will not throw your shield away to flee."
It was said by Spartan mothers to their sons before they went out to battle to remind them of their bravery and duty to Sparta and Greece.
(From Wikipedia)

‘Malakas’ is a Greek slang term that can mean anything from ‘idiot’ to ‘asshole’.

--

Not me literally forgetting Rock Bison existed until 2 seconds before posting this ^^; I was too busy simping for Blue Rose, tbh.

Anywho, excited to get this going!

Chapter 3: The Only Way Out Is Through

Notes:

***Trigger Warnings for: very brief mentions of suicidal ideation.***

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“…and clear.” Agnes slices her hand through the air, a conductor silencing her orchestra, and the blinding lights dim all at once. “That’s a wrap, people, no more questions.”

The assembled reporters voice various grievances amongst themselves, but under Agnes’ imperious stare and those of the advancing security guards, the crowd allows themselves to be escorted from the room. A post-crime press conference, a formal introduction for Queen Midnight with a demonstration of her powers, and a short interview for the late news shows - really, they should all be satisfied by now, but the last few stragglers shout questions as they’re shooed out with the doors shut firmly behind them.

Theadora lets slip a sigh of relief, allowing her body to relax from the careful pose she’s been holding throughout the broadcast. Her arm aches, still mostly numb from whatever the EMTs injected before giving her fourteen stitches on her left bicep where the bullet seared through skin, and she places a careful hand over the bandages there. Black gauze, specially-made by Gaia Medical for their first-ever hero - heaven forbid the Queen of the Night be caught on-camera wearing white of all things.

“Well, young lady, safe to say you exceeded all our expectations.”

Theadora turns to the man beside her with her best smile - her boss, the man who took a chance on her and inexplicably saw more than a burnt-out, desperate woman with a NEXT power that has only ever earned her harsh whisperings behind hands. He seems kind enough - for someone so high up on the corporate ladder, anyway - an average-sized man somewhere in his sixties with steel gray hair and even steelier eyes.

“Thank you, Mr. Vicks, sir. I’m glad I can do your company proud.”

He smiles, putting a hand on her armored pauldron, patting it paternally. The contact makes her uncomfortable, but she swallows it down and continues to hold her smile, even if her lips do tense up at the corners.

“Word from the engineering department is that everyone is pleased with your armor’s performance, as far as preliminary numbers go. I’ll admit, that jump of yours made me think for a second we’d already be looking for a new hero!” He laughs, a warm sound with a bit of cigar aficionado’s rasp. Theadora allows herself a small laugh, now that the cameras are off and the press conference showcasing her hero persona is over. It goes unsaid between them that she thought the same thing mid-drop. “But we picked a winner, and those boots you designed are quite something. Keep feeding the team data like that and soon we’ll be ready to patent your technology - and then we won’t have to pay those misers over at Apollon for licensing their designs. A happy day that will be - champagne on me, and I expect you to hold me to that.”

“Will do, sir,” Theadora replies, the warmth of pride tingling in her chest. “And thank you again for allowing me to get hands-on in the business of creating my costume. It means a lot to me that Gaia sees me as a hero and an engineer.”

“We’d be fools not to, my dear. After all—“ he glances down at her chest, to the glowing Mercedes-Benz logo between her breasts “— sniping such a gifted young mechatronic engineer from Mercedes is just good business.”

“High praise, sir.” She ducks her head in a respectful bow, if only to hide the heat burning in her cheeks. “I won’t let you or the company down.”

“Ah, I’m not the least bit worried. Stocks are up three percent, and it’s only been an hour! Just keep wowing the crowd and catching those crooks, and the accolades will follow.” Mr. Vicks gives a last conciliatory pat on her shoulder as his assistant comes up behind him and whispers something in his ear. Nodding to him, he says, “I’ll see you upstairs. Your new assistant is waiting in your transport - be good and listen to her, my dear, she’s your lifeline for events like this.”

“I will, sir,” she replies, rankling a bit at his tone, but she dutifully holds her smile until he’s made his way out of the room.

Alone at last, Theadora lets out a heavy breath through slack lips, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Even in the air-conditioned press room, she’s still sweltering in her costume, and as she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, a jolt of pain shoots up her right leg.

Skata,” she hisses under her breath, limping over to the nearest chair set out on the small stage of the press room. Her heel is definitely bruised from that landing, and it smarts. It’s her own fault, really. Agnes wanted to stage her entrance from a much lower overpass, midway between Silver and Bronze Stage, but she insisted that her boots - her boots, that took her months to develop between training and meetings with Gaia’s new Hero Department and panic attacks on the floor of her shower - combined with her shadow armor would protect her.

And they did, mostly.

She never jumped from such a great height during the R&D phase, with or without her armor, so to know that she came away with only a superficial injury starts that humming warmth in her chest. At the time, it felt like overstepping her bounds to ask that her hero contract with Gaia include the right and responsibility of creating and maintaining the technology in her costume - and awkwardly handing over her most prized possessions, her concept sketchbooks, to the department heads in her second-round interview - but it paid off. She’s a certified, Justice Bureau-approved hero, yes, but she can also rest on the laurels that she now has concrete proof that her inventions actually work.

But the bruise still f*cking hurts.

How do the heroes do this, she wonders, flexing her ankle to make sure nothing seems more seriously damaged. She’s seen all of the veteran heroes, at one point or another, thrown into buildings or punched so hard they should have holes through their guts, but they’re still out there, day after day. Wild Tiger got shot by a laser gun for god’s sake, and he still got up and suckerpunched Albert Maverick on live TV. Is it uncanny resilience, she wonders, or just acting? Will she be able to do that, day in and day out?

“Miss Forsythe,” comes a languid, velveteen voice from her left. She moves to stand, but the man holds out a hand to stay her movement. “Don’t stand on my account, please. A day of posturing has been taxing enough, I’m sure.”

“Director Petrov,” Theadora says, nodding in deference to the man responsible for approving her hero credentials. He’s an interesting man, soft-spoken but with the keen eyes of someone who’s seen enough to know how to cut to the heart of things - a useful trait, for a judge. She wonders briefly if his hair is naturally so pale, or if he colors it that way - and either way, unkind as it is, she can understand why she’s caught whispers here and there about him secretly being a vampire. “I hope you’re not here to tell me you’re having second thoughts about granting me my hero qualifications.”

A small, crooked smile touches his lips, and his eyes narrow just a fraction - assessing, sizing her up - before he speaks. He doesn’t show any teeth, though, so she can’t confirm whether or not he has fangs.

“You’ve proven yourself capable in the field, and we at the Justice Bureau look forward to your efforts to, as you said, purge the evil from this city.”

Theadora laughs quietly at the ridiculous line her marketing team chose for her first on-camera statement. If nine other heroes combined can’t purge the city, she doubts she has much of a chance.

“I’m going to give it my all, sir, I can promise you that. I’ll prove that your faith in me and my abilities isn’t misplaced.”

His pale gaze sharpens further, and Theadora feels for a moment like a butterfly trapped under glass.

“That remains to be seen, but I have high hopes.”

With that, he’s gone as quickly as he appeared, leaving her alone again. She hasn’t met many judges in her lifetime, but she’s certain that Yuri Petrov is a breed apart.

“Well, well, you gave me quite the show tonight, Queen Midnight.”

Agnes ascends the two small stairs onto the stage, stilettos clicking on the linoleum, with her dutiful cameraman right behind her. Theadora stands, clenching her teeth as she puts weight on her heel, and gives her best imitation of a confident smile.

“I timed the jump right, at least,” Theadora says, unsure what to do with the the other woman’s statement. She’d only caught the first moments of her appearance on the big screens, the rest she remembers only in periphery. She’ll have to wait until she gets a chance to review the footage in its entirety before she can decide if the praise is earned.

“Oh, you more than timed it right. Darkness falling over Bronze Stage just as the Queen of the Night leaps from impossible heights? Cinematic gold. You gave me my highest debut ratings since Barnaby premiered, by a whole percentage point.” Agnes has fire in her eyes, passion, and Theodora can’t help but admire the woman for how much of herself she puts into her work. Something to aspire to, certainly. “We need some B-roll footage for the re-broadcasts, so let’s head up to the roof before you get changed for the party. The moon isn’t full, so it won’t frame as dramatically as I’d like, but what can you do?”

Agnes waves a dismissive hand, like the moon not bending to her directorial whims is a familiar inconvenience, and Theadora smiles as she follows her. They exchange idle small talk as they wind through the labyrinthine corridors of Justice Tower - is your earpiece working still? I like your skirt, where did you get it? Does your chest armor chafe or does it just look like a medieval torture device? - until they’re all the way up on the top balcony situated at the waist of the Goddess of Justice.

“Good, just like that. Turn a little this way, we need to showcase your full costume. Okay, now, hands on your hips.”

Theadora acquiesces to each small direction, stares out at the city with eyes full of determination, tilts so her chest is more prominent, crosses one ankle behind the other with a hand on her hip, smooths a hand down her braid, whatever Agnes asks of her. It’s a little fun, if she’s being honest with herself, to pretend she’s this fearless, mysterious woman - and it’s definitely a nice break from being shot at. A helicopter flies past, not one from HeroTV, and Agnes sighs loudly and mutters something about a ruined shot.

“What about the railing?” the cameraman, Cain, asks, gesturing to the metal guardrail and the thin span of concrete beyond it. “Kind of a gargoyle thing, watching the city, ready to jump down at any moment?”

Agnes and Theadora eye the edge of the balcony, then look to each other.

“Is that something you’re comfortable with?” Agnes asks, folding her arms over her chest. “It would make for a great shot, but only if you’re willing. It’s a long way down.”

Theadora steps over to the guard rail and peers down, looking for the nearest landing spot. Her visor provides the figures on the curved section of roof that’s the closest to the balcony, and - her lucky day - not even half the drop she already survived today. The shot would look amazing, Cain is right, and isn’t that her whole hero persona? The Daughter of Darkness, defender in the shadows, ready to purge the evil from the city from on high. Fearless, allegedly.

“It’s not too far,” she says with a shrug, and flashes her now-trademark Queen Midnight smirk. “I can manage it, for the ratings.”

Agnes raises an eyebrow, impressed or intrigued, and gives a small nod of approval.

“Just be careful,” she says as Theadora climbs over the railing and side-shuffles over to a small decorative outcropping. “I’m not interested in the short-term ratings or the long-term red tape of having to arrange a hero memorial special.”

“Loud and clear, ma’am.” Theadora walks carefully out onto the cantilever, arms out to either side for balance.

“You’re sure about this?”

Does Agnes Joubert, who bent Jake Martinez to her whim, who orchestrated the live downfall of Albert Maverick, sound nervous? It’s oddly touching, even though it’s likely more about the PR trainwreck of a hero injured for B-roll footage than actual sentimental concern.

“I have to get some use out of the gymnastics classes I begged my mitera to pay for,” she calls over her shoulder. Just the balance beam, she tells herself, kid stuff. Just like in class, only a few feet to the floor, not hundreds to the busy intersection below…

She kneels, reaching up to free one of her long velvet shoulder strips from where it’s tangled around one of the armored points on her pauldron, and settles into a predator’s crouch. A panther in a tree, a spider in her web. The city looks so different from this height, less a towering maze and more a complex series of patterns, the chaos ordered from so high up and far away. It would be breathtaking, surely, if there was anything more than open air between her and a swift, screaming death.

“That should do it,” Agnes says after what must be the longest two minutes of Theadora’s life. There’s a fine line, it seems, between voluntarily jumping from a great height, and the risk of accidentally committing yourself to an obituary. She straightens up slowly and tiptoes back to the balcony, relief enveloping her like a warm blanket once she’s back on the safe side of the guardrail. She needs more practice with heights, she tells herself, so she doesn’t melt into an anxious puddle next time she’s up on a roof while the cameras are rolling. Agnes and Cain are bent over the camera’s playback screen, and Agnes is nodding to herself with a small, self-satisfied smile.

“Good?” Theadora asks, swiping a bead of nervous perspiration from her cupid’s bow with the tip of her tongue.

“Very good. Remind me to send your mére some flowers for those gymnastics classes.” A small smile, a token of thanks from one professional to another. “That’s all we need from you alone, we’ll get the rest at the party with the others. Get changed, grab a drink, and rub elbows with the execs. Your job doesn’t end once the broadcast is over, remember that. And then ice that heel and get some rest - I need you fresh for whatever comes next.”

“I will, ma’am.”

With that, she’s effectively dismissed, and she feels all the tension unwind as Agnes and Cain disappear from the balcony, already planning edits and commentary. Now that the cameras are gone and she’s all alone with the expanse of Stern Bild before her, Theadora allows herself to take in her first full breath since her comm bracelet chimed and she had to become Queen Midnight, ready or not.

Yeah, maybe she is cut out to be a hero, after all. She’s never been particularly timid - she was a theater kid, for god’s sake, and it certainly helps her pretend for all the world that she knows what she’s doing - but up until the moment her transport door opened, she was simultaneously convinced she was going to nail it and that she was going to be the worst hero the city has ever seen. Math, easy, robots and welding and building things with her own two hands, second nature, but the confidence to go on live television in front of twenty-two million people to fight criminals and look good doing it? Never in her wildest dreams could she imagine ending up here.

In the slow, quiet way that these things often creep up, she feels in her chest, beneath her hammering heart, a familiar mix of grief and pride. That same bittersweet co*cktail that often rises in the back of her throat, lingering on her tongue, of futures planned and stolen. Being back in this city feels strange against her skin, like she’s wearing someone else’s clothes, living someone else’s life. She swore she’d never set foot in Stern Bild again, this city that birthed her and devoured her whole, gave her the highest of highs and the very deepest of lows, the place where she lived and died and then abandoned, somewhere between the two.

“You weren’t supposed to live this long,” she murmurs to no one but the wind, a gloved hand curled over her heart. “But you did.”

And then the moment is gone, swallowed by a distant siren and the buzz of traffic and life all around, and Theadora blinks, coming back into herself. She fishes her cellphone from the hidden pocket on one of her thigh-high boots and flips it open, spinning around and angling the camera to catch the skyline behind her. She gives the camera her most enthusiastic thumbs-up and snaps the picture, then spends a moment texting it to the group chat at the top of her messages with the caption “still kickin <3” before stowing it back in her boot pocket.

“Still alive,” she tells herself, bouncing up and down on her toes to get her blood flowing. This restlessness, the constant motion, it’s how she reminds herself she survived all those nights she believed it would be better if she never woke up. Not much space to move up here, though, and not much time before she’s due at the season premier party. But the night air off the rivers is so crisp, and there’s so many people in the building, and so many hallways and elevators and hassle. And Mr. Vicks had encouraged her to keep feeding data to her tech team.

Yes, the distance to the nearest section of roof is less than half the drop between stages, her visor confirms for the second time, and beyond that, the ledges come closer together. And there’s her company transport, idling all the way down in the staff parking area, just waiting for its hero.

Shame there’s no cameras here for this, she thinks, and vaults over the guardrail.

It’s not as scary the second time - though she doubts it will ever be completely devoid of fear, falling hundreds of feet with no safety net - and it’s decidedly easier too, aiming for a huge, stationary target instead of a comparatively small moving bus. She activates her powers, shielding herself from toes to waist, and welcomes the cool embrace of her shadow. The impact rattles her less now that she’s prepared for it, and though a spike of pain shoots up from her bruised heel, it’s a good pain, an honest one. She’s earned the right to jump off of buildings in boots she designed, built, and tested, bolstered by the powers she never asked for. This is all hers, she thinks as she springs up from her landing crouch and sprints towards the next jump.

A half dozen smaller leaps and she’s on the ground, scaring the living daylights out of some poor security guard leaning against the building on a smoke break. There are a few passersby on the sidewalk who gasp and exclaim, and Theadora straightens up and quirks her shoulder forward with a little pout.

“Sorry to scare you, darling,” she says with a coy wink to the security guard who, for some reason, is sputtering out an apology to her.

“Queen Midnight, can we get a selfie with you?” It’s a young couple, late teens if she had to guess, and the girls unclasp hands to dig in purse and pocket to pull out their phones.

“Of course,” Theadora purrs, sidling in between them. “Like this, sweet things, our little secret.”

She puts a gloved finger to her lips, pushing forward the opposite shoulder to accentuate her cleavage. This is her signature pose, ‘Midnight Secret’, a name so ridiculous she has to wonder if it’s the same marketing exec who came up with Blue Rose’s ‘Cutie Escape’. But the girls seem dazzled, mimicking the pose on either side of her and holding up their phones, snapping a number of identical selfies to sort through later.

“Now you girls be safe,” she says once the phones are stowed, a hand on each of their shoulders. “You never know what’s hiding in the dark - besides me, of course.”

On-brand with the Queen of the Night shtick, but the girls nod solemnly, already old enough to know the truth of the statement.

“I hope your arm feels better!” One of the girls says, and her girlfriend nods adamantly.

“Oh, just a little scratch. I’m a big girl, I eat boys like that for breakfast.” She winks conspiratorially. “Now go on, enjoy your night.”

The couple departs with a giddy, awestruck, “Yes ma’am!”

Theadora smiles, pleased with herself. Not bad for her first in-the-wild fan encounter. The security guard is fumbling with shaking hands to light another cigarette, and she smiles at him as she passes, a little finger-wagging wave aimed in his direction.

“Have a good night, Miss Midnight,” he chokes out, face bright red, and she pauses, looking down at him imperiously where he’s practically being held up by the wall.

“That’s ‘Your Majesty’, to you, pet,” she says, shaking a finger at him with a hand on her hip. “And you, too.”

Another wink, braid tossed over her shoulder, and she’s sauntering away into the obscuring shadow around the corner of Justice Tower. God, she’s never winked as much in her entire life as she has today alone, but her coaches at Gaia insist it’s a signature part of her persona. Calling a grown man and complete stranger ‘pet’ and demanding to be called ‘Your Majesty’ also feels distinctly wrong, but again, all part of that domineering, charismatic facade that makes up half her day job now. She makes a mental note to talk to Blue Rose at some point about how she manages to stay sane under the demands of catering to the male gaze.

Her transport is waiting for her, thankfully out of sight of street traffic, and Theadora waves to the driver as she approaches. The door hisses open, and she steps into blessed air conditioning with a heaved sigh of relief. This front portion of the transport is a veritable living room - complete with plush black velvet sofas, deep purple shag carpet and decadent silver chandeliers - and true to Mr. Vicks’ word, there’s a woman about Theadora’s age waiting for her, glancing up from her tablet as she enters.

“You absolutely nailed it tonight,” she exclaims, jumping up from the sofa and clasping her hands in front of her chest. She’s rather petite in stature, her curvy figure flattered by a smart black pantsuit, and her strawberry-blonde curls are pulled up into a functional, no-nonsense bun with a pen stuck through it like a TV librarian. Her hazel eyes are bright behind her cat-eye glasses, and she beams a grin at Theadora, revealing the dimples in her apple cheeks. Holding out a hand enthusiastically, she says, “My name is Anika Meisner, and I’ve been assigned as your personal assistant and public relations manager. It’s an honor to finally meet you, Miss Forsythe.”

“No, it’s good to meet you, Anika, really,” Theadora says, taking the woman’s hand in both of hers. “I’m an engineer, not a celebrity. I need all the help I can get.”

“Oh, don’t be silly! I was watching the press conference from here, and you did a great job all on your own.” She purses her lips in a show of what looks to be self-consciousness. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to coach you through it beforehand, but I had a bit of a situation, so Mr. Vicks said I should relax down here and not push myself too hard.”

Anika pats her thigh, and Theadora startles, having completely missed the dog where it was laying quietly beside the couch. It’s a large German Shepherd fitted with a vest, trotting dutifully to sit beside Anika, and it looks calmly up at Theadora with its head co*cked to one side.

“This is Thunder, my service dog. He comes with me wherever I go and keeps an eye on me.”

“Ah, a working man.” Theadora says, putting two fingers to her brow in a very Barnaby-esque salute. “Sir.”

Anika laughs, giving Thunder a scratch behind the ear.

“I hope you don’t mind that he tags along when we’re working together.”

“No, not at all. I’m glad you have him to help with whatever you have going on. Are you good right now, though? Do you need anything?”

“Oh, I’m fine, just a blood sugar drop.” Anika waves the notion away. “I did what I needed to, and I’m ready to get going. Tonight is your big night, after all!”

The woman wastes no time, retrieving her tablet and becoming all business.

“Your dress and shoes are in the changing area, and the stylist sent a few options for jewelry, depending on what you’re feeling tonight. I pulled a few strings to get you an extra five minutes to shower because I know you’ve been dying in that getup they have you wearing, and we can’t have you showing up feeling gross. I brought three different kinds of dry shampoo because I didn’t know your preferred brand, and Maybelline sent over an entire box of product to keep on-hand in here so you can touch up whatever you need to.” She barely takes a breath before continuing. “You’ll be expected to make a statement after Mr. Vicks introduces you, but don’t worry, it’s not a full speech. Just a few lines, and I wrote down a few ideas that we can go over while you’re getting ready. They want you to mingle with the sponsors and the other heroes, but don’t take it too seriously. A few of the heroes barely stay past when they’re required to, and after the day you had…I’m going too fast, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re golden, I just…” Theadora trails off, trying to articulate the not-quite-panic, not-quite-excitement bubbling up under her skin. She blinks away the deer-in-the-headlights sheen from her eyes and takes a deep breath.

“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” Anika asks, hugging her tablet to her chest with a knowing look. “It’s a lot just to manage - not that I’m complaining, of course! - so I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at the center of it, on top of getting shot at, and on your first day, too.”

“There is that,” Theadora says with a snort, shaking her head and putting a hand over her bandages. “I’m fine, really. It’s just a lot of new experiences.”

Anika nods sympathetically, tapping something on her tablet as it dings.

“Start with the shower, and then we’ll deal with the rest as it comes. Sound doable?”

“Yeah, I can manage that.”

She moves towards the door at the back of the lounge space, silently grateful to whoever thought to include a shower in her transport. She could just as easily use the real showers in the training area, but that runs the risk of running into people, and if she only has five minutes…

“Oh, and Theadora?” Anika says, taking a seat on one of the sofas again, crossing one leg over the other. “I’m really excited to be working with you.”

“Please, call me Teddy. And I’m glad to have you here, too, Anika.”

The other woman’s beaming smile follows Theadora into the changing area, and she slumps back against the door as it hisses closed. The last thing she wants to do after the day she’s had is rub elbows with people who probably just throw money into the marble fireplaces on their yachts instead of getting up to adjust the thermostat, but she knew she would have to schmooze a certain amount when she signed her contract. What she’d really like to do is take a proper, long shower, have a glass of wine and something greasy to eat, and then pass out, but she’s a hero now, and heroes are beholden to their sponsors first and foremost.

Hell, another armed robbery doesn’t sound so bad in comparison, she thinks as she begins to divest herself of her costume. She purposely built easy-release mechanisms into all of her armor, just a press of a well-concealed button and her chestplate, boots, and bracers all release with a soft pneumatic hiss. The pauldrons are a little more work but easy enough, and then comes the immense and laborious hassle of getting out of the cloth parts of her costume. It’s easier to get on, with adrenaline coursing and focus-steadied fingers, but post-crime, post-interviews, it’s a chore. All the straps and buckles weren’t her idea - she’s still firmly in the camp of ‘every hero of every gender should wear a full suit that covers everything, thank you very much’ - but at the end of the day, she only has so much control over what she wears beyond what the company allows her to design in terms of armor.

There’s not enough time to wash her hair, so she takes off her headpiece and visor and wraps her long braid up into a towel before unwinding her bandages and gingerly sticking a waterproof cover over her stitches. The line cut by the bullet is angry and red, and she purposefully avoids looking at it as she steps under the blessedly cool stream of water to begin sloughing off the sweat and grime of the day.

Anika said she only had five minutes, so, loath as she is to leave the comforting hum of the shower, Theadora dries herself off, cleans up her wound as best she can with the cabinet full of Gaia-branded medical supplies, and re-bandages her arm before slipping into the black silk robe hung on the back of the door. Anika knocks a moment later, and she calls for her to come in.

“Better? You look a little less worse for wear,” she says, unhooking the plastic garment bag from a peg on the wall and bringing it over to the small vanity Theadora takes a seat at.

“Better,” Theadora agrees, though she doesn’t go into the details on just how sparse the margin is. Her leg bounces as she sprays her whole face with makeup remover spray, wiping away every last trace before starting all over again. Thunder comes and lays down beside her, resting his snout across her feet while keeping his eyes on his owner, and it’s only that warm weight that keeps her from bouncing her leg as she works on her makeup. There’s restless energy in every cell of her body, begging to be released, and she thinks she might stop by the training area and hop on one of the treadmills after she’s able to slip away from the party.

It’s not that she’s especially socially inept - you don’t get through undergrad and postgrad without developing some people skills, let alone the ensuing slew of interviews for prestigious positions - but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or not completely nerve-wracking. Not only will her boss and several of her other sponsors be there, but so will the CEOs and sponsors of every other hero, as well as execs from the OBC. Not to mention the heroes themselves, world-famous and world-renowned, who she’s been watching on TV for a not-insignificant portion of her life. They’re proper celebrities, and she’s just some girl from, well, nowhere near as glamorous.

She does have a man on the inside, though, and it soothes her nerves a bit knowing that he’ll be there to help her navigate the waters of hero life.

They go over Anika’s ideas for her statement as she continues to do her makeup, and Anika steps behind her to start fixing her hair. Theadora absently thinks that Gaia must be paying the woman a small fortune for all of the tasks she's somehow responsible for, but Anika seems to enjoy her work as she dry shampoos away the sweat and tames flyaways.

“Okay, we can go long chains to accentuate the neckline of your dress, or a studded choker to play up the…” She trails off, cheeks pinking as she brings over a jewelry case and sets it on the vanity.

“Dommy mommy vibes?” Theadora offers, barely managing to keep her voice even, but unable to hide the sardonic smirk behind the dark purple lip gloss she applies. That’s the term the focus group ascribed to her costume in the initial feedback stages, something she supposes she takes as a compliment, even if it’s not exactly true to her nature.

“Oh god, I didn’t want to be the one to say it.” Anika laughs and Theadora joins in, grateful for the moment of levity. For a corporate assistant, the woman seems pretty down-to-earth, if not downright apologetic for being party to enforcing the marketing plan for her hero persona.

“Let’s see the dress, then.”

And what a dress it is.

Floor-length black velvet with thigh-high slits on both sides and a rigid corset top with a deep V-wire neckline that is definitely going to need fashion tape to stay up properly. It’s gorgeous, certainly, and Theadora runs her fingertips along the fine fabric, hoping she can do the dress justice.

They end up going with the choker, and Anika steps out of the room for a moment to allow Theadora to tape on her strapless bra and shimmy halfway into the dress. It takes both of them to get her zipped up, and she brushes a dusting of silver shimmer over her shoved-up cleavage and collarbones for a little extra flair. Then it’s time to put her headpiece back on, this time sans the visor, and to slip on the lethal black stilettos before completing the ensemble with silver earcuffs that drip with long, fine chains. Anika hands her a small designer clutch that perfectly compliments her dress, and she slips her phone and her lip gloss inside.

“Oh, wow,” she murmurs once she sees herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror along the far wall. “I clean up pretty good, huh?”

“I love your confidence,” Anika says with a grin, tucking one last stray slip of hair into place and fixing it there with hairspray. “You look deadly, Teddy.”

“Ah, that’s what they’re paying me for, right?” she replies, taking a deep breath to center herself. Now that Thunder isn’t keeping her feet still, she bounces up on her toes again, a habit she’s had since she was little and has never successfully shaken. Yeah, she’s definitely going for an uphill treadmill session once this is all over.

“You’re going to do fine. I’ll be there the whole time, and all you have to do is plead with your eyes and I’ll swoop in and get you out of conversations.”

“Don’t tempt me, or I’ll take you up on that.”

“Please do. I’m in a group chat with all the other heroes’ PAs and we have a whole list of segues pinned for just such occasions. You’re not the only one who hates these corporate shindigs.”

“I wouldn’t say I hate them,” Theadora protests as Anika ushers her from the changing area out into the lounge.

“You will,” she replies with a chuckle.

“Good luck, Miss Midnight,” her driver says over the transport’s intercoms. “I gotta get your suit back to base so they can run tests on it, but I can swing back to take you home after the party if you want.”

“No, you’ve done so much already, getting me to my debut on time. Go enjoy your night,” Theadora says to the hidden mics around the space.

“Don’t gotta tell me twice,” he replies with a smile softening his words.

Thunder following after them, they exit the transport, and it rumbles to life and pulls out of the parking lot, leaving them alone in the muggy night for a moment before a sleek limousine drives up. The driver gets out and opens the door, gesturing expectantly to Theadora with a tip of his hat and an uttered, “Ma’am.”

“We’re right next to the building. Twenty steps, max,” Theadora protests, looking to Anika in question.

“The paparazzi will be out front expecting pictures,” the other woman says with a one-armed shrug that says she thinks it’s ridiculous too. “You just have to get out, strike a few poses, and then you’re out of the viper’s den. The only cameras allowed inside the event itself are the ones Ms. Joubert controls.”

Without asking further questions - what a waste of money and time, she thinks to herself - Theadora slides into the limo and once again conjures up Queen Midnight. Anika sits next to her, typing on her tablet as the limo starts moving and makes the two minute trip around the block. There are a lot of paparazzi out in front of Justice Tower that hadn’t been there a half hour ago when she jumped down from the roof, all of them clamoring for the best position to claim the honor of taking the first photos of her.

They’re just cameras, she tells herself. She looks hot, and they’re more scared of her than she is of them. Like hungry, wild animals, she thinks with a grim set to her lips as the limo rolls to a stop.

Breathe in, breathe out.

“You’ve got this,” Anika says, a warm hand on her shoulder for just a moment, offering a gentle squeeze as the driver opens the door for Theadora.

One long bare leg, one high-high heel after the other, she steps out into the sea of people and the blinding flashes of a hundred cameras. She runs through the poses she’s practiced in her bathroom mirror for weeks now - hands on her hips, a leg pushed forward through the slit in her dress, chin held high. Midnight Secret in a few different directions, a wink or two, and then Anika ushers her along the sidewalk and into the building, where the doors close with a heavy jolt and it’s suddenly blessedly silent. To his credit, Thunder doesn’t so much as sniff at any of the paparazzi, just follows his owner along like she’s the only human in the world.

That’s the level of unbothered Theadora aspires to be.

“Nailed it,” Anika says, pulling open the interior door and holding it open for her. At this time of night, the main lobby of Justice Tower is mostly empty save for the front desk staff and the security placed throughout the large space. Theadora winks at the security guard she scared earlier, and he goes crimson up to the ears and nods hurriedly as they pass.

