At first, I think it’s an earthquake.
Jake doesn’t notice the rumbling until I grab his arm; then his eyes go wide and he grabs right back, pulling me towards the exit. This is, in theory, a good move, until we see that the double doors are blocked by a group of silver-costumed insect-people who are making loud chittering noises and waving futuristic-looking weapons in the air. Some of them are waving those weapons directly at us, so we change directions and end up being herded with the rest of the civilians towards the wall.
“Just stay calm,” Jake whispers. He sounds more apologetic than scared, which draws a smile from me at this inappropriate moment because only something like half an hour earlier he’d told me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Astro City as often as the newspapers make it out to be. “Keep your head down, but be ready to move as soon as there’s an opening.”
He doesn’t see me nod because he’s shifted to stand in front of me, protective despite the fact that we barely know each other. I feel sorry for him for being the one who got stuck with the new girl today – this definitely wasn’t supposed to be part of the grand tour. He’s doing his best to be reassuring, and the greatest comfort lies in how obvious it is that he’s used to this.
In fact, there’s a very conscious lack of panic among the people grouped in with us. Most of them are alert and watchful; only a handful of them are babbling with fear.
If something like this happened back home (not that I can imagine insect-people having any interest in Spencer, Iowa) there’d be a hell of a lot more tears and screaming. I can see the scene so clearly in my head, and the juxtaposition of that with this is almost like a kick in the stomach.
I know, intellectually, that I’m not in Iowa anymore. The skyscrapers were a hint, but I don’t think it had completely sunk in until this moment.
If it's inappropriate to smile while being taken hostage, it’s definitely inappropriate to start vibrating with excitement, waiting to see who’s going to show up and save the day.
I don’t have to wait long.
One of the insect-people shoot their oversized gun at the ceiling. There’s a horrible explosion, followed by debris falling everywhere. I back tight against the wall, closing my eyes automatically, and when I open them, Samaritan has arrived, the bright red of his costume almost shocking against the off-white walls of the city hall interior.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jake says, tugging gently at my wrist.
A pair of security guards are guiding people towards a side exit while Samaritan keeps the insect-people busy. The line moves quickly, and I’m almost certain that we’re going to make it outside in no time, but then there’s another concrete-shattering crack and the wall beside me explodes.
Dust hits me in the face, and I’m suddenly being grabbed by unfriendly hands.
I kick blindly, my foot making a noise when it connects with something that cracks. Thin insect hands squeeze so tightly on my elbow and shoulder that I think that something’s going to break, but then there’s a sound like the air being sliced and I’m thrown up into the air.
I draw my limbs in, bracing myself for pain.
It doesn’t arrive.
Instead the wind is knocked out from my lungs when a new set of arms catch me. I’m still blind as I’m tucked into the hold of one firm arm like an errant child. Through the cotton puddle of shock in my head, I register that the arm holding me doesn’t feel anything like the solid muscle I would’ve associated with Samaritan.
I blink the dust from my eyes and look up at my savior.
“Hold on,” Winged Victory says. “Everything will be all right.”
I can barely see beyond the magnificent white of her wingspan. With a flap, we’re soaring upwards through the hole in the ceiling.
Everyone else is still down below, some of them probably watching.
I can’t decide if this is the coolest or most humiliating moment of my life.
I’ve been in Astro City for four and half a weeks now. The closest I’d seen one of their heroes was one evening when Jack-in-the-Box jumped over me on my way home from work.
A lot of people come here purposely seeking a glimpse of the city’s finest, but I’m not one of them. It’s not that I don’t think they’re the most awesome thing ever – they are, and they do amazing things that I can’t even begin to imagine – but it’s enough to be able to read about them in the papers and see them on the news. I never wanted to have a personal encounter with one.
Okay, that’s not exactly true.
I think everyone, on some level or the other, wants to have a personal encounter with a big name superhero. Goodness knows the last time I came to Astro City – almost ten years ago – my siblings and I did the whole Astro City Walk of Fame shebang, complete with a visit to the First Family Headquarters and the original Astrobank Tower. Mom and dad were more than happy to oblige.
I only got to see two heroes during that special family trip, and only from a distance. At the time, I was heartbroken because I wanted to meet at least one of them up close, but in retrospect that might’ve not been a good idea, as the chances I’d make a fool of myself were extremely high.
Winged Victory wasn’t around back then. She only made her first public appearance a couple of years after, when I’d just started high school.
I remember the first time I saw her picture in the papers. It was a profile shot, wings unfurled to their grandest as she soared through the air above the Eastside Bridge.
Many superheroes can fly. Hell, Air Ace, the guy who practically started it all, built his legend by making us believe that a man could fly.
But Winged Victory was something else. She didn’t just fly; Winged Victory wrapped the sky around herself, as much a part of her costume as the Graeco-Roman set she wears. It was almost as though the city itself had been waiting for her to arrive, for the stretch of her feathered wings are now as much a part of the city’s skyline as the sculpture atop the Astrobank Tower.
Okay, so maybe that newspaper photo ended up being taped to my bedroom wall.
And maybe I ended up dressing up as her for Halloween.
It wasn’t like I was obsessed. That was what my sister called how I followed Winged Victory’s appearances over the years, and I hated that. I admired – I admire – Winged Victory, and that isn’t something anyone should be ashamed of. After the initial amazement of what she was passed, came the respect for who she was and what she could do. Winged Victory’s acts of heroism extend far beyond the swing of her sword, so how could I not be in awe of her?
When I decided to come to Astro City, of course it crossed my mind that I might be able to see her live and in the flesh. She’s one of those superheroes who do public appearances on occasion, and I’d read that she’s been planning to start a women’s shelter over in Chesler. There would be plenty of chances to catch a glimpse of her, or so I told myself.
I fantasized that I might even get the chance to talk to her, woman to woman, sharing ideas and having meaningful conversations (with no stars in my eyes). I would impress her with my calm, professional demeanor, and I’d have useful things to say.
What a memory that would be to take home to Iowa with me.
I guess life has other plans.
The very first time I’m in peril in this city, and it had to be Winged Victory who comes to my rescue, hadn’t it.
“Here you go,” she says as she sets me on the ground. “Watch your step.”
I mumble a thank you, too embarrassed to be articulate. At least I don’t stumble when my shoes hit the ground, and that is in itself a small miracle considering that the pavement doesn’t look like it’s been salted properly.
“I need to get back,” Winged Victory says – a part of my brain wonders if she’s cold in that costume of hers – but she spares a moment to look me over. “There will be medical officers here soon, please let them give you a proper check-up.”
I open my mouth though I don’t have anything productive to say – another variation of thank you, maybe – but her wings are open and she’s airborne, flying back to the city hall.
That leaves me a gaping fish on the sidewalk, face flushing even brighter when I realize that there are people looking and pointing at me.
I shut my eyes to imprint the memory of Winged Victory up close, afraid that the details – flecks of gold in her brown eyes, the unexpected laugh lines around her mouth – will slide away the moment the rest of the world catches up. Surely no one can be beautiful under drab grey winter lightning, but maybe that’s one of her superpowers, who knows.
I do wait for the ambulances as instructed. They don’t tell me anything I don’t already know (i.e. that I’m perfectly fine), and it’s in this rush of the aftermath that I manage to find Jake.
“Roxanne!” he exclaims when he sees me. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m great,” I answer with full feeling.
He laughs a little at my expression, hand dropping to pet my head, which I brush off with a huff.
“The Insecto-Flares were after the mayor,” he says. “At least, that’s what I can make out so far. No one seems to have the full story yet.”
“It’s a good thing Samaritan and Winged Victory got here so quick,” I say. “I wonder if the city hall has a secret alarm that has a direct line to them.”
“There’s actually a theory about that,” Jake says. “Which we can discuss later. Right now I think we better head back to the office.”
It feels a little weird that we’re going back to work as though we hadn’t just gotten in caught in some major heroic crossfire. I can still feel the phantom imprint of Winged Victory’s hand around my waist. But I guess that’s what they do here – if everything came to a halt every time something like this went down, nothing would ever get done.
“How about dinner tonight?” Jake says when we’re almost back at the office. “All of us. Rolanda keeps talking about that Indian place downtown, now’s as good a time as any to poke at her hyperbole.”
“Oh!” I flush. “You don’t have to—”
“Michael does it for all new staff,” Jake insists.
“But it’s really not a big deal,” I say, though I’m quickly warming up to the idea. I haven’t seen much of the city so far, and the four people I work with are, for all intents and purposes, the only people I know within the city limits.
“Of course it is,” Jake insists.
As soon as he opens the door, Rolanda rises from her chair, looking excited and relieved. I remember that she has a radio just under her desk, so there’s no need to tell her about the incident at the city hall when it’s obvious she already knows. She cups a hand around her mouth and calls, “Michael!” Sure enough, his door opens and he’s stomping out, a hug ready for me.
