[Word count: 4437]
Missy had retired from the super hero business almost as soon as the cape had settled on her shoulders.
Everything about their world from the mystique to the daring deeds had fascinated her in her youth, had drawn her in until she was spending her nights at unnamed bars and hidden eateries, covertly eavesdropping on the hushed conversations.
And then she’d gotten too close.
The details of her kidnap and the experiments that she’d undergone had been relayed to the relevant authorities and then buried in her mind. Friends and family were given the watered down version of events. But she couldn’t forget the ability that experience had left her with.
Using it for good hadn’t worked, and her disillusionment with the hero profession had been swift and painful.
Seated at the counter of her favourite dumpling shop Missy ignored the colours wavering at the edges of her sight. The dish boy was obviously having some sort of debate with himself, and the shade of his aura swung rapidly from sky blue to a dark red-brown as his mood shifted. She couldn’t tell what emotions the colours represented but the sight of such internal conflict always turned her stomach, so she kept her eyes on her plate.
Bells tinkled as another customer pushed through the curtained shop front.
The shop’s owner and dumpling chef emerged from a back part of the store, her white hair tied into a severe bun atop her head. She had been middle aged when Missy had started eating there but now her sharp black eyes peered from between a multitude of wrinkles that had grown over the years, while Missy herself now had her fair share of grey hairs scattered through her brown waves.
“Three pork buns,” the new arrival said, taking a stool some distance from her.
Looking over, and up, Missy understood why. If Okl sat next to you meeting his eye was impossible without cricking your own neck.
The giant grinned at her, “You’re in here every day.”
“Every week,” she corrected.
Okl’s aura tinged the air around him rose-pink, but it warmed to apricot as the chef brought his order, a colour change that Missy had concluded meant pleasure. Starting his meal with gusto he made sure to swallow each mouthful before talking to the chef who had lingered to chat.
Missy wasn’t offended that the old woman hadn’t come out to talk to her; the chef knew her customers’ different eating preferences and left alone those who liked to eat in silence. Missy only half listened to their conversation, gleaning nuggets of information about old acquaintances.
For a while after hero-ing she’d sold stories to the papers about the world she still lingered in. She’d written daily recaps of the successes and failures she heard about in the hero hangouts, never anything incriminating or private, but soon her editors had started pressing for more. She knew these people, even some of their secret identities, couldn’t she dish on that?
She’d quit immediately.
Movement caught her eye as Okl fumbled in his jeans pocket for something, his face contorting with focus.
“I’d appreciate it if you took a look,” he said, handing a folded piece of paper to the chef.
She scanned the page, “Never seen them, but I’ll watch. They may come through.”
As she handed the page back Missy could see it was a printout of a photo, what looked like a still of CCTV footage. A slightly blurred figure seemed to hover half a metre off the ground in the middle of what looked like a foyer.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Okl’s aura was briefly overcome with a deep ocean blue; surprise.
“I’m looking for this person,” he said, handing the photo to her for a closer look. “Do you remember that lab explosion last week? At the Biological Magics clinic?”
She nodded, “Someone got caught in the blast?”
“A few someones,” he grimaced, “But one of the students survived. This was taken as they left the hospital this morning.”
“I guess they never used to levitate like this huh?”
“Never showed any magical inclinations.”
Missy tightened her jaw. She understood why he was trying to find them.
Even with the support of the older heroes of her time she had turned her back on their ideals; with no support at all the sudden emergence of powers could really screw with this kids head. The realisation that most villains were people who didn’t know how to handle their powers had been a big part of her own decision to stay out of it.
Okl pocketed the photo once she’d handed it back to him and stacked his dishes, “Thank you for the buns.”
Rising he brushed the ceiling with his sandy blonde hair.
The room seemed duller in the wake of his aura, the gold sparkles in the air around the chef more evident. Missy had never seen an aura like it, and had never asked what it meant. She wasn’t sure she’d like to know.
After she’d quit her job with the newspaper Missy had tried to find work that didn’t affect her condition.
She’d thought that being a clerk at a library would be peaceful, but she hadn’t counted on the wild emotional swings that the readers were experiencing. What looked to anyone else like a group of people reading quietly on couches was to her an ever shifting jumble of colour and light.