The nerves return in the silence of the elevator, and she bounces up on her toes, if only to stop herself from chewing on her lip and ruining the gloss there. A pleasant robotic voice counts the floors as they pass, the only other noise being Anika’s soft tapping on her tablet.

“You’ll be entering last, so all eyes will be on you.” She looks a little guilty as she says it, and even guiltier when she sees how big Theadora’s eyes get at her statement. “I know, I’m sorry. I just want you to be prepared.”

“It’s good to be fashionably late, isn’t that what they say?” Theadora says, toying with the edge of her custom black bandages. “Makes a statement.”

“That’s the spirit. And remember, just throw me a —“ she makes the universal, wide-eyed “help me” face “— and I’ll get you out of there, okay?”

“Roger that.”

The last few floors pass entirely too fast, and then the elevator doors are opening and she’s Queen Midnight again. Afraid of nothing and no one, least of all corporate bigwigs and the other heroes, who she’s never met until now, and idolized in some capacity, and—

“Hero,” she reminds herself under her breath, and lets all emotion bleed from her face.

Notes:

Skata - sh*t
Mitera- mother
Mére - mother (French)

---
Oh wow, this chapter was supposed to be a lot shorter and a lot more interesting! I actually rewrote it because I wasn't feeling where I was going, and I ended up with this. The heroes will be in the next chapter, I promise!

So, mechatronics engineering is a real subgenre of mechanical engineeing, even though the word sounds completely made-up, I know. Obligatory disclaimer that I’m definitely not an engineer in any capacity - I flunked geometry and the most outrageous thing I’ve ever done with electronics is upgrade the RAM in my laptop. In other words, I’m completely bullsh*tting my way through writing a character who’s an engineer ^^;

Thank you to the lovely people who commented and left a kudos, y'all are the best! <3

Chapter 4: You Only Get One Chance At A First Impression

Notes:

***Trigger Warning for: alcohol consumption.***

Sorry this took so long! Canon character POV scenes are always hard for me to write, so I’ve been writing and rewriting different versions of this chapter for over a month. This chapter was originally a lot longer, but I broke it up into 2 because I didn’t want to post a 13k monstrosity ^^; I'm so nervous, I've never written in Barnaby's POV before, so I hope I did a good job and didn't make him too OOC!

Also, I will be using ‘they/them’ pronouns for Nathan, but I consider them gender-fluid, so they may sometimes use gendered language to describe themselves going forward.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“That’s not the point, Kotetsu. There was an opening on the roof of the bus, and stairs going down inside, there was no reason for you to destroy the rear window.”

“Yeah, like coming down the stairs worked so well for you, Bunny.”

“We’re not talking about me, old man.” Barnaby pushes up his glasses with his thumb and forefinger and pinches the bridge of his nose. Nevermind that they were on track to score the first points of the season until Queen Midnight showed up, but now they also have a damages hearing in the morning that they’re definitely not going to leave unscathed — or unfined. He takes a sip of his champagne, letting the sting of bubbles on his tongue distract him from the irritation thrumming in his chest. Points lost, property destroyed, and he wrenched his shoulder when he fell down the stairs after Queen Midnight took the keys out of the ignition.

It was a good plan, all things considered, but that’s not the point.

“We got the job done, didn’t we? That’s what matters,” Kotetsu says, stuffing some manner of finger food into his mouth and washing it down with a swig of champagne. He’s in one of his petulant little moods, mouth twisted in a pouting frown and overall made worse after not listening to a word of the well-earned lecture from his partner, but Barnaby really can’t find it in him to push the issue further tonight. Yes, they did get the job done, and at least it wasn’t a building Kotetsu destroyed this time.

Small victories, or something.

But, the food is good and the alcohol is flowing freely, and no one got seriously hurt today, so Barnaby reasons he’s earned a little indulgence. He tastes a little bit of everything, trying to figure the calorie and protein counts of everything he tries, and finally settles on a small plate full of various meats and vegetables.

The ballroom slowly fills with execs from the major companies, and Agnes and her camera crew flit around, setting up cameras and testing the sound system for the inevitable parade of speeches and toasts. Most of the other heroes are here already, milling around and taking glasses from the champagne fountain set up along the far wall. No sign of Queen Midnight, though, which seems odd.

“So, Junior,” comes the feline-smooth voice that has Barnaby reflexively stifling an eyeroll and turning with a tight half-smile. “What do you make of our newest teammate, huh? You know, the sass queen Gaia probably has to pour into her costume before setting her loose?”

Ryan saunters up, absentmindedly running his fingertips over the gold beading on his suit jacket. Even for a formal event, he never takes off those sunglasses he uses to keep his pale hair out of his eyes, and a spotlight glints off them as the HeroTV crew works on lighting the stage. He appraises his former partner coolly as he loads his plate, sneaking sidelong glances that Barnaby has made a habit of ignoring.

“We didn’t really interact, so I haven’t formed an opinion yet,” Barnaby says mildly, wiping a dab of sauce from his fingers with a napkin. And really, he hasn’t — she barked a few company lines at him, and that was it, no conversation, no real feel for the woman behind the visor. She certainly seemed capable enough, and he caught a few minutes of her debut interview in the Apollon transport after the crime, enough to have a feel for the basics of her powers. Shadow manipulation, not a NEXT power he’s ever heard of before, at least not in the way she uses hers, making it solid for armor and shields. He is intrigued by the possible practical applications of her powers, but there will be time enough later to ask her about the minutia.

“But she is hot, right?” Ryan says, leaning against the buffet table and sticking a chicken wing in his mouth, pulling all the meat from the bone in one hollow-cheeked motion and waggling his eyebrows. Then, through a mouthful, “I mean, her costume doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Barnaby replies, pushing up his glasses and wiping his lips with his napkin. A half-truth, one he really hopes Ryan won’t call him on. Yes, her costume does leave little to focus on besides just how little it covers, but there were also armed gunmen and hostages, and by the time they got close enough to have a conversation, she was covered in blood and talking down a would-be killer. Not exactly a meet-cute situation.

“Oh come on, Junior, you can’t tell me you haven’t already wondered what else that shadow of hers can do. I mean, just think of the possibilities…”

“You’re disgusting,” Karina says, elbowing her way past Ryan to get to the food.

“Easy, Princess, just some harmless speculation,” he says, a little pout in the set of his lips like her chastisem*nt stings.

“Disgusting,” Karina repeats as she flicks a crystal-nailed hand at him dismissively. “If Gaia is anything like Titan, she has zero say in what she wears, and even less say in how her hero persona acts. Don’t assume that’s who she is as a person, and beyond that, don’t go roping the rest of us into your weird little fantasies.”

“Sheesh, alright, my lips are sealed. Forget I said anything.” Ryan holds up his free hand in placation, turning away, but not before Barnaby catches the dusting of pink across his cheeks. He summarily pretends he saw nothing at all, not wanting to embarrass his former partner for what seems like a budding crush that, somehow, Ryan and Karina are still both unaware of.

“So, Bunny, what do you think of our new teammate?” Kotetsu asks, having made a full round of the buffet tables. He settles in next to his partner, digging into his heaping plate with little grace. How the man manages to stay rail-thin with how poorly he eats is the mystery that continues to haunt Barnaby, even this many years into their partnership. And, like Ryan, the older man has the habit of talking with his mouth full, something no amount of scolding from his partner has been able to curb. “She handled that kid with the gun pretty well, I think.”

“As I told Ryan, I don’t know enough about her to form an opinion yet. She seems competent, if nothing else.”

“If nothing else? Always gotta tack that on there, don’t you?” Kotetsu says with a crooked, food-filled grin. Barnaby rolls his eyes, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from catching the older man’s infectious smile. “I think it’s good she’s here. We’ve needed some new blood on the team for a while now.”

“Ouch,” Ryan says, a hand to his chest in mock affront. “Like I didn’t just get here and brighten up all your boring lives. Besides, you’re just saying that because you were born an old man, and Junior here is getting too old to keep picking up your slack.”

“Hey,” Barnaby and Kotetsu bark in unison. Kotetsu is old, sure, but Barnaby is only twenty-seven and still in peak physical condition, thank you very much.

“You’re just saying that because you beat Bunny by a thousand points last season, and it’s gone straight to your head.” The food seemed to help Kotetsu’s mood, but now that little stormcloud is back, and Barnaby frowns. It’s one thing for him to call his own partner an old man, it’s another for some hotshot rookie like Ryan to do so. And beyond that, did Kotetsu really have to bring up the pitifully narrow margin that got him demoted to third place? He would’ve stayed in second if Kotetsu had been a little faster in activating his powers during that bank robbery yesterday…

“You’re only a year younger than me, you know,” Barnaby points out, and Ryan snorts.

“Being young is a state of mind, Junior, and you’re well into your seventies.”

“Oh, boys, play nice,” Nathan saunters up, having traded their usual suit for a flowing red evening gown. Antonio is right behind them, and Barnaby thinks they must have made up after their latest fight, because he puts his hand on Nathan’s lower back as the two of them peruse the buffet. Nathan continues to speak as they use tongs to fill their plate. “Looks like we’re just waiting on the talk of the town, our Queen of the Night. I hope she gets here soon, I’ve got a hot bath and a new episode of ‘Real Housewives of Stern Bild’ with my name on it.”

“It’s kinda rude to be late, don’t you think?” Pao-Lin says, joining the group and wasting no time at all in starting to eat. “I hope she gets here soon, I really want to meet her.”

“I’m just glad she’s a she. This team has been a boy’s club for way too long,” Karina says, shooting an icy glare at Kotetsu, who, as usual, is oblivious to the subtext in the teen’s words. “And with any luck, the “Queen of the Night” will shoulder some of the burden for the Ice Queen and I won’t have to wipe drool off my boots so often.”

“Oh, but that costume. Legs for days, spandex for weeks. She’s got flair, I’ll give her that,” Nathan says, tapping a long-nailed finger to their chin. “I don’t envy her fighting in the heat in that outfit, though.”

“I’m surprised she joined this season.” Antonio opens the front portion of his helmet when Nathan holds up a forkful of food. He — thankfully — chews and swallows before speaking again. “I knew Gaia Medical was looking for a hero, but I didn’t think they’d find someone so fast. The call only went out in what, February?”

“December, actually,” Keith says as he approaches, and holds up his arm in his signature salute. “Great job out there today, everyone, and again, nice work!”

Barnaby can’t help but smile at the Wind Wizard — if anything, Keith is the morale booster of the group, and his positivity is infectious.

“We didn’t do much,” Ivan says quietly, and Barnaby stifles the reflexive jump at the other hero’s soundless appearance. “Queen Midnight took care of most of it before we even got there.”

“Hey, speak for yourself, Pointy. I caught one of the bad guys all by myself,” Ryan says, jabbing his thumb into his chest.

“We helped all of the tourists evacuate the bus safely, that’s not nothing,” Keith says, jerking his fork up to accentuate his words, sending a few noodles flying in the process. “I have every confidence that this season is going to be our best yet!”

The heroes voice their agreement and return to eating and milling, exchanging friendly smalltalk amongst themselves and any of the execs that are in the mood for chatting. Barnaby moves from conversation to conversation, talking politely with some of his and Kotetsu’s sponsors, leveling a few of his dazzling, charming smiles when the situation seems to call for it. It’s situations like these, around people he doesn’t know that well and who have very high expectations of him that he sometimes feels out of his depth — although god forbid he ever let it show. He reminds himself to move his eyebrows and make eye contact and blink at all the right times, to exclaim in surprise and give short feedback phrases and ask pertinent but not-too-enthusiastic questions. It’s exhausting, but thankfully Kotetsu is always near to take attention onto himself when his partner looks a little too uncertain what to say or do next. It’s a wordless agreement between them, that Kotetsu helps Barnaby understand more obscure social cues, and Barnaby tells Kotetsu when he’s making an ass of himself.

Which, thank god, Kotetsu hasn’t done yet. But the night is young and the champagne keeps coming, so there’s probably at least one crisis he’ll have to avert. He can only pray it will be something small and easily forgotten by whoever Kotetsu decides to piss off.

The doors on the far side of the ballroom open, and conversations halt as all eyes pivot in that direction.

“Finally,” Karina mutters to Barnaby’s right, and he can’t help but agree. He’s always where he needs to be exactly when he’s supposed to be there — nevermind that he’s sometimes quite early and has to wait in his car until it’s time to go in — and besides, showing up late to a party on your first day as a hero seems like it’s in bad form. Maybe she was going for a dramatic entrance, though, and if so, it seems to have the intended effect on those assembled.

Queen Midnight enters the ballroom, hips swaying gently as she struts confidently on heels that look as pointy and lethal as Ivan’s throwing stars. Her dress is made of flowing black velvet, with a plunging neckline that begs the eyes to follow it. Ryan lets out a low whistle before Karina elbows him in the ribs, and somewhere behind them, Nathan makes a soft, appreciative ‘oh’. Queen Midnight smiles coyly, putting a hand delicately to her chest and thrusting a shoulder forward to accentuate her cleavage.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, everyone,” she says, voice as velveteen as her dress. “But I’m here now, so let’s get this party started, hm?”

“There she is, our star hero!” An older man in an expensive suit, who Barnaby vaguely recognizes, comes forward with arms held wide and pulls Queen Midnight into a hug. Her expression flickers for just a moment, and Barnaby feels a pang of empathy for the other hero, knowing very well the look of someone uncomfortable with physical contact being forced into it under the expectant gaze of others. The man — probably Gaia’s CEO — pulls away, but his hand lingers just a moment too long on Queen Midnight’s hip, and beside him, Karina lets out a soft, derisive grunt.

“Hey, about time you showed up. We were starting to get worried,” Kotetsu says in that over-the-top voice he uses to direct attention onto himself when he knows Barnaby is uncomfortable. A good thing, too, because by the way Karina has a hand held discreetly out in front of Ryan, things could have gone sideways real quick had Kotetsu not stepped in. Even Barnaby finds he’s taken a half-step forward and raised his hand from his side, and he pretends he was just smoothing at the front of his suit instead of…whatever it was he might’ve been about to do.

Embarrassing.

Queen Midnight blinks in surprise, another moment of candid emotion immediately wiped away and replaced with her persona’s wry smile.

“Sorry kitten,” she purrs, “I had some fans outside who were just dying to meet me.”

“Aha, well, you’re here now,” Kotetsu replies, going red all the way up to the tips of his ears. He lifts his mostly-empty champagne glass. “Uh, cheers.”

This might be one of those moments where the nuance has eluded him, but Barnaby doesn’t understand what has his partner so flustered. Is it her dress, or the way she’s talking to him? Karina doesn’t act that much differently, especially around sponsors who are expecting the femme fatale act, and he barely bats an eye at her. He’s reminded of the confrontation with the Myers sisters, where one of them stuck their leg in Kotetsu’s face in an effort to distract him, and wonders if the same thing is happening here.

But then Queen Midnight’s pale eyes — blue? gray? hard to tell in this light — flick to Barnaby and give him a slow once-over, and…maybe he judged Kotetsu too harshly just now. Women look at him all the time, and with a lot more interest — sometimes bordering on downright, skin-crawling licentiousness — than she is now, but he can feel his cheeks and the back of his neck flushing before he can even comprehend why. He scolds himself internally, seeing none of that kind of interest in her gaze, just eerily-familiar calculation, a strategist sizing up a new variable on the playing field.

Thankfully — and it’s perhaps the first time he’s ever been grateful for the other hero opening his mouth — Ryan steps forward and extends a hand to her.

“Ryan, Golden Ryan, but I’m sure you already knew that. And you’re welcome, by the way, for catching that criminal you let slip away earlier.”

Queen Midnight’s eyes mercifully stray from Barnaby, and she raises an eyebrow at Ryan before extending her hand, fingers towards the floor like some Renaissance lady demanding supplication from a peasant.

“Cheeky little thing, aren’t you,” she says, amused, and Ryan takes her hand and bends forward to ghost his lips over her knuckles. It’s her turn to go crimson, her neck and chest flecking with color like she didn’t expect him to actually take her up on her play-acting. Barnaby is certain that, if he wasn’t so focused on playing up his suave, smoldering, bad-boy act, Ryan would be grinning like a hyena at the reaction. Whether it’s part of his actual personality or just something he employs for the cameras, Barnaby has never quite been able to parse out.

“There’s time for introductions later,” Agnes says, light catching on the metallic embroidery of her dress and making her whole body shimmer as she approaches. “We’re three minutes behind schedule and I have deadlines to meet. Heroes, up on stage.”

She ushers everyone forward, and the heroes set down their plates and glasses and make their way towards the stage. Stern Bild is illuminated in twinkling golds and silvers on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows framing the stage, and a conveniently-placed blimp floats past with a glowing Gaia Medical billboard flashing across its giant screen.

“Origami, Fire Emblem, you stand here. Rock Bison, Dragon Kid, there.” Agnes directs them to line up along the stage, calling up to the lighting tech to adjust a spotlight a few times. “Tiger and Barnaby, you’re here, and Queen Midnight, in the middle next to Barnaby.”

With those towering heels, Queen Midnight is almost as tall as Barnaby as she comes to stand next to him, smoothing a hand down her long, black braid as she does. The spotlights glint off the delicate metal crown her on her headpiece — laurel leaves, he realizes, blinking and looking away as she catches his eye.

Why is his heart hammering when it was only three stairs up to the stage?

“Sorry about the bus,” Queen Midnight says quietly, using the metallic clasp of her purse as a mirror to scrape a tiny errant smudge of lipstick from her well-defined cupid’s bow. She looks at him over her shoulder as she hands the purse down to her PA and straightens back up. “I didn’t mean to make you fall down the stairs like that.”

“I…” Barnaby begins, struck by the abrupt change in her demeanor. Her dark eyebrows are drawn together in what, as far as he can tell, is genuine remorse, and there’s no trace of her domineering persona in her posture or her eyes — eyes that he can see are a beautiful, pale, cornflower blue under the harsh lights of the stage. “I’m fine. But thank you.”

“Oh, good,” she replies, putting a hand to her chest in relief. “It looked like you might’ve hurt your shoulder, and I felt so bad about it.”

As if in response, his shoulder throbs to remind him that no, he’s not actually fine, but he’s too preoccupied with the way her smile lights up her whole face, revealing a dimple in her right cheek. He realizes he’s smiling, too, only when she breaks eye contact to look down and away.

“How’s your arm?” Kotetsu asks from Barnaby’s other side, and Queen Midnight looks down at the black bandages covering her bicep, smile falling.

“I’ll live.” She shrugs, clenching and unclenching that fist with a grim set to her lips. It goes unsaid between the three of them that they all know she’s in pain. Barnaby’s been shot multiple times — so many times that he’s long since lost count — but he’s always had his suit between him and the bullets, preventing all but some nasty bruises. It’s ridiculous to him that some of the heroes have to fight without that protection, and his stomach churns a little in the way it always does when one of the other heroes gets hurt. One of them getting shot always sets him a little extra on edge, ever since the incident with the androids.

Barnaby blinks hard and shakes his head to clear away the unwelcome memories.

“Sorry about calling you ‘kitten’, Tiger,” Queen Midnight says, looking like the thought causes her more pain than the bullet wound on her arm. “The higher-ups decided it would be a good idea for me to call you that, because of your hero name. I personally died a little inside having to say it to your face.”

Kotetsu gives a short, nervous little laugh and puts his hand on the back of his neck.

“Ah, don’t worry about it, you gotta do what you gotta do to make the suits happy. You just caught me off guard, is all. My, uh, my wife used to call me that sometimes.”

“Oh god, I am so sorry.” She covers her face with her hands and shakes her head. “Excuse me while I go throw myself out the window.”

“It’s fine, really,” Kotetsu says with a more comfortable laugh. He puts his hands in his pockets, and Barnaby recognizes the sag in his shoulders that always comes when he talks about Tomoe. They make eye contact and Kotetsu gives a barely-perceptible nod, a sign that he’s okay, don’t worry about him. Too late, Barnaby thinks, but gives a small nod back, and Kotetsu looks at Queen Midnight again. “Just try not to do it within earshot of Ryan, okay? I really don’t want him picking it up for his weird nickname thing.”

“You don’t want me what now, Tiger?” Ryan says from Queen Midnight’s other side as Agnes directs him and Karina to swap places. “Upstage you? Score more points than you and look better doing it? ‘Cause I have bad news for you—“

“Cameras hot in ten, people,” Agnes says, and the heroes silence their conversations and go into business mode. This isn’t televised live, but the footage will be used on the news in the coming days and weeks, so everyone needs to be on their A-game. Barnaby rolls his shoulders — forgetting his injury and wincing in the process — and assumes his signature pose, two fingers to his brow in salute. To his right, Kotetsu puts his hands on his hips and puffs his chest out, and to his left, Queen Midnight lifts a long, slender finger to her dark lips and closes one eye in a perpetual wink.

“Five, four,” Cain counts down, switching to counting silently with his fingers, pointing to Mario when he hits one.

Mario welcomes everyone to the party, introduces all the heroes — like anyone in this room doesn’t know who they are — and then a big screen on the far wall plays a highlight reel from the hijacking. Agnes signals silently that everyone can drop their poses, and he hears the sigh of relief from the woman beside him as she shifts her weight off of one of her legs — probably the one she landed on, if personal experience has taught Barnaby anything. Thankfully, there’s no footage of him falling down the bus stairs, most of it focused on Queen Midnight’s entrance and her subsequent de-escalation of the young man pulling the gun. The reel includes a final tally of the points earned by each hero, and thankfully, he and Kotetsu got the points for two of the gunmen and their share for rescuing the hostages. That leaves them tied just behind Queen Midnight, who is slightly ahead for being first on the scene. Leads like these never last, but his chest is warm with the satisfaction of a hard day’s work.

Then the CEO of the OBC comes out to give a speech, and Barnaby really does try to pay attention to what the man is saying, but he can’t stop his attention from wandering to the woman beside him, if only in thought. Admittedly, he’s not always the best at accurately judging people’s character and their intentions until he’s known them for a while — and even then, it’s hit-or-miss — but she did seem genuinely apologetic for making him fall down those stairs. The bitter cynic in him, no matter how he tries to divorce himself from that part of his psyche with his therapist’s help, tells him it’s just an act, that she’s telling him what he wants to hear to get something out of him, like so many people in his past. A pretty face, a fake smile, a knife in the back somewhere down the road.

It’s not fair to be so suspicious, he tells himself as patiently and kindly as he can manage, walking himself through everything he’s learned since he started therapy. Innocent until proven guilty, Dr. Harrington likes to say, tying Barnaby’s sense of justice and duty as a hero to the new approach to interpersonal relationships he’s trying to cultivate. It works to varying degrees, and confidence is a plant of slow growth, but it’s the right thing to do to at least attempt to give Queen Midnight the benefit of the doubt. He just needs to collect more information, observe her for a while, and then he can decide whether or not it’s safe to trust her.

But she does smell really, really good.

Barnaby blinks and emerges from his rumination to see that not only has the CEO of the OBC finished his speech, but so has the CEO of Gaia Medical, who is now turning to Queen Midnight and ushering her up to the podium to speak. She approaches the podium, and Barnaby notes the slight tremor in her hand as she adjusts the microphone.

“Thank you, Mr. Vicks, for the glowing introduction,” she begins, that sultry, silken quality back in her voice. “I’m a woman of action and not words, so I’ll get right to the point. It’s an honor to join the ranks of Stern Bild’s finest, and I’m ready to beat every single one of them!”

She points right at the central camera.

“You’re looking at the next Queen of Heroes, Stern Bild, and that’s a promise!” A wink, a flourish as she spreads her arms and raises her chin, and she seems to bask in the resulting applause from the crowd.

“There you have it folks! Enjoy the party!” Mario closes out the proceedings and the lights on the stage dim, leaving the heroes to relax as Agnes calls cut on the filming. Queen Midnight lets out a sigh through slack lips, rocking forward onto her toes and bouncing up and down on them a few times.

“Hero,” Barnaby hears her whisper to herself, and she turns to face them with a smile.

“Well, you don’t pull any punches, do you, honey?” Nathan moves towards her, Antonio not far behind, and she ducks her head in what might be self-consciousness. All of the heroes gravitate towards her, but it’s Keith who moves the quickest.

"Your arm, how bad is it? Again, how badly are you hurt?” He puts his hands on her shoulders, then jerks them back, either because he’s afraid he might hurt her or because he realized there’s still many pairs of eyes on them both. It seems a little overly-familiar, especially from Keith, but Queen Midnight laughs, and there’s that smile that makes Barnaby’s heart give an exaggerated thump in his chest. Maybe the champagne is getting to him.

“I’m fine, big guy,” she says, waving a nonchalant hand for emphasis. “It’s gonna take more than a stray bullet to put me down, you know that.”

“I do, yes, I do.” Keith nods to himself, rocking back and forth a little on his heels in what Barnaby has come to recognize is a self-soothing motion. “I couldn’t be more proud of you T— Queen Midnight.”

“Back at you, Sky High. Someone had to give you a run for your money.” Queen Midnight looks to Karina and Ryan, and then at Barnaby, the most recent Queen and Kings of Heroes. “No offense to the rest of you, of course.”

“None taken,” Barnaby replies, flashing one of those crowd-pleasing smiles without really thinking about it. She blinks a few times and then looks down and away, and he gets that sinking sensation in his gut, the confusion of not knowing if he said or did something wrong sitting like lead in his stomach. Kotetsu puts his hand on his partner’s shoulder and squeezes, just a moment of contact to tell Barnaby he didn’t do anything wrong. He blinks away the reflexive moisture at the corners of his eyes and gives a short nod of thanks to the older man.

“I wish I could stay and chat with you all more, but I’m supposed to be rubbing elbows with my sponsors.” Queen Midnight’s shoulders hunch a little, clearly not entirely thrilled about the notion, but in the next moment, the woman is eclipsed by the hero. She straightens her spine, stands tall, and becomes the Queen of the Night once again. “Maybe we can rendezvous down in the training center once the party winds down?”

“Oh, I’d love to,” Nathan says, clasping their hands in front of their chest. “We want to know everything about you, honey. You’re family now.”

“Everything? That’ll take a while.” There’s a warble of uncertainty in her voice, but she smiles and dips her head in a nod.

“Come find me if the vultures circle too close,” Karina says with a snort. “Some of them are afraid of me, I’ll teach you all my secrets.”

“Oh, please do.” That seems to put her more at ease. Barnaby wracks his brain for something he can say to be of help, knowing how overwhelmed he was at his first sponsor party. She doesn’t have a Kotetsu to bail her out, and that doesn’t seem fair.

“I’ll walk with you, introduce you to everyone I know,” Keith offers, and the relief in Queen Midnight’s eyes is like a light switch.

Damn, he should have offered to do that.

“Lead the way, then, O Mighty Wind Wizard.”

And then they’re gone, Keith calling out to sponsors and Queen Midnight dazzling — and perhaps frightening — those who flock to meet her. Barnaby lets out an unconscious grunt, displeased with himself, and even further displeased for not understanding why he’s displeased.

“I think you flustered her there, Bunny.” Kotetsu chuckles to himself and bumps his shoulder into Barnaby’s. “You gotta be careful who you aim that smile at.”

“I didn’t mean to,” he admits, running over the whole interaction in his mind, analyzing and cataloging how he can do better next time.

Another low chuckle from his partner, this time left frustratingly unexplained.

“Anyone else have a little whiplash from how fast she switches from bossy dom to girl next door? I need to ice my neck…” Ryan watches Queen Midnight where she’s laughing coyly at the center of a group of sponsors, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“Really, Ryan? I told you not to assume her persona is who she is as a person. It never bothered you with the rest of us.” Karina rolls her eyes.

“It’s not the same, Princess. The rest of us are pretty much who we are in and out of our costumes. You definitely are.” Before Karina can voice a protest, Ryan speaks again. “Just caught me off guard, is all. I mean, she apologized for Junior falling down the stairs, talk about a guilty conscience. You’d never catch me doing something like that.”

“Yeah, you never really apologize for anything, even when you mess up pretty bad.” Pao-lin giggles when Ryan goes red in the face.

“Give her time to get used to us,” Kotetsu says in that subdued voice he uses when he’s acting especially paternal. “If she’s only been training for a few months, getting used to hero life has to be a rough transition. I’m sure we all remember what our first days and weeks were like.”

The remaining heroes nod in unison, and Barnaby is momentarily overcome by familiar gratitude that he somehow ended up with Kotetsu as a partner. Yes, he’s more often than not obtuse, and messy, and reckless, and many other things that will probably never cease to annoy his partner, but when it comes to being a hero, there’s no one better than Kotetsu, of that he’s absolutely certain.

And this happens to be one of those times where he makes a very good point. God knows Barnaby’s first few weeks were hell, even with his years of training at the Hero Academy and decades of mental preparation. If Queen Midnight was a civilian until Gaia recruited her, she’s had to endure a brutal learning curve up to this point.

“Well, Bunny, we should put in our hours schmoozing with the sponsors so we can get out of here. I promised Kaede I’d help her with her application essay tonight, and she gets mad at me when I call her from the car. She says I don’t pay attention to my surroundings.”

“She’s a smart girl,” Barnaby replies, smoothing his hand over his hair to make sure he still looks presentable for the sponsors. “You run into things when you’re distracted, which is most of the time. It’s a miracle the city is still standing after every time you drive home.”

Kotetsu grunts and rolls his eyes, taking a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and downing it in one go.

“Okay, smartass, point your mouth at the suits.”

Thus begins the familiar dance, and Barnaby allows himself to get lost in the flow of the party.

Notes:

Listen, I’m not saying Barnaby is autistic, but he’s not *not* autistic. All I know is that I relate really hard to Barnaby, and I’m autistic af, so glean from that what you will. I based his thought processes and social cue skills on my own internal monologue and experiences, so hopefully it doesn’t come off as too unbelievable ^^;

Official sources list one of his strong suits as “flawless social skills”, but people tell me I have really good social skills and I genuinely don’t know what the f*ck is going on 99% of the time, I just have a mental flowchart of “if this, do this” that I follow like a choose your own adventure book. So that’s my headcanon, that he looks all calm and cool on the surface but internally he’s the math lady meme. And that Kotetsu helps him understand what's going on, which, let's be real, isn't the best plan, but I think it's cute so it's law. In other words, you can pry Autistic!Bunny from my cold, dead, neurospicy hands.

(Honestly, a lot of the heroes strike me as neurodivergent - Keith, obvs, but also Kotetsu and Ryan. Maybe that’s why T&B is my all-time fave anime…I see myself in a lot of the characters and it makes me really happy.)

