Cervantes once wrote, “Where there’s music there can be no evil.1”
Conveniently, Linus had stopped playing.
Artume was whimpering, the red from her gashed hand mixing with the spilt cola as Met frantically tried to pry her other hand away to assess the damage. It wasn’t pretty. The portal had cut clear down to the bone. Myriad and Maelstrom were both screaming now, the boy lying prone beside a puddle of his own sick. Adam didn’t know what to do with himself. What could he do? He took a tentative half step forwards, before stopping, hand half raised, useless. Despite the general shouting and panic, Linus acted promptly. He grabbed a clean blanket from the closest hammock, pried Artume and Met’s fingers free and wrapped the linen tight around the wound.
“What happened?” he asked, forcing calm into his voice.
Metonymy answered for Artume. “The portal shut on her—”
Another scream, but muffled. Next to Haunt’s hammock, a pyjama clad leg kicked and twitched, stuck halfway out the wall as if the whole dormitory had been built around it.
Linus shook his head in disbelief. “What the fu—”
Britomart was running over to the leg, panicked. Falling to the floor, she reared her fist back. “Just hold still mate…”
Linus tried rushing over the girl. “Wait, Brit, don’t—”
She struck the wall around Haunt’s leg as hard as she could muster. Normally, that would’ve brought the whole dorm down on them. This time, though, a biting, alien sensation exploded in her knuckles. A sensation she had only ever felt across her back. A shocked, confused sob, and then Britomart was bawling.
Adam looked over to Linus. The teen was running his fingers through his hair, mouthing panicked obscenities to himself as he struggled to even count the theatres of trouble springing up around him. The younger boy made his decision. He straightened his back, put on a brave face, and strode over to Brit.
She was still looking at her hand like it had betrayed her, the grazes on her knuckles starting to bleed. Adam ignored her. Haunt needed his help.
He rested his hand on the wall a few inches away from the other child’s trapped leg. From somewhere within Adam, music was playing. It ran down his arm, the song vibrating through the lines of his palm, just off the beat of his own pulse.
He shoved the song forward, deep into the corrugated steel, and the wall fell away like salt in the rain.
Haunt was finally allowed to fall to the grass outside. Before he could scream from the jolt, Adam exhaled, and Heaven was on his breath. The other boy shuddered as his broken bone snapped back into place like a doll’s leg. Across the dorm, Artume’s cut closed.
Linus sighed. Myriad and Maelstrom were still weeping, and everyone was shaken, but at least the walls weren’t closing in anymore. Mostly because of the hole. “You’re a lifesaver, Adam.”
The young man felt a small, insistent hand tugging at his singlet. Myriad was looking up at him, her eyes raw and far too hazel for that time of night.
Linus drew an arm around her. “It’s alright, Miri, the scary part’s over.”
The girl clung to her. “Linus?”
“I can’t hear anyone.”
Somewhere, far away, a little boy opened his eyes. He was floating, but he couldn’t see the riverbed below him. He couldn’t even feel where the water touched earth or air. All there was to see was green in every direction, sloping down into darkness, the sun a distant sliver above him.
And that salt in his mouth. He’d never tasted it before, but he knew it.
The boy began to weep, his tears lost in the sea.
Arms wrapped around him and held him close. Those arms were the currents themselves. He was home.
Mabel Henderson sat at the edge of the Avon River, watching it twist and turn in its bed: thin, watery tendrils reaching out from the normally flat surface and weakly slithering towards the Institute like primeval worms crawling out from the sea. Clawing, breaking.
It had been doing that since the blackout had started. A week in, it had lost its novelty. Instead, Mabel focused on sketching either her seventh or seven-hundredth lorikeet for the day. Laying down her pencil, she assessed her work.
It was a decent attempt. She had managed to emphasize the shoulders better, and she had finally figured out how to make the tail feathers not look like colourful knives.
Without thinking, she raised her hand, ready to see what her lorikeet looked like in three dimensions.
Mabel closed her hand, gritting her teeth. “I wasn’t trying to use my powers.”
Adam smiled softly. “Everyone’s done it, you know.”
Mabel twisted to face the boy. All three of him. “Everyone besides you, you mean.”