She’d studied floristry but had no eye for such things. Her teacher, a kindly older gentleman with broad shoulders and a broader smile, had accepted her resignation with grace and sent her flowers once a month there-after.
The bouquets had cheered her through a misguided and short lived stint as a kitchen hand as well as the extended recuperation time she’d had to take afterward. Even once her eyes had recovered from the onslaught of high-strung hospitality workers Missy had taken life at ease, sleeping late and spending her days with friends.
Boredom had built beneath her skin at last and she’d returned to the world of print, writing the fishing reports for one of the papers, The Bayside Daily.
Collecting the day’s numbers from the harbour master as she did every afternoon Missy wandered along the water front to the tram stop, enjoying the stiff breeze even as it blew her hair across her eyes. The thick bundle of papers, one page from each fishing vessel that’d gone out that day, swung in a basket at her elbow. All she had to do was summarise the information, which usually took not-quite-the-length of her tram ride to the newspapers office uphill from the docks.
It was an easy job.
As she pushed through the glass doors of the office, the afternoon sun glinting red off the reflective surface, the noise of many excited voices reached her first. Forewarned she squinted through the barrage of vibrant variegating colours filling the lobby.
“What’s happening?” she asked as she gave her file to the receptionist.
“Two villains are fighting on top of the old wall,” he told her with a grin, a swirl of honey and lavender tingeing the air around him.
A herd of photographers exited the elevator and raced each other to the door, equipment cases bouncing at their sides.
“What a cool job,” the receptionist said, watching them go.
“Why don’t you do it then?”
He wrinkled his nose, “I’d rather not be killed by a falling building, or targeted for revealing a secret identity.”
“Valid concerns I suppose,” she said before heading home.
Rich scents of spices and too many warm bodies competed for space in her nostrils as she made slow progress through the crowd.
In the open street cold breezes blew in from the harbour, biting in the shade between the buildings, but the low ceiling of the Barra Road marketplace held in the warmth of the many moving customers.
“Freshly ground spice, none of that dusty old pre-ground here,” a merchant brandished a handful of bright yellow power at her.
“Ignore him, he puts the fresh ground on top of his old shit to cover it up, see the colour difference with what’s in the jar?” said the woman at the stall next to him, leaning over her counter with a sly grin to watch his response.
“Salacious lies,” the man said eyes wide with outrage. “No more than I’d expect from a crap pedlar like you.”
“You know you short weight anyone who isn’t paying attention.”
Despite their words their auras were calm and Missy left them to their fun.
The stall she was looking for was in the middle of the market and took up the space of four regular shops. Dark curtains blocked the sides and kept out other scents so that customers could smell the exquisite tea blends sold within. Strings of small stones shone a golden light over the interior which was lined with shelves. Large identical jars filled them, brimming with assorted plant parts and labelled neatly. One long narrow table in the centre held large glass water dispensers that had been filled with different teas to sample, but Missy didn’t need any of that.
Opening the jar labelled Headache Tea she breathed deep, the smell of the blend soothing on its own. Migraines had plagued her since she’d started seeing emotions, although the exact cause couldn’t be found. She suspected the ability itself caused them by adding more visual stimuli.
From the front counter of the stall she could watch the stream of passers-by as she waited for the clerk to weigh her order.
“Oh shit,” she said, jaw going slack.
She hadn’t expected to find the kid.
Ducking into the crowd before she lost sight of them she ignored the calls of the clerk behind her. She could return for the tea.
Pushing past dawdling shoppers she tried not to make a fuss as she tailed her quarry, eyes keen on the back of their head as she tried to differentiate their aura from the others crowding the air around them. When she did pick it out she wished she hadn’t.
Purpled black through muddy green to yellow and back again, their aura was the colour of a bruise. More worrying were the occasional flashes of brilliant white that randomly overcame them, obscuring their body from view now that she was focused on it.
Following the aura was easier than following the person and she drifted behind them trying to think of a plan.
