107 Coffee Time

Honestly, I was a little embarrassed by the extent to which my team was rallying around me in support of what wasn't even technically a date. It reminded me of an overly supportive family coming together for a major life event. I mean, not my personal family, but the general idea of how families acted. I half expected someone to pull out a camera, and that probably would have happened if everything in the workshop wasn't recorded by default.

As expected, Garment had taken it upon herself to manage my clothing choices. Rather than any of the over-the-top outfits that I'm sure she would have loved to have used, the final result was using a great deal of effort to create the impression that you didn't care how you looked. That is to say the outfit I went with perfectly fit with my presented background and situation while also happening to come together in a particularly effective manner. It was a terrifying amount of effort to create the impression that I had just thrown on whatever was available.

Beyond my clothing, there were also breakdowns of the coffee shop, including the current menu, renovations and modifications that had been put in place since the last time I had visited, the layout of the seating, points of access through the student center, parking locations on campus, probable traffic levels over the course of my approach, and minute by minute weather assessments for wind, cloud cover, and the remote chance of precipitation.

Yeah, it was overkill, but that was kind of the point. All the fretting I could have fallen back into was being done for me, usually in advance. It was hard to fall back into panic over remote nightmare scenarios when you knew with full certainty that every possible contingency was fully covered, and to what was probably an intentionally ridiculous degree. The comical excess of my team's preparation was enough that I could actually focus on the more mundane concerns.

Social interaction. God, this shouldn't be a challenge at this point, and honestly it wouldn't be, but there were some associations that would never really go away. It didn't matter that I knew I could perfectly read social situations or that I had ungodly amounts of training in both espionage and diplomacy, there was probably always going to be some apprehension when it came to diving into the kind of situation that had historically been a minefield for me.

"You're worried about this." Tetra said as she flickered into being next to me. Not so much appearing as establishing this part of her continuous presence as the point of interaction. "A lot more worried than you were about the gangs, or Passenger Space, or Jack's power."

I smiled down at her. "Residual concerns. I know I can handle this, and it's probably going to go well. At least if the rest of the team has anything to say about it."

I once again took in the ridiculous degree of prep work that was happening in the background. When you had Survey checking as to whether slight changes in the coffee shop's color palette due to sun damaged fabrics on the furniture would result in a less advantageous response to the chosen outfit, it was safe to say all your bases were fully covered.

"But you're concerned about how you'll handle it?" Tetra asked.

That was a consequence of her connection. She had the best read on every member of the team possible. Unparalleled access to information, even if she was still contextualizing the full range of experiences she was now privy to.

"He's worried because he's a super spy diplomat who's been prettied up by the gods and he doesn't know if it's honest to deal with people like that, right?" Aisha called from across Garment's workshop.

I was already changed into what was almost certainly the final version of the chosen outfit, but was entertaining a series of final checks as Survey worked with Garment to assure as many details were fine tuned as possible. And Aisha worked with Garment and Survey to ensure they didn't end up flying off on some ridiculous tangent.

Tetra nodded. "Your powers will make this easier, but they're still a part of you." She lifted a hand and currents of energy played through the otherwise indistinguishable fibers that made up her physical form. I could feel the thrum of the Dragon's Pulse as she strengthened her connection with the invisible currents of life energy that followed through the world. "You don't see the world like anyone else does, but neither do any of us."

I nodded. "I know. It's not like I can shut down parts of my brain or ways of looking at the world. Even powers can only be held back so far." I said. "I'm not going to be actively scanning or running analytics, but even the Skills I have still feel like cheating."

"Then cheat." Aisha said. I turned to look at her. "I'm serious. Sure, if you were trying to screw her over then all this stuff would be scummy, but we both know you're just trying to have a nice conversation, so what's wrong with using spy training to make sure you don't mess things up?" She shook her head. "Trust me, this kind of thing can go to hell even if everyone is trying their best. I really doubt anyone will care about you 'cheating' to make sure the date goes well."

I took a breath. "Fine, but still feels kind of artificial. And it's not a date."

"Sure it isn't." Aisha said, exchanging a grin with Tetra. "You know, in any other case, it would be the known superhero worrying about freaking out and overwhelming the normal person they were meeting for coffee thanks to status and intimidation and all that stuff." Aisha smiled at me. "In fact, decent odds that Laserdream is worried about just that."

"I could tell you." Tetra offered. "I have a connection through the Dragon's Pulse."

"No." I said flatly. "In person is one thing, but I want to at least hold off on remote violations of privacy."

Well, for me at least. Tetra literally couldn't help it and Survey had taken her own monitoring programs to a level that would leave authoritarian governments green with envy. At least it would if she was doing anything with her information other than comparing it against modeled values and using it to improve her own analytics.

"Good call." Aisha said. "Now, if you're ready to head out, I have a planet to explore."

I smiled. "Ten times speed once I leave?"

"You know it." She said, "Which is good, because there is a lot to get through." A blank blue glow spread over Aisha's eyes, accompanied by the sound of an electric motor. Circuit-like patterns of the same color extended out from her eyes as the nanites in her body activated.

"Um, you have a neural interface." I said. "You don't need to flood your optical cavity with nanites every time you want to read something from the network."

The electric sound died down and the circuit patterns retracted as Aisha's eyes returned to normal. "Yeah, but it's easier to pull up a TV screen than to mess around with all of THAT."

I shrugged. It was a bit of a crude workaround, but still functional and as long as she didn't need to covertly access information in public it wasn't a problem. Frankly, given the time frame, even figuring out an improvised interface was impressive.

She pulled up the display again, shifting her eyes back to the glow of her nanites. "You seriously built Ley Lines into that planet?"

"That was more of a project from my duplicates, but yeah?" I said. "Planets can support a natural mana system, and there were already photonic crystals integrated into the cybertonium core."

"And mantic circuits, with cores. Which I need to figure out." A message from the Matrix conveyed their enthusiasm in assisting on that matter. "Mythical and Sci-Fi material deposits, elevated fortune energy, customized biosphere, plus all the other powers rolled into it." Aisha continued.

"You don't need to deal with everything now." I said.

"I'm not trying to, but just the overview is a lot." She explained, her eyes fading back to normal. "I at least want to get a sense of what I'm dealing with before I pull in people to help me manage it."

I nodded. It wasn't like any of the A.I.s, or even Tetra, would be pressed if Aisha reached out to them to help with some aspect of planetary management. In fact, I'm pretty sure they had been looking forward to it since the project began. Still, it was her workshop. It made sense that she'd want to get a handle on the main features before she reached out.

"Hey, what's the name of the planet anyway?" Aisha asked me.

"Well, it's your planet. You can call it whatever you want." I said.

"So you didn't use the elven naming thing on it?" She asked, checking the workshop records again.

"Um, not on the planet. Or not specifically on the planet." I said, her eyes shifted back to normal as she turned to face me.

"What do you mean?" She asked.

I pulled up a model of the system. Not just the planet, but the moon, the miniature sun, and the celestial spheres that handled the apparent movement of the stars.

"Elven Enchantment only works when a creation is completed. The planet was just one component of the entire system. So all of this has a name…" I gestured to the complete model. "But that's everything, not just the planet itself."

Aisha nodded. "So, what's the name?" She asked.

"Thandamar." I said.

Aisha scrunched up her face and very deliberately did not consult the Workshop's records. "That's 'shield' and… like, inhabited place. Or world." She looked up at me. "Shield World?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "Naming works best with simple intent."

"I guess." She said with a smile. A smile that grew wider. "So you can have the planet Thandamar in the system of Thandamar. And then Thandamar province, with Thandamar city as the capital."

I took a breath. "So planet shield planet, with shield inhabited place province, and then shield province city?"

Of course, that's when Survey decided to weigh in through one of her holograms. "While the progression may seem redundant, it complies with numerous tautological standards in naming conventions."

"Right, like river river, or hill hill hill hill." Aisha said.

"Torpenhow Hill is apocryphal, however the River Avon is an accurate representation of this phenomena."

"Right, well, have fun naming everything." I said. Honestly, it would probably be a good idea to get unique names at least for the moon and sun, if only to differentiate them. Then again, if Aisha stayed on this trend, she might just go with Thandamar moon or demi-Thandamar or something like that.

The moon and sun had actually been harder than you would expect. Without a distant star providing light, you weren't going to get normal moon phases. An offset solar and lunar orbit could address that, but you were going through every phase of the moon over the course of a day.

We ended up giving the moon its own illumination source and lensing the light from the sun to direct the majority of it planetward. That also helped create an impression closer to the effect you got in a heliocentric system. In terms of light sources, the rough idea of recreating the light of Telperion and Laurelin proved well beyond the scope of this project, so we ended up going with a base of Ragnite structures for the lunar surface and modified hearthfire for the sun.

That was probably a point of irony. As over the top as Aisha saw this project, we had actually compromised on a lot of fronts. It was actually kind of fun in terms of trying out serious ideas and finding out what was possible and what might be possible with a little more work. Or a lot more in the case of certain elements.

Really though, Aisha was right in the fact that it was a ridiculously magical world. As much of the planet as possible had been 'handcrafted', typically through the use of my Transformer body and generous use of hybridization. The ley line system was basically a planet wide enchantment that was constructed at the peak of our skill level and benefiting from both quality enhancers and the ability to self-improve through Heretical Adaptation.

Aisha was directly tied into that world and should be able to access any of the mystical resources as easily as any physical item. Her 'magical' abilities had been somewhat limited due to them relying on her connection to her passenger, but right now she had a much more substantial source of magic that was entirely at her beck and call. Honestly, with the amount of power flowing through that planetary system there was the distinct possibility of it developing some kind of planetary spirit or driving force, something that could potentially be harnessed or channeled.

A teenage girl with the magical power of an entire planet channeled into her through a small piece of jewelry…. That sounded familiar. Like, not in the usual way of my power pulling from a fictional world and dropping aspects of it into my head, but more… was it possible to approach another fictional work from the outside? Like, go so far off the map that you ended up in familiar territory by accident?

Setting aside accidental references to defunct cartoons, I had a definitely not-date to get to. Since this was a personal appearance, it required the use of conventional methods of travel. While I didn't think it would set up any serious alarms if I just appeared near the college, it was probably best to handle things as conventionally as possible.

As such, I departed the Workshop through the closet door of my apartment. As I left the entryway of my Workshop and entered the cramped and dingy space Temporal Controls kicked in, accelerating the flow of time within the Workshop by a factor of ten. The Central Control allowed me to maintain my awareness of the Workshop and I could feel the shift as everything kicked into high gear.

Something that hadn't been possible when I was inside. As a consequence of taking the night for training and development the rest of the team had missed out on days of development, years if you counted the acceleration of the Spiritron Computer. I also hadn't been able to pursue some of the external matters I had wanted to attend to.