Michael’s a huge guy, easily passable for Santa Claus if he gets around to growing out that moustache of his into a full set, and it throws my mind back so sharply to memories my own father that I melt into it almost immediately.
“You’re not turned off by our city yet, are you?” he says once he lets go.
“Of course not,” I say quickly. “I haven’t seen all the sights yet.”
“You, my dear, are joining us for dinner,” is what Michael says next, thus proving that he has a hive mind with Jake. “No excuses this time. It’s been almost a month, so it’s well overdue. All of us, straight after work, so there’s no chance anyone can escape.” He looks around, eyes alight with suspicion. “Where’s Lila?”
“She went out to buy more toner for the printer,” Rolanda says.
“Lila definitely can’t escape,” Michael insists.
The front door opens and there’s Lila, with perfect timing, hearing the tail end of the statement. “Escape what?”
“Dinner, tonight,” Michael says. “The boss has ordered it, and so it shall be done.”
Lila sighs. “Michael, you know we’ve got the first quarter reports due in—”
“And so it shall be done,” he repeats, firmer this time.
I’m trying not to grin, but Lila’s face is to die for. It’s like someone spit in a lemon that they then shoved into her mouth. That expression remains in place when she whirls to Jake and snaps, “And how’s your productive day going?”
“Oh.” Jake does this thing where his mouth and fingers fumble. It’s awful of me to laugh (even if I’m only doing it on the inside), but it is quite a sight, what with Jake being almost a full head taller than Lila. “Well, we got, we did get the—”
“We passed the memorandum to the mayor’s secretary,” I say.
“But they won’t be able to process it immediately,” Michael says thoughtfully. “Not after that attack by the – what was it?”
“Insecto-Flares,” Rolanda says.
“What, again?” Lila practically throws the toner cartridges at me, but I catch them easily – I don’t have my cheerleader’s reflexes for nothing. “That’s at least forty-eight extra hours for the fall-out, what are we going to do until then?”
“We do what we can, as always,” Michael says. “In the interim, you need to get that report out to the other branches on the matter.”
Lila does this thing with her shoulders that’s somewhere between a shrug and a jerk. I’m not sure what it means, but I guess that it’s what she does when she wants to acknowledge something without nodding, because to nod would imply agreeability.
“Jake, draw up our contacts at the docks, see if they’ve heard anything,” Michael says. After another fond smile in my direction, he’s heading back to his room, which is also the only room in our tiny office. It’s good to be the boss.
Lila shakes her head, and I can see from the way she’s frowning at the floor that she’s already rearranging the schedule in her head. With an annoyed click of her tongue, she looks up at me, raising her eyebrows. “That must’ve been some swell excitement for you today.”
“It’s got to be a record,” I tell her. “Barely a month here, and I’ve already seen more action that most people ever will in their entire lives.”
Lila opens her mouth to say something, the corners of her lips curled upwards in a slight smile, but she changes her mind and silently turns away to walk to her desk. My ears can practically hear what she’d meant to say anyway – some variation of how this is the norm in the city and only a fresh-faced country kid like myself would finding something like that worth being excited over – but it doesn’t matter.
I got saved by Winged Victory.
“Don’t you have something to file?” Lila says, her back to me.
“I’m on it!” I chirp, resisting the urge to stick out my tongue at her, because that would be unprofessional.
My family has a farm back in Spencer. I’m the second of four kids, and though the eldest has got the farm handover thing covered, none of us were ever pressured by our parents to stay if we didn’t want to. My sister, Alice, has been dead set on leaving since she was a kid, while Sam, the youngest, seems dead set on marrying the girl two farms over (admittedly, he made that resolution when he was five so things might have changed since then).
I’m the only one who didn’t have some sort of vision of what I’d like my future to be. I like to take things one day a time, and though my teachers called that condition ‘an acute lack of focus’, I personally consider it being open-minded to the infinite possibilities of maybe.
Not much has changed at this point.
Dad and Eric are preparing for the spring thaw, Alice and Sam are enjoying their respective new school years, mom’s plotting the teaching plan for her new classes.
I just happen to be here, not there, though for all I know I’m going back to Spencer tomorrow. That would be fine, because I’ve got plenty of memories to take back with me. The Winged Victory thing is just an unexpected cherry on top.
We do end up going to that Indian restaurant. It turns out to be way out of my price range but Michael insists on paying.
“So,” Rolanda says as she steals some chicken from my platter, “Are you gonna tell us what happened today or what?”
I’ve got the whole story worked out in my head, but that material’s exclusively for my next letter to my family, and I doubt the same perspective would be appreciated by this audience. “It happened really quickly. One minute I’m just standing there, and the next I’m up in the air like – like whoosh.” My hand gestures get a bit of curry on the table, whoops. “I didn’t even get to say thank you properly.”
“Didn’t ask for an autograph?” Lila asks.
I make a face. “No way, that’s tacky.”
Lila’s eyebrows move up, like maybe she has something to say on the matter, but Michael jumps right in: “I hope Jake was on his best behavior.”
“Oh, definitely.” I grin at the way Jake’s making a show of preening. “He was a real gentleman. Totally professional in the face of immediate peril.”
“That’s new,” Rolanda says, nudging an elbow at him teasingly.
Warmth suffuses through me, and that’s not just the chicken korma talking.
I haven’t had a dinner like this since I got here. Rolanda’s taken me out a few times, and I had dinner that one time with Michael and his wife, but there hasn’t been anything like this, harking back to the dinners I used to have back home.
In Spencer, every single face I could see on the street would have years of history behind them. This city, on the other hand, is full of faces that mean nothing to me. When I arrived it almost felt like I’d been swallowed up by a huge incomprehensible maw of modern culture far beyond my understanding. Sometimes, when I walk out in the streets, the scale of the place and its people makes me feel so tiny that I can barely stand it.
But then there are moments like this, when the city shrinks to the size of a dinner table and five plates of shawarma and other dishes I can’t even pronounce properly.
“I was rescued by the Gentleman once,” Michael says. “Back when I was working at the Rocket.”
“Really?” I knew that Michael used to work at the Rocket –a few of his articles are framed and hung around the office, but they’re economical and political pieces, nothing sensational. “What happened?”
“It was during the earthquake of ’72.” Michael dabs at his mouth with a napkin, the casual indulgence of his smile telling me that this is a story he loves to tell.
It’s wonderful and long, filled with anecdotes about what it was like living in Astro City in the ‘70s, and I hang on to every word. Michael’s eyes are alight with excitement, the memories obviously as precious to him now as they were then. “So there I was, with all these questions just waiting to come out. The Gentleman bowed deeply – he still does that sometimes, but not as often nowadays – when the earthquake hits. A piece of plank hits me on the head and I pass out.”
“I love that part,” Jake guffaws. “Gets me every single time.”
“I missed the whole thing,” Michael says, sighing with exaggerated melancholy. “Good thing my partner managed to get a few snapshots with his camera, or else no one would’ve believed me.”
“You still have the pictures with you?” I ask.
“Of course, but carefully tucked away.” Michael smiles fondly at nothing in particular. “Polly brings them out when she wants a good laugh.”
“I’ve never been as close to Winged Victory before today,” Jake admits. “Samaritan, sure, I even managed to talk to him for a bit at a charity dinner last year. He was quite preoccupied, though, can’t blame him for being short on small talk.”
“That’s awesome,” I say. “How about you, Rolanda?”
“Funnily enough, I haven’t had any encounters since I moved here,” Rolanda says. “But back when I was in Detroit, I was on the El-train and a section of the bridge blew up – it was the Holiday Gang’s doing – and M.P.H. managed to stop it before we went over the gap. Practically pissed my pants, but you should’ve seen my then-boyfriend.”
“How about you, Lila?” I ask.
Lila starts, like she hadn’t expected to be called despite it being obvious how this round-table thing works.
“Oh, Lila hasn’t met any,” Jake says.
I frown a little. Jake’s being jovial, but I can tell from the way that Rolanda’s gone still and Michael’s smiling patiently that something of significance has befallen the table but missed me completely. Lila doesn’t affirm or offer a correction to Jake’s statement, and for some reason that doesn’t sit well with me.
“Is that true?” I press, wanting to hear her say it.
Lila’s easy shrug isn’t a satisfying answer.
“Are there any superheroes where you’re from?” Rolanda asks, lacking any attempt at subtlety in diverting the subject. “Iowa, right?”
I grin. “All-American, duh.”
Rolanda’s eyebrows jump up. “No way, he’s from Iowa?”
“No, no, she’s right,” Jake says excitedly. “He debuted in Chicago, but he’s from Iowa. Most people forget that, because heroes are associated with the place they first make a big name for themselves. Like Winged Victory. She may be an Astro citizen now, but I remember reading that before she showed up here she’d been sighted in, uh…”
“…Nebraska, I think,” Jake says, memory failing him. “Or Alaska, I can’t remember.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska,” Rolanda says. She’s starting to sway a little, cheeks flushed from the brightly-colored drinks she’s been downing all evening. “S’funny, most people want to come to Astro City.”