She didn’t know what they were capable of; they could levitate which wasn’t that bad but what if they were telekinetic? She’d heard horror stories of uncontrolled telekinesis. Too bad she didn’t have super strength or something more useful.
Nearing the edge of the market she didn’t have a plan and the crowd began to thin. Dropping further back she paused at a stall front, but they were walking fast and she didn’t want to lose them. Who knew where they’d turn up next. Reaching the street she averted her eyes and kept pace as they followed a road leading up the hill. Missy dawdled as far behind as she could, walking calmly as though she were headed home.
The bright flashes in their aura acted like a beacon.
The streets grew narrower and emptier as they meandered up the slope until only the two of them remained on their path. She knew she’d been noticed by a red tinge of warning.
The teen turned down an alley way.
Missy walked by, keeping to the main road without so much as looking down the path.
Circling the block at a jog she hoped to catch sight of them on the other side, and maybe stay out of sight herself. But the street on the other side was empty; she guessed they must have run as well.
Tightening her jaw she walked on at a calmer pace as she lost herself in thought. They hadn’t been wearing shoes. Carefully she went over remembered details of the person she’d been following; from their shoulder length black hair, far messier than it had been in the CCTV photo, to their dirt crusted bare feet they were the very image of a runaway. So they hadn’t returned to their home, maybe to protect their family, maybe to avoid being caught.
Where were they sleeping? A cool breath of air flowed around her, chilling after her brief jog. While the days were mild this late into winter the nights got cold as soon as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the west.
Looking around she was further north than she had expected, almost under the red stone cliff faces that bordered the city in that direction. She knew the neighbourhood well enough. Many small canals had been built to channel the water that seeped from the cliffs, often diverting through parks to water the gardens and trees. The first twinges of a migraine paused her thinking.
She still had to buy tea.
Walking back toward Barra Road she put the runaway teenager from her mind as the headache grew.
Opening the curtains at last Missy was glad when the sunlight didn’t hurt her. The migraine had lingered for two days, probably because she had focused so hard trying to follow that strange flashing aura.
Her small upstairs balcony, adorned with succulents, had a narrow view between buildings and over tree tops of the harbour below.
She watched the white triangles of sails skip in and out of sight as they avoided the large quartz outcropping that glittered in the middle of the bay. As a child she’d had a book of folk tales that she’d read before bed, and it had included a cautionary tale about the crystal island but she couldn’t remember the details. Briefly she wondered if the book were still at her mother’s house.
The crisp late winter breeze was heavy with salt as it blew her hair about. Warmth of ginger from her tea helped clear the fuzziness from her head as she sat at her narrow table watching the view, a plan forming. She had a theory about where the runaway had been sleeping, but first she had to eat breakfast. Her stomach gurgled unhappily. Luckily the best croissants in Carmine were made just down the road from her.
Nibbling a pastry she made for Barra Road.
Walking through the streets to where she had lost the kid Missy hummed tunelessly, enjoying the peace of the early morning before many people were on the streets. With only a few auras to look at the wavering colours didn’t hurt her eyes.
Less overall strain meant that she was able to make out the dimmer auras of animals, those of mammals most visible to her eyes. Every now and then an aura would cross her vision without anyone there to produce it, sometimes moving too high off of the ground to be an invisible person walking the streets. She always ignored these.
Missy followed the same alleyway her quarry had gone down last time, thinking over what she knew of the surrounding streets. Her mental map was a little sketchy, but she thought she remembered where the closest park was.
Green spaces both large and small dotted the city, the many communal gardens and orchards supplementing what the populace grew for themselves at home. Every residence, even the smallest apartment, was built with a garden bed included in honour of an ancient deity.
Her own green thumb had never developed, and all of her attempts at growing her own food had failed miserably. Only the succulents could survive her.
The park, when she found it, was small.
A short grassy lawn, mottled with the darker green of clover, spread from the foot of a large mulberry bush down to a line of pave stones that bordered the canal on one side. Dwarfed fruit trees and smaller berry bushes took advantage of the sunnier borders of the park where the mulberry didn’t hoard the space.
Wandering down to the water Missy groaned, hips creaking as she lowered herself to sit on the stones with her feet dangling well above the water line. The canals were built deep to handle the summer rains, but the water level was low at this time of year.
