“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Flint said for the fifth time that morning as he sat in the drivers seat. Then the boy yelped as Kell, sitting in the passenger seat next to him, smacked the back of his head. “Wh-what was that for?!” he whined.
“Because I told you to stop jinxing us,” the dark haired teenager growled. He was half a head shorter and three years younger than Flint, but looked like he had twice as much muscle as his pudgy, sandy haired companion. “You do it again and it’ll be my foot up your ass next!”
Flint rubbed the back of his head and looked like he was about to protest further, but he froze when Lira leaned in between both seats from where she sat in the back and clapped her hands down on their shoulders. “Boys, boys,” she said lightly. “Should we reschedule this so you two can go wrassle in a mud pit somewhere?” Kell tried to squirm away from her grip, but she tightened her hold on him slightly, making him wince, though he kept from crying out. “Well?”
“No,” he said sullenly, after it was clear that she wasn’t going to let him go without an answer.
“So you’re going to quit your whining and be professionals?” she asked in the same cheerful tone, emphasizing the last word with another squeeze of her hand. This time he did cry out.
“How about you, Flint? You gonna keep jinxing us?”
“N-no,” the sandy haired boy said. Unlike Kell, she was barely touching him, but he still looked about five seconds away from breaking down and blubbering.
“Good!” Lira said brightly, and released both of them. Kell looked back at her with a sneer but said nothing. Flint just slumped down further into his seat, shoulders hunched like an wounded, oversized puppy.
“Are you sure we need both of them?” Grace asked, rolling her eyes. The red haired girl sat next to Lira with her legs crossed, wearing a bored expression. Her fingers tapped a steady rhythm on the armrest. “Or either? You and I could just do this ourselves.”
Flint looked as though he’d like nothing more, but Kell twisted around in his seat against to scowl at them both. “You want to leave me in the car, you go ahead, but I still get my cut, understand?”
“Nobody is getting left in the car,” Lira said. “We’re all gonna play our parts, get freaking rich, and then do whatever we want. Me, I’m heading somewhere with nice beaches.”
“I’d rather have some nice bitches,” Kell said. He was looking across the street, where a tall blonde with a celtic knot tattoo and not much else loitered by the hotel. She’d been trying to pick up customers for the last hour, and looked absolutely terrified now that she’d found some: four young men who stared at her like wolves admiring a rabbit. One of them already had his hand under her shirt, feeling up her tits in broad daylight as he talked to her. Lira couldn’t hear most of it, but she caught something about a ‘group discount’. The girl’s face fell, but the man groping her did something that made her jump, and she quickly nodded her head. She turned towards the hotel, but one of them laughed and stopped her, pointing instead to the alleyway next to it. She looked even more miserable now, but she followed the four men as they walked into it, trailing behind them like a beaten dog.
“You can have all the store-bought pussy you want,” Lira told him, “after we get this done. He’s going to be out soon; everybody remember what they’re doing?”
“I-I’m setting up eyes at the entrance and in the hall,” Flint said. Once he marked a location, he could see and hear from it as though he was standing right there, and without a trace. Unfortunately, the more eyes he had up, the more jumbled everything became. Any more than two and he usually lost his lunch. Nobody in the car liked to talk about how they’d ended up on the streets, or what their lives had been like before, but Lira would’ve bet everything they were planning to steal today that Flint had grown up somewhere soft and rich. He was useless when it came to any kind of physical labor, a shameless coward when there was even a hint of danger around, and had all the street smarts of a woodpecker. But for all that, he was reliable, in his own way. He’d never tried to steal from Lira, never went behind her back, never had any problems taking orders from a woman. He was someone she could depend on, as long as she didn’t ask him to do anything brave or particularly difficult.
“I’m tunneling through the wall, and then into the safe, assuming Grace can actually find it,” Kell said. He was a misogynistic scumbag who didn’t like Lira any more than she liked him, but he knew how to work a job, and he understood that they needed each other. Lira’s power was a lot of things, but subtle wasn’t one of them. Kell, on the other hand, was a master of breaking and entering thanks to his aberration; his touch could dissolve non organic matter. It wasn’t particularly quick, and it left a mess behind, but it was also silent, and could get through just about anything short of animite.
Grace gave the scowling teen a look as she adjusted her braid. “Watch your mouth. It’s not too late to replace you with a cordless drill.” Unlike Flint, who looked like he’d grown up in the lap of luxury, the redhead looked like she’d never left. Even now, sitting in the car with them, she looked more like a lady being chauffeured than an equal partner in crime. The expensive bracelets sparkling on her wrists didn’t help, but she didn’t wear them out of vanity. She was a dowser, who could touch any material and detect if there was more of it nearby. Both bracelets were studded with bits of diamond, sapphire, gold, emerald, and other precious metals and gemstones. Whatever valuables were up there, she’d find them.
None of the three were much more than Ants, but they were the best Lira had found so far in the year that she’d been on her own. Together they’d hit a few jewelry stores, sneaking in at night to raid the place for everything they could carry, but Lira was getting sick of small jobs. It was better than robbing bodegas and gas stations, the way she’d gotten by for the first few months, but it was still a pain. With any luck, this job would leave her set for years.
This was hardly the luxurious life she’d envisioned for herself ten months ago, but it beat being her stepfather’s toy by a country mile. Freedom had been an exhilarating concept for a girl who’d spent a year and a half as a prisoner in all but name. She’d immersed herself in it at first, glorying in the ability to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, but it hadn’t taken long for her personal anarchy to grow stale. Endless booze, drugs, and parties sounded much more fun in theory than they were in practice. She’d discovered very quickly that she couldn’t get drunk, no matter how strong the alcohol, and drugs didn’t do much more than make her jittery. And the parties… every one she went to was full of leering, horny guys looking to fuck her. She hadn’t gotten out from under Randall’s thumb just so another douchebag could claim her. She’d had to break more than a few broken bones here and there before everyone got the message that she wasn’t interested.
Crime was similarly disappointing. The first time she’d robbed a convenience store, it had been thrilling. The tenth time it had been a chore. She couldn’t do anything bigger without drawing attention to herself, and she wasn’t stupid: there was nothing superheroes found more dangerous than people like her, who didn’t have to grovel and put up with their shit anymore. They’d try to grind her back down into the dirt as an example to others, probably label her a supervillain and give her some ridiculous name in the process. Once she entered the spotlight, they’d be hounding her for the rest of her life.