And in exchange, I had been able to make significant progress with my Aspect and support the Matrix as they worked through the improvements tied to their spiritual development from the Glove of the East. Which in turn greatly improved the quality of the nanite arrays and Aisha's personal workshop. And those capacities and what was learned when developing them could make it possible to repeat the defensive measures we had put in place for Aisha for every parahuman in the world.

That was going to be a tall order. My duplicates and the rest of the team were already working on it, evaluating options, and assessing magical and technological measures that could be deployed. The ongoing exploration and development of the Passenger Space expedition provided a greater understanding of the nature of the network, the method of how the obscurement effect of Jack's passenger had been accomplished, and potential means of countering it.

For once it was a goal that actually presented a real challenge. A problem that couldn't just be solved by rolling out slightly better technology than I usually deployed. This was a problem that required work to address, and that needed to be addressed on a tight timeline. It was a timeline I could cheat, even with my other obligations, but still, I hadn't been pressed like this in a long time.

The consequences of not being able to counter Jack's power in full weren't completely dire. He was still going to die and I was going to take steps to make sure nobody could pull a Glaistig Uaine type shenanigans on him or any of the rest of the Nine, but without being able to completely purge the influence he'd had I doubt I would ever be able to fully convey how serious it had been.

Aisha was right on that point. She hadn't even interacted with the Nine and even she could recognize how she had been affected. Every case of terminal stupid that had allowed the Slaughterhouse Nine to slip free was something that had effects that wouldn't be limited to just that team.

There weren't any national efforts to track or contain the Slaughterhouse Nine, despite the damage they had done. There also weren't similar national efforts directed against numerous organizations that were nearly as bad. I couldn't believe that the justifications that Jack's passenger forced into people's minds stayed completely contained to matters regarding his team.

Measures that could have stopped the Slaughterhouse Nine could have stopped any number of other threats, but it would be hard to justify putting something in place with a specific exception for the Nine. In all likelihood, the effect of Jack's passenger had universally held back such measures, no matter how much they might have helped in other areas.

That was the real point. How much of what was wrong with the country, or even the world, could be traced back to an overly intrusive passenger deciding that its host should be able to play serial killer?

The world was in a downward spiral that people deliberately avoided talking about. The damage from S-class outbreaks, Endbringers, global conflicts, and factors like the Slaughterhouse Nine was piling up. There were timelines for societal collapse on both the national and global level, with examples of what that looked like already playing out in some parts of the world.

Jack's passenger might not have been a primary driver of that collapse, but I refused to believe that forcing parahumans to adopt policies that turned a blind eye to horrific murderers didn't have knock-on effects in other areas. I could try to explain that, but unless I totally cleared the effect like I had with Aisha I doubted anyone would really understand how insidious it had been.

It was possible that pulling this off could accomplish more than just tearing down the legacy of the Slaughterhouse Nine. It could potentially change the way people thought about the trajectory of the world. It was the idea that a society with parahumans might not be innately doomed. That there could be justice and restraint and decency, at least if you didn't have an alien entity manually editing the perceptions of everyone with powers and everyone else in the world going along with that on account of not knowing any better.

There was also a chance that this could shift the focus of society. There was a tendency for non-capes to be overlooked when it came to major conflicts. Beyond the directors of the PRT, you didn't really have anyone with enough authority to make a difference, and even that system was rife with problems.

I had seen the way analysis and initiatives that could have ended or crippled the Nine fizzled whenever they reached a parahuman. The requirement for thinker checks for any major decision pretty much ensured that anyone who could subvert things on that level was basically given a free pass. Hell, it was pretty much the foundation of my own strategy. Exposing that weakness would also reduce the unwarranted confidence various groups had regarding my own team's behavior, but that obfuscation would be a lot less important once the Nine had been dealt with and the team was able to act openly.

I took a breath, which unfortunately allowed me to fully appreciate the musty carpet smell of my old apartment. This wasn't the type of commitment I had been anticipating for the day, but it was an important one, something worth fitting in among all the other matters that I had to deal with.

Matters that all seemed much more important than meeting some people for coffee, but any chance of backing out or justifying a deferral was long gone. Another breath and another reminder of why I had started sleeping in my entryway as soon as it was available and I was ready to head out.

In all honesty, it was probably better to try not to make a big deal out of this. Sure, the rest of the team was treating this like it was a priority operation with everything that entailed for people on their level, but it was important to remember that this was just a talk over coffee. Pretty much the most neutral of social interactions and something I had actually enjoyed fairly often back when I was in college.

And that brought back some memories that it was probably better not to get muddled up with. I was literally incapable of repeating the mistakes of my time in college. Like Aisha said, it might be 'cheating', but cheating to avoid that kind of mess wasn't something anyone would take offense to. Besides, this was nothing like before. I was in a different situation with better awareness and less pressure.

You know, aside from the fact that there was a cape involved. That was still kind of crazy. Not just that I happened to run into Crystal Pelham, but the fact that her being a member of New Wave was probably one of the least significant aspects of this entire situation. Something that would have been overwhelming at any time before was now just a background detail. The fact that I had been involved in triggering her current family problems was more significant to me than the fact that she was one of the city's most famous heroes.

I shook my head in amusement as I left my apartment and climbed down the metal exterior stairs. I circled around the back of the house and headed down the street to pick up my car from the gym. The neighborhood hadn't been one of the worst parts of the Docks. Still run down, but holding out against the decay that the city had suffered. In the wake of the attacks it had gotten off fairly lightly, being spared any direct strikes and being buffered enough to not be totally overwhelmed in the aftermath.

Of course, the gym probably helped with that. Having a central location for people to rally around meant you had less aimlessness in the surrounding area. After all the chaos of preparing for Garment's event the things at the gym looked to be settling back towards a more normal level of activity. A quick remote check confirmed you still had some people gathering there, but there was at least the impression that it was an actual gym rather than a community center with misplaced exercise equipment.

Honestly, I didn't know what was going to happen to that place in the medium to long term. I had joined because it was cheap, quiet, and because boxing training was pretty well recommended for new capes. Now it was far from quiet and the attention it had received both locally and on the national stage had definitely changed the tone of the place.

I doubted it would ever go back to being the quiet out of the way gym I had signed up for, but then again nothing was really going to go back to the way it was before, probably for the better. Once I could actually start acting openly things were going to change on a lot of levels. The fact that the gym I went to would be more of a community hub than it had been before was probably a minor detail in the larger shifts that were coming.

I put that out of my mind as I collected my car from the parking lot. Garment had been unable to find a way to justify me taking Dekalt instead of my Pinto. The dragon Wish-Zoid's car form wasn't something that blended into any environment, which was a big part of why Garment loved it so much. While showing up in a custom designed supercar would certainly make an impression, it wasn't an impression that would help my situation.

I mean, I knew the Pinto was a terrible car. Hell, even my power seemed to regard it as a terrible car. That was precisely why it had been tacked on to another ability, a free extra designed to provide some kind of foundation for the impossible mechanical skills that were apparently linked to that movie series.

There were probably all kinds of insane upgrades I could have added to the vehicle, but for my purposes having an outdated car that was clean and ran well was more than enough. It also had a dramatically reduced risk of being stolen. Even people looking for something to joyride would probably stay away from a vehicle that was definitely not regarded as a joy to ride.

I pulled out of the gym's parking lot and began making my way through the city. This wasn't exactly a familiar route for me, but I had built up a perfect layout of the city through monitoring of the recovery efforts. Of course, actually driving through was always a different experience.

I navigated around the roads that were closed, either from damage or ongoing recovery work. The outpouring of effort since the ABB rampage had managed to get the city back into a functional state, but the damage would take a long time to address, at least using any conventional methods of recovery.

At least the human impact had been lessened a bit. People were still displaced, cut off from their homes and scattered into shelters, but the cover of Garment's charity efforts had allowed us to step up from covert deliveries of essentials to making sure that the worst impacted would want for nothing. It didn't put everything right, and that wasn't even an option until we could start dealing openly with major organizations, but it definitely helped. I could feel the difference from the previous day. There was less tension through the dragon pulse and my other senses were able to pick up wisps of hope and optimism.

That was something I needed to preserve, and preventing another major outbreak of violence was crucial for that. Incredibly, the seven days from the ABB attack actually counted as a significant recovery period, at least compared to the near constant clashes between gangs that had marked the buildup to the Ungodly Hour. Even so, the city was just barely coming around.

It helped that there was some actual external support. I meant beyond Gully's volunteer services, which had been incredibly helpful even with her clear ulterior motive. Helpful enough that I wanted to prioritize a meeting even with my fairly packed schedule and new commitments.

I was able to see the impact of that external support first hand as I drove out of the Docks. Survey had been monitoring the Chicago team's efforts and had full assessments of their activities, but seeing it first hand was a different matter. Shuffle was able to teleport sections of landscape, effectively swapping around non-living portions of the world, Tecton's armor specialized in kinetic manipulation and shifting structural interactions, Annex was a breaker who could merge with non-living material and alter its shape, while Cuff was a low range metallokinetic.

The team had been able to clear areas of damage that would have taken weeks or months of conventional efforts. Sections of collapsed rubble or damaged roads had been swapped by Shuffle with clear areas while the Wards had dealt with the finer work. There was even some level of effort towards rebuilding, though it was mostly superficial. You could see the effect of Annex's alteration power, Tecton's structural manipulation, or Cuff reshaping structural beams or rebar.

It was an incredible accomplishment, particularly for how short of a time they'd been in the city, but it also highlighted how isolated Brockton Bay had been, particularly during the attacks and the immediate aftermath. The blackouts triggered in the first wave of bombings had strained the resources of a lot of the surrounding departments, but for a disaster of this scale you'd figure that the wider Protectorate would be able to deploy.

That was probably down to the decision as to whether Lung's attack actually counted as an S-class threat or not. It wasn't just the politics after the fact, the nature of Lung's power meant it was damn hard to get people to take him seriously as a threat. Sure, he evidently could reach Endbringer levels, but the standing policy of 'disengage' was enough for people to effectively ignore that threat. Of course, they didn't account for Bakuda, and even if they could you had March throwing off all their predictions.

Another central point of failure on a system that leaned far too heavily on parahuman thinkers. The idea that anyone could have some kind of blanket obfuscation effect didn't seem to occur to the people who set up the system. Then again, having that kind of information asset on hand was probably enough to make anyone a little cocksure.

Honestly, that might be the case with our team and Survey. The difference was while I understood and appreciated the value of Survey's analysis, I knew that it couldn't cover everything. We had prioritized the most pressing concerns to the level where there was no chance of surprise, but only within a finite area. We weren't maintaining the level of monitoring we had directed at the Slaughterhouse Nine towards the gangs of Brockton Bay, or to the major villain organizations of the country, or to other world powers. Survey was including them in her assessment and maintaining what secure observations she could spare, but I wasn't going to pretend that we had a handle on the activities of the C.U.I. or African warlords or underground cape networks in South America or the Middle East.

