CB opens his eyes to see sunlight streaming in through an old, dirty window. He’s lying on a mattress, wrapped in thick wool blankets. The air is cold against his face.
He’s in a small, bare room, with cracked plaster walls and plywood subflooring. The doorway is an empty door frame with a heavy curtain hung in front of it to give the room a little privacy. Standing in the doorway is Joan, wearing an army jacket, blue jeans, and thick boots.
“Back where?” CB’s voice is a little hoarse, but it doesn’t hurt to talk. That’s a good sign.
“Our squat,” Joan says. “Little Dresden Freedom House.”
CB closes his eyes and tries to think. “That’s the anarchist one, right? The one that never throws parties.”
Joan smirks. “We’re not a frat house.”
“Right…” CB sits up, realizes he’s not wearing any clothes, and hastily pulls the covers up around him. “Uh… how did we get here?”
Joan finds his modesty amusing. “We walked.” She walks into the room and sits down at the foot of the mattress.
“I really don’t remember that,” CB says.
“I told you you’d pass out,” Joan says. “And I did apologize. Ari was super pissed, but it was the only way I could think to get you here. I wasn’t going to be able to carry you, and I wasn’t going to leave you alone, either.”
“Who’s Ari?” CB asks, feeling more than a little lost.
“I am.” A thin middle eastern man pushes aside the curtain hanging over the doorway and steps into the room. His long black hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. He has a rough beard that is very thick at his chin and gets thinner and wispier the farther it travels up his face. “I’m sort of the doctor around here. And I’m not sure you should be sitting up.”
“I feel OK,” CB protests.
“Three broken ribs, two fractured ribs, multiple concussions, a broken nose, cracked jaw, and a fractured hip,” Ari says crisply. “Among other things. I’m not sure how you even managed to sit up, but you need to lie back down right now.”
CB looks at him blankly. “I feel fine.”
Ari frowns, then looks at Joan for the first time. “What happened to the splint on his arm? And the bandages on his chest?”
“I took them off a few hours ago,” Joan says. “He didn’t need them any more.”
“He didn’t need them?” Ari doesn’t shout, but he’s obviously angry. “How would you know he didn’t—nevermind. Of course you knew.”
Ari steps into the room and kneels on the floor next to CB. “I’d like to check for myself, if you don’t mind.”
CB looks from Ari to Joan. Neither one of them says anything else. Joan stares off into space, deliberately not looking at anyone.
CB shrugs. “I guess.”
“Just tell me when it hurts,” Ari says, and begins his examination. A few slightly embarrassing minutes later, Ari shakes his head in bewilderment. “I guess I should have believed her.”
“Yeah,” Joan says, “you should.”
“Well I don’t understand it,” Ari says to CB, “but I’ll take it. You looked like a horror show Friday night.” He looks directly at Joan this time, an unreadable expression on his face. “I guess if she found you, I shouldn’t be that surprised.”
Joan doesn’t reply.
Ari stares at her a second longer, then sighs heavily. “Sorry, Joan. I’m just not used to it, and it’s hard to get past it.” With that he walks out of the room, pulling the curtain closed behind him.
Joan stares at the curtain for a moment, mutters “asshole,” then turns back to CB.
“Ex boyfriend?” CB asks.
“What? No. Fuck off.” Joan almost smiles. “No, he just doesn’t like me.”
Joan stares at him steadily.
“Three guesses,” he hears himself say. “First two don’t count.”
CB frowns. Joan looks away. The scars on her chin look much brighter in the light. Almost like purple lightning bolts tattooed to her face.
“Sorry,” she says.
“…it’s OK,” CB says, not sure if he means it. “Just… please don’t do that again.”
She nods. “Sorry about Friday. I thought it would help.”
“How could you think that would help?” It comes out a lot stronger than he means it to. “Sorry. But it, uh… freaked me out. A lot.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Well I thought it would let you know that you weren’t alone, you know? I mean, when I started my trip I was really freaked out until I met Roland. But he had to practically throw me across the room one-handed before it actually got through to me that we were on the same wavelength.”