They weren’t going to get the chance, though. She was going to put all of that behind her today. By this time next week, she’d be in a different state, maybe even a different country, sporting a new name and pockets stuffed with cash. She wouldn’t even have to be alone – Grace was going to come with her. For whatever reason, the redhead rarely treated Lira with the same iciness that she reserved for others, and the two of them had bonded over their shared circumstances, both past and present; Grace didn’t talk about her old life any more than anyone else did, but Lira had gotten to know the woman well enough to understand that her home situation must have had some ugly similarities to her own. In the months that they’d known each other, she’d become the closest thing Lira had to a real friend, and when they were alone together, she could almost pretend that she had a normal life again.
It took about another hour of tense waiting, but finally the moment they’d been waiting for arrived: a man in a white suit exited the hotel, where a limo was already pulling up with perfect timing. His dark hair was beginning to turn silver, and he had the flabby physique of someone who’d never gone hungry or had to work for a meal, but his eyes were hard and sharp. Glittering rings adorned all ten of his fat fingers, but Lira knew that they were only a fraction of the ones he owned. “There he is,” she hissed, excited. Antonio Serafini was one of the richest men in Chicago, and he probably hadn’t come by a dollar of it honestly. Not that Lira cared about that. What mattered was that he spent every Friday evening carousing in one of the city’s casinos. For the next few hours, his penthouse would be empty. He was known for his love of rare and expensive jewelry, and Lira was confident that whatever he might have stored up there would be worth more than a hundred dinky jewelry stores.
“Hold up a minute,” Kell said. “The whore’s still in the alley.”
Lira swore softly. “Alright, I’ll go check it out.” She got out of the car and crossed the street, trying to look as casual as possible as she entered the dark alleyway. She stepped across a discarded newspaper on the way that caught her eye, its large print headline proclaiming that yet another Dawnbringer, Gnarl this time, had been murdered by Nightshade. Lira had no more love for villains than she did for heroes; they were more honest about being assholes, but they were still assholes. Everyone talked about the supervillain these days like she was the second coming of Midnight or something, but Lira didn’t see it. As far as she was concerned, she was no better or worse than the rest of the supers running around. Like all the others, she was just using her power to let her do whatever the hell she wanted. The only thing that set her apart was that what she wanted was to kill heroes.
Kell was right: the whore was still there, along with all four of her customers. None of them seemed to notice Lira as she approached, too focused on what they were doing. She paused before she got too close, just watching for now. A fight might draw spectators, which was the exact opposite of what she wanted. Hopefully they were almost done, and she could just wait them out.
The girl was on her hands and knees, giving one of the men a blowjob. From the amount of cum smeared across her face and dribbling down her legs, she’d already been used at least once by all four of them. “Fuck me, man,” said the one getting his dick sucked. “This is why I told you guys not to get all excited just cause you spot some new pussy. Stupid bitch doesn’t know how suck cock yet.” He pulled his cock out of her mouth and slapped her cheek with it. It wasn’t a hard blow, but the blonde flinched like she’d been punched.
“That’s why I told you to just jam it down her throat,” said one of the others. The three of them were loosely gathered around the other two, enjoying the show. “She’s so new she’s still got a gag reflex. The slut will thank you for helping her get over it.” He stepped behind the girl and rubbed his stiff cock up and down her ass crack. “Besides, she’s way tighter than our usual fucks.”
The girl froze as he settled his prick against her asshole and began to push. “You, you can’t do that,” she whined, trying to wriggle away from him. The man she was sucking off wrapped her hair around his fist and yanked it like a leash to make her hold still for his friend.. “We agreed p-pussy and mouth only, no anal!”
The one behind her snickered as he kept trying to work himself into her ass, temporarily stymied by the way she was clenching to keep him out. “And what the fuck are you gonna do about it? We agreed to wear condoms too, but all you did was cry when we rawdogged you. You wanna tell your pimp you were dumb enough to let four guys use all your holes for free, go ahead.”
“F-free?!” she said, looking like she was about to burst into tears. “No, puh… please, I need the money!”
“Then you’re gonna stop being such a bitch and let all four of us enjoy your ass,” he said. “If you can behave, and put some effort into the cock sucking, we’ll consider paying you when we’re done. Start by relaxing this shitter so I can get to work hosing down your guts.”
The prostitute didn’t look like she believed him for a minute, but she didn’t have much choice. “Okay…” she said sadly. “Just… just please go slow… please… I’ll try my best to make it good for you if you go slow, I promise…” She scrunched her eyes shut in concentration, whimpering a little as the head of his cock began to find purchase inside her.
“Yeah? You don’t want me to ram it in like this?” He grabbed her hips and slammed his own against her, making her scream as his entire length was buried in her in the span of moments. “Ohhhhhh, fuck yeah!” he exclaimed, continuing to hammer away at her rectum with sharp thrusts. “I know this tightness! We got a virgin ass back here!” His friends all groaned, and one of them called him a son of a bitch. “Sticks and stones, fuckers,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t worry, she’ll still have some tightness left after I’m done breaking this hole in!”
The whore’s screams cut off as the man at her front pulled her head to his crotch, forcing his dick down her throat. Her cries were quieter but no less urgent or panicked as he shoved himself in deep, making her gag. “Time to stop being so fucking lazy,” he told her. “I want you to swallow my cum before he finishes in your ass. You fuck up and I’ll beat your butt black and blue with my belt when it’s my turn, got it?” She moaned at his demand but didn’t argue, her lips pressing tight around him as she began bobbing her head, fucking her throat on him.
Lira silently cursed the girl. It sounded like they might be fucking her for hours. She wasn’t going to wait a whole week to try this job again. “Can’t imagine why a bunch of charmers like you have to pay for pussy,” she said cheerfully, drawing their attention for the first time. “You mind finding somewhere else to pound her?”
One of the men not fucking the whore hooted as he noticed her. “Damn, we got a rainbow bitch joining in now! This a two for one deal?”
Lira ran a hand through her multicolored hair and smiled. Changing her hairstyle was one of the first things she’d done after becoming free. She wore it in a mohawk now, dyed in every color of the rainbow. It regularly drew looks, which was the entire point; she was done being one of the faceless people getting stepped on by the ones in charge. She was one of the ones in charge now. “I’m more than you can handle, boys. But you want a piece, you go right ahead and try.”
