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The Measure of a Hero

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It was obvious as soon as the FBI burst into the warehouse that this wasn't their usual kind of case. In fact, it wasn't even remotely in their jurisdiction.

"Oh, damn it!" Peter snapped. "Hold, people, hold! Jones, get Warriner on the phone and get some MIBs down here, oh and maybe a superhero team if one of them isn't busy or something!"

"Stand down?" Diana asked tensely.

"No," Peter said, looking past all the clear signs of mad science and supervillainy -- the strange bubbling equipment, the glowing green crystals in a large, breakable-looking glass bubble -- to the man in the lab coat and rubber gloves staring at them balefully from a high platform at the end of the room. A young woman was strapped into the machinery next to him. She really didn't look like she wanted to be there.

"FBI!" Peter called across the room. "How about you take your hand off that switch and we talk about this?"

Lab Coat Guy stared at him for another moment, then turned his back and went back to turning dials and flipping switches.

"That's not a suggestion, buddy! You're under arrest!"

This, too, had no effect on their suspect's behavior.

Neal appeared at Peter's elbow. He'd been left outside because of the risk of gunfire and had (Peter assumed) stayed there as long as his curiosity would let him, which wasn't very long. "Do you want me to try ..." he whispered, and then looked around him. "... something?"

Peter's jaw clenched and he whispered back, "What's the first rule of going on FBI field ops, Neal?"

Neal rolled his eyes and recited back, "Stay behind the people with guns."

"Because ..."

"Because invisible people get shot. But Peter, I'm not invisible now --"

"No, which means you're not using the one defensive skill you do have, and you're not armed. Stay behind the people with guns, Neal."

Neal sulked a few token steps backward, and Peter returned his attention to the guy on the platform, who was still ignoring them. The big round dials, visible even from across the room, were starting to edge into the red.

Anyone who was that unimpressed by a whole team of armed FBI agents bursting into his warehouse was probably not someone to mess around with. They really should stay back until the MIBs show up with containment technology.

But then there was that young woman, paralyzed with fear in the grip of the machinery holding her in place. Someone's daughter, someone's sister, maybe someone's mom. And there was the whole problem of what that big antenna, with the cable as thick as Peter's thigh connecting it to the glowing green crystals, was going to do to Manhattan, or possibly the Northern Hemisphere.

"Where are those MIBs with my containment field?" Peter barked. "I don't hear black helicopters!"

"Sorry, Peter," Jones said over his headset. "All their teams are tied up right now. They're trying to scramble something, but they told me it's at least ten minutes out."

"Great," Peter muttered. "Why are we paying tax dollars for shadowy quasi-governmental organizations if they're never around when you need them? Everyone stay here. Neal, that goes double for you."

He began edging through the equipment, gun raised. "Hey. You. This is the FBI, and this is not a joke or a drill. You're under arrest. Step away from the machine. Ma'am, are you all right?"

The young woman managed to nod.

Peter was starting to worry about that last switch, the big one with the red handle, that their suspect was working his way toward. The air in the room crackled with static electricity.

"Step away now!" Peter snapped, and he fired over their suspect's head. The bullet pinged off something higher on the machine.

"Peter, be careful!" Neal yelled across the room.

At least this got the attention of their erstwhile mad scientist, who whirled around and snarled down at Peter, "Are you insane?"

"I don't know," Peter said. "Are you? Signs point to yes. Diana, get everyone outside, just in case. That means you too, Neal."

Keeping his eyes on their suspect, who seemed to be unarmed, Peter climbed up onto the platform. "You want to talk about it?" he asked. "Your grievance, what's it with? The government? Globalization? Some superhero who's responsible for your loved one's death?"

"They're all going to pay. All of them!"

Oh wonderful. Peter didn't normally have to talk down anyone from the metahuman/metascience side of things, but he tried to think back to his training. This was a Type 2a supervillain: Generalized Aggression, Nonspecific. One of the worst to deal with.