Anywho, thank you for the lovely comments and kudos! They legit make my day <3

Chapter 5: Against Stupidity, The Very Gods Themselves Contend In Vain

Notes:

***No trigger warnings apply for this chapter.***

2 Barnaby chapters for the price of one! (The price is my sanity because writing canon POVs stresses me out ^^;)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The party progresses like any of the countless others Barnaby has attended — chat up the sponsors, laugh at bad jokes, generally be congenial and charming and photogenic. He and Kotetsu take selfies, sign hero cards for grandchildren, and pose for Agnes’s cameras as they flit around, moving in circles with the ebb and flow of the party. It reminds Barnaby of musicians who crowd surf at concerts — not that he’s ever seen it in person, no one jumps into the audience at the opera — and, save for the few inevitable moments of confusion he’ll spend hours analyzing later, he enjoys it. Not to say it isn’t exhausting, that he doesn’t have a headache building between his eyes from the light and sound and the energy expenditure that it takes to play the dashing, cool-as-ice star hero, but all that excluded, he does like interacting with people, especially when they hang on his every word.

But his social battery only goes so far, and after what feels like the hundredth reiteration of “I won’t let you down, sir” and “thank you for saying so, ma’am”, he’s ready to shower off the day, go through his twelve-step skincare routine, and crawl into bed. Kotetsu has been remarkably well-behaved this evening, but Barnaby can tell he’s one back-handed comment about his age away from disaster, so he coolly extricates them both from the conversation at-hand. The other heroes seem to have also reached their daily quota, some of them trying to politely back out of conversations and others already orbiting the edges of the room. Only Keith and Queen Midnight are still deep in the crowd, and because the former’s helmet obscures his face, Barnaby can only gauge the mood based on the latter’s expression and posture.

And boy, she is struggling. She’s heavily favoring the leg she landed on earlier — and in those heels, he can’t imagine how she’s made it this long — and though she’s maintaining a good posture, he can tell she’s flagging. Still, she smiles and laughs and poses for the cameras, though there’s a familiar desperation to retreat in her eyes.

If his near-obsessive attention to detail is good for anything, it’s for recognizing the subtle signs of pain and exhaustion in his teammates. Another tendency that arose from the android incident, this eagle-eyed observation of the other heroes has become second nature to him. Dr. Harrington tells him it’s called hyper-vigilance, that it’s a trauma response he’s carried ever since he saw — and then forcibly forgot he saw — Albert Maverick kill his parents, but to him, it’s just the way things are. It’s the right thing to do, to look out for his friends, to notice things others don’t so that he can intervene and help them, so that he never has to hold another dying partner, so that—

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but I’m afraid I have to steal Queen Midnight and Sky High from you all. The heroes have some urgent business to attend to, I’m sure you understand.”

Queen Midnight throws a grateful, somewhat wild-eyed look over her shoulder as Barnaby slides into the group at her side.

“Oh, duty calls,” she says in that silky voice, putting a hand to her chest with expertly-faked regret. “Excuse me, would you?”

The sponsors have no choice but to acquiesce, having no say in heroes coming and going for what, by all accounts, is official business. They weave themselves out towards the edges of the crowd, Queen Midnight and Keith on one side of Barnaby and Kotetsu on the other, and he makes eye contact with Ryan, who pushes off of the wall he’s been leaning against for the last fifteen minutes. The other heroes communicate wordlessly with each other, politely peeling away from the crowd and making their way out of the ballroom as one. Agnes gets a few last shots of them all departing, giving a small wave to signal that yes, you’re free to go, thanks for asking so nicely. No one says a word until they’re all crammed inside the elevator and the doors close.

“Oh, thank god,” Queen Midnight says, leaning back against the mirrored wall of the elevator. “I can’t feel my leg or my arm.”

“I’ll catch you if you fall!” Keith says, holding his arms out like he expects her to collapse at any moment. “Don’t worry, I’m ready!”

“Keith, glike mou, I’m exaggerating.” She says it gently, with a hand on his arm, like she’s used to kindly cluing him in on hyperbole. “I’m fine, really.”

“Oh, I see! But you were hurt, so I’ll be here just in case.”

“I know.” Queen Midnight smiles softly, bringing out the dimple in her cheek, and leans her head back against the wall as she closes her eyes. “So, on a scale of one to ten, how bad did I do?”

“I’d say at least a fourteen,” Kotetsu says, taking off his mask and putting it in his pocket.

“Wait, is ten really bad or really good?” Ivan asks from the back corner.

“Oh, I guess ten is good, so fourteen is great,” Kotetsu replies after a moment of thought.

“That feels generous.” Queen Midnight exhales, her cheeks inflating for a moment. “But coming from you, Tiger, I’ll take it.”

That makes Kotetsu grin, puffing his chest out a little at the praise.

“You made it longer than I thought you would,” Karina admits, putting her arm around Pao-lin when the younger hero leans against her, eyes closed.

“Everyone was talking about you, in there and outside the party. You even have a few trending hashtags already. ‘All Hail Queen Midnight’ was at the top, last I saw.” Nathan puts their hand on her shoulder, and she opens her eyes with a tired smile. “Breathe easy, honey. Like Tiger said, you did great.”

“That means a lot to me, really.” She turns her head to look at Barnaby, who reminds himself to make eye contact despite wanting nothing more than to stare at the floor — and possibly melt into it. “Thanks for rescuing me, Barnaby. Sorry you don’t get any points for it, though.”

He chuckles, shaking his head.

“Don’t mention it. Us heroes have to look out for each other, right?” He gives her his most reserved smile — Kotetsu warned him to be careful, after all — and shrugs it off.

The elevator dings and opens to the training floor, and the heroes spill out into the hallway. Those who wear their helmets to formal events pull them off with varied sighs of relief, and both Karina and Queen Midnight remove their headpieces with similar noises of contentment. The latter also leans her good arm on Keith and pulls off her stilettos, groaning in mixed pleasure and pain and rolling the ankle she landed on.

“This place has a pool, right?” She asks Keith, who rushes to affirm that yes, the heroes have their own private swimming pool and hot tub and sauna inside the training facility. Turning to the rest of the heroes, she says, “Anyone mind if I stick my feet in? I need to be able to walk tomorrow.”

Fabulous idea, honey. You’re not the only one dying in heels tonight.” Leaning on Antonio, Nathan slips off their shoes, and Karina braces herself against Ryan to do the same. Nathan appraises the other heroes, bright pink lips puckered expectantly. “And what about you, boys? In for a little pool party after-party?”

“Ah, I can stay for a few minutes, but I gotta get home to help Kaede,” Kotetsu says and then looks to his partner in question.

“I don’t see why not.” A half-truth, because Barnaby isn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of getting his designer suit even the slightest bit damp, but it would be rude to refuse at this point, especially if Kotetsu is willing to stay.

Everyone else agrees, and Keith leads the way into the gym, talking animatedly about all of the equipment, giving Queen Midnight an impromptu but still very thorough tour of the training facilities. Barnaby wonders at the connection between the two of them, at the air of familiarity with which they both converse. And she called him something in the elevator, glike mou, what did that mean? Was that Italian? French? She doesn’t speak with even a hint of an accent, but that doesn’t mean much, especially in a city as diverse as Stern Bild. One more question to put on his list of things he doesn’t know about her.

Which is to say, he doesn’t know anything about her.

He can’t help the suspicion that creeps in at this reminder, but, like his therapist is helping him to learn to do, he takes a step back mentally and reminds himself that not everyone he encounters is lying to him or trying to use him. He tells himself, as patiently as he can manage — and why does his gentle inner voice sound suspiciously like Kotetsu? — that not everyone has a hidden agenda and is involving him in their secret, nefarious dealings. It’s nowhere near enough to convince him to fully let go of his wariness, but it’s more than he could do for himself even a year ago. Progress is progress, Kotetsu likes to tell him, no matter how small. Still, she’s nowhere near proven herself trustworthy, so he mentally resolves to keep his distance for the time being.

“And here’s the pool,” Keith announces grandly as the group emerges into the large room tinged with the smell of chlorinated water. Ivan hands out folded towels for everyone to sit on to keep their formal outfits dry, and people start cuffing their pants and bunching their dresses up to their thighs. Queen Midnight wastes no time throwing her towel down at the edge of the deep end and collapsing down onto it, slipping her long, bare legs into the crystalline water.

“Oh, that is good,” she exclaims on a relieved exhale, kicking her feet slowly back and forth underwater. She leans back on her hands and lets her head fall back for a moment, long braid dragging on the damp tile, and Barnaby can’t help but wonder just how much pain she’s actually been in this whole time. Keith sits down beside her, and she seems to remember herself, head snapping back up, a nervous smile on her lips. “So, um, introductions. I’m Theadora, but you can call me Teddy.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Teddy,” Nathan says, lowering themselves to sit on Antonio’s lap instead of a towel, dipping their feet into the water. “I’m Nathan, and this hot hunk of muscle is Antonio.”

“Nice to meet you,” Antonio says, reaching up to tip his hat before realizing he’s not wearing it. He flushes, wrapping one arm around Nathan’s waist and putting the other on the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Heck of an entrance you made earlier.”

“And I’m paying for it,” Theadora says, raising her injured ankle above the water in emphasis. “You all make it look so easy.”

“It’s part of the job,” Ivan says, sitting cross-legged on a towel but not putting his feet in the water. “Oh, I’m Ivan, by the way.”

“This was a good idea, but if you need something in a pinch, just let me know and I can make some ice for you, wherever we are.” Karina sits beside Theadora, pulling off one of her gloves and dipping a finger into the pool, and, from what Barnaby can tell from where he’s still deliberating on whether or not to actually get wet, lowers the temperature in the pool by a few degrees. Everyone makes noises of appreciation — heels or no, hero business involves a lot of being on your feet. “I’m Karina, and I’m glad to have another girl on the team, finally.”

“Me too! My name is Pao-Lin, nihao!” Pao-Lin waves from the adjacent edge of the pool, on the other side of Antonio and Nathan, while kicking her legs through the water.

Harika poli, everyone,” Theadora says with a warm smile.

“What is that, Greek?” Ryan asks, plopping down next to Karina and kicking a little water at her. She replies with a scoff, though they can all see the way her ears go red.

“Oh, yeah, it is!” Theadora sounds pleasantly surprised. “My mitera — my mom — immigrated to Stern Bild when she was eighteen, so I grew up speaking it as much as English. I haven’t met many people outside Little Delphi that can recognize it, though.”

“Well, I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’m sure you already knew that, just like you already knew that I’m Ryan.”

“Because you already introduced yourself to her,” Karina says, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, come on, Princess, don’t pretend like I’m not famous.”

“Infamous, maybe.”

“Well, I’m Kotetsu.” Barnaby’s partner jabs a thumb proudly into his chest as he sits down, forgoing a towel. Barnaby cringes, glad they drove separately, because there’s no way he would let Kotetsu sit on his car’s leather seats with pants soaked in pool water. “If you ever have any questions at all about being a hero, just ask me.”

“Will do,” Theadora replies, nodding. “I’m sure I’ll come up with a lot. Like I said, you all make it looks so easy.”

“Ah, you’ll catch on quick.” Kotetsu waves a hand, unconcerned. “After all, Gaia Medical wouldn’t have hired you if you couldn’t.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” she says quietly.

“I have nothing but the highest confidence in you, Teddy!” Keith exclaims, grinning so wide that Barnaby’s cheeks ache secondhand. “I’ve known since the moment we met that you were destined to be a great hero!”

“That’s really sweet, Keith, but you’ve only known her for like an hour,” Karina says, chuckling.

“On the contrary, I’ve known Teddy for years! In fact, she was there the day my powers awakened.”

A moment of stunned silence, and then Nathan speaks.

“Well, sweetie, don’t leave us hanging, spill the tea!”

“I…the tea…oh! Yes, well. It was summer, I was eighteen, and I was at the park with my friends. We were playing ultimate frisbee, you see, and I jumped up to catch the frisbee and…well, I just floated away! I was so bewildered, I couldn’t figure out how to get myself down, but then Teddy arrived and saved me.”

The heroes look to Teddy expectantly, and she laughs to herself before speaking.

“It’s actually a really good memory. I was at the park studying for a test, and a bunch of guys start hollering, and I look up, and there’s Keith, floating away—“

“Like a lost balloon!”

“—exactly, like a lost balloon, and I just…jumped up and activated my powers. I can use my shadow to make solid objects, see, and I didn’t really use them that much back then, but I just…made some stairs and ran up there to get him before he could fall and hurt himself.”

“Twice! She got me down and I floated away a second time! So I thanked her, and thanked again!”

“Twice,” she agrees, chuckling. “Got him back on solid ground — permanently — and talked him down, helped him figure everything out.”

“So, you had hero instincts even back then,” Kotetsu muses, pointing his finger at her in that self-satisfied way he uses when he knows he was right all along.

“Hardly,” she counters, seeming to draw a little into herself at the praise. “He was in trouble, and I reacted.”

“That’s all being a hero really is, you know.”

“And that’s why we’re always paying property damage fines, old man. Your reactions.” Barnaby finally decides he should join them, laying down not one, but three folded towels before sitting and dipping his feet into the chilly water up to his calves. It feels good, and some of the tension leaches from his body along with the ache from his stylish but barely practical dress shoes.

“Oh, like you’ve never acted on instinct even once, Lil’ Bunny,” his partner shoots back, and the veteran heroes all raise a collective groan.

“No, I haven’t. I actually think through everything before I got jumping into things half-co*cked, and buildings — and my points — remain intact because of it.”

“Okay, boys, mama’s too tired for all your drama.” Nathan sighs theatrically, leaning back against Antonio’s broad chest. Barnaby begrudgingly quiets down, and Kotetsu grumbles a few last complaints under his breath before shooting his partner a private smirk to let him know he’s not actually mad at him. One more little piece of their secret language, so that Barnaby doesn’t spend days anguishing over whether or not Kotetsu now hates him, or doesn’t want to be partners anymore, or any of the thousand other scenarios he cooked up in the past after the switch flipped and he actually cared about his partner’s opinion of him.

“That’s the hardest part of the job, listening to these two go at it day and night like an old married couple,” Ryan says with faux long-suffering grandeur.

“You get used to it,” Pao-lin adds, shrugging.

“Like a white noise machine.” This from Ivan, and Theadora laughs in response.

“You know, part of me was wondering if it was just a shtick for the cameras.”

“Nope, that’s just how they are,” Antonio says with a chuckle. “Don’t let it fool you, though, they’re good buddies, no matter how much they bitch and moan.”

“And just so we’re clear, none of us get to call him Bunny, do we?”

“No,” Barnaby and Kotetsu say in unison, and Theadora holds up her hands in innocence, laughing and shaking her head.

“Point taken,” she says emphatically, and Barnaby’s cheeks burn. It’s already enough to deal with his partner calling him that — he can’t imagine having to deal with Theadora calling him 'Bunny' in the same way she called Kotetsu ‘kitten’. His stomach does a little flip at the thought, and he wonders if something he ate at the party isn’t agreeing with him.

“That just leaves you, Handsome,” Nathan says, looking at Barnaby, who realizes he’s zoned out for a minute in his worry over nicknames and indigestion.

“Oh, I’m Barnaby. Uh, Brooks Jr. It’s very nice to meet you, Theadora. Teddy.”

Kotetsu gives him a strange look, not one that Barnaby can name from their codex of silent communication, and a shock of white-hot panic rides up his spine at the thought that if even Kotetsu doesn’t know what to do with his statement, he must’ve really messed up. It doesn’t seem like something inappropriate to say, but he’s introduced himself to hundreds, if not thousands, of people with Kotetsu at his side, and never once has his partner given him anything close to this look.

“Good to formally meet you, Barnaby,” Theadora says, and she doesn’t look put-off or confused, just smiles at him, slowly pushing her legs through the water.

Maybe he didn’t mess up, and Kotetsu has indigestion, too? That would explain the look, and it’s an easy fix — he has anti-acid tablets in his locker he can share with his partner later.

Yes, that makes sense, that has to be it.

“And all of you, really,” she continues, making eye contact with everyone in the group in-turn. “Is it weird that I was more scared of meeting you than I was of that kid with a gun?”

“It’s…kinda weird, yeah,” Ryan says, but he’s smiling. “I mean, we’re some of the coolest people you’ll meet, and when you think about it, we’re really the only ones who really understand what each other go through on a daily basis.”

“That’s true! We’re here to support you, Teddy, every one of us!” Keith puts his arm around her shoulders and squeezes, and she leans her head on his chest. “Any trouble you have, anything at all, you can come to us and we’ll do our utmost to help you!”

“Thanks, big guy,” Teddy replies, patting his chest and stifling a yawn behind her hand. “Any tips on making it through a crime, an interview, and a party all in one night?”

“Green tea,” Barnaby suggests at the same time most of the other heroes reply, with everything from energy drinks to listening to upbeat music to wearing sunglasses so no one realizes you’ve fallen asleep. That last one is from Ryan, and Barnaby stifles a chuckle and rolls his eyes.

“I didn’t catch any of that,” Theadora says with a snort. “You’ll all have to text me your lists.”

“Oh, we need to get you into our group chat,” Karina exclaims, digging into her purse and fishing out her phone. “It’s mostly Ryan sending memes, but it’s how we all stay in touch.”

“Hey, you cry-laugh react everything I put in that chat, don’t pretend I’m not a delight.”

Karina ignores him while she and Theadora exchange numbers, and a moment later, everyone’s phones buzz with her addition to their group chat.

“That’s an out-of-town number, are you from one of the suburbs?” Nathan asks, sliding their phone back into the breast pocket of Antonio’s suit jacket.

“Way past the suburbs, and then some. I’m from a tiny little town in the Midwest, nothing but cows and cornfields.”

“We’re from the same town!” Keith adds, emphatically like he’s supremely proud of the fact. That would explain how they’ve known each other for years, Barnaby supposes, and he does seem to recall that Keith flies…somewhere when he goes home for the holidays. “Oh, but you were born in Stern Bild. And you went to college here!”

“Guilty,” Theadora says, her smile faltering at the edges. Something in Keith’s words seems to have dampened her mood, but whatever dark cloud passes behind her eyes is gone with the next blink. “Weird to be back, honestly. Good, but weird. I’m going to miss the quiet, though.”

“None of that here, honey. It’s go go go all the time in The City That Never Sleeps. Doubly-so for us heroes.” Nathan looks thoughtfully at Theadora while the other heroes nod in agreement. Even Barnaby finds himself humming in assent, half of him already thinking about the best route home to avoid the end-of-second-shift traffic. “Every other week, there’s some new wannabe supervillain and their gang of masked thugs terrorizing the poor civilians — robbing this, hijacking that, reciting some tired old bad guy speech we’ve heard a hundred times. Never a dull moment.”

“It does get dull after a while,” Karina says, removing her other glove and folding it neatly on the towel beside the other. “I mean, yeah, it is chaotic and I’m always up for a challenge, but every time there’s some new extra-super-evil supervillain, I can’t help but think, ‘Really? This again?’.”

“Evil gets pretty boring,” Pao-Lin agrees, stifling a coincidental yawn. “All the bad guys are bad, it’s just the amount of bad that changes.”

Barnaby can’t help but agree on some level. In a morbid way, new villains to fight is a little exciting — he’s nothing if not an adrenaline junkie in the moment — but once you’ve faced down someone like Jake Martinez, or an army of homicidal androids, or a giant NEXT-controlled metal monster, it makes most would-be villains little more than trite, momentary distractions. Not that he’s hoping for an even tougher adversary to show up and wreak havoc — quite the opposite, in fact, he’s had enough of criminal masterminds and their organizations for a dozen lifetimes — but despite his middle name being ‘Routine’, he’s well aware even he could use a little variety now and then.

“Man, you guys are so pessimistic. Being a hero is the best job in the world! You get to kick some ass, bask in the spotlight, get paid boatloads of cash…what’s not to love?” Ryan speaks with his usual blunt candor.

“Anxiety.”

“Traumatic brain injury.”

“High life insurance premiums.”

“Early-onset arthritis.”

“Oh, real great job talking up the gig to the new girl, everyone,” Ryan says, sighing dramatically. “Don’t listen to them, Teddy. Being a celebrity is the best thing that ever happened to me. You’re gonna love it.”

“You all make it sound so glamorous.” Theadora laughs, a warm sound that comes from deep in her chest. “Too late for me to back out now, though. Gaia is stuck with me, and so are you.”

“Nonsense, Gaia is lucky to have you as their hero, and we’re lucky to have you as a friend and fellow hero!”

“Thanks, glike mou,” she tells Keith, stifling another yawn as she pulls out her phone and checks the screen. “I gotta get used to these late nights, though. Almost midnight already.”

“Oh, damn, is that really the time? I gotta get going here soon if I want to dodge the lecture from Kaede.” Kotetsu pulls his legs out of the pool and stuffs his phone in his pocket. “It’s two hours behind there, but I don’t want to keep her up late, even if she is on summer break.”

“Yeah, same here, honey. I need my beauty sleep or I get bitchy.” Nathan goes to climb off Antonio’s lap, but the other hero just picks them up bridal style before setting them down away from the edge of the pool. Nathan swats his chest playfully. “Someone’s angling to get lucky tonight, and it’s working.”

They turn to look down at Theadora.

“Really nice to meet you, sweetie. I’ll get you in our girl’s-only chat once I’m done saving a horse.” They wink, waving their fingers in farewell to everyone. “Be good, kids.”

“I should go, too.” Pao-Lin stands up, drying off her legs with her towel. “Natasha gets kinda mad if I’m late for curfew.”

“I’ll walk you to your transport,” Ivan volunteers, and Pao-Lin nods and smiles. The older hero stands up and bows at the waist to the rest of them. “It was good to meet you, Teddy.”

“You too, both of you,” she says with a wave and watches them leave with lingering curiosity — that same calculating look she gave Barnaby earlier. She doesn’t look especially threatened, just uncertain. He really can’t blame her, considering how long it took for him to feel like he understood the other heroes well enough to let his guard down.

“And then there were six.” Ryan’s feline gaze zeroes in on Theadora, and she eyes him suspiciously.

“No, there weren’t.” Karina leans her weight on Ryan’s shoulder as she stands, pulling at the fabric of her dress to make sure it doesn’t get wet. “I have a test tomorrow morning, and you promised you’d drive me home.”

“Ugh, you’re always harshing my buzz,” the other hero protests, but takes his legs from the water and stands with a fond little smirk. How neither of them seems to understand the other’s feelings for each other is something Barnaby wagers scientists will be studying for years to come, but it’s not his place to interfere. He just hopes it’s soon, because there’s only so many longing glances and somewhat-hurt feelings he can stand to witness. Ryan looks to Theadora as Karina slips on her shoes. “You owe me a rain check.”

“What for?”

“I want to see your powers up close. I have…questions.”

“Ignore him,” Karina says, tugging on his arm with an apologetic look cast at Theadora. “You don’t owe any of us anything, least of all this loser.”

“Words hurt, Princess.”

“Goodnight, everyone.” Karina drags Ryan out of the room, leaving only four heroes.

“I don’t want to leave, but John and JohnJohn have been inside and by themselves for too long. They get anxious if I’m gone for too long, and I don’t want them barking and being naughty and causing trouble for my neighbors.” Keith fidgets like he’s still uncertain about leaving despite his concerns. “Will you be all right? I can show you back to your transport if you’re worried about getting lost!”

“Go, glike mou, and say hi to those good boys for me.”

“They miss you very much, I can tell — you should come over soon and see them!”

“I miss them, too. I’ll talk with my PR gal and have her carve me some time for my boys.”

“That sounds great, and again, I would love that!” In his excitement and rush to get up, Keith splashes Theadora, but she doesn’t seem to mind, just laughing and fanning him away. “Have a good night, Mr. Wild, Barnaby!”

The partners say their goodnights, and Keith dashes out of the room, a little breeze following behind him. Theadora watches him go, shaking her head in a fond sort of way.

“So, you and Keith,” Kotetsu says conversationally. “You two seem…close.”

Barnaby clicks his tongue, ready to delve into the same lecture about being a nosy busybody that they’ve had ten thousand times before, but Theadora just chuckles and nods.

“Yeah, we’ve known each other for almost a decade now. He’s the little brother both me and my brother wish we could have had.”

“I see,” Kotetsu says slowly, with just a hint of conspiracy that Barnaby doesn’t like. It’s none of his business, but it’s a chronic, uphill battle to keep him from sticking his nose in everything.

“He got me my hero job at Gaia, actually. Well, no, I got me my job, but Keith called me as soon as he heard Gaia was looking and peer pressured me into applying. I didn’t think I was qualified at all, but hey, here we are.”

“Well, however it happened, we’re glad to have you.” Kotetsu looks down at Barnaby. “You need a ride home, Bunny?”

“No, I drove. And you have to get home for your call with Kaede. I won’t cover for you this time, Kotetsu.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a stick in the mud?”

“You, at least once a week, old man.” Barnaby heaves himself to his feet, meticulously drying his legs before unrolling his pants. Ugh, they’re creased, he’ll have to iron them when he gets home. Theadora is gathering her skirts to stand when he looks up, and he finds himself walking over to her and offering a hand. She takes it after a moment of flushed hesitation, and Kotetsu is wearing that strange stomache-achy expression when Barnaby looks to him for reassurance that he hasn’t stepped over the line. His partner nods after a moment, an all-clear, and Theadora grips his hand firmly as he pulls her to her feet easily with one arm, the other held out between her and the pool in case she slips on the wet tile.

“Thanks,” she says softly, smoothing her hand down her braid after she lets go of his hand. This close, Barnaby can see the ghost of freckles on her cheeks underneath her foundation, and under the fluorescent lights of the pool room, he can see the delicate pattern of her pale eyes. They’re beautiful, he finds himself thinking, clearing his throat and stepping away from her as the thought registers in his rational brain.

“No problem,” he assures her, and he really needs to find those anti-acid tablets for himself because his stomach is once again feeling unruly.

“Bunny, why don’t you walk her down to her transport? This place is a maze, especially after dark.”

“Oh, I sent my transport home,” Theadora says over her shoulder as she collects her shoes from one of the benches against the wall. She smooths a hand over the back of her dress, likely checking to see if it got wet, and Barnaby finds himself doing the same to his pants. Damp, but not ruined, good. “I was just going to catch a cab home, no big deal.”

“You don’t drive?” Barnaby asks, making sure his phone is still in his suit jacket and his keys and wallet are in his pocket and not condemned to a watery death at the bottom of the pool.

“I do, I just don’t really see the point of having a car in a city with some of the world’s best public transportation. Seems kinda wasteful all around.”

“Why don’t I give you a ride home, then? It’s pretty late to be out on your own, getting into cabs with strangers.”

In the least helpful action he could possibly ever conceive of taking, Kotetsu bursts out laughing. Barnaby balks, looking between his doubled-over partner who’s struggling for breath between guffaws, and Theadora, who has her dark eyebrows raised in maybe-amusem*nt, maybe-annoyance. It’s hard to tell with Kotetsu making such a racket and giving Barnaby no helpful context whatsoever.

“What?” He barks at Kotetsu, who, thankfully quiets down to a few stifled giggles.

“Barnaby…” His partner begins with a sh*t-eating grin Barnaby wants nothing more than to slap off his stupid, cat-beard face. “She’s…she’s a hero. She took down armed gunmen like three hours ago, by herself.”

Oh. That is a fair point.

A stupid, should-be-obvious, annoyingly fair point.

“It never hurts to be cautious,” Barnaby bites back, crossing his arms over his chest, and, admittedly, pouting a little.

“Bunny…” Kotetsu now seems to be in damage-control mode, but he’s still letting out little giggles, even as he holds his hands out in placation, so Barnaby is having none of it. He looks at Theadora, who seems ready to turn him down.

“It’s no trouble at all, really,” he insists, fiddling with his call bracelet for want of something to distract himself with. Why is this such a big deal? He already knows he’s going to be up half the night replaying every second of this scenario in his mind for what went wrong, he might as well dig himself in deeper.

“I don’t want to get in your way, Barnaby. My apartment is on Bronze Stage, and you probably live on Gold, right?”

“I do, but I give Kotetsu rides down to Bronze all the time. Really, it’s the least I can do.”

Theadora regards him skeptically, and he thinks that if he really concentrated, he could see the gears turning in her head.

“So I throw you down a flight of stairs and steal your points, and you still think there’s a ‘least you can do’?” She purses her dark lips, examining him. She has that analytical look in her eyes again, like she did when she first entered the ballroom, and Barnaby finds himself squirming under her gaze and hoping whatever calculation she’s running, he doesn’t come up short. He’s a rabbit, pinned beneath a circling hawk that’s folding its wings to dive. Finally — and thankfully — she seems to come to a conclusion, and shrugs, hands going up in defeat. “Okay, if you insist.”

Barnaby finds himself smiling despite the churning in his belly, and hears a low chuckle from Kotetsu.

“You kids have fun,” he says, turning with a casual wave. “See you in the morning, Bunny.”

“Goodnight, Kotetsu. Say hi to Kaede for me.”

“I will. G’night, Teddy.”

“Night!”

And then it’s just the two of them, and Barnaby doesn’t know what to say. That should scare him more than it does, and it probably will later during the all-night replay, but for for now, he just adjusts his suit jacket and gestures to the door.

“Shall we?”

“After you,” Theadora says, grabbing her purse and following him, barefoot, through the hall that runs between the changing rooms and out into the main training room. Without her heels, she’s a head shorter than him, and though she limps a little from her injured leg, she carries herself with calm confidence.

Or she’s just really, really tired.

They stand quietly on opposite sides of the elevator, saying nothing, not making eye contact, and Barnaby wonders if she feels as awkward as he does. He doesn’t know her well enough to have much insight into what each of her facial expressions mean, so he can only hope he’s the only one overthinking this whole situation. Yes, Bronze Stage is out of his way, but he doesn’t have anywhere to be, and he doesn’t like the thought of her alone in a cab late at night, regardless of whether or not she’s a hero.

Ryan would tell him he’s being sexist, and he might be right.

The elevator dings and announces they’ve arrived at the sub-street parking garage, and Theadora slips on her shoes before following Barnaby down to his car.

“Why am I not surprised,” she says when he hits the button on his key fob and his car beeps in response. “A bright red sports car.”

She looks over his car, hands on her hips, and there’s that incessant fluttering in his gut again. He really needs to watch what he eats at these events if this is what the catered food does to him.

“Hmm, and not a Benz, either. I don’t know if my contract allows me to ride in things like this.”

He begins to apologize, stammering out a few half-formed words, but she just laughs.

“I’m kidding, Barnaby,” she says in that same patient voice she used when Keith didn’t catch the nuance of her words. It’s enough to shock him into silence, frozen halfway to opening the passenger door. “It’s a nice ride. What is this, a Diablo?”

“Uh…yeah, a ‘76.”

“V10?”

“V12.”