Fortunately, as long as we maintained our cover we shouldn't need to worry about incursion by outside forces, at least not until we had dealt with local concerns. The Nine, Dragon, the Gangs, Coil, and whatever Taylor thought she was working towards would be tied up long before we had to take on the world.

At least I hoped they would, because otherwise this was going to get ugly and I didn't want to have to deal with a multifront offensive with Brockton Bay as ground zero.

Putting that happy thought out of my mind, I turned into the streets of Downtown, which brought a rather stark shift. To be fair, there was always a rather pronounced divide. The two areas were practically different cities, but the effect had only gotten worse following the attack. It wasn't just cultural or economic, you had a situation where half the city had been devastated the other half had been inconvenienced.

Okay, that was a bit unfair. I'd seen how much crossover there was and how hard people had been trying to help, but there was still the sense that the deeper you got into Downtown the more removed people were from what was happening in the rest of the city. And wasn't that a statement that could have been made at any point in the last five to ten years and still been equally true.

Honestly, I was probably just cycling old thoughts and grievances through my head as a distraction. The mental equivalent of dragging my feet to avoid dwelling on the upcoming meeting. A meeting that was structured as the most casual and low stress of social encounters, with the exception that I hadn't done anything like it in over two years.

It's fun knowing that you cannot mess something up and still being worried about it over things you can't control on any level. Though I imagine actually facing the concerns was a good place to start.

And with that I pulled onto the streets adjacent to the college. The landscape of Downtown had been shifting away from the towering office buildings into more of a mixed commercial area that was slowly peppered with student housing options for people who didn't want to stay in dorms. That eventually opened up to the campus proper.

That was when the memories really hit me. Once again, I knew I could handle the situation. The weight of experience and mental strength I had built up was enough to power through much more than the echoes of an uncomfortable past, but it was my uncomfortable past. It was kind of weird, I didn't want to deal with this, but I had the clarity to recognize what was bothering me and the strength to power through. There was almost a sense of disconnect that came from dealing with something that would have been a much bigger deal even a couple of weeks ago, but now was as easy as…

Well, as easy as anyone else going to meet someone for coffee. That was the grand accomplishment, the reward for conquering my issues on this matter. Not some great revelation or secret power, just the ability to function like a normal person without getting overwhelmed with anxiety and worry. On one hand that seemed like a trivial reward, but really it was everything I could ask for.

I smiled as I found one of the many parking spaces that had been mapped out for me by the rest of the team. No hunting around for a space or dealing with campus parking for me. I smiled as I stepped out of my car and made my way towards the student center. The building hadn't changed much since I had last been here. The layout and contents of the center was the same, and the collection of posters, announcements, and advertisements for campus events changed so often that seeing a fresh collection was unsurprising.

Still, I couldn't help but feel like a bit of an outsider. On one hand I knew the building perfectly and could practically navigate it with my eyes closed, but on the other this was something connected with a part of my life that was well behind me. I'd long since abandoned any thoughts of actually coming back to finish my degree. Frankly, just downplaying my level of knowledge was more trouble than it was worth. Also, once I was able to start acting freely and making a difference in the city and the wider world, it wasn't like a college education would be that important. I mean, maybe for my civilian identity, but it would probably be easier to pull together some equivalent degree program rather than take the time to actually go back to class.

But that wasn't what this was about. I mean, I'm sure it would probably come up. Sure, if anyone asked, I'm definitely going to come back to finish my degree. That was the polite answer and it was probably best to leave things at that. If I wasn't in a position where a single bachelor's degree was far beneath my actual level it might have stung to dance around a topic like that, but then again, if not for the weight of my abilities and experiences I doubt I would ever have taken up an offer like this, much less an offer from Laserdream.

As I approached the coffee shop I could recognize the signature of Crystal Pelham through the Dragon's Pulse. I clamped down on that sense, along with as many other extra senses as I could. This was supposed to be a casual conversation, and that was kind of undermined if you could read energy levels, emotional reactions, heat patterns, and metabolic activity without even trying. I was approaching this from as close to a normal human perspective as I could, which was frankly something I really needed in the wake of the last few weeks.

The coffee shop was on the second level of the atrium, overlooking the lower floor that also serves as spillover seating. Fortunately, things weren't too busy at ten o'clock on a Thursday morning in the wake of a major disaster.

In fact, the entire building was quieter than I remembered. A consequence of the response to the attacks. Most lectures were still canceled and it seemed that a lot of students had left the city altogether. The campus might have been well insulated from the worst of the attacks, but I could understand parents wanting to get their kids out of the city if at all possible.

Hell, I had experienced that myself. Something that probably came from a place of genuine concern, even if it was tainted with no small amount of derision.

I made my way up the open stairway to the upper level, smiling as the sign for Common Ground appeared at the top of the stairs. A truly terrible pun, but that was half of the charm. The coffee shop was fairly mundane, kind of homey and low stress, which was probably for the best. A wide counter for taking orders with a drink selection written on chalkboards. The seating area was a collection of table seating mixed with couches and armchairs, depending on how casual you were looking to be. I could see a few people camped out at tables with textbooks or lecture notes in front of them, as well as scattered groups on the more comfortable chairs, with one such group standing out.

I spotted Crystal Pelham sitting in the corner of the seating area. She was on couches and armchairs surrounding a coffee table with four other people who looked around the same age. A girl on the couch next to her, a couple sitting on the couch across from them, and another boy in an armchair. I steeled myself before making my way over.

"Yeah, but I mean, he can't be that…" The girl sitting next to Crystal trailed off as I approached the group.

I paused as their collective attention shifted towards me. I had kind of adjusted to general reactions when I was in public, but that was from passing contact or brief encounters. This was a lot more intense than what I typically received. My blessings were quite informative on how I was being regarded and I was doing my best to clamp down on the amount of information the rest of my senses would be happy to feed me about the situation.

"Good morning." I offered, earning a small smile from Crystal.

"Hi Joe." She said, shifting in your seat. "Glad you could make it."

I returned her smile. "Things haven't changed much since the last time I was here. I'm pretty sure I could find this place in my sleep. Probably did a couple of times."

"Morning labs?" The boy on the couch across from Crystal asked, glancing towards the physics building. I nodded.

"I guess they've kept that tradition up." I said. Nothing quite like having to work through experimental procedure when you were half asleep, and then doubly fun to try to recall everything when you were writing up your lab report.

"What, some college conspiracy to make sure nobody in a science program gets enough sleep?" The girl next to the boy asked.

"Sure feels like that sometimes." He replied.

"Joe, this is Dwight and Kim," Crystal said, gesturing to the couple on the couch. "Kim's roommate Brook," She nodded to the girl sitting next to her. "And Tyson." She said, indicating towards the last member of the group.

"Nice to meet you." I said, scanning over the group.

Brook had a blue streak in her brown hair and was wearing a green canvas jacket over a shirt for one of the college groups that I could barely remember. I think it was either environmentalism, or some other form of activism and I was refraining from looking things up during the conversation.

Dwight and Kim were sitting close enough together that their relationship would have been apparent even if I hadn't been granted enhanced awareness of affection by the goddess of love. Dwight had shaggy brown hair and was a bit shorter than me with a stocky build. His presumed girlfriend was blonde and nearly a foot shorter than him. He was dressed casually in jeans and a tee shirt with a loose jacket while Kim wore leggings and a pink blouse.

That was another layer to this. It wasn't just active detection from my senses or blessings. I could read intent from something as 'simple' as fashion choices. With my level of insight it was easy to discern the reasoning behind any choice of clothing. For instance, Crystal's decision to wear skinny jeans and a crop top…

Fashion was definitely more pronounced with Tyson than the rest of the group, though I'm pretty sure that would have been apparent even to people who lacked specific insight powers. He had dark skin and close-cropped hair and was at least making an attempt to stand out with his clothing with a vintage coat, patterned shirt, and leather shoes rather than the sneakers you typically saw on campus.

And, as a final level of intrusion, I was registering attraction thanks to my blessing from Aphrodite. That made the amount of attention I was receiving a little uncomfortable. Out of everyone present, only Dwight wasn't registering at least what I had come to regard as 'baseline' attraction, and even then, I could tell there was some aesthetic appreciation.

Then again, some of the reactions were less subtle than others. I'm pretty sure you didn't need supernatural abilities to tell what Brook was thinking. Crystal nudged her with her elbow and the girl quickly blinked and mumbled a greeting that was echoed around the group.

"I'm just going to grab a coffee." I said.

"Sure." Crystal replied, very deliberately ignoring Brook's reaction.

I left to pick up a cup of coffee from the barista while manually filtering out the quiet conversation that sprang up after I left. It was clear evidence that my appearance powers were likely to be the opening factor in any social encounter, and I had one more of them than the last time I had seen Crystal. Divine Physique wasn't that strong of an ability, but it was enforced by my power, meaning it would leak through any transformation I used.

Well, not so much leak through as color the result. Spending a night working through my Aspect had improved my grasp on a lot of what had happened to me since gaining my powers. The same way my Aspect was about revealing my true self, my transformations were less about obscuring my identity than controlling the way it was currently expressed, and thanks to Divine Physique and Aphrodite's Blessing all of those expressions would carry certain elements. I wasn't less of me because I was in a passable human form and I wasn't trying to conceal what I had become, I was just exercising control over how it was expressed.

But that didn't change the fact that said expression was a step up from the previous day's encounter. I mean, people would put more effort into their appearance for social events than when they were showing up for hours or grueling work. Even if the work hadn't been particularly grueling on my part, it still provided some context for any changes that might be noted.

Well, maybe that was wishful thinking on my part. The idea of what counted as exceptionally attractive for men was more than a little nebulous. With most stand out cases it seemed to depend as much on who they were as what they looked like. When it came to attractive actors, musicians, or capes the fact that they were prominent in their field seemed to be as important as how they looked.

Or maybe that was backwards. Maybe the fact that they were in public fields just meant they got enough attention that their looks were able to stand out. The point was, I didn't think that would apply to someone who was just a technician, even if he happened to have been blessed with supermodel looks by the goddess of beauty. So this was probably more than just appearance, but how much more and in what context I didn't know. This whole situation was new ground for me.

At least for me personally. I had more than enough skills and abilities to see me through, but I really didn't want to lean on them. Treating this as a diplomatic exercise or espionage mission might make it trivial to navigate, but it would strip away the authenticity of whatever was happening here. And once again, it was a cup of coffee and a talk with a group of people roughly my own age, not some high stakes negotiation for the fate of the world. I could afford to not treat this like the most serious thing in the world.