He edged toward the hostage, who watched him with wide eyes.

The supervillain reached for that big red lever. Peter aimed his gun center mass. "I don't want to shoot you," he said calmly. "But I will."

The gloved hand continued to hover near the lever, but didn't move any closer. Apparently they had a standoff. Now if those MIBs would just get here ...

The sound of chopper blades overhead could not have been more welcome. The supervillain jerked his gaze upward, and Peter lunged at him, catching him with a shoulder and knocking him to the boards of the platform. Peter lost his grip on his gun; it went skittering away.

They rolled around on the platform. The guy wasn't big, but he was tough and wiry, and he fought dirty. Peter could dish it back, though.

"You'll be sorry," his opponent gasped.

"That's what they all say. You're under arrest." Peter finally managed to pin him, using his superior weight.

"That's what ... you think," the scientist panted.

"Peter!" Diana and Neal shouted across the room, in unison.

Peter saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and rolled aside just in time to dodge a lethal blow to the skull, though he caught the glancing edge of it, enough to make his ears ring. The woman in the machine, not a hostage at all, had slipped free and was now swinging an iron bar at him. He flung up his arms instinctively to protect his head and she hit him on the forearm, sending a numbing shock up to his shoulder. It might have broken his arm; the pain was excruciating. He heard Diana shout something, and a gunshot, but he was still rolling to evade the Fury with the iron bar, and he fell off the stage -- straight into the glass containment bubble of the glowing green crystals. It shattered under him, and there was a brilliant green flash.

He didn't pass out -- though it would have been a mercy; instead he hit the floor with shocking pain. The crystals disintegrated under and around him, and left him lying in luminous green powder. It was all over him, on his clothes and skin. He couldn't move without inhaling it.

He heard running footsteps and yelling, and then part of the ceiling opened up and a bunch of MIBs on zip lines dropped into the warehouse. About damn time, Peter thought, tucking up his legs and pulling himself agonizingly to a sitting position. His arm was broken, he was fairly sure, and he felt alternately hot and cold with pain and shock.

"Peter!" Neal's voice said, and Peter threw up his good hand to ward him off.

"Don't touch me! Don't get near me! I don't know what this stuff is --" He interrupted himself with a coughing fit. "Diana," he choked out. "Make sure Caffrey stays away. Don't get too close yourself. That's an order."

When he looked up again, the room was filling up with MIBs in close-fitting black uniforms. The supervillain -- check that, the pair of supervillains were both subdued and handcuffed. Diana and Neal were hovering a few feet away from him, looking anxious and helpless.

"I'm okay," Peter said, coughing again. "I mean, basically." He had his arm tucked up to his chest.

"Your head's bleeding," Neal said, looking wide-eyed and helpless.

"Oh." The pain in his head had been eclipsed by the pain in his arm. Peter touched his temple and brought his fingers away sticky. Actually, when he looked down at himself, he was bleeding from dozens of small scratches he'd sustained falling through the glass.

He wondered what happened when you got glowing green dust into your bloodstream. Probably nothing good. Hopefully nothing too permanent. Or lethal.

"Will one of you please go find someone in charge?" Peter asked, because he wasn't about to let them touch him until he knew what this stuff was capable of, but he was really starting to want some painkillers and a shower. He meant to sound commanding, but instead it came out somewhat plaintive.

Neal and Diana both reacted as if he'd barked a direct order, though, spinning around only to nearly run into a woman wearing dark sunglasses with Official Government Business written all over her. "I'm Agent Regan," she snapped. "Where's the idiot who barged into a Class 6 metahuman incident without authorization?"

"I am that idiot," Peter retorted, then ran it back in his head and winced. Well, he was in a lot of pain and probably some shock as well; he could be excused. "Are you the idiot who failed to bother with the interagency memos informing my team this was a metahuman incident area?"

Agent Regan bristled. Diana said quickly, "Never mind who's at fault. We need a medical team over here."