“Well, I’m up for dessert, how about all of you?” Michael asks.
The Lochley Foundation was formed a little after the end of World War II. I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know the full extent of their history in the short time I’ve been here, but I do know that the Astro City branch was formed in 1972.
Then in the late 90s, the Astro City branch accepted a new employee, namely: me.
It’s a blessing, I guess, that NGOs like the Foundation need admin people so readily. I doubt they would have taken me in as quickly if that weren’t the case, and it’s telling that my office ‘desk’ used to be the common stationery table. This effectively means that my workspot has me shoved almost right up against the copier, but on the plus side, this means that I have a heat source the others don’t, which is awesome in winter.
Admin work is easy enough for someone who only just got out of community college, and save the few times that Lila’s ripped me a new one over some typos in my typing, pretty laidback. At least, compared to the stress levels and insane hours that seem to be the norm for everyone else in the office. As far as I can tell, everyone has their own ways of dealing with it: Michael is zen, Rolanda is forcefully cheerful (and has an always-stocked tin of chocolate-covered coffee beans at her desk), Jake pretends to be a slacker, and Lila grouches at everybody.
I merely oil the hinges, while everyone else does the real work.
Dinner ends much later than I expect it to, but I’m bursting with good will and good food, so I can’t complain.
Rolanda and Jake immediately wander off together after the check is paid. I raise my eyebrows at that but Michael merely waves at them amiably, so I guess this is something normal? They seem more like siblings than anything else, so I don’t know what to make of that.
“I take the train to Hartley,” Michael says. “Will you ladies be fine?”
“I’ll walk her,” Lila says, though it’s obviously a statement, not an offer. Our goodbyes are brief, and then Lila’s started that brisk pace of hers that looks so effortless.
“Uh, you don’t have to, you know,” I tell her once I’ve drawn level. “I live nearby.”
“On Willard and York, yes, I remember,” Lila says, and I’m surprised that she remembered that from my interview. “All the more reason I should accompany you.”
I grin up at her, though she isn’t looking at me. “I’m touched.”
She makes a soft sound that I choose to interpret as reluctant amusement.
We walk in silence for a while, Lila leading the way.
As we move further away from the line of restaurants and their brightly-lit windows, I draw my coat tighter around myself. I used to think that cities would be warmer in winter because the buildings are all tucked so close to one another – heat conservation and all that. That’s another preconception gone up in smoke.
“Hey, I think it’s this way.” I point down a particular street.
“Sure, that route also works, though I think…” Lila’s voice drifts off. She’s looking at something down one of the alleys, a worry line creeping up between her eyebrows.
“Lila, you okay?” I ask.
“Move,” she says. “Roxanne, move.”
I hear them maybe a second before they make the jump on us, but I’m too slow to react. Lila does it first, her arm coming out to slam into my chest, sending me stumbling back and away from the two men that have slunk out of the shadows to stand before us.
Wait, three. There’s one behind me, blocking our exit.
I’ve never been mugged before. I arrived in the city all alone in January, not knowing a soul as I searched for a place to stay and a job to keep me here, but not a single bad hand turned on me in that first delicate week.
I guess this is just one of those days.
“Hey miss, that handbag looks heavy,” one of them says, reaching for Lila. “Maybe I can help you with that.”
Though the rest of my brain’s quickly sifting through the self-defense classes I’ve had the privilege of attending back home (summary: hand over what they want, don’t fight), a small part of me is astounded that this sort of thing still happens here. Of all places.
It seems downright suicidal, but hey, what do I know, I just fell off the produce truck.
It’s then that I notice that one of them has a gang symbol on his wrist. It seems like an unnecessarily brazen location for such a tattoo, but maybe that’s the point.
While I’m busy thinking these inane thoughts, Lila acts.
It happens quickly. I’m frozen through most of it, because whatever perceptions I’d had about Lila before, I never expected her to have reflexes like that. She’s fast, getting in one punch after another, and then some fancy handwork that have got to have come out of self-defense classes I’d never have been able to afford.
Suddenly, it’s over. Two of them have run off and the third is crouched in a ball on the ground, possibly unconscious.
My mouth is open, a stream of amazed gibberish ready to come out, but Lila’s whirled to look at me and the last thing I expect is for the look on her face to be directed at me. I merely say, “Uh.”
I don’t know Lila that well yet – she’s harder to read than the rest of my colleagues, but there’s a flash of something else in her eyes that makes my stomach twist unexpectedly. She turns away, maybe to hide it or maybe just so she can look at the unconscious would-be-mugger, but that just leaves me reeling, wondering why the hell she’d look disappointed with me.
Wanting to do something with my hands, I fumble with my bag. “I’m sorry, I should have done something, I have mace with me, I know I—”
“Roxanne.” Lila’s voice is a low, dangerous thing, making the hairs on my arm stand on end. She grabs my arm roughly and then we’re walking; I can barely keep up with her aggressive march, but I dare not stumble. Lila’s voice is perfectly level when she eventually breaks the heavy silence by saying, “You can’t always hope that a superhero will come to your rescue. It’s dangerous to think like that, even for one second, even here.”
“I don’t think that,” I balk.
It’s apparently the wrong thing to say, because she suddenly stops and spins to look at me, something in her expression split open into rage. “The reason there are so many damn capes in this city is because it’s dangerous.”
“I know that.”
“No, you don’t,” Lila snaps. “What would you have done if I wasn’t with you?”
Oh. Instinct tells me to lighten the atmosphere by teasing. If it were anyone else, it would probably work, but there’s something else stirring beneath Lila’s hostility, and I can’t stand that I can’t tell what it is.
“Maybe you should just go back to Iowa,” Lila says, her words a slap in my face.
Where I had been worried, I now find my own answering anger.
“How dare you,” I say, my own voice small and shaking.
“Oh?” Lila raises an eyebrow.
I’ve seen that look before, though it’s usually directed at Rolanda or Jake at work. It’s the kind of look that promises immediate emotional and psychological pain if we’re not careful (though Michael once told me that it’s part of Lila’s charm), but right now, at this moment, it pisses me off.
“Thank you for walking me home,” I say tightly.
I hope that Lila will let that be it, but no, she just has to have the last word. “That all you’ve got to say? Nothing about how lovely the city is at night?”
I don’t have anything to prove to her. I know this, but when I raise my gaze to the severity of her glare, I realize that, more than Michael’s warmth and Rolanda’s acceptance and Jake’s affection, Lila’s stonewall façade calls out to me in challenge. Prove yourself, it says.
I shouldn’t care what Lila thinks of me, but I do.
“Every day since I got here, you’ve taken the opportunity to remind me who I am, where I’m from, and how much this makes me lesser than you,” I tell her. “I guess it’s true. I’m not as smart and well-read and knowledgeable as you, but I refuse to be ashamed for any of it.”
Lila’s gone still, head tilted a little as she listens. I don’t think this is what she expected me to say at all, and that encourages me to press on.
“I want to learn, Lila,” I say. “That’s how anyone improves themselves, right? By learning? That’s why I’m here. I’m learning from you, from Michael and Rolanda and Jake. You guys are teaching me so much. Living here is teaching me so much, and I wouldn’t change any of that for the world. Maybe I’m not learning as fast as you like, but I’m making the effort, and I won’t let you take that away from me.”
Lila narrows her eyes. “That has nothing to do with how you protect yourself in the city—”
“It has everything to do with it. And frankly I’m hurt at your accusation that I allow myself to be helpless.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh, then what did you mean?” I say, my voice starting to get a little high-pitched. “That I don’t have the right as you do to live here? Screw you, Lila.”
With that pithy last remark, I flee down to the street to my apartment building.
I packed everything I needed for a cross-country journey into two bags. Alice was scandalized, but Eric praised me for my sense of adventure.
“I’m not feeling very adventurous,” I said at the time, because it was true. Mostly I was feeling guilty, because Alice had gone on and on for years about what she’d do once she made it out of Spencer, and there I was, doing exactly what she’d promised to do, long before she could. She hugged me anyway, and told me to call once I settled down.
I’d seen this moment happen many times in books and movies. It’s usually the opening scene, with the long trip representing a number of things – freedom, fresh starts, new beginnings – but as my own bus began its rolling journey through a middle of nowhere to a destination of somewhere, it felt pretty clear that my own trip was none of those things.
The narrative didn’t quite fit.
My approximately two-decades-worth of history means more to me than filler backstory and characterization set-up. Leaving Spencer to Astro City is merely the turning of a page.
I’m well into the middle of my story.
I guess Astro City can be a new Act.