As I returned to the table the not-quite-whispered conversation died down and attention shifted back to me. I smiled as I settled into the open seat across from Tyson, setting my paper cup on the coffee table.

"So, does Crystal typically give debriefs after big cape events?" I asked in good humor. The girl in question flushed slightly and shifted a strand of hair back into place. Dwight and Kim grinned at my question.

"Well, not debriefs, but people always want the dirt after some big event." Kim explained.

"We were in Arcadia together." Dwight added with a nod. "Crystal was our class's lifeline to the cape scene."

I nodded. It wasn't like any of the Wards would be able to speak about what they were doing. The only one who might have been in Crystal's year would have been Triumph, and I wasn't even sure if he went to Arcadia. It was thought of as the 'Ward School', but I doubted every member of the team went there.

"Yeah, people were usually good about it, but after anything major things could get crazy." Crystal said. "Practically had to give public lectures at the lunch table." She took a sip of her coffee. "Thankfully things are quieter at college."

"Where you get to save the details for your very best friends." Tyson said with a sly smile. "And you even brought us an insider. We really don't appreciate you enough."

Crystal smiled in amusement as Brook shifted towards me.

"Um, yeah. How did you end up working the event anyway?" She asked. "By the time I heard about it they were already finalizing the setup."

I guess it had been ridiculously short notice. "I'm a member at the gym where Garment met with the Protectorate last week." I explained. "I actually helped out with that, so when this came up somebody recommended me and then…" I shrugged before taking a sip of my own coffee.

"You're a boxer?" Dwight asked. I shook my head.

"Not really. Just something I was getting into. Actually, I only joined a week before everything kicked off." I explained.

"Lucky." Kim said, leaning into Dwight's side.

"Sort of." I replied. I saw Crystal raise an eyebrow. "I really liked how quiet the gym was. Since the ABB, they've been able to do a lot of good, but it's definitely not quiet anymore."

"These kinds of things typically aren't." Crystal said. I nodded.

"There's a lot of stuff going on now. I mean, that's true for everywhere in the city, but with the amount of attention the gym got, nobody's really sure what things are going to look like once they get back to normal. Or what normal is going to look like going forward."

"True everywhere in the city." Dwight echoed and there were a few nods in response.

"Especially if you're working with Garment." Tyson added.

I grinned in amusement. "I think I'm a few levels away from actually working with Garment. I was just on technical setup."

Honestly, it wasn't the most interesting thing to talk about, unless you had a specific interest in how the broadcast was managed. Don't get me wrong, there was interest in that, but it was from a rather specialized circle. Understandably, there was more focus on the event itself, rather than what had been done to facilitate it.

"Yeah, but she's still coordinating everything, right?" Tyson asked. "People have been talking online about her thinker power or whatever let her pull that off so fast."

"Was it fast?" I asked innocently. "I've never worked on something like that before, so I don't really have context. Everyone was just following the outline and schedule."

"Well, turning to our expert…" Dwight said as he looked at Crystal.

"It was fast. Crazy fast." She said, "I mean, I don't want to freak you out, but Garment was definitely using some kind of power there." She made a quick gesture with her hands. "Pretty sure it's just thinker stuff, coordination and management, but I know some people can get sensitive about that."

I nodded slowly. It didn't occur to me that people might be concerned about active power use. I mean, there was active power use, but the blessing of Hera wasn't exactly the kind of manipulation people were concerned about when it came to parahuman masterminds. Still, the difference between an extremely high-level thinker and a master could get a bit fuzzy. I hadn't seen anyone raising concerns about the topic, but given the other examples the world had for that kind of thing, the caution was warranted.

"Huh. I mean, things were pretty well organized, but I didn't get the sense that there was anything unusual going on." I shrugged. "At least not from the inside. Frankly, I was too busy with the technical setup to really notice." I smiled in a good-humored attempt to break the tension. "Honestly, as far as the inside edge goes, Crystal probably saw more of the show than I did."

"Half the country's seen the show by now, plus a decent chunk of the rest of the world." Tyson said, checking something on his phone that I could very easily have monitored but made a conscious decision to ignore. "It's the 'how' that everyone wants to know about."

I shrugged. "The 'how' was just a lot of people coming together and working without getting in each other's way."

"See, I knew there was something unnatural going on." Dwight snarked, causing Kim to roll his eyes.

"That's no small thing." Brook said, "The college is trying to set up a benefit concert for this Saturday, and it's a complete mess. We keep getting scope creep and groups who want to join without having any idea what they're trying to accomplish. Honestly, we'll be lucky if the whole thing doesn't end in disaster."

I remembered those kinds of things. Some big event centered around a benefit or cause that tied up campus for the entire weekend. Most of the time I didn't hear about them until I stumbled across the setup. Typically just a stage and a few booths in one of the campus quads. In terms of actual impact, I'm pretty sure they were more focused on raising awareness rather than money, but that was reasonable for the efforts of student charity organizations.

"You're helping with the concert?" I asked.

"Me and Tyson." Brook said proudly.

"Through different organizations." He clarified. "Three organizations, in Brooklyn's case."

I blinked. I was surprised she had time for that kind of commitment, but then again, not every major was engineering. Wow, back on campus for less than half an hour and already falling back into disparaging comments about fields of study. It was like I never left.

"Here." Brook said, pulling out a flyer from a backpack by her feet and handing it to me.

It was hastily printed on lavender paper with mostly modified clip art for the announcement. Exactly the kind of thing you'd see posted around campus for announcements of any upcoming event. I did note the logos for various student groups at the bottom of the page. I recognized a couple of them, but the others were either recent creations or groups I'd never encountered.

Reading over the flyer also gave me time to cover for the movement of the Forge as it secured a connection to the Capstone constellation. The ability was called Bloody Combat and shared the same origin as Workshop Artisan, Workshop Equipment, and all the fun extras those powers came bundled with.

The new power was about as much fun as any of those. Appropriate to its name, it allowed me to use my own blood in combat. I could coat weapons with blood to expand striking surfaces, extend blades, or add mass to hammers, all without affecting the speed or ease of use of the weapon in question. As an added bonus, I could just scoop up a handful of blood and compress it into orbs or daggers for surprisingly effective ranged attacks.

It also boosted the amount of blood my body produced as a way to ensure that the power itself wouldn't be a death sentence. I mean, between the current state of my anatomy and the benefits of Unnatural Skill with healing there wasn't really much risk of me bleeding out. In fact, I'm pretty sure blood was optional for my current biological state.

There was also another power bundled with this one called Good Blood. A minor ability, at least compared to the others I had received, it acted to boost the 'potency' of my blood. In effect, everything based on my blood suddenly became more powerful. That wasn't just the esoteric applications either. I actually had stronger white blood cells and more efficient red blood cells, something with direct biological implications beyond the more supernatural elements.

Not that those supernatural elements were insignificant in any way. Any attack based on my blood was between four and six times more powerful. Blood based magic or rituals were similarly enhanced. The effect extended to other aspects and uses of my blood, including Quicksilver bullets.

Which was probably going to be the most significant element of this ability. While I would need to restart the enhancement loop on the quicksilver reserves, the power would compound much faster and to a much greater degree, which would allow greater use of the Glove of the East, which would allow the quicksilver bullets to be enhanced even further.

Beyond the exploit loops, the base ability of the power wasn't something I was likely to deploy to any great extent. On a fundamental level I could feel the potential of the power, the awareness of my own blood and the ability to direct and control it. It was like suddenly gaining an additional limb, something I could direct and control. Fortunately I had more than enough experience with biological shifts. It was relatively easy to take this in stride.

While I wasn't likely to be relying on the base combat applications of this power, there was the advantage of synergy with my other abilities. The potency of my blood extended to other biological changes, including my various inhuman heritages. Divine Child, Titan's Blood, Monstrous Strength, and minor effects from various magical and genetic alterations all stacked up.

Additionally, the forming of my blood into weapons was an act of crafting, with all the benefits that entailed. More than that, it involved creating weapons, which carried an additional set of benefits. Nothing I could make was technological, so the highest levels of my time powers wouldn't apply, but considering this was already something intended to be usable in the middle of a fight, it wasn't exactly a slow process to begin with. In terms of my resource powers, the fact that I had boosted blood production was pretty much irrelevant, considering even a full barrage would require less than a pinprick of blood.

From a quality perspective, blood counted as a base material and I was explicitly shaping the weapons by hand. They were also weapons, meaning thanks to Armsthrift they would be indestructible. Even Firestorm came into play, letting me create enhanced versions of other weapons that would normally require precise crafting conditions and materials. Nothing technology advanced, but that still left plenty of options.

It would have been a fairly attractive prospect, if I didn't already have a dozen more powerful options at my disposal. It was still a powerful resource that I couldn't be separated from, something that I could use to enhance a lot of my other works, but in any situation where I was forced to rely on my own blood thing would already have gone so far off the rails, I didn't even want to think about it.

Of course, that was just me using the blood. The things this power had done to my blood had tangible effects that extended beyond how they augmented my own abilities. Normally, those effects would be fairly opaque, but I was extremely well versed in biology even without the enhanced blessing of medicine that I was currently benefiting from. With that, I could discern a great deal about the world this power had come from, and the role of blood in that society.

This wasn't an effect that was limited to me alone. It had an entire field of science and study behind it, something I could now grasp as easily as breathing. Extrapolating out from the medical blood vials I had received earlier, I could see how blood potency could be used to treat illness and injury, the role of transfusions in imbuing those effects, and the inherent risks involved.

Basically, it was another potential form of enhancement that I could hand out, though probably the most dangerous one available. Maybe second most dangerous if you were counting the Imulsion in that category. There was an entire medical science that could be built around blood potency, but it came with significant risks. The inner beast that had facilitated the 'Cthulhu Werewolf' thing had also been pacified by my powers. Anyone else 'benefiting' from this treatment wouldn't be so fortunate. While I could hand out a good portion of the inherent abilities that I had received from this world, it was definitely more trouble than it would be worth. I didn't need to risk releasing a werewolf plague for the sake of medical treatments that were at best on par with methods I'd been using for weeks now.

And on top of everything else, there was a final aspect to the power. Similar to Titan's Blood and Monstrous Strength, this power had the capacity to enhance another ability. The only difference was that I did not have that ability. At least not yet.

There was a final power that shared the same source, and it was a big one. One major power was waiting for me, and now when I finally received it, I would get a version that had been boosted by Bloodied Combat. I didn't know what that power would look like, but considering the last combination of this scale was the mix of Daedalus' Student and Titan's Blood, I was ready to prepare myself for the worst.

