I jerked awake with the momentary shock that I was not in my own bed, and I was not alone. That was my first and immediate scare, but it drained away as I remembered the previous delightful evening, and the source of that delight, who was still deep asleep and greedily tightened against me.
The second fear that upwelled was about how much of last night I had missed, but there didn’t seem to be any holes in my memory. I remembered Kimberly drifting off to sleep before me, so if there was any memory loss before I slept, it was an entirely uneventful interval.
The goddess fortunately did not stir when I extracted myself from the silk of her embrace and the warmth of her bed. I pulled on boxers and slipped carefully out her door, making a beeline for the shared bathroom at the end of the hallway. Bladder emptied, I splashed cold water at my face and tried to focus on my image in the vanity mirror, but it came back fuzzy and flickering. I would have trouble concentrating until I had my pills… which were in my overnight bag, in my valet-parked car, two blocks past the Tin Roof.
I always packed my overnight bag before a night out, but I hadn’t yet figured out a way to actually ask a prospective partner if I could collect it from my car before going to her place. In my head it always sounded arrogant, like I had been certain I was going to be going home with someone regardless. That’s not a signal you want to send.
I snaked back into Kimberly’s bedroom just long enough to grab my things and move out into the apartment sitting room. I had my pants up and was in the process of buttoning up my shirt when an unfamiliar voice spoke.
“Hello, strange man in my apartment.” The woman stood in the kitchen, staring at my bare chest as I froze in surprise at her greeting. She was tall and obviously dressed to work out, a band tying back shoulder length brown hair, a sports bra and jogging shorts the extent of her outfit other than socks and trainers.
I nodded and resumed buttoning. “Hello, Kimberly’s roommate.” Socks, shoes, and… I’d left the glasses on her dresser. No real loss.
The woman had been suppressing a smile, which I now knew because she released it onto her face at the mention of Kimberly’s name. “I figured she’d picked you up. Good for you.” She nodded, dipping her gaze appreciatively. “Good for her,” she murmured more to herself.
I maneuvered my way around her in the small kitchen, heading for the refrigerator. “Before or after?” I asked, nodding at her own clothing.
“Before,” she said, for the first time changing her stance as though a bit self-conscious about me seeing her. While she wasn’t in terrific shape – she had a noticeable bulge at her midsection and visible fat at her bare arms and thighs – she still struck me as very attractive. It reminded me of what Kimberly had said the night before about attractiveness being value for a woman the way wealth was for a man. Few women I had met weren’t self-conscious about their body; it seemed the rule rather than the exception.
I nodded as I opened the refrigerator door and took stock. The contents were woefully inadequate for my purposes. I responded on autopilot to whatever the roommate said next while I considered if I could possibly make breakfast with the present foodstuffs; it seemed beyond my expertise.
I consulted my mobile and found a small farm-to-shelf grocer open this early, just three blocks in the same direction as my overnight bag. The roommate had apparently used my distraction with the refrigerator to take her leave, so I was free to do the same. I wrote a quick note on the back of a business card and left it on the kitchen table, then made my way out of the apartment and down the street.
It took the valet (whom I didn’t recognize) a frustrating amount of time to bring my car up to the parking circle just so I could retrieve my bag. I still tipped him 20 before pulling out my portable pill container and swallowing the contents dry. My head cleared immediately, which I knew was largely psychological but no less welcome for it.
The small shop turned out to be Chinese. The older man running the shop spoke very little English, and he scowled unhappily when I entered. Still, all the ingredients I needed were there. He shook his head when I pulled out my card (it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d never seen a black card before), but efficiently took my cash and gave me change. His initial scowl had been replaced by a small smile by the end of the transaction, and the Mandarin he spoke as I left sounded friendly.
I shouldered my way into the apartment with my overnight bag slung over one shoulder and my grocery sack tucked under the opposite arm.
“Is this the guy?” a new voice asked.
Closing the door, I turned around to find myself face to face with a short, dark-haired girl, hands on her hips and expression livid. Kimberly was sitting on their couch wrapped in a robe, and was looking up at me in surprise. Streaks around reddened eyes made it clear she had been crying. “Hi Hector,” she said, and her voice wasn’t the confident and sexy woman from the night before. It was scared and vulnerable.
“Good morning, Kimberly. Did something happen while I was out?” My first instinct was that she was upset at something I had done, but experience had taught me not to assume.
“Do you know,” the girl in front of me leaned forward, her voice loud and dangerous, “how disheartening it is to go to bed next to someone new, and wake up to find he’s left?”
I craned around the small woman to make eye contact with Kimberly, who looked like she was close to tears again. The angry girl shifted as though to block me if I tried to reach her. “Didn’t you get my note?” I asked.
