Identity Crisis - Chapter 10/10: Finale

By Jenny North
Artwork by Fraylim and Splutt


I entered the structure and discovered the wrecks of three automated defense bots scattered around, obviously Prodigy's handiwork. The trail of destruction led deeper inside to a reinforced door with a coded lock that now stood open, behind which was a set of stairs that led down beneath ground level. I carefully made my way to the lower level, feeling a little on edge from the quiet that now filled the space. I would have much preferred to hear sounds of fighting since at least then I would have known that Prodigy was still okay.

Halfway down the steps I hesitated when I heard the sound of voices coming from up ahead. I couldn't make out what was being said but it sounded like they were having some sort of conversation. Unsure what was going on, I hovered the rest of my way down the steps to avoid making any footsteps and I paused just outside the entryway to a huge room filled with massive complicated-looking equipment. I didn't recognize any of it, but it all seemed to be connected to a device that looked like something straight out of Doctor Frankenstein's lab that had a pair of beds hooked up to it. Demetria lay on one of the beds apparently semi-conscious and Prodigy stood next to her, saying something.

I strained to hear what they were saying but I could only make it out bits and pieces. "You blamed... Never resented... Lost her... Lose you... Only way... Love..." I recognized Demetria's voice but at first I wasn't even sure it was Prodigy that was speaking since he didn't sound nearly as gruff and combative as he usually did. Instead he sounded more resigned and sad.

I watched as Demetria's head fell back onto the pillow as she slipped fully under.

Then, very clearly, I heard Prodigy say the words, "Goodbye, Demi," as I watched him pull out an explosive grenade.

"Wait, wait, whoa!" I yelled as I flew in as fast as I could and plucked the grenade out of his hand. "Are you nuts? What happened to not just pulling the plug? 'Untold psychic damage to everyone she's plugged into.' That's what you said!"

"Kid, she's already plugged into half the city and she won't stop there. She's not coming out on her own, believe me. You wanted to be a hero, well, heroes make the big decisions. Every minute we waste puts more people in jeopardy. This is the only way."

"He's right," a voice came from the stairwell. It was Trixie, and she was leaning on Mari as they entered. "She has to be stopped."

As she got closer I saw that her eyes weren't fixed on Demetria, but rather on the empty bed next to her that was also connected to the machine.

"This is where she did it, isn't it?" Trixie whispered to nobody in particular. Her expression was completely vacant as her eyes drifted over to the unconscious Demetria. "It has to end," she whispered. "It has to end forever."

Uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken, I moved to interpose myself between them and Demetria.

"Trixie? I love you like a sister, but I don't think you're in a good place to make this decision," I said as she gave me a dark look. "Neither of you are," I added, looking at Prodigy.

"Listen to me, you smartass little snot-nosed cheerleader," Prodigy snapped. "You think this is easy for me? Well, unlike you, I've faced death before. And I'm gonna—"

"No. This time you're going to listen to me, old man. You think I haven't faced death? I have! Promethean pinned me down helpless and I beat him. Killbane nearly roasted me alive and I survived. Then Viridian nearly choked the...life...out of me..." My voice trailed off as I thought about those encounters.

I looked at the machine and turned to Prodigy. "You have to hook me up to the machine. I can stop her."

Prodigy was still furious with me but my pronouncement seemed to catch him off his guard. "What the hell are you talking about? She'd eat you alive. You're not a psychic."

"I am," I said absently. "I mean, I think I could be." I shook my head. "Don't you see, it all makes sense. Demetria said I had some crazy untapped potential."

"That doesn't mean—"

"No. Listen. All three times I thought I was going to die, something weird saved me. Killbane tried to burn me alive, but at the end, his flames not only didn't touch me, they invigorated me. Then when his father almost killed me, I started to match his strength before Harridan intervened. Then when Promethean...attacked...me, I burned him with this insane laser vision. I haven't been able to do it before or since."

"You think you somehow copied their powers," Trixie realized. Mari signed something and Trixie sniffed derisively. "Yeah, I think she's crazy, too," Trixie said.

"Then that makes three of us," Prodigy agreed. "Even if you're right, you've no idea if you could copy her powers. And even if you did, you're still no match for her years of training. There's no way I'm letting you do it."

"What happened to you not being able to stop me?" I asked. "Look, it's worth a shot. You're the one who said I needed to step up, listen to myself, and make the big decisions."

"And you decided to pick right now to start listening to me?" he retorted. "No. Forget it. We're not risking it."

I sighed heavily and looked back at the device. "Okay, fair enough. But what if we—"

I suddenly spun around and sucker punched him while his guard was down and he hit the floor like a sack of bricks.

Trixie and Mari looked at me in alarm. "Peej, what the hell are you—"

"This is happening," I said as I turned towards the machine. "Don't you try to—"

*BOOOM*

The explosion came from outside and was close enough to shake the building, maybe even the entire complex. We were nearly thrown from our feet as the building lurched.

"That's a bad sound," I said.

Two seconds later, red lights started flashing and a very shrill and insistent alarm wailed throughout the building.

"That's a very bad sound."

Mari and Trixie hurriedly signed back and forth. "Mari's right," Trixie said. "That's the evacuation alarm. That means either the generators are going to explode or the protective dome has been breached."

The sound of another distant explosion reverberated through the room.

"Though it may not be an either/or situation," she amended.

"Blaze's friends like to play rough," I muttered. "How long do we have?"

Trixie shook her head.

"Okay. You need to get everyone out of here, starting with Prodigy," I said, pointing to my unconscious mentor. "People are going to be unconscious or hurt from the fight. Mari can scout for survivors with her insects and you can portal them to the exit and get them to safety."