Though at least it wasn't something I would need to be concerned about for a while. With the Forge accumulating reach once again I had been concerned about getting hit with some overwhelming power while I was in public. The last connection had consumed all the reach I had accumulated since this morning, meaning I was effectively in the clear. Not forever, but probably for long enough to get through the conversation.

"If you're interested, we could probably use some tech help." Tyson suggested, breaking me away from the false focus on the flyer.

I set the page down as I looked up. "Was this a social call or a recruitment pitch?" I asked.

"It can be both." Tyson said, flashing a grin to the group. Most of them took it with good humor, but Crystal seemed less amused by his antics. I just shook my head.

"Appreciate the offer, but I don't think I can take on a commitment like that." I replied.

"Plus, the man probably needs a break after Garment had him working half to death." Dwight joked.

"Seriously though, it had to be a mad rush to pull something like that together." Brook said.

I nodded, remembering Theo nearly working himself to collapse during the prep for the event. "I got off pretty light with the tech setup, but things definitely got a bit frantic." I took another sip of my coffee. "I think everyone's glad it came together as well as it did, but probably equally grateful that it's done."

Honestly, I hadn't really expected much genuine interest in the setup of the event, but I guess if you were trying to put on your own benefit then the logistics were probably a lot more engaging. Brook and Tyson definitely seemed keener on getting the specifics than Dwight and Kim, while Crystal was generally more detached to the discussion.

I did my best to walk them through the buildup to the event without going overly technical or revealing the actual level of insight I had. Considering the level of planning and coordination I had engaged in, I had to downplay things to a pretty significant degree. I tried leaning into an explanation of how the broadcast and stream was handled, which I hoped would help blunt interest in my role.

I hadn't accounted for my Dabbling Academic - Fool Proof power and how it could turn even an intentionally dry and obtuse technical description into something that could be easily followed. I didn't expect to end up holding a mini-lecture on equipment specifications, video setup, communication protocols, but Crystal's friends were surprisingly engaged with the subject.

"Definitely an engineer." Brook said to Crystal as I took a break from the explanations to finish off my coffee.

"Former." I said. "Taking a break from the program." Which sounded a lot better than 'withdrew for medical reasons and then dropped out'.

"Always a fan of gap years." Tyson said smartly. That wasn't exactly my situation, but it was probably the most dignified way of playing it.

"You definitely seem… passionate… about the material." Kim said diplomatically.

"Yeah, about that." I said, setting my coffee cup down. "Probably not the kind of inside information you were hoping for."

"No, I mean, it was interesting." Kim said. "Normally I can't follow that kind of stuff."

"Ah," I said, looking around. "So, I guess I'm the odd engineer out?"

Crystal smiled. "I'm in Poli-Sci."

"Sociology." Brook said.

"Psychology." Tyson added.

"Journalism." Kim said, "Dwight's probably closest."

"Physics." He said. I nodded. There were some shared lectures between the Engineering class and the other science courses.

Given how insular the engineering class had been, it was definitely a different experience hanging out with a group where everyone was in a different program. Then again, between the schedule and workload, you did really end up spending significantly more time with your class than with anyone outside of the program. Even if you had friends in other courses, odds were pretty good that you wouldn't be seeing them that often.

I was also getting the sense that everyone at least understood the reasoning behind taking a break from the engineering program. That definitely wasn't an easy workload.

"So did Garment manage that tech stuff as well?" Tyson asked. Brook gave him a confused look. "She's got a provisional tinker rating. Saw it on PHO."

I shook my head. "No, that was from her staff, with collaboration from the Regency Center and the news team. She was more focused on the decorations and layout." I smiled. "If you wanted accounts of working with Garment, Crystal would have been better off grabbing one of the floor crew."

"I know, she can be so inconsiderate." Tyson said. I saw Crystal roll her eyes in response. "How else are we supposed to get our cape gossip?"

"Cape gossip is a bit overrated." Kim said. "Premiers and major shows are nice, but once you start hitting the twentieth identical charity event the stories kind of blend together." Both Dwight and Crystal nodded at that.

"Maybe for locals, but let the rest of us enjoy the magic before we become as jaded as you." Brook nodded to him, then he looked to me for confirmation.

"Actually, I'm from Captain's Hill, so still local." I said.

"Out in the boonies, but I guess it still counts." Dwight said with a grin.

"Well, it certainly has less of a cape presence than Arcadia." I said. "Garment's show was probably the first time I spent an extended period around capes." I paused and glanced at Crystal. "Well, at least the first time when I was aware of it at the time."

She smiled back at me and I saw Dwight raise her eyebrow. "Is there a story there?"

Kim responded before Crystal could. "Apparently Joe 'accidentally' sat next to Crystal at a lecture a couple years back and didn't realize who she was until someone pointed it out to him afterwards."

"Utterly unforgivable." Tyson said, shaking his head.

"Right, those co-op lectures they did at Arcadia." Dwight said, nodding along.

"Actually, I always wondered about that." I leaned back, addressing Crystal, Dwight, and Kim. "Do you just audit specific lectures, or is that kind of thing a full part of the coursework at Arcadia?"

I could have checked myself, and easily, but it was kind of nice to be able to get information filtered through other people rather than as cold research findings.

"It depends." Dwight said. "Sometimes the teachers work out a thing where you go to specific lectures to cover topics for another course. That's big for stuff like parahuman studies. They do full courses, but that's mostly to supplement AP programs."

I nodded. We'd had Advanced Placement work at my school, but it was handled through conventional lectures rather than commuting to a university. That was probably due to Arcadia's proximity to the college, but it definitely played into the idea that Arcadia was beyond ridiculous in terms of its programs and facilities.

Like, I didn't know if the thing about them having a Faraday cage just to stop students from using their cellphones during class was true, but considering the state schools like Winslow High were in, it seemed like a monstrous misallocation of funding.

"It helps you get a feel for what you want to take, and the credits make it easier to get a start on your major." Kim added.

That was getting into navigating course obligations, which was far from my favorite activity. Then again, I'd only come into college with AP Calculus, which just meant I had a slightly less packed schedule during my first year. I'm guessing the amount of prep you got from a place like Arcadia was on a different level. I gave a simple nod and let the conversation move on.

"Though it is a little weird seeing people from your old high school in your lectures." Dwight admitted.

"At least you probably recognize them." Brook joked.

I just shrugged in response.

"Well, it's not like Crystal recognized Joe either." Kim said. The entire group turned to look at Crystal and she gave a sheepish nod.

"Um, Joe was…" She didn't finish her sentence and frankly I'd rather not hear how someone would have chosen to describe my appearance back then.

"I've gone through some pretty big changes since then." I said in a massive understatement. "Plus, with everyone Crystal deals with, I doubt I really stand out."

Now the disbelieving looks had shifted from Crystal to me. I saw a glimmer of amusement on Crystal's face as Tyson muttered something under his breath and Dwight shook his head.

"So, aside from the admittedly excellent technical lecture, do you have any inside information on what Garment's up to?" Tyson asked, rubbing his hands. I was a little surprised she had built such a devoted following so quickly, but then again, I'd only been seeing the online reactions, not peoples' in person response to her premier. At least not outside the gym.

"Not really." I said. "I mean, the gym is looking at renovations and reorganizations, but Garment's only kind of tangential to that stuff."

"I thought she was like, working out of the gym?" Kim asked.

I shook my head. "She's collaborated with some people there, but I think she's only visited it once." I shrugged. "Besides, she has her own place set up."

Suddenly everyone was looking very intently at me.

"Garment has a studio?" Tyson asked intently.

"Well, a studio or office or something." I said. I guess it hadn't been publicly announced. The fact that the Protectorate was helping to get her set up had gotten some press, but that had been right before the Ungodly Hour, so it's understandable that it fell into the background. "I don't know the details, but I heard she got set up." I smiled. "Even hired someone from the gym as an assistant."

"Lucky." Kim said.

"That was the girl from the show? Aisha?" Crystal asked.

There was a little bit of weight to her question. Honestly, I didn't know how much of the mess with Sabah and Parian had made it back to her, if any, but it was an unpleasant reminder that all this started from a fairly uncomfortable place. I focused on putting that out of my mind and nodded.

"She's the daughter of one of the coaches at the gym. I don't know the details, but it sounds like she just ran into Garment and made a good impression." I explained.

"Talk about hitting the jackpot. Any idea what she's doing next?" Tyson asked.

"Next? Like shows and stuff? Because I'm pretty sure she's still doing her online stuff." I replied.

"Is she ever!" Kim said, checking her own phone. "She's making everyone who can't put out a feature length documentary each day look bad in comparison."

"Noctis Capes." Crystal said. "And running twenty-four seven might sound good, but there are usually some mitigating factors mixed in."

There were a few nods through the group. I suppose Crystal would have had a chance to work with Miss Militia. The nature of how Noctis Capes worked wasn't that well understood, but she was right about there being other factors. I mean, for me sleep was only optional rather than fully impossible and it had still changed how I approached most situations.

"I think she might have more stuff lined up at the Regency Center, or at least stuff that they're trying to get her involved with, but I don't know anything specific." I shrugged. "Like I said, I'm not exactly an insider."

"They're probably going to keep her involved until they figure out what to do with that mural." Kim said, pulling up a news photo of the tapestry that Garment had crafted during her finale.

Dwight let out a whistle as he looked at the phone. "Any idea what's going to happen to that?"

"I would have said dedicated space in the Forsberg, but that's not exactly practical." Kim replied.

I blinked. "Wait, are they rebuilding the gallery?"

I hadn't heard anything about that, and I was unusually wired into the city's recovery efforts. Then again, Kim and Dwight were former Arcadia students. It might be an unfair assumption to paint their entire student body as the children of the city's mega rich, but it probably wasn't too far from the truth. I could have gotten a breakdown on their individual situations, but there was no need for that kind of intrusion. Honestly, there was something to be said for casual, low-stakes encounters where people could present themselves however they wanted.

Kim shook her head. "Not immediately. I mean, obviously they aren't going to prioritize it, but they're going to do something with the land eventually. No idea if it will be a straight rebuild or if they'll take things in a new direction."

"But without it there's a shortage of places to house large art installations." I said, earning a nod.

"Maybe they should set it up here." Tyson said. A few confused looks were directed towards him. "Not in the student center, but there are a dozen places they could fit it as a temporary installation, and it would be better for public viewing compared to its current location."

"Probably something for the art department to consider." Brook said.

"Or fashion." Tyson added. "They'll have to set it up in another building, but it would be a good way to start collaborations with Garment."

"Collaborations?" I asked. For someone who had apparently been brought in to share details of the situation, I was sure learning a lot of details that I'm fairly certain were completely unfounded, but apparently that wasn't stopping the speculation.

"Well, nothing yet, but people are talking about it. Some of the professors are already using her videos as recommended viewing." Tyson elaborated.

"For fashion?" I guessed.