“Not just me!” the triplicated Adam protested. Somehow, they still sounded like one boy. “Żywie and Basil still have theirs.”
She frowned. “Don’t talk about the powers like they’re gone.”
“Sorry. I mean, they can still use their powers, too. Oh, and Tiresias.”
Mabel scoffed, blowing a stray lock from in front of her eyes. “Does Tiresias even use his powers?”
Adam’s fingers throbbed. “I kinda hope not.”
“Aren’t you kinda rubbing it in, walking around, being all three of you?”
Adam(s) scratched the back of his neck. “Lawrence wanted me to make sure everyone was coping. So, then I made these two,” all three of Adam gestured vaguely between themselves, before smiling bashfully, “and I don’t know how to make them go away. Maybe we need to decide who’s the real one first.”
“And your other powers?”
Adam wasn’t sure what the right answer there was, so he just lit his sun in his hand for a moment before snuffing it out again.
“Wizard,” Mabel said, her expression flat. “Absolutely wizard.”
The Adams awkwardly shuffled their feet, glancing at each other like they were trying to settle on a scapegoat. Eventually, one of them sat down besides the younger girl. “Mind if I look at that drawing?”
Mabel mutely passed him the paper.
Adam smoothed the drawing out against the air, nodding slowly. “This is good! The legs and all don’t sticky-out anymore.”
Mabel didn’t look at him. “Great.”
The boy nervously fiddled with his hands. “…You want more drawing help?
After a moment, Mabel deigned him eye contact. “…What sorta help?”
“Well, maybe you could draw me?”
A smile betrayed her. “Big-head.”
“Well, I mean, have you done any people?”
“No. Still on birdies.”
Adams threw his hands up. “Gotta start somewhere.”
“Fine,” she muttered, still refusing to look at him. “If it makes you shush, I’ll draw you. Just sit down over there or something.”
Adam grinned at that, and decided to tease the younger girl.
“Sure you don’t want it to be a nude?”
Adam had a lot to learn about girls. More to the point, he had a lot to learn about this girl. Mabel Henderson had been raised by a single father. In a mining town. And was best mates with Maelstrom.
“Sure,” she replied without hesitation. “Just chuck your shirt and stuff over in the grass somewhere and make sure I can see everything.”
“What?” Adam asked, eyes suddenly rather wide.
“You heard me,” Mabel gave the boy a wink. All three of him. It looked like she might have had dust in her eye.
“… Maybe clothes?” The lead Adam asked, his voice small.
Mabel only laughed at that.
“Yeah. Maybe clothes.”
The next few hours were as uneventful as one could expect during a wonder-outage. She sketched, they talked, she sketched again. So it went, on and on, stick figures becoming the skeletons of full sketches. By the time the model-Adam finally grew tired of sitting still, Mabel had stopped smiling. Her mouth was set in a hard line, her back hunched over around her pad as she worked, the pencil tip scratching slowly over the paper, texturing the scene as it passed.
“Wow,” said the Adam sitting next to her. “Nice one, Mabel. That last one even kinda looks like me.” He squinted. “I think my hair’s more red than orange, though.”
“And it’s not that curly.”
Mabel grinned. “Artistic license.”
“…What’s that mean?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know, Miri said it once. Well, shouted it.” A frown. “You checked on her and David today?”
The three Adams made a diverse assortment of sombre expressions. The one closest to Mabel looked down at the space between his legs. “Yeah. I have.”
Mabel dipped her head slightly, trying to get a better look at the older boy’s face. “Any better?”
Almost imperceptibly, Adam shook his head.
Mabel got to her feet, stretching and gathering up her things. “I’m gonna go see them… you mind walking with me?”
The two (or perhaps four) made their way back up to the Institute, across grass mottled with green and brown. The calendar said there were still a few weeks of spring, but her work was done, and all that was really left was for summer to go out and change the signs.
The heat clawed at Mabel more than any summer she could remember, even in the deep desolation of Circle’s End. It wasn’t any hotter than usual, at least according to the grownups and thermometers she had consulted, but it felt less escapable. Windshear would be summoning no helpful breeze, and Melusine would not be making it rain. And the flies. Swarms of them settled on the Adams’ backs even as they walked. Mabel tried to remember if there was anyone with powers that warded off bugs.