"But—!"

"No. You're the only ones who can do it. I'll be right behind you, I promise."

Mari signed a message to me.

"Yes, Mari, you have to get Blaze out, too."

She made an obscene gesture of frustration.

Trixie took me by the hand. "Right behind us?" she said, eyeing Demetria. "And if you're not?"

"Well, then, I'd like something tasteful for the memorial. A statue, maybe fifty, sixty feet tall? You know, understated." Then, seeing her worried expression, I added, "But if we pull this off, we're gonna party. And I don't mean jumping up and down and hugging, I'm talking like a full-on Bollywood-style dance routine with colorful costumes and a whole bunch of minor characters from our lives who have astonishingly good dance moves."

She squeezed my hand. "Right behind us," she said emphatically. Then they headed for the exit.

It looked like the bed's interface was already active since the machine was working, so I laid back and started to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Trixie looking at me with an expression that at first I took for concern but then realized was sheer terror.

* * * * *

I felt a surge of disorientation like I was spinning out of control, and my breath caught in my throat as I felt my surroundings snap suddenly into focus, a change that was so abrupt that it knocked me off my guard for a few seconds. Anticipating an attack, my training instinctively kicked in and I jumped quickly to the side as I tried to get my bearings.

I realized that I was back outside the building, standing in the garden.

I shook my head and tried to remember how I'd gotten outside. Had Trixie teleported me? It was only then that I started to realize that the garden wasn't quite how I remembered it...it was larger and more colorful and the manicured groups of plants and flowers seemed to have given way to seemingly random groups of vibrant wildflowers. They were spectacular and a bit dizzying to take in, like there were colors there that my brain didn't know how to process. And as I caught my breath, I could smell the pungent aromas of the flowers, a bizarre mix of smells that were sweet and musky, smoky and fruity all at the same time.

"What do you think of my garden?" Demetria asked.

I spun around to face her and saw her standing there with a beatific smile. She had an almost angelic glow about her, and I saw that many of the plants and flowers had reached out towards her like they were reaching towards the sun. Many of the creeping vines had started to entwine themselves around her arms and legs, but she didn't seem the least bit perturbed. In fact, she seemed to welcome it, and she stroked one of the flowered vines lovingly.

"This isn't your garden," I realized.

She smiled. "That's true. But while the flowers in my garden are rare and the last of their kind, I think you'll agree that these specimens are far more precious," she said as she caressed one of the blossoms.

"This isn't real," I said. "I'm plugged into the machine. With you." I blinked again at the vibrant display and suddenly realized why my senses were under assault. It was my brain desperately trying to make sense of something it had never experienced before, trying to give context to a sensation for which I couldn't even give a name.

"It helps if you close your eyes," Demetria said.

I had no reason to trust her, but she'd said it so gently that I found myself following her advice. But even limiting my sensory input, I still felt like I was in danger of being swept away, like there was a whirlwind of different feelings brushing past me that all demanded my attention. I felt a sudden rush of emotions—fear, love, anger, jealousy—wash over me. I took a breath and tried to separate myself from what I was feeling, like a passive observer outside my own sensory experience.

My eyes snapped open. "Oh, God. These are people." I recoiled from some of the flowers and vines that had gathered near my feet on the garden path, afraid to touch them.

"Yes. They're representations of the connection that I—that we—now have to the people of the city. The garden is just my way of making sense of it. When I first arrived here it was just a whirling miasma of emotion and feeling. It's taken me a long time to bring this much structure to the experience." She looked me over like she was sizing me up. "I'm very impressed, you know. I never dreamed you'd be able to follow me this far."

"So I am mimicking your powers?" I asked.

"At least somewhat. Your abilities have blossomed more quickly than I would have thought possible."

I snorted.

"What is it?"

"I think that's the first time someone used the word 'blossomed' in reference to me when it wasn't a euphemism for my boobs."

A wry smile passed her lips. "Ah, yes. But now that we're so connected, I think we both know that's not entirely accurate. Is it, Christopher?"

My jaw dropped, but I recovered. "Fine, you know the truth. I'm still going to stop you."

"Stop me?" she said, incredulous. "Child, right now you may be the only other person in the world capable of understanding why I'm doing this." She gestured to the wildflowers. "Go on. Open yourself up to them."

Hesitantly I lowered my guard and again felt the onrush of emotions that threatened to sweep me away. It felt like a violent, roiling sea and I was desperately clinging to a life raft. As I fought to separate myself from it, I sensed something else lurking beneath the surface.

Something dark.

"You can feel it, can't you?" she said. "The fear, the anger, the distrust...the hate. Not just from the criminals, but the good people of the city, too. The ones living in fear, the ones who feel powerless against the changes taking place around them and terrified of what might come next. The city—the world—is going mad with fear and hate."

"It's not...everywhere."

"It doesn't have to be everywhere. It's a poison, a cancer that is slowly killing everyone. It drives a stake through the heart of who we are as a society, tears us apart as people, diminishes us as individuals," she said solemnly. "Everyone is so focused on crime and supervillains as the enemy, but they're just symptoms of the disease."

"And you think this is the cure? Brainwashing everyone?"

"It's not brainwashing. It's empathy. In one move I'm going to teach everyone to be able to recognize the feelings of their fellow man. Just think of it. To have discourse without resorting to rancor. To identify with others and see that their pain and their fear is the same as your own. To be able to look past the blind hatred and see how we're all connected. Imagine a world without supervillains, where every metahuman is a hero and feels a deep connection to the lives around them." She closed her eyes. "You're feeling it right now, I know you are. We're connected to the city. Let it touch you."