He did, grinning eagerly as he came closer. “Tits ain’t too bad,” he said, looking her up and down with hungry eyes. “Could be bigger, but there’s still plenty of meat there to hug my dick. And that face… god, I can’t wait to cum on that face of yours, you pretty little cunt.” Lira waited until he was just a couple steps away, practically drooling at the sight of her. Then she drove her fist into his stomach, and sent him flying a good ten feet before he crashed into a heap on the ground. All the men, and even the whore still being used at both ends, stared at her in wide eyed amazement.
The feeling that she’d first called her warmth had grown at a slow but steady pace over the last year. She still had no idea how she’d come by it. She’d never even heard of someone ever gaining a second power. She’d found that when she focused a lot of it in one place, her skin there would glow slightly. It didn’t look quite the same as her other power, the one that had labeled her as an Ant, but her only guess was that it was some kind of extension or mutation of it. Somehow she’d figured out how to use it to do more than just generate light.
Though she was curious to know the source of her power, she wasn’t particularly bothered by the idea that she might never understand it. Understanding the power didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was hers. “Well, come on,” Lira told the gawking men. “That’s one satisfied customer. Three more to go, right?”
Their faces darkened, and they pushed the girl away from them. The blonde whore scurried into a corner of the alley, watching from a near fetal position. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” said the man who’d been using her throat. “Some new superhero, Rainbow Cunt?” He crouched down, where his pants lay on the ground, and produced a pistol from them. “I don’t care if you’ve got the strength to lift a goddamn freight train. If you don’t want a bullet in your brain, you’re gonna strip, kneel, and start apologizing for hurting our friend.”
“I got a counter offer,” Lira said. “You take that gun and shove up it your ass, and I’ll let you waddle out of here like that.” His response to her taunt was to pull the trigger.
She hadn’t known what to call her new ability either. It had felt silly to keep referring to it as warmth. Eventually she’d decided that it didn’t really need a name. Coming up with stupid names for things was the sort of pointless thing that heroes did. All that mattered was that it was power, and it was hers, and it was amazingly versatile. When she filled her body with it, she wasn’t just stronger and tougher, she was faster too. Not enough to outrace a bullet or catch it, but enough to let her dart to the side and away before it reached her.
The man cursed and kept firing, but Lira easily dodged every shot, not even out of breath by the time his gun came up empty. “Cute,” she told him. “Wanna see mine?” She extended one arm, palm out, and focused some of her power into her hand like a ball, then imagined pushing it out and away. A narrow beam of light shot out from her palm, striking the man in the chest and pushing him violently back until he collided with the back alley wall and went down. She knew from experimentation that there was little to no heat to the light she produced, just pure kinetic force; judging from the dent in his chest that marked a few broken ribs, though, she had a feeling that didn’t much matter to him. “That’s two,” she announced. “Halfway there!”
That move, while flashy, was very draining, and she could already feel her reserves running low. She still had to spare some for the job. So when the other two men chose to run away instead of coming at her, she just stepped aside and let them pass. The two she’d hit were dazed but not knocked out, and they stumbled to their feet moments later to join them in flight. None of the men had bothered to retrieve their clothes, and all four were naked from the waist down as they fled out of sight.
Lira’s face was flushed, and she caught herself feeling a twinge of regret that they’d all opted to run instead of fight. Her power was a nameless tool, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t love using it, especially on fuckboys like them. Habit as much as anything else made her collect their abandoned wallets once they were gone. They’d had a few hundred bucks between the four of them, and she casually slipped the cash into her pocket before tossing the wallets back on the ground. Then she went back to the alleyway entrance and beckoned her crew to come over.
“The hell did you do to them?” Kell asked as they joined her. “They ran like Midnight himself was chasing at their heels.” He’d apparently enjoyed the spectacle, and wore a rare smile in place of his usual scowl.
Grace, on the other hand, looked nauseated. “Their… their ugly little things were just flapping in the breeze!” She shuddered theatrically. “Like long slimy worms. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want one of those in them! Don’t you agree, Lira?”
The girl shrugged. “If anyone wanted their cocks, they wouldn’t be banging whores in dark alleys.” That reminded Lira that she hadn’t seen the woman leave. Sure enough, the blonde was cowering near the back of the alley, watching all of them fearfully.
“W-we weren’t supposed to let anyone see us in here!” Flint squeaked, looking around nervously. “What if she tells someone about us?”
Kell laughed. “You fucking coward. Now you’re scared of some whore? Hey, come on out,” he called to her. “Why don’t you give the scaredycat here a blowjob or something to calm his nerves?”
“I-I don’t…” Flint stammered.
Lira sighed. “Focus, morons. Nobody is getting their dicks sucked. We’ve got a job to do.” She pointed at the girl. “You, get lost.”
The whore nodded, rising unsteadily to her feet so she could start putting her clothes back on. “I, um, they were supposed to pay me,” she said timidly, casting glances at Lira without actually meeting her eyes.
She must have seen her going through the wallets. Lira pulled the wad of cash out of her pocket. “You think you deserve some of this?” she asked, showing it to the blonde. The woman reached for it, but at the last second the rainbow haired girl pulled her hand away. “See, here’s the thing: it used to be theirs, but then I took it, so now it’s mine. You want some of it for yourself, you’re gonna have to take it from me. That’s fair, right?” She held the cash out again. “Come on, give it a try. Let’s see what you can do.”
The girl hesitated, still frozen in the act of reaching for the money. She’d seen enough to know that she had no chance of getting even a single bill away from her. “Come on,” Lira repeated impatiently, shaking the money up and down in front of her. “You’re not even gonna try? No? Guess you don’t really want it then.” She stuffed the cash back into her own pocket. “So take a hike.”
“O-okay,” the whore said, looking like she was close to tears again. She let her hand drop. “I, I’m sorry…” She ducked her head and began hurrying out of the alley.