Watching the light dance on the surface of the stream she ignored the shadows moving on the ground beside her as someone crossed the lawn. They hesitated, probably debating whether or not to just push her in the ditch and be done.
She watched the play of light.
Someone sat down on the lip of the canal, more than arms reach away. The flashing of their aura shone in her peripheries.
“Why were you following me?”
She chewed her tongue, wondering how to respond.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she said the thought that had been circling her mind since she’d seen the photo.
“I’m doing what wrong?” they asked, pitch rising with indignant volume.
“Running away won’t make what happened go away; it just takes you away from the people who can help you.”
“No one can help me; you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe, and maybe, but you haven’t really given anyone a chance to try.”
“What do you know about it?”
It sounded more like an accusation than a question, but she pondered it anyway.
“Not much in the scheme of things I suppose,” she admitted. “But I had something sort of similar happen to me when I was a bit older than you.”
“You’re a super hero?” they didn’t sound impressed.
“Uh, no,” she said. “The cape never sat right, and I decided that just being me and coping with the things I can do is good enough.”
They thought about that for a moment, their legs swinging against the stonework.
“What can you do?”
“I see emotional auras,” she said, using the confident tone of voice she saved for terminology she had invented herself. “It’s a colourful cloud around every person that changes depending on their mood.”
“So you know how I feel?” they asked, voice dulled with scepticism.
“No,” she said, considering her words. “Not everyone has the same colours for the same emotions, so I have to get to know people before I can be sure, but I’m still guessing even then. More than anything I can tell when emotions change.”
“That’s how you knew I knew I was being followed?”
“So what do I look like now?”
She’d avoided looking at them full on, unsure how her eyes would respond to the repeated strain, but they needed an answer.
“You look confused,” she said, turning to examine the colours.
They were even more mottled than they’d been two days ago.
“Purple, green, and yellow, you look bruised,” she winced, “And there’s these weird bright flashes that I have no explanation for.”
They looked away first and she turned back to the water to rest her eyes.
“I float,” they offered after a moment’s silence.
“I saw a photo from the hospital.”
“The air gets hot around me when it happens, and things shake.”
She clenched her jaw. She didn’t know enough about how these things developed, only her own limited experience.
“That sounds like, a few things to be honest,” she said. “But I know some people who might be able to help us figure it out.”
“Worse,” she said, grinning. “Super heroes.”
They pulled a face.
“Someone might be able to tell you what to expect, how to control it.”
“I just want it to go away but they said at the hospital that they can’t do that.”
“What’s your name?”
They looked up warily, “Theo, yours?”
“Missy. And I know you want it gone but controlling it is the best you’re going to get, at least until medicine makes some more advances.”
Theo pulled a face, obviously not convinced as the mottling on their aura shifted more rapidly, the bright flashes coming with more frequency.
“Once you can control it you don’t have to use it,” she said.
“But, won’t the heroes want me to be one of them?”
“Who gives a shit what they want?”
A bark of a laugh escaped Theo’s mouth before they clamped a hand over it.
“I’m serious, they can’t make you do anything you don’t want to, it’d be against their whole hero good stuff code.”
“They accepted it when I quit, and I wasn’t too gracious about it either.”
She could see their indecision in their aura and on their face.
“Look, why don’t you come to the dumpling house and see who’s there? We can leave if you don’t like anyone, and I won’t tell anyone where I found you.”
Theo kicked their heel against the wall.
Missy waited until they nodded before getting to her feet with a groan. Standing next to Theo she found them smaller than she thought.
“You’re scrawny, we need to feed you.”
Theo just poked out their tongue.
A neat stack of emptied plates sat on the counter before Theo as they tucked into the fried octopus dumplings the chef placed in front of them. Missy had introduced them to the dish on their first visit and it had quickly become a favourite. It was their fifth visit to the dumpling house, and in five days time they had yet to meet a hero that Theo had liked.
Okl was notably absent.