She was right...as I concentrated, I could start to sense individuals, like picking voices out of a chorus. I could feel what everyone in the city was feeling, and it was overwhelming. The fearful cry of a newborn for her mother, the despair of an old man mourning his departed wife, the joy of a newlywed couple on their wedding night... I couldn't even process all of it. But there was a thrumming undercurrent, a deep and abiding sense of connection. I choked back an involuntary sob as I struggled to find myself before I became swept away.

As I opened my eyes I saw one of the blossoms—the one representing the old man—wither and fall off the vine. I couldn't sense him anymore.

"What just happened?" I said accusingly.

She looked at me gently. "I think you know," she said as she touched one of the vines. "Not everyone can survive even this level of connection. Fewer still once I awaken their potential. But those who survive will build a glorious future for everyone."

I picked up the fallen flower, horrified. And as I looked up I could see others falling here and there, like fading spring blossoms.

"All these people..." I whispered.

"It's a terrible tragedy," she said sadly. "But just imagine if everyone with super powers could feel what you're feeling right now, even just a little. Imagine the kind of world they could build. All those heroes—an entire city of them, fighting selflessly. Isn't that worth dying for?"

"Yes, it is," I admitted. "But it's not worth killing for. Thousands—tens of thousands!—of innocent people are going to die!"

She nodded solemnly. "I know. And maybe that makes me a monster, and perhaps that's how I'll be remembered. But I'm prepared to bear that burden. If I could spare the world the agony I'm about to inflict, believe me, I would. But these will be the birthing pains of a brighter future."

I felt a strange vibration run through the space and realized it had probably come from the real world where the Sanctuary was falling apart by the second. I was running out of time. But at Demetria's mention of birthing pains, I sensed something from her.

"None of this will bring your daughter back," I told her. "Or make you feel any less guilty for failing to protect her. What happened to her was her choice. It wasn't your fault."

She smiled. "You're in my head, that's very good," she said. "But I'm inside yours too, Christopher. And we both know that you don't think you can beat me."

"Yeah, well, as Prodigy likes to remind me, I'm just a punk kid, what do I know?"

Before she could respond I launched myself into the air and flew right at her and pulled at the vines that had reached out for her and grasped at her with their long tendrils. As I did so I found myself once again overwhelmed with the emotions of the "flowers"—of the people—and the raw sensations pushed me towards sensory overload. Desperately, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to power through the feelings and yanked as hard as I could. But for every vine I pulled away from her two more snaked past me and eventually I had to concede that I was fighting a losing battle. But as I grabbed another vine and yanked it close, I felt something much more immediate and personal that shocked me to my core.

"Mom?" I whispered.

Stunned, I looked down at the small yellow flower in front of me. Its appearance was almost insignificant amongst all the others, but hidden in that tiny blossom I immediately felt the presence of my mother. It was her, I was certain of it. I wasn't sure if she could sense me at all, but I could feel her concern, which grew into worry and then fear. I struggled to keep a grip on the vine, but as I looked up and saw that even while I was holding onto it, the lower half of the vine had wrapped gently around Demetria. Even when I thought I had them, I was losing them. And as I watched another blossom fall, my hands began to tremble as I despaired for what was in store for Mom, for Dad, for Caleb...for absolutely everyone I knew.

Demetria shook her head like a parent teaching a lesson to a small child. "Now, do you see? You have no idea how to beat me. Nothing you've learned or experienced has prepared you for this. I know that the Sanctuary is about to be destroyed and I know I'm going to die here. But you don't have to. Not if you leave now. Please just leave me to my work."

"No," I whimpered as the tears ran down my cheeks and I desperately clutched the vine that held my mother's flower. "I'm going to beat you. Do you know why? Because you're just fighting for your beliefs. I'm fighting for the lives of everyone I love."

"Child, you're strong and brave, but you can't win this fight."

"YOU'RE WRONG!" I screamed.

That's when I felt...something.

It was just a flutter at first, barely a tickle at the edge of my mind, like a whisper. But I'd definitely felt it, and it had come from my mother's flower. I wiped away my tears as I cradled it and tried to sense what had changed. At first it seemed fleeting and ephemeral, but I realized there was a strength there, a tenacity I didn't expect. I struggled to grasp at it even as I fumbled in my mind for a word to describe what I was sensing.

Hope.

I suddenly realized that Demetria was right...this wasn't a fight I could win. Because it wasn't a fight at all. All of my experiences as a hero had taught me to buckle down and fight harder when the going got tough, but now I saw that would never be enough since there would always be challenges that would be more than I could handle. But in that moment that's when it hit me that I'd been so focused on being the hero everyone else wanted me to be that I'd never stopped to ask myself the kind of hero that I wanted to be. And I realized I didn't just want to be the kind of hero who saved people...I wanted to be the kind of hero who inspired them.

This problem was too big for me. But it wasn't too big for all of us, together.

And I knew what I had to do.

I held my mother's flower close and tried to connect with the same certainty I'd experienced a moment ago, that somehow—some way—that everything would be all right, even if the path was uncertain. Then I took a deep breath. And I let her go.

The vine immediately fell into the tangle of the other vines, lost among the other flowers. But I didn't look back as I launched myself into the air and flew through the garden.

IC_Ch10_01-small.jpg

It was terrifying.

And thrilling.

I touched groups of flowers here and there, and once again the waves of their conflicting emotions crashed down on me, a rising tide of panic and fear that threatened to consume me. But this time I focused on my own fears and doubts—my fear of failure, my uncertainty about being a hero, my worries about what my schoolmates thought of me, what my parents thought of me, what Prodigy thought of me—and now that I faced my fears and weighed them against all the things that I had accomplished—that I would accomplish!—they just seemed...ridiculous. Like the fearsome monster in the dark closet that's revealed to just be a coat on a coat hanger. For the first time since I could remember I didn't feel self-conscious or worried how I'd be perceived as Chris Patterson or Prodigious Girl, high schooler or heroine, guy or girl. I was just me, with all of my amazing gifts and talents, free and unburdened from the expectations of myself or others.