Lira rolled her eyes. Pathetic. The girl was just like she’d been a year ago, a weakling getting pushed around by everyone else. If she thought that was going to earn her any sympathy points, she was dead wrong. Not a single person had helped Lira when she was in that state, so Lira had zero obligation to help this girl now. “Stop,” she ordered, and the whore froze in midstep, shoulders hunched up like a frightened animal. When Lira took the cash back out and slapped it into her hand, she looked down at it in shock. “Don’t go thinking this is some gift,” the rainbow haired girl growled. “It’s payment for keeping your mouth shut. You’re not even going to think about telling anyone about seeing us here, got it?”
“Y-yes, of course!” the blonde said. “Not a word, I swear! Thank you!” A shy smile spread across her face.
“Don’t thank me,” Lira snapped with a grimace. “I told you, it’s not a gift, just a business arrangement, because you’re probably too stupid to keep quiet if there’s nothing in it for you. And if you betray me, I’ll do more than just take the money back. I’ll make you wish you’d been back here with forty guys instead of four, got it?”
Her smile unfazed, the girl nodded eagerly and left. “Finally,” Lira said once she was out of sight. “Now let’s get to it.”
“Real fucking great start,” Kell griped. “First the fatass jinxes us, now you’re just giving all our money away to random whores.”
Lira flipped him off. “It wasn’t our money, it was mine. And we’re all gonna take away enough from this haul to make that look like a handful of pennies. So shut up and climb on.” Kell scowled at her, but didn’t argue further as they got moving. Grace hugged her from behind, while the boys each took one of Lira’s hands. “Ready?” she asked, and without waiting for an answer, started pushing her power upwards. Her feet rose off the ground.
Their strategy was simple. The windows, the doors, every available point of entry was certain to be wired with alarms. But not the wall. Nobody would expect someone to tunnel straight through the wall of a building hundreds of feet up in the air. And that was where Lira’s part of the plan came in.
She made it barely two feet up before she found herself lurching to the side, nearly swinging Kell into the wall. “Watch it!” he hissed at her.
“Watch yourself,” she shot back. “You think this is easy?” When she’d first discovered through experimentation that she could lift herself into the air by pushing her power, she’d imagined soaring through the skies like a bird. But she felt more like a drunk, one winged pigeon as she bobbed from side to side, slowly ascending in fits and starts, often falling a few feet before recovering. It wasn’t easy to move her power like this, and it just sort of pulled her body along with it. Kell and Flint both almost smacked against the wall several more times, and even Grace sounded miserable by the time they were hovering awkwardly at the same elevation as the penthouse.
“Hold still!” Kell said as he put a hand on the wall, making it start to melt away. “If you let me fall, I will haunt you so goddamn hard.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” said Lira, not in a great mood herself. Her power had done nothing at all to stop her stomach from rolling and churning all the way up, and the sight of melted goo oozing down the wall as Kell worked wasn’t helping.
It took ten minutes before Kell had created a large enough opening for all of them to go through, and Lira all but collapsed onto the floor as she made it in. Her reserves were nearly dry, her stomach was heaving, and she’d been worried she’d have to go all the way back down to recharge and throw up. But they were in.
The rest of them seemed equally exhausted, and it was a couple minutes before any of them spoke up. “Wow,” breathed Flint. “Are, are you guys seeing this?”
Lira had already known that Serafini’s penthouse took up the entirety of the two top floors, but she hadn’t appreciated just what that meant until now. The place was massive. Most of it was a single large room whose ceiling was at least a good thirty feet up. Chairs and couches took up the floor space, all of them possessing that sort of not-quite-right look that meant they must be incredibly expensive. Most of them were drawn around various standing art sculptures, including several life sized female statues that were both extremely realistic and extremely naked, so much so that Flint’s face grew red when he noticed them, prompting Grace to give him a disgusted look.
They’d entered at roughly the middle of the bottom floor. To either side of the hole they’d made, two curving staircases led to the upper level, which was more of a balcony or catwalk than anything else. Past the stairs were hallways on both levels that ran from one end of the building to the other.
And the windows… when seen from below, they didn’t look like much, and she’d been too focused on flying to think about them before, but now she had trouble taking her eyes off them. They were tall enough to cover both floors of the penthouse, and equally as wide. Lira, who had never flown in a plane or climbed any mountains or even been on the upper floor of a skyscraper, had never seen anything like the view the windows offered, all of Chicago stretching out for miles. She stared outside in wonder.
“Am I the only one who remembers the fucking plan?” Kell snapped. “Flint, stop fantasizing about sticking your tiny dick in a statue, and set your eye up. Grace, figure out where the fuck the loot is.”
Flint flinched and quickly turned back towards the hole, holding out his hands. His eyes closed, and he began to mumble something under his breath. Meanwhile, Grace was tapping pieces of her bracelets. “I’ve got it,” she declared. “There’s a little bit of everything all around, but I feel a large concentration down that hall, on the right.”
“Then let’s go check it out,” Lira said, still looking out the window. “You ready, Flint?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, already sounding a little nauseated. “Got one here, and by the elevator. If anyone shows up, I’ll see them.”
As the other three began hurrying in the direction Grace had indicated, Lira reluctantly tore her attention away from the view. After they’d cashed out, she was going to get herself a place with a view like that.
Grace turned her head to give the statues a final look before they disappeared from view. “Those were some truly stunning works,” the redhead said. “Didn’t you think so too, Lira?”
Lira shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I’m not really into art.” For some reason, her answer seemed to disappoint the woman.
“This one?” Kell called out from up ahead, pointing at a door. When Grace nodded, he put his hand on the doorknob and rattled it. “Locked.” A second later the melted doorknob hit the floor with a squelch. “Unlocked.”
The room turned out to be a bedroom, probably the master bedroom judging from its size. The bed alone looked about as large as Lira’s old apartment, and its silk sheets had probably cost more than a year’s rent there had. Like the rest of the penthouse, everything was immaculate, not a speck of dust or clutter to be found. Several large tapestries adorned the walls, all of them featuring men with fancy clothes and gold crowns sitting on thrones. “So where is it?” Lira asked Grace.
The redhead was already concentrating, one hand clutching a bracelet. “Not in here,” she said slowly. “Past here.” She pointed at the back wall. “I think there’s another room behind there.”
“On it,” Kell said, and began running his hands over the wall, slowly dissolving it. While he worked, Grace flopped onto the bed.
“Ohh, this is so nice!” she exclaimed, rolling from side to side a little. “Lira, come see how nice these sheets feel!”