Theadora gives a low, appreciative whistle, deftly sliding between Barnaby and the car and opening the passenger door herself.

“You know, taking a cab home and getting a ride from a strange man are pretty much the same thing.”

“I’m not strange,” Barnaby says almost reflexively, with a little more bite than he intended, and he immediately backpedals. “Well, I suppose I am strange in that you don’t know me very well, but not strange as in…strange.”

“Fair,” she admits, sliding into the passenger seat. “I guess Barnaby Brooks Jr’s fancy red car is one of the safest places to be in this city, especially when it’s late at night and I’m…on my own.”

She gives him a wry little smile and shuts the door before he can respond.

Yeah, he’s going to be haunted by that sentence every night for the rest of his life, he can tell.

He slides into the driver’s seat and puts his keys in the ignition, turning on the car and flipping on the headlights. He turns up the air conditioning and pushes the toggle to turn the seat warmer on Theadora’s side on.

“The heat should help your leg. I got this model specifically for the seat warmers. They can be a lifesaver after a long day in the field.” Not his best small talk, admittedly, but Theadora hums gratefully as she buckles her seatbelt. He does the same, putting the car into reverse and backing out of the space with one hand on the passenger headrest as he looks out the back window. When he realizes how close he is to touching Theadora, he jerks his hand back, remembering how uncomfortable she looked when her CEO hugged her, and when Ryan kissed her hand after that. He’s not planning on getting nearly so close, but he wants to be mindful of her comfort.

She doesn’t seem to notice, her eyes trained out the window as she leans her chin on her fist. If he had to guess — and it is a very far guess, he’s known her for all of a few hours — he thinks she might be sad about something. It could also be the pain from her leg or her arm, or being tired after a long day, or the sort of social exhaustion he experiences. Anything, really.

“Are you comfortable? Too hot or too cold?” He asks, and she blinks hard and regards him with an even more unreadable expression in the dim light coming from the car’s dashboard.

“I’m good, Barnaby, thanks,” she says, settling back into her seat.

“If you type your address into the system, I can get you home faster. You must be exhausted.” He taps a few buttons on the touchscreen in the center of the dashboard, queuing up the GPS app for her.

“Understatement of the century.” She taps in her address with long, slender fingers that end in short, sensible black nails, and the GPS starts barking orders as Barnaby pulls out of the parking garage and onto the main street. Theadora scoots down in her seat as they pass the front doors of Justice Tower, where a few enterprising paparazzi are still camped out, hoping to get pictures of the heroes.

“The windows are tinted, they can’t see you,” Barnaby says with a slight smile, and she makes a sound of relief from deep in her chest.

“Thank god,” she mumbles, straightening up again and pulling at her seatbelt like it’s too tight across her chest. Barnaby chuckles and she looks at him sheepishly. “It’s not very heroic to be scared of paparazzi, is it?”

“I’d say a little apprehension is reasonable. At best, it’s fun to be the center of attention, but at worst, it’s an invasion of privacy. I’ve had HeroTV cameramen show up to my apartment unannounced for an impromptu tour before.”

“That’s why doors have peepholes,” she says, shaking her head and hunching up her shoulders like she’s touched something disgusting.

“Unfortunately for me, they caught me as I was coming home, and I couldn’t exactly say no. And they were outside my building the next morning, too.”

“Give me armed gunmen, any day, please.” She laughs, then sighs, relaxing back into her seat. “I know I’ll get used to it, it’s just a lot all at once. A few months ago, I was living in a town of three thousand people, and now everyone in a city of twenty-two million wants to know all my business. Someone out front before the party asked me what brand of deodorant I was wearing!”

“If that’s the worst they asked, you got off lucky.”

“I am morbidly curious to know what you’ve been asked before, but I don’t think my heart can take another culture shock tonight.”

“You’ll get your share before long, I’m sure. Ask Karina if you want the real horror stories — she gets the brunt of the inappropriate questions, out of all of us.”

“I was afraid of that, but I’m not at all surprised.”

“It will be a lot worse because you’re attractive, that I can promise you.”

“Oh,” Theadora says, looking down and away and tucking a non-existent stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Well, thanks for the warning.”

Barnaby looks at her sidelong, trying to focus on the road while also scrambling to understand the abrupt shift in her demeanor. Should he not have told her she’s attractive, did that offend her? She is attractive — not that he’s interested in her like that, they barely know each other — but usually women blush and grin and giggle when he says that to them. He puzzles over it a moment longer, silence falling between them, and resolves to text Kotetsu about it once he drops her off at her place.

Theadora seems content to let the silence hang, gazing out the window as the bright lights of the Medaille area slowly fade into the softer glow of the city beyond. He’s not really sure what to say, so he just tries his best to focus on the directions given by the GPS, weaving in and out of traffic while sneaking little glances at the other hero. Her phone buzzes, and she flips it open, her smile illuminated by the screen as she types something and hits send.

It turns out she lives in Old Town, one of the more original parts of the city that mostly survived the flooding that led to the construction of the three Stages. It’s a very pretty part of the city, with a lot of gorgeous old buildings with classical architecture, and many museums and theaters thanks to the city fine arts college at its heart. He doesn’t get to this side of Bronze Stage very often unless there’s a crime nearby, but he sees a marquee for one of his favorite operas that he didn’t know had a production in town, and makes a mental note to buy tickets when he gets home.

“Oh, this is me,” Theadora says a moment before the GPS announces they’ve reached their destination. The building he pulls up to is a grand old factory, four stories high with hundreds of tall windows that probably let in a lot of light during the day. He’s by no means versed in architecture, but even he can appreciate the old-world charm of the building, all weathered bricks and polished glass. Theadora gathers her purse and headpiece and turns to him with a tired smile. “Thanks for the ride, Barnaby.”

“Anytime,” he replies sincerely, and she gets out of the car after looking in all directions to make sure there’s no one who might recognize either of them. She leans down with the door still half-open, her long braid slung over one shoulder. He can’t help but think she looks sad, and though the low light does his eyes no favors, he thinks she might be blinking moisture from her eyes before she speaks.

“Have a safe drive home, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Teddy.”

Kalinychta, Barnaby.” She shuts the door and tosses a wave over her shoulder as she ascends the few steps up to the landscaped plaza in front of her building. Barnaby idles as he waits for her to get safely into her building, but she stops short a few paces from the front door, taking out her phone and flipping it open with eyes that show too much white around the edges. She puts the phone to her ear and sprints into the building, out of sight from Barnaby.

He contemplates going after her — something is clearly wrong — but someone honks behind him, wanting his parking spot, and even if something bad happened, it’s really none of his business. Least of all because he he called her attractive when that’s clearly something that he shouldn’t have done.

With a sigh, he resigns himself to a sleepless night of meticulous mental replay and pulls back into traffic, Theadora’s perfume lingering in the air.

Notes:

Glike mou - literally “my sweet”, used like “sweetheart”

Harika poli - very nice to meet you

Kalinychta - good night

--

Yes, hello, I’m GoldenRose trash, fight me. I’m also Team Romantically Clueless Barnaby, I will die on this hill.

Technically, according to Season 2, Oriental Town is a nearby suburb of Stern Bild, but I always imagined it was way farther away. So, like most of Season 2, I’m ignoring that and decreeing that it’s in a different time zone completely.

I’m also very much in the camp of writing Stern Bild like it’s an alternate version of New York City, so alternate versions of Greece, Japan, China, etc also exist within this universe as I see it.

This is the last planned Barnaby POV chapter for a while. I tend to avoid canon POV because I'm always worried I'm going to make it too OOC (as if I'm not disregarding almost half of T&B canon at this point already), but it's a fun little exercise every now and again - I hope you enjoyed it!

Chapter 6: Hindsight is 20/20 (And Barnaby Wears Glasses For a Reason)

Notes:

***No trigger warnings apply for this chapter.***

Just a silly little interlude!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

🐰: I think I made a mistake.

🐯: huh? 😮

🐯: you did great at the party bud!! 👍😁

🐰: No, after the party.

🐯: oh, you mean the thing with teddy and being alone in a cab??? 🥴

🐯: sorry I laughed at you bunny

🐯: it was pretty funny tho 😂

🐰: It remains a perfectly valid point. Cabs can be dangerous, especially at night, especially for women.

🐯: yeah but she’s a hero bunny you gotta give her a little more credit

🐰: That’s beside the point, and not what I’m talking about.

🐯: so whatd you do??

🐯: dunno whats worse than that…🤔

🐰: I told her that she was attractive.

🐰: And she didn’t seem to like that.

🐯: …

🐯: you

🐯: wHAT

🐯: ???

🐰: We were discussing how invasive the paparazzi can be, and I mentioned how many inappropriate questions we get, and that she’s likely going to have it worse because she’s attractive.

🐰: I felt it was relevant to mention. I was unprepared for how overly-personal some of the media can be with their questions, so it seemed only right and fair to warn her.

🐰: But she got quiet and didn’t say another word to me the whole rest of the ride to her apartment.

🐰: I don’t understand what I did wrong.

🐰: Kotetsu?

🐰: Hello?

🐰: Please say something.

🐰: KOTETSU

🐯: i’m here bunny

🐯: i just

🐯: you actually said the words “i think you’re attractive” ??? 😬

🐰: Of course not. What I said was, “It will be a lot worse because you’re attractive”.

🐰: And that’s true. They always target Karina and Ryan and me for the same reason.

🐯: oh thanks 🙄

🐰: Kotetsu.

🐰: Please focus.

🐰: I don’t understand what I did wrong.

🐰: I’ve told women that I find them attractive on multiple occasions, and they all seemed to enjoy it.

🐰: And men, too, and they also acted like they liked it.

🐯: well yeah but how many did you tell that after knowing them for an hour

🐰: A few?

🐯: and how many of those did you end up going home with?? 🍆🍑💦

🐰: All of them?

🐰: Wait

🐰: dUCK

🐯: exactly 😂

🐰: Did she think I was hitting on her???

🐯: i mean

🐰: Oh no

🐰: Oh my god

🐯: you did hold out your hand to help her up at the pool…

🐰: I am such

🐰: An idiot

🐯: and then gave some lame excuse to drive her home…

🐰: Valid excuse.

🐰: NOT AN EXCUSE

🐯: and then you tell her shes attractive while youre driving her back to her place…

🐯: you might as well of taken off your shirt and made kissy noises 😘💋

🐰: I get it, Kotetsu. You don’t have to rub it in.

🐯: 😏

🐰: Shut up.

🐯: i told ya, you gotta be careful

🐯: youre too handsome to throw your charm around willynilly

🐰: I’m never going to live this down...

🐰: How am I supposed to look her in the eye tomorrow?

🐰: She probably thinks I’m some shallow, horny f*ckboy now.

🐯: 😏

🐰: SHUT UP OLD MAN

🐰: What do I do?

🐯: i’m still in shock 🤯

🐯: my lil bunny

🐯: so forward 😱

🐯: all grown up 🥲

🐰: You’re really not helping.

🐯: so you do think shes attractive???

🐰: I’m not answering that.

🐰: This entire conversation is inappropriate. She’s our teammate and we barely know her.

🐯: well I’m not gonna tell anyone

🐯: and you already said it

🐯: to her face

🐯: with your mouth

🐰: Stop.

🐰: Not a word of this to anyone.

🐰: I swear to god, Kotetsu, if you tell ANYONE about this...

🐯: relax bunny

🐯: i wont tell anyone your dirty little secret

🐯: that you think teddy is cuuuuute~ 🥰💖

🐰: STOP

🐯: seriously bunny between you and me do you think shes attractive

🐯: top secret confidential 🤐

🐰: You're so nosy.

🐯: okay buuuuuut...???

🐰: …

🐰: Maybe?

🐰: I don’t know.

🐰: It doesn’t matter. I don't have time for a relationship, and, as I've said, she's my coworker. It's a bad idea.

🐯: 👀🐇🥵 you

🐰: I’m going to bed if you’re just going to tease me.

🐯: okay okay jeeze 😩

🐯: youre no fun 😒👎

🐯: its okay if you do think shes pretty ya know

🐯: just maybe slow your roll a little 🤏

🐯: you see how weird it can get with toni and nathan 🫠

🐯: dont need any more drama 🚫

🐰: She’s my coworker, and I barely know her. I won’t do anything to jeopardize either of our careers.

🐰: I’m a professional.

🐰: Besides, I think she and Keith are…well, I’m not exactly sure what. But definitely not nothing.

🐯: she said he was like a brother to her

🐯: or were you too busy making googoo 😍 eyes at her to hear that

🐰: I was NOT.

🐯: ooooookay bunny 👍

🐰: …

🐰: Was I?

🐯: i’m kidding bunny

🐯: you just had that look you get when youre thinking hard

🐯: the one that makes you look constipated 💩

🐰: I’m going to bed.

🐯: bunnyyyyyy

🐯: i’m kidding 🥺

🐰: Goodnight, Kotetsu.

🐯: night!!! 👋😴🫶

Notes:

Barnaby, bisexual autistic king, we stan. The rest of the heroes know he's bi and are completely cool with it. (I'm 110% a TaiBani shipper outside of this fic, fwiw.)

Just a fun little style experiment. Kotetsu absolutely abuses emojis and you can't convince me otherwise.

Chapter 7: Study The Past, If You Would Divine A Future

Notes:

***Trigger Warnings for: minor self-harm (digging nails into skin), mentions of past sexual harassment, discussion of rape culture, mentions of suicidal ideation, and depression.***

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Pull yourself together, Teddy. You are not going to cry in BBJ’s goddamn red sports car.

Theadora stares out the window of the car, trying to distract herself with the scenery flying by — who’s shocked Barnaby has a lead foot? not her — and the dizzying blur of color only helps a little. She bounces her uninjured leg, hopelessly trying to expel some of the restless energy that’s cropped up out of nowhere, with nowhere to go now that she’s trapped in a tight space with someone she barely knows. She’s not claustrophobic, per se, but the air-conditioned air of the sleek, compact car is doing her nerves no favors. And she had been doing so well before this, actually mellowing out at the pool with the other heroes, once it was safe to fridge Queen Midnight and just be Teddy.

Barnaby’s offer was unexpected, sure, but not entirely unwelcome — cabs don’t rank high on her list of favorite places to be, but she’s managed just fine using them several times a day for the few months she’s been back in the city. It’s certainly faster — and yes, safer, though she would happily and thoroughly kick the ass of anyone dumb enough to try to jump her — and the conversation was pleasant enough to begin with. She relaxed, as much as she could, into the dreamy warmth of the heated seats, and had the short-sighted audacity to think to herself that maybe, just maybe, Barnaby was actually just a nice guy who only played it cool and aloof for the cameras, like she does.

And then he told her she was attractive, slipping it into conversation so carefully and casually — Theadora seethes when she imagines how proud of himself he must feel right now for bringing it up so skillfully, like she’s dumb enough to fall for it — clearly aiming to flatter her. Like she doesn’t already know how attractive she is, like she didn’t see herself in the mirror in her transport earlier, like she doesn’t look herself in the eyes every morning and every night and know to her core that she’s built like the women her ancestors spent months and years carving from marble. As if she’s supposed to be grateful for his acknowledgment, bow down at his feet for delivering this enlightened truth from on high, one she would never, of course, have realized herself.

Maybe that’s why her eyes are now rimmed with moisture, an instinctive, reflexive response to his flattery, when she had just started thinking that maybe there was more to the trust-fund playboy in the driver’s seat beside her. His concern certainly seemed genuine at first, but, well, it wouldn’t be the first, or the second, or the twentieth time she’s misjudged a kind word or gesture and ended up cut to the bone. Here she was, ready and willing to accept an act of kindness from the man at face value, and here he is, doing the absolute bare minimum and expecting her panties to hit the floor.

f*ck him and his presumptions, f*ck him and every guy like him, who’s ogled her tit* and her ass and assumed that’s all she has going for her. She has a PhD that she earned, she built the armor she wears on camera, she’s worked her ass off her whole life to get where she is, while all he’s ever done is smile for the cameras and then go home and wipe his crocodile tears on all the money his parents left him.

Theadora’s nose stings, a sure warning that true tears are imminent, and she clenches her jaw and digs the tips of her false nails into the skin of her palms, those eight sharp points bringing her focus and clarity. She’s not going to let some rich, conceited f*ckboy rattle her, and she’s not going to give him one iota of warmth or courtesy outside what professionalism demands.

Her anger becomes a beast in the silence that stretches between them, a serpent that slinks through the shadows cast by the fading lights of the Medaille area, and she wonders if he can sense it. Does he think he succeeded in charming her, that her silence is a show of demure pleasure, that she’s so unused to the guile of men that one simple, weaponized phrase is enough to cow her so completely? Or does he take it as a rejection, and has retreated within himself to shield a bruised ego, sharpening his teeth in silence so he can bite back and bite deeper? He looks at her now and again, sidelong and surreptitious, and she pointedly ignores him.

She blinks hard, all of the lighted elements on the dash strangely blurry in the dark, and tries to clear her head. A thread of fear winds its way through her thoughts, wondering if this is going to come back to bite her in the ass. Men used to getting what they want don’t take rejection well, she knows this intimately, having lost more than one academic opportunity because she wouldn’t go out to dinner with a professor or turned down the advances of an upperclassman. Barnaby has enough pull in the industry that he could end her career with one call as soon as she’s out of his car, if he has a mind to.

A bitch, a prude, a whor*. So unprofessional. She came on to me.

Her whole career, over — because who’s her boss going to believe? Would it really be so bad to just let him get his rocks off, one and done, so she can move on with her life? Which is worse, having to leave this city again, penniless, jobless, hopeless, and crawl home to her mother again, or to never be able to look herself in the eye because of a choice she’s forced to make?

Who is she if not forever held down by her throat by a man?

Barnaby turns a corner and her building comes into view, and that should relieve her, but Theadora feels nothing but dread. Only a few moments left to make a decision that could potentially decide the rest of her life — no pressure, she’s cool, she’s fine. Barnaby still hasn’t said anything, which could mean he’s accepted her rejection gracefully, or that he’s stewing on it, and she doesn’t know him well enough to have a feeling for which way he’s going to go.

Just swallow you pride, she tells herself, be polite and congenial and get the f*ck out of his car as fast as you can.

“Oh, this is me,” she says impotently, feeling like she’s talking through a mouthful of broken glass. The GPS announces the same a moment later, and Barnaby pulls into one of the parking spaces along the curb outside her building. He looks…suspiciously calm, his cheeks dusting pink under the warm glow of the street lamps outside as he drags his eyes up to meet her. For a moment, Theadora wonders if she’s judging him too harshly, but then again, isn’t that what got her into this situation? Thinking he’s just a harmless little bunny with only the purest of intentions?

Her head is throbbing, her arm has gone numb again, and she’s been strung out on adrenaline and a prayer for the last six hours — she clearly doesn’t have the capacity to judge any of this accurately. He doesn’t look like he’s expecting anything from her, thank god, so she just forces up as genuine a smile as she can manage and unbuckles her seatbelt.

“Thanks for the ride, Barnaby,” she says softly, hoping he just leaves it at that, please god just leave it at that.

“Anytime,” he says, perfectly mildly. Either she overreacted, or he’s a very good actor…and he has won at least one award for his guest roles on very popular TV shows. Oh f*ck, this is going to blow up in her face spectacularly, she can feel it in her bones. But worrying about the inevitable has never once helped her avert it, so she just gathers her courage — and her purse and headpiece — and steps out of the car. The air down here on Bronze Stage is muggy, and fortunately cooler this late at night, but it does nothing to alleviate the way her cheeks burn as she leans down into the open doorway and makes eye contact with Barnaby. He still looks unbothered, if not a little flustered, and she swallows the lump in her throat, feeling tears prick at the corners of her eyes.

“Have a safe drive home, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

If I still have my job.

He smiles, not that dagger-sharp grin he’d given her at the party, the one he uses for the cameras and his fans, but a soft, more reserved little expression, his face lit up by the overhead light like a sunbeam. It catches on the on the jade green of his eyes, like celadon pottery or spring clover, and Theadora feels the breath hitch in her chest before she can stop herself.

God, but he is handsome.

And a presumptuous, spoiled, fake-as-plastic f*ckboy, she reminds herself dutifully, and the last f*cking thing she needs right now.

“Goodnight, Teddy.” It’s simple, and soft, and despite the doubt sitting in her chest like a lead weight, earnest.

“Kalinychta, Barnaby.”

Theadora shuts the door, taking a few wobbling steps from the car, wanting desperately to cast off his gaze — which she knows is trained on her — like an animal shaking off water. Instead, she half-turns to give a faltering little wave, and because his windows are, indeed, tinted, she can’t tell if he returns it. It’s just as well, she doesn’t need any more mixed signals mucking up her perception of tonight.

Each step is agony, her bruised heel finally refusing to be anything other than a screaming menace, and she hobbles her way up the few stairs to the plaza in front of her building. Her phone buzzes in her purse, and she wants to just ignore it until she’s out of these shoes and peeled herself out of her dress, but she’s a hero now — it could be Agnes or Director Petrov or even Mr. Vicks. More likely, it’s Keith making sure she got home safe and/or texting her pictures of John and JohnJohn, which, honestly, is exactly what she needs right now.

She flips open her phone, paused a few feet away from the front door of her building, and freezes with her thumb over the call button.

It’s her mother.

No, no, no.

“Mama? Ti synévi? O babás eínai kalá?” Theadora puts the phone to her ear and dashes into her building, ready to tear off her dress and hop on the next flight out, job be damned, she’s already going to get fired come morning—

“Anása, potamáki,” her mother chides with a laugh, that deep, tumbling sound that Theadora always imagined as a girl was like the gently-breaking waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Little river, she calls her, a pet name from childhood for the daughter who could never manage to keep still, rushing about like the mighty river Acheron of her homeland. Theadora jams her thumb against the ‘up’ button for the elevator, over and over in rapid succession, a half-dozen times before her mother speaks again, still in Greek. “Your dad is fine. He sends all his love.”

“Fine? Nothing happened?” The damn elevator is taking forever, even with only four floors to traverse, and Theadora takes to pacing in a tight circle before the closed doors, tearing into her bottom lip with her teeth, smearing the dark lipgloss like she’s just eaten a handful of blackberries.

“That’s what I said, sweetheart. Remember your breathing.” Her mother sounds only slightly exasperated, by now more than used to her daughter’s anxieties, but she doesn’t scold further.

“Mom, it’s after midnight here, you can’t blame me for freaking out.”

“Oh, forgive me, your majesty! Should I have not called to congratulate my baby girl on her first day as a hero? I watched you get shot on live TV and I couldn’t be there to hold your hand while a stranger gave you stitches, and I’m not supposed to call to see how you’re doing?”

“Mom…” The elevator is still taking too long, so Theadora pulls off her shoes and trudges over to the stairwell, heaving open the solid steel door that’s likely been in this place since it was first built. Her voice echoes in the confined space. “I’m sorry, I just saw the caller ID and freaked out.”

“I know, baby.”

“How’s he doing?” If nothing else, the cold concrete of the stairs feels good against her aching feet as she climbs. Practically-speaking, maybe renting a fourth-floor apartment with an ancient elevator isn’t the smartest decision she’s ever made.

“He’s in bed, snoring like a chainsaw. Exciting day, you know how it is.”

“Yeah?”

“We had a party for your debut, all of us, and Allen and Elena came over. Elena made pulled pork and her potato salad, and I made giouvetsi and gemista. Connor helped me bake kourabiedes, too, and he insisted we mail some to you, so check your post soon.”

“I will,” Theadora promises, pulling open the stairwell door and shuffling through into the hallway beyond. Her mouth waters at the thought of her mother’s almond cookies, a sharp pang of homesickness cutting through her chest like a knife. “How are the Goodmans?”

“Ah, same as always. They have a new dog, a little old rescue terrier they’re calling Nana. Sweet thing, sat in my lap all night until we all got loud over HeroTV coming on.” A pause, a beep in the background that Theadora recognizes as their old washing machine, and she can smell her mother’s favorite brand of fabric softener like a passing ghost, a scent that’s all but disappeared in the many months and even more washes between here and her childhood home. “You looked like Athena, baby, jumping down onto that bus, ready to go to war.”

A hush falls between them, Theadora unsure what to say as she walks the last few paces to the end of the hall. She certainly didn’t feel like the famed goddess in those moments of false bravery. Her apartment is the last door on the left, a corner unit, and she spends a moment switching her phone to her other ear and holding it up with her shoulder as she digs out her keys.

“My boss was happy with it,” she says finally, sliding the key into the lock and twisting. “And the head of HeroTV, and her boss.”

“Surprising no one,” her mom says, a bit of a wet rasp around the edges of her words, one Theadora is intimately familiar with.

“I’m fine, mom, really. The bullet barely grazed me, and they cleared me for duty as early as tomorrow morning. They didn’t even give me pain meds.”

“sh*t doctors in the city,” her mom replies with a watery chuckle. “Sewing you up and sending you back out there.”

“I’m sorry you had to watch that, mom.” Theadora pushes her way into her dark apartment, closing the door with her hip and sliding home the deadbolt and the security chain and arming the security system by punching in her code. Her building is in a relatively safe neighborhood, but, well, they wouldn’t need to have ten heroes in a city with a low crime rate.

“Oh, I’ve seen worse. I sewed up ten gut shots a night on the graveyard shift, and a few heroes, besides.”

“None of them were your daughter, though.”

“My only daughter.”

“Your only daughter.”

“I crawled into Elena’s lap after that, like their sweet little dog. She didn’t seem affected in the least, but it’s not her baby who got shot. And then again, she’s seen Keith…well, you know.”

She does know. She remembers vividly watching Jake Martinez nearly kill Keith and then string him up with chains from Poseidon Line’s headquarters, all in gut-wrenching 8K resolution. Two weeks later, she walked into his childhood bedroom in his parent’s house to see him propped up in bed, face pinched in pain, gritting his teeth and sweating with a hand pressed to his chest. Jake broke all but two of his ribs, he told her later, quietly, while she smeared numbing cream across the chest that was more bruise than flesh, even two weeks on.

And still, she’d volunteered to be a hero.

“I think your dad took it the hardest,” her mom says, coming back to the phone after blowing her nose in the background. “He’s not like us, things like that scare him.”

Theadora spends a moment wondering at what point blood and mortal danger stopped fazing her, and pushes away the thought just as quickly. She knows exactly when down to the hour and the minute it happened, those numbers burned into her memory, the feeling of the blood slowly tricking down—

“Well, not everyone is cut out to be a Galanis,” she says, blinking hard as she flips off the light by the door and throws her purse down onto the kitchen island as she passes. The plush carpet of the living room is heaven on her feet, and she pads over to the stairs and hoists herself up to the loft. A silence from the other end of the line, her mother hesitating. Theadora pauses instinctively, reminding herself that her dad is fine, Connor is fine, her mother would have told her if either of them had an episode since they last spoke.

“Little river,” her mother begins, her voice curling around the syllables in a way that has always made Theadora homesick for a country she’s never been to. “I spoke to Cynthia tonight.”

Theadora almost drops her phone, her stomach clenching like someone has wrapped their fist around it and squeezed. Like an animal that just realized it’s in a cage, she begins pacing, from the top of the stairs to the floor-to-ceiling windows, looping back to the opposite wall to slide open one of the doors to her built-in closets.

“And?” She manages with a dry mouth and leaden tongue.

“He got a promotion today.”

“Oh, like Helperides doesn’t already have a Chief sh*thead Officer,” she spits, tearing through her clothes so hard a flimsy plastic hanger snaps off the rod. Breathing a curse, Theadora throws the entire broken hanger away from herself, taking the first set of sweats she finds and slamming shut the closet. “Why are you telling me this, mom? I don’t give a flying Phoenician f*ck what he gets himself up to these days.”

“I know, baby.” The apology is thick in her mother’s voice, as is the kid-gloves softness she always uses when she speaks to her daughter about him. It would be infuriating if she wasn’t so f*cking tired. “I didn’t want to tell you until it was all finalized, but…”

“Tell me what, mom?” Theadora stops with her hand on the doorknob of her bathroom door.

“He…” She hesitates, and her daughter takes a step back, then another, resuming her pacing. Bed, window, stairs, closet, bed, window, stairs, closet.

“Mom,” she implores, and hears her mother take in a deep breath.

“He was hired at the end of last year by Gaia Medical.”

Knees buckling, Theadora stumbles the few steps to the long couch in the corner of the loft, the one she’s previously used for reading and lounging that’s now more akin to a Victorian fainting couch.

“He’s…been there the whole time?” She ekes out, ashamed of how small and timid her voice has become. Her heart is hammering in her chest, remembering what she’s made herself forget, a riotous thundering like a prison inmate slamming against the cage of her ribs. How many times had she walked past a door at Gaia these past months, not knowing he was behind it? Had she ever passed him in the hall, or just missed him as she stepped out of an elevator? Had he been watching her, a hyena in the long grass, a vulture circling overhead? The horror turns to hurt, and that sours into anger. “How long have you known this, mom?”

“Since Christmas.” Her mother, a veteran nurse who doesn’t blink in the face of catastrophic injuries, the woman who at eighteen boarded a plane to a new country with twenty drachmae to her name, the one who fended off NEXT-hating townsfolk with only a silent glare, now sounds as meek as a newborn lamb.

“Why the f*ck didn’t you tell me? Jesus Christ and all the saints, mom—”

“Hey, mind your tongue, Theadora—”

“Mom—“

“I didn’t tell you at first because, as you said, you don’t give a flying f*ck what he’s up to—”

“And when I told you I was applying to be a hero for Gaia Medical? And when I got hired as a hero by Gaia Medical? You didn’t think it was maybe a little relevant to tell me I was going to be working in the same building as him?” Theadora hurls a throw pillow off the couch, the velveteen square sailing over the banister and down into the living room. Something smashes to the floor, probably a glass left out on the counter or the kitchen island, but she can’t even bring herself to care what it was. She’s seething, she’s shaking, she wants to throw up and pass out and go up to the roof and—

“Sweetheart, listen to me. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you turning down the offer. You needed this, baby, you needed to be somewhere that gave you your confidence back—“

“Mercedes offered me double what I was asking for, mom,” she shouts, throwing her free hand up in exasperation. “I was going to be their highest-paid new hire in almost a decade. They were giving me a corner office for Christ’s sake!”

“Theadora—“

“No, mom, you don’t get to ‘Theadora’ me, it’s way too late for that.” She pulls loose the black velvet ribbon Anika tied neatly around the end of her braid and rips out the elastic underneath it, taking a few long hairs with it. She sets to pacing again, reaching around every which way to try to catch the zipper to her dress, which more and more feels like a python winding itself slowly around her chest. “I could have been happy and oblivious in Stuttgart. I could be building robots and mech suits by now, and never have to think his name again!”