A feeling of brilliant audacity swept through me and I swooped low over the wildflowers and twisted in a graceful arc as the pressure of all of my darkest worries and deepest insecurities that had been holding me down suddenly lightened, like I'd let go of an invisible weight I'd been carrying. It wasn't that my problems weren't real, but I realized that no matter what they were I would rise to meet the challenge, just like I'd always done.

I was a hero.

I abandoned myself to the moment and closed my eyes not in fear but rather so I could better appreciate the sensations I was experiencing...the rush of wind, the changing pull of gravity, the electric feeling of the raw emotional energy that spiraled around me even as it threatened to engulf me. But as I flew around the garden I could feel that my passion and confidence had kindled something within me, and now I returned the favor as I touched other people and sensed as the change took place in them, and soon all around me.

As I arced gracefully through the space I became aware that the vines that had been clinging to Demetria had begun to untangle themselves and many of them were reaching out towards me like we were in a playful game of tag. They became vibrant and energetic dance partners as I spun and twirled through the air over the garden and soon the positive energy that had infected me began to infect them, as well.

I reveled in the feeling. No fear. No doubt. No second-guessing myself. I felt self-assured. Bold. Elated. I actually giggled.

IC_Ch10_02-small.jpg

"What are you doing?" Demetria said, the worry evident in her voice.

She gestured towards me and once again I felt the crushing fear and uncertainty that she had been cultivating grow within me, and I saw the vines around her grow tighter, like frightened children running to their mother for comfort. But now I had allies, too. One of the vines that I'd touched earlier brushed against me and the flowers there radiated hope and confidence, reinvigorating my spirit and causing my doubt to vanish like a puddle in the sun. As I looked around the garden I realized I'd sparked something which now had begun to grow of its own accord and couldn't be stopped.

I landed and felt as the vines and flowers brushed against me. They surrounded me, tickled me and filled me with a glowing positive energy. And the vines themselves were now drawn to each other as well, twisting around each other and sharing their strength to create something greater than the sum of their parts. I realized that I—that all of us together—had become beacons of hope, and even though I could still sense pockets of fear and anger and hate, they were being driven back like shadows retreating from a fire that burned bright in the darkness.

Demetria, now standing alone, stared at me in shock and disbelief. I wondered what her reaction was going to be, if she was going to be furious at being usurped or afraid of what I had done. But instead, to my surprise, she looked at me in wonder.

"It's beautiful," she said almost reverently. "How did you do this?"

I smiled as one of the vines tickled my arm. "You forgot who they were, all these people we're fighting for," I said to her. "You saw them as they are...and you're right, so many are suffering and mired in despair and anger. But I don't see them that way. I see them as what they can be, full of wonder and potential. They just needed to be reminded that they're capable of so much more. They needed hope, and someone to show them the way." I looked her in the eyes. "That's what heroes do. They inspire people."

She took a few hesitant steps forward as she saw how her "garden" had changed and a shadow crossed her face, but not of anger, but rather one of longing and regret. "I'd forgotten," she said as she beheld the blossoming flowers that surrounded me. Then she held out her hand. "Please?" she said.

I hesitated, but only for a moment. And then I welcomed her in.

A change came over her and her expression turned to one of pure contentment as she felt the positive emotions wash over her. She smiled at me warmly as she said, "Thank you for this."

Then she shoved me out, knocking me to the ground.

"What the—!" I yelled, ready for a fight.

Demetria held up her hand, still surrounded by the vines and flowers as she shook her head. "It's all right. I promise I won't hurt them," she said softly as the vines slowly started to pull away, one by one, all returning to their places in the garden. "I was so fixated on all the fear and anger I could sense in the world that I thought only something brutal would awaken people, but I was wrong. People aren't things that need to be fixed or saved, they're living beings who should be inspired and nurtured." She looked at me with that same expression she'd had the day I first met her, the one that made me feel like anything was possible. "You planted a seed here today, and now that seed needs a chance to grow. But I meant what I said before—if you stay here, you will die. And they need you."

I felt a lump form in my throat. "They need you, too. Come with me. Please?"

She shook her head. "I'm still connected to all these people. I need to finish breaking the psychic connections or many will die when the Sanctuary is destroyed. Do you trust me to do that?"

I gave her an earnest little smile. "Well, sure. I mean, you are a superhero, after all."

An unexpected tremor shook the garden and we both realized that it must have come from back in the real world. The Sanctuary didn't have much time, and neither did I. I turned to face her, not sure what to say, but before I could open my mouth she made a gesture and the next thing I knew I felt another rush of disorientation and found myself back on the table lying next to Demetria's unconscious form.

Urgent alarms blared throughout the facility and from outside I heard and felt an explosion that shook the entire room as I clambered to my feet. It was immediately followed by another much closer explosion that nearly knocked me to the ground as I heard the screech of metal on metal from right above me. For a moment I looked at Demetria and instinctively wanted to grab her and make for the exit, but I knew that wasn't the choice that she had made.

"I'm sorry," I whispered as I left her behind.

I tore out of the building and flew high into the air and beheld the Sanctuary as I sped for the exit. Explosions and fires were starting to pick up and the protective dome to the warp space outside looked like it was about to give way any minute. I made a beeline for the exit portals and kept an eye out for stragglers as I dodged falling debris, but it looked like everyone had taken the explosions and alarms seriously and evacuated the facility. Almost everyone.