Lira had nothing better to do, so she laid down next to the redhead. They were soft sheets, though she didn’t have nearly the same reaction as Grace. They were just sheets, after all.
Grace rolled onto her side to face Lira, propping her head up with one arm. “I should get a bed just like this one,” she said, smiling down at her. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“I guess,” the rainbow haired girl agreed. “Maybe I’ll get one too.” She snorted softly. “Though I have a hard time imagining an apartment big enough for two of these things.”
“Well, we don’t both have to get one,” Grace said. “I’d be happy to share mine, if you like…”
That didn’t make any sense to Lira. If she was sleeping in Grace’s bed, where would Grace sleep? But before she could point that out to the woman, Kell spoke up. “Ho. Ly. Fucking. Shit! Check it out!” Lira rolled off the bed to take a look. Kell hadn’t finished making an opening for them to walk through, but he’d opened up a fist sized hole that she could peer inside.
The hidden room looked nothing like the rest of the penthouse, and while it held a bed, it clearly hadn’t been designed with sleep in mind. It was a small, dirty cot, and handcuffs dangled from each corner of it. It fit in with the rest of the room, where chains hung from ceilings and thick metal rings lined the floor and walls in regular intervals.
The rest of the wall space was occupied in two ways. First was the assortment of instruments hanging from hooks or sitting on metal shelves. Lira saw a whip, a set of pliers, several dildos of various sizes, and many many more things, most of which she didn’t recognize and had no desire to learn about.
Second was the pictures.
A single glance was enough to know that these weren’t actresses in staged photos. No one could fake that much pain and terror so convincingly. All of them were young and pretty and bleeding and crying. All of the pictures had been taken in this very room.
A host of bad memories rose up in Lira’s mind, accompanied by a spike of nausea so strong and sudden that she finally lost control of her upset stomach, doubling over and throwing up.
“I told you guys,” Flint said, pale faced and shaking. “I told you I had a bad feeling…”
Kell groaned. “You’re all a bunch of pussies. Who cares what creepy fetish shit the bastard is into? Grace! Snap out of it and tell me exactly where the stuff is.”
The redhead looked even more distraught than Flint, but she nodded. “I-it’s in the b-back. The cabinet.”
Lira wiped her mouth and tried not to look at the hole in the wall. She sat at the edge of the bed and Grace joined her, rubbing her back sympathetically. Everyone was silent as Kell resumed working, their earlier cheer gone.
That was why they all clearly heard the elevator door ding.
Lira bolted to her feet, gathering up her remaining power. She hadn’t recovered from the strain of flying yet, but she had more than enough to deal with the intruder. Though her heart was pounding in her ears and she thought she might be sick again, she felt oddly grateful. She couldn’t get rid of bad memories, but a person? That she could crush. “Who is it?” she whispered to Flint.
All eyes turned to the sandy haired boy, and he let out a frightened squeak. “We have to get out of here!,” he whispered back. “Right now!”
“Who is it, dipshit?” hissed Kell. Before Flint could answer, a wave of white swept across the floor, and Lira found her feet and everyone else’s frozen in ice from the ankles down.
“Hi kids,” Frost said cheerfully. “Are you lost?” Chicago’s most popular superhero looked older than Lira remembered from the posters, but everything else was the same. The same white costume with streaks of blue down the sides. While some supers tried to dress like swimsuit models, her outfit had always been designed for practicality and comfort, the result appealing without looking painted on. The same shock of white hair. After Lira met the woman years ago, she’d successfully begged her mom to buy her some hair dye so she could turn hers the same shade. It had lasted until her stepfather had entered the picture; he preferred blondes.
And that same smile. The same damn warm, confident smile that had mocked Lira for months until she’d torn all her posters down.
Lira didn’t even realize that she’d charged at the woman until a patch of ice twisted beneath her, sending her into a tumble. More ice started growing as soon as she came to a stop, trying to cover her, but she gathered enough strength to break free and scramble to her feet. The ice continued to try and crawl up her legs, and she quickly grabbed her power and pulled herself up into the air.
Frost quirked an eyebrow at her. “Don’t see many aberrants with levitation around. Some strength too, I’d wager. An interesting power set. Is the rainbow hair part of it too, or just a fashion choice?”
Lira narrowed her eyes, but before she could tell the woman to go fuck herself, Kell dashed towards the superhero. His feet were bare, and the ice melted beneath them with every step. Frost darted away and tried to send another wave to trip him up, but it dissolved before it reached him.
If his resistance to her usual tactics bothered the white haired woman, she gave no sign of it. “That one’s not bad either,” she commented. “Familiar too. You are the ones behind the recent string of jewelry store heists, aren’t you?”
Flint whimpered. Lira glanced in his direction, and confirmed that both he and Grace were trapped by the ice, which was already up to their waists and still rising slowly. It would be up to her and Kell to fight the super off, and he wasn’t having much luck. Even without the ice to trip him up, Frost had no trouble evading his clumsy attacks, smoothly dancing away each time like a matador toying with a bull.
Lira released her power, letting herself drop to the ground, and pushed it down to her feet instead. She couldn’t melt the ice like Kell did, but Frost couldn’t trap her like the others either. As long as she watched her step… this time she saw the wave coming and sprang over it. To her disgust, she saw the woman give her a small nod, as though impressed by her dodge. Lira leapt forward again, this time looking to punch her right in her smug face, and Frost deftly slipped to the side.
Even with two of them engaging her, the super still easily evaded their every attack. Lira remembered that was another property of her power: not only did the woman have no trouble with her footing on ice, she could glide across it as gracefully as an Olympic skater. Infuriatingly, Frost made no real attempts to strike them, apart from more occasional ice waves that Lira had to jump over. Lira knew the woman’s powers could be used more offensively. The fact that she wasn’t using them that way meant that she didn’t even judge either of them to be a threat.
The most annoying part was that if it wasn’t for the context of the situation, and the fact that her opponent was the smarmiest bitch in Chicago, the fight would have almost been, well… fun. Lira had gotten into a handful of physical scrapes in the last year, but just like the confrontation with Randall or the assholes down in the alley, they’d all been one sided exchanges where her power had easily dominated. This was the first time she’d ever really gotten to use it to its fullest, and it was like stretching muscles that had been silently aching all her life. As she bobbed and weaved, trying to find an opening in the superhero’s flawless defense, she fought down the growing sense of exhilaration. This wasn’t some friendly sparring match. This was Frost, fucking Frost, and the woman was still smiling at her, still mocking her just like always.