Kimberly held up the business card with my name, number, and email on the front. She read what I had written on the back. “‘Getting food.’ Without me, apparently.” She sighed heavily, standing up herself and taking a step in our direction.
“That was more ambiguous than I intended, sorry.” I held up the grocery bag. “I wanted to surprise you by making breakfast, but you didn’t even have eggs in your fridge.”
Her eyes went to the brown bag in my arms for the first time, and widened more. “So you… bought groceries?” A smirk flittered onto her face. “That’s what the note meant?”
I nodded. “I should have been more clear…”
“Yes, you should have, but…” Kimberly stepped up as the angry girl pivoted away from me to open the way. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and took the brown bag out of my hands. “I can’t get Juni or Sienna to go grocery shopping.” She looked to her roommate, who rolled her eyes. “After one night you’re a better housemate than they are.”
The other woman still had a stern look on her face. She cleared her throat and stuck out her hand. “I’m Sienna. I take it you’re Hector.” She had east Asian coloration and features and was wearing a loose t-shirt and sweatpants that I took for loungewear.
“Pleased to meet you,” I replied with a hearty handshake. There was a slight spark of static electricity as our hands released. “Your roommate is fantastic. I have no interest in calling it quits after last night.” I kept eye contact with Sienna as I said it, but I paid more attention to Kimberly’s smile widening in the periphery of my vision.
Sienna’s gaze flickered to the brown bag. “We’ll see how breakfast goes. If you’re a decent cook, I might let her keep you.” She turned on her heel and strutted back to her room, never cracking a smile the whole time.
Kimberly gave a hearty laugh as her roommate walked away. “I hope you bought enough to feed four.” She whistled when she looked in the bag. “Yeah, you did. Wow.”
I shrugged. “I figured making pancakes and frittatas for the whole apartment would be a good diplomatic gesture. May I?”
Smiling, Kimberly sat the bag on the counter and waved me into the kitchen. “Let me get dressed,” she said as she headed back to her room. I spun to watch as she passed me, enjoying the way her robe swayed against her legs. When she got to her door she caught me looking; her eyes glinted as she slid into her room and away from my gaze.
Infatuation is a terrible foundation for a relationship because it doesn’t last; you grow out of it when the person is no longer new. But as an incentive to put in energy with someone you’ve just met, it definitely packs a punch.
The kitchen wasn’t well-used, but despite the nearly empty larder there were plenty of imperishables. A pinch of powered nutmeg and a little bit of vanilla extract were added to the pancakes; I stirred small amounts of a half dozen different savory spices in with the eggs. I whipped up the egg batter with cream while the vegetables roasted in oil: chopped okra was my surprise find this morning, along with juicy red peppers and some artichoke hearts. People sometimes make the mistake of putting the eggs over the veggies while they are still almost raw, but you want them well-grilled before they get buried. I turn the heat way down before I add the eggs to keep the dish fluffy and avoid scorching.
Unless they have a medically restricted diet, everyone salts their eggs. I try to avoid this by adding other flavorings that provide saltiness plus some further flavor note. Oregano is one of my all-purpose spices.
“Smells good.” The taller roommate sat at the kitchen table, still in her workout gear. Her hair was dark and slick with sweat that escaped in single drops down her face.
“Juni, I presume,” I extended a hand to her in greeting, but she shook her head while wiping her damp hand against her side. The motion made her jiggle in a distracting fashion.
“It’s Juniper. I haven’t heard your name yet.”
I took her hint to retract my hand. “Hector.” I flipped another pancake onto a waiting plate and checked the first frittata. “Good workout?”
She coughed. “Any workout you walk away from.” Her eyes followed the motion of the finished food. “Is Kimmy up?”
“Her and Sienna both. This is breakfast for four.”
“Mmmm.” Her appreciative noise made me smile. “You go to U of M?”
“I did; I work here in Detroit now. Are you a Wayne student?”
She nodded. “Kimberly and I are finishing our master’s. Sienna’s onto her doctorate.”
“All political science?” As the first frittata continued to simmer, I finished the last stack of pancakes and repurposed the skillet to start on the second frittata.
“Nope. Forensics and metrology.”
“Which of you studies the weather?”
Juniper snorted with laughter. “Hey Sienna!” She called loudly.
“Yeah?” The much smaller woman took her place at the kitchen table, as did Kimberly.
“Hector wants to know about your weather studies,” Juniper quipped, enjoying Kimberly’s amused glance and the doctoral student’s eye roll.
“Metrology, not meteorology,” she recited. “The study of measurement.”
“Ah. My mistake.” I added a generous slice of frittata to each plate beside a small pile of pancakes.