No. There wasn’t. But what else was there to pay attention to?
Children milled around half-completed battlements of gold and limestone like a construction crew after the funding fell through. A few listlessly played soccer. Just soccer. Calcio fiorentino wasn’t meant for human beings.
Windshear staggered up to Mabel and the Adams, swaying between Haunt and Britomart, each supporting a shoulder.
“You alright, Windy?” asked the hindmost Adam.
The little girl glared at him. “No, why would I be okay? Nobody’s got powers, it’s stinking hot, Adam’s cheating, and I can barely walk!”
Mabel tilted her head. “Why’s that? Were you flying all this time?”
“She used her powers to make her sense of balance better,” Brit explained. “Guess she got used to it.”
Windshear half-heartedly elbowed the other girl. “I can still talk.” She looked back at Mabel and Adam. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten what everyone owe—” She slipped out of Britomart’s grip, but Haunt caught her around the chest.
“Maybe you should lie down,” he said.
“…I’m not doing it cuz you told me to.”
“We know, Windy, we know.”
Mabel watched as the three made their way to the Kookaburra dormitory. Haunt stopped dead in front of the door, regarded it oddly, exhaled, and threw it open.
The rest of the campus wasn’t much better. Linus sat on one of Ex Nihilo crystal thrones, trying to thin the malaise with his guitar. But all that came out of it was music, made of sound. Abalone and Talos were trying to coax Ophelia into clapping, hoping it would either dislodge whatever was blocking their powers or provide some distraction. She wasn’t biting, though. Nobody could decide if she lacked Tiresias’ exemption from the outage, or if she just knew the boys wanted her to use her ovation.
Either way, she took after her father.
As they walked, the Adams peeled off to attend to students in need. Fetching Stratogale a drink, finding a torch for Ēōs come nightfall. There was only one left at Mabel’s side by the time they reached the big house.
“You alright on your own from here?” he asked her as they stepped onto the veranda. “There’s a bunch of kids I think could use me.”
Mabel nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be good,” she answered, unsure if she was being truthful.
The inside of the main house was more crowded than usual. What good was sunshine and fresh-air when you couldn’t stir those things into light-tornados? Plus, without powers, the pumpkins had gone from being funny to being in charge. Board-games unexposed to open air since the Ottoman Empire had been dug out of forgotten cupboards. Gwydion and Snapdragon were making fumbling attempts to get Basilisk’s projector up and running.
Mabel couldn’t spare them much sympathy. They were just bored. There were worse things.
She climbed up the stairs, past Żywie pouring over eighteen years worth of notes in her office, past the muffled, nigh-hysteric phone conversation seeping out from under Lawrence’s study door.
“These children need you, Smith! God knows you owe them…”
Mabel almost didn’t notice Melusine curled up on the third story landing. The woman looked down at her with eyes like poorly varnished, painted glass. Her hair, usually artfully dishevelled, looked like a rat-king.
“Oh, hi, Mels,” the girl stammered. “You alright there?”
Melusine rested her face against the handrail. “Comme ci comme ça2,” she said weakly. “Żywie gave me something to help me relax.”
Mabel winced. She could smell her teacher’s breath from the stairs. Rumour was that Melusine had never bothered learning to brush her teeth, instead letting the transition to water carry the plaque away. Evidently there was some truth to it.
“…She gave you what?”
“She put me in a headlock and made me relax. I feel like I should be angrier about that. But I was screaming a bit.”
Mabel nodded slowly. “We were running out of plates. Are Maelstrom and Miri still in Basil’s room?”
Melusine didn’t answer.
“…Tell him I’m here, will you?”
Mabel hurried up past her teacher, patting her on the shoulder as she did. “Promise. It’ll get better, Mels, I’m sure it will.”
Basilisk was playing chess. So was Myriad, ostensibly, but Basil was making half her moves for her. For the most part, the little girl sat across from him, knees tucked up to her chest, glaring.
Basil paused in the middle of moving her rapidly eroding knight. “Just tell me what you want me to do, Miri.”
The door opened. “Can I come in?” asked Mabel.
Basil quickly forced a grin. “Course, Phantasma. Probably should ask before opening the door, but still.” He turned to look at his bed. “Maelstrom, Phantasmagoria’s here!”