"No one touches me until we find out what this is," Peter said. "Which would be your team's job, I believe? Do you have any idea what these people were doing in this warehouse?"

"We're working on it," Agent Regan said. She stepped forward and then halted and looked slightly annoyed, then puzzled. She raised a hand and moved it in a slow circle in the air.

Peter frowned. Diana said, "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Agent Regan said slowly. She moved a step to the side and held her hand up again, fingers spread. "Chris," she said over her shoulder, "could you get the tech team over here, please?"

Diana, frustrated with waiting for answers, took two fast steps forward, stopped abruptly and said, "Ow!" She rubbed her nose. "There's something here," she said, putting out a hand more cautiously. Neal, openly curious, began to feel around in the air near Diana's shoulder.

"The equipment must be protected with a forcefield," Agent Regan said. "How did you get through it?"

"I didn't," Peter said. "I just fell in."

"Could be a failsafe that triggered afterwards. We'll get the techs on it. You two," she said to Diana and Neal, "help me find out how far it goes."

They soon established that Peter was encircled in a dome-shaped invisible forcefield about fifteen feet across. To Peter's relief, it seemed to encompass the entire area that had been contaminated with green powder -- which meant his team was safe, although it did make it even more likely that whatever he was inhaling wasn't good for him.

The MIB techs spread out, murmuring to each other and waving around various handheld monitors covered in blinking lights.

"Diana, see if there's a gap at the floor," Peter said. He didn't want the field to drop until everything was safe -- which, presumably, was how it had been designed to work -- but he also didn't want to sit here forever inhaling God knew what. His arm hurt like hell and now his head was starting to ache; overall, he basically felt like shit.

Diana crouched down and ran her fingers along the place where the forcefield met the floor. She met Peter's eyes and shook her head. "It's solid, boss. Well, in a strange kind of way. It doesn't really feel like anything -- it's not any different from normal air except my hand won't go through it."

Peter frankly didn't care what it felt like -- mostly he wanted to know how to get rid of it. And then he realized they had another problem, when he did his habitual Neal-scan in Diana's vicinity and came up empty.

"Where's Neal?"

Diana glanced around. "Oh, for pete's sake," she sighed.

"Neal!" Peter snapped.

Neal popped into existence about ten feet from Diana along the perimeter of the forcefield. "I just wanted to see if being invisible made any difference. Sometimes it does." He looked around and noticed that the techs in the vicinity were staring at him, as was Agent Regan.

"You're a meta."

"Yeeesssss ..." Neal said. Peter got the impression he wouldn't have admitted it if he hadn't just gone invisible in front of a room full of MIB agents. It was hard to conceal his powers under those circumstances.

"Are you on the registered hero list?"

"No."

She took a step back and touched her wrist to her lips. "Dave, we're going to need the supervillain containment unit, ASAP. We have an unregistered --"

"Knock it off," Peter said. "He's with me, I'm responsible for him, the MIB higher-ups know about it, leave him alone." By now he'd said it so many times that he was able to rattle it off without pausing for air.

"Belay that, Dave," Agent Regan said. She gave Peter a sharp look. "Does he do anything besides go invisible?"

"You could ask him, he's standing right there," Peter said pointedly. "No, he doesn't, and we have a tracking anklet on him so we can find him. Neal, show the lady your ankle."

Neal, looking exasperated, did so. Technically the anklet had nothing to do with Neal's unregistered metahuman status and everything to do with being a convicted felon out on work release, but it seemed to make people feel better about being in the presence of an unsecured supervillain to see it.

"And every minute we're talking about my superpowered CI is another minute we're not getting me out of this forcefield," Peter added. His headache had cranked up another few notches. The lights in the warehouse seemed much too bright, and he was starting to feel queasy.

"We're working on it," one of the techs said. "The trouble is, we're not getting any readings at all. It's not drawing power from anywhere. It doesn't show up on our sensors. It's just there."

"Do we still have the suspects on the premises?" Regan asked. "Great. Someone get one of them over here."