"Peej!" Trixie cried out in relief as I landed in front of her and she threw her arms around me. "Gods, I thought you were—"

"I'm okay. We should go."

She nodded and I paused for just a moment to look at the crumbling Sanctuary, thinking how sad it was to lose this place. In her own way Demetria had intended it to be a beacon of hope, but she'd gotten lost along the way.

"I'll be right back," I said, taking off back inside.

"WHAT?!?" Trixie screamed.

Two minutes later I tore back towards the exit at breakneck speed, dodging the fires and explosions that were now everywhere as the dome cracked and the entire place teetered on the brink of imminent destruction. I practically plowed into Trixie as I landed next to the portal, and we dove to safety barely in the nick of time as we heard the walls breach behind us as the Sanctuary was torn apart and the portal closed.

"Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" Trixie yelled at me as she punched me repeatedly in the arm and I winced in response. She had no chance of actually hurting me through my invulnerable skin, but I'd learned that sometimes it was good to make it look like it hurt. It was just good manners.

She gave me one last punch for good measure. "And exactly what was so important to risk getting killed? Again?"

I had removed my cape and now held it cradled in my arms. I opened it up to show her what was bundled safely inside.

She stared at me in disbelief. "You are such a girl," she said.

* * * * *

Over the next few weeks life settled into a new routine. After the big blow-up I didn't get home until almost 3 a.m., by which point Mom and Dad had apparently come to grips with their belief that I was almost certainly dead somewhere, especially given the unexplained psychic catastrophe that had threatened the city. Thus, when I arrived at home looking none the worse for wear and with a fully-charged phone, my parents' relief quickly gave way to the notion that putting me up belatedly for adoption and starting their lives anew as a childless couple might not be such a bad idea.

I had never seen them so angry. Their emotions pinballed between relief that I was okay and blind rage that I could be okay and worry them as I had. Apparently once the city started to go bananas they'd frantically looked up who I was supposedly babysitting and the picture of the little girl that Caleb uploaded was the Gerber Baby. Oops.

To make matters worse, since Blaze had fried the nanobots that repaired my costume I'd been unable to change my clothes back to normal, so after peeling myself out of my costume I'd had to borrow some clothes from Caleb. So, once my already overwrought parents realized that I'd sneaked out to parts unknown until all hours and returned home dressed as a guy in a T-shirt and jeans in blatant defiance of their edict...well, they took it badly. They grounded me for a month—which I was prepared to take—but then Mom hit me with the coup de grace and informed me that since I seemed to be better behaved as a girl, they were extending my "girl time" to run through my entire summer vacation, 24/7, no excuses.

Even Dad seemed thrown by that but he took one look at Mom's face and quietly backed her up. I exploded into a perhaps unhelpful rant which quickly turned into exhausted begging and pleading, but she was adamant. And after she reopened her threat to send me to school in her wedding dress, I quietly pursued the better part of valor.

"Valor." I still think that would have been an awesome hero name. I tell you, if that name had been available that fateful day at hero registration, well...this probably would have been a shorter book, for one thing.

So.

For those keeping score at home, here was the final tally:

          • Demetria was dead and her Sanctuary for training vulnerable young heroines was destroyed
          • Prodigy and I were still wanted by the law because of my assault on Promethean (!)
          • My tenure as a crossdressing social pariah had been extended by months
          • I was still stuck as a superheroine
          • I was still stuck with Prodigy (assuming he didn't try to kill me outright for sucker punching him)
          • And since nobody knew what Demetria was really up to but us and Harridan, I got none of the credit for saving the city

And yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't. Stop. Smiling!

"Who saaaaved the city? I saaaaved the city," I sang to myself as I sat at my vanity putting on my makeup. I grabbed a hair brush and pretended like I was being interviewed and I affected a serious expression. "Oh, sure, I suppose I was the one who discovered the plot and stayed with it when everyone else wanted to ignore it, and y'know, risked my life to save everyone, but it really was a team effort. We showed a lot of heart and some good hustle out there, and we couldn't have done it if everyone hadn't done their part," I said.

I happily wiggled my butt back and forth in my seat. "Who saaaaved the ci—"

From over on my laptop I was interrupted when I heard a familiar voice on the HeroVerse newsfeed.

"Well, I think the word 'hero' gets overused a lot these days," Quasarblaze said on the screen, "but I definitely think it applies to me. Nobody knew about the threat to the city until I called everyone in, so I'd say a debt of gratitude is owed, and I'm not just talking in financial terms—"

Arcturus, who was standing next to him, cut him off. "We are of course grateful for the assistance of the junior heroes for alerting us to this threat, but I think this is yet another reason to revisit the anti-vigilante legislation—"

"Ugh," I groaned as I slapped the lid down on the laptop. Oh, that's right, we can also add to the list:

          • Blaze stole the credit for all my hard work...
          • ...and he wants to kill me...
          • ...and he knows my secret identity.

I knew I was forgetting something.

Annoyed, I turned back to stare at myself in the mirror and sighed heavily as my feminized reflection stared back at me. I couldn't help but feel despondent.

Temporarily.

"Who saaaved the city? I saaaaaved the ciiiity..." I grinned.

* * * * *

It was a few weeks before I was able to check in on Prodigy. He hadn't signaled me that whole time and at first I figured he was still angry with me but I also guessed he needed time to deal with what happened with Demetria. When I entered the garage I noticed he was already there at work on the car, so I quietly entered and put the potted plant I was carrying on one of the counters.

He didn't even look up. "What the hell is that?"