“Listen to me.” Her mother’s voice takes on a steely quality, no longer pleading. This is the single mom who took no sh*t, who had her daughter at nineteen and worked two and three jobs to keep food on the table. “You needed this hero job, my little river. Getting fat on German food and ignoring your greatness would have solved nothing. Being happy and pretending you’re not sad are not the same thing. It doesn’t matter that Scott works for Gaia now, you understand? You’re my daughter, you’re a hero, you’re a warrior. f*ck him for everything he did to you, and f*ck him again for whatever he thinks he can do to you now!”

It’s only when her mom’s voice breaks that Theadora realizes they’ve both been crying. She’s stopped her laps midway to her closet, her zipper-seeking arm having fallen to fist in the velvet skirt of her dress at some point, the tears she’s been swallowing all evening finally cresting and spilling down her cheeks. Her apartment is so dark that it’s hard to see, and she shuffles her way to her bedside table and flips on the light there.

“Mom…”

“I know, baby. I know.” Her mother sniffs, then Theadora sniffs, and they sit in silence for a moment, no other words needed. She shouldn’t have snapped, her mother was doing the only thing she knows to do — protecting her daughter as best she could. “Turn on your camera, sweetheart. I want to see my girl.”

Theadora fumbles with her phone, switching from voice-only to video, and a glowing hologram of her parent’s front porch pops up, along with a see-through image of her mother. It would be nearly impossible, even at first glance, to mistake them as anything other than mother and daughter — Irini Forsythe gave her dark curls and olive skin to her daughter, as well as her temper and her tenacity, for better and for worse. In the few pictures her mother has of her childhood in Greece, she looks almost exactly like Theadora at that age, save for one detail, the color of their eyes. While Irini’s eyes are the color of warm honey, like precious amber, Theadora’s are pale blue, the only inheritance from the biological father she’s never met.

Her mother’s earthy eyes are puffy and red, a tissue clasped in her fist, and from what Theadora can see of her own face in the small window down in the corner of the projection, she’s faring no better. Melted mascara has left dark, sticky tracks down her face, and her dark lip gloss is horribly smudged, but she doesn’t care. A fresh wave of tears carves twin trails through the ruined canvas of her cheeks, and she wipes at her eyes, the back of her hand coming away tacky.

“Oh, my little girl, you’re too pretty to cry. Too pretty and too powerful. Don’t let that waste of skin man take any more from you than he already has.”

“If only it were that easy, mama,” Theadora replies, setting down her phone and pulling the backs off her ear cuffs. She removes them and places them gently on her nightstand, starting to undo her hair from the braid. It’s crunchy with product, but comes down easily, and she runs her fingers through it and massages her scalp. Her mother says nothing, just rocking gently back and forth on the porch swing, the hinges creaking in a slow, soothing rhythm. Theadora misses that porch, the silence and seclusion of summer nights out in the middle of nowhere. It’s taken months to get used to the light and noise of Stern Bild again, and she’s more than once thought about getting blackout curtains for these damned floor-to-ceiling windows, but always balked and moved past it when she sees how much they would cost.

Every penny counts now that she has people depending on her.

“How’s our little warrior?” she asks, taking a tissue from the bedside table and blowing her nose. She misses her nephew fiercely, still unused to not tripping over his action figures and RC cars every other step, nor to no longer reading him bedtime stories and curling up on the couch with him to watch HeroTV through the special satellite box Keith sent them ahead of his debut several years ago.

“Oh, soldiering on. He was very disappointed at how little screen time Wild Tiger got during today’s broadcast.” Her mother laughs, crinkling the little crows feet at the corners of her eyes. Only forty-eight this fall, but looking older ever since her daughter moved away again, and probably older still since she watched her get shot. “Did you get to meet him after? What’s he like?”

“I don’t think the wholesome single dad thing is an act,” she admits, thinking back to her limited interactions with Kotetsu. “He seems like a genuinely good guy, from what I can tell.”

“And what about Barnaby? I get all kinds of secondhand tales from Elena, but you know Keith always thinks the best of everyone, the poor, sweet man.”

Theadora pulls a face, trying to hide it behind her tissue as she wipes off her lipgloss, but her mom sees it and makes a face in return.

“That bad, really?”

“He’s…I don’t know what he is. He gave me a ride home tonight.”

“Ooh,” her mom says conspiratorially, a knowing glint in her eyes.

“No, stop,” Theadora groans, pointing at the camera, scolding, before going back to sloughing off her lipgloss. “He didn’t want me taking a cab home, alone, late at night.”

She pitches her voice up at the end, mocking, and rolls her eyes.

“Oh, like you didn’t knock out armed hijackers a few hours ago.”

“Exactly!”

“I hope you gave him an earful for it.”

“Something like that,” she replies, rubbing her index knuckle over the spot where her headache is most prominent.

“And your arm is really okay? Show me.”

Unwinding the black bandages, Theadora picks up her phone and brings it closer to her bullet wound, holding it as steady as she can while her mom appraises it with the eyes of an ER-hardened nurse.

“And they didn’t give you any pain pills for that? Bastards.” She shakes her head, hitting her tongue against her lips three times to mimic spitting — warding away evil, and showing her distaste. “Take your ibuprofen and a hot shower, but keep it dry.”

“I know, mom, I got the talk from the paramedic.”

“You look like hell, my little river. Have you been sleeping?”

“Barely. It should get better now that I’m past my debut. If I have more days like this, I’ll be falling off my motorcycle mid-chase.” Theadora stifles a yawn, the kind that comes from deep in the chest and takes all the breath out of her lungs.

“Oh, my brave little girl. I’m so proud of you. We all are.”

“It’s all for you, mama.”

Her mother is quiet at that, looking away from the camera, the corner of her mouth twitching like she’s trying to hold back the grimace that accompanies tears.

“I should let you go,” she says finally, soft enough that Theadora can hear the summer crickets chirping in the fields beyond the house.

“Not just yet, okay? Sit with me a little longer?”

“Of course, baby.”

They sit in comfortable, familiar silence, Theadora finally managing to get her dress’s zipper halfway down before giving up. Anika told her she can keep the dress and shoes and jewelry, something she refused initially — god only knows how much it all cost — but Anika only laughed good-naturedly and assured her it was a gift from the respective brands, free advertising and legal bribes in hope of getting her to sign as a spokesperson somewhere down the line. She’ll have to buy special garment bags and figure out how the hell to get them cleaned, but that’s a problem for tomorrow-her. For now, all she can manage is to think a few steps ahead, a shower and her meds and then sweet, blessed sleep.

“I have one more thing to tell you, sweetheart.”

“Hit me.”

“Scott…his promotion…”

“Yeah…?” Cold dread returns, snaking its way up her spine, churning her insides like the thrashing of some deep-sea beast.

“He’s been promoted from the marketing department to…to being the head of Gaia’s Hero Department.”

Theadora must’ve blacked out for a moment, because she blinks and her mother is saying her name gently, like she’s coaxing their dog, Chester, out from under the front porch after a thunderstorm. The world feels surreal, hazy, like she’s stepped out of her body and is observing the scene from the outside and through a thick pane of dirty glass.

“He’s…my boss?”

“He’s your boss,” her mother confirms, shoulders and head drooping, like she’s just delivered the world’s worst news — and really, she has. “I’m so sorry, Teddy.”

“No, no, it’s…it’s fine,” she finds herself saying, even when no, it’s not fine, no, it will never be fine, f*ck her and every moment of her entire life leading up to this exact moment.

“Teddy—“

“I’m really tired, mom. I have to get good sleep, I have final dress rehearsal for my EP debut, and then the premier show in the evening. And then whatever crimes happen, and I need to get my security clearance for the training center, and I have this new PR gal who I need to coordinate some things with, and—“

She’s rambling, barely coherent, excuses and mindless statements meant to distract herself from her new reality, from the guillotine blade flashing at her neck. Of course he went to Gaia, of course he weaseled his way up the corporate ladder, of course he’s her boss now, because when has he ever been anything but a fist closing around her neck, a bullet a millimeter from her heart, a hurricane and a nuclear bomb and—

“Í tán í epí tás,” her mother says, and Theadora realizes she switched back to English somewhere in the middle of her nonsensical chatter. Either with it, or on it.

“I’ve been through worse,” she says, switching back to Greek, and while she really has — much worse, in truth — it doesn’t lessen the raw ache of the freshly-gaping wound in her chest. She blinks hard, fuzzy eyes darkening the room around her, and lets out a long breath through slack lips.

“He doesn’t own you, Teddy.” Her mother means it to be reassuring, but it has the opposite effect, because in every way that matters, he’s owned her since the moment they met, and long after he walked out on her in the middle of the night on the worst day of her life.

“I have to go, mom,” she says instead, feeling every one of her twenty-nine years, and a couple hundred after that. “Give my love to dad and the boys. We’ll talk tomorrow night, after the concert, okay?”

To her credit, her mother seems hesitant to end their call, but if she’s learned anything about her daughter, it’s that she needs time to herself to process things, and no amount of well-intended motherly pushing will change anything.

“I love you so much, baby girl. Never forget that.”

“I won’t, mama. I love you, too.”

“Kalinychta, potamáki.”

“Kalinychta, mama.”

Theadora flips shut her phone and just sits there, staring at it, for untold minutes. Her heart is still hammering in her chest, the adrenaline surge tapering off but not ceasing, and she only realizes that she’s been digging her nails into her palms when she feels the cool trail of a drop of blood slip down her wrist.

She’s never been truly religious — that’s her mother’s thing — but this is proof positive that there is a god, or several, somewhere out in the vast dark reaches of the universe, because no random act of chaotic coincidence could have produced this singular moment in time. No, somewhere, some thinking creature far beyond her mortal comprehension is laughing its ass off, rolling around and howling at this latest cruel twist of fate that it’s orchestrated.

Theadora sweeps everything off her nightstand in one swift motion, barely missing the lamp, sending gifted jewelry and tissues and her work tablet alike all to the plush carpet below. She stomps into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her, not caring about the sleep schedules of her downstairs neighbors. She tears at her dress, yanking down the zipper so hard she feels a seam rip, but all that matters is getting free of the straightjacket, out of the trappings of office, the reminder that she’s once again just a pawn in his game.

The water in the shower goes from ice cold to searing, neither extreme really registering against her feverish skin. Theadora lathers up her hair, stripping away the layers of stiff product with sweet-smelling suds that only nauseate her, letting that sit and scrubbing every inch of her skin. Her makeup sloughs down the drain, brown from foundation and black from mascara, little metallic flecks of purple and silver drowning as they swirl around the drain. She needs to be clean, to wipe away every trace of the day, of her company-sanctioned cosmetics and the hungry eyes of her sponsors and the soft and shivering touch of Barnaby Brooks fucking Jr when he helped her up beside the pool. Everyone that wants her to be more than she is, to be stronger and better and saner than she possibly ever could be. People who don’t know about the black, rotting core beneath the velvet and shimmer, how impossibly and irrevocably broken she is and always will be.

There’s a reason he left that night.

Theadora puts her hand over her mouth and screams, slamming her fist on the pristine tile of the shower so hard that the overhead light flickers momentarily. The scream, a primal, guttural thing, a wounded animal in its death throes, hangs in the air like steam before dying off into a pathetic, snotty mewl.

She heaves in sob after sob, water running up her nose and down her throat, choking her, and she slips down to her knees, long hair falling like curtains and blocking out all sound to her ears except the torrential white noise of the shower that’s running cold. Soap gets in her eyes even though she has them squeezed shut, and this only draws another long wail from her, a shuddering, ugly thing that steals what little breath she has left.

Powerless to do anything but let the sorrow run its course, Theadora sits on hands and knees, forehead pressed to the soapy tile, and lets the familiar grief consume her.

She’s not a hero, she’s not an river, she’s not anything — she’s barely even a woman anymore.

She’s not even wholly convinced she even still exists. Did she survive that first night, waking up trembling and pale in ER, or that second night, sobbing into the chest of a man who had already made up his mind? Did she die on any of the nights she thought about forcing fate’s hand to just take her already? Is this all just a nightmare? Is she in hell, and this is her punishment?

Does it even matter if she believes she deserves it?

Eventually, the shuddering sobs die down to little hiccups, all her meager energy spent. The shower is cold, and she straightens up, wiping the water from her eyes and heaving in a deep breath.

“f*ck every last one of you,” she says, to the nameless gods that may or may not exist, wherever they are or aren’t. To Scott and Barnaby, to the kid who shot her, to each and every corporate shill who profits off her body and her pain.

To herself, for being so goddamn weak.

She finishes her shower in icy cold water, rinsing out what soap remains and slathering on a quick coat of conditioner — no time or energy for her usual wash day hair mask — and finishing her full-body scrub as she lets the conditioner sit. She didn’t even think to cover her stitches, and that’s going to bite her in the ass, but she just cleans it as best she can and resigns herself to whatever consequences she’ll face come morning. When the conditioner is rinsed and she finally feels as clean as she’s going to get — shivering all the while — she turns off the shower and stands there for a moment, watching the water swirl down the drain.

It’s been a long time since she felt the desire to join it, to slip into some dark crevice and disappear for good, and it scares and comforts her in equal measure.

It’s also been a while since she took her meds, come to think of it.

Theadora opens the glass shower door and steps out, padding with dripping feet over to the built-in linen cabinet, pulling out the biggest, fluffiest towel she owns. She spends a token amount of time drying herself off, and contemplates skipping her normal wash day curl care routine, but she has to be on stage tomorrow and the stylist wants her hair loose, so she dredges up the very last of her already pitiful energy and sets to detangling and moisturizing. Once everything is knot-free and bathed in leave-in conditioner, she ties her hair up in a silk scarf and cleans up her stitches as best she can — with Gaia Medical brand supplies of course.

With her last remaining braincells, she cleans the last of her makeup away, slathers on some night cream, and brushes her teeth. Her sweats are the most heavenly thing she’s ever felt as she slides into them, and then she trudges down the stairs and into her kitchen, flipping on the under-cabinet lights and wincing at how bright they are.

This is the most important part of her nighttime routine, even more than her calls to her mom, one that mingles shame and relief every time she opens the cabinet and pulls down the little plastic bin. One, two, three — all the way up to six various little pills, doled out in a little shot glass and written down with the date and time. Six little pills that keep her away from the edge of the cliff, and supposedly, happier.

She won’t deny it, the meds have kept her on a much more even keel once she and her doctor found a combo that worked well enough for her to function, but not so well that all she did was sleep all day and pace all night, but they can only do so much. No pill is going to fill the hollow in her belly or lift the weight fully from her chest.

Down the hatch with a few gulps of water straight from the kitchen tap and she’s done everything she needs to do tonight. All the weight of the day settles over her all at once, and she staggers out of the kitchen and up the stairs, collapsing face-first onto her bed.

Theadora lays there like that, flirting with the beginnings of sleep, breathing deep the smell of her laundry detergent that smells nothing like her mother’s house or her old life. She’s on her own, in a city that she loves and hates, and that, after today, loves and hates her in return. Dragging her arm up to eye-level, she stares at her call bracelet, white with ink-black edges, and wonders if she’ll ever get used to its weight.

This isn’t where she thought she’d be at this point in her life, but it’s where she is, and there’s something to be said for making it this far, despite everything.

And it’s only up from here, she tells herself as gently as she can manage.

Not that she believes that, not fully.

Limbs like lead, Theadora turns off her bedside lamp and climbs under the covers, all but dead to the world as soon as she closes her eyes.

Notes:

Kalinychta - good night
Mama? Ti synévi? O babás eínai kalá? - Mom? What happened? Is dad okay?
Anása, potamáki - Breathe, little river
Í tán í epí tás - either with it, or on it

--

TAKE YOUR MEDS AND DRINK SOME WATER, YA HOOLIGANS

Hey, hi, we can’t talk about women in high-profile careers (let alone celebrities) without talking about the sexism and misogyny they face, whee!! I didn’t mean to go so hard at the beginning, but hey, here we are. Actually I didn't mean to go so hard on the entire chapter or drag this one part out for so long, but, like, when I tagged this "self-indulgent", I really meant that I just never shut the f*ck up! (6 chapters and it’s only been like 6 hours OOPS)

Also, yeah, I bet you thought there wasn’t going to be miscommunication in this fic, huh?? Besties, that’s all being autistic is, not understanding sh*t and having to deal with the fallout!! (Also trauma do be making people take things out of context and see them through their own lens, can’t forget that.)

Anywho, boring character development chapter is boring ^^;

Chapter 8: Action Speaks Louder Than Words, But Not Nearly As Often

Notes:

***Trigger Warnings for: car accidents, blood, child endangerment(?), and minor self harm (digging nails into skin).***

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A grating electronic tone cuts through the shadowy haze of Theadora’s dream, forgotten as soon as her higher awareness kicks in, and she sits bolt-upright in bed and casts her gaze for the source. At first, she thinks it’s the fire alarm — wouldn’t that be just her luck — but as she blinks the fitful sleep from her eyes and tries to orient herself, she realizes the obnoxious blaring is coming from her wrist.

Oh, right. Hero.

She taps her call bracelet and looks at the clock on her nightstand. Seven forty-two, barely enough sleep after the day she had yesterday.

“Bonjour, heroes.”

A hologram of Agnes’s face pops up, and Theadora can’t help but admire how put-together the woman looks this early in the morning — and after a party no less. The other heroes come into view along the bottom edge of the projection, all in varying states of waking or moving through their morning routines. Barnaby looks especially worse for wear, deep bruises evident under his eyes, and Theadora’s stomach sours at the sight of him. The fact that she’s included this call at all bodes well for the state of her career, but she in no way believes she’s out of the woods yet.

“I hope you’re all well-rested after last night. There’s been a large-scale accident on the Brox Bridge — a driver lost control of their vehicle and caused a pile-up of morning commuters. First estimates are approximately thirty cars involved with widespread injuries. I need everyone on the scene to evacuate civilians who’ve been incapacitated or trapped in their cars.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Theadora says, already throwing off her blankets and heading for the stairs. The other heroes echo her sentiment, each little rectangle going dark as they hang up the call and jump into action. Taking the stairs down from the loft two and three at a time, she grabs her keys from the kitchen island and unlocks her door, fingers working fast on the keypad and security chain. Door locked behind her, she sprints to the stairwell, taking a cursory glance to make sure there’s no one on the stairs, and, finding the space empty, activates her powers. A drop of four stories is nothing with the help of her armor, even without any shoes, and she’s out into the lobby and rocketing towards the front doors in record time. Her heel is still sore, and the concrete outside her building is rough under her feet, but it’s all trivial when she knows there are people in danger who need her help.

Her call bracelet beeps, and she taps it to accept the incoming call. It’s her driver, letting her know he’s five minutes out from her apartment, and she quickly conveys that she’ll meet him as far from her building as she can manage in that time before hanging up, taking her hair down from her silk sleeping scarf and stuffing it in her pocket as she runs.

This part of Old Town is fairly quiet this time of morning — the artsy types who live in her neighborhood aren’t exactly prone to being morning people — but she activates her powers once she’s out of sight of her building and cloaks herself head-to-toe in her shadow. In addition to conveniently concealing her real identity, it also gives her strides a little extra momentum — she can manipulate and move her shadow like it’s a solid object, so not only is she running at her maximum speed, she’s also shoving herself along through sheer force of will. It also means she can heave herself up to give her jumps a little extra heft, which comes in handy for having to leap over cars in her path. A hero can’t afford to stop at crosswalks, after all.

She manages to clear a half dozen city blocks in record time — people move out of her way very quickly when they recognize who she is and what her haste must mean — before her transport comes squealing around a corner. The side door is open and Anika is waving to her from the doorway, and Theadora launches herself towards her, tucking into a roll to land on the plush purple carpet within. All the while, her transport never stops moving, a credit to her driver’s skills.

“Morning,” she says on a breathless exhale, straightening up as the door hisses shut behind her. Anika is wide-eyed and grinning, already ushering her into her changing room.

“Morning.” She follows Theadora into the changing area and takes Queen Midnight’s headpiece and visor from the display case up against one wall. “Sleep well?”

“Not even a little,” Theadora admits, shimmying out of her sweatpants and sleep shirt and pulling her black undersuit out of its case.

“I guess you won’t be making our nine o’clock meeting, huh?”

“Don’t hold it against me, okay?”

Anika answers her sly grin with one of her own, signaling with a hand at her side for Thunder to lie down out of their way. He obeys dutifully, padding to the corner and settling down to watch the two women work frantically. Anika is an immense help in getting Theadora into her costume, holding out each piece of armor in turn and providing a second set of hands to hold or adjust or fasten. It goes more than twice as fast as yesterday, leaving Theadora enough time to catch her breath and take a few gulps of the iced coffee Anika thrusts into her gloved hands. It’s fixed exactly like she likes it — lots of cream, not too much sugar, a little dash of cinnamon — but she doesn’t have time to ponder on how the woman knew her Starbucks order to a tee.

Once she’s fully in her costume — sans headpiece and visor — Theadora steps up to the small illuminated frame beside the vanity and places her chin on the little rest inside, closing her eyes and holding her breath. While it’s no substitute for her own practiced hand, the machine makes short work of applying Queen Midnight’s signature makeup, scanning her face and spraying out nanoparticles that take her from sleep-deprived to camera-ready in under a minute. She’d prefer to do everything herself like she did last night, not entirely convinced with the safety of breathing in such a fine spray, but today there’s no time. Every extra second wasted is a life potentially lost.

Anika gets to work on her hair while Theadora scrolls through pictures and schematics of Brox Bridge on the monitor attached to a swiveling arm beside her vanity, familiarizing herself with the layout of the scene they’re quickly approaching. Unless something extremely unfortunate happens, like an oil tanker or otherwise highly-flammable cargo vehicle that just happened to get caught in the pile-up, there doesn’t seem to be any risk of structural damage to worry about. Even then, regular passenger vehicles are dangerous enough when involved in high-speed collisions. She silently prays that no buses are involved, as that makes things a lot messier — everyone knows how many people are in their own car, but hardly any bus passengers can report with the same certainty. Variables continue to be the bane of her existence, at work and in civilian life.

“How do you feel about debuting your motorcycle for this broadcast? It’s all loaded up back there, and you can get closer on it than you can with this clunky old thing.”

Theadora can’t help but grin — she was hoping she’d get the okay to ride that fine machine today.

“I would love to,” she says with unrestrained enthusiasm, taking over on taming her long hair into her signature braid while Anika works on securing her sleek, high ponytail with military-grade hold spray.

“Apparently there was some flak upstairs from Mercedes because you didn’t use it yesterday, but I don’t understand how they thought you would, given the nature of the crime.” Anika clicks her tongue, disapproving.

“f*ck me for not driving it off Silver Stage and crashing it into the bus, I guess.”

Anika laughs, a warm, robust sound, and Theadora smirks at her in the mirror as she swipes the monitor to bring up the live coverage of the accident. Mario narrates the scene, a mess of metal and smoke, and wonders aloud who the first hero on the scene will be.

“How’s your arm?”

Theadora looks at the limb in question, finding the angry red line that looks no different than it had the night before. No signs of infection, thankfully, but it still aches something fierce, even more now that whatever the EMTs injected into the surrounding tissue has worn off.

“I’ll live,” she says simply, shrugging her other shoulder and securing the end of her braid with a heavy-duty elastic. Anika finishes gluing down the rest of her hair and fetches a roll of black gauze from the medical supply cabinet, which Theadora then winds around her bicep to cover the wound.

The last thing on the list is to secure her headpiece and visor, a simple matter of sliding them on and threading the stabilizing straps through the hair pulled up at the back of her head. With the touch of a button, she turns on her visor and confirms through the on-screen stats that her armor is functioning at full capacity. The team in Gaia’s mechatronics department must’ve pulled an all-nighter to get her boots back in working order, and she makes a mental note to bring them a box of goodies from her favorite Greek bakery on Bronze Stage the next chance she gets.

“All yours,” Anika says, holding her hands up to indicate that Theadora is clear to stand and go for her bike. She picks up her tablet, swiping through it with practiced speed. “You’re on track to be first on the scene, but Tiger and Barnaby, Golden Ryan, and Blue Rose all have the same motorcycle advantage as you, so it will be cutting it close. Focus on crash victims, evacuating them from their vehicles and getting them to the first responders who will be set up to receive them on either end of the pile-up. No fires reported yet, but there’s smoke almost unilaterally, so use your best judgment on triaging who to rescue first.”

“Got it,” Theadora replies, half-sprinting to the back of the changing area and pushing through the doorway after the door hisses open. There’s her beauty, the sleek black motorcycle she was so loath to leave after every practice session — sinuous, smooth curves and glossy fiberglass, underlit with pulsing purple LEDs. She throws a leg over the bike and settles in, the soft black leather of the seat tailored to the curves of her body like a glove. It purrs as she starts it, and she makes a little sound of satisfaction in the back of her throat before tossing her braid over her shoulder and shooting a wide grin at Anika where she stands in the doorway behind her. “Thank you for your help, Anika, really.”

“That’s what they pay me the medium bucks for,” she calls, giving a double thumbs up after pressing the button on the wall that starts the slow opening of the back of the transport.
The back door slides down to become a ramp, bathing the small room in early-morning light. Theadora takes in a deep breath in through her nose, blowing it all the way out, trying to calm her racing heart. The adrenaline is welcome, as is the caffeine that’s just starting to hit, and she mentally psychs herself up while revving her motorcycle’s engine.

“Swinging around for launch,” comes the voice of her driver over the speakers, and the transport slows and begins to turn, setting her up for a clean shot to the accident without breaking momentum. Theadora settles in low, leaning forward with her stomach across the front of the seat, stretching to fully grip the handlebars. The bike was designed this way — something she had, regrettably, no say in — so that she has to all but splay herself out, tit* visible from the front, ass visible from the back, part and parcel but nonetheless vexing.

“Good luck!” Anika calls, and Theadora starts moving a split second before the transport swings fully around and comes to a stop in the middle of the abandoned freeway. With the added momentum of the swing, she launches the bike with a gunshot flare of the engine, landing seamlessly with little need for course-correction. First responders have cleared a good mile of the freeway ahead of her, so she laughs to herself and presses the motorcycle to its limits — and well past the speed limit.

A HeroTV helicopter files parallel to her path as she crosses over onto the Brox Bridge, and if her visor is to be believed, she’s the first one on the scene, at least from this side. There’s a line of ambulances and fire trucks about halfway across, lights flashing like paparazzi, and beyond that, smoke. None of it the oily black of burning fuel, thank god, but she didn’t spend more than eight years in engineering school and not come out knowing that when combustion engines are involved, things can go south very quickly.

“Skata,” she breathes, seeing flashes of pink and green moving towards the sea of crashed vehicles from the opposite side of the bridge. She pushes her bike to its absolute maximum speed, but it’s too hard to gauge who will make it there first from this angle — though, if she has anything to say about it, it won’t be Barnaby.

The first responders have left a narrow path through their vehicles that Theadora skirts through, threading a needle, activating her powers to call up her shadow for full-body coverage before vaulting off her bike, again using the forward momentum to her advantage. The bike comes to an automatic screeching stop behind her, and she lands a dozen yards from the nearest crashed vehicle, what looks like the last car unfortunate enough to add itself to the pile-up.

Oh, that’s a lot of blood.

The driver is an older man, slumped against his SUV’s deflated airbag, open wounds on his face and neck from the shattered windshield. His eyes are closed, and Theadora instinctively checks for a pulse before reminding herself that she just needs to get him out of his vehicle and safely to the EMTs. She tugs on his seatbelt but it's stuck fast, so she dismisses her armor and manipulates a small amount of her shadow into a serrated bowie knife that she uses to saw through the tough fabric. Upon freeing him, she dismisses the shadow-knife and pulls the man from the vehicle, summoning her armor again to give herself as much of a boost to her strength and speed as she can. It’s not much, but combined with adrenaline and the absolute refusal to fail, she manages to spirit the man to the line of waiting EMTs in good time.

Then it’s back into the fray, moving to the next closest vehicle and pretending she can’t feel the blood soaking through her gloves.

A green hatchback this time, with two teenagers in the front seats, probably on their way to school at this hour. They’re conscious but deeply in shock, one of them rambling about how she can’t be late today, and the other twisting her uniform jacket like she’s wringing water from it and sobbing that her mom is going to kill her for ruining it, seemingly not realizing that its soaked with her own blood.

“Hey, you’re okay,” Theadora says gently as she opens the driver-side door, reflexively shielding the girl with her body as a massive, shuddering crash shakes the bridge. From the brief glance from her periphery, it’s Antonio landing from his transport’s launcher, and he thunders over to the vehicle as Theadora coaxes the weeping teen out of the car. “I’m going to get you out of here, you’re fine, leave the jacket, look at me, that’s it.”

“I can get them both at the same time, move to the next one,” Antonio says, taking the teen under one arm and moving towards the other side of the car.

“Thanks,” Theadora replies, dashing away towards the next vehicle without a backwards glance. The girls are in good hands, she tells herself, skidding down onto her knees when she reaches the next vehicle, her boots throwing sparks as they grind against the asphalt. Some kind of huge, blocky vehicle — a Hummer, maybe — bright blue and flipped completely upside down, leaking a dark, viscous fluid out onto the glass-speckled pavement. Her visor shows the outline of an adult in the driver’s seat and, oh no

“Stand back, I’ll get ‘er flipped over.” Kotetsu lands beside her, his grappling wires retracting with a hiss, and his suit glows green as he activates his Hundred Power.

“No,” Theadora says, throwing her hand out to stop him as he crouches down to grab the roof of the car. “There’s a baby in the backseat.”

“sh*t,” Kotetsu says, helmet whipping back and forth as he sizes up the wreckage.

“Get the driver out.” She kneels down beside the rear driver’s-side door, craning her neck to see inside. The baby is wailing in terror, but she can’t see any blood — and there’s no time for even a sigh of relief. With a wave of her hand, she summons a large pane of shadow on the other side of the glass and punches the already fractured window, once, twice, three times, shattering it with her shadow keeping any of the shrapnel from getting near the baby. On hands and knees, she crawls fully into the car, the large vehicle allowing her just enough room to barely fit inside. She shields the carseat with her torso as Kotetsu tears off the door and begins to pull the driver free, and once he’s accomplished that, she sets to unbuckling the baby. Her fingers are shaking, but she manages to release all the buckles, with the infant — who can’t be more than a few months old if she had to guess — falling the few inches into her waiting arms and taking their shrieks to a new decibel. “I know, sweet thing, I know. You’re safe, I’ve got you, you’re safe.”

Baby cradled against her chest, Theadora crawls out of the vehicle, only her armor saving her from shredding herself on all the broken glass littering the pavement outside.

“Shh, shh, easy now,” she murmurs, holding the infant to her chest with one arm and allowing Kotetsu to help her up by the other.