A moment later two of her agents showed up with Lab Coat Guy in tow. He looked sulky and annoyed. Regan pointed in Peter's direction. "Turn off the forcefield."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't play dumb. There's a forcefield around him, and we're in your lab. Turn it off."

"I didn't put a forcefield there."

"Well, someone did." Regan guided him forward -- he was handcuffed -- until he bumped into it. "See? Right there. The man behind that forcefield needs medical attention, and you're not going to do yourself any favors if a federal agent bleeds to death or runs out of oxygen while you refuse to help us."

Peter wished she hadn't mentioned oxygen, especially because it was making Neal and Diana both look panicked, and he didn't need them panicking, he needed them getting him out of here.

"I'd love to cooperate, actually, but I don't have any more idea of what's causing this than you do." Lab Coat Guy stared at the empty air in front of his nose so hard that he went cross-eyed. "Maybe the crystals are doing it? The ex-crystals. The crystals you destroyed," he said to Peter sullenly.

"What are they?" Agent Regan asked. "Crystals of what?"

"I don't know."

Diana moved in and took hold of his arm, not gently; he squeaked in pain. "This is you cooperating, is it?"

He scowled at all of them. "I'm serious. I really don't know. I got them from a crashed alien spaceship."

"Oh, really?" Regan said. "Which one?"

"The one in northern Ontario last year."

"Huh." She raised her wrist radio again. "Dave, we may need to get the Canadians on the line."

Another fifteen minutes passed while the combined might of the MIB techs, the arrested scientists, and (via the phone) the Canadian secret service tried to figure out a way into the forcefield holding Peter prisoner. Nothing they tried -- cutting torches, lasers, even a sonic cannon -- made the slightest bit of difference. By now, all of Peter's agents were clustered in the background, trying to stay out of the way and talking anxiously among themselves. EMTs had shown up as well, but they had nothing to do except mill around with the White Collar unit, waiting for someone to find a way through the barrier.

Peter wasn't sure if it was shock or the green dust or the possible lack of air, but as time wore on he was feeling worse and worse. By now he was sick, dizzy and breathless. His ears were ringing and even sitting down, he was so unsteady that he'd had to prop himself up on the remains of the metal cage that had supported the green crystals' glass enclosure. On the bright side, he now felt shitty enough that he'd stopped caring about the embarrassment of being trapped in a giant fishbowl.

"The really bizarre thing is that he can hear us just fine, and we can hear him," one of the MIB techs said. "It's not blocking sound waves. There isn't even the slightest visual ripple either. This just isn't possible."

"Well, clearly it's possible since it's there," Diana pointed out. She, Neal and Jones had been growing visibly more agitated; Peter supposed he must look pretty bad, slumped and bleeding. Neal had decided to sit down by the forcefield, presumably as close to Peter as he could get. He moved readily out of the way of the techs -- they were, after all, trying to get Peter out -- but then settled back into his accustomed spot once they'd moved on around the dome.

Agent Regan went into a brief huddle with some of her people, then returned to the edge of the forcefield. "Agent Burke? There's a metahuman on her way. She has sensory abilities beyond the range of our equipment. We're hoping she'll be able to make some headway."

"Sounds good," Peter murmured. His head tilted against his shoulder.

"Peter. Hey." It was Neal's voice. Peter raised his head. Neal had a hand pressed against the barrier -- though it looked like he was simply holding it up in the air. "Stay with us, okay?"

"I'm not checking out," Peter retorted. "I still have the business end of your leash for two more years."

"Glad to hear it," Neal said. "Breaking in another FBI agent sounds like too much work."

A commotion broke out among the MIB agents, heralding the arrival of a tall woman dressed in green. Unlike some metahumans, she made no effort to hide her nature; if the green spandex and flowing cape didn't give it away, the slender mothlike feelers uncurling from her temples would have done so. Her gleaming black hair was held back at the nape of her neck with a jeweled clip.