Her inner reserves were slowly but steadily dwindling, spent to keep smashing through the ice that never stopped grabbing at her feet, or burned to provide her with the stamina to keep moving. Kell didn’t have to worry about the ice, but he couldn’t keep going like she could either. Already he looked winded, and Lira could hear his breaths growing heavier. Soon he’d collapse and her power would run out, and it would be over. Lira gritted her teeth. If she kept trying to conserve her power, all she’d do was draw out her defeat. Instead, she let almost everything she had left fill her right hand, and then pushed it at Frost.
Brilliant white light burst forth from her palm in a focused ray. The ice all around caught and refracted the sight briefly, filling the entire room with an almost blinding radiance that made Kell and Frost both wince. For the first time, Lira had managed to catch the superhero genuinely unaware, and the white haired woman didn’t react fast enough to dodge. The beam hit her torso and blasted her straight through the bedroom wall and out into the hallway with a crash.
“Free the others,” Lira told Kell as the light faded from her hand and she slumped, panting heavily. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so little power left. Maybe not since she’d first gotten it. Her body felt heavy and weak, and it was all she could do to stay on her feet.
“Fuck that,” he said, and to her surprise he pulled a gun from his waistband. “I’m gonna finish her off before she recovers.”
“You have your gun?!” Lira asked, startled.
Kell glowered at her. “You think I couldn’t tell she was going easy on us? If she’d seen this before, she’d have smashed us both before I could do more than flip the safety. Had to wait for an opportunity.”
“That’s not what I meant! I told you to stop carrying that stupid thing!”
It had happened during their third robbery, four months ago. Like all the other times, they’d gone at the middle of the night, when the place would be empty, but that time they’d been unlucky and there’d still been an employee inside cleaning up. Kell had started waving that gun around, saying that the guy had seen their faces and needed to die. Lira had almost come to blows stopping him. She was certain that the only reason he’d backed down and let them just tie the employee up was that he knew she’d crush him in a fight, gun or no. After that night, she’d made it clear he wasn’t to bring the gun with him again, ever.
But judging from the sneer on his face now, she guessed he’d just gotten better at concealing it. “Of course I brought the fucking gun,” he said, his tone dripping with contempt. “Because this isn’t a goddamn kid’s game.” He strode out into the hallway, and Lira forced her body to move and follow him.
Frost was sitting up, her back against the wall. The white haired super was clearly injured, her normally pristine suit streaked with red. She was conscious, but made no attempt to rise when she saw Kell approach. “I’d… appreciate if you… didn’t use that,” she said. The woman was breathing hard, and Lira could hear the pain in her voice. “So far all you… you’ve done is some burglary and… a little breaking and entering. Nothing that can’t be… made up for. Murder is a… a big step up. I don’t think you’ll… like the result.”
“Fuck you, bitch,” Kell growled, and leveled the gun at her.
“Don’t!” Lira yelled. She’d barely regained any power since blasting Frost, but she immediately burned it all to tackle the boy from the side. She wasn’t fast enough, though, and he got off three shots before she made contact.
The two of them slammed into the ground, Kell struggling to twist out of her grip. “What the fuck are you doing, you crazy bitch?!” he snarled. “I thought you hated the ice cunt!”
“Doesn’t mean I wanted to kill her, you psycho!” Lira had fantasized about a fight with Frost countless times over the last year. She’d imagined grinding the woman’s face into the dirt, forcing her to admit she was just another worthless celebrity doing cheap stunts to make herself look good. She’d wanted to make her pay for the cruel lie she represented, that there were heroes out there helping everyone in trouble. But the fights in her head had never ended like this.
“Too fucking bad,” Kell said, driving an elbow into her face. Without power to absorb any of the impact, it made her head rock back, and her hold on him loosened enough for him to escape. He scrambled away from her and rose to his feet, picking the gun up from where it had skidded away. “Bitch should’ve minded her own business.”
“That would make my life considerably easier,” Frost agreed from behind them. Lira twisted around to look at the woman as she struggled to stand up. Somehow the super was unhurt, or at least no worse off than before. “But much less interesting, don’t you think?”
Behind Lira, the gun barked twice more. The girl flinched, expecting to see bullet holes and blood, but there were two small thumps as both bullets fell harmlessly to the floor before they reached Frost. Each one was encased in a lump of ice, just like the other three next to them.
Frost actually winked at her when she saw Lira’s stunned expression. “I like to keep that little trick of mine out of the papers,” she said. “Stopping bullets is a much more useful power when people don’t know you can do it.” Another white wave rolled out from her, running along the floor and walls, and this time Lira didn’t have the strength to dodge or break it. It swept up her body, trapping everything but her head in a thick layer of ice.
“Then I’ll just bash your fucking head in,” she heard Kell say. She couldn’t even turn to look at him, but she saw the boy go by, charging at the helpless woman.
Only Frost was far from helpless. A thin pillar of ice burst out of the ground at an angle, catching Kell right in the stomach and halting his advance. Another came out of the wall, smashing into his hand and knocking the gun away. A third struck him in the face, and he collapsed into a boneless heap. All three strikes had occurred in the span of about two seconds.
“I did warn him,” Frost said dryly as she stood up. She looked tired, and was favoring one leg, but she still wore that smile. “I’d heard about him from the man I interviewed, but I was hoping the threats of violence had just been male bluster. Shame.” She turned to face Lira. “I do appreciate the attempt to help though.”
Lira pushed against her bonds, but she was completely immobilized. With enough power she might be able to break free, but that was going to take a while. “Interviewed?” she asked, hoping to stall for time.
“The jewelry store employee whose life you spared. He had some very unkind things to say about that one, but he also told me what you did for him. Between that and what I heard about your powers, I’d been hoping to run into you sooner rather than later. Today was just my lucky day.”
“So what, you were tracking us? That’s how you knew we were up here?”
Frost shook her head. “Oh no, dear. You don’t think you’re the first Aberrants to try breaking into places with their powers, do you? Animite detectors are still fairly rare, but a rich place like this is sure to have one. The hotel staff sent an alert to the police, and once they noticed your little hole in the side of the building, they recognized the MO and contacted me.” She put a hand on Lira’s frozen shoulder. “So what’s your name, child?”
