Every time Faiza visits Grandma, she looks at the ledge outside the flat's living room window. She loves watching the pigeons, how they strut and peck, and how their wings seem to flap backwards as they land.
Today, she ducks out of the hugs and kisses and runs across the room, pressing her face against the glass. Something is different about the birds, she sees after watching for a moment. Some of them still gather on the ledge, but two keep flying in and out of the gap between the downpipe and the neighbour's balcony. Pushing right into the corner, half behind the open curtains, she can see a few sticks and a bit of mud poking out.
It's a nest, she decides. I bet there's baby chicks in it. She peeks out from behind the curtains. Mum and Dad have gone into Grandma's kitchen for tea, and even if they look out to check on her, they won't be able to see this corner.
As quietly as she can, she opens the window and crawls out onto the ledge. She thought she'd be afraid, but she isn't. She finds more than enough space for a skinny five-year-old to crawl along. It's really just like that board in the playground back home, only a bit narrower. She doesn't look down.
The cement feels rough, and she quickly realises that she's going to get white droppings on her hands and knees. She thinks they're stinky and kind of gross, and worries that Mum will yell at her. Maybe she can look at the nest really quick and get back and wash them herself.
One of the pigeons squawks angrily and flies up as she carefully peers around the pipe. Three tiny white eggs nestle amongst feathers and bits of string in the centre of a stack of sticks and mud. She doesn't think this is quite as good as chicks, but it's still pretty neat.
It's when Faiza reaches around the pipe to touch the eggs that she first looks down.
The wall seems to stretch forever in a straight line of bricks and concrete. She can see seven other ledges before the pavement, and they all seem far too narrow for anyone to crawl on.
Then she realises that she can't turn around. She'll have to crawl backwards to return to the window. She tries to look over her shoulder, to see how far she has to go, but that tips her balance alarmingly towards the edge. She freezes, leaning in against the wall, and bites her lip hard. I'm not going to cry, she tells herself. Crying won't get me back.
Only now she can't seem to lean away from the rough bricks next to her, let alone start to shuffle backwards. She hasn't looked again, but she can still vividly see exactly how far down it is. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries moving her left knee back, just a little, but she can't do it.
She stays there, frozen, mind skittering from one idea to the next.
When she hears the voice, it doesn't startle her, or seem intrusive, even though it's inside her head. Do you need some help there, Faiza? it asks, sounding sweet and pure, and touched with her mother's light Pakistani accent. It seems perfectly natural that it knows her name.
Faiza finds herself relaxing, a little at least. "Where are you?" she asks.
"I'm just over here," says the same voice, out loud this time and coming from her right. Faiza cautiously opens her eyes and looks around, though not down. A woman floats there, dressed in red, white and blue with beautiful flowing sleeves. Faiza can't see her face behind the Union Jack mask, but her eyes are blue and her long hair a vibrant lavender.
Faiza knows who she is, of course, everyone does. "No thank you, Captain Britain," she says, pleased with how grown up she sounds, even if her voice is high and shaking a little. "I can get back by myself."
Captain Britain's lips purse, and she hovers a little closer. "Are you sure?" she asks. "I can fly you right back to the window. Wouldn't you like to fly?"
Flying is the second last thing Faiza wants to do right now. The last thing is needing rescue from Captain Britain. When she and the other girls play at being superheroes, she's always the rescuer, never the victim. She's even made up a story about how she helps Union Jack defeat a dragon. "No thank you, Captain," she says again.
The woman shakes her head slightly, but says, "All right, Faiza. Do you mind if I stay next to you until you get back?"
Faiza is too busy squeezing her eyes shut and concentrating on her left leg to answer. There, she moves it back a little, only a few inches, but she's not frozen any more. As if that snapped her free, she finds that she can move her other leg too, and even stop pressing against the wall.
An inch at a time, she creeps backwards, the superhero floating silently beside her. She can't figure out how she seemed to take only a minute to reach the downpipe, but now it's taking forever to get back. Finally, her stockinged foot brushes the edge of the window, and Captain Britain says, "Almost there." Faiza can hear a smile in her voice.
Sliding backwards across the sill, she finally looks up at Captain Britain again. "You can go save someone else now," she says.