"Peter Burke? I'm Dr. Vyas. People also call me Scanner." She touched the barrier lightly with a gloved hand. Unlike everyone else, she seemed to have no problem finding it. "With your permission, I'm just going to run a quick sweep of you and your prison, all right?"

Peter nodded. Like black ink, her pupils expanded to fill her eyes, and her feelers spread to their full extension. Peter glimpsed a smaller second set, half-hidden under the edge of her hair. Then her eyes snapped back to normal. She looked surprised. "You're doing it," she said.

"What?" several people said at once. Peter thought one of them might have been him.

"It's metapsychic in nature. That's why it doesn't obey any known physical laws. You're creating it, Agent Burke. You're going to have to will it to vanish."

"But I -- I'm not a meta," Peter protested. "I'm FBI! They test us. I've had every test there is, and I came up negative on all of them."

"It's possible that whatever you're lying in has brought out a power that wasn't there before," Dr. Vyas said. "It's happened to other people. And it's also possible I'm wrong, but since nothing else has worked, would it really be that bad an idea to try mentally deactivating it?"

"I have no idea how to do that." Peter tentatively tried thinking off. That did nothing. After a moment he realized that he was having trouble even getting himself to try it, for fear that it would actually work -- as much as he wanted out, if the shield fell, the entire room would be exposed to the green powder.

"Did you feel anything?" Dr. Vyas asked him.

"I don't know," Peter said. "Are you sure it's a good idea for me to just ... think it away, even if I can? I'm covered in this stuff and right now all of you are uncontaminated. The shield might be there for a reason."

Neal, Diana and Jones all looked suddenly poleaxed. "Peter, I think she's right," Diana said. "You're afraid of that stuff getting on us, so you're containing it. Somehow."

"That's ridiculous." Although, now that they'd said it, he was starting to wonder. Aside from the pain of his broken arm, most of his discomfort wasn't too different from the strain and stress of prolonged physical exercise and adrenaline crash, although magnified. Maybe he really was holding up a shield through sheer effort of will, or possibly effort of concern for his team was more like it.

Which made him wonder what would happen if he passed out. Would the shield fall? Or would it simply continue holding until it killed him ...

Either way, he had a feeling he might find out soon. Black spots were starting to dance in front of his eyes.

"Guys," he said. "Can you try standing back? Maybe if you're not so close, it won't feel so urgent to keep you away from this stuff."

"That's not a bad idea anyway," Agent Regan said briskly. "Our HAZMAT team is ready to go, but we need to get unprotected civilians out of the area."

Everyone retreated -- his team looking back with anxious faces -- and in moments the only people in sight were MIB agents wearing hazard suits. At that point it was completely anticlimactic: he didn't feel any change, but a light breeze ruffled his hair, and the MIBs closed around him.

 

***

 

They had a decontamination tent set up at the back of the warehouse, where they decontaminated him thoroughly -- that was fun with a broken arm, but he was otherwise starting to feel somewhat better, which reinforced the idea that he'd been doing it to himself by holding the shield up. He tried very hard not to think about that. Mostly he hoped that now he could get a bed, a drink of water, and some painkillers, not necessarily in that order, but instead of putting him in an ambulance, they ushered him to a waiting helicopter.

Peter hadn't realized he was still as out of it as he must be, but he didn't realize until debarking that they hadn't taken him to a hospital; they'd taken him to the Metahuman Intervention Bureau's main New York facility north of the city.

"Am I a prisoner?" he asked, hunched against the helicopter's propwash. He was starting to shiver again, the pain in his arm settling deep into his bones.

"No, of course not," Agent Regan reassured him. "We simply find that it's better for newly manifested metas to spend their first few hours, if possible, at an MIB facility, in case of unexpected difficulties controlling their powers. We also have medical facilities on site."