"Fashion, art, architecture, history." Dwight explained. "You saw the one she did on historic buildings?"

I nodded. "I guess it seems likely." And definitely something Garment would love to engage in. "But I got the sense things were pretty hectic, and not just because of the show. No idea how long it could take for something like that to be set up."

Brook let out a slight laugh. "Doubt that's going to be a problem with her powers." That was a fair assessment, given the fact that the entire event was being attributed to some unknown coordination ability. "And even if she doesn't set up something formal, she might take interns like Parian."

That was a situation I didn't want to get into, at least not any further than I already was. I made an attempt to deflect away from any discussion comparing the city's two fashion capes.

"I didn't realize Garment had made this kind of impression." I admitted.

"What, seriously?" Tyson asked. I shrugged.

"I've been busy trying to help with everything else that's been happening." That earned me some understanding looks from the group. "Garment's been part of that, but it's not something I really had time to focus on. Even the event was more about what it was doing for the city than who was coordinating things."

"Fair," Tyson admitted. "But really, when's the last time a cape premiered with this kind of impact?"

"You mean besides Apeiron?" Brook asked, and the group went silent. Not the silence of nobody speaking, that particularly awkward silence where everyone was suddenly trying to make as little noise as possible. I actually had a brief flicker of concern before I realized that the awkwardness was directed at Crystal rather than me.

"Oh shit, Crystal, I'm…" Brook tried, but Crystal cut her off.

"It's fine." She said, clearly not fine. The deflection had somehow intensified the awkwardness of the situation.

Running back through the conversation, I could recognize a distinct lack of discussion of anything related to the most pressing issues the city was facing, issues that Crystal was facing in a much more direct sense. At least as far as the group was concerned, everyone else was well removed from the rolling disaster that had led to the Ungodly hour and the aftermath of said event. I was probably regarded as closer to the recovery work than the rest of the group, both from my involvement in the Garment's fundraiser and the mostly undefined assistance I had been providing before that.

And it probably wasn't an accident that the discussion had never turned towards that work. Because if you were to acknowledge that recovery work you would need to do the same for Crystal, who had been acting as Laserdream since the night of the Ungodly Hour. And who had been dealing with personal chaos that was only spoken about in rumors and hearsay. Personal chaos that traced right back to Apeiron's first appearance.

It was the impact of my actions. Specifically, my poor handling of the situation at the start of this mess. Born from a desire to avoid attention and confrontation, the belief that I could just show up, perform a good deed, issue some warnings, and everything would be fine. It was something that turned out to be a very mistaken impression.

I wasn't responsible for the way people had responded. I could have been more careful about the landmines I was stumbling through and skeletons that were being dragged out of closets. I could have stepped up when things began to go out of control, rather than avoiding the situation and doing the bare minimum to address things. But by the same degree, everyone else involved carried their own share of that responsibility, with the additional fact that they were actually and officially responsible for the situation.

Unfortunately, the fact that other people should have known better and actually had an officially mandated responsibility to know better didn't change the impact of their actions. That was true both on the large scale of destruction that had been wrought by letting the ABB spiral out of control and on a more personal scale for people like Crystal Pelham.

After I had made a possibly ill-advised joke about Aphrodite being my 'stepmother' Crystal had confided some of the details of her situation to me. I didn't know how much her friends knew, but they at least knew enough to want to avoid anything connected to what she was going through.

The fact that that involved avoiding anything related to me, or at least to my cape identity, wasn't lost on me. I was here helping her friends give Crystal a break from the stressful situation that was almost entirely related to everything I had done since getting my powers. It was the kind of thing that could drag you down to some bad places and if I had been faced with this situation a week ago it probably would have gone badly for me.

Then again, if I had been presented with this situation a week ago odds were I never would have taken up the invitation in the first place.

"Um, right… so…" Brook shifted awkwardly as she grouped for some escape from the topic at hand.

"Have you gotten the bands sorted out for the concert yet?" Kim said in a less than subtle attempt to change the topic. Brook latched onto it like a lifeline for a drowning man.

"Not even." She said, "I mean, it's not my area, but we've had three groups sign up and drop out already."

"Garment again." Tyson said. I raised an eyebrow. "She set a high bar for this kind of thing. Everybody's going to come up short next to that."

"Which isn't really a fair comparison, but nobody wants to be seen as the cheap knockoff." Brook explained.

I nodded. From what I had put together this was more about providing a rallying point for the student body than some providing concrete results the way Garment's event had. Still, morale was important, even for people who had a level of separation from the worst of the aftermath.

I had kept most of my contact with the Workshop closed during the conversation, but I drafted and sent a single message to the team. Nothing critical, just a request to see if there was some way they could help smoothing things over for the campus event without being obvious. Giving that they were currently putting on a concert without any confirmed musical acts, a bit of assistance seemed warranted.

"Don't suppose we could convince you to reconsider signing on?" Tyson asked. I shook my head.

"I'm planning to take it easy for a while. Well, as easy as anyone can in the Docks." It was dangerously close to a reference to the intentionally avoided topic, so I quickly pivoted away from it. "Besides, it sounds like the kind of thing that should be handled by people who are current students."

It was a very weak deflection, but enough to get the subject dropped. Imposing on a fellow student was a very different matter compared to someone with professional obligation. I mean, I was technically unemployed at the moment, or maybe self-employed would be more accurate, but either way there was an implied limit on the commitments I could make.

"Worth a try." Tyson said with a shrug. "And at least I'll know what to look for in terms of the technical setup."

"Yeah, sorry for the impromptu lecture." I said. "Didn't mean for it to run away like that."

"It's all good." Dwight replied. "That stuff was a lot less complicated than I thought it would be."

It really wasn't, but pointing out that had been the result of a teaching power combined with quality and presentation boosters probably wouldn't do any good.

"Everything has been good. Great even, but unfortunately Brook and I have another commitment." Tyson said, climbing to his feet.

Brook quickly checked her watch, then sprang up after him while muttering to herself. "Shit, where did the time go?"

Well, unplanned technical lectures, for one.

"It was nice meeting you Joe. Crystal, good seeing you. We'll catch up some more later." She said as they hurried out.

"Nice to meet you as well." I said, waving after her. She stopped briefly to wave back, causing Tyson to roll his eyes and hurry her out of the coffee shop.

"I guess that's the joys of running a short notice event without superpowers." Dwight said, watching them go.

"The army of volunteers probably helped." Kim said. On her phone she was flicking through the volunteer list on the event's website.

It was set up as a special thanks page, both for genuine appreciation and as a way for people to leverage the work they had done. The show had turned out much bigger than anyone anticipated, to the point where being connected with it was a significant mark in your favor. Between the official acknowledgement of contribution, at least for people who wanted their names posted, and the much more tangible symbol in the coats Garment had handed out, a lot of the volunteers were looking as significantly better prospects.

Of course, a lot of that was based on the prospects they'd had before, which for the Docks weren't particularly good even before the area had been torn apart and coated in exotic particles. Frankly, anything that could make a difference was worth the effort.

"Huh, this you?" Kim asked, pointing to my name on the lists. Jozef Duris, Technical Setup. I nodded. "It sounded like you were doing more than just setup."

"I'm guessing 'general technical gofer for center staff and news team' was a bit too long winded for the site." I joked.

That job title was intentionally downplaying what I had been responsible for, mostly because it was completely unreasonable for a single person to be responsible for that many roles. There was a bit of a careful balance where everyone involved in the technical side of things was sure someone else in the group was handling things while I was just following instructions, double checking, and reporting on the situation.

"I mean, if you're okay with it…" Dwight said. I answered with a shrug. Unlike a lot of the volunteers, I wasn't looking to secure a career through my connection to the event. Honestly, the only reason I hadn't kept my name off the site entirely was so that there would be some accountability for the technical side of things.

"It's not that big a deal. Just being able to help out was enough." Okay, that sounded a little over the top, but it was honestly all I was trying to accomplish. I didn't need to try to leverage my involvement into future prospects or a career launching point.

"Good attitude, I guess." Kim said. There was a slight pause before Crystal broke the silence.

"Hey, don't you and Dwight have that thing?" Crystal asked.

"Not me." Kim said. "Journalism department's pretty much closed down in the wake of everything. Nothing until next week."

"I've still got labs, and they're holding tutorials in some of my classes, but I'm clear for the rest of the day." Dwight added.

"They've shut down that much of the school?" I asked. I hadn't really paid attention to how the college had been responding. Honestly, it had been something of a low priority for me, compared to everything else that was happening.

"Yeah, pretty much everything right after the Ungodly Hour." Dwight explained. "Some stuff before that as well, but that was mostly suspending off-campus projects. Parts of the school have been opening back up, but a lot of students have left the city. Probably won't be back until the national PRT gives an all clear."

There was a glance towards Crystal, but she just shook her head. "No idea how long that's going to take. Things aren't really clear in the city at the moment. It's not looking like it's getting better."

The mood dropped again as another sensitive subject was stumbled into. Dwight quickly moved to change the subject back to his original point.

"Um, they're setting up online lectures for some of my classes, for the people who had left town. I heard they might need to shift exams back or do a partial summer term." He explained. "The college actually has protocols for stuff like this. Apparently, they go hand in hand for any city with a Protectorate office."

"I can believe that." I said, as if Survey wouldn't have three reports on the subject ready to go the instant I so much as raised the subject.

"We've still got assignments for my classes, but they're all electronic submission anyway so it doesn't really change the schedule." Kim continued.

"Right, didn't you have one that you needed to work on?" Crystal asked.

"Not really. I mean…" She paused as she saw the look Crystal was giving her. "Oh, right. That one. We should go."

"Um, right. Definitely." Dwight said, smiling a bit too wide. "Nice to meet you." He said as he rose to leave.

"Likewise." I said, bidding the two of them goodbye. Kim shot a grin at Crystal before slipping out of the coffee shop. I turned back towards Crystal who was practically cringing in the wake of that less than subtle display.

"So, I take it this means I passed the assessment?" I joked. Crystal flushed slightly at that, but my tone seemed able to mitigate the awkwardness.

"Sorry if that was a bit much. It wasn't really an assessment or anything. I mean, for whatever this is…"

"Coffee?" I suggested.

She smiled at that. "Sure." She said before letting out a breath. "I don't have that many chances to get 'coffee'."

"College is already a full-time commitment, even before you take everything else into account." I said, talking around her cape status. "But more practically, would you like another cup of coffee?" I asked. "My treat."

We relocated to a table near one of the windows that looked out on the campus, including the physics building where I had stumbled like a barely caffeinated zombie to many an unfathomably early lab session.

"Thanks." Crystal said as she sipped her latte.

"Thanks for the invitation. This was nice." I said, taking a drink from my own coffee. "Plus I feel like I need to make up for slipping into a technical lecture like that."