I wake up the next morning feeling jittery and restless. When I remember what happened yesterday I sigh at the water-stained ceiling and hide under the covers for another ten minutes before I force myself to make the necessary trek to the common bathroom outside.
When I make it out of my apartment building, I pause for a moment on the sidewalk, looking up at the sky.
It’s still a dreary grey, but the air doesn’t seem as cold as it’s been for the past couple of weeks.
This doesn’t mean that I can leave my apartment less than fully armed right down to my mittens and sensible bobble hat, but there’s the suggestion of spring waiting around the corner for the perfect moment to pounce.
It’s a morning that holds promise.
It’s enough to lend my step an extra bounce as I head to work.
Lila and Michael are already there. They’re in the pantry area, talking softly about numbers (I think the budget’s under review, or something), and Michael spares me a nod in greeting. Lila glances my way but there’s nothing telling in her expression.
Rolanda, when she arrives, has a store-bought shot of espresso with her. Jake, when he arrives, doesn’t have coffee, but he does have an especially irritated grunt for Michael’s morning greeting.
I have my own duties to tend to, but, as usual, it’s near impossible not to hear what everybody else is up to.
There’s a lot of the regular stuff, the highlight of which is when Rolanda gets a phone call from city hall that gets Lila all riled up and bubbly with excitement (as bubbly as Lila gets, anyway). After that, Michael’s telling Jake he’s got to go back to city hall to pick up – something, I don’t quite catch it – and then he’s gone, this time without me as his shadow.
I’m well into scanning a backlog of documents into my computer (part of the Foundation’s effort to go digital) when I’m surprised by Lila being a stealthy ninja and appearing at my desk. That takes some special skill; I didn’t think I was concentrating that hard on pressing the scanner down.
“What?” I blurt out.
“I’m buying you lunch,” she says. “Come on.”
“It’s not lunch time, it’s only…” I glance at the computer’s clock. “Oh.”
Lila’s already heading for the door and pulling her jacket on, not waiting for my response. I fumble out of my seat, wondering curiously if Lila plans to poison me in the immediate future. I give Rolanda an excited glance as I skip past her – she, however, merely looks bewildered – but our exchange doesn’t get any further because Lila’s already got the door open and clucking her tongue impatiently at me.
As we step out – Lila leading the way, naturally – I try to recall the last time I saw her have lunch. I know Michael usually eats his packed meals in the office, while Jake and Rolanda switch between going out, calling in or sulking through a working lunch on crackers from the pantry. But when it comes to Lila, my recent memory draws up a blank. I’m sure I’ve seen her go out once or twice, always quiet, but it never occurred to me to wonder any further than that.
“Do you have any dietary concerns?” Lila asks me.
“Not a fan of cucumbers,” I answer.
She slants a look at me.
“No, really, I can’t stand the smell,” I insist. “My baby brother once snuck in a cucumber into my sandwich because he thought it would be funny, but it really really wasn’t. I think the smell has something to do with anti-oxidants? Which should be a good thing, but it makes me want to throw up.”
“I don’t know how you have the energy,” Lila mutters. “It’s like you have natural caffeine in your bloodstream.”
“Oh.” I resist the urge to wink at her. “Yes, I’ve been told.”
We end up at a stall that sells pizza slices and wraps. It’s interesting that Lila manages to make eating hand food look elegant and perfectly professional.
“I apologize for my behavior last night,” Lila says, once we’ve found a bench to sit on. It’s not a comfortable bench and I kinda want to go back indoors, but Lila did pay for my food so I suck it up and munch next to her.
“It’s okay,” I say easily. “I’m sorry for losing my temper on you, too.”
Hello, I think that’s a smile I see on her lips. “You call that losing your temper?” she asks.
We eat quietly for a while, and I’m not at all surprised to see that Lila has a monstrous supply of wet wipes and tissue paper in her handbag.
“How long have you been working for the Foundation?” I ask.
Lila is frowning a little when she looks over at me, like she suspects that my curiosity hides a malicious sneak attack. The cautious expression doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, which I think it’s supposed to. Instead it makes me feel a little sad; while Rolanda, Jake and Michael get along like a house on fire even when it isn’t work on the table (and how easy it is for me to fit in there), on some level Lila’s only tolerated because of how brilliant she is. I know why Rolanda doesn’t like to spend time with Lila if she can help it, but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right.
“A few years,” Lila says. “Longer than Michael, actually. He replaced my previous boss a year after I joined.”
“Oh,” I say, surprised by how much further that stretches Lila’s history in the Foundation. “Wow. That means you’ve seen it grow and evolve.”
“You could say that.” Now it’s Lila who’s squirming a little. It’s very subtle and not noticeable if I weren’t looking for it, and I realize to my own joy that she doesn’t like being put under the microscope.
Well, too bad for her. Conversation is what people do when they have lunch together, so there.
“This is my first job,” I tell her. “Well, first real job.”
“You don’t say.”
“But I do plan to continue my studies one day,” I continue. “I haven’t decided in what field, though.”
“There are a number of good universities in Astro City,” Lila says.
“Oh, I didn’t mean here necessarily,” I clarify. “The city is nice and all, but I don’t know if I want to stay here for good. It is freaking expensive.”
Lila nods. “Can’t disagree with that. But if you did come to Astro City to learn, it won’t be enough to have a few months under your belt. That’s barely touching the surface.” I’m warmed that Lila remembers our conversation from last night, though there’s no telling whether she believes me entirely.
Suddenly she puts down her wrap and looks at me – really looks at me, with that same laser-like focus she sets on the billion and one reports that go through the office every day.
“What do you want to do with your life, Roxanne?” she asks.
So many people have asked me this question before, but I’d never felt any real weight behind the words. The future is a vast but a distant thing on the horizon, not getting any closer no matter how many decisions I make or how many bags I pack. Starting my working life didn’t change that, because there’s always the option to walk away and find something new.
But now, when Lila says it, it’s almost like—
It’s almost like the future is much closer that I’d thought.
I’m unsettled by this.
“I don’t know,” I answer her honestly. Lila nods, like this is what she expected. I think that between the two of us, I’m the one more disappointed by my answer. I chuckle sheepishly. “I bet you always knew what you wanted to do with your life.”
“No,” Lila says simply.
I make a disbelieving noise. “But you always seem so sure about everything.”
Lila definitely looks amused now, but I’m too busy being pressed down by the unexpected weight of the conversation to revel in my success. She says, “You know what they say about appearances.”
“Well, yes …” I feel like adding a but, though I don’t what I’d follow that up with.
“Eat up or your pizza’s going to get cold,” Lila says.
I eat up, though it’s already cold.
I still feel thrown by the unexpected conversation. As my brain sometimes does in situations like these, I take a turn down another road.
“Last night,” I say, “Did you see the tattoos those guys had on their arms?”
Lila doesn’t make a noise or change her expression in any obvious way, but I know that she’s surprised.
“I sketched them,” I continue, when Lila still hasn’t responded. I shove the last of my pizza slice into my mouth and rummage through my bag for my notepad, ready to argue the use of office stationery for something that may not have to do with work. “There.”
“You remember that amount of detail from something you saw at night?” Lila asks, this time not putting any effort at masking her surprise.
“I wasn’t exactly busy at the time,” I remind her. “That was all you.”
She looks at the sketch, and – I don’t know how I know this either, because her expression hasn’t shifted in any overtly perceptible way – she is worried by what she sees. “That’s the mark of the Em Copperhead gang.”
“Their territory is near the East side docks,” she says, which doesn’t really answer my question. “They shouldn’t be this side of the city at all.”
I quietly drink up the last my juice box has to offer, fascinated by the way the thoughts she’s thinking harden the lines of her face.
“You done?” Lila asks.
I’m used to her abruptness by now, so I don’t miss my cue to throw my rubbish and match my stride to hers when she starts walking back to the office.
The first person I met at the Lochley Foundation was Rolanda. I was walking up the stairs to the entrance when Rolanda rushed past me. She looked harried and a little wild-eyed (later I learned that this was normal for her out-of-office experiences), but she stopped when I called out, asking whether she was from the Foundation, and if they had any clerical openings.
“Probably,” Rolanda had said. “Actually, the answer is yes, there’s always an admin position open, but I don’t know if we’re able to afford it right now. Go in and ask for Lila Menon.”
I knocked the door and met Jake, who initially thought I was trying to sell something.
My first impression of the office was: gosh, this place is tiny. I could recognize the essentials of the busy workplace – desks, shelves, filing cabinets, dividers – but at first glance it seemed that somebody had picked up their office and shaken it like they would a snow globe.
A-ha, said a part of my brain, a challenge. Filing would be way more interesting here than it had been back at the Spencer library.
When I met Lila, I understandably mistook her for the boss. It was the way she swept out to meet me like every corporate stereotype brought to life, and with one glance made me feel woefully underdressed for a professional meet ‘n greet.