"I don't know," the Captain replies, tilting her head towards the room behind Faiza, "You may still need me."
Faiza doesn't have to turn around to realise that her parents are standing there.
"I change my mind," she says. "I want to go fly now."
Captain Britain grins and takes off into the grey sky with a whoop.
Usually, Faiza's in the emergency department (just a year left to go on her StR, Insha'Allah), but the running battle outside is keeping better than half of day staff from making it in, and everyone else's been shuffled around to cover. She's ended up minding after Doctor Kemp's recovery ward, and the adjoining private room with its very special stroke patient.
"Can you see what's going on?" the blue woman asks.
Faiza glances at the chart, but it only lists "Nocturne," which she already knows. "Not from here, but when I came down from Ward B, I saw Captain Britain fly by carrying Dazzler."
"I should be with them." Nocturne tries to swing out of bed, but her left side keeps giving out on her. After the third try, she flops back across the bed with an inarticulate yell.
"Hey," Faiza says, gently taking her good hand. Doctor Kemp had called in to warn that this might happen. "Let's get you straightened out. You won't get better if you fall now."
Nocturne glares at her. "Stop being so... so... gah!" She yanks her hand out from under the covers and scrubs it through her hair. "What is the word?"
Faiza grimaces. "I think you're looking for 'patronising.' Sorry. They give special classes in it in med school." She straightens out twisted blue limbs and pulls the sheets up again, wondering where the nurses have got to. "Look, mate, I'll make you a deal. If you promise not to bust out of here when my back's turned, I'll lend you a radio so you can follow the news."
A giant smile spreads across Nocturne's face, shining past her tired eyes and unwashed skin. For the first time, Faiza realises how incredibly beautiful she is. "That would be fantastic!" she says. Her eyes slide over to the dresser on the other side of the room. "Could you do something else?" she asks. "It's not escape related, I promise. I just want my... my.. link ear thing I talk on."
"Cell phone?" Faiza asks. "You're not supposed to use those in here."
Nocturne shakes her head. "No. It's only for my team. Comm! That's it! I want my comm please. It's in the top drawer."
Faiza helps her put in the ear bud, then produces her MP3 player/radio and headphones, which Nocturne then wants to listen to at the same time. She worries that trying to follow everything at once might be too much stimulation, or that hearing what's going on will make her want to leave even more. Maybe it does, but at least now her patient is sitting up a bit and looking vivacious, like Faiza has always seen her on the news. It seems so much more natural.
Some hours after the battle's over, she finds herself back in that private room. Nocturne's curled in a ball around her bad arm, fast asleep. Faiza quietly recovers her things from the side table and continues on her rounds.
When Sherlock Holmes grabs her from behind and drags her into a blind alley, Faiza decides that it might be time to break down and start driving to work. It's not very eco-friendly, but it would beat getting nabbed off the streets by fictional characters, especially ones pretending to be other people.
They're in the back of the alley now, and he has one long, wiry arm pinning her to his body and the other holding something sharp against her throat. From what she saw of him in her very brief struggle, he looks pretty much like the original Paget drawings; his breath reeks of pipe tobacco.
"My apologies, dear lady," he says, voice precise and cultured. "I regret to tell you that your time in this sordid world is coming to an end." He shifts the blade a little, pushing the edge of her hijab down to expose more skin.
Faiza tries wiggling away, but that only makes him squeeze her tighter, and she worries about not being able to breathe. "Nice costume, mate," she tells him. "But you got your details wrong. Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be the good guy. I don't think he'd much like the whole Jack the Ripper act."
"So you know me by that name," he says, sounding faintly surprised. "I hadn't thought that my friends with the police had released my letter to the press." She doesn't quite know what to say to that one, but he apparently doesn't mind her lack of comment, as he then launches into a dissertation on the nature of Good and Evil, one's Debt to Society, and the benefits mutilating her body will have for Modern Science. His grip doesn't loosen in the slightest over all this.
Faiza figures that the longer he talks the better chance she has, tries not to draw his attention by struggling again, and waits for her moment.
A few painful minutes later, her distraction shows up at the end of the alley, looking like he means business, for all his tailored suit and designer shades. "God dammit," he grumbles, levelling a pistol at them, "Ransom would have to have read Michael Bloody Dibdin, wouldn't he?"