“The hell do you care?” the girl grumbled. “And I’m not a child! I’m twenty years old!”
Frost’s smile widened. “Hello, The Hell Do You Care. My name is Fela, but you can call me Frost if you prefer. Mind if we talk for a minute? You don’t look like you’re in any hurry to leave.”
Her easy grin made Lira’s teeth clench. And how stupid was it that supers still went around making up names for themselves? The tradition had started as a way to conceal their identities, but governments had begun registering all powers powers decades ago, before most supers active today had even been born. Five seconds at a computer could tell anyone what Frost’s real name was. “Is this the part where you tell me how I can still make something of myself? Straighten up, fly right, become a productive member of society?”
The super chuckled. “Am I that obvious?”
Lira spat in the woman’s face, and was pleased to see that all her powers did nothing to stop the spittle from striking her cheek. “Spare me the sanctimonious bullshit. You already won.”
“Not everything is about winning,” Frost said, unperturbed by Lira’s response. “You shouldn’t be wasting your potential on garbage like this, knocking off jewelry stores and breaking into people’s homes. You could do a lot of good out there, maybe even be a super yourself.”
Lira laughed in the woman’s face. “You want me to be a superhero? Find another sucker, bitch. I learned a long time ago that there’s exactly one thing that matters in this world. One. You know what it is?”
“No, but I’m eager to find out.”
“Strength. Who has it, who doesn’t. All you people with shiny abilities, you get to run around calling yourselves heroes and villains, playing your little games. And you know why you get to do that? Because you have power, and power gets to set the rules.” Lira grit her teeth. “Me, I had no power at all before I gained this ability. I was nothing and nobody, and I had to do what everyone else wanted, no matter how painful or disgusting.”
“I’m sorry you-” Frost began, but Lira cut her off. It wasn’t about stalling her anymore, it was about showing this smiling, fake bitch that Lira knew the game too.
“Not one of you,” she spat, “not a single goddamn one of you, cared about what I was going through. And then I became one of you, one of the strong, and look! Suddenly you’re pretending you give a shit about me. Well you can give it a rest. I’m not an idiot. I already know none of you costumed freaks are heroes, and I don’t have to play along anymore like everyone else does.”
“Well,” Frost said slowly, “you’re right about one thing, and wrong about another. I’m not talking to you because of your ability. Don’t get me wrong, it’s rather incredible. Strength, levitation, energy blasts… the last Aberrant I saw who could do all that was Baldur, rest his soul. But the power doesn’t matter as much as the person using it. You’re quick on your feet, you don’t give up easily, and when you thought I was in danger, you tried to help even though I was your opponent. That, more than any fancy aberration, is why I think you’d make a good super. You were right though: none of us are really heroes. God knows I’m not. I’m just a person trying to do her best.”
The way Frost admitted her failing so easily made Lira’s blood boil. “Then why the fuck do you think I’d be dumb enough to want to be like you?”
To her surprise, Frost appeared to genuinely consider the question, tapping her chin as she thought it over. Then her eyes lit up. “Have you ever heard of the starfish parable?” She regarded Lira’s blank expression. “Alright. So a man goes for a walk on the beach one day. It’s right after high tide, and all across the beach, as far as the eye can see in either direction, are all these starfish stranded on the ground. Thousands and thousands of the poor things, all helpless and dying. It’s sad, but…” Frost shrugged theatrically. “There’s nothing he could do to save them all, so he just keeps on walking.
“And then he sees a boy throwing the starfish back into the ocean, plop. The child is so little, he can’t even pick up more than one at a time, but he keeps doing it, running down the beach to toss one into the water, and then back up to grab another off the sand. Plop, plop, plop. The boy’s all out of breath, his face is red, but he keeps on running back and forth, plop plop plop.
“So the man says to the boy ‘Slow down! You’re going to hurt yourself like that, and for what? Look around: it doesn’t matter how many of them you toss in; you could keep doing it all day long, and it wouldn’t make a dent!’
“And the boy doesn’t answer at first. He just picks up another, runs down to the water, and tosses it in. Only then does he look up at the man. He points in the direction of the starfish he just threw, and says proudly ‘It mattered to that one!’”
Lira waited to see if there was more to the story, but Frost seemed to be finished. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she declared. “That’s your pitch for why I should be like you? So I can kill myself fighting for a hopeless cause?”
“No, you see, that’s what I’m trying to explain, “Frost said. “That there’s no such thing as a hopeless cause or meaningless action.”
“Yeah, whatever,” the rainbow haired girl interjected, sick of the woman’s fake friendliness. “And you know, that dumb story of yours agrees with me anyway. All the weak people can’t do anything but lie there in the sand waiting to die, hoping someone with the power to help them takes pity on them. Maybe they’re one of the lucky few to get noticed, but chances are they’re just one of the other thousands. And maybe after the next high tide, the kid is bored of saving starfish, and decides it’s more fun to jump on them and hear the crunch.”
Frost sighed. “Alright, alright, I’ll admit metaphors aren’t my strong suit. Let’s see, how else can I explain what being a super is like?” The elevator door dinged, and the woman swore softly. “I thought we’d have a little more time before the police checked in on us. Now look, just don’t give them any trouble, and I’ll meet you at the station, okay? I imagine you four have no one else who can pay your bail.” She glanced at Kell, still unconscious on the ground. “You three,” she amended. “People who try to kill me can go take care of themselves.”
Lira checked her power. Not nearly enough to break free, not if she wanted enough left to actually get away after. She’d run out of time. In a few seconds the cops would put an animite collar on her, and it wouldn’t matter anymore.
But the men who stepped out of the elevator weren’t police officers. There were five of them, and though they were all dressed in expensive looking suits, they looked like men more comfortable in dark alleys and shady bars than a ritzy hotel penthouse. For the first time, Frost’s smile vanished, replaced by a look of cold hatred. “Cyrus,” she said, giving the word the same intonation as ‘maggot’. “I thought the judge gave you at least nine or ten consecutive life sentences.”