In answer, Maelstrom curled tightly around some donated plushies3, making a sound that might have been a word.
His father’s smile faltered, but it held long enough for him to look back at Myriad. “Say hi to Phantasma, Miri.” He hated how patronizing he sounded.
She looked at the man for a long time, narrowing her eyes. “None of this is happening, stop talking.”
Myriad shook her head. “You’re not real. Stop talking.” She blurred out of her chair over to the bed, burying her face in Maelstrom’s side and clutching the sides of her head.
Mabel made to approach her friends, but Basil stopped her. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, love.”
“…She’s really fast.”
Basilisk shrugged. “Pain can do that to people.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Hits harder than you’d think, too.”
“What do you think is wrong with them?”
Her teacher shook his head. “I don’t know. Myriad, I can get my head around. Poor girl’s been crippled and deafened all at once.”
Myriad let out a spiteful, half-hearted groan. “Don’t talk about me.”
“Sorry, sweetie. But David”—He didn’t even realize what name he was using—“I don’t know. None of the other born children are reacting like this. Miri—”
“I said don’t—”
David limply drew an arm around the girl, and she snuggled into him.
“She’s suffering, Phantasma. But she’s still here. She’s angry and hurting, but she’s here. David, I don’t know where he is.” There was a tremor in his voice. “Even Fran’s more with it. Maybe it’s because she’s older. But it’s like David’s been scooped out of himself. And all that’s left is this ache.”
Basilisk slumped back into his chair. “It’s not fair.”
Mabel wasn’t sure she had ever heard a grownup say that. “What’s not fair?”
He rubbed his fingers together. “Do you know what I’m good for, Phantasma? I break things. I make everything I touch fall apart in my hands. I stink of burning metal, all day, everyday.” He pointed towards his son and his erstwhile assistant. “David and his mother? Allison? They make wonders. Hell, they are wonders—right down to their bones. Why do they get that taken away from them, and I still warp the bloody floorboards on hot days?”
“Because you don’t have powers,” Myriad muttered from the bed. “I tried playing your song once. Nothing happened because you’re not like us.”
“Miri!” Mabel cried.
Basil threw his hand up. “She’s hurting, Phantasma. And it’s nothing I didn’t already know.”
Mabel drew up Myriad’s chair. “…Why do you think Żywie and Tiresias still have their powers?”
Basil shrugged. “I’m guessing it’s an esper thing for Tiresias. Żywie… maybe the world just can’t bear being without her? I’d think this just didn’t affect grownups, but then there’s Adam to think about. I think I saw Ophelia floating in the nursery, too.”
“Yeah. What about Adam?”
The inquiry seemed to rouse Basil from his mood slightly. “No clue there. If I had to guess, it could be something here that hasn’t had time to affect him? God knows what AU got up to between those raids; maybe he left something here to drain your powers?” He frowned. “Not sure how much sense that makes. Chen didn’t seem like he was planning on leaving as soon as he did.”
Mabel’s eyes widened. “Basil?”
“Has anyone left the Institute since the blackout?”
Mabel stood up sharply. She almost smiled. “I gotta go. Thanks for talking!” She started towards the door.
“Wait, Phantasma, what are you thinking?”
“It’s alright, I can handle it! Keep looking after David and Allie.”
Basil managed a smile as the door slammed shut. Smart girl, that Phantasma. No wonder his son liked her so much.
David made a low whimper. With a sigh, his father rose from his chair, and lay down on the bed beside him and Allison. He pulled them both in close. Allison fidgeted slightly, but soon went placid. David draped his arms over Basil’s chest.
“I know, I’m not much help,” he said softly, listening to his boy’s hoarse breath. “When have I ever been?”
Arnold and Billy sat in the cool dim of the barn. Partly because the shade was a relief, partly because the barn was theirs and Arnold wasn’t keen to let anyone forget that, but mostly because they were pretty sure the pumpkins couldn’t batter down the doors.
Every few minutes or so, Billy would make vague hand gestures, cupping them or snapping his fingers. He always seemed disappointed by the result.
Arnold looked at the other boy over his contraband G-Men issue. It was an especially rubbish one, where the cheerful jackboots and their pet super went up against a mad-scientist plotting to use a suspiciously American looking statue to transform all mankind into demi-humans. If there was any downside to this scheme, the writers forgot to mention it.