"I recovered it from the Sanctuary before it was destroyed," I said, not sure if he recognized it as one of the flowers that had surrounded Starbrite's statue in the garden. "It turns out it's an alien plant, an Elysian Starblossom. They're thought to be extinct," I told him. "I thought the place could use a little color."

He looked up from the engine. "Absolutely not. I let you bring this thing in and the next thing you know you'll be tossing around throw pillows and bringing in a crocheted blanket your Gammy made for you."

"C'mon, it's a tough little bastard! It hardly needs water and it only needs florescent light—"

He held up a hand to stop me. "I'm curious. Did I make a noise or gesture that suggested that I was the least bit interested in that thing's dietary needs?"

"Look, you could even keep it next to your Kalothian genital parasites, here. They're both from outer space, so it could be like Superman's menagerie zoo in his Fortress of Solitude."

He just glared at me.

"Fine," I sighed. He went back to work on the car and as I looked at the plant, my eyes fell on the parasites' cage. I leaned over and peered at them through the glass. "I can't believe these guys survived the explosion."

"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen their home planet. That cage is basically indestructible. It cost me more than the car."

"Hey, where's Harpo?"

"What?"

"Harpo's gone. We're missing a parasite."

He hesitated. "Hm. It must have gotten out when I cleaned the cage. Be careful where you sit down or it could be shocking and unpleasant for both of you."

"Uh huh," I said slowly, watching him closely as I sidled closer to the car. "You know, they said in the news that Promethean just took a leave of absence. Something about a medical problem."

"You don't say."

"Mmm hmm. They were vague on the details, but it sounded personal and private." I leaned against the car. "Very personal and very private."

Prodigy stopped working and I cocked an eyebrow at him. "And we just happen to be missing an alien genital parasite."

He scowled at me. "What are you, Nancy Drew all of a sudden?"

I held my gaze.

"Well," he said as he grabbed a dirty rag and wiped the grease off his hands, "something like that would suck for a guy like Promethean. With skin that invulnerable, the tick might never be able to claw its way out. It'd just grow there, gnawing and scratching away but never able to escape."

"That sounds painful."

"Yeah, that's nothing. Wait'll it lays its eggs." He made a pained face.

"Ugh, that should cut into his love life."

"We can only hope," he said, watching as I walked back over to the plant and picked it up. "What, you're leaving already?"

"I'm still grounded. And please don't start, you've no idea what my folks are putting me through."

"Yeah, well, this isn't the level of commitment I expect from my partner."

I smiled. "Have I been promoted?"

"It's provisional. Don't make a big deal out of it."

I noticed as his gaze fell on the flower and I gestured back at the table. "Y'know, it might be easier to just leave this here—"

He shook his head. "Kid, I know what you're trying to do, and it's not working. Believe me, I have enough reminders of her. Of both of them," he said, staring at me with a faraway and pensive look that wasn't an expression I was used to seeing from him. "Besides," he said, "I think she would have wanted you to have it."

I nodded quietly.

"And if you tell anyone I said that, I'll drop you so fast that your ass will find out before the rest of you does."

"Glad to see you're feeling like your old self," I muttered.

I took a few steps to leave and then paused and turned to look back at him. "Y'know, when I was plugged into that machine, I had some of Demetria's empathic powers," I reminded him. "I know you're not really as cynical and jaded as you pretend to be."

He sniffed. "Yeah, well, I'm not nearly as idealistic and starry-eyed as you seem to think I am, either."

I hugged the plant a little tighter and gave him a small smile. "We'll see," I said before I left.

I think that was the first time he ever let me have the last word in an argument.

* * * * *

That evening after dinner as I finished doing the dishes I turned around to see my dad bring in a large flat package wrapped in brown paper. Both my parents had funny looks on their faces as he put it on the kitchen table.

"This is for you," Mom said with a smile. "From both of us."

Dad gave a sidelong glance to Mom. "Though I'm still not sure I approve."

She shushed him as I approached the package uncertainly. I tore away the paper to reveal a large framed artwork print of Faraday City done up in a retro 60s style, gleaming and bright like it was full of optimism for the future. I looked closer and noticed there were several bright curving rays of color overlaid to represent the supers as they flew, raced, or swung across the city.

"I noticed you were...redecorating," Mom said. "I thought you could put it over your bed where that poster was. Do you like it?"

I spun around and hugged them both. "I love it," I said.

My father smiled and shook his head at the print when his cell phone rang. "Detective Trainor! Yes, I found the old Freeform case file you were looking for. Dr. Glass kept an address at..." His voice trailed off as he headed to his den and closed the door.

Mom kissed me on the head and then went to do some writing on her laptop when the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," I said as I paused to take one last look at the print. There was a time I'd have been mortified to answer the door dressed like a girl but lately it didn't seem like that big a deal. It bothered me that I might actually be getting used to it.

There was another impatient knock at the door, and I turned to answer it. "Fine! Hold your horses!" I called. I grabbed the doorknob and threw the door open wide. "What do you—"

Standing there on our front porch was Marty Maddox.

I hurried across the threshold and closed the door behind me as I stared at him in alarm. "Mr. Maddox! W-what are you doing here? I—I mean, it's such an honor to meet you—"

"Smooth. But you can drop the act, 'Prodigious Girl.'"

I glanced nervously over my shoulder. "Oh, God. Look, my parents don't know. Please don't tell them, okay? You used to hang out with heroes, you know what it's like. I mean, imagine if Arcturus's secret identity was in your hands!"

He shook his head and ran his hand over his balding pate. "Unbelievable. What was the very first thing I taught you?"

I swallowed hard and tried to think back to the first time I met him on the rooftop having lunch. It was all a blur. "I—I don't know. Something about being true to myself?"