“Fela!” boomed the man in front. His tone was warm, but his eyes sparkled with malice. He had the frame of a professional bodybuilder, and his bald head was lined with old scars. “Never thought I’d be blessed to see our very own Miss Frost in person again! Don’t you worry, I served my time and was released back into society as a fully rehabilitated man. Mr Serafini values people with potential, you see, and had a little negotiation with the state about reducing my sentence.” He spread his arms and smiled widely. “And now I’m his chief of security, which means you and me are on the same side! Imagine that!”
Lira’s face had gone pale, and it wasn’t just the ice freezing her in place. Cyrus Paules was one of the most recognizable people in Chicago, but that wasn’t the name people knew him by. “I knew Serafini was a rat bastard,” Frost said, “but I didn’t realize he was enough of one to want to work with a murdering, raping wretch like you.”
“Former murdering, raping wretch,” said the man who had once called himself Backdraft, one of the most vicious and sadistic supervillains in the world before his defeat and arrest a decade ago. He held up one hand. “Scout’s honor. You can leave anytime you like, by the way. We already informed the police that this was a false alarm. Just one of our security team forgetting the rules and practicing his powers inside the premises.”
“Do you seriously expect me to just leave these children with you, then? You were never a smart man, Cyrus, but I hadn’t pegged you for an idiot.”
“Mr Serafini just wants the opportunity to talk with his guests,” Backdraft said. “They went to such efforts to get in here, it would be a shame not to show them some hospitality.” He grinned, his gaze shifting to Lira. The weight of his eyes made her skin crawl. “Especially when they’re so pretty.”
“Not going to happen,” Frost said firmly. “I wouldn’t trust a dead dog with you, let alone these four. Even the one taking a nap deserves better than that.”
“Aww, don’t be like that, Fela,” Backdraft said, his tone mock wounded. “I’m a changed man, honest. And now that your services are no longer required, you are trespassing on private property. I’m authorized to use any means of force necessary to deal with intruders, you know.”
The temperature in the hallway abruptly dropped several degrees. “I don’t respond well to threats,” Frost told him.
“This is the opposite of a threat,” insisted Backdraft, still smirking. “I’m trying to help avoid a conflict. I’d hate to see that beautiful face of yours marred by burn scars, after all. So just forget about the street rats and call it a day. Oh, and don’t think Mr Serafini isn’t grateful for your assistance.” He pulled a bank card out of his pocket and offered it to her. “Fifty grand, for your cooperation with us.”
Frost hesitated, but Lira already knew what her decision would be. Sure enough, the white haired woman took the proffered card. “Don’t think this means I owe you anything,” she warned, “because it doesn’t.”
“You fucking cunt!” Lira snarled. Knowing that the betrayal was coming didn’t make it hurt any less. “I knew you were just another fucking hypocrite!”
“Of course not,” Backdraft said smoothly, ignoring Lira’s outburst. “We have nothing but gratitude for your discretion. And Mr Serafini is a very generous man. I’m sure there are many ways you could assist his efforts in the city, and you would be well rewarded for all of them.”
“Don’t make me sick,” Frost snapped, but there was no conviction behind her words. “I’m not going to be like one of his dirty cops. This is a one time deal.”
“Certainly. But if you ever change you mind, you know where to find us. Now, were these the only two?”
“No, I’ve got two more iced in the bedroom,” Frost said. “Follow me.” She put a hand on Lira’s ice block. “Might as well bring this one along too.” She pushed, and Lira’s block slid weightlessly across the ground.
Flint and Grace were as trapped as she was, and both looked about ready to faint. “I’m sorry,” Flint squeaked as soon as he saw them. “I’m sorry! I know what we did was wrong! We’ll never do it again, promise!” Grace didn’t speak, but her wide eyes were full of terror.
Everyone was standing between Lira and the others now, their back to her. She might not find a better chance to escape. She flexed her muscles, testing the strength of the ice, and found to her astonishment that it felt thin and fragile. Closer inspection showed that while the ice block looked as thick as ever, the inside had been hollowed out, its sides as thin as paper. As though sensing her discovery, Frost glanced back at her and winked.
Lira felt ashamed at the sudden surge of relief in her heart. So what if the woman hadn’t really betrayed her? She wasn’t doing it out of charity. Frost just knew that a former supervillain like Backdraft couldn’t be trusted, and wanted Lira’s help fighting him. There was nothing but self-preservation behind her decision.
“What the hell is that?” Frost blurted out suddenly, sounding genuinely shocked. She must have noticed the hole in the wall. Lira had a feeling that things were going to come to blows as soon as the super realized exactly what she was looking at. It was now or never.
Lira called up her power, and smashed through what was left of the ice, charging through the surprised security team. Before any of the men could react, she shoved her hands into Flint and Grace’s blocks. Theirs were now as thin as hers had been, and she easily grabbed their hands and hauled them out, physically dragging them as she backpedaled out of the room.
Some part of her screamed that she had to turn around and go help Frost. The woman had been relying on her. She knew she couldn’t take all of them on. But Lira shoved that voice away. She had to look out for herself, and she wasn’t going to risk her life fighting a super like Backdraft and his men, all of whom would be armed, if not powerful Aberrants in their own right. Let Frost see what it was like to beg for help and be ignored.
“Kell!” Grace shouted, scrambling to her feet so she could run instead of being dragged. “He’s still back there!”
“We don’t have time!” Lira shouted back. He was still out cold, and she didn’t have the energy to carry him. Kell would know better than any of them that it would be foolish for everyone to get captured trying to save one of them.
They reached the main room, and Lira made a beeline straight for the hole they’d come through. She could hear feet pounding behind her, though she had no clue if it was Frost or someone else. She didn’t have enough power left to fly, and carefully scaling the wall was out of the question. That only left one possibility.
Grace and Flint both screamed as Lira jumped into the open air. The ground came up to meet them sickeningly fast. She’d have to time this just right…
She pushed her power up at the last possible moment, and felt herself halt in midair, all her motion arrested. A quarter second later her power ran out and they resumed falling. But she’d done it right: they were less than ten feet up, and while the impact sent sharp pain shooting up Lira’s legs, they didn’t feel broken.
The three of them staggered to the car, relieved to find it still there. It took Flint’s shaking fingers four tries to get the key into the ignition, but finally the car roared to life and they sped away, desperate to get as far from the hotel as they could. Lira resisted the urge to look behind her as they went, and tried to tamp down the guilt in her heart. She’d just done what she had to.
Besides, she’d already told Frost that she was no hero.