“Trip?” CB frowns. “Like, what, acid?”
Joan closes her eyes and counts to three. “This is not your fault,” she says finally. “You sound like an idiot, but I started in the middle. So let me start at the beginning. You’re a metahuman. So am I. Billy figured out what was happening to you because he’s a smart guy, and he came to me because he knew what I was, and thought I could help.”
“OK,” CB says. It’s the only response he can manage at the moment.
“When I saw you on Friday I figured you already basically knew what you were, you were just freaking out over it. That’s why I did the lighter trick, to show you I was like you. But it didn’t register, so I did the brain thing. That… was a really bad call.”
“I’m a metahuman.” He’s not asking a question.
Joan nods. “You get it now. I thought you got it Friday.”
CB shakes his head. “I just thought I was going nuts.”
“Yeah,” Joan says, “I can understand that now. Whatever it is you do, it’s weird. Not bad weird, but crazy weird. I mean, I was kind of busy at the time, but I saw a little of what happened when it finally kicked in… you were… I don’t know. Nobody does that in real life. Plague’s goons actually stopped trying to kill me for a second, just to watch what you were doing. Thanks for that, by the way, it made the next part a lot easier.”
CB remembers the figures jumping off the roof and shudders slightly.
“What were you doing, exactly?” Joan asks. She looks at him shyly, as if she’s asking him to reveal something painfully intimate.
CB frowns. “I was… playing pool. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Obviously,” Joan deadpans. “Don’t worry about it. I have friends who can help you deal with it. Roland, I mentioned him, he’s one. He’s the one who helped me. But there are a few others. We’re a family, and we want to help.”
“Talk to Roland,” Joan says. “He’s better at explaining than I am. He can figure out how you tick, and help you get a handle on it. Control it.”
“Yeah?” CB narrows his eyes. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch,” Joan says. “We don’t do conscription. It’s better for everyone if you get a handle on what you can do. Safer, you know? I mean, I won’t lie—Roland will talk about what we’re about, because it’s important. But if you’re not interested… well, if I had a dollar for every punk rocker who wasn’t an anarchist I’d be a goddamn capitalist.”
“So you guys are… what? A team of some kind?”
Joan nods. “Something like that.”
“Huh,” CB says, grinning. “Little Dresden has its own team of anarchist super villains…”
“No.” Joan’s voice is so hard it makes CB flinch. “I know you were joking, CB, but this isn’t a joke. We’re heroes. We’re the reason Plague and his army of Neo-Nazi assholes hasn’t run wild over New York City. It’s dangerous, and we get hurt, and sometimes we die, and nobody knows because nobody gives a fuck what happens in Little Dresden any more. But we do. Don’t ever forget that.”
“OK,” CB says. “Sorry…”
A short, uncomfortable silence follows.
“Do you have costumes?” CB asks.
Joan laughs. “You’re a rat bastard.”
“Well? Do you? Are they spandex?”
“No! Shut up!”
“I’m just saying, the right costume can clear up this whole hero/villain misconception, so if you haven’t considered it you should. I recommend lots of red, white, and blue stars.”
“Oh, you are such an asshole.” Joan’s eyes sparkle with mirth. The room feels a lot more comfortable.
“And glitter,” CB adds. “It’s very hard to look at someone wearing a red, white and blue costume with lots of glitter and think ‘now there’s a really evil and scary villain!’”
“Are you going to meet Roland or not?”
The question hangs in the air.
Joan nods. “Just talk. No strings.”
CB doesn’t reply. Joan sits there, still smiling, waiting patiently for his answer. Somewhere in the back of his head he feels something familiar stirring: the faintest tickle of whatever it is he does getting ready to play pool all over again. That’s coming back, and he still doesn’t know how to deal with it. If he doesn’t figure it out, it’s going to drive him crazy.
Joan wants to help. He believes that now. And if Roland helped her, maybe he can do the same for him.
“I don’t know,” CB says. “Can I get dressed first?”
Joan’s smile turns mischievous. “I’ll think about it.”