"No. The first lesson I taught you was that if you ever used that asshole Arcturus's name in a sentence, you should always use the word 'asshole' at least twice to make it clear that's how big an asshole he is."

My jaw dropped. "Y-you..."

"Yes."

"You're actually..."

"That's right."

"And you've always—?"

"The whole time."

"Prodigy?" I whispered incredulously. "I didn't— I mean, I never—"

"Yeah, that's kind of the whole point of a secret identity, genius."

I stood there stunned, trying to reconcile the sight of this schlubby, balding but friendly middle-aged guy who had been my confidante with the harsh, aging, white-haired but decidedly trim mentor who seemed to take delight in tormenting me. Mentally, I deconstructed his figure and concluded that Marty's extra weight and Prodigy's advanced age were probably just skillful padding and makeup, but that his balding head was probably genuine.

"You wear a toupee as part of your costume?" I asked.

"You grow tits for yours."

"Fair enough."

I then stopped and considered his dual identities for a moment. "When I met with you on the rooftop that one time, I called you a pompous and decrepit old windbag," I said. "To your face."

"I remember."

I made a pained expression. "That's gonna cost me later, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," he said in that all-too-familiar gravelly voice. It sounded unnatural to hear Prodigy's voice coming out of Marty's mouth, but he quickly switched back, which only made the whole situation even more bizarre. "You seriously had no idea who I was?"

"Uh uh."

He looked me up and down in my girlish outfit and shook his head. "You are disappointing on so many levels."

My eyes lit up. "Oh my gosh, did you just quote Batman from The Lego Movie? I knew you had a sense of humor!"

"So many levels," he repeated.

"You were nice to me. You even gave me a brownie!"

"Yeah, sometimes you gotta suck it up and do things you don't like."

I raised an eyebrow. "You also told me I was bright, talented, and had a good heart," I reminded him. "You said I had limitless potential."

He looked me over. "It's interesting how you've decided to use it."

I felt myself blush red. "You know, I, uh, don't actually like to dress like this."

"Yeah, secret identities will make you do some really dumb shit," he agreed as he shook his head in disbelief.

"Did you ever have to do anything like this?"

"Oh, no," he chuckled. "No way. I think you're in a class by yourself on this one, kid."

"So, wait. You knew about me the whole time? Why didn't you say anything?"

He looked vaguely uncomfortable. "I put it together eventually. You didn't seem too keen to trust me with it and...well, maybe I left something to be desired in terms of earning your trust."

I stared at him in shock. "You left something to be—? You're kidding me with this, right?"

"Hey, I'm here, aren't I?"

"You—!" I was about to tear into him for all the torments he'd inflicted on me, his snarky remarks and sharp rebukes, his dubious attempts of mentorship, and I realized that this was probably the closest thing to an apology I was ever going to get from him. And that trusting me with his greatest secret was the finest gesture he knew how to give. "Yeah, I guess you are," I admitted with a little half smile.

Then my smile faded. "Hey, why are you here, again?"

"Well, for one thing, this I had to see with my own eyes," he said, looking at me incredulously.

I crossed my arms defensively. "Uh huh. Anything else?"

"I was thinking," he added, "if you're gonna need to explain a bunch of absences, why don't you swing by the AGON offices tomorrow after school and we'll get you set up with an internship."

"Really? Wow, that'd be—wait, I can't," I groaned. "I'm still grounded. And I'm stuck looking like this the whole summer," I said as I plucked at my short skirt.

"Yeesh. Well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, I guess," he said. "Good luck with that."

"Thanks."

He made a small but guttural little grumble that was decidedly more Prodigy than Marty. "Still, after you get all dolled up, why don't you swing by, anyway."

I looked at him uncertainly. "Come again?"

"You can tell your folks that we have a permissive dress code," he said with a smirk. "Besides, your, ah, 'special duty' uniform already has a skirt."

My mind raced. The thought of running around in dresses all summer gave me stomach cramps, and there was no way I was going to live that down, especially if I was running off to my "internship" all prettied up every day. I chewed on my lip self-consciously as I mulled it over, a little affectation I'd picked up from my time as Prodigious Girl.

"Do I get to drive the car?"

"Not a chance," he said emphatically. Then, seeing my dejected face, he made another little grumble. "Although...maybe you could drive the motorcycle."

"There's a motorcycle?"

"Shh!"

I squealed girlishly and threw my arms around him. His whole body stiffened up in my arms, and I glanced up to see Marty Maddox looking down at me with a look of disdain that was all Prodigy. As I suddenly realized what I was doing, I quickly released him and tried to regain some small measure of decorum. Then I glanced down at myself in my dress and broke into another smile. "Eh, when in Rome," I said with a shrug.

He just rolled his eyes, but I was too excited to care. I ran into the house gleefully, leaving my flummoxed mentor standing there on the front porch.

"Mom! Dad! Would it be okay if I got an after-school job?"

And that's how it came to pass that the next day I found myself downtown in the AGON Technologies building standing nervously in my dress as I started my first day as an intern working alongside the original sidekick, Marty Maddox. If he had a little gleam in his eye as he looked me over when I introduced myself to him as Christie Patterson, nobody seemed to notice. Although—like everybody else—he did make a polite comment about the unusual flowering plant I kept on my desk, saying that he supposed the place needed some color, anyway.

Just as he turned to leave, I said, "Oh, Mr. Maddox! I had a chance to read up on the name of your company. I thought it was interesting."

He raised an eyebrow. "Yes, apparently some people think 'AGON' is an acronym. But it means conflict."