No, wrong color, pink instead of green.

“Are they okay?” Barnaby asks, his helmet parting down the middle to reveal his face, sans trademark glasses, his blond brows drawn together in concern as he looks down at the baby in her arms.

“I think so,” she replies, looking over the infant. Their little green onesie is nearly pristine, save for a little grime that rubbed off from her gloves, but more importantly, she can’t see any blood on the soft fabric. The relief on Barnaby’s face is tangible, and he nods — to her or to himself, she can’t be sure — his helmet closing as he gestures towards the line of first responders.

“Good, keep moving,” he says before leaping away, and Theadora fights the urge to scoff as she shifts the baby to be safely against her chest, one hand cradling their head and neck and the other arm wrapped securely across their back and legs.

What else would she be doing at a time like this, she thinks as she moves towards the EMTs as fast as she feels safe doing with the poor, screaming bundle in her arms. There’s a helicopter moving with her, and she imagines how she must look, dirty and covered in blood that isn’t hers, clutching someone else’s child to her chest. It’s not exactly in line with Queen Midnight’s usual cool, aloof mannerisms, but she really couldn’t care less in the moment.

An EMT reaches out for the baby as she approaches, and she finds herself struck with a moment of visceral hesitancy. She can keep this kid safe better than they can, surely. But then she blinks and comes back into herself, knowing she’s no medical professional and that the safest place for this little one is with someone who knows what they’re doing, and she hands the baby over without a second thought.

“All heroes be advised, one of the empty vehicles has caught fire near the center of the scene.” Agnes comes through her earpiece, and she pivots, seeking out the black smoke from the middle of the pile-up. “There are still people trapped in the nearby cars, so those are now your top priority.”

“Right,” Theadora says, echoed by the other heroes. Her legs are screaming, her lungs are burning, but she pushes herself forward, calling up her shadow armor in anticipation of both heat and the potential of an explosion. The armor won’t do much good against the former, and it will protect to varying degrees against the latter, depending on the force of the blast and how close she is to it. It’s solid enough to stop bullets, but explosions are a whole different creature, especially when there’s no built-in metric to measure her shadow’s toughness like there is for her physical armor.

Both Kotetsu and Barnaby are ripping doors off cars when she arrives to the burning vehicle, and Karina is using her ice to tamp down on the fire engulfing the pickup truck’s hood, but she can’t operate at full power with the thick, acrid smoke that billows off the wreck — and the wind is chaotic around them on the bridge, never sticking to one direction for more than a few seconds. Nathan is doing what they can to subdue the flames as well using their own powers, but their strength lies more in creating fire and controlling what they make, not contending with fire that’s already present.

Theadora helps a man out of his car who seems to be in relatively good shape — well enough to run away from the blaze himself, anyway — and proceeds to the next car, pulling a pre-teen boy from the backseat and handing him to Ivan while Pao-Lin helps the driver out of the front seat.

“I can’t stop it fully, not with this smoke,” Karina says, coughing into her mic.

“Is there anyone left in the surrounding vehicles?” Agnes asks, and Theadora casts around for anyone still stuck in what she estimates to be the blast radius.

“Almost clear,” Kotetsu says. “Two more, I think.”

“I’ve got the coupe,” Ryan says, and a moment later, there’s a flash of blue and gold soaring over the burning truck and landing beside a sports car that’s been crushed lengthwise like a soda can.

“I’ll handle the last one.” Theadora hefts herself over the empty car in front of her and makes for the dark SUV tipped halfway on its side and leaning against the guardrail. That thick slab of concrete is the only thing keeping the vehicle from plummeting into the river below, and Theadora approaches it with equal parts caution and haste. She has to go up on her tiptoes to grab the handle, but with the angle and the crushed folds in the metal on that side of the vehicle, she can’t get the door open.

“Let me.” A pink glove reaches up and over her head to grasp the handle. Though his five minutes are long since up, Barnaby pries the door open through sheer force of will, stabilizing the SUV with his shoulder against the side while Theadora climbs up to look into the driver’s seat. The woman is slumped sideways, bleeding heavily from multiple wounds including an arm broken so badly that a jagged piece of bone pokes up through the skin.

“One passenger, unconscious, badly wounded,” she says, swallowing down the acid rising in the back of her throat. She jumps down from the car and stands back as Barnaby climbs up to get the driver while Kotetsu sprints up to stabilize the SUV.

“Clear out, all of you,” Agnes commands over the comms. “That thing is set to blow at any moment, I don’t need any of you caught in the blast.”

The heroes confirm their retreat, and Theadora is about to make her way to safety, but she stops when she hears Barnaby grunt above her.

“Barnaby?” She asks, and he looks over his shoulder at her for a moment.

“The seatbelt is stuck, and I don’t have my powers to rip through it.”

“Move.” Theadora pulls him out of the way by his shoulder and hops up, summoning her shadow-knife and sawing through the seatbelt with quick, efficient strokes. “Clear.”

She jumps out of Barnaby’s way, and he hops up to grab the driver, pulling her up and out and lowering her to the ground to get a better hold on her. Something shrieks behind them, metal on metal, followed by a great thundering roar like a train is suddenly approaching.

Several things happen at once.

Barnaby kneels and folds himself over the unconscious woman.

Kotetsu pushes off from the tilted SUV, the motion knocking it loose and sending the two airborne wheels smashing to the ground, and moves to put himself between Theadora and the burning car.

And Theadora steps forward, out of Kotetsu’s path, and throws her arms wide to call up a dome of shadow that encompasses all four of them. Darkness envelops them, night falling in this little cocoon, and she squeezes her eyes shut.

They’re a good hundred yards from the car, but an explosion is an explosion. Theadora rocks back on her heels, gritting her teeth with the force it takes to maintain the shadow barrier in the face of not only the force and heat of the blast, but also the shrapnel sent hurtling towards them in the following seconds. A few larger pieces make it through — it’s impossible to stop them all — and smash into the car behind her and onto the pavement at her feet, but nothing sounds like it strikes anything soft, thank god. Her ears are ringing, her head is spinning, and she mentally makes a note to brainstorm some potential ways to incorporate hearing protection into the next version of her headpiece.

“Status report,” Agnes barks in her ear, and Theadora stifles a groan at the needle-like pain stabbing into her eardrums. “Queen Midnight, Wild Tiger, Barnaby, do you copy?”

“We copy,” Kotetsu says, putting his hand on Theadora’s shoulder and canting his head to ask if she’s okay. She nods, a held breath escaping her all at once, and holds her barrier up for another few seconds in case one of the other cars decides to go up. When all is relatively quiet, she drops her hands and dismisses her shadow, morning sun rushing in and blinding them like someone yanking open blackout curtains.

“I’m fine,” she says to him and to Agnes, shaking out her hands — they always go a little numb when she has to really put her all into maintaining her shadow. She smooths a hand down her — thankfully unsinged — braid and blows a kiss to the circling chopper, then turns towards the SUV. “Barnaby?”

“I’m fine, too,” he replies, uncurling from his protective crouch and pulling the driver into his arms as he stands. “Kotetsu?”

“Right as rain.” Kotetsu emphasizes his words with a thumbs up, and Theadora imagines him grinning beneath his helmet.

“All the civilians have been evacuated, good work everyone. Recall to the north side of the bridge for statements and wellness checks.”

“Right.”

“Nice work there, Queen Midnight,” Kotetsu says, opening the front of his helmet as Barnaby activates his suit’s jetpacks and leaps away to get the woman to the EMTs. “Who needs a hero suit when you’ve got your, uh, shadow…stuff?”

“Oh, just a little party trick, kitten,” Theadora says nonchalantly, walking beside him as they pick their way through the wreckage towards the recall point. She stifles the cringe that arises from calling him ‘kitten’, even worse now that she knows his late wife used to call him that. What a bone she has to pick with whoever decided that was appropriate. It doesn’t seem to faze Kotetsu this time, his only reaction a twitch at one corner of his mouth.

“So, is it like, something you make yourself, like Fire Emblem’s fire or Blue Rose’s ice, or do you…I dunno, take real shadows and make stuff with them?”

“Oh, it’s all me, Tiger,” she replies, apologizing with her eyes as she expounds in her silken hero voice. Eyes going bright blue beneath her visor, she summons a shapeless shadow in her cupped palm, the black and purple murk rippling and changing like an open flame. She holds out this shadowflame-wreathed hand like she’s offering him a gift. “Go on, it won’t hurt.”

Kotetsu reaches out hesitantly, poking a gloved finger against the very edge of the shadow, and when nothing happens, he plunges his whole hand into the darkness.

“That…is so weird,” he remarks with a surprised chuckle, opening and closing his fist. “It’s like sticking my hand in a bowl of…pudding? Solid and slippery at the same time.”

“Mm, but then I do this.” It’s as easy and reflexive as breathing, bending her shadow to her will — she has but to think what she wants it to do, and it obeys. Her shadow solidifies fully, trapping Kotetsu’s outstretched hand in a perfect, smooth globe of darkness, rendering it as immobile as if it’s been trapped in amber. “Caught a tiger in my trap.”

Theadora dismisses the shadow and it dissipates like morning fog, and Kotetsu pulls his hand back, looking down at it and flexing his fingers.

“That is a neat ability,” he says, a little laugh escaping him as they continue to make their way towards the recall point. “Will it hurt if you aren’t careful?”

“No, my shadow itself doesn’t have any inherently harmful properties. But it is solid in essence if I choose to harden it, so if I, say, made something like this—“ she forms the first thing she can think of, a baseball bat, and slaps the thick end meaningfully against her gloved palm “— then I can do some damage. Comes in clutch when I need to break windows or saw through seatbelts.”

“And you can withstand explosions. That’s gonna come in handy in this line of work.”

“Sometimes. It depends on how big the blast is, how far away I am, how much time I have to prepare — lots of variables. It won’t save me from a point-blank explosion. Even that blast—“ she motions behind them, to the exploded and still-burning car just now receiving proper attention from firefighters “—was pushing it.”

“I don’t get why they don’t let you and Rose and Kid wear full hero suits like the rest of us. Even Fire Emblem’s suit has impact-resistant thingies built in.” Kotetsu shrugs, and Theadora wants to laugh and cry, because she’s knows exactly why the three of them are singled out for more revealing and less protective costumes. But they’re almost to the recall point and their mics are still hot, so she says nothing and gives her own cleavage-enhancing little shrug.

“I wouldn’t be a hero if I didn’t like a little danger. I’m a big girl, I can handle it.”

“Speaking of, how’s your arm?”

“I’ll live,” she replies, parroting the line she’s internalized and regurgitated for most of her life, a neat little dismissal of the truth, a pretty half-lie designed to de-escalate and keep people at arm’s length for their own good. It’s better to swallow her pride and the pain than to open the lid on the Pandora’s box that is her everyday truths.

They reach the line of first responders at the north end of the bridge, moving past ambulances and fire trucks and the busy professionals tending to the crash victims. Those with more severe injuries are being rushed off to the nearest hospitals, the rest getting on-site treatment for minor complaints. The other heroes are gathered farther down the bridge, speaking to reporters and giving post-call interviews to Mario one-by-one.

“Queen Midnight!” Someone calls desperately, and Theadora pivots on her heel to look for the source. A woman with several small bandages over cuts on her face rushes up to her from one of the ambulances, a whimpering bundle in her arms. It’s the driver of the overturned vehicle, she realizes, and reaches out to steady the woman as she comes to an wobbly halt before her.

“Easy, there, ma’am,” she says, meaning to soothe casually, but the woman throws her free arm around Theadora’s neck and sobs into her chest. Theadora schools her expression, the stoic hero, cool in the face of all, but she can’t fully hide her surprise at being embraced like this by a stranger. “Oh, no tears, sweet thing, you’re safe now.”

“You saved…my baby,” the woman chokes out between sobs, and the infant in question lets out a pitiful little wail between them. Theadora steps back, smoothing a gloved hand over the dark wisps of hair on the baby’s head, sighing in relief when she sees there’s not a scratch on their delicate skin, just a little dirt covering their tear-blotched cheeks. Their cries die down to little wet hiccups at her touch, and she smiles, glad to provide even a little comfort. She hopes they remember nothing about this day, and that they suffer no long-term complications. Their mother wraps a hand around her bicep, squeezing like Theadora is a life preserver, the only thing keeping her from drowning. “I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I’d be…I’d—“

“None of that, now.” Putting her hand on the woman’s shoulder, Theadora smiles wider — a real, genuine smile for the family who wasn’t torn apart today — and offers a reassuring squeeze. “Just treasure your little one a little more today, okay? We never know how long we have with our children — hold them close while you can.”

“I…I will, thank you so much.”

An EMT comes to lead the woman away, and Theadora watches them go with a wistful little smile that only lasts a moment before it sours into something she forces herself to swallow down. There’s a lead weight in her gut, a remembrance, and she shakes off the melancholy somatically with a quick shake of her arms and a flick of her wrists.

If only it was so easy to rid herself of the intrusive memories permanently.

“The kid’s okay?” Kotetsu asks as he joins in-step with her as she moves towards the other heroes. A HeroTV camera follows them as they walk, and Theadora hopes getting caught consoling a distraught mother and comforting her baby isn’t antithetical to her hero persona in the eyes of her sponsors. It’s not a situation she prepared herself for, so god only knows if she looked sexy or mysterious or whatever while doing it.

“Seemed fine,” she replies with an honest, one-armed shrug. “I couldn’t see any injuries, at least.”

“I feel that way about my kid, you know. I try to treasure every moment I get with her nowadays.” His voice is subdued, thoughtful, and he seems to come back into awareness of where they are and the fact that there’s cameras following their every move. He puts his hand on the back of his neck and stretches the other out to the side while arching his back like he’s waking up from a nap. “Ah, but you know kids. No teenage girl wants to be caught dead with her lame old dad, even if he is a hero.”

“Don’t be so modest. She’s more than lucky to have you, Tiger.”

“Ah, well, thanks.”

They split up and move to separate ambulances for their mandatory post-call exams, and the EMT has Theadora sit on the provided gurney while she readies her supplies. It’s a routine once-over, checking her ears and hearing, shining a light in her eyes to make sure there’s nothing damaged neurologically, hitting her knees and elbows with a little hammer to test reflexes, and making her breathe through a little machine even though she insists she didn’t breathe in hardly any smoke. All that comes back predictably clear and normal, so the paramedic takes a look at her stitches, declares that they look good, and makes her sign a little release form before turning her loose and moving on.

“Nice job, new girl!” An armored hand clamps down on her shoulder, and Theadora blinks the morning sun from her eyes to give her best look of askance at its owner. Ryan has his helmet open, and he grins down at her, towering over her with the extra height of his suit. He gives her a thumbs up. “Not bad for your first real emergency.”

She means to bite back at him in-character, downplay his praise and chastise him for calling her ‘girl’, but Mario and his cameraman interrupt before she can get a word out. Ryan backs off and wanders over towards the other heroes, letting her give her statement and mini-interview in peace. By the time Mario moves on, the rest of the heroes have completed their wellness checks and are making their way over. No one looks too worse for wear, just a few scratches here and there.

“Well done, heroes.” Agnes comes over their comms, and they all pause to listen. “No casualties at this time, but there are a few people undergoing emergent surgeries for their injuries as we speak.”

The heroes all breathe a collective sigh of relief. In any front-line career, a day with no deaths is a good day, even if the tally is tentative at this point.

“Queen Midnight, you handled your first civilian call well, good work.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Theadora replies, watching an air-med helicopter take off from the far side of the bridge and head towards the nearest hospital. She lets a silent prayer go with it, for whoever is suffering inside.

“Mario has everything he needs for the rebroadcasts, so once everyone has been cleared by the EMTs, you’re all free for the rest of the day. Over and out.”

“Is everyone okay?” Keith asks, looking between all the heroes before his helmeted gaze settles on Theadora. The heroes mutter their various assents and complaints.

“Never better,” Karina replies, but the slight rasp in her voice and the series of dry coughs that follow her words do little to reassure the rest of them. Ryan puts an armored hand on her back and rubs little circles between her shoulderblades, a tender look passed between them, one worried and one grateful. Theadora quirks an eyebrow, a small inkling that there might be something between the two heroes that’s more than camaraderie between coworkers — though, either way, it’s really none of her business. However, Nathan and Antonio are an item, that much was clear from their interactions last night, so maybe it’s not that strange that Ryan and Karina seem have something going on.

“Queen Midnight?”

“I’m fine, Sky High,” Theadora replies, waving a hand dismissively. Her ears have stopped ringing, and nothing hurts save her already-injured arm. Neither Kotetsu nor Barnaby seem to be injured, either, but the latter is conspicuously not looking in her direction, his eyes moving from hero to hero and then to the buildings in the distance but never stopping on her.

Well, she thinks to herself, two can play at not giving a sh*t about the other.

“So, whose turn is it to buy breakfast?” Antonio asks, opening the front portion of his helmet and yawning.

“I got it last time,” Ivan says quietly, spinning one of his throwing stars between his two outstretched index fingers.

“Fair or unfair if we ask the new girl to pay on her second day?” Ryan muses, stroking his chin in mock-consideration.

“Unfair.” Another coughing fit from Karina, albeit less severe this time. “I’m pretty sure it’s your turn, anyway, Ryan.”

“Ugh, Princess, you’re killing me,” he replies with melodramatic affront, rolling his eyes. Still, he pulls out his phone and swipes through to what might be a list or a menu. “Everyone want their usual?”

Murmurs of agreement from the heroes, and Ryan looks to Theadora expectantly.

“So, Queen of the Night, what’s your usual?”

“My usual?”

“Yeah, you know,” he replies, pale brows raised in anticipation. There’s a feline quality to his pale green eyes, and Theadora begins to understand why his hero suit is reminiscent of a lion. “What kind of stuff do you usually…go for?”

He has none of the subtlety of his suit’s inspiration, turns out, and Theadora allows a knowing little chuckle to bubble up from her chest.

“Oh, my tastes are a little too rich for your blood, I think,” she purrs with a little smirk. “But if you’re asking what I want for breakfast if you’re paying, I want something sweet.”

“Suit yourself, your majesty.” Ryan flashes a little smirk of his own, and turns away, putting his phone to his ear.

“So, meet up at the training center in thirty?” Antonio asks, and everyone voices their assent and scatters towards their transports.

“You sure you’re okay?” Theadora asks Karina, matching step with the younger hero when she sees that their transports are parked next to each other off to one side of the bridge.

“Oh, I’m fine. Really. My throat’s just a little raw, but it’ll pass. My company scheduled me for a session in one of Apollon Media’s oxygen chambers later this afternoon to speed up the healing, so I’ll be back to normal by tonight.” She dips her head, a show of deference somewhat inconsistent with her hero persona. “Thanks for asking, though.”

“Of course.” Theadora says it with a smile, one that Karina returns readily. “So, are team breakfasts like this a regular thing?”

“Yeah, we grab meals together when a crime happens around those times. It happens a lot, unfortunately, and it’s better to just order out while we’re all together so we can all keep our schedules on-track. We take turns paying, and whoever is buying gets to choose the place.”

“Nathan wasn’t kidding when they said you’re a family.” Theadora laughs quietly to herself. She doesn’t know any of them well enough to really feel comfortable thinking of them as her family yet, but whatever Ryan gets for her will probably be better than eating cold, leftover pizza alone in her apartment.

“For better and for worse,” Karina agrees. “Worse, considering every shared meal means listening to Tiger and Barnaby fuss at each other over their diets. Ryan made a bingo board for their arguments for when you get bored enough with those two — and believe me, you will. Pao-Lin currently has the highest number of bingos, but you’ll catch up.”

She waves a crystal-nailed hand like this is old news, and Theadora snorts a laugh. They make small talk for the remaining walk to their transports, and she finds out Karina is in college on top of her hero career and her work as an idol, but is still mostly undecided on her major. Something in the medical field, maybe, Karina tells her, physical therapy or sports medicine — something she can use to help her teammates. A noble goal, Theadora thinks, and tells the young woman as much, and Karina blushes and mumbles out a thanks at the praise. Not what she expected from the Ice Queen, but then again, she herself is nothing like Queen Midnight.

They part ways at their transports, and Theadora all but collapses onto the plush couch inside hers once the door closes behind her.

“Nailed it again,” Anika says, pushing an ice-cold bottle of electrolyte water into her hands and sitting down beside her. “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Theadora admits, cracking the seal on the water and chugging half the bottle, pressing the remainder to the back of her neck in an attempt to cool down. The sun is barely up and she still got cooked in her all-black costume — definitely going to need to fine-tune the cooling system in her chest armor as soon as possible. “Agnes said no casualties so far, so I’m calling it a win.”

“That’s the best we can hope for in situations like these.” She sighs, swiping through her tablet and shaking her head. “The rescue didn’t take as long as I thought it would, but do you mind having our nine o’clock meeting now while you get changed?”

“Might as well. The other heroes invited me to have breakfast with them at Justice Tower, and I need to get a workout in before I’m due back at HQ.”

They discuss her overall performance, watching a quick highlight reel of the rescue before she takes off all her armor and replaces it back in its display case. Anika helps her take her hair down while they talk numbers — she’s still trending on social media from her debut last night, and the pre-release teasers of her debut EP have been viewed over six million times since they were posted earlier this morning. Gaia Medical stocks continue to rise in value, something Mr. Vicks is extremely pleased with, and several very prominent brands have come forward expressing their desire to make Queen Midnight their new spokesperson.

“Speaking of,” Anika says, opening one of the lockers on the wall of the changing room and pulling out two heavy-duty duffel bags. “Nike sent all this over, hoping to grease the wheels for a sponsored campaign with you.”

“And I assume I have no say in whether or not I accept their offer?” Theadora sorts through the duffel bags, finding various workout clothes and a few pairs of running shoes, all black and deep purple, her signature colors. There’s also a number of sporty streetwear items included, which is good because she has nothing to wear with her currently besides her sweats.

“None whatsoever.” The other woman seems somewhat apologetic despite her words, and Theadora sighs. She’s not opposed to it in the least, it’s what she expected when she signed her contract, but there is something to be said for having absolutely no control over how her face and her talents are used in the wider scheme of things. Such is the life of a hero.

They finish up their meeting while Theadora removes her makeup and restyles her hair, and Anika leaves the changing room to give her some privacy while she selects a workout outfit from the Nike offerings and changes into it, stuffing her sweats and one of the streetwear outfits into an emptied duffel bag to bring up to the training room with her. The transport slows and her driver lets them know over the intercom that they’ve arrived at Justice Tower. Theadora thanks him, taking a bottle of water and a pre-workout smoothie from the mini fridge next to the vanity and stowing them in her bag. Anika taps away at her tablet, looking up and smiling when she enters the front compartment of the transport.

“Rehearsal starts at one, the stylists need you in the chair over at the stadium by five, final sound check is at six, and the doors open at seven.”

“Roger that.”

“I was going to show you around the new Hero Department after our meeting today, but we can do that tomorrow when you come in for your weekly medical checkup. It’s just a bunch of desks and computers, nothing exciting. Oh, but they just told me today that you get your own office, with windows and everything!”

“Lucky me,” Theadora replies, a sinking in her gut at who “they” might be. She pauses just before the door, leaning her weight on the wall of the transport and taking a steadying breath in.

“Hey, Anika?”

“Yeah?”

“What do you think of Mr. Cypress, our new boss?”

“Oh, I didn’t realize you already met him, I was going to introduce you first chance we got.” The other woman pauses, pursing her lips in thought. “They only hired me a few weeks ago, and I’ve spent most of my time since then down in HR, so I haven’t really spent too much time around him. I guess he had a big hand in choosing the final candidates for Gaia’s first hero, and after how wildly successful your debut was, they went ahead and promoted him to head of the department as soon as the broadcast ended. He seems like a nice guy, though, and really invested in the Hero Department.”

“Oh,” is all she can manage, tightening her fist around the handles of her duffel bag, digging her nails into her palm. That’s how it starts, she thinks, with his dazzling, crooked smile and smooth voice, his effortless charm. He’s magnetic, always saying the right thing at the exact right moment, stroking egos and heaping on compliments to make you feel like you’re the only person in the world. By the time you realize there’s no light behind his eyes, that he’s nothing more than a pretty face concealing a viper’s dripping fangs, it’s far too late. By then, you’ve been used up, drained of all your warmth, and yet, you’ll find that you’d still sell your soul just to please him for even one more moment.

A million times, she sold her soul for him, and and a million times, it hadn’t been enough.

“Why do you ask?” Anika’s voice snaps Theadora back into the present, as harsh as slamming into concrete, and she reminds her stuttering heart to beat. Thankfully, Anika hasn’t looked up from her tablet, and Theadora hastily wipes her eyes and forces her voice into nonchalance.

“No reason. I was just hoping to get a feel for the guy in charge of my whole career.”

“I think you’re in good hands, Teddy. He hired you, after all, so I think he knows what he’s doing.”

“I hope so.” She distracts herself — futilely — by opening her pre-workout smoothie and downing it all. She coughs, a little bubble of panic rising in her chest, and tosses the empty bottle into the trash across the compartment a little harder than she intended to. Thunder startles at the sound, and Anika soothes him while looking up at Theadora in question. Before she can speak, Theadora apologizes to him. “Sorry, buddy. Do you need me for anything else? The other heroes are waiting for me up there.”

“Nope, you’re good. I’ll meet you at the stadium this evening, okay?”

“I’ll be there.”

Her feet don’t move fast enough, carrying her out of her transport and into the staff parking lot of Justice Tower. The hot air hits her like a wall after so long in the air conditioning, but the perspiration already sticking to her palms and the back of her neck has nothing to do with the summer heat.

“Don’t think about it,” she tells herself over and over under her breath, a mantra and a prayer. Don’t think about him, about that night, about how he now has his fingers in every aspect of her career. Pretend there aren’t years of history all rushing back in a drowning tide, that he didn’t give her everything she wanted and then take it away just as easily, like she meant nothing.

Like he didn’t convince her she is nothing.

Her call bracelet wirelessly opens the staff-only side door, and she breezes her way through the metal detector and ID scan, making her way towards the staff elevators with adrenaline buzzing in her ears. The lights are too bright, the elevator is too small, the electronic voice announcing the floors is too damn cheery. It’s all too much, and she practically pries the doors open herself before fleeing the oppressive enclosed space. There are voices from behind the main door of the training center, and she pauses just out of range of the automatic sensors, taking in as deep of breaths as she can manage.

Nothing’s wrong, nothing happened, she’s fine, please don’t ask any questions.

“Hey, there you are! We thought you were ditching us!” Kotetsu calls out as she enters the small, private lounge area attached to the main training room. She drops her duffel bag on one of the empty benches and makes her way to the table the other heroes are all crowded around, the scent of warm, delicious food reminding her and her stomach that her last real meal consisted of champagne and psych meds.

“Heads up,” Ryan calls, tossing her a bundle wrapped in paper that she catches effortlessly with one hand. Some kind of breakfast burrito drenched in maple syrup, her first bite tells her, and she lets out an appreciative groan as she sinks down into the empty chair next to Keith.

Not only does Barnaby not take part in the other heroes greeting Theadora, he also angles his body slightly away from her and tilts his head so his bangs fall over his eyes, effectively blocking her from his line of sight. She wants to laugh, she wants to cry, but she does neither and stuffs her burrito in her mouth before she can say or do something she’ll regret.

“Thank you,” she says to Ryan after she swallows her second and third bites, taking a swig of the smoothie Keith hands her. Blueberry-strawberry-banana, her favorite flavor — Keith must’ve given Ryan a heads up, and she smiles around her straw, leaning her head on his shoulder for a moment in silent thanks.

“I hope that satisfies your fancy tastes, your majesty, it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Some kind of bougie mushrooms or something in there.” He raises an eyebrow at her, sucking the glazing from his pastry off his thumb. “Don’t let it be said that I don’t give the ladies what they ask for, and then some.”

“Gross,” Karina says next to him, rolling her eyes and eating a forkful of her breakfast bowl.

“That’s way too much butter, old man. It’s not good for your vascular system to ingest so much fat,” Barnaby says, trying to grab the mountain of little butter packets Kotetsu has piled next to his styrofoam container of Belgian waffles, but the older hero slides them out of his reach and folds over them protectively like a dragon hoarding gold.

“Hey, hands off, Bunny! I’m gonna burn it all off here in a bit, no big deal. Focus on your bland, joyless bran muffin and leave me alone.”

“Bran is good for your heart, something you should be more concerned about.”

“Yeah, but it also tastes like soggy cardboard and depression.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Theadora catches Pao-Lin and Ivan giggling to each other, the former surreptitiously scribbling on something in her lap.

“So, are you excited for your concert tonight?” Keith asks her, and the table quiets and looks in her direction.

“You’re a singer?” Karina asks, her amber eyes alighting with interest. Theadora nods as she finishes chewing her mouthful and washes it down with a gulp of smoothie.

“A little, yeah, but never professionally until now. I mentioned in one of my first interviews that I had a few leads in school musicals and I guess Gaia just took that and ran with it.” She shrugs, taking another bite of her almost-gone burrito. “They let me write my own lyrics, at least.”

“You guys should collab,” Kotetsu says through a mouthful of over-buttered waffle, pointing between them with his plastic fork. “I’m sure Teddy will be better at dancing than me and Bunny were.”

“Speak for yourself,” Barnaby retorts, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “I’m not the one consistently a beat behind.”

Pao-Lin snickers and makes another scribble under the table. Bingo, she mouths at Ryan, who makes a disappointed little grunt under his breath as he slumps back in his chair.

“A concert, huh? Is Gaia marketing you as an idol, too?” Antonio asks as Nathan licks their thumb and uses it to wipe away a little smudge of something at the corner of his mouth.

“Something like that. It’s not my main focus, but someone upstairs thinks it’s worth trying, at least. I like being on stage, so if nothing else, it’s a fun little diversion.”

“Is anything streaming yet, or…?” Karina is on her phone, scrolling through a music app with single-minded focus.

“Not ‘til after the concert, but the teasers are out there.” Theadora swallows her last bite of burrito, mentally noting the name of the place Ryan got it from, and takes a long drag of smoothie. “I can probably get you tickets, if you’re free tonight.”

“I would love that,” Karina replies enthusiastically, cheeks pinking in the next second as she looks down and away. “Sorry, I just don’t really have anyone on the inside to talk to about my music. Not another artist, anyway.”

“You should wait to hear if my stuff is any good, first,” Theadora says with a smile, pulling out her own phone and navigating to her text thread with Anika. She has a few tickets Gaia gave her for friends and family, but her family doesn’t live in the city, and all the friends she had from her old life in Stern Bild…well, they didn’t take her side in the breakup.