“Billy”—Neither boy saw much of a point in using their new human names without their powers—“if the blackout was over, don’t ‘cha think we’d have heard about it?”
Billy pouted, his tail beating the dirt behind him. “Someone has to notice it first.” He clenched his fist. “It doesn’t make sense. Me still looking like… me, you know?”
Arnold shrugged from the floor. “Maybe your fur and stuff isn’t because powers? Maybe it’s a coincidence?”
Billy crossed his arms. “That’s just silly.”
Arnold went back to his comic—reluctantly. He couldn’t blame Billy for being grumpy. At least he could theoretically walk down the street without being hassled. Not that Arnold was enjoying himself much, either.
It was odd, he thought. He hadn’t been a super for that long, not even a year. He could still remember life without powers. But it didn’t feel the same. It was like there was a hollow under his skin. Still, they were both doing better than David and Allie…
Light slithered into the barn, followed by Mabel slamming the door hard behind her. There was a disappointed hissing noise trailing off into the distance. “Bloody pumpkins,” she said to herself, before addressing the boys. “There you are,” she tossed a couple of water bottles in their general direction. “We’re going for a walk.”
“Umm,” Arnold panted as he half walked, half jogged after Mabel. “Why exactly are we going walking?”
“We’re doing an experiment,” she replied, not breaking her stride. The boys couldn’t help but be a little impressed. Unlike them, she had burdened herself with an overstuffed backpack. Supplies, she said.
“Don’t we need… chemicals or something for that?” Billy asked.
“Not that kind of experiment,” she answered, brusque but not harsh.
That didn’t do much to answer Billy’s question. “What sort of experiment, then?”
“I can’t tell you guys yet, because that might interfere with the experiment,” she rattled off, businesslike. “You’re the…” she dug in her memories of conversations with Lawrence and Miss Fletcher’s classes, “the control group!” That sounded about right.
“Great,” Arnold muttered. “I’m back at Roberts.”
Honestly, he couldn’t complain too much. The weather was nice, and better the spring-green bush than the terrified, morose boredom of the Institute. And whatever Mabel was up to, it had to be more fun than the G-Men.
Soon enough, they reached the river. It was still acting weird. Arnold didn’t like looking at it. The tendrils prying at the earth by the water’s edge reminded him of Maelstrom’s. Except David never had any trouble making the water move, and whatever this was, Arnold couldn’t help but think it was struggling. Mabel caught him gazing down at the water’s surface, and he felt a hand prod him in the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said, her voice small. “They’re gonna be okay, you know?”
“I know,” Arnold answered. “Still, weird.”
Billy crouched down to get a closer look at the troubled water. “Do you think this is a Mels and Mealy thing, or an Adam thing?” he asked. “How many powers does he have now?”
Mabel frowned. “You have a bunch of powers, too.”
The tiger-boy shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be mean about it. But I have like three, and he has, what, fifty?”
“Fifteen,” Mabel said quietly, hoping she wouldn’t be heard.
Arnold was looking across to the river’s far-bank. “So, how do we get across? I can’t even see the stepping stones.”
“We walk,” Mabel answered with a shrug. “Shouldn’t be hard. I tried it when the water started being wibbly. Whatever it is, it’s making it thicker, like a sponge or something. We can probably just walk right over.”
Billy made a face. “That doesn’t sound safe.”
The girl smiled. “What are you worried about? Tigers can swim.”
Billy remembered what Haunt had told him. “And witches float.”
She slapped him on the back. “Damn right!”
Mabel stepped out onto the water first. At first, her feet sank into it and the wet sand as you would expect. But as she walked, and the river rose around her ankles, she managed to pull her feet out of it and step onto the surface, like she were extricating herself from a jelly mold. Soon, she was treading the river, watching it mold itself around her feet like a deep carpet.
“… This feels so weird.”
From the shoreline, Billy giggled, before running out after her, followed by a somewhat more dubious Arnold.
It was more a messy crossing than a hard one. Tendrils and blind, rogue wavelets would splash against them, or their feet would break through the wobbly, fragile surface. Arnold didn’t even want to think how it must have felt for the fish.