“What experience do you have?” Lila asked.
I gave her my CV while talking her through the basics of my college diploma and brief summertime experience. As she flipped through my papers with an unimpressed scowl, I saw Jake hovering just behind her, looking interested in the proceedings but reluctant to step forward and make that interest known.
“All right.” She lifted the folder over her shoulder and Jake promptly took it from her hands. “We’ll contact you. Thank you for dropping by.”
I stared at her for a moment, surprised. It was nothing like the job interviews I’d been told to expect back in college (long discussions on what they do, the job scope, expected benefits, etc.), but Lila merely stared back, looking for all the world like I’d deliberately dropped by to waste her time. Over her shoulder, Jake gave me an apologetic shrug.
Understandably, I didn’t expect Jake to call me the very next day. Nor did I expect, when I came back to the office a few days after, for Lila to shove me at Rolanda, ordering her to show me what to do. Rolanda was thrilled to have me around, and it took it upon herself to show me the nooks and crannies of the city whenever able.
And that was how I got hired by the Lochley Foundation.
Yeah, they really needed an admin assistant.
When Lila and I get back to the office, there’s a stranger talking to Michael. They both turn to look at us when we enter, and though the stranger’s uniform isn’t one I recognize, it screams police officer.
“This is Inspector Gan Sook Wai of the Hong Kong Liaison Bureau,” Michael says, introducing the newcomer.
“Interpol,” Lila says. She shakes his hand firmly. “Lila Menon, Program Manager.”
“He met with Mayor Stansfield this morning,” Michael explains. “Came back with Jake.”
Lila takes this information in with a nod. “How can we help you?”
“I was just talking with Mr. Hathaway on the remarkable work your organization has achieved over the past few years.” Inspector Gan’s voice is low, like being drawn over gravel, which is an interesting contrast with his small stature. “Truly remarkable. I was especially impressed with your efforts to provide a modicum of human traceability in the city, considering how touchy your people are over even the slightest suggestion of… what’s the term? Big Brother.”
“Traceability isn’t the word we’d use, Inspector Gan,” Lila says. “Our memorandum to city hall was merely to suggest that there be better mechanisms in place to accept the influx of immigrants, both national and international—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Inspector Gan says, and Lila draws her lips together tightly at being interrupted. The Inspector continues blithely, “There was particular emphasis on a certain specific number of people of whom there has been documented evidence of their arrival into the city, but whose whereabouts can no longer be traced. Surely people change identities all the time? That’s to say nothing of how easy it is to disappear in the industrial melting pot that is your fair city.”
“And there are also those who are taken because people know that no one is looking out for them,” Lila says. “Why are you here, Inspector Gan?”
“In the appendix there was a mention of suspected triad recruiting drives gaining activity in recent months, masquerading as legitimate job prospects,” Inspector Gan says. “And it was suggested that said triad has ties to Hong Kong or mainland China families.”
“We only included that note for the sake of posterity.” Lila sounds way too calm. “It was also mentioned that it’s one of a series of rumors on the ground, with no hard evidence whatsoever to back it up. I find it interesting that you’d mention that, considering said appendix was not included in the city hall memo.”
That means that said information was only included in the internal report, a copy of which was passed to the Lochley Foundation’s Shanghai branch. I’m surprised, because Rolanda only sent them the email yesterday.
“We’ve been monitoring the ground situation for some time,” Michael cuts in, “But like Ms. Menon says, we don’t have anything concrete. If we did, we would have made a police report.”
Inspector Gan nods, like he agrees with their following of protocol. “I require all the documents you have on the matter,” he says.
“We can provide copies for you, but our documents stay in this office,” Michael says firmly.
I feel a shudder at those words – making copies is my job.
The tension in the office doesn’t improve after Inspector Gan leaves. For the first time since I’ve started working here, Michael looks unhappy. He asks Jake to get the Shanghai branch on the line, after which there is a rather heated phone conversation in Michael’s room.
When Lila comes by my desk to check the copies I’ve made for Inspector Gan, there is a look on her face that I don’t recognize. Maybe it’s because I’ve made a game of trying to place the different shades of placid calm that is Lila’s default expression that I find myself intrigued by it – but there’s also something subtly familiar about it, calling on a memory that flutters at the edge of my thoughts.
Michael comes out of his room looking a little put out. It’s not my fault at all that I can hear it clearly when he says to Lila, “I told you not to add that note about the triad connection in the report. We don’t have any hard evidence whatsoever on the matter, and if HQ hears that this faux pass put Interpol on our doorstep, we’re going to get a firm tap on the wrist, and you know what that means. Our budget’s tight enough as it is.”
“Everything will be all right,” Lila says, voice gentler than I’ve ever heard it before.
The memory slots into place, and I can’t breathe.
“It usually is,” Michael says, “But that doesn’t mean we can afford to let our guard down.”
Lila nods at him once before returning to her desk. I only see it happen on the periphery of my vision, because I’m too busy staring at my typewriter and trying to get my racing heart to calm down.
That voice is kindness and steel all at once, with a certain softness in the all right, almost like it’s offended at the suggestion that it would be anything but all right.
I’ve heard that phrase spoken before with that exact same intonation.
It can’t be.
I sit there until the evening clock-out, fingers and hands seamlessly going through the motions.
By the end of it, I’ve changed my mind, and start thinking that maybe, it can.
It makes sense, I guess, that Lila would be a superhero.
I haven’t thought much about how Astro City superheroes manage their dual lives (well, for those that have dual lives, which isn’t always the case) because I have, to some extent, thought of the gallery of caped crusaders as being all the time. There always seems to be something sinister going on in the city, and there’s always at least half a dozen of them in the papers at any given time, so it’s hard to comprehend them being able to fit an extra-curricular life in between their day (or night) job.
But thinking about Lila in that context? I’m starting to understand how it might work.
In her current position, Lila has access to a wide and vastly complicated on-the-ground network (if my impressions so far on the Lochley Foundation’s connections prove accurate), which would be an invaluable resource for keeping tabs on what’s happening on the ground. The Lochley Foundation’s scope of work does fit in with social issues that some superheroes are known for being interested in.
Then there’s Lila herself.
I’ve seen her punch a grown man (okay, grown men) without hesitating, but it’s not just that. Lila’s passionate and intense when it comes to the things that she believes in. She’s no different from the others that way, but Lila burns, and more than once I’ve seen her eyes blazing with barely-concealed impatience for how the rest of the world doesn’t share the same priorities with her.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Lila might be pushed to work outside the system to get things done.
Then there’s the fact that although the work hours are long, they’re highly irregular, so she can pop out whenever she wants to without anyone else batting an eyelash.
It’s a perfect cover.
I’m watching when Lila clocks out way ahead of her usual time. Normally she stays in late and closes up the place, but today she’s excusing herself relatively early, which means only about half an hour after Rolanda called it a day.
I wait for about twenty minutes after she’s gone before I say aloud: “What does Lila think about superheroes?”
Jake, the only person left behind, stops what he’s doing and glances over me. He looks surprised and reluctant in equal measure.
“You guys got all weird last night at dinner when I brought it up,” I point out. “Come on, you can tell me.”
It’s a cheap shot, but I put on the most earnest expression I can manage.
Jake sighs. “I guess you should know.” He gets up and sits on the edge of his desk, fiddling with his tie like it makes him nervous to talk about this. “Lila doesn’t like superheroes. Never has, as far as I can tell. She thinks we shouldn’t – can’t – trust any of them.”
I sit back, stunned. “What?”
“No accountability, those were her exact words,” Jake says seriously. “She had a big row with Rolanda about it some time back. So I’d really recommend it if you never try to ask her about that again. It wouldn’t… It wouldn’t be good. Frankly, I’m still surprised that she didn’t rip your head off last night.”
“But…” I try to process his. “But why?”
Jake’s eyes dart around, though there’s no one around to listen. “Don’t tell her I told you any of this.”
“Of course not.”
“I don’t know the full story,” he says, “But I personally think it comes down to trust issues. I’m sure you know what Lila’s like by now: she wants everyone to be on the same page as her. She demands it.”
I nod. “Yeah, that’s pretty clear.”
“She barely tolerates incompetence when it comes to things that she thinks are important and,” Jake says slowly, “I think that’s inherent in her attitudes towards superheroes.”
I remember with startling clarity her words to me last night. You can’t always hope that a superhero will come to your rescue.
“Do you think… Do you think maybe a superhero messed things up for her? Like in her past?” I’m surprised by how my heart twists at the notion. “Like, somebody important to her got hurt because of one of them?”
Jake looks surprised, and then uncomfortable. “Actually, no, I hadn’t thought of that at all. I was going to say that I think Lila doesn’t like superheroes because she thinks they only go after the big, glamorous villains, which I completely disagree with. So does Rolanda. Lila won’t hear any of that, though. All I know for sure is that Lila seems to have this huge vendetta against them, but I never really wondered why. Your theory actually makes sense.”