Newly manifested meta. That's me. He still didn't know how to wrap his head around it, how to incorporate it into his self-concept. It wasn't that he had a problem with metas -- he really didn't, he knew no one chose to be that way (well, most people didn't, barring the occasional gene-manipulating exception) and most of them seemed to be pretty normal people, all things considered. But ... it wasn't him. When other kids had played "superhero and supervillain" in grade school, Peter played "sheriff catching bank robbers" instead. He liked being plain, ordinary Peter Burke.

But he felt a little better about it once they'd set his arm and bandaged his head, given him the long-awaited painkillers, and installed him in a large, private hospital room with lunch, or possibly dinner by this point. Then it got even better when the door opened and Elizabeth came in wearing a visitor badge.

"This place is amazing," she said after kissing him. "And terrifying. I can only guess at a fraction of what goes on here. They definitely made sure that I didn't go through any locked doors, that's for sure. By the way, Neal is upset that he can't come visit you out of his radius."

"He'll survive," Peter said. "I'm only going to be here overnight." At least, that's what the MIB agents said. He told himself firmly that they had no reason to lie to him.

"Are you really --" El began, and hesitated.

"I don't know," Peter said. "It only happened once."

He'd also been trying very hard not to think about it, because he had no idea what he'd done to cause it in the first place and he was afraid that it might happen again, and suffocate him or hurt someone. There was a part of him that wanted to analyze it and figure out how he'd done it, but mostly he just wanted to make it go away.

Elizabeth recognized that it was a sore topic, and chatted about light things while she nibbled carrot sticks off his plate. She didn't ask him any questions, which probably meant she'd gotten the whole story from Neal or the rest of the team.

"Do you want me to spend the night, hon? I could probably talk them into it. If not, I'm sure our lawyer would help --"

"I don't think there's any need for that. Just go home, walk the dog, and have a normal evening. You can call me before bed."

After she was gone, though, the room felt huge and empty. El had brought him some crossword puzzle books and the crime novel he'd been reading, but he couldn't concentrate. Peter got up and went to the window, lifting the blinds enough to peer out. He was on the fourth or fifth floor, looking down into the interior of a large courtyard where MIB agents appeared to be going through some sort of training course. It was being administered by a metahuman -- this was more than a mere guess, since she was glowing and hovering in midair. Peter realized after watching for a little while that the obstacles and challenges in the training field were mainly illusions she was projecting.

This could be your life, he thought, then shuddered and turned away. He didn't want it to be his life. He already had a life, and a wife, and a dog, and a job.

His phone was returned to him later in the evening. He had no idea what they'd been doing to his phone that required hanging onto it for five hours, but at least now he could call El, and they chatted for a while as she did the dishes. He'd barely finished that conversation when Neal called.

"How's prison treating you?" Neal asked cheerfully.

"I'm not in prison, Neal. I can leave anytime I want."

"Oh really? Have you tried?"

"And the food's better," Peter continued, undeterred. "Did you call me just to heckle?"

"I'd come by and heckle in person, but, you know. Anklet."

"Normally it's the thought that counts, but in some cases I think we can make an exception," Peter said. "Is everyone else okay? No one else had any side effects from the warehouse?"

"Nope," Neal said. "They decontaminated us and had this lady with moth antennae scan us and then said we were good to go. Do you really have superpowers now?" He sounded hopeful.

"Yeah, I guess we've got something in common now. Don't let it go to your head."

"I just think that's a great power, making forcefields," Neal said. "It's very you. Are you going to have a superhero name? Like, you could call yourself The Shield, for example, because your badge is also --"

"I'm not a superhero and I don't want a code name. Knock it off."

"I vote for The Shield."

"No one is voting. There are no votes and no codenames. Good night, Neal."

 

***

 

In the morning they fed him and then started running tests on him -- nothing invasive or unpleasant, just a standard battery of MRIs and EKGs. Then he had a consultation with an MIB staff doctor who pointed out that there was unusual activity in an area of Peter's brain that was generally involved in metahuman power manifestation.

"So it's true," Peter said, staring at the colorful orange, red and blue splotches. "I'm a meta."

