Breath 1.7

The Wards were having a weekly meeting. Aside from the obligatory razzing me about my foaming, and my newly inferred metabolism, I brought up the thing that had been bothering me most since the incident.

"So, uh, what happens to you guys when you overuse your powers?"

Glances bounced across the table between the other Wards.

Missy responded first.


Next was Dennis.

"I haven't really reached a limit. Guess there's only so much stuff to time freeze before a fight is over, and I never get worn out."

Aegis continued.

"I never really get much in the way of headaches, but my body is basically cheating so I don't count."

Gallant, who was actually present for this event, finished.

"I get tired like anyone else, but yeah, on the longest days after using my voice too much I wind up with not quite a migraine."

It didn't need to be said that Chris, Kid Win, didn't suffer side effects of overuse as a Tinker. Whatever power they actually used, it was miniscule and/or so spread out over the time that he was building things that his own stamina and concentration would go long before his powers failed.

As Vista had a massive area of effect power that scaled distinctly in strain as she touched on the Manton Effect, it was understandable that she'd taste her limits the most often.

I nodded, taking all this in. Chris followed up.

"Why do you ask?"

I scratched my head and shrugged.

"So, when I got foamed, I reached my limits."

I got a few sympathetic winces. I kept going.

"But I didn't get a headache."

Sympathy turned to incredulousness. I scrambled to recover.

"Well, let me confirm; you get headaches, but your power still works, right? I just hurts like hell to keep pushing."

Vista nodded. I continued.

"So yeah, I may not get headaches, but my power cut off, full stop."

Dennis glared.

"You wiggled. In containment foam. That's, like, strong."

I held up a hand.

"Ok, wait. One thing I have gotten the hang of: Think of my power like a battery. It came with a full charge. I then used bits of charge to do 'tricks.' The cape-shield thing, crazy acrobatics, and most recently boosted strength. Depending on the trick, it lasts for an instant or for a while. When I say I ran out, I mean the battery went dead. Tricks in progress stayed on, but I wasn't able to pull anything else off."

Gallant nodded, following along.

"And whenever you use a trick, you glow a bit more?"

"Yeah. I guess the appropriate metaphor would be heat. I have a filament that lights up the more power that runs through it, as a side effect. This has got to be, like, the Rube Goldberg Machine of powers. I think if we tried to get a physicist to map out the violations of thermodymanics they'd have a conniption. Normally parahumans only break one or two laws along easy-to-understand lines, or break a a myriad of laws but get a single concrete final effect."

What followed was a quick brainstorming session of everyone's accounts of when I lit up and what I was doing at the time. I was surprised to hear of at least four or five moments I had been unaware I was pulling on power. It was apparently quite instinctive to use in some ways.

Vista looked at the list.

"So, anyone see anything worth noting?"

Carlos raised his hand.

"She didn't use her power to kick me in the balls. I'm offended."

He got some chuckles, then Chris pointed down the list.

"You lit up really bright for some of these, and others just your forehead."

I looked back over. Generic spans of concentration or focus, versus quicker, more delicate taps of power.

"Two main flavors of tricks. One is like Uber's power: I put in energy and just get really good at something for a single task. More power, more results. Second flavor is like . . . cheating."

Dennis raised an eyebrow, but kept his silence.

"Like, the second event. I was doing all that paperwork? I cheated, I tapped into some power and suddenly knew exactly what I was signing away with each one after a glance. I got to instantly comprehend the fine print."

Missy's eyes went wide as saucers.

"Don't let Piggy hear that. Like, ever. If she ever even suspects she has a 'speedy paperwork cape' she might have a heart attack on the spot."

"And then she'll lock you in her office, never to be seen again," added Carlos.

I shuddered involuntarily at the thought.

After a moment, Gallant said,

"So, this is great and all, but you recharged after resting for a bit, right? You still cheerfully keep your crown as bullshit overpowered newbie that makes our respective debuts look bad."

Ten eyes focused on me. His tone had been in jest, but there was that uncomfortable subtext of seriousness in the words. I chuckled nervously.

"Ah, well, therein lies the rub?"

Later, we were giving the summary of our report to Armsmaster and Director Piggot in a conference room. We went over the chart and Dennis stood up to summarize.

"So basically, our adorable newbie is a quick shot."

Missy covered her face with a hand and Chris shook his head slowly. Unperturbed, Dennis continued.

"She has the power when it counts, but once she blows her big golden load, she's done until she can get it back up. We've been trying to find her appropriate inspirational material, but-"

"Thank you, Clockblocker," interrupted the Director. She turned to me.

"So, Lightshow, have you had any progress in recharging?"

"We're planning on trying some things to figure out what does it. Food and sleep are off the list so far, though. I have a few more ideas, though."

"And do you lose your other passive properties when drained?"

I thought for a moment.

"No. It feels like whatever the power is, it permanently enhances my body and mind. Or at least, I'm not actually expending any power for some things. The surge of strength while I was in the foam was definitely a conscious invocation, however."

Armsmaster poked at a PDA he had on him. After looking at for a bit, he nodded.

"If you and your father consent I can prepare a batch of nanotech medical scanners. They're nominally useless with the other types of high definition scanning we can do, but they can constantly examine you and give data readouts about various facets of your body over time. While we didn't consider your sudden growth spurt important enough to suggest the breach of privacy, your combat capability is much more critical."