Unfortunately, between Holmes holding Faiza in front of him and the partial cover of a dust bin, the stranger doesn't have much of a shot.
"Excellent," says Holmes, "A gallant knight to the rescue."
Faiza sees the man with the gun twitch as though he's suppressing the urge to look back and see if there's someone else behind him. "Whatever," he says. "Look, how about we make a deal? You let go of the nice lady, and I won't shoot you in the head."
This only seems to make Holmes hold her tighter to him. "I am intrigued as to how you propose to carry out your threat," he says. "I have never seen a weapon quite like yours, but I doubt it can reliably hit so small a target in the dark. I also suspect that you may fire upon me even if I do as you ask. I have a counter proposal:" He shifts the blade between hands so fast that for a moment Faiza feels impressed by his slight of hand technique. Only now it's under the edge of her shirt, just touching her belly button. She shivers. "Put your weapon down, and I will not use my esteemed friend's scalpel to eviscerate this woman in front of you."
They stare at each other for a moment, while Faiza has a go at not breathing. "Fine," the stranger says, and slowly lowers the gun to the pavement, then stands again, hands raised. Faiza wants to yell at him, tell him not to be an idiot of course he's going to kill her anyway, but bites her lip and keeps waiting. Holmes' grip seems to be loosening now, just a little, as he relaxes.
He's let his face get behind her, and, just as he starts to say something that will undoubtedly come off as rather smug, she throws her head back, smashing it into his nose. At the same time, she stamps on his instep, and grabs the arm holding the scalpel and yanks it away from her stomach. She can hear the fabric give as it slices through her shirt.
Something bright flashes past her head. The grip around her neck grows slack, then Holmes slumps into the wall. Faiza drops the arm and struggles free, shakily bracing her weight on the bin.
The man at the end of the alley is reaching out as if he's just thrown something towards her. "Are you hurt?" he asks, bending to retrieve his pistol. She shakes her head. "Right then, I've got to go, there's at least four more of these tossers in my section." An explosion rattles the the pavement, and Faiza falls into a crouch, one hand still clinging to the edge of the bin. The man blinks. "Possibly three. I think the missus is poaching."
"I'd better get to the hospital then," she says thinking that they'll need everyone they can get, and that she could use a good place to curl up and cry for a bit. The man's already walking off into the dark and doesn't hear her.
Faisa has always known that a hero's work doesn't end when the battle does. Until now, she hadn't really considered just how long that could mean.
She feels like she's been crawling over the ruins of London for years now, and it's difficult to know when to stop. Her newfound powers just make it so easy for her to find people under the rubble and heal them, or at least keep them stable so that the others can dig them out.
At last, they stand in a ragged circle, illuminated by the rescue workers' halogen lights, just staring at each other. Everyone living has been rescued. Faiza feels utterly exhausted, yet oddly too hyped on shock, elation and terror to imagine resting. "What do we do now?" she asks.
Dane, who has been following her around hacking through things with that blasted sword while offering a stream of glib comments and encouragement, says, "Party at Brian's place, I guess."
Everyone else agrees enthusiastically, but Captain Britain puts up enough protest that they all end up at MI:13's headquarters in Whitehall. Spitfire shows Faiza where the ladies' showers are and gives her some fatigues and a shawl to replace her battered and blood-stained scrubs. I died in those clothes, she thinks.
When she emerges, almost everyone else is in their civilian clothes too, and the guy from the alley last year is two thirds of the way to plastered. Someone's put on a Beatles album and turned it up. "To John the Skrull!" he yells, raising a pint, "A right proper Brit, and the only one of those bastards worth knowing."
Someone hands her a flute of white grape juice, and she toasts with it, yelling "To John the Skrull!" along with everyone else, though she doesn't know what it means. "Thank..." she starts to say, turning to the man who gave her the drink, then trailing off when she realises who it is.
"Brian Braddock," he says, extending a hand. Everything from his loafers to his red and blue sweater to his damp blond hair seems absolutely right. Yes, she just spent most of a day and half the night working with a whole team of superheroes, but somehow having the living embodiment of her nation's subconscious power telling her his name and wanting to shake her hand feels entirely different. It's more personal, more significant, almost like pulling Excalibur from the bridge again.