"It seems so," the doctor said. "They're still working on the explanation, though it certainly has something to do with those green crystals you were exposed to. Have you had any other symptoms or manifestations since last night?"

Peter shook his head. The doctor made a few notes and told him a therapist would be in shortly to talk to him.

"I don't need a therapist," Peter tried, but no one listened to him.

It turned out, though, that therapist in this case really meant something more like physical therapist. The therapist was an older man in a Hawaiian shirt, whose job was apparently getting Peter more in tune with his powers, or something like that.

"It says here that you create forcefields."

"Once," Peter said. "One forcefield. Singular."

"Why don't we try to make a very small forcefield in the middle of this room?"

"Is that really a good idea?"

"You're afraid of hurting people with your powers," the therapist said. Peter, after trying to assess all the ramifications of the various ways he could answer that question, cautiously nodded. "That's normal. In fact, it's good. It makes it much more likely that you'll use your powers responsibly."

Peter wondered how it was possible to be irresponsible with a power like his. Creating a roadblock in the middle of Fifth Avenue just for the hell of it, maybe? He tried to imagine how Neal would use a forcefield-generating power. His imagination instantly returned a bunch of unpleasant results: walking on invisible catwalks in midair, propping open doors so the lock didn't engage, creating invisible walls to keep the police out of a building ... okay, yes, it was a good thing Neal hadn't been the one to fall into the green crystals. An occasionally invisible CI was bad enough.

"Let's just try a very small forcefield," the therapist said again. He held up a pencil, pinched between thumb and forefinger. "Why don't you see if you can stop this pencil from moving forward?"

Once Peter was able to get himself to relax enough, it was like a switch flipped over in his brain. He'd thought it would be hard, but it wasn't at all. After he'd made and banished a couple of small shields, he started being able to feel them once he'd created them. It was hard to explain, like a little warm spot in the air that he could feel from across the room.

After about a half-hour, he was starting to get a headache; he was also thirsty and had worked up a light sweat.

"Well, it's exercise," the therapist pointed out. "Your brain burns more energy than any other part of your body; you just don't notice most of the time. Do you think you can do this on your own?"

Peter said he thought he could, so the therapist gave him some daily exercises to improve his control and range. Peter promised to do them; the last thing he wanted was to be caught in another accidental shield again.

"I can't see any reason not to clear you for work, as long as your physical condition is up to it," the therapist said, nodding to Peter's arm in its sling. "Your specific power doesn't appear to have a lot of application for accidental damage -- not like, say, starting fires or reading minds."

The idea occurred to Peter that it could have been a lot worse. Of all the sudden, accidental powers he could have manifested, this was probably one of the more benign ones.

"And I expect you'll be signing up for the registered hero list," the therapist added, his fingers hovering over the keys of his laptop.

"I ... guess so," Peter said. He'd always been vaguely frustrated with Neal for not just letting them register him, damn it, which would have saved them both a lot of headaches and allowed Neal to walk around without people assuming he was a supervillain or worse.

But now he was starting to understand why Neal was so resistant to it. There was something deeply uncomfortable about having all your personal information taken down and knowing that you could be called up for service in the event of a Level Orange or higher threat to the planet, under penalty of treason for refusal.

Not to mention the inevitable recruitment phone calls that would ensue from various superpowered teams trying to draft him. He'd heard about that. Apparently they were pushier than telemarketers.

But signing up was, he told himself, the Right Thing To Do; it was his duty as a superpowered individual to use his powers to benefit others.

"Yes," Peter said. "Yes, of course."

 

***

 

In actual fact, though, nothing really changed. Peter was annoyed with himself for being even slightly disappointed by that. His first day back to work, everyone was curious -- scuttlebutt had gotten around the building and even the janitorial staff seemed to know -- and people kept asking if they could watch him make shields. Their interest died instantly once they found out his shields were imperceptible unless someone walked into one of them. And after the initial rush of curiosity, things basically settled back into the usual White Collar routine, for most people at least.