I feel wrecked.
It doesn’t make sense. I was so sure that Lila is a superhero, but this seems to throw that idea out the window.
Or does it?
I like Lila.
I think that we could be good friends. I have good instincts when it comes to these things, and the last thing I want to do is mess up the chance of there being something good between us. This isn’t like my friendship with Jake, Rolanda or Michael.
I adore the others, but I look at Lila and there’s this overwhelming need to know.
I’m fascinated by the way she can alternate between kindness and irritation in the same breath, the way that despite appearances she’s actually way more socially maladjusted than I am thanks to her prickly behavior (and boy, is she lucky that I have not used that knowledge to my advantage) and the way she simply doesn’t take bullshit from anyone.
I make my decision.
I spend something like an hour – during which I have my dinner – steeling my nerves, and then I’m off to Lila’s apartment, braving the night cold for a conversation I’m not entirely sure I have the guts to have. I think I’m mentally ready by the time I hit her apartment block. My mind’s teetering on that narrow place between fear and adrenaline that leaves you feeling light-headed but ready to jump.
Then all that preparation comes crashing down when my vision sharpens and I see Lila walking down the street away from me.
I barely stop myself from crying out halt, because she is not going to get away from me now.
I just know that if I lose this moment I might never be able to get it back, so I pick up my pace going after her.
Lila’s walking really quickly. I know she has a brisk stride, but this is ridiculous. I’d have to run if I want to catch her at this rate, but I’m already a bundle of nerves and don’t need another reason to be self-conscious hitting up the streets like a nocturnal Road Runner.
Where is Lila going in such a hurry, anyway?
Urgency gives way to curiosity. I’m fully aware that it’s none of my business what Lila does during her off hours, but I’ve come so far (seriously, I’ve like, fulfilled my brisk walk quota for the week) that I can’t bring myself to turn around without some sort of pay-off.
Eventually Lila stops. She stands on the curb – and uh-oh, I have absolutely no idea where we are now – and then ducks into an alleyway between one blink and the next.
I follow, drawing close to the wall and trying not to be seen.
Lila’s walking slower now, though her footsteps are damn near silent as she travels down the alleyway.
I feel a chill that has absolutely nothing to do with the weather when I take in these new surroundings. There’s a sense of abandonment and danger down this way, and I suspect that this one of the city’s hidden sweatshop underbellies that Jake’s told me about.
I freeze for a moment when I recognize one of the graffiti symbols on the wall – it’s the gang symbol I sketched last night. What was the name Lila used? Copperhead?
The thought occurs to me that maybe last night’s mugging wasn’t random. Throat tight, I make haste down the alley, hoping I haven’t lost her.
Then I turn the corner and my senses scream an alarm at the ambush.
My hands are up defensively. A hand catches my wrist but I twist my arm against the other’s natural angle, legs braced to get a knee up somewhere uncomfortable, but then the other person stops suddenly.
“Roxanne?” Lila stares at me, and boy, is she pissed. “What the hell are you doing here?” Before I can answer, she’s shaking her head. “It doesn’t matter – you have to go, right now, no arguing.”
“There’s no time,” Lila hisses. “You have to—”
Her eyes sharpen at the sound of an approaching truck. Suddenly she’s pushed me up against the wall, a hand on my mouth as a truck passes the edge of the alley.
She lets me go when the truck’s gone, but it’s not to talk. She reaches into her jacket to take out something small and electronic, pressing keys that make the screen light up with what looks like a digital map of Astro City. There’s a little light on it that’s bleeping brightly, and I realize that it’s a tracking device.
“I knew it,” I say without thinking. “I knew you’re a superhero.”
Lila’s gaze snaps up to mine at that. “What gave you that idea?”
My heart is pounding so hard I think it may have short-circuited my tongue. “You’re Winged Victory, aren’t you? I knew it. Well, I didn’t know you were Winged Victory, not for sure, but you had to be a superhero, it just made so much sense when I thought about it. You’re so smart and of course you’re the sort of person who’d want to do things yourself to make sure that it’s done properly—”
“Roxanne,” Lila says, and her voice is so soft that I’m startled into silence. “I’m not Winged Victory.”
I look up at her, stunned. “But you…”
Her gaze is patient and, as I watch, slowly turns into something wretchedly kind. “I’m flattered,” she says. “But, no.”
I let out of a rush of air through my mouth, having not realized how much I wanted it to be true until it wasn’t. Even when I consciously told myself that the chances were slim that she was Winged Victory, my subconscious had apparently fallen hard for the idea.
Disappointment is sour, but something else rises up and latches on – something Lila didn’t say.
“It’s none of my business,” I say, fumbling. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I should say so,” Lila agrees, but she sounds more confused than angry. “You followed me.”
I nod sheepishly. “Err. Yes.”
Now she looks bewildered. “Why?”
“I was going to…” Another thought slots into place, and I glance over her shoulder to where the truck had passed by on its way to what looks like a warehouse. “You’re investigating the triad recruiting drive. The one that the Foundation has no business investigating.”
That lemony squint is back. “This is not the time and place to—”
“You’ve been snooping around, and the Copperheads got wind of it and tried to intimidate you yesterday, only that gave away their identity. Then Inspector Gan came today because he’s also investigating it, and you want to beat him to the punch!”
“Roxanne,” Lila sighs.
“I can help!” I insist. “Please, take me with you! I want to learn, that’s why I’m here!”
I didn’t come to Astro City on a whim.
I’m not stupid. I’ve followed the news for years; I know how often Astro City faces peril.
I’m sure Lila has a whole picture in her head of this clueless farm girl wanting to make it big in the city: maybe get a job on tv or snag a boyfriend, only to end up renting a ratty little room on Willard and York, then getting a job as a lowly administrative assistant in a (previously) four-man operation that almost never gets a shout-out in the papers because there’s no other work available.
It makes for a typical narrative if it were true, but I work for the Lochley Foundation by choice.
They’re one of the few grass-roots organizations that monitor urban issues in the city. So many things fall between the city cracks but don’t make the papers because their names don’t mean anything to the greater backdrop that is the city, with all its other dimensions and aliens and supervillains that turn up to spoil everyone’s dinner.
There are heroes – the ones who wear masks and face the fantastically impossible every day – and then there are heroes – the ones who walk with both feet on the ground and face the impossible grind every day. I came to Astro City content to admire one from afar and learn from the other up close.
What better place than Astro City to learn how to face the impossible on a daily basis?
I never wanted or even dared to hope for anything more.
Lila obviously has a lot more to say to me, but this is not the time. She also obviously wants to kick me to the curb, but I think she’s reconsidered the benefit of having an extra pair of hands. To be frank, I’m perfectly happy to be a lookout, decoy or stand-around prop right now.
“Stay close,” she tells me, “but do exactly as I say, or else. Got it?”
I do as instructed, keeping close as Lila walks up to the end of the alley, keeping close to the wall and studying the little electronic device in her head.
There’s a couple of warehouses shoved up together beyond the mouth of the alley but there’s very little activity save for the occasional truck and handful of heavy labor men hanging around. They look huge and possibly threatening but at the moment to seem to be preoccupied with milling around aimlessly.
“This is what’s going to happen,” Lila says to me. “I’m going to sneak inside. You are going to stay here, and if I’m not back in twenty minutes, you’re going to call the police.”
“Okay,” I say.
I think Lila expected more protests, because she frowns suspiciously. “You promise?”
“Yes.” I don’t know why she’s surprised, I’m exactly this agreeable when she bosses me around at work. “This is obviously a case that means a great deal to you, so I know better than to mess it up.”
“I only want to get some pictures,” Lila says carefully, like she’s not sure I understand. “All I need is evidence of their activities, and then it’s going straight to the authorities. Inspector Gan is an outsider, and I don’t trust him to not tip them off and set them fleeing the country. This is Astro City business, you got it?”
“Got it.” I crouch down behind a box. “Waiting right here.”
Lila casts me one last skeptical look and then she’s gone, slinking into the shadows towards the closest warehouse. My eyesight’s well above average so I’m able to watch as she shimmies up the side of the warehouse with enviable agility. Hanging precariously near one of the ventilation windows, she takes out what I assume is a camera to get some pictures of whatever it is that’s inside.
I watch and wait, and watch some more.
I definitely don’t do anything rash when I see two men walking alongside the warehouse in Lila’s direction.
I do, however, find a small piece of broken-off brick that I throw at a garbage can, so the noise draws their attention away. Lila sees the movement and, realizing how close she was to being spotted, she retreats down the wall and ducks behind some boxes for cover.
A reconnaissance mission should be easy. Lila’s obviously done this before, so she knows what she’s doing. She’s never had me tagging along before either, so it’s safe to assume that all her previous efforts at shadowy subterfuge were successful.