She smiled. "Believe it or not, you actually made it interesting. You really have a passion for that kind of thing."

"I guess engineering tends to draw a certain type." I replied.

She nodded. "Sorry if this came off as an interrogation or like I was checking up on you." She shifted her coffee cup across the table. "Probably seems silly for a cape to be that careful about things."

"Everyone should be careful. Being a public figure just makes that a bigger concern." I replied. She nodded slowly.

"I know. Believe me, I know." She said in a quiet tone. I didn't respond. Everyone in the city knew what had happened to Fleur.

"Not to vent or anything, but most people don't really get it." She continued. "Vicky's pretty much the poster child for New Wave and she's fully invincible."

Not quite, but as far as most people were concerned she might as well be, and compared to the rest of the team there was pretty much no comparison.

"It's a nice image, but the rest of us aren't on that level. It kind of messes up what people expect." She explained.

"Everyone thinks they're dealing with Glory Girl?" I asked. Crystal inclined her head.

It had probably led to no shortage of awkward moments. The two of them looked similar to each other, but everything from personality to powers to their approach in a cape situation couldn't have been more different. It couldn't have been easy being overshadowed by her younger cousin, but Crystal didn't really seem like someone who chased after the spotlight.

"I guess that's superfamily drama for you." She joked.

"I imagine that's just family drama but louder and more public." I replied.

"Not a bad way of putting it." She agreed. "Things have been crazy lately, and they're probably going to get worse once everything is announced."

She looked over at me, because of course she thought I had already dealt with parental separation drama. I mean, I had dealt with parental drama, but the parental separation I had been referring to involved Greek deities and was primarily due to Aphrodite's affairs with the god of war.

Who was Tybalt's father. Or his effective father. It really drove home the convoluted mess that would be involved in sorting out actual Greek relations.

My contemplation must have been apparent because Crystal made a placating gesture. "I'm not pressing for details or anything. It's just, I'm kind of at a loss for this." She very clearly didn't like admitting that.

"I wish I could give better advice, but these situations tend to be unique." I replied.

She smiled. "Every happy family is alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

"Not a bad way of putting it." I said. "There's not really a magic solution when you have a pile of incompatible personalities colliding with each other. Communication is a good idea in theory, but that kind of relies on people being willing to make the effort. Barring that, space helps, but that's not always an option."

Crystal nodded. "Not in most situations, and definitely not for a cape team, if we're even still going to be a team."

"Are you sure you want to talk about this?" I asked.

"I definitely want to. Not sure if I should, but I can probably trust you not to run off to the tabloids." She joked.

"I wouldn't know how to in the first place. I mean, do they have a hotline, or do they just pay by the scandal?" I joked.

She smiled back at me. "I'd recommend talking to the producer at WKMP-6 News, see if he can get you some family drama bulk rate."

"Tempting, but I think I'd prefer to stay in your good graces. Wouldn't want to disappoint everyone after such an extensive screening process." I shot back.

That earned a light chuckle that quickly faded under the weight of everything she was dealing with.

"It's not… I mean, everyone is trying, even my mom. And Amy might be getting back soon." Crystal explained.

"She is?" I asked.

"Um, yeah." She paused, then looked up at me. "I guess that counts as another prime scoop or whatever." I waved her off and she smiled. "With any luck it'll be too time sensitive to matter."

"She's getting out soon?" I asked.

"More transferred, but they're hoping for something tonight." She paused. "I mean, what do you know about what happened to her?"

Pretty much everything while being at least indirectly responsible for most of it.

"Not much." I lied. "Just what I've heard people talking about. Something about master protocols before the attacks that had to be extended for some reason."

Crystal nodded. "The 'some reason' has been dealt with, at least, and there wasn't much to the rest of it. Some other stuff, but…" I raised a hand.

"I'm probably already in over my head. You don't need to tell me anything that would require breaking out the NDA's."

Crystal smiled at that. "If my mom was here, she'd probably already have one in place."

"Legalistic family?" I asked.

"Comes with the territory." Crystal replied with a nod.

I took a sip from my coffee before continuing. "Is Panacea's situation part of why everyone was trying to avoid mentioning Apeiron?" I asked.

Crystal let out a breath. "That part of what people are talking about as well?"

"Some." I said. "Really just enough to suggest he's involved but no idea what really happened. Unless you go off the online theories…"

"No thank you." She said confidently. "But this is probably more PRT than Apeiron." She paused and looked up at me. "Which probably doesn't really mean anything to you, does it?"

"I can honestly say my experience with the Parahuman Response Team has been somewhat limited." Actually a true statement, considering it was probably more limited than it should have been if I wanted to head off the situation in the city.

She nodded. "Yeah, well, there's a lot of bureaucracy to deal with and it doesn't always go smoothly, even when things are going well."

"Probably comes hand in hand with being a government office." I offered.

She smiled at that. "Things are pretty bad, even beyond the cape situation. It's not the best time to be tangled up in the system. I'm just hoping we can get Amy out. I know it's not going to fix everything, but it feels like a start."

I nodded. "I hope everything works out." I honestly did. "So, any other compromising information to share?" I asked in an attempt to lighten the mood.

She let out a short laugh. "Not really, though after yesterday I think I'm still ahead in that department."

"Ah." I said. That would explain why she was comfortable with these kinds of topics. I guess I had already crossed that threshold in a pretty significant way. "Sorry you had to see that."

"Sorry you had to deal with that at the show." She replied. "That couldn't have been pleasant, even if you didn't have an audience."

"Not really." I admitted. "It was pretty bad. On all sides." I added, taking the plunge.

Crystal raised an eyebrow, but I half suspected she had heard about this already and wasn't really interested in downplaying things. Not after everything that had happened yesterday.

"Apparently Sabah took the meeting badly and Parian found out about it. She brought it up with the organizers after the show." I explained.

"Was there any trouble?" She asked as I felt the Forge slowly miss a connection to the Vehicles constellation.

"I had to give a statement to security and they pulled the camera recordings of the wide shots of the conversation, but nothing beyond that." It helped that security was basically run by Tybalt and operating at unprecedented levels of efficiency.

Still, the situation had two witnesses, multiple video records, and a diligent administration. Take away any one of those and it could have been a disaster. Concerns over what happened were well placed, no matter how understandable the reaction had been given the other factors in play.

Crystal let out a breath. "That was lucky."

I nodded and looked up at Crystal. "Would I be completely off base to assume you already knew some of this?"

She nodded. "Gully was there when Parian brought it up. Apparently, she'd seen situations like that back in California and they can get really messy."

I nodded. "Like you said, lucky. I didn't expect Sabah to be concerned enough to talk to Parian about it, and didn't expect it to be brought up like that."

"She did seem a bit on edge." Crystal said diplomatically.

I nodded. "I can't imagine she expected to see me there. I certainly didn't expect to see her there." I let out a slow breath. Discussing Sabah with someone other than my therapist was a novel experience, and not a particularly pleasant one.

"Like I said, there wasn't anything between us, I just didn't realize things weren't heading in that direction until they had dragged on too long."

"Until your stepmother helped you with that?" She asked. It was still a serious matter, but Crystal seemed inordinately amused by the idea that I had gotten helpful relationship advice in the aftermath of a family separation.

"Unfortunately that was way too late to make a difference." I admitted. "And not to come across as dismissive or anything, but I think Sabah might be gay." I watched as the suggestion had absolutely no impact whatsoever. "And you already knew that." I added.

"I take it you missed that back then?" Crystal asked, once more with a sliver of amusement leaking into her voice.

"I didn't realize it was that easy to notice." I replied.

"Well, I did have the advantage of seeing her check out Hot Lawyer." Crystal said.

I blinked. "Hot Lawyer?" I asked.

"That's what they're calling her online. The sexy business lady who was next to Garment at the event." She scrunched up her face. "I think I read that her real name was Martin or something like that?"

"Delphine Mertens." I said. Honestly, I was surprised that Gully hadn't mentioned her, but there was a lot going on. "I don't think anyone would dare call her 'Hot Lawyer' to her face."

"You worked with her?" Crystal asked.

"No, but I saw her tear into the team from WKMP-6 News over broadcast rights for the event. Everyone there was scared of her." And then the rest of the situation caught up to me with effective confirmation of what I had suspected earlier. "But yeah, it probably would have been good to know that two years ago. Avoid this whole mess."

"Not to play into stereotypes, but I guess that kind of thing is less obvious in the Engineering class." Crystal offered.

I had to admit that. "Probably. Not as much downtime, so you don't really have the same social scene, and Engineers aren't really known for being on top of that kind of thing. Back then I probably wouldn't have even picked up on Tyson."

"Tyson?" Crystal asked with a grin.

"Well, not to play into stereotypes, but I'm guessing Tyson is…"

"Tyson is Tyson." Crystal said. "I pretty much leave things at that."

"He can be pretty intense." I offered.

Crystal nodded. "No question, but he's someone you want to have in your corner. Plus, it's nice to have people around who aren't crazy about cape stuff." She gave me a very direct look as she spoke.

"And that's Tyson?" I asked.

She shrugged. "The stuff with Garment is a bit of an outlier, and it's more about her work than the fact that she's a cape."

"So it doesn't count even though the whole conversation was about cape stuff, from all sides?" I asked.

Crystal nodded. "They're at least comfortable enough to ask, and know when to back down." I remembered how they had been meticulously careful about what they talked about. A lot more than a random cape fan would. "People tend to get too intense one way or the other. Either they completely avoid the topic or focus on nothing but hero work." She explained. "It's nice to find a middle ground."

"I can understand that." I said. "To be honest, I figured cape stuff would be the last thing you'd want to talk about. All the PR and interviews…"

"I don't usually have to take point on those." Crystal said. "Vicky's always been the media darling, and my mom handled the big releases. I could usually get away with a couple of sound bites or a public appearance."

"That's a pretty stark division." I observed.

"It's like that in any cape team. You have different levels both public facing and in the field." She explained.

"Ah, do I get to press you for New Wave battle stories now?" I asked jokingly.

She smiled and shook her head. "They're a lot less interesting from my perspective. I'm not on the front lines. It's mostly just formation flying with my mom and brother, unless something goes wrong."

I had the sense she didn't particularly want to elaborate on what happened when things went wrong. Instead I took a different angle.

"Formations must be tough." She raised an eyebrow. "I mean, Shileder's the slowest flyer, right? So formations mean everyone has to drop to that speed."

"We getting into PHO tactics now?" She asked.

I shook my head. "Just an observation. I'm not trying to tell capes how to do their job."

"Well, you're sort of right. Formations are safer since we can cover each other and concentrate fire." A month ago it would have been absolutely incredible to have a conversation that involved practical application of laser blasts. Now it was just an interesting note about the cape scene. "We can't move that fast, but I don't usually pull that kind of thing anyway."