Eventually, they slogged their way onto dry land again, half drenched.
“We coulda just swimmed you know,” Arnold mumbled, ringing out his shirt while Billy tried to shake his fur dry.
“Nah,” Mabel said. “It would’ve been like trying to swim through fudge or something.”
“Or worms,” Billy agreed. “So now what?”
Mabel pulled the straps of her bag tight. “We walk.”
The bush was alive. Young insects buzzed and danced with dust motes, rushing to fit a whole life into the days and weeks they had to spare, dodging the magpies and kookaburras that shouted and snatched them out the air4.
As they walked, Arnold couldn’t help but spot scars from the great lad-hunt; the ones spring hadn’t managed to heal over. Scorch marks, shards of exotic crystal, the odd rotting doll being mined out by convoys of ants. Long, bare stretches that betrayed the ghosts of trees. It made Arnold feel queasy.
Maybe we deserve it.
“Are we allowed out here?” Billy asked, trying to resist the urge to lick himself.
Mabel shrugged. “Not really, I think. But it’s the kind of not-allowed that’s alright most of the time?”
The girl frowned at him.
“Just shush up and trust me on this, kay?” She grumbled. “Lawrence’ll be totally okay with it if I’m right. We might even get ice cream for dessert. For a month.”
“Promise it might help?”
Arnold hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
“Okay. I’m in. You’re the smart one, right?”
“Yup,” she nodded. “Totally.”
They walked on for a while. It was getting late enough that Arnold and Billy both feared not being back in time for dinner, not that they could keep close track of time without watches. That late in the year, daylight stretched well into the evening. Made bedtime rather frustrating.
“Mabel?” Arnold asked.
“How do we know if the experiment doesn’t work?”
“When we circle the world and walk back onto the Institute.”
“Okay… why do you think Allie lets David near her like this and not me?”
“Like this?” she asked. “… Like what?”
“All sad and scared I mean. And angry. At everything. Except David.”
“Maybe you’re the friend she wants to be happy with?” Mabel tried, unable to make it sound like she believed it.
“She’s happy with David, too. All the time. Really, really happy. Kinda makes me wanna vomit happy. You see those two in the river? Weird.”
“… Dunno,” she admitted. “Think it’s the same reason that David won’t be like that with me?”
“What? You two are so friends. Weren’t you his only friend for a while there?”
“I was,” Mabel said, kicking at a stone. “So why’s she the special one now?” She looked away, totally not drying her eyes.
“I know, right? I was her friend back when she was just the weird pale girl yammering about songs or whatever, I got her out of the asylums, and now it’s all ‘David, David, David!’,” he finished in a whining falsetto.
“… I wish he’d just be mean one time,” she mumbled. “Then I’d be allowed to be angry at him.”
“That’s what I don’t get!” Arnold nearly shouted. “They’re not even the same. David’s all nice till he hurts and Allie’s all…” He was almost glad for a second his friend was currently powerless. “She’s… not that?”
“It’s called being a bitch,” she sniffed. “Or a cow.”
“Mabel!” Billy cried.
“You can’t say stuff like that!” Arnold hissed. “…God’ll hear you.” Or his mother. Same thing, really.
“I don’t care! David’s too good for her!”
“Maybe that’s why he needs Allie?” Billy suggested.
Mabel looked at him. “What?”
“I mean, David’s nice, yeah, but does it ever make him happy?
Mabel dug her heel into the dirt. “…Not really.”
Billy nodded. “So he needs mean lessons. Or someone to be mean for him, I don’t know. Haunt could probably explain it better?”
“But what does Allie get out of it?” Arnold asked, glaring at the other boy.
He thought about it for a moment. “…Someone who’s okay with her being a meanie sometimes?”
“But that was me!” Arnold wailed. “Even when she was making fun of my stupid Bible lunch bags! Sometimes we were mean together! Like with Petey Binks!”
The other two just looked at him expectantly.
Arnold rolled his eyes. “He had a lazy eye and warts. And he smelled like hay all the time, it was weird. What I mean is, I didn’t care Allie wasn’t always nice.”