Perhaps it’s the world’s tendency to connive against people at the best/worst moments; perhaps it’s just a damn coincidence how one minute I’m watching Lila sneak back towards me, and the next minute there are gunshots.
I suppress a scream at the sudden explosion of noise, ducking down with my hands around my ears.
Then there’s shouting, a lot of it angry and peppered with curses.
I raise my head as far as I dare to see the chaos beyond. Men are spilling out of the warehouse, most of them heavily armed, and they’re shooting at someone beyond my line of sight.
I can’t see Lila – I can’t see Lila.
Stop. Don’t panic.
Lila knows where I am. She’ll come to me. Just stay put.
There are more gunshots, some of them closer, followed by the heavy whine of the warehouse’s double doors opening. There’s a man standing there, and as soon as the doors are open to his liking, he’s marching out into the street, the others clamoring to get behind him.
It might be a trick of the light, but I think that guy’s got a metal head.
“He’s found us,” he declares ominously, his voice every bit as deep and mechanical-organic as I’d thought it would be. “Get on clean-up, this ends tonight.”
There’s sharp agreement from the guys around him, and then Metal Head’s marching down to where the action is.
I let my eyes move in the opposite direction, and that’s when I finally see Lila. It’s not the relief it should be, because she’s fighting three of the warehouse thugs. She’s every bit as fast as she was last night and a part of my brain marvels at the elegance of whatever martial arts she’s been trained in, but the other part of my brain’s focused on the fact that there are three guys surrounding her and two more approaching the fray.
I gasp with relief when Lila manages to shake them and starts running my way. She catches my eye as soon as she’s close enough, and then I’m running alongside her.
“We get on the roof.” She’s slightly breathless from running, which makes her very fit, but still very human. “It’s dangerous for them up there – makes them easy targets.”
I follow when Lila leaps up on to a random fire escape and starts climbing. I get on to another one parallel to hers, and we’re going up. She’s right about them being easy targets – most of the superheroes’ beats are on the rooftops or in the sky, so it makes sense that criminals would prefer to stay on the ground.
We’re damn fast climbers, and almost make it to the top before they start shooting at us.
“Watch out!” Lila shouts, swinging around to the other side of her ladder, but that’s no protection at all.
This is not how I die.
Twisting my ankles firmly around the ladder rung, I release my hands and aim my palms down.
“Lila, close your eyes,” I say, but it’s more for posterity’s sake, because I know she won’t obey without explanation. I flex my fingers, stretching inner muscles that have absolutely nothing to do with typing.
There’s a burst of light so bright that it leaves brief spots of red behind my eyelids.
The men below are snarling and cursing, all of them blinded by the flash. I hear a muffled shout from Lila as well, and when I look, her grip has slipped. My eyes recover fast, so I leap across to Lila’s ladder and grab her arms, steadying her before she can fall.
“Lila, trust me,” I say urgently. The effect won’t last long; the men will surely start firing blindly soon. “Just this once.”
Lila’s hand curls over mine, and that’s all I need.
I draw her arms around my neck, guiding her fingers to interlock behind my head. Then I kick away from the ladder, and we’re flying.
I was twelve when I flew for the first time.
Some girls get training bras, I got flying lessons. Okay, I also got training bras, but said new addition to my wardrobe felt rather incidental against the revelation that I could defy gravity.
“I thought it wouldn’t pass on,” was my mother’s response when I told her. It was a good thing I did, too, since she was the only one who could give me any answers. “None of you showed any sign of it as children, so I thought…”
Not that my mother offered anything more than training for how to keep those powers under control. She refused to talk about her past no matter how much I pried. The most I’ve been able to piece together over the years is that she wasn’t always human, but she’d gotten trapped in human form after being disowned by her family. There’s a massive story there, I know there is, but she always looks sad whenever I bring it up.
It was nice to have something secret with my mother for a while – that is, until Alice had her jealous hissy fit and there was another awful year in between when she and I couldn’t get along at all.
Anyway, at twelve, the most I wanted to do in life was not humiliate myself at school. There’s a reason they’re called the awkward years, and the powers did not help in the slightest.
Getting powers was pretty much only an extreme version of puberty.
Not to mention that I had to keep them secret for so long – especially from my other family members, and boy did that suck – that I often forget that I have them at all.
They’re a part of who I am, but not how I define myself.
“You okay?” I’ve set Lila down on a nearby roof, but she turns away from me the moment her feet touch brick, and it’s doing absolutely nothing to calm my nerves. “Lila?”
I feel myself bristling on the defensive when Lila starts to turn back to look at me. She’s going to have questions, demands for answers and explanations—
“Can you take me back?” she asks.
Or she could just have a request.
Lila continues, “We should get pictures of Inspector Gan.”
“Inspector Gan?” I echo.
“He was at the warehouse,” Lila says. “You didn’t see him? Oh, that’s right, you were hiding, thank you for listening to me. And thank you for the… other thing. But I think we need to get some evidence of Gan… I knew he was going to jump the gun on the gang.”
“Oh,” I say, surprised. “Okay, sure.”
Lila steps forward, then pauses. “Can you take my weight? Do you have superstrength as well?”
“No, no superstrength,” I answer. “Just flight, the light thing, the hearing thing, and my eyesight’s pretty good. But no strength. I used to be a gymnast, though, so I think I’m pretty fit by regular human standards.”
We fly back sneakily, Lila gets her pictures, Inspector Gan turns out to be a cyborg with a personal vendetta against the Metal Head leader of the Em Copperhead gang – though we stay the hell away from that fracas and get out as soon as Samaritan drops by to see what the ruckus is about.
It’s not our fight, and we’re both happy enough to leave it to the professionals.
Even so, it’s quite a night, and I’m still in something of a daze by the time we get back to walking like normal people on the street pavement and Lila’s insisted on sending me home again.
“I’ve been following their activities for over a year now,” Lila tells me. “It’s not just the recruiting drives – I’ve suspected for a long time that they’ve been behind other activities: extortion, piracy, illegal gambling. I know what you’re thinking… Why would they set up shop in here, right? The fact of the matter is that there are so many other bigger things going on here that what they’re up to looks petty and significantly far down the hierarchy of urgency.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” I agree. “Is that why you don’t like superheroes? Because they don’t choose to look at the things you find important?”
Lila looks surprised, and then amused. “No. I don’t trust superheroes for the same reason I don’t trust any Tom, Dick or Harry off the street. No matter how many interviews they give, or how many stories are written about them in the papers, they’re strangers. In fact they’re even more so than regular people, because they choose to hide behind their disguises.”
“But you’re one of them,” I point out. Lila starts to protest, but I stop her with a hand on her arm. “You may not have a disguise or a glamorous name or even superhuman abilities, but you make the choice to step up and take things into your own hands because you trust only in yourself to do it the right way. That’s the exact same thing.”
Lila didn’t deny being a superhero earlier, and she doesn’t do so now either.
Instead, she cocks an eyebrow at me and says, “Like you?”
I laugh. “Just because I have superpowers, that doesn’t make me a hero. You need to choose to be one, like you have.”
“So you don’t have a… a name? A persona?”
I make a rude noise. “No way.”
We’re at our stop. The front door of my apartment building is right there, but I’m not ready to go in yet.
Tonight’s changed things between us, but I can’t see how far it’ll go.
The empty canvas of my future never bothered me before, but now, the uncertainty of the path ahead fills me with something that’s a mix of dread and excitement. What is coming up next? What’s going to happen tomorrow?
Will what happened tonight happen again?
I can tell by the look on Lila’s face that she doesn’t have a clue either. I know this much about her: she is a person set in her ways, comfortable in the system that makes her world work. I wasn’t part of that plan, but now I am, if only because I know this side of her now. It’s pretty obvious how much Lila keeps things close to herself, so I suspect that she’s more unnerved than I am by how okay this thing is between us.
It shouldn’t be. Not between someone like her and someone like me.
“Okay, I better go in,” I say reluctantly.
Lila nods slowly, just as reluctant. “See you tomorrow.”
The thing about having superpowers is the assumption that they’ll somehow make your life more amazing. Or, failing that, more purposeful.
It wasn’t like that for me growing up. As instructed by my mom, I kept my powers under wraps, only using them when absolutely necessary. I wish I could say that I’d used them to be noble and heroic, but I quickly learned that nobility and heroism can only exist when the circumstances are right.
Spencer has its own heroes: regular people who look out for each other, and I love all of them dearly. There was nothing lacking, no niche for me to fill. Frankly speaking, I was happy to not have any responsibility beyond that of my schoolwork and immediate family.
But my powers were still there. Though I didn’t need them and rarely used them, I did think about them.