"Um..." she says, taking his hand, then remembers that she has a name and should probably tell it to him, too, and adds, "I'm Faiza. Faiza Hussain. Doctor Faiza Hussian, I guess, but you don't have to call me that. Just Faiza is fine."
"I'm a doctor too, actually," he tells her, "Though not a useful kind like you." He smiles disarmingly at her, and she kind of forgets how nervous she is. He takes a sip out of his own flute before nodding his head to the American across the room and saying, "Someday, some descent English manners are going to rub off on Whitman, and he'll realise that 'This is Faiza. She's one of us now.' does not a proper introduction make."
"Dane's okay," she says, trying not to sound defensive. "I know some people anyway, you know from... magazines and... stuff...." She trails off, deciding not to mention her childhood toys, or wallpaper, or bed sheets.
The little smile tugging at his lips makes her think that he knows exactly what she means, and she decides that she should box up all her collectables in case anyone ends up at her flat. And clean her flat, oh dear. "Still, you're in MI:13 now, so I'd better introduce you around," Brian says. He takes her hand again and leads her further into the room, heading for the man from the alley, who is now very much into the personal space of one of the warrior fairies. "We'd better start with Wisdom, before he's too sloshed to remember not to hit on you... or something else happens, which it always does."
By the time she's met everyone, she's wandering in a state that feels not entirely of this world; she can see everything, and theoretically knows what it means, but doesn't quite seem to connect. It actually feels a bit like nearing the end of finals, but far, far more surreal. She wonders if this is what it's like to be drunk.
Someone says something about "putting her to bed" which seems directed her way, but she really doesn't remember how she ends up tucked into a bunk in the barracks. She only knows that it would feel like the best thing in the whole world ever, if she hadn't just had this day.
She thinks it's all a dream, when she wakes; she keeps her eyes closed and thinks about going back to sleep, trying to slip back into the adventure where she's a hero. However, now she seems to be well and truly awake, and can't seem to catch onto REM sleep again. Sighing, she opens her eyes.
She doesn't recognise the ceiling. Or the bed. Or anything in the room, even the clothes she's wearing. Pushing back the sheets to stare at them, she remembers the others, the ones she died in, and everything comes rushing back. She feels dizzy and has to lie flat until her new reality has sunk in, which it doesn't for a good ten minutes at least.
When the world stops spinning, she sits up and looks around again, taking in the plain grey room with its single bed, night stand, chair and desk. They all look very military issue. There's two grey doors and no window. She hopes that now that she's part of the team, she doesn't have to live here full time. Her current flat may look like a bit of a ruin, but she's entirely fond of it. Okay, still being grateful for the powers, she decides, even if I have worked in nicer hospital rooms.
Getting up to examine things more closely doesn't improve them much. One of the doors leads to a hallway of doors, the other's an empty closet.
She stares at her reflection in the full-length mirror on the inside of the closet door. Strange clothes aside, she doesn't think she looks any different. She turns her head this way and that, and spins around, craning her neck to see her back. It's all still the same, though she really needs to either put on her hijab or find a hair brush.
She takes a deep breath and reaches for the power; she can't see anything different, but there's energy flowing through her now. It seems to be coming from inside her somehow, but when she tries to pinpoint the source, it slips away.
She sends the power out, finding other people in the rooms around her. Her range doesn't seem that great, and some of the signals confuse her. A lot of people seem to be different somehow, harder to touch. They're not quite like the big Skrull, but feel similar. Maybe it's magic. She worries that they can feel her reaching out, and pulls back, not wanting to disturb anyone.
Raising her hand in front of her, she tries to focus on it. The energy just turns away every time she gets near it, like trying to bite one's own elbow. She can't seem to get the power to flow back on itself. Note to self: she thinks, Can't fix own body. Rely on team mates for protection. Also, Captain Britain and Spitfire and the Black Knight are my team mates! Note to self (addendum): stop acting like barking lunatic when around team mates.
Sighing to herself, she closes the door.
Life as a superhero: day one. Mission objective: find tea. And a name. I really need a name.