I nodded without hesitating.

"Do it. Any edge I can get, I'll take. If I can have access to the data myself for parsing, I might be able to match feelings and intuition with actual changes."

After a bit more general administrative discussion, we were dismissed.

That night, I reviewed the release forms I got for trying various experiments to figure out how my power renewed itself. I was also scheduled to meet New Wave during a regular local hero get together tomorrow evening. While they weren't Protectorate and didn't follow the same rules, they still went out of their way to stay on very good terms with 'us.' Conversely, while the management wasn't against us associating, they were very strict about any public or semi-public encounters being planned in advance, and having approval from higher-ups. Letting them know our civilian identities was completely optional.

Glenn was supposedly going to have the first 'draft' of my costume delivered before the meetup. I was filled with dread, not because I distrusted his skills, but because when we had been arguing over the details of the sketches he leaned further towards the 'sexy' side more than I was exactly comfortable with. Not that I could fault his logic after my intuitions in his office; I just didn't have any conception of myself as the supermodel-class superheroine, mentally. That was Glory Girl. That was, to a degree, Alexandria. I could name more than a few 'utilitarian' female costumes too, but that might have had more to do with my mother's occasional mild feminist tirades on the subject. The capes in question were, as one of her grievances against the system, less popular probably in part because of the costumes they wore.

I just didn't think I could pull it off. Well, before I was airbrushed. And it's not like I had the wardrobe to particularly flaunt my newly attractive status.

Not that I had the skills to back up the look if I did. Still an awkward geek in here, no matter what I look like on the outside.

. . . Not that I had any problem with being a geek. There are self confidence issues, and there were perfectly objective and rational low self evaluations of ability. I might not be able to wine and dine the local socialites but I could probably find the dregs of their dirty laundry on the internet and piece together an idea of what they were hiding, given time.

Well, before I triggered, anyway. Now I have no idea what my limits are- only my strengths. And the strength I was using now was solving problems in whatever way I could.

"What. The fuck."

I was going to kill Glenn. Or at least kick him in the balls.

Then again I suspected that doing so wouldn't even interrupt whatever sentence he was in the middle of. The man was unstoppable.

I was in my room, with the various costume parts spread on the bed. The box was tossed to one corner of my room, out of the way of my pacing in the tiny space.

When Glenn and I had discussed costumes, there were a number of factors we did and didn't agree on. He had strong arguments for many of the contended points, and my responses could eloquently be summed up as "No, because - just no, okay?"

We had a handful of sketches by the time we were done- a his idea version, a my idea version, and a compromise version.

What I pulled out of the box was the 'his idea' version.

I knew it instantly because the boots had heels.

Not stilettos; I made it perfectly clear there was only one person that would get kicked if I put on stilettos for heroism. I'd be a hero to women everywhere.

I also didn't compromise on heels at all. That middle version of the outfit was more or less a collection of features neither Glenn or I would budge on. It did have some clashing aesthetics but at least I wouldn't be mortified to wear it.

On some level Emma's taunting about my lack of fashion sense came back to haunt me. Perhaps this was her revenge.

Calf-boots with tall yet thick heels. They were white with gold trim. A corset-type armored center piece over a skintight upper long-sleeved top. It was saved from being a leotard by the shorts.

Not short shorts, but still, skintight shorts. They went to mid thigh and were arrayed with straps and places to stick carabiners.

I was exposing more leg, rather, more skin with this thing that I had ever deigned to show in public in my life, save for at swimming pools. I dress conservatively, sue me.

The gloves were elbow length with armored plating along the forearms and backs of the hands. I could parry regular knives with them, easy.

The look was topped off by what seemed to be very subtle knuckle dusters on the gloves, a small gold hairtie to give myself a 45-degree up ponytail, and a gold utility belt to be filled with whatever doodads. There were also two thigh holsters (or sheathes) for weapons.

Finally, there was the golden eyemask. The notes say the lenses were polarized on the inside. How thoughtful.

The most insidious part of the whole situation is that the box was delivered not to me, but to the Wards. Carlos got the package, opened the box, which contained another box clearly labelled LIGHTSHOW'S NEW COSTUME, and the cat was less released from the bag than the bag was atomized, the cat within being blown directly to kingdom come. So, I was stuck in my dorm room with the Wards minus Gallant waiting for me in the break room to come out to show off my new look.

Damn you, Glenn Chambers. Damn you to Hell.

I stripped down and changed, and by the time I was done I couldn't decide between being angry and being terrified. I had never worn heels, and yet I was stepping around my room like I was born in them. Every woman I have ever spoken to has explicitly told me that that is not how it works. Well, all but Emma's mother, who buys very pricey shoes, but I didn't know whether to believe the pricey heels were actually better to walk in or if she was just justifying two thousand dollar shoes. Finally, I sighed and stepped outside to meet my fate.

The open jaws were expected. The exact faces doing the gaping were not.

Missy and Chris were completely speechless. Carlos nodded and smiled, and Dennis frowned and adopted the upper body posture of The Thinker.

"You dirty liar."

I blinked. Not what I expected from him.

"Excuse me?"

His glare intensified.

"You said you were out of juice, but here you are wasting precious awesomesauce on being hot."

By the time I recovered from my blush Carlos had almost pulled Missy off him.