"Actually," I said brightly as he bristled just slightly, "I read that it could also mean a philosophical debate between two contrasting views. Like order and chaos, old age and youth, even cynicism and idealism."

"Mmm," he intoned flatly. "Or male and female?" he asked pointedly.

I hesitated a moment before responding. "I would suppose so," I said.

"I'm sure. Well then, welcome to AGON, Miss Patterson," Marty said before leaving.

* * * * *

I flew over the city to do a quick patrol and paused to land on a short building and admire the sparkling skyline laid out in front of me. I smiled as I felt the wind blow dramatically through my cape and hair and I made a wry grin as it tickled the edge of my skirt playfully. I wasn't sure when that had started to feel familiar.

There was the sound of a footstep behind me. "Daydreaming about finding a real man, Patterson?"

I spun around, ready for a fight. "Let me know when one shows up," I retorted. "Hey, Blaze. Saw you on the news. Congrats on all your hard work paying off. I'm a little surprised you didn't just shoot me in the back just now, though. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I just didn't think it'd look good for the newest member of the Liberty Squadron to pick a fight in public. Yeah, you heard that right. I'm working with Arcturus now," he boasted.

"Asshole, asshole," I muttered under my breath.

"Although seeing as how you're wanted by the authorities, I guess I could make an exception," he said as the weapons on his armored suit powered up.

"Blaze, I don't want to fight you."

"Smart move, Tits," he taunted.

"Dude, what the hell. You've got everything you ever wanted. You're famous..." My voice trailed off. "Huh. I guess that's all you wanted, wasn't it?"

"Oh, not everything. I still owe you a humiliating beatdown."

I sighed heavily. "Fine, have it your way. You want to go, let's go."

"Oh, there's no hurry. I know where you live, Patterson."

"I don't—"

Just then from down on the street we heard a young guy's voice shout, "Oh, hey! Prodigious Girl! You're the best!"

We both paused to look and saw what at first seemed to be a buxom blonde teenage girl in a short flowered dress. Then "she" called up in the same teen male voice as before, "Big fan!"

"Thank you!" I called back with a wave.

Blaze did a confused double-take as he looked down in the street, and then back at me, and then back to the street.

I looked at him inquisitively. "Friend of yours?"

He seemed perplexed. "I thought... You're not...?" he started before taking on a more aggressive stance. "Oh, this isn't over, bitch."

"You know, there's plenty of gender-neutral insults..." I complained. "But hey, no need to be jealous. It looks like you've got a little fan of your own, there," I said as I pointed at him.

Confused, Blaze turned his head and saw the colorful butterfly sitting on his shoulder that was calmly flapping its delicate wings.

"EEEEEK!" he shrieked in terror. His jetpack roared to life and he took off into the sky like a shot.

I smiled to myself and enjoyed the sight of his retreating form before I flew down and landed gently on the ground next to my blonde groupie.

"You look good," I said, making no effort to hide my smirk.

"Wow, I get what you mean about these stupid shoes," Caleb responded as he teetered on his heels. "Skirt's kinda breezy, though. And these are sort of entertaining," he said as he gave his boobs a grope.

"Hey, not so grabby!" I hissed. "People think you're me, remember? My reputation is lousy enough without everyone thinking I walk around feeling myself up all day."

"Might be fun," he grinned before he peered over my shoulder towards the roof. "I guess you're in the clear?"

"Yeah," I said. "Thanks again. I guess I should probably..." I gestured over my shoulder with my thumb as if to leave.

"Um—!"

"What's wrong?" I asked, slightly worried. He looked nervous and awkward. Caleb never looked nervous and awkward.

"Well, it's just...I was..." He sighed and looked at me. "I was wondering what it was like." He glanced up towards the sky.

As I looked at him, my mouth dropped open slightly. All those times he'd seen me like this, all that time we'd spent together, and I'd never taken him flying. I'd never even thought to ask.

I reached down and swept him off his feet as he draped his arms around my neck. "Okay, hold on ti—"

I stopped as I felt his jutting falsies pressed firmly up against my chest. "Maybe a little less tightly," I warned him.

"Sorry."

"And, uh, you might want to hold on to your skirt for takeoff," I told him. "There's kind of an updraft."

I launched us up into the air speeding towards the heavens as Caleb clung to me and gave an excited shout. As I felt the rush of the wind and saw the look of sheer joy on his face, I realized that was what had been missing with the older superheroes...they'd gotten used to it. They'd taken the impossible and made it mundane. I felt sorry for them.

I knew that being a superhero was difficult and dangerous. It was serious work with lives often on the line, and in the years to come I would face many challenges and threats. I would also lose very dear friends. But as I look back on it now and think about that flight over the city, I never lose my sense of wonder. It's funny, but I've no clear recollection of the first time I flew by myself, even though I'm sure it was amazing and magical. But I can remember every second of that flight with Caleb. Maybe it's just because it meant more having someone to share it with.

People still ask me why I decided to stay as Prodigious Girl when it would have been so easy to ditch the name and do something more serious, more traditional. And I always tell them the same thing: "It just felt right." And years later when my mentor did—finally!—retire, I took up the mantle of Prodigy because that, too, felt right. And while he wasn't entirely happy with my changes to the costume, what can I say? Old habits die hard!

Maybe it's my destiny to be remembered for my figure first and my heroics second, but I think my time flying a mile in Prodigious Girl's boots taught me things I probably wouldn't have learned if I'd fought crime as Captain Paradox or Adventure Man. (Both of whom went on to have long and distinguished careers! Go, Knights Errant!) And to the new heroes, I've tried to pass on some of what I've learned. Like courage. Compassion. Humor. Tolerance. Friendship.

And wonder. Always wonder.

THE END

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