Billy quirked his shoulders. “Then maybe she just likes water.” He turned and started walking again, continuing, “I don’t think people like other people just because they can get something of them, anyway. Haunt likes me, I think, and all he gets out of me is gold and jewels.”
Mabel and Arnold exchanged a look. “Billy…” the girl said.
“I can make jokes too! And you two are whingeing about people having more than one friend, so shush!”
They trudged along, Billy taking the lead. But Arnold couldn’t let it rest. “It’s just—it’s lonely, you know? Allison’s the only person left I really, really know. I don’t know how much she really liked me, or if it was just my song, but it felt like she liked me.”
“I like you,” Mabel said, slowing her pace till she was beside Arnold.
“The way you like corned beef, I bet,” he grumbled.
She giggled. “No, not the way I like corned beef. That’s just okay. You’re sponge-cake.”
“Because you’re great! You were like, sixty-zillion of the reasons The Tempest turned out so good.”
“…A supervillain tried to kill us5.”
“Did you invite him? I’m serious, Arnold. Doing the play with you, it felt… different than with David. I mean, he had fun too, but you got it.”
“I still think we shoulda charged for tickets.”
Mabel slipped her hand in his. It didn’t feel half-bad there. “Next time, executive-producer.”
For some reason, Arnold stood a little bit straighter.
As they walked, Mabel seriously pondered when they ought to turn back. Part of her said “never”, even if they did get their powers back. Maybe even more so if they did. They could just keep walking, and leave Lawrence and the Institute and his married days behind. Find a Daddy Warbucks to adopt them, or failing that, a nice old couple, like Superman’s mum and dad6. Or Arnold’s folks. Did she have any uncles or aunties left?
It suddenly occurred to Mabel that if she did, they probably thought she was dead. Then she noticed Billy had stopped a few paces in front of them. The boy was shuddering slightly, like someone had poured ice-water down the back of his shirt.
“What’s up?” Mabel asked.
He said nothing. Instead he raised his hand, a perfect bulb of quicksilver blooming in his palm.
The other children sprinted to join him. It was like coming down the mountain into warm, thick air. A weight they didn’t even know was there had been lifted off both their shoulders.
Arnold was laughing, his voice crackling and popping with thunder. Billy was making it rain confetti from a mirrored stormcloud.
Mabel, meanwhile, reached into her backpack with that odd, sightless sight, into the scrapbook nestled within.
A lady astronaut with a fishbowl helmet appeared before her, frowning when she caught sight of the girl. “Not this again.”
“My name is—” The star-woman grunted as the little girl slammed into her waist.
“I’ve missed you…”
Reflexively, the astronaut stroked her tormentor’s hair.
“Is that what the experiment was for?” Arnold asked once he’d stopped scattering trees across the country.
Billy was fading in and out of visibility, but he did manage to get some words in. “You could’ve told us!”
Mabel let go of her summon. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up!”
Having gotten the pent-up lightning out of his system—and created a new clearing—Arnold glanced from his phosphorescent hands to where they had come from. Cautiously, he treaded back towards the Institute.
After a few steps, the light in his skin died. Then he jumped backwards, reigniting before his feet hit the ground again. “…Weird.”
Mabel looked at the astronaut.
The girl walked slowly past Arnold.
The astronaut gasped, disappearing in a puff of pastel dust.
“Poor thing,” said Billy.
Mabel stepped back over what she was already thinking of as the Line. The astronaut resumed existence, panting. “God. That was even worse than normal.”
Both of Billy’s friends looked at him.
Mabel sat down in the dirt, rubbing her chin. “So it’s not something inside us,” she thought aloud. “It’s something around the Institute. What’s changed since—”
She vanished in a blast of green light.
Billy gawked at Arnold. If he was going to say something, he didn’t get it out before he joined his friend.
Alone, the lightning-clad boy looked toward the wrong side of the Line, and sighed.
Then he ran.
1. Cervantes having lived and died well before the invention of Florence Foster Jenkins.↩
2. “So so.”↩
3. Including Miss Fluffers.↩
4. As dreary as the blackout was for the Avon Valley’s posthuman population, for the first time in over ten years, its birds knew freedom.↩
5. As Lawrence had insisted afterwards.↩
6. It wouldn’t be the first time Mabel Henderson found herself sobbing into Pa Kent’s lap.↩