They had taken to the dumpling chef, however, and the two of them happily chatted over tea during every visit. Missy had even spotted the chef slipping the young vagabond extra treats when she thought no one was looking, and her heart warmed as every act of kindness lessened the tumultuous colours of Theo’s aura. That the golden sparkles around the chef had grown brighter in response to Theo’s own white flashing was puzzling, but she mentioned it to neither of them.
Putting her plate atop Theo’s pile she turned to them.
“If you don’t find anyone you like today will you let me set you up at a hotel?” she asked.
Theo shook their head, earning a frown in response. They’d refused to tell Missy anything about their family and refused to go home until they’d reached some kind of solution.
They rolled their eyes, “I like where I am.”
“Really?” she asked, using the same tone of disbelief they often spoke with.
A slight flush warmed their cheeks and their eyes darted to the chef. The old woman was already carrying their plates to the sink and returning to wherever it was she kept herself when she sensed the need for privacy.
“People who work in places like these learn to keep their mouths shut,” Missy said.
“Places like what?”
“Places where the clientele occasionally have deadly secrets.”
Their eyes darted to the dish boy, who focused as though the washing up were his whole world.
“The mulberry bush holds me down if I start to float away at night.”
Missy blinked. She hadn’t thought of that.
“You can’t sleep under bushes your whole life.”
“Why not? I have a blanket.”
“What about when it rains? Summer might be warmer but it’s also wetter”
“I, there’s, some bushes are really thick.”
“Uh-huh, wouldn’t it be better to figure out an alternative, maybe a net over a bed?”
Theo scowled, “You haven’t found out what’s going on with me yet.”
She sighed and dropped the subject. She’d found that Theo could be unreasonably stubborn when they dug their heels in, and the brightening of the green in their aura seemed to correlate with that mood. It was better to think of a new way of framing the topic before broaching it again.
Bells tinkled on the curtain and Okl took a seat at the end of the counter.
“You ask me to find someone for you and then you disappear for a week,” Missy snapped at him, watching as purple and blue washed through his aura.
“Thank you?” he asked, shoulders cowed. Sheepishly he grinned at Theo.
“Where were you?” she asked, calming after her outburst.
“Hospital,” he held up his arm, covered in a plaster cast.
“Oh shit, what happened?”
“Don’t swear,” he said, eyes widening in horror as he looked from her to Theo.
They poked out their tongue.
“What happened?” Missy repeated as the dumpling chef brought out three pork buns without his having asked.
Okl smiled his thanks, “Oh, I fell off a roof while chasing one of those water lizards.”
“Why- never mind,” she rubbed her eyes, “I don’t want to know why you do the things you do.”
He grinned at her, “That may be wise.”
Glancing at Theo she was a little surprised to find a small smile on their face as they looked up at the man. They had taken an immediate dislike to every other hero who they’d met.
“Why were you chasing the lizard?” Theo asked.
Okl blinked in surprise, “It was injured.”
“Did you find it?”
“I took it to a vet,” he said, nodding.
“After you fell off the roof?”
“Well,” he blushed, “It was hurt too.”
Missy put her forehead on the counter. This man’s logic was too much.
“Okay,” Theo said.
“Okay what?” Missy’s voice came out muffled.
“Okay he’ll do.”
She sat up straight, “He tells you about how he fell off a roof and went to the vet before the hospital, and you decide that he’s responsible enough to teach you?”
“Were we looking for someone responsible?”
Missy tightened her jaw, resisting the urge to storm out. “Okay. Okay that’s that,” she said once she’d calmed down.
“You don’t sound pleased?” Okl prompted.
“Never mind,” she said. “I’m just a bit frazzled, it’s been a long week.”
“So can you help me figure out what’s going on?” Theo asked him.
“I can try.”
They hesitated, cocking their head to the side as they looked him over. Under inspection he straightened in his seat and grinned broadly.
“Good enough I guess.”
Missy breathed a sigh of relief. Being responsible for a wayward teenager had been wearing on her.
“You’ll still visit me right?” Theo asked, guessing her thoughts.
“You’re not staying in the park?” she demanded.
“No no, you might have been on to something with the net idea, but, you’ll be around?”
Missy shrugged, “I’m here at least once a week.”
Grinning and thanking her Theo followed Okl out to the street and was gone.