It’s one of the reasons I started looking to the coast. I looked to Astro City in particular, where people who were far smarter and better than me used what they were given to better the world. I’m nothing like the confident and self-assured heroes whose mere profiles struck fear and awe into the hearts of millions. (Winged Victory soars through the sky in a way I’ve never been able to emulate, and not just because I don’t have wings of my own.) Their powers made them more, and that fascinated me so much, because my powers seemed to make me less – I was always self-conscious and felt vaguely guilty that I couldn’t make use of my powers beyond mundane things like hunting for a flashlight during power outages.
When I made the decision to come to Astro City, my powers were a footnote in the decision. The city has at least two dozen heroes at any given time ready to be heroic at a moment’s notice, and it did not even cross my mind to consider becoming one of them – no more than a child who’d performed once in a school play would consider their chances of joining their favorite stars by trying to make it big in Hollywood.
I came here for me.
I want to learn to be more, and the Lochley Foundation gives me the chance to do exactly that, getting to know the city, its people, and how to make a difference down where the light doesn’t touch often.
When I get to work the next morning, Rolanda’s already at her desk, which is a shocker. She’s got a newspaper open – the front headline announces the exploits of Crackerjack, some new superhero I don’t recognize – and gestures at me the moment I step through the door.
“Check it out,” she says, flipping the paper back to a huge spread on page three.
The photo at the top of the page clearly shows Inspector Gan and the Metal Head from last night in combat on the docks. It’s surreal to look at, as if somebody snuck into my head and took a picture, so I focus instead on marveling at the amount of detail in the photo – Lila’s must’ve paid a pretty penny for her camera lenses.
“Isn’t that the guy that was here yesterday?” I say.
“I know, right,” Rolanda says excitedly. She starts telling me the Cliff’s Notes version of the article, though most of the information comes from Lila’s off-the-record investigation, so I heard it all last night. I wonder, idly, how Lila managed to get that information to the Rocket so quickly. Does she know someone on the inside who’d take it readily for immediate printing? It does seem likely.
“Isn’t it weird how closely we were connected to that operation?” Rolanda asks.
“We were?” I respond. “Wasn’t it, like, a note in an appendix that had him pouncing?”
“Semantics,” Rolanda says, voice light with teasing. “They totally should’ve put our name in that article. Given credit where it was due.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jake says, pressing his hip against a corner of Rolanda’s desk. “Why didn’t Gan mention that he got that tip-off from us? That’s just impolite.”
Out of the corner of my eye I notice Lila looming in close on the edge of our little triangle. Hence, I’m the only one who doesn’t jump when she suddenly declares, “If the lot of you don’t have anything to do, I’d be more than happy to prescribe some tasks.”
There’s a moment of bedlam where Rolanda and Jake make like they’re completely swamped with work and rush to get down to their individual tasks.
I wander off to my own desk, buoyed by the easy affection of the moment, and it’s only by chance that I look up when I do and catch Lila looking at me. She has an eyebrow raised, and it’s such a familiar gesture that I can’t help but smile in response, shrugging carelessly (and a tad insolently) at her like I always do.
Like nothing’s changed.
Lila rolls her eyes and snaps her fingers, pointing one finger at where my stacks of dailies await.
Yeah, that’s definitely not changed.
The rest of the day moves on in its regular fashion: phone calls, reports, copying and binding, et cetera. Lila still orders us around, Rolanda eats her chocolate-covered coffee beans, Michael asks me to proofread about a dozen documents that I need the office dictionary to understand.
When I join Rolanda and Jake for lunch (I considered asking Lila to join, but the look on her face killed that idea dead), I think that I’d like to be here when spring finally comes.
It would be nice to see summer, too.
Fall wouldn’t be bad, either, if the food Rolanda keeps talking about are half as good as she claims they are.
I’m fast asleep when loud tapping rudely wakes me up.
I blink a few times, annoyed and sleepy, while the rest of my brain boots up. When I realize where the noise is coming from, the irritation flips to shock, and I quickly roll over to look at my room’s sole window.
There’s a shadow behind the thin white gauze that passes for curtains. That’s definitely a hand tapping at the glass.
I lie there for a while, debating whether to scream or find out who it is and then scream, when the shadow hisses, “Roxanne! It’s me!”
Even if it is, supposedly, my boss currently crouched on the narrow windowsill outside my building, I’m still going to take a moment to pull on an additional sweater and grab the mace from my bag.
“What are you doing here?” I ask once I’ve pulled the curtain back and confirmed that it is, in fact, Lila.
“Let me in, it’s cold,” she snaps.
It feels a little like I’m still asleep and dreaming as I watch Lila duck into the room and drop to the floor, landing surprisingly quietly on booted feet. She’s dressed all in black, gloves and turtleneck wrapping her almost entirely in shadow, her dark hair pulled back into a severe ponytail at the nape of her neck. There’s no mask, though it’s not hard to imagine one easily joining the ensemble.
“The Lochley Foundation has a scholarship program,” Lila says. “It’s centralized at HQ, but it’s safe to assume that Michael would be more than happy to write a recommendation letter for you. You can continue your work with us and study part-time at one of the local schools, if that’s what you want.”
“Oh, thank you, that’s a good idea,” I say thoughtfully. Suddenly I frown. “You couldn’t have told me this at work?”
“I wanted to show off my wardrobe.” Though dripping with sarcasm, there’s also something quietly genuine in her words. “I was thinking about what you said.”
“What’d I say?”
“That there are things I can do when I’m not Lila Menon. Em Copperhead tracked me down, and that would have easily lead them to the Foundation. I can’t have that.” After a pause, in which she looks sheepish and a little defensive, she adds, “I have been thinking about it for some time, I’ll have you know. It’s just that I’d felt stupid for wanting to dress up just so I can go out and investigate the things I want to.”
“You want to follow the cases that fall through the cracks.” I feel something warm and hopeful bloom in my chest. “I think that’s amazing. It’s the logical progression, really, you were practically there already.”
“Yes,” Lila says slowly.
I’m so grateful that Lila’s sharing this with me. “That’s great. I’m so happy for you.”
“Um…” I consider her outfit. “You need a mask. And a name, I’m guessing. You already have the moves, you look pretty cool as a cat burglar, although I guess in your case you’re a cat… information gatherer?”
“Damn it, Roxanne,” Lila snarls, “I’m asking if you would like to join me.”
I stare at her.
“I think we can help each other,” she continues. “Think of it… Like work, only with different outfits.”
“You’re only asking me this because of my powers,” I say quietly.
“Actually,” Lila says wryly, “Your powers gave me second thoughts about offering at all. If you were normal, I wouldn’t have to worry about whatever complicated superhero history you’ve got—”
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Lila says gently. “You don’t owe me anything. This is just… I think we can be good for each other. You felt it, too, last night. Didn’t you?”
I nod. “Yes.” Then I’m quiet, because I can see that this is costing Lila something to say in front of someone she still barely knows.
“You said two days ago that you thought I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I said no,” Lila says. “That isn’t exactly true. I do know what I want to do with my life. I want to help people in whatever small, barely-noticeable-but-still-important way that I can. What I didn’t always know was how to do it. In the daytime I have the Foundation. At night, I may have something else.”
I swallow nervously, eyes dropping to the floor. “But I don’t… I’m not like you.”
“But you want to learn,” Lila says, her voice firmer now. “I believe that’s what you said.”
I feel like I’m standing on the edge of something huge and wonderful. Having the ability to fly doesn’t make the feeling any less terrifying.
“Yes, I do,” I whisper.
“There’s a species of passerine bird,” Lila says, her tone tentative. It makes me look up, and that intense look is back in her eyes, like she’s trying to drill a hole right through my head. “The Nectariniidae. Small but powerful, their wings beat so fast they can hover in place—”
“Like a hummingbird?”
“Similar, but not the same.” Lila smiles, but it’s awkward, the closest to shy I think I’ll ever see on her face. “It’s not as poetic as you’d think. Nothing particularly meaningful or relevant. I just thought they have a nice name. Sunbird.”
God forgive me, but I’m already imagining what my costume might look like.
“Just think about it,” Lila says. Then she’s climbing back up to the window. Another awkward smile later, she’s ducked out, and I close the latch behind her.
I think about it.
I fall asleep thinking about it, and wake up thinking about it.
While I’m getting ready to go to work – only to realize that it’s a Saturday and I got up early for nothing – I make a mental note to ask Lila whether Nightingale would be a cool name for her.
She’d probably make a face, but I’d sway her over by insisting that it’d be poetic, what with this thing between us leaning towards a potential partnership.
I have the feeling that she’ll accept the name.
People come to Astro City for all sorts of reasons: work, fame, money, family, the chance to experience something spectacular before starting the rest of their lives.
The papers do make it seem like anything interesting worth happening would happen in Astro City before anywhere else. It makes sense that my life’s journey would lead me here, to the city that is an implacable nexus of activity.
I’ve been told that the reason you come isn’t always the reason you stay.
But sometimes, it is.