Fight 15-VII

And When They Come Home.

The sewer trek gave me some time to clear my head (and, sadly, my sinuses). By the time I'd reached the manhole with the little angle symbol that I'd scratched in next to it, the adrenaline had worn off, and I was beginning to feel a little sick. Not from the sewage. Well, a little from the sewage. Mostly, though, it was the reality of the events that had just passed.

What the fuck had we been thinking? I realized as I popped the cover off with a groan of effort. Our whole thing is based on flying under the radar. We just… blew up the sensor dish! (I don't know how radar works). Oh, man, we're so completely fucked.

It was significantly darker than it had been outside, when I hoisted myself upwards and out of the sewers. I switched off the torch on my phone (it's a sewer. They're not generally known for their accommodating and pleasant lighting) and pushed my goggles up onto my forehead, reducing the gloom a little. I was a couple of blocks, maybe five or six, from our warehouse, back in away from the lake. It was the closest manhole to us, which I'd initially been annoyed about, having a fundamental streak of laziness I'd never quite managed to exorcise. But having an entrance right near us was a security risk, and the wide open streets between here and there made it easy to spot any tails. Until now, that had always been a bit of paranoia on my part, an over-eagerness to utilise the skills my dad had taught me, possibly as some kind of… tribute. But now, I was beginning to suspect it would be a very real and present risk. Hell, if interested parties wanted to find us, they wouldnt even need to tail one of us: The Tower could easily get a super with a tracking ability to just find us. In fact, that would probably be exactly what was going to happen. Our only chance of avoiding it rested on a slim thread, the last remaining part of the plan. (Oh, you thought the plan was over? The plan was not even close to being over). If that didn't work… well, I don't think I'd do too well in prison.

As I fretted, I rounded the last corner before the warehouse.To my surprise, someone was standing outside the front entrance. From the profile, in the dark, I thought it was Ivan, but as I grew closer, I could make out a ragged ponytail, and flashes of a light blue. It was Jess, leaning against the wall with her hands cupped near her mouth and… lighting one up?

Yep. As I grew closer, there was a barely visible flare of orange in between her fingers, and she dropped her hands, one of which held a cheap disposable lighter in it.  A dark cylinder stuck out from between her lips, and as I watched, she leant her head back and let out a puff of smoke from the opposite corner of her mouth.

“I didn't know you smoked,” I said. She obviously hadn't noticed me: her head jerked forward slightly and towards me, and one hand flicked up towards her mouth before she controlled the reaction, as if she was trying to hide it. She breathed out when she saw it was just me.

“Don't exactly advertise it,” she said, slightly muddled by the cigarette. No, wait, the smell was wrong, it was a blunt. “Just helps me relax. Destress.” She'd taken off the flight cap, and her old-fashioned goggles hung from their strap around her neck. And, in fact, she did look relaxed. More than I'd ever seen her, actually. She pretty much always had this air of tenseness, like she wasn't sure where the next blow was going to come from and wanted to be ready. Seeing that lessened slightly, the lines of her face softened, was actually a little unnerving.

I crinkled my nose, but tried to play it off. “It's okay, you don't have to justify it to me. Hell, relaxing sounds pretty good to me right now.” To my surprise, she took the blunt from her mouth and offered it to me, eyebrow raised questioningly. I laughed and shook my head. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Square,” she said with a smirk as she retracted it and took another puff.

I watched the smoke twirl and rise into the air. “Yeah, I guess so. I'm just too boring.”

She snorted. “You're anything but.”

I looked at her sharply, caught off guard. “Was… was that a compliment. From the legendary stoic Jess Reynolds? No, it couldn't be.”

She shrugged. “You can take it that way.”

“Alright, this is downright uncanny,” I said. “That was a full, complete sentence. That was the first full, complete sentence I've heard from you, ever. You're sure you're not an imposter?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Would I tell you if I was?” It was so unexpected I actually laughed.

“I've gotta say, I'm really digging this Jess.”

“It's nice,” she said with a little shrug of agreement. “Better than being curled up in a ball like I would be right now. Can't rely on it, though. Need to be sharp.” Her face had gone a little pensive.

“What, all the time?” I asked.

She nodded, seeming to be a very long way away. “Home… isn't the greatest place to be.”

I raised my eyebrow in a 'go on’ sort of gesture, trying to hide how unprepared I was for this sudden display of openness. Have you noticed I'm bad at emotional stuff yet? Because she apparently hadn't.

“It's… there's always something,” she continued. “Always someone yelling or screaming or throwing things or whatever. If I'm not on my guard, I'm gonna get hit by something or someone.”

I looked her up and down. I'm not short (I'm not), and she was taller than me, and considerably more solid. “I… uh, I'm trying to find a way to put this sensitively, but that doesn't seem like it would be as much of a problem for you as... it might be for others?”

She shot me a glare, which was relieving in an odd way. “They're my parents.”

“Right, okay,” I said, holding up my hands defensively. “Sorry, sorry.”

She continued on like I hadn't said anything. “It's… stressful. I think it's helped with all this, though.”

I nodded at that. “Can't imagine being on your toes being a hindrance when people are trying to kill you.”

“You don't seem to need it,” she noted.

This entire conversation kept throwing me curveballs. “What?” I said, confused.

“You’re calm,” she elaborated. “No, not calm. But… I don't know. Easy?”

I opened my mouth to make a joke about me being easy, but decided against it. “Jess, that's not-”

“Like you don't have to be on your toes all the time.”

I opened my mouth, and shut it a few times. “I… don't really know how to respond to that.”

She shook her head. “Forget it. It's stupid.”

I wanted to say something. She'd opened up to me, and I should have been able to respond to that, right? That's what normal people did. “...sure, okay,” I said instead. “Are the others here yet?”

“Yeah,” she replied, expression unreadable. “Not everyone, but most. I'll be in in a minute.”

“Okay,” I said awkwardly. “I'll… see you in there, I guess.” She grunted noncommittally.

I took a few steps inside, then stopped. “Jess,” I said slowly. “I… I don't really know how to say this without being weird, so bear with me?” She didn't look at me, but I barreled on regardless. “You know, I, uh… oh god, this is cheesy. I wasn't always like this.”

“Uh huh,” she said, monotone.

“No, seriously. Ask any of the others what I was like about… a year and a half ago? Yeah. It was kind of like you, actually, but more angry. And I'm not trying to equivocate myself to you, but, you know…” I faded off, grasping for the right words. “They're just different ways of coping, I guess, me and you. And mine’s not necessarily better.”

“No?”

I scratched the back of my head awkwardly. “I don't know. I'm just saying… I don't know what I'm saying. I guess it's just that… maybe don't be so hard on yourself? You're more together than you think, and maybe the rest of us are the opposite. Uhm… maybe I'm the opposite. And…” I steeled myself, then reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe you're not as alone as you think you are?”

The silence stretched out for a few seconds, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Then, she laughed, low and soft. “That was really cheesy.” But she didn't make any move to remove my hand. “Thanks, Flint.”

I smiled at the back of her head a little awkwardly. “Hey, I did warn you. See you inside?”

She nodded, and gave a little two-finger salute without looking back, then turned back to continue staring out into the night sky. I left her to it, and began walking inside, just a little more pensive than before.

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