“Oh, I’m sure it will be.” Karina chuckles and flicks her wrist, the motion no less elegant or matter-of-fact despite the lack of her costume’s signature gloves. “None of the bigwigs invest any money in things that they don’t think will make them money.”

Stomach souring at the thought, Theadora can only fake a snort of amusem*nt and type her request to Anika. Her assistant replies almost immediately, telling her it’s no problem to get Blue Rose tickets, just have someone at Titan Industry reach out to square away the details. “Anyone else want tickets? VIP box and everything.”

“Oh, I know! Why don’t we make a girl’s night out of it?” Nathan claps their hands together, eyes twinkling with delight. “We can go somewhere fun for dinner and dancing after, I’m sure you’ll be famished after your debut!”

“I’m in,” Pao-Lin replies through a mouthful of her breakfast. “I dunno if I want to dance, though.”

“I haven’t been dancing in years,” Theadora admits, honestly struggling to remember the last time she’d been to a club or even a concert. Undergrad, probably, and definitely before she met Scott. An entire lifetime ago, really. “Sign me up. I think I can get you all backstage passes, let me check.”

“Can I come to your concert, if it’s just a girl’s night?” Keith asks with an uncertain little pout, wringing his napkin between his fingers. “I don’t have to come for dinner after, I don’t want to impose, but I also don’t want to miss supporting you at your big premiere…”

“Of course, glike mou,” she replies, patting his hand reassuringly and adding to the guest list in a text to Anika. “You know you’re always welcome with me.”

Keith answers with his trademark beaming grin.

“Thanks, Teddy, and again, thanks!”

The heroes chatter amongst themselves, finishing up their breakfasts and clearing away wrappers before filing off one and two at a time into the other parts of the training facility. Keith hangs back while Theadora finishes ironing out the details with Anika, and when she finally looks up from her phone, she sees that Barnaby has also hung back, seemingly caught between the table and the door. He’s fidgeting with the black ring he wears, spinning it around his finger in precise, perfect circles.

“You okay, Barnaby?” She finds herself asking, even though the words come out with a leaden tongue and a creeping sense of dread, like she’s putting herself in a situation where he’s standing between her and the only available exit. This is the moment she was dreading, the one she foolishly thought she’d managed to avoid with how completely uninterested he acted throughout breakfast. His head snaps up and he blinks a few times in rapid succession, a deer in the headlights.

“I…” He begins, dropping his hands to his sides and squaring his shoulders. He meets her eyes and then looks looks away, working his tongue over one of his incisors behind closed lips.

That little movement sets Theadora immediately on-edge, and her eyes dart instinctively around the room, assessing her surroundings. Couch there, only a few steps away, close enough to get to and put an obstacle and space between him and her, and Keith is here as a witness, surely he won’t—

“What I said to you last night,” Barnaby says, finally making solid, intense eye contact with her, the overhead lights glaring off his glasses. “I don’t want you misunderstanding my intentions. I didn’t mean any of it. I don’t find you interesting or attractive, and I’m sorry if you interpreted it that way. Please don’t mention it ever again.”

“I—“ Theadora begins, but he’s already out of the room and probably halfway down the hall before she can even begin to collect her thoughts. The tension and adrenaline leaches from her body, giving way to an almost-as-profound sense of confusion.

“What the f*ck just happened,” she whispers to herself.

Notes:

Skata - sh*t
Glike mou - sweetheart

--

Barnaby 🤝 Being sh*t at apologies

Sorry for the long wait between updates -- it's been ungodly hot here and I simply cease to exist above a certain temperature 😅
Also sorry that this chapter ended up being stupid long and mostly filler, I promise it will pick up soon!

Also, in case anyone was wondering, any song Florence + The Machine has ever put out is canonically one of Teddy's songs, and I'll let you figure out the ones that are actually lowkey spoilers for some plot points that are coming 😈

Chapter 9: Of All Animals of Prey, Man Is The Only Sociable One

Notes:

***Trigger Warnings for: brief mentions of intolerance and persecution by Christians, mentioned suicidal ideation, alcohol consumption, first-person depiction of experiencing a panic attack, and mentioned domestic violence.***

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“Nice, just like that! Now add the kick!” Pao-Lin cheers, and in response, Theadora cycles into a kick, the toe of her sneaker barely missing Kotetsu’s chin. The older hero ducks under her other leg as it comes swinging across, catching her foot with his own in a sweep that knocks her off her feet. But, thanks to the new starting stance Pao-Lin is teaching her, she can use the momentum to tuck into a roll and come back up in a defensive pose in time to block a swipe of Pao-Lin’s bo staff with her forearms.

“Oh, that is so much easier,” she says, standing up and putting her hands on her hips and catching her breath. “No more falling and scraping the sh*t out of my elbows when some jerk gets in a cheap shot.”

“It’s super easy to adjust other stances to incorporate this principle of balance, too — I can teach you, if you want.”

“Absolutely.” Theadora grins at Pao-Lin, seriously impressed with the teen — she knew she was the best of them at hand-to-hand combat, but she didn’t realize she was twelve when she became a hero. When she herself was twelve, she’d barely begun to control her powers, let alone display the acute mastery the youngest hero on the team had from day one. “Thank you again for teaching me. Gymnastics has a lot less crossover into combat than I thought.”

“You’re already pretty fast, you just have to learn the footwork and you’ll be kicking extra ass in no time.” Pao-Lin gives her a grin and a thumbs up, and Theadora returns it readily. “Too bad Ivan’s not here, he’s the best to spar with because he’s so fast.”

“Hey,” Kotetsu groans, wiping his forehead with the towel around his neck. “What am I, chopped liver? I can move plenty fast, thank you very much.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you!” Pao-lin holds her hands up in apology. “You are fast, it’s just that Ivan’s faster.”

“Hmph.” There’s no malice in Kotetsu’s expression, he just chuckles and rolls his eyes.

“Thanks for being my sparring partner, Kotetsu,” Theadora says, spreading her feet and rocking back into the new stance, trying to commit it into muscle memory. “Sorry for clipping you a few times.”

“Ah, no big deal. You’re gonna have to try a lot harder than that to hurt this old man.”

“You know,” she begins, moving into different positions from the starting stance, seeing what feels most like her existing fighting style, “I’ve never understood why Barnaby calls you ‘old man’ — you’re what, thirty?”

“Aha, thirty-eight. Thirty-nine in August.”

“Really?” She pauses in the middle of a slo-mo punch, looking over at him. God, what she wouldn’t do to have skin that smooth and clear — Maybelline is already pushing her to have cosmetic work done on the one singular crow’s foot she has by one eye, not to mention the stress acne she’s been at war with since she came back to Stern Bild. She’s only twenty-nine, but apparently in the world of her new mega-celebrity status, she’s already a withered old crone. She sighs and shakes her head. “Nope, I don’t buy it. There’s no way you’re almost forty. Zero chance.”

“Tell that to my joints,” he replies with a little laugh, one hand on the back of his neck. “These days sneezing has a one-in-four chance of totally messing up my back for the whole day.”

“You should see a doctor about that,” Pao-Lin says through a mouthful of the protein bar she’s almost finished with. Kotetsu shares a knowing smile with Theadora, two old folks commiserating on the naiveté of the youth.

“I guess that makes me an old woman to your partner.” She straightens up and moves over to the edge of the simulation room, the one all the heroes use to spar because of how much open space it provides.

“Ah, Bunny doesn’t really mean it,” Kotetsu waves away the thought, taking a long drag from his water bottle. “He was a brat when we met, sure, but now I think that’s his way of showing he cares about me. He’s a big ol’ softie once you get past the prickly cool-guy act.”

Theadora bites her tongue for his sake — teamwork and camaraderie and all that. Barnaby is still a brat in her mind, the last few weeks have more than proven that to her. Ever since his unexpected and, frankly, bewildering pseudo-apology — possibly the first one of his entire life — he’s been methodically and categorically ignoring her. He hasn’t said a single word to her since that morning two weeks ago, except for necessary communication out in the field. If she sits down to lift weights three machines over from him, he gets up and goes to a different room. If she goes for a swim and he’s in the pool, he doesn’t even wait to finish his lap, just swims to the edge, hauls himself out, and leaves. The two times she went into the break room to eat while he and Kotetsu were also having a meal in there, he got up, threw away whatever was left of his food, and left without a word, never even making eye contact with her. After all that, they stood next to each other on stage at a fan meetup yesterday and he didn’t so much as glance her way, even when a fan asked him what he thought about Queen Midnight joining the heroes. He just gave a generic answer, something banal and clearly rehearsed about teamwork and competition for points, and called for the next question.

And she’d just had to stand there in front of all those people, pretending she couldn’t feel the wall between them like a physical force, like his dismissal didn’t, on some level, hurt. She never had especially high hopes for befriending him, even before she met him officially — he never seemed to have an interest in engaging in real friendships, except maybe with Kotetsu, and even then, she suspects that has more to do with Kotetsu than Barnaby himself — but this feels like more than just the anticipated awkwardness of getting to know a new person. Theadora expected him to be pissy after she rejected him that first night, they always are, but his aversion feels calculated, like he just lies awake at night, thinking about her and planning his exit strategies from every possible situation they might end up in together.

And, speak of the devil, the door hisses open to reveal the Super Rookie himself. He’s drenched in sweat, the thin fabric of his workout tee clinging to his toned stomach, and the fine hairs around his neck are plastered to his skin in damp little ringlets. Theadora sucks in a little breath and wipes the perspiration from her upper lip on the back of her hand, if only to distract herself.

“You ready to go, old man?” He asks, gaze drifting from his partner to Pao-Lin and, as expected, completely ignoring Theadora. Which, this time, is admittedly somewhat a relief because her cheeks are still hot despite her best attempts at looking completely disinterested. It’s a crime against nature and her personally for Barnaby to be such a jerk and so unreasonably hot.

“Yeah, let me grab my stuff,” Kotetsu replies, giving a short farewell wave to her and Pao-Lin. “You kids have a good one.”

Theadora raises a hand in parting, sharing an unintentional moment of direct eye contact with Barnaby, who scrunches up his nose and looks pointedly away, turning on his heel and marching from the room in the next second. She rolls her eyes, biting back the ‘f*ck you, too’ lodged in her throat like a shard of broken glass. Sure, she’s sweaty and her hair is probably a little mussed from her workout, but she thought she looked damn good in her matching sports bra and bike shorts the last time she looked in a mirror, which wasn’t all that long ago.

What the hell is his problem?

“You wanna go again, Teddy? There are a few more stances I think would be really easy to work into your combat style, if you want me to teach you.”

Theadora smooths the scowl from her face — she really doesn’t need more wrinkles, and definitely not on account of him — and looks at her smartwatch.

“I would love nothing more than to stay and keep learning, but I have to get a move on and catch my transport. I have to be dressed and painted and at Gaia in…fifty-seven minutes.” She sighs, feeling herself well and truly deflate with the action, but she manages a smile for the younger hero. “Thank you for teaching me, and being so patient about it.”

“Oh, it’s no problem!” The teen assures her. “The other heroes have been here long enough that they don’t ask for lessons anymore, they just want to spar. It’s fun to teach someone again.”

“Well, it’s an honor to learn from the best.”

They part ways, Pao-Lin going off to parts unknown to continue her workout, and Theadora gathering her bag and water bottle and trudging off towards the exit. She’s not dragging her feet, per se, but she’s also not in any particular hurry, despite her limited timeframe.

It was coming eventually, this company party. With the ratings her debut pulled and then her viral EP launch the day after that, it’s only natural that Gaia would want to celebrate their star hero, and she’s more than happy to bask in that particular spotlight. However, the company is also coupling that celebration with one for the success of the new head of their fledgling hero department, making what would be, by all accounts, a fun evening for her into something just a half-step up from dying a horrible, gory death and descending into hell itself.

The elevator and halls are a blur as Theadora navigates them blindly, tiptoeing the line between anxiety and outrage.

Four months she’s been formally employed by Gaia Medical, and a month before that was interviews and demonstrations and proving to the Justice Bureau that her NEXT capabilities exceeded their thresholds for hero certification. Near five months in total, and she hasn’t actually seen him once — she wouldn’t even know he worked there if her mom hadn’t told her. She’s gone over it a hundred times in her head, how he possibly could have avoided her for that long when he’s the one who shortlisted her and then, according to Anika, made the final decision to hire her, and she’s no closer to knowing how he did it on this, the hundred-and-first time she tries.

What she does know, more certainly than she knows her own name sometimes, is that Scott Cypress does nothing by chance.

Familiar uncertainty coils itself around her chest now as she makes her way through the Justice Tower lobby towards the staff exit. What other aspects of her career are fully under his control, she wonders — the non-negotiable aspects of her costume, her hero persona in part or as a whole, brand deals and sponsors, even the final versions of her songs? It’s all suspect, no part of her new life safe from the bruises his fingers leave behind.

All this string-pulling behind the scenes and yet not one encounter, despite being in the same building as him almost daily for months now. It was always Mr. Vicks and who she thought was the head of the Hero Department in the interviews, never so much as a whiff of his aftershave in any of the conference rooms or gyms where she was evaluated. She doesn’t know how he managed it, but, then again, he’s done many things that she would have believed impossible up until the moment they were happening.

Another muggy, air-soup evening in Stern Bild, the city bustling and uncaring around her as she steps out into the staff parking lot. Her transport is idling off in one corner, and she makes her feet move towards it, feeling the urge to activate her powers and bolt as electricity riding up along her spine. Give me bad guys with guns, she thinks, give me a catastrophic structural failure or a sinkhole or a bullet to the skull, anything. Not a kind or noble thing for a hero to beg an uncaring god for, but she is technically off the clock.

“Hey, I was just about to call you,” Anika says, canting her head and smiling as Theadora steps up into the transport. She’s all dolled up in a gorgeous, deep purple evening gown, her strawberry blonde curls coiffed in an elegant updo and her usual cat-eye glasses swapped for a matching rhinestone-encrusted pair. Even Thunder is wearing a very handsome bowtie, and he thumps his tail once in greeting and goes back to watching his owner.

“You look hot,” Theadora exclaims, fanning herself with a hand for emphasis, and Anika laughs.

“Flatterer,” she chides, her cheeks pinking nonetheless. “I made sure the water in there is all warmed up for you.”

“You’re the best,” Theadora says with a genuine smile, moving into the changing compartment as the transport rumbles to life and starts moving. She strips off her workout gear and and takes her hair down before stepping into the shower, letting out a sigh of pure pleasure as the hot water hits her skin. The day melts away with the steam, the interviews, the photoshoot, the meetings in-between reading and answering fan mail.

It genuinely shocked her how many letters Queen Midnight received in just the first few days after her debut, and they just keep coming. So many heartfelt handwritten letters and cards, fanart and even a few pieces of fanfiction, the overwhelming majority expressing love and support for her. There are the expected few pieces of hatemail mixed in, people telling her she’s a whor*, a pick-me girl, and even the all-too-familiar religious types telling her that her shadow makes her evil, a servant of the devil. Nothing she hasn’t heard before, of course — in fact, she’s been dealing with this same perception of her powers since the moment she manifested them at nine years old. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, one with a church on every corner and a Bible on every bedside table, she’s long since known that her powers look evil to some people, even if she never asked for them and has only ever used them for good.

Another day, another hateful assumption, the world keeps on spinning.

It’s the little girls, though, that continue to bolster Theadora’s spirits. So many letters written in blocky, unpracticed script, telling her how she’s their favorite hero and that they get excited whenever HeroTV comes on and they get to watch her fight. Many of them include art they’ve drawn of her, beating up the bad guys, surrounded by shadow and flexing her muscles. She has a few of them up on her refrigerator alongside pictures of her with her family, to remind her that there are people who look up to her and aren’t afraid of her powers.

And then there’s the older girls, the tweens and teens who tell her that she makes them feel brave enough to stand up to their bullies. They write her beautiful poetry and send her collages made from magazine cuttings from her interviews embellished with glitter and pressed flowers and tears. They pour their hearts out to her anonymously, and she reads every single one, weeping with them and cheering for them in turn. Some are NEXT and some aren’t, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter — she was a teenage girl once, and she knows that, powers or no, an integral part of girlhood is feeling inescapably different and ultimately powerless. The fact that she brings hope, however small, to these girls, makes every cut, bruise, and bullet wound worth it a thousandfold.

Theadora swallows down a sob, stifling it with a hand over her mouth, and presses her forehead to the tiled wall of the shower. If only she was as brave as these girls think she is. They can’t see her now, shaking with nerves at the prospect of coming face to face with Scott after the years of anguish since he left, and the years of torture before that. These girls didn’t see her during what she now calls her lost year, just a dark blur in her memory, the year spent sleeping her days away and staring up at the ceiling all night, hating every molecule of her traitorous body and fractured mind, wishing for a death that would not come. No one knows that she lives every day of her life in fear of slipping back into that place of darkness, of losing herself and all her will to live.

No one would call her a hero if they knew she was always just one step away from succumbing to that perpetual night.

And no good will come from crying over it yet again, she tells herself, wiping the snot from her nose and shaking her body to expel the grief. There is no banishing the gnawing anxiety, only powering through it, and she moves vigorously through the rest of her shower, scrubbing all traces of sweat and weakness from her skin.

The Queen of the Night fears no man, least of all him.

Or so she tells herself as she shuts off the water and dries off, tying her hair up in a microfiber towel for the moment and slipping on her black silk robe. Just focus on the makeup, the hair, the outfit, don’t think about how the transport has come to stop, blink back those tears, swallow past the clenching of your throat, the fist around your neck that you can never, never be free of.

“You’ve really outdone yourself tonight, Teddy.”

Theadora blinks, awakening from the sleep-like stupor of her dissociation to Anika looking at her in muted awe through the reflection in the mirror. Some indeterminate amount of time has passed, her hands and mind fully on autopilot for the duration. Her hair is dried and styled, left loose of her usual braided ponytail, all tumbling black curls with one side slicked back and pinned in place with silver hairpins sparkling with tiny diamonds. Heavier makeup tonight, less of Queen Midnight’s signature deep purple — Midnight Purple, as Maybelline has trademarked it — and more black, from eyeliner to eyeshadow and even a black gradient on her lips. The deviation from her normal look wasn’t approved, but it’s the only measure of control she has in this situation, and she grasps it with both hands.

“You like it?” She asks, momentarily uncertain, and Anika nods.

“Too bad the party isn’t televised, your fans would go crazy for this look, I know it.” She lifts her tablet, scrolling through to a different app. “Let me get a few pictures with your headpiece on, we can post them on your socials before we head up there.”

Theadora fastens on her headpiece and poses for the pictures, already used to highlighting her best angles after the commercials and photoshoots she’s done over the past few weeks. It’s so easy to slip into her persona now, to fake the confidence and superiority — if only any of it went more than skin-deep.

Anika works on the social media post while Theadora slips most of the way into her dress — this time a strapless, corseted ball gown that very much evokes the extravagant glamor of the twenties. After Anika helps zip her all the way up, she dons the long, satin opera gloves and chandelier earrings dripping in yet more diamonds, and poses for another picture.

“You fans are going to eat this up,” Anika comments, showing her the final post before sending it out into the hungry void of the internet. “And they’re all going to love you up there, I promise.”

Theadora ducks her head in quiet acknowledgment under the watchful and knowing gaze of her assistant. The other woman has become quickly attuned to her small anxiety tells, something she’s both embarrassed by and grateful for. They’ve known each other two weeks, and yet, Theadora can’t imagine facing her bosses and sponsors without Anika at her side.

“The ‘help me’ glare doesn’t get me out of anything tonight, does it?” She asks, and Anika laughs.

“I really wish it did, but this is your party, Teddy. You earned it.”

“It’s Scott’s party, too,” she replies, unable to fully reign in the bitterness in her words. Anika purses her lips but, thankfully, doesn’t comment.

“Mr. Cypress got promoted because of you and your hard work, don’t forget that.” She puts her hand on Theadora’s bare shoulder and squeezes reassuringly.

“sh*t, I needed to hear that,” she admits with a grateful smile. “Thank you, Anika.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Anika say with a knowing smirk and the briefest of winks. “Now, let’s go knock ‘em dead.”

They leave the transport, which, turns out is parked directly out in front of the Gaia Medical building, and there’s a crowd of paparazzi and fans waiting as soon as the door hisses open. Queen Midnight eclipses Theadora as evening falls over Stern Bild, and she waves and poses and gives a quick soundbite for the single HeroTV camera present. She snaps selfies, signs a few autographs, and accepts a beautiful black rose from one of her fans with a genuine, heartfelt thanks to the young woman.

You earned this, she tells herself as she turns and waves an elegant farewell to her fans as she enters the building, and he can’t take that away from you.

What’s more surprising than the amassed crowd outside is the thunderous applause that starts up the minute she and Anika step off the elevator and into the ballroom reserved for company events. From the sheer number of people present in black-tie apparel, clapping and cheering from all sides, most of the company must be here, and she reels internally while forcing her expression to remain cool and detached.

“All this for little old me?” She purrs, hand to her chest in mock-surprise. “Oh, well, don’t stop, I can barely hear you.”

Yes, she earned this, goddamnit, the roaring adoration and praise.

Yet, she can’t help but scan the crowd, searching the sea of faces like an animal watching the forest for a predator. He’s here, in this room, circling ever closer, and she’s trapped, outnumbered, vulnerable. He always has the upper hand, the advantage of high ground and careful planning — it’s a matter of when he’ll strike, not if.

“A memorable entrance, as always, my dear.” Mr. Vicks opens his arms wide, expectantly, and Theadora obliges him begrudgingly, keeping the discomfort off her face only through sheer force of will. Ever gracious, Queen Midnight, accepting a kiss on the cheek from her boss without so much as a twitch of her eye. He introduces her to his wife, who showers her in praise, and she takes a selfie with his granddaughter, the young teen looking up at her with stars in her eyes when Queen Midnight tells her that she looks beautiful tonight.

Mr. Vicks leads her around the room, introducing her to the heads of various departments and their significant others, and Theadora tries her best to remember names and faces and their titles beyond that as they circulate through the party. Everyone offers congratulations and well-wishes, and she smiles and holds it until her cheeks hurt. Anika never leaves her side, occasionally touching her arm to offer silent support, whispering names and relevant information so that she’s never caught unaware. The attention is familiar at this point, even just two weeks in, and though she relaxes by degrees and her smiles become more genuine, she can never shake the feeling of being watched, that prey animal awareness that each breath could be her last.

“And this is Sigourney Rosicky, one of our top investors,” Mr. Vicks says, gesturing to a middle-aged woman with pale hair cut short and styled elegantly. She’s dressed in a smart black pantsuit, and she smirks at them over the rim of her champagne flute. “She was the one who convinced me to petition the Justice Bureau to allow us to sponsor a hero, you know.”

“Then I have you to thank for all of this, Ms. Rosicky,” Theadora says, extending a hand to the woman in greeting. Sigourney smiles, a shrewdness in her eyes that makes Theadora feel like she’s pinned under glass, and takes her hand.

“We’ve been thoroughly impressed by your performance, Queen Midnight,” she says, her words as sharp and precise as the daggerpoint tip of her stillettos, and she holds Theadora’s gloved hand for just a moment longer than could be considered normal before letting go. “I speak for all of us when I say that I’ll be watching your career with great interest.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I won’t let you down.”

“Oh, I know you won’t.”

Sigourney steps away, moving on to another conversation, and Mr. Vicks chuckles softly to himself.

“Well, that’s everyone, except for your immediate superior, Scott. He’s around here somewhere, but he never seems to stay in one place for very long, that kid.”

A surge of nausea, a hollow feeling in her belly and a spike in her heart rate, but Theadora only smiles placidly.

“I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since I started, sir. Am I wrong in thinking that’s strange?”

“Oh, he’s very busy, what with your debut and rousing success.” He waves a hand dismissively, taking a sip of the champagne he picked up somewhere in their orbit of the ballroom. “Don’t worry yourself too much with the details, my dear, it’s his job to handle all the complicated things so you can focus on looking good and ensuring we turn a profit.”

Theadora opens her mouth to respond — yes, sir, of course, sir, sorry, sir — but she stops short when a gentle pressure falls on the small of her back.

“My ears are burning — are you talking about me, sir?”

That voice, emerging from so far back in her memories, a lingering ghost, makes Theadora ache — in her chest, in her gut, so profoundly that she feels it strike like the crack of a gunshot and the instantaneous impact of the bullet. That hand, the touch light and fleeting and once-familiar, is gone in an instant, replaced with empty air and a looming silhouette in her periphery.

She takes a step away and yet doesn’t move at all, stuck in the hungry gravity of his presence, a helpless speck of matter succumbing to the slow drag of a black hole.

“Ah, speak of the devil,” Mr. Vicks says with a laugh, clapping a paternal hand on Scott’s shoulder, gesturing between them with his champagne flute. “Queen Midnight, this is the man responsible for hiring you, Scott Cypress.”

Theadora is outside her body, watching herself smile and extend a hand to the man that was once her entire world. She doesn’t recognize the woman before her, dressed in finery and drowning in dark makeup, willingly touching her hand to one that effortlessly visited so much pain on her time and again. It doesn’t hurt this time, his gentle touch, palm warm even through her glove, and she hears herself say how very nice it is to finally meet him.

Scott hasn’t changed in the two years since he walked out in the middle of the night, that night, ending their six year relationship with a voicemail, and somewhere far away and deep inside her, a voice tells her that it’s not fair.

Why should he still be devastatingly handsome? Why is his pale skin still perfect, his strong jaw and high cheekbones still knife-sharp, when their time apart has only given Theadora scars for wrinkles and bruise-dark circles under her eyes? Why is he still tall and well-built, always looming over her and casting such a long shadow, when she feels that these past two years have withered her to something tiny and ghostlike, half and half again of the woman she was before?

And why is he smiling at her with bare hunger in those dead, shark’s eyes, when he made it perfectly, precisely clear that he could no longer look at her the same, that he couldn’t be with her if she couldn’t give him—

“I am thrilled to finally meet you in person, Queen Midnight,” he says, voice rumbling like thunder, the warning of a hurricane in the distance. “I apologize that this is the first time we’ve spoken, and I take full responsibility for not introducing myself sooner.”

Him pulling a knife and disemboweling her would be a mercy. Theadora feels naked under his dark gaze, exposed and trembling and wholly unable to run. He has her trapped, by design, right where he wants her. This is why he avoided her so carefully all this time, she realizes, so he could trap her here, under the watchful gaze of executives and sponsors, fully on his terms in a situation where she has zero power — and knows it.

There should be anger within her, some kind of rabid, teeth-snapping rage that culminates in some grand action on her part, but she’s frozen, that same shivering girl waking up empty and alone in the bed still warm with his lingering body heat. She should be recoiling from his touch, from those hands, but her body remembers only his gentleness in this moment, the countless apologies made more to skin than to soul.

“I hadn’t even noticed, sir,” Theadora replies, her voice perfectly pleasant and foreign to her own ears. She drops her hand from the handshake, keenly aware of the absence of his heat, and he smiles, for once not rising to the subtle jab. It looks perfectly benign, the crooked curve of his lips and the flash of flawlessly white teeth, but she can read it like a billboard, bold in all caps — I own you now.

“I’ve said it a hundred times, but I’ll say it again: you were right about her, my boy. I didn’t think the public would take to a girl with powers like hers, but here we are. Consider my words eaten.”

Mr. Vicks’ words and their implications should hurt — powers like hers, devil girl, evil through and through — but there’s a floaty numbness taking hold in her body, so though they may find purchase and draw blood, she doesn’t notice the pain.

“I knew she was something special from the moment I laid eyes on her, sir.” He says it genially, drawing a chuckle from their boss, but his eyes are locked dead-center on hers, making sure she hears and feels and ingests every syllable. For an indeterminable moment, a heartbeat or a century, they’re back in an off-campus dive bar, making bedroom eyes at each other over cheap beer, two hours away from f*cking blindly in her dorm room because her roommate is still back at the bar. The beginning of the end, the singular moment from which all possible futures diverge, when she has no idea the kind of havoc one man can wreak on every level of her being, her life irrevocably demarcated into a before and after.

Was there even a her before there was a him?

“Sorry, I got dragged into a conversation with Ellen about — oh!”

A blink, a rubber-band snap back into the present, a sense of total whiplash like she’s just been t-boned by a semi.

A young woman approaches them, hooking her slender arm through Scott’s and leaning on him affectionately, straightening up with her eyes going wide when she sees Theadora.

“Oh, I was hoping I’d get to meet you tonight! Baby, introduce us!” She pleads, bumping her hip playfully into Scott’s.

“Of course, love,” he says, maintaining cool, almost uninterested eye contact with Theadora as he pulls the woman close and kisses her on the temple. “Queen Midnight, this is my wife, Michelle. She’s a big fan of yours, possibly even the biggest.”

“Understatement,” Michelle chides, slapping him playfully on the chest, the large diamond ring on her left hand glinting in the light of the ballroom.

Theadora, in what limited capacity she can feel anything in this moment, feels the absence of her own ring like a white-hot brand, her mind bringing her back to the shores of Lake Michigan, to cliffs over dark water. How painfully her shoulder had wrenched when she threw it as hard as she could into the ceaseless waves, how her throat had ached for days from the scream that tore its way from her, a banshee wail recounting deaths already passed.

Michelle is beautiful, painfully so. Long auburn hair and glowing tawny skin, tall and slender with the practiced ease of someone comfortable in their body and who’s used to being admired. Her sumptuous designer silver dress brings out the flecks of green and gold in her warm hazel eyes, tailored expertly to accentuate her ample cleavage and the slight swell of her belly.

Oh.

If there’s a floor still underneath her feet, Theadora can’t feel it. If she’s awake and not in the middle of a sweat-soaked, sheet-shredding nightmare, she can’t tell. If she’s alive and breathing and not already descended into the lowest circle of hell, she couldn’t care less.

Not when she sees this woman, his wife, grinning at her so earnestly, not knowing she has everything that was stolen from her without even knowing it.

“Michelle, dear, you look ravishing tonight. Veronika has been asking after you, wondering how you’re getting on now that you’ve quit your job to focus on your little one.”

“Oh, Sam, stop, you’ll make me blush! I feel like a blimp, and don’t get me started on how swollen my feet are!”

Scott is watching Theadora, an arm possessively around his wife, and she realizes she hasn’t taken in a breath in quite some time. There’s a snake coiling around her chest, starving her of air and squeezing a bit tighter with each passing second. Michelle laughs at something Mr. Vicks says, placing a manicured hand over her expectant belly, and Theadora forces herself to look anywhere but at that curve, that suggestion of new life.