“I get that all the time,” she admitted. The women each took a plate and dug in unceremoniously. “It’s low profile as its own field of study. Most metrology is just seen as part of its subject matter discipline – particle physics, organic chemistry, industrial manufacture. But there are particular engineering problems for which metrology itself is the best source for a solution.”
I chewed a bite of egg while watching the three women for their reactions. There were smiles and enthusiastic sounds from all three, so I endeavored to move the conversation forward. “Forensics, then?” I directed to Juniper, who nodded. “Planning on a career in law enforcement?”
It was another trite response, but she answered in good humor. “If that ever becomes possible, I want the training. Gotta be private work for now though.”
Kimberly explained to my puzzled expression, “Juni’s a super, so she’s ineligible to work in law enforcement.”
“Unless I joined a super team,” she muttered through a mouthful of breakfast.
“It’s an outdated law,” Kimberly told me, but I could tell it was more directed at Juniper. “There was a time when public mistrust of powers were high enough that their use in law enforcement delegitimized investigations. Defense attorneys used it to call material evidence into question.”
“You mean, if the cop who collected the evidence was a super, people thought the super could… tamper with the evidence somehow?” The pancakes were a little dry; I grabbed the butter.
“It seems silly now, but people didn’t have a frame of reference for the sort of things that powered individuals can and can’t do.”
“Most people still don’t,” Sienna said. “What most people know about supers is limited to what they see on the news. All hero and villain stuff.”
“That’s why you’re studying civilian supers, right?” I asked Kimberly.
She nodded. “Policies need to be based on the rule, not the exception. Statutes about power use should be tailored to the majority of powered individuals, the civilians. Instead they’re almost entirely made with the super teams and criminal villains in mind.”
“Civilization is more than just law enforcement,” Juniper added.
I mopped up some excess syrup with a forkful of frittata and munched my breakfast thoughtfully. “I’m not sure I agree,” I offered.
All three of my conversants reacted to this declaration: Juniper with confusion and surprise, Sienna with a hostile frown, and Kimberly with a delighted half-grin. It was Kimberly who said, “You think we should make policy based on the minority of supers who are on the teams?”
“Some policies.” I stood up and grabbed the last stack of pancakes, distributing them evenly on the mostly empty plates. “I’m thinking about safety regulations. They’re not based on the average circumstances, but on the worst case scenarios. For example, police at a traffic stop have policies to keep them safe, not from the nine hundred and ninety-nine normal stops, but from the trigger-happy psycho they meet that thousandth time.”
“So you’ll impose a cost on the thousand innocent people because of the one criminal?” Sienna spouted through a mouth full of breakfast. “I’d think you of all people could see the problem with that approach.”
I raised an eyebrow at this, but I declined to challenge her on it – other than brief eye contact and sympathy from Kimberly. “It’s not ideal, but it mitigates the risk. And in the same way, super heroes and villains tend to have the strongest and most dangerous powers. For safety and security, we would focus on them because they pose the most significant risks.”
“You’re ignoring the Pyre Problem, then,” Juniper said.
The super looked to Kimberly, but my date nodded back to her. Juniper said, “It’s a hypothetical to demonstrate the disconnect between different ideas of ‘power level.’ A super who can instantly and completely incinerate anything – or anyone – he looks at.”
“I don’t think anyone can do that,” I assessed.
“Hence the word ‘hypothetical,'” Sienna shot.
Juniper resumed her explanation. “The point is that Pyre would not be an effective superhero. Or even an effective criminal, for any end goal short of widespread destruction. But Pyre would almost certainly rate highly in most measurements of power.”
I nodded. “So you’re saying that if we base policies specifically on super teams and villains, we will miss any risky powers that aren’t suited to hero work or crime.”
“You got it,” Kimberly nodded. “But there’s a good reason we still mainly use heroes to make policy.” She rose from her seat and began to collect the plates from the table. I immediately rose to join her, but with a smile she stepped over and placed a hand on my chest, pushing gently. I let her lower me back into my seat. She leaned forward to give me a scorching kiss before resuming her tidying up.
“I, ah…” After a moment I shook off the distraction. “You were saying we shouldn’t base policy on superheroes. But now you’re saying we have a good reason?”
Kimberly nodded as she put the gathered dishes in the sink and started some water running. “It’s more convenient to use the information readily at hand. The teams are the most visible supers we have; they tend to submit more readily to examination and are tracked over time. It introduces all the selection biases, but you at least end up with a data set to work from.”
“Inaccurate data is worse than no data,” Sienna insisted.
“Which is why I want better data on civilian supers,” Kimberly replied.
At the table, Juniper meditated on her emptying coffee mug while Sienna eyed me clinically. “Kim says you’re an electrical engineer,” Sienna challenged.
