I unpacked my suitcase, laying out some clothes Max had helped me scavenge from my apartment. There wasn’t much, but I still made use of the dresser and closet. I was a little done with living like a slob.
The house was really nice once the Earth Mage spruced it up. The rooms were a little on the small side from what I was used to, but that’s just how these old houses tended to be. Maybe it would have been smarter for me to get a place like this out in the countryside. A lot more privacy, no gang violence.
Yeah, as if. Land wasn’t cheap, jobs out in the country weren’t that plentiful if you didn’t work for Big Agriculture, and for all my desires to be left alone, I’d been a city girl and a suburbanite at heart. A place like this was nice to visit, maddening to live in.
It was also, much harder to hide in if I were to be found out. In the city I could blend into a crowd, and the authorities wouldn’t have free reign to just gun down everyone until they hit me. On a lonely plot of land like this? They’d just slag the whole area with napalm and cluster bombs until anything that moved, and anything that didn’t for that matter, was ashes.
I really didn’t want to be here. I’d spent a good six years staying out of the hero game, and now I was expected to just step right back in. Going to town on a group of thugs with pea-shooters was one thing. In a fight against superhumans, I didn’t have as much to offer as people might think.
As ridiculous as my flesh-warping power was, strictly speaking I was still bound by real world physics. My strength wasn’t the same as the “touch-range force push” effect that most Super Strong people had. My durability came from compacted muscle and dense bone plates, it didn’t stop bullets or fire the way true Super Durability did. And this was presuming I was actually in a battle form, like in my fight against Chive. Looking back, I was surprised at how well I had done in that struggle. It had been years since I’d morphed into anything other than another human body.
That’s assuming the Earth Mage even expected me to fight. If he just wanted me to be his pet healer, well, that had it’s own complications. My fleshwarp didn’t work on people who had actual Super Durability, at least beyond the base level. Rank, Class, whatever was the lowest. My power was mainly useful for those members of the Super Fem Force who weren’t bullet proof. If someone like Mother North or Glorifica or Steel Girl got their arm torn off, tough luck.
I wondered for a moment if Steel Girl was even still on the team when they disappeared. A lot of women had come and gone, with only Glorifica as the steady constant. It was sad to think something tragic had happened to her. First to think that she had died, then second to think that was still alive, but suffering an even worse fate. I hadn’t made many friends on that team, but Glorifica had always put me at ease. In fact, if she had been the one to seek me out for this mission, I might not have hesitated to answer the call.
Instead, the woman who’d beaten the shit out of me during my first large scale field mission, who’d later become one of America’s assassins, had been the one to recruit me, at the behest of a man who’d deserted his country.
I’d met James exactly once, when the SFF was sent to Australia to help with disaster relief after the ‘34 tsunami. We hadn’t talked. Glorifica had spoken fondly of him, but he’d just seemed like some limp-wrist fop. He was clearly powerful, but awkward around women, and in over his head when it came to superhuman affairs. You could tell from the way he still stuttered during interviews back then. He honestly hadn’t seemed to change all that much. He had more of a hard edge to him now, he was a lot more experienced, but in the end, I could tell he was still just going with the flow.
He was right in his little story. He should have stayed in the states and worked with Glorifica. He could have made a real difference in the Super Fem Force. And hey, he was girly-looking enough, they wouldn’t even have to change the name for his sake.
I allowed myself a chuckle. Who the hell was I to talk? James had some weird survivor’s guilt, but he was probably the least fucked up person in this house. My flesh-warping had allowed me to tune my senses quite keenly, to almost bestial sensitivity, and the room I’d picked had a window facing the front, where James and Max had spoken for a few minutes. I had heard everything. Max’s assessment of us had been correct.
I was a PTSD trip mine. Chive had proven that. Hitchhiker was a war criminal. Max herself was basically one, depending on what part of the continent you asked. Strider, well, she may have been a rookie at bounty hunting, but she wasn’t a rookie at life. I could tell from the way she forced her smile, from the thousand yard stare she got when no one talked with her for a while, and she tuned out of the conversation.
I knew that look, because no matter what face I wore, I still caught that expression in the mirror from time to time. Strider had seen something absolutely horrible. More than seen; if I was a betting man, I’d say she had done something absolutely horrible. And whatever this little pantomime was, of her trying to be a good guy, it was just a grasp at flimsy straws. I just hoped she wasn’t an even bigger trip mine than I was.
I finished putting away my things, just in time for Max to come up the stairs. She gave me a once over and that annoying smirk of hers. She opened her mouth, but I cut her off. “Make one smart ass comment about my masculinity, and I will slap you.”
“Well, now I want to even more!” she said. “You know, I swing both ways, but that body is making even me confused.”
I sighed. Maybe I had overdone it on the androgyny a bit. This form I’d chosen was generally of masculine build, but slim, with a more feminine hair and face. I could either be a pretty man or a handsome woman. I was really neither at the moment, though. This form didn’t even have genitals.
“Are you actually this crass all the time, or are you just trying to get a rise out of everybody?” I muttered.
“I was going to restrain myself this time, but you had to go and be a smart ass first. I couldn’t not rise to the challenge.”
“I see.” I took control of my hair and threaded it into a long braid that knotted itself at the end. I really liked long hair, hence why I kept it even as a man. It was certainly handy that I had the advantage of direct control to keep it managed, too.
“I know. Now what did you want?”
Max shook her head. “Look, I know we’re not going to be a kumbaya sisterhood here. None of us have ever met on good terms, and I know you feel like you’ve been strong armed into this.”
“Probably because I have.”
“You really didn’t actually have to come with me.”
“It was either come with you or go on the lam. Some choice.”
Max made a forced, tight lipped smile. “You think my choices were great? Work for us or you rot in prison or we kill you. That’s the choice I got to make, after the SFF beat my ass into the ground.”
“Seems to have done wonders for you.” Max opened her mouth to retort, but I put a hand up. “I know how that sounds, but I actually mean it. You were a criminal, you got punished, you reformed. You got to have your second chance, and you made it work. Good for you. But you didn’t have the pressure I did. You didn’t fuck up the way I did.”
She let out a long breath. “Yeah. Maybe. I can blame myself for
get the benefit of sharing the blame
for the Fantasmas fight.” She shrugged and shook her head. “Okay, well, not a
competition. I just want to let you know, I’ve got no hard feelings with you.” Chicago
“Even though I’m a PTSD trip mine?”
The humorless smile returned. “My apologies for that. It was out of line.”
I nodded. “Not an inaccurate assessment, if I’m to be honest.”
“We’ll work on it,” she said. “Anyway, it was a long time ago, but I know I did you pretty bad back in
. I don’t expect you to forgive or
forget that, but I hope we can put it behind us, at least until we finish
helping James. Then if you want to settle things, we can.” Chicago
Seven years ago, she had slammed a burning tanker of oil on top of me, pulverizing my body and setting the remnant gore on fire. I got better, but it was the first time I realized I could regenerate from such catastrophic damage. In a way, it had been a useful moment of learning. It had also hurt like a bitch until I got my nerves back under control.
I shrugged. “I don’t hold grudges.”
She smirked again. “How unladylike.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, well, suck my balls.”
“Careful,” she said with a wink. “In this line of work, anything could happen.”
I gave her an annoyed look, and she left with a chuckle.