It starts in her fingertips, that thrumming, electric numbness, and the world around her muffles and sharpens, like the air around her is expanding and contracting. A high-pitched whine eclipses all other sound, and in her periphery, colors and shapes start to blend together. Her lips go numb and her hands begin to shake, and god f*cking damnit, not here, not now. There’s not enough air in this whole room to fill her lungs, this is it, this is the end, she dies here and now, she’s burning up and fading away and it’s all exactly how he planned it.

“I’m gonna steal Queen Midnight away for a minute, I need to get some pictures of her outfit for Instagram before she’s too partied out. I hope that’s okay?”

A warm hand slips into hers, the contact sending a jolt through Theadora, and she looks over, seeing Anika looking between Scott and Mr. Vicks with an expression that leaves no room for protest despite her pandering words. She comes back into her body just a fraction, enough to remember to blink her eyes like a real human person and drag in as much of a breath as she can, all while smiling like nothing in the world is the matter.

I’m not real, this isn’t real, nothing to see here.

“Of course, Miss Meisner, we have to give the fans what they want,” Scott replies, his posture relaxed, but Theadora feels it as a surge of electricity up her spine when he runs his tongue over one of his incisors. How many bruises had that little tell preceded, minutes and hours and sometimes days before he handed down her punishment with those hands that now look so clean as they gently caress the mother of his child. “Just bring her back when you’re finished, I’m not quite done with her yet.”

Anika replies with some cheerful platitude, and Theadora makes herself smile at her bosses and Michelle before summoning the strength to make the monumental effort to walk away from them as gracefully and normally as possible.

Whether or not she succeeded, she hasn’t the faintest idea.

Where she couldn’t force herself to breathe before, as soon as they cross the threshold from ballroom to hallway, she starts to hyperventilate. The numbness in her lips has spread to her whole face, and her hands are tingling and losing sensation up to the elbows. Anika opens a door, some side conference room, and pulls Theadora inside, shutting the door and sliding the lock home behind them.

“Easy, easy, yeah, go to the floor if you need to.” Anika keeps the lights off, and Theadora blinks hard, her eyes unfocused in the suffocating, tangible gloom as she sinks down onto her knees. There’s no light in the room, but what little illumination filters in through the glass panel on the door is still too much, and she wrenches shut her eyes, finally letting the trapped sob escape from deep in her chest. A rustle of fabric tells her Anika is near, and the other woman’s voice is soft and gentle when she speaks. “Touch or no touch?”

“Touch,” Theadora chokes out between sobs, and Anika’s arms come around her to provide grounding pressure. There’s an earthquake inside her, around, her, she’s trembling down to her soul with enough force that the building is sure to come down around them.

“Tell me five things you can see,” Anika says quietly, and Theadora shakes her head.

“I can’t, it’s too dark.”

“Okay, tell me five things you think you might see if the lights were on. We’re in a conference room.”

Theadora sucks in a breath that burns all the way down, chasing one single coherent train of thought that wants slip through her fingers as easily as a plume of smoke.

“Table. Chairs. Speakerphone. Whiteboard.” A pause, a fight to stop the speeding train. “A window. A big window.”

“Good,” Anika murmurs, shifting to move from kneeling to sitting beside Theadora. “Four things you can touch.”

“Your dress. The carpet. My dress. Thunder’s fur.” She makes a gentle fist in the dog’s thick neck ruff, knowing on some level she shouldn’t be distracting a service dog, but he did come lay next to her and put his head in her lap the moment she went to the floor. Even the dog has a better head on his shoulders than she does, f*ck her life.

“Perfect, keep going. Three things you can hear.”

“Your voice. My voice. The music in the ballroom.”

“Excellent. Two things you can smell.”

“Your perfume. My shampoo. Whatever gross sh*t they use to clean these carpets. Oh, that’s three, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, you’re doing so well. One thing you can taste.”

“The…my lipgloss. It’s fake…something. Plastic fruit.” And ruined, for how fervently she’s been chewing on her lower lips. At least blood isn’t on the list of things she can taste, not yet.

“Oh, yuck, that sounds awful. Okay, let’s focus on your breathing now. In for four, hold for four, out for four, okay?”

“Okay.”

Theadora tries to match Anika’s enviously even breathing, managing a stunted version of it with tears spilling down her cheeks as she trembles in the other woman’s steady embrace. She can’t even f*cking breathe right, of course Scott left her, broke off their engagement and moved on to another woman who can give him everything she failed to. They’re married, and his wife is pregnant, and she’s having a panic attack in a company conference room just from talking to him for thirty seconds.

“Teach me some Greek,” Anika says, cutting through the static. “How does the alphabet go?”

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta…” She goes through the whole alphabet, feeling her heartbeat slow with each syllable of her mother’s language. As much as there’s remembrance in her body of every blow dealt by Scott, mentally and physically, there is an ancestral remembering alchemically reacting in her blood, that of her mother and her yiayia and every woman of their bloodline, all the way back to Pyrrha and Pandora at the dawn of time. She is theirs and they are hers, and they command her to breathe.

Her lungs expand, and she is human again.

“How do you say, ‘Thunder is being a very good dog right now’?”

O Thunder einai poly kalos skylos afti si stigmi,” she breathes, finally able to drag in a full, albeit shuddering, lungful of air. The nebulous darkness has stopped spinning, and the light coming in from the hallway no longer hurts her eyes when she opens them tentatively. She has her face pressed into the crook of Anika’s neck, all her weight leaning on her, and she flexes her fingers, clenching and unclenching her fists.

O Thunder einai…poly…

Kalos skylos afti—

—si stigmi,” they finish together.

Theadora still hiccups out little sobs, but all the energy is gone from her body. It’s been a long night, a long day, a long two weeks, a long two years.

Existing is exhausting.

“Take your time,” Anika says, rubbing her soft, floral lotion-scented hands up and down Theadora’s biceps in a soothing motion. “Just breathe. You’ve got nowhere to be.”

They sit in silence for a long time, Theadora forcing herself to focus solely on her breathing, on the transfer of oxygen into her lungs and the carbon dioxide that she exhales in turn. She’s alive — tired, but alive. Her life didn’t end that night, or any of the nights after, and it’s not going to end tonight. She’s a hero. The fearless queen who jumps off buildings and stares down the barrels of assault rifles…cowering in the dark at her own party.

“I’m so sorry,” she blurts, cheeks burning with shame and embarrassment and the fact that no matter how much work she’s done, how much better she’s finally doing, Scott still owns her. She played right into his hand, again, still. He still won, his stupid little game of control and humiliation — she’s just as weak and easy to break as she was when they were together, and he knows it. “I f*cked up. I f*cked up so bad, Anika.”

“You didn’t. No one knows you’re in here, and I will fistfight anyone who says anything about it, I swear.”

“I’m making your job so much harder.”

“You’re not, I promise. This isn’t even in the top ten wrinkles I’ve had to iron out today. You’re golden, Teddy.”

Theadora sniffs, wiping at her eyes and freezing, a new wave of panic cresting and breaking over her when she realizes that her makeup is likely completely ruined. Oh, f*ck, there are execs from Maybelline here tonight, Mr. Vicks introduced her to at least three of them — there goes that sponsorship.

“I have a bag of makeup with me, we can fix you up before you go back out there.”

Of course Anika is three steps ahead of her at all times, she should have known.

Theadora sits up, pulling off her gloves and scrubbing at her cheeks, accepting a tissue from her beloved assistant and blowing her nose in earnest.

“This isn’t your first rodeo, is it?” She asks quietly, sniffing and scraping her nails against the stiff fibers of the carpet to keep herself anchored in her body.

“Nah, me and her go way back. She’s a horrible, needy bitch, anxiety. Why do you think I knew how to talk you down so well?” Anika shrugs, stroking Thunder’s head rhythmically beside her.

“I’m sorry.” Theadora says it quietly, a moment of wordless camaraderie passing between them. She wouldn’t wish this reality on anyone, let alone someone as thoughtful and sweet as Anika. f*ck Queen Midnight, Queen Meisner is the hero Stern Bild needs and deserves, not whatever she’s been doing for two weeks.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Anika assures her, squeezing her hand with a soft smile.

“I really thought I could handle it.” Theadora pauses, rubbing her bare arms, suddenly chilled. “Seeing him again.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Teddy. Whatever caused it, it’s valid and it’s nothing you have to make excuses for. You don’t owe me anything.”

Theadora pauses, mulling over a response, turning the words over in her mouth like the sea polishing a shard of glass.

“I appreciate that, really, but…you should know. He’s your boss, too. “ She sighs. “And I’m not telling you this to stir up sh*t, I just…”

“I understand.”

Theadora summons all her courage, draws it into her and around her with a grounding breath. A cloak, battle armor, her most vulnerable spot, bared.

“Once upon a time, Scott and I were together.”

The weight of the words leach from her lungs, taking physical form in the muddy darkness of the conference room. Her eyes are still fuzzy, but the admission becomes a stalking lion, a rabid dog, the flashing fangs of a venomous snake. Anika says nothing, even her silence gentle and patient, and Theadora draws what courage she can from the familiar embrace of mundane shadow.

“We met in college, me in engineering at SBIT and him in business USB. sh*tty little bar with a mostly broken jukebox where all the students hung out for the cheap beer and dark corners. And the fact that they never checked IDs. I was freshly twenty, he was twenty-two, a couple weeks from graduating.”

She can still smell it, the sweat and alcohol and desperation, herself intimately familiar with all of it even at that point in her life. Everything from high school onwards was an endless string of bad decisions and even worse decisions, but as long as she made it to class on time, no one gave her grief about it.

“I should’ve seen it right from the start,” she admits. “But I was too busy picking all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.”

“Been there,” Anika replies with a hint of sadness, but says nothing further.

“Six years, we dated, and for six years he…” The words stick in her throat, still so hard a pill to swallow. This evil, black thing she forced into normalcy again and again, told herself she deserved — because, after all, didn’t she? She took too long to answer his texts, she wasn’t as patient and kind as she should have been, she annoyed him and made him late for things and—

Anika takes her hand in the dark and squeezes, tight. Her meaning is clear: no need to give voice to it. They sit together with the the high, reedy notes of the hired quartet spearing the silence between them.

She never deserved any of it. She knows this now, years of therapy and hundreds of doses of medication later. She should have left after the first blow, and after every strike after that, but that’s so easy to say when you’re standing somewhere safe and not waist-deep in mud in the trenches. She believed — really and truly believed, down to her marrow — that it was nothing less than what she deserved as a freak, a devil, an unredeemable and, by all accounts including her own, unrepentant f*ck-up.

She believed it even in the moments right before losing consciousness, his hands around her throat.

“I believe you,” Anika says, wrapping an arm around Theadora. “And you didn’t deserve any of it.”

She says it plainly, simply, a statement of agreed-upon fact, and it’s that understated confidence that releases something inside Theadora. The knots unwind with one little tug on the loose thread, and the tears follow. These aren’t the tears of white-hot panic barely dried on her cheeks, these are the soul-deep, hurricane-force sobs dredged up from the memory of rock bottom.

Anika holds her as she shakes, rocking her gently back and forth without saying a word. And really, what more is there to say? The lack of resistance — no ‘well what did you do to make him so angry?’ or ‘he doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would do that’ — is abysmally foreign to her, even all these years on. She can count on one hand the number of people who believed her when she told them, and doesn’t have enough fingers and toes to count those who didn’t. The bruises had long since healed by the time she reported him to the cops, and by then, the best they could do was half-heartedly suggest she file a restraining order. She never did, never had the courage to, and look how well that worked out for her.

“That’s not even the worst of it,” she whispers, too tired to even keep her eyes open. She can hear the question as plainly as if the other woman had spoken it aloud — what’s worse than that — but Anika doesn’t say anything, just starts a slow, back and forth of her thumb on Theadora’s goosefleshed bicep. There’s a freedom in that silence, no questions to answer, no statements to make or justifications to dig in heels for. Just a commiserating understanding, an all-too-common sisterhood between two women who still barely know each other.

“I don’t need to know everything,” Anika says when words prove too elusive for Theadora. “I’ll listen if you want to talk, but you don’t ever have to tell me if you’re not ready to.”

“Thank you,” she replies quietly, sniffing and accepting the whole pack of tissues Anika pulls from her purse.

“I’m sorry I ever thought he seemed like a nice guy. I thought it was weird he never asked me to schedule a meeting between you two but...well, I guess that was by design, wasn't it?” She sighs, using her free hand to pull off her glasses and swipe at the corners of her eyes. “Well, sh*t. I didn’t have throat-punching my boss on my party bingo card, but here we are.”

Theadora snorts with an unexpected laugh, shaking the both of them, and she feels Anika’s warm, breathy laugh against the crown of her head.

“There’s nothing either of us can do,” she says, tasting the vitriol of her own words on the back of her tongue — she’s swallowed enough of his venom to be mostly immune, but damn if it doesn’t go down bitter. “He’s always got the control, and he never cedes an inch.”

“You’ll never be alone in a room with him if I’m still breathing, I promise you that. If he so much looks at you funny, I will stick my foot so far up his ass that he’ll be tasting shoe polish for weeks.”

Another barking laugh escapes Theadora, and she pushes herself up fully, blinking through cooling tears and inky darkness to look at Anika in the wan light filtering into the room.

“You don’t have to take up for me, really. I’ll just try to have my panic attacks off company property and be about my business.”

“I don’t have to, no, but I’m going to.”

“Anika…”

“Shh, it’s already decided. I’m Team Teddy, one-hundred percent.”

She can only smile, sniffing a little as Anika returns it.

“Do you want to go back out there? Mr. Vicks wanted you to make a speech, but I already have three…no, four ideas for excuses and a hasty backdoor escape. How do you feel about faking food poisoning?”

“Oh, you’re sweet to suggest it, but that would be letting him win, and that is something I refuse to do.” Her courage awakens somewhere within her, stretching and yawning like a waking dragon, and with it comes years of swallowed rage. No, she won’t let him scent the blood and eat his fill — she’ll die before she allows him to do anything but starve. “Mr. Vicks wants a speech, I’ll give him a speech. Where’s that makeup you said you had?”

If there’s one thing to be said for Anika — and really, there are multitudes — it’s that she comes prepared. She produces a makeup bag with everything she needs — wipes, brushes, Theadora’s exact shade of foundation, and a little light-up compact mirror so they don't have to turn on the lights and draw attention. And, with the pictures they took in the transport that have already garnered a garnered a quarter-million likes, she’s able to near-perfectly recreate her makeup look in only a matter of minutes. Nothing to be done about her red eyes or the residual tremors she does her best to suppress, but to all but the most discerning eye, she’s spent the last fifteen minutes posing for pictures and catching her breath.

“Thank you, Anika, for all of this.” She gives herself one last look in the Maybelline-branded compact and hands it back to the other woman, who uses it to check her own makeup before stowing it back in the bag, and that inside her purse. “I…it means a lot to me knowing I have such a competent friend in my corner.”

“Always, Teddy.” Anika grins, her own eyes a little red, and reaches out to squeeze Theadora’s hand. “Going forward, know that I’ve always got your back.”

Theadora can only smile, take a steadying breath, and open the door to the conference room. The light out in the hall is harsh, and god above, she is so tired, but she summons Queen Midnight, smooths at her dress, and marches back into the ballroom like a woman possessed, knowing that Anika is guarding her six.

“There you are, my dear, I was ready to have Miss Joubert call in the other heroes for a search and rescue!” Mr. Vicks says, holding up his glass in greeting. Scott and Michelle are right there with him and his wife, and Theadora makes unabashed eye contact with her ex-fiancé, chin high and shoulders squared. There’s a knowing little narrowing of his eyes, an accepting of her challenge, and she opens her mouth to cut him off before he can speak.

“It’s all on me, Mr. Vicks Mr. Cypress, I am so sorry.” Anika interjects, and part of Theadora’s brain registers her intervention as a relief — for all her confidence, she really didn’t go into this with a plan of what she was actually going to say to him. “We were taking photos for her social media when Thunder alerted for a blood sugar crash. Queen Midnight sat with me until my snack kicked in, the absolute sweetheart.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Miss Meisner. Are you feeling better now?” The plastic, fake-saccharine concern in Scott’s voice is sandpaper against Theadora’s skin, and she fists her hand, hidden within the voluminous folds of her skirt. Anika waves her hand dismissively, smiling politely but with a calculated coldness in her eyes.

“Right as rain, sir, thanks to Queen Midnight. She’s a mama bear, this hero of ours.”

“I’m just glad we were able to handle it together,” Theadora says, a genuine, knowing warmth passing between the two women. A corner of Scott’s mouth twitches, his tongue dragged over an incisor, and though that instinctive, primordial dread snaps its teeth, it finds no purchase in Theadora’s flesh this time.

“Well, now that you’re back on your feet, Miss Meisner, I think it’s about time for that speech from our resident ‘mama bear’.” Mr. Vicks chuckles and gestures to his glass, and Theadora snags two champagne flutes from a passing waiter, handing one to Anika with a little preemptive salute. Anika tilts her glass just a fraction, a silent confirmation that she’s got her back.

“Whenever you’re ready, sir,” she tells her boss, and Mr. Vicks nods, tapping his wedding ring on his glass, the crystalline tone catching the attention of the other guests and bringing silence to the entire ballroom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed guests and employees of Gaia Medical, it’s my immense honor and great pleasure to yield the floor to the reason we’re all here tonight. It’s her success we’re all celebrating, and all of that is owed to the other guest of honor tonight, our new head of Gaia’s Hero Department. Without these two fine young people, this would be just another boring Friday night, and we wouldn’t have this chance to cut loose and enjoy ourselves!” A chuckle ripples through the attentive crowd, along with a few drunken whistles and cheers. “Without further ado, let’s hear from the woman of the hour herself, Queen Midnight!”

He gestures grandly to Theadora, who steps forward and raises a hand to silence the applause and cheers, a conductor quieting her orchestra. They’re hanging on the pause, putty in her hands, and for the first time, Theadora feels the power she holds over people, even if it’s leashed behind her hero persona.

No, none of this is thanks to Scoot, not an ounce, not a drop. He might’ve checked a box, pushed some papers and put her name in the hat, but she f*cking earned this rapturous attention. It’s her powers, her presence, her f*cking blood, sweat, and tears that got her hired and rocketed her and her company to stardom. It’s her face on the ads, the trading cards, the magazine covers, not his. He’s a footnote in her biography, a sad little smear on the unblemished expanse of her future.

He doesn’t get to win.

“Oh, you’re all too kind,” she drawls, flashing bleached teeth and crinkling her eyes to make use of those dreaded crow’s feet she’s supposed to care about smoothing away. “To think, all of this for me.”

Slowly, methodically, she begins to circulate, a giddy thrill buzzing through her as she watches the crowd ebb and flow with her, pulled by her undeniable magnetism. Who cares that it’s not Theadora they idolize, but the fully-fabricated ideal that is Queen Midnight? Eyes are eyes, desire is desire, and f*ck if it isn’t a heady co*cktail to contend with. She knows Scott is tracking her every move, a jungle cat crouched on a high-up branch, but here, in the spotlight, she’s bulletproof.

“I’ve only been a formal part of Gaia Medical for two weeks now,” she begins, flipping a long tress of hair over her shoulder, basking in the languid ease that overcomes her the more she leans into her persona. Queen Midnight isn’t scared of a goddamned thing, let her take the reins for a minute. “But in that short time, I’ve come to know that this company is like a family.”

Theadora looks around, pausing for just an extra moment, letting the crowd’s anticipation heighten again, a game of cat and mouse.

“We may not be related by blood, and we may come from all different walks of life, but this company fosters in all of us a sense of community that few organizations can boast. We grow together, we stand together, and we, above all, support each other. I have never felt so welcome as I do tonight, seeing all of you so eager to support me and revel with me in my success.”

She pauses her little march, putting a gloved finger to her lips with a little thoughtful pout. Oh, if her high school drama teacher could see her now, commanding her audience with such a tiny gesture.

“Yes, Gaia Medical is a family, and you’ve all welcomed me into it so graciously, and you have my deepest gratitude for trusting me like you have. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Scott Cypress into our family as well.”

She gestures with panache to Scott, who, despite his cool demeanor, is very obviously — to her, at least — fuming.

Oh, you poor thing, she thinks, didn’t get the tantrum you were expecting from me?

“I haven’t known Scott for long, but in that short time, I’ve come to know that he’s a thinker, a doer, and I can tell that he knows exactly what he wants and stops at nothing, nothing, to get it.”

Theadora grins at Scott, flicking the tip of her tongue over one of her incisors, barely resisting the urge to throw in a coy little Queen Midnight wink, lest she be thought too salacious.

“To you, Scott. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.”

She raises her glass, the gesture mirrored in silent and thundering waves throughout the room, and downs the whole flute in one go.

“Now, on with the party!”

Cheers rise up from all around, and in the chaos of everyone drinking and resuming their festivities, Theadora does toss a pointed little wink in Scott’s direction, not even bothering to maintain eye contact long enough to see his reaction.

“Nailed it,” Anika whispers at her side. “Way better than anything I had written down for you. I think you might’ve given him an aneurysm from the dumb look on his face.”

“He always looks like that,” Theadora says, feeling more like herself than she has these past few weeks. The guillotine is dropped, and she kept her head.

Anika snickers, about to respond, but a shrill, electronic tone cuts through the din of the party, and the whole room quiets, their eyes on the telltale flashing of her call bracelet.

“Oh, a hero’s job is never done,” she says dramtically, shoving her shoulder down and her cleavage out, one half of Midnight Secret. “You all won’t mind if I step out for just a moment, will you?”

Various shouted iterations of ‘no’ rise up, and she looks past Scott to Mr. Vicks, who’s shaking his head with a resigned little smile. He raises his glass to her, and the crowd follows suit.

“Go, Queen Midnight, and make our company proud.”

Theadora gives a two-fingered salute, shares a quick nod with Anika, and bolts for the double doors open to the night air. No visor to say for sure, but the drop from the balcony doesn’t look too far, not with the adrenaline pumping through her veins from her victory, however small and ultimately petty it may be.

She turns to the expectant crowd, all eyes on her, and takes one final moment to bask in the glow of her celebrity.

Yes, she earned this.

Eyes sparking blue, Queen Midnight cloaks herself in shadow and, with a kiss blown directly to Scott, leans back and drops backwards off the balcony to the thunderous sound of cheering.

Notes:

Yiayia - grandma

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This chapter (and most of the fic, really) brought to you by 'Little Girl Gone' by CHINCHILLA 🔪

Anyway, there's the aforementioned onset of Scott content, I'm so sorry it took me this long to get here! Most of the stuff up to this point has been completely off-script from the original draft of this fic, and well, when that happens, I just keep f*cking talking (even though this 10k behemoth was fully planned in advance 😅). The next few chapters will return everything to your regularly-scheduled, pre-planned shenaniganery, don't you worry.

Thank you as always for the kudos and comments -- I'm genuinely chuffed to know someone out there enjoys my brain rot as much as I do 💖

Series this work belongs to:

  • Part 1 of To The Darkness, We Answer With Light

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Kudos

Mechanicwolf, superdanganisland, Kiritagawa, UFOLotus, and CaritoDoritoas well as2 guestsleft kudos on this work!

Comments

  1. HeroTV Sponsor (Guest)on Chapter 2Fri 15Mar 202407:46AM UTC

    Really interested in the premise so far!! New hero, S2 canon divergence, Barnaby x OC relationship (w/ Queen Midnight????) 👀👀 Color me intrigued so far. How is Stern Bild going to handle a hero sexier than Blue Rose?? Lmao, can't wait to see her reaction. I can tell there's been a lot of thought and effort put into this especially if you've been working on it this long, I can't wait to see where the rest of this goes!

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 2Fri 15Mar 202405:23PM UTC

      Oh my gosh thank you for such a lovely comment! 😭 I was so nervous to post this, but you've really lifted my spirits! I'm so excited to tell this story, it's been percolating for so long!

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  2. CaritoDoritoon Chapter 2Sat 16Mar 202411:46PM UTC

    OCxCanon in the TnB fandom 👀? Niiiice!!!

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 2Sun 17Mar 202405:22AM UTC

      Yesss! I'm so glad others are as excited as I am!

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  3. UFOLotuson Chapter 2Tue 19Mar 202406:56AM UTC

    I forgor to comment when I first read this BUT! I'm always a sucker for a good canon divergence (especially after the dumpster fire that was S2) and this one seems especially promising 👀
    Also forgetting Rock Bison exists is the most canon-accurate anyone could ever do lmao

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 2Tue 19Mar 202409:29PM UTC

      Oh, thank you!! Really I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't vibe with S2, here I was thinking I'd committed some fandom sin LOL. And yeah, I was running through the roster to make sure I gave everyone a cameo and...whoops! ^^;

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  4. UFOLotuson Chapter 3Fri 05Apr 202403:25PM UTC

    AHHH NO that wasn't boring, that was good!! I love all the little pieces of worldbuilding you did with the fan interactions and the suit details, as well as her internal thoughts about hero work and all of the booschitt that entails. Good stuff >:D

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 3Fri 05Apr 202404:10PM UTC

      Oh my goodness, thank you!! I was agonizing over it for like a week, so this really makes me feel better!!

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  5. superdanganislandon Chapter 3Sat 06Apr 202406:14AM UTC

    "Dommy mommy" 😭 boy I wheezed

    Can't wait to see the other heroes' reactions to her!

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 3Sat 06Apr 202409:44AM UTC

      😂 I'm glad you liked that!

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  6. UFOLotuson Chapter 4Mon 06May 202406:49PM UTC

    I'm always a sucker for all the little interactions this gaggle of goobers can have, so little lowdown scenes of them just talking and discussing are way more fun than they have any right to be for me. Can't way to see how Queen Midnights relationships with them grow and change in the future!

    (Also, the commissioned art in the first chapter IS SICK!)

    (also also I AGREE! It may not have been intentional but it's easy to get a neurodivergent reading on a lot of the characters and it just makes me love them all the more, which shouldn't be mathematically possible but we breakin all kinds of rules here)

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  7. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 4Mon 06May 202407:54PM UTC

    Thank you for your continued lovely comments!!

    I, too, enjoy all of these losers just existing in a room together, there's just so much potential for chaos and cuteness!

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who reads a lot of them as neurodivergent - it makes me indescribably happy that other people can see themselves in them, as well!!

    Last Edited Sat 11May 202407:32PM UTC

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  8. superdanganislandon Chapter 5Wed 15May 202411:10PM UTC

    "...once I’m done saving a horse" the gasp I gusped 😭

    Interesting chapter! I liked all the banter between the heroes, particularly the "what are even the downsides of being a hero" segment and Kotetsu and Barnaby's bickering being like a white noise machine. 😂 Also just worldbuilding-wise I enjoyed the Old Town description, it just makes way too much sense. Also, Queen Midnight is midwestern?? Like how midwestern are we talking...

    Goldenrose trash 🤝 If you ever write a goldenrose fic I will be first in line.

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 5Thu 16May 202409:45AM UTC

      Haha I was so proud of myself for that line! 😅

      Thank you!! Hero banter is way more fun to write than it has any right to be, it's quickly becoming my favorite genre. And the other heroes *have* to learn to to tune the boys out, it's like, all day every day 😂

      And I'm Midwestern, like the most ope-y dopey backwater cornfield goober, so obvs I need to write an OC who is, too. 😈 I haven't nailed down exactly where she's from, though, but it will def become a more important part of the story eventually for...reasons... 😉

      And I'm strongly considering a series of side one-shots related to this fic, which would probably include Goldenrose nonsense!

      Last Edited Thu 16May 202409:46AM UTC

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  9. superdanganislandon Chapter 7Wed 29May 202407:14AM UTC

    Some intriguing backstory being set up with Theadora! At first when she was kind of projecting onto Barnaby in the car I was like "dang girl what's your deal" but getting that first look into her past really explained a lot. I like that a lot of it can be extrapolated without outright stating it (i.e. a couple of references to hands around her neck in the metaphorical sense... oof). Interested to see what happens next with this man. Kind of also wondering if he had any say in her outfit/hyper-sexualized hero persona? Yikes!!

    I can tell a lot of thought has been put into this and I'm enjoying reading something a little different in the tnb tag. And your writing style is on point, it's descriptive and immersive with a good mix of characters' thoughts and environmental details. 🤌 I hope she gets to realize soon that Barnaby's not a f*ckboy (lol) and her and all the other heroes can go and kick Scott's ass. I don't know everything he did yet but I DO know it was *bad*.

    Also I totally didn't realize only a few hours had passed in-story until you mentioned it 😂 It's fine

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 7Wed 29May 202403:37PM UTC

      Thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful comment! 🥹 I'm so glad you're enjoying it!

      I really appreciate your feedback -- it's tough walking the line between reasonably distrustful and unfairly critical, so I'm glad that her internal struggle comes through well in the narrative! It's hard for me as a hardcore Barnaby stan to write someone thinking so unfairly of him (he is baby, he is cinnamon roll, I would die for him), but it serves a purpose in the narrative as a whole so I have to be strong 😩 And the next few chapters in particular do deal with Scott and just how much f*ckery he's been up to since Teddy last saw him...

      And thank you for saying you like my writing style! I'm SO self-conscious about that, so your comment is really lifting my spirits! 💖

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  10. superdanganislandon Chapter 8Tue 25Jun 202404:28AM UTC

    I really enjoyed the action sequence (I always like the kind of darker side of hero work) and cool to see a clarification of Theadora's powers. Can't wait to see what her new boss's deal is. 👀

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    1. Pennumbra (manatapped)on Chapter 8Tue 25Jun 202404:43PM UTC

      Thank you as always for your lovely comment! This chapter got completely away from me, but it's the last of the groundwork I needed to lay before things can really take off.

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  11. superdanganislandon Chapter 9Mon 08Jul 202410:44PM UTC

    GODDDD, this chapter was so good. I was early awaiting the appearance of. Mr. Scott Cypress and boy did it not disappoint. His whole introduction had my skin crawling the way you could feel Theadora's reaction through the text. The descriptions were so amazing, "voice rumbling like thunder, the warning of a hurricane in the distance," the subtle attraction she still held towards him after all this time, Scott pretending not to know her, and his new wife who's already PREGNANT?!?!?!?!?! I want to kill this man. (I'm thinking... what are the chances Scott was cheating on her before their relationship was even terminated?) And I'm super, super intrigued by the introduction of Sigourney, I didn't love how they handled her in s2 so excited to see how this fic does her differently. Also, Anika's a boss babe.

    Idk what I came into this fic expecting but it's been such a fun surprise following & enjoying an OC-centric fic, it really feels like a side story set in the T&B-verse. Really looking forward to the rest.

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    1. CaritoDoritoon Chapter 9Tue 09Jul 202401:05AM UTC

      10000% agree with this!!! I want to see how you'd reimagine everything with every character 😆

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It's Always Darkest Before The Dawn - Pennumbra (manatapped) (2024)
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