"What do you mean?" I asked. Honestly, everyone knew that Laserdream was the best flyer. That and having the strongest blasts were the things that were iconic to her.

"Ah, we've reached the point of revealing secret weaknesses." Crystal said. "This would be episode five of a bad cape drama."

That sounded like a Broken Hills reference, but I had thankfully managed to avoid that show.

"Weakness?" I asked.

"Not really a weakness. More of an annoyance. And not really a secret, just not something we talk about." She explained. "I'm not that good with rapid motion. By which I mean I don't handle it that well."

"You get motion sick?" I asked.

She smiled sardonically. "It sounds like a bad joke, but yeah. Vicky's shield keeps her steady so she can do any kind of flips and maneuvers she wants, but I can barely manage a turn at speed." She shrugged. "Straight acceleration and deceleration isn't that bad, so I'm okay in a straight line, but that really just means I can get to a fight before anyone is there to back me up, and then either fall back or be a sitting duck."

"Wow." I said. "And this isn't some super-secret cape fact?"

"It's more embarrassing than secret, and it's not like it's something people can take advantage of. I mean, I'm already working around it." She said, "Normally we don't talk about this kind of thing, but it feels like a lot of the mystique of being a cape has collapsed."

"Maybe that's for the best." I offered.

"Maybe." She said, dropping her head.

"So…" I began in a lighter tone, causing her to look up. "That motion sickness. Were there any 'incidents'? You know, the kind of thing that would cause Brocktonites to start investing in sturdy umbrellas?"

She looked at me in shock for a moment, then her face cracked into a smile as she broke into a fit of laughter.

"Is that a yes?" I asked. "What was it? Freshly washed car? Unfortunate sunbather? Wedding reception?"

"Stop." She gasped. "God, no. There wasn't anything like THAT. Some close calls, but… Seriously, sunbather?"

"It would probably be a good story for the tourists." I joked.

"At least there's that." She agreed.

I let some of the levity fade away. "I'm guessing something like Dramamine…?" I asked, but she just shook her head.

"Dramamine knocks me out. There are some other treatments I've had better results with, but it's too much work managing something that at best takes the edge off the problem." She explained. "It's not really something where there's a permanent solution." She paused and looked at my expression. "What?" She asked.

"Can I see your wrist?" I asked.

There was a moment of hesitation, but she extended her left hand to me. I took it and turned it face up. I lay my fingers below the palm of her hand, counting out widths as she watched intently.

"There's an acupressure point right here." I said, pressing a point about three finger widths down. "That helps with nausea."

"Acupressure?" She asked, leaning in to look closer.

I smiled. "One time when I was in a bad state before an exam one of the instructors told me about it." I explained, maintaining the pressure.

"How bad a state are we talking about?" She asked.

"The kind of bad state where an anti-nausea pressure point would be preferable to where I was headed." I explained in a flat voice.

"And it helped?" She asked. "I'm kind of surprised you believe in this kind of thing."

I shrugged. "I could give you an explanation about how the flow of Qi is working to reinforce your meridian system while cleansing impurities and helping to open your Chakras, but I'm pretty sure that would legally obligate me to try to sell you essential oils or healing crystals."

Crystal smiled in amusement, despite the fact that I could totally create fully effective essential oils and healing crystals.

"Or I could get into the complex neuro-hormonal response to the triggering of specific nerves and complementary actions carried out by your body in response to specific stimuli. Or I could get into the placebo effect, and its enhanced performance when people strongly believe either the spiritual or scientific explanations." I continued.

"And which one do you believe?" Crystal asked, leaning forward.

"Personally? I think having something that you can do to mitigate a bad situation makes the real difference, even if the effect is marginal. I mean, here…" I said, taking her other hand and pressing her finger on the acupressure point. "Sometimes, just being able to do something, or focus on doing something can be enough. It makes it easier to avoid being overwhelmed if it feels like you have an active role in what's happening, right?"

I looked up from Crystal's wrist to see her face rather close to mine. There was a moment of rather intense eye contact where we couldn't have been more than four inches apart, and then it was over. I released Crystal's hand and she pulled back, quickly adjusting a few strands of hair behind her ear. I took a quick sip of my coffee and faked a cough as Crystal glanced back towards me.

"Um, thank you, for showing me that." She said, feeling the pressure point once again. "I mean, even if it doesn't make a difference, it's worth a try, right?"

"Right." I said, knowing full well that it was going to make a difference.

I was still overclocked on Apollo's blessing, giving me tremendous divine medical abilities. The Qi explanation was pretty much exactly what was happening. I mean, it was still high-quality conventional acupressure, but there was a full complement of mystical healing methods layered on top of that. That really shouldn't have been surprising considering my current level of skill, my internal reserves of Qi, and the fact that all the mysticism of Journey to the West was apparently both real and fully open to me.

I was pulled out of my thoughts by one of the staff approaching a nearby billboard to post a flyer for the benefit concert. That wasn't specifically what drew my attention. No, it was the fact that the flyer was announcing a sponsorship from the Matrix's progressively less fake catering company, both supporting the event and providing food services with the proceeds going towards the benefit.

Honestly, even I was impressed by the fact that the team had somehow managed to pull this off in the time since I had alerted them. I mean, they were running ten times faster since I was out of the Workshop, but still, this required coordination with the college, working with student groups, and setting up a commitment with two days' notice.

Which they could obviously manage, but it was still impressive. Crystal had followed the direction I was looking and also spotted the flyer.

"Oh." She said, "Brook will be glad about that." She turned to me. "Do you know that place? I've never heard of them before."

"They sponsored Garment's event." I said. "Provided meals for the volunteers and handled the after party for everyone who helped out." I turned back to Crystal. "I think they've just set up. There was something about a launch that got messed up by the attacks, so reorganizing."

"Huh. Any good?" She asked.

"Surprisingly good." I said, which was pretty much the reaction of anyone who had tried one of the Matrix's box meals.

"Worth stopping by the concert?" Crystal asked. There was a hopeful edge in her voice that she wasn't really trying to conceal.

I considered everything that I was managing in just the coming day. Everything that would be lined up in the aftermath of the Slaughterhouse Nine. Everything that was going to be set off by taking that kind of action. All the obligations and commitments that I needed to make. Everything that could go wrong and everything that would need to be carefully managed. All the myriad reasons why I should pass on this event, walk away and not look back until every problem had been fully dealt with.

Yeah, fuck that.

"Definitely." I said. Crystal's expression made it clear that was the right decision.

"I'm sure Brook and Tyson will be thrilled." She said, glancing away. It was another deflection, a safe recontextualization of the event to something that didn't have any commitment or obligation. I had done this dance before, months of uncertainty that only compounded misunderstandings. I doubted things had any chance of reaching that point here, but I didn't even want to indulge in a hint of that kind of thing.

"Actually, would you like to meet for dinner before the concert?" I asked, gesturing to the flyer.

Crystal froze. "Dinner?" She asked.

"It really is very good food." I promised.

"I believe you, it's just, this is… Is this a date?" She asked directly.

"I'd say it's sufficiently date-like." I said.

"You're asking me out?" She asked.

I smiled. "The last time I left things vague and uncertain for too long and everyone ended up worse for it. I figure a direct approach is a better option." I explained. "But if you'd rather not…"

"No! No, dinner sounds great." She replied quickly. "Seven o'clock?"

"Sounds good." I said.

We even exchanged numbers, with an acknowledgment that the entire event was contingent on a lack of civic disasters on Saturday night. I can safely say that if any of the gangs decided to start shit on the weekend it wasn't likely to go well for them.

"Sorry I have to run, but I've got a crazy busy day." Crystal said as we exited the student center.

"That's fine. I've got to get back as well." And almost certainly had her beat in terms of a packed schedule.

"Right. See you on Saturday, and I'll call you if anything comes up." She said. And then I watched as she rose into the air, a slight red glow blooming around her. She very clearly enjoyed my surprise at the sight and I realized there had been a distinct lack of the kind of showing off that seemed to define parahuman encounters.

Crystal ran a thumb over the inside of one wrist, then waved to me before launching into a backwards flip in the air. She shot me a wide grin and a final wave before launching upwards in a corkscrew pattern leaving a slight red glow in her wake.

And a rather significant amount of attention directed towards myself. Crystal Pelham might have been a fixture on campus, but those kinds of displays definitely weren't and there was a very keen interest in who she had been speaking with before launching into the sky.

I managed to slip away before any camera phones came out. I had to get moving to deal with my crowded schedule full of high stakes and critical tasks, but somehow it felt like I had the most important one out of the way. Practically, it had been nothing. A short conversation and a later commitment, but it felt like a personal accomplishment. I had survived a social encounter that wasn't based around my cape identity, and that was something I felt good about.

I made it back to my car and reopened my link to the Workshop.

"I'm-" I barely managed to get the first word out before I was overwhelmed by Aisha shouting over the line.

"You've got a date with Laserdream!"

I had to smile at her enthusiasm, particularly because Tetra's voice was echoing behind Aisha's. That at least explained the lack of privacy, though in this case I wasn't going to complain.

"Yes, I do." I replied. And it felt good. Maybe it wouldn't go anywhere, maybe it couldn't go anywhere, but still, I had a date with Laserdream.

Jumpchain abilities this chapter:

Bloodied Combat (Bloodborne) 400:

More so than Blood Bullets, Bloodied Combat is a perk that allows you to make use of your blood in a fight in a few basic ways. Covering a weapon with your blood allows you to expand the striking surface, lengthening blades or enlarging hammers with a solid sheath of blood. Outside of this, you may also scoop up a handful of your own blood, compressing it into orbs or daggers that can be thrown at enemies, impacting with surprising force. Enough blood gathered and compacted could even allow multiple projectiles to be thrown at once. While this perk isn't as potent as Blood Saint, it also increases blood production enough that it's a great deal harder to bleed out. This allows you to use these abilities safely, provided you practice a bit of moderation. Depending on the buyer, all of these traits are secondary compared to the final benefit it grants though. Bloodied Combat is a "Capstone Booster" that provides any Tier 3 perks you've purchased with secondary benefits. These benefits are listed at the bottom of the Jump in the "Notes" section.

Good Blood (Bloodborne) Free:

May the good blood guide your way good hunter! In addition to having stronger white blood cells and more efficient red blood cells, your blood has been strengthened, allowing it to create much more potent Blood Bullets. This perk basically makes your blood more useful all around. Your immune system should be able to fight off most of the diseases lurking in this festering, rotting hell for one. Now, when before it could have taken more a dozen shots to put down an enemy, it should only take two or three. This allows you to be much more conservative with your bullets. Due to your blood empowering Quicksilver Bullets, they are also improved by this perk.