“I have a master’s in it, but I’m really more of an electrician now.” I kept my tone light and ventured a smile, but she wasn’t having it.
“I took home a circuit board from one of the lab detectors and have been trying to find the short in it. Would you like to come take a look?” Her voice didn’t change tone, but she at least made the invitation at a lower volume level.
Kimberly turned around from the sink briefly, casting a worried glance at Sienna and then back at me. But Juniper caught Kimberly’s eye and gave her a nod, and she went back to washing the dishes.
“Sure,” I said, following the small woman’s lead as she rose from the table. The bedroom we stepped into was almost twice the size of Kimberly’s and set up much like a traditional college dorm room, identical twin beds and desks mirrored between the two sides. Both sides were similarly clutter-free, except for the cluttered desk surfaces.
“Have a seat,” Sienna gestured at her desk chair, and I slid into it. The front half of the desk was cleared except for an adjustable table magnifier and an ASIC board the size of a sheet of paper.
I looked up sharply when I heard the soft click of the door latching as Sienna closed it. Her expression was pinched, aggressively wary, and her posture leaned forward as though preserving her momentum.
I made to get up, but she reached out her hand to my shoulder in a twisted parallel to the affection shown by Kimberly just minutes before. I let her guide me back into a seated position, and as her hand left my shoulder, I felt the pinprick of another small static shock.
“Does she know?” Sienna began without preamble.
My heart sank. There were a dozen different things she could be talking about, but whichever it was, I couldn’t imagine this ending well. “Does she know what?”
“That you’re a super.” I opened my mouth to protest, but she held up a single finger and I fell silent. She brought her finger within a millimeter of my cheek, and I felt another tiny prick of electric discharge. “The charge differential is caused by omicron emissions. I don’t even think that what I do is technically a power; it’s just an expression of omicron sensitivity.” She moved her hand to just above my hair, and I could feel it frizzing up, being drawn toward her.
I’d had enough. I pushed her desk chair back and stood, keeping my distance. “That shows that you’re a super, not me.” I was proud of how calm I sounded.
Sienna shook her head. “It’s an interaction effect. I only feel it when I touch other omicron sensitives, and it only creates enough of a charge for both of us to feel if the other person is a super.” I looked at her dubiously, so she added, “I’ve checked it against omicron readings in the lab. This much charge this quickly, I’d be willing to bet you have at least three of the genes.”
I took another half step back and slightly to the side; the desk chair was between me and Sienna, but she was blocking the door. I almost fell over backwards as the back of my legs bumped against her bed. “I’m not a super. I don’t know what readings you think you’re taking, but I’ve never shown any powers or even been detected on a scan. I’m normal.”
Sienna’s eyes narrowed further at the word ‘normal.’ Younger supers tended to see the term as a backhanded insult, implying having powers made you a freak. She replied, “You’re not a very good liar, Hector.”
“I’m not -”
“I don’t really care.” A swipe of her hand cut off my protestations. “I brought you in here to make one thing clear.” She took a step toward me, and visibly tried to relax her face and posture to help keep her voice down enough not to be overheard. “Kim has baggage when it comes to supers, and an intense hatred of secret identities. If you want to stick around…. and you seem nice enough… you need tell her the whole truth about who and what you are.” She had advanced until she was almost on top of me again, her eyes boring deeply into mine. “If she finds out on her own, or if you wait too long, you’ll be done. And I’ll be the one she cries on. Again.”
Sienna stared at me for several seconds, stretching into a minute, before I nodded. She replied with a nod of her own and led me back to the apartment’s common area. The dishwashing machine was humming merrily from the kitchen. The other two girls had moved to the sitting room couch, and we joined them on matching chairs.
As the four of us spoke, talking about Wayne State and the dangers of Detroit in the winter, I noticed that Sienna had thawed considerably since our confrontation in her room. It was a common engineer’s mentality: in her mind she had addressed the problem and could leave it behind until it needed attention again. I greatly admired that level of compartmentalization.
Juniper and Sienna courteously returned to their room while Kimberly saw me out. The goodbye kiss persisted until it was in danger of returning us to her room, but we both knew that it was the right time to end our first encounter together. When I invited her out to dinner Monday night, she delightfully accepted, and I took my leave.
Walking to the hotel valet for the second time that morning, I sent a message to Paris asking when she would be home from work. I needed to take Sienna’s warning seriously and decide what to do about a woman who, while both fascinating and excellent company, had a complicated relationship with supers. While Paris had lived under the constant risk of discovery for years, until recently I had managed to keep Delphic almost completely out of my life as Hector. The situation with the CIA had started to blur the lines. Was I willing to blur those lines even more?
Kimberly’s face, voice, and body dominated my thoughts as I drove home, and I realized I had already made up my mind.