He did find out later, by way of office rumor, that two agents in Missing Persons had suffered what Jones delicately referred to as a "bathroom mishap"; this seemed to be related to Neal overhearing them talking about Peter behind his back. Peter sighed and summoned Neal into his office.

"Neal, leave the agents alone and stop doing things that interfere with their ability to do their jobs."

"I'm not entirely sure what you mean," Neal said. Peter glared at him. Neal relented. "Peter, they're jerks. There are a lot of people out there who don't like people who are ... you know, like you are now."

Which also meant people like Neal. Peter frowned at him, suddenly worried. "Does that happen to you a lot?"

"No," Neal said, a little too quickly.

"Neal."

"Look, it's mostly just little things, you know? Like, people making jokes, or not wanting to eat at the same table as -- it's little stuff, mostly. I just thought those guys should learn a lesson about respecting other agents."

"That wasn't your call to make," Peter said. "If you hear anything that I need to know about, bring it to me, all right?"

"Diana helped," Neal muttered.

Oh wonderful, it was a conspiracy. "In that case, when you get back to your desk, could you tell Diana I need to see her?"

Neal mumbled something and got up, snagging his hat on his way out.

"Oh, and Neal?" When Neal turned in the doorway, Peter said, "If anyone hassles you, tell me about it and I'll do something. Petty revenge pranks aren't the way to go."

"It doesn't always work out that way," Neal said. "I mean, it's not usually anything that's worth filing a complaint about."

"I didn't say I'd file a complaint."

Neal raised his eyebrows and flipped his hat back on. "Just when I think I have you figured out, Peter."

"I hope you never have me completely figured out."

 

***

 

Peter wasn't allowed in the field until his arm had healed, which gave him a lot of down time. He kept practicing around the house, with Elizabeth's cheerful assistance, and slowly gained more precise control over his shields. He could make them large or small, could support objects in midair and even lift and move something provided it wasn't too big. (That was difficult, though -- it felt like trying to pick up a marble with ten-foot-long poles, and left him shaky and sweating afterwards.)

He also had a much greater range than he'd expected. He and Elizabeth went to Central Park for a test run, and Peter found that he could generate shields as far as he could see -- and, he was pretty sure, beyond. Elizabeth volunteered to head down to the south end of the park while Peter stayed on the north end, keeping in touch via cell phone. "Okay, hon," she said. "Go." There was a very brief pause, while Peter concentrated, and then she said, "Wow. Uh. It worked, but I don't think we should do that again."

Peter hastily banished the shield. "What? Why?"

"Because you just lopped a branch off an ornamental dogwood."

After that he was terrified of creating shields if he couldn't see what he was looking at. Some tests at home -- involving a particularly hideous cake plate that had been a gift from El's parents -- indicated that he couldn't deliberately cut anything with a shield. As long as he was looking at it and knew it was there, the shield would delicately form around objects rather than through them. But this didn't necessarily seem to be true at a distance.

Neal seemed to enjoy watching Peter practice with his powers. He started dropping by unexpectedly just to watch. Sometimes Peter sensed an almost proprietary pride in him, as if Neal was personally taking credit for Peter being a metahuman now.

Peter definitely got the impression that Neal was truly happy that they now had this in common. Well, at least one of them was enjoying it.

It wasn't that he hated it, or that his life had even changed in any significant way. It was just ... strange. Like adjusting to an unexpected, late-in-life change of religion or a sudden divorce. His entire self-image was a little askew, and while he went through the motions of his normal everyday life, he couldn't help feeling weird about it, like something was ever so slightly out of kilter.

Also, the rumors had been right about the ensuing junk mail once his name was on the designated hero list. It wasn't just glossy recruitment brochures from organizations with names like Super Pals or Rescue Incorporated or Big Meta Brothers & Sisters. Peter and Elizabeth also were inundated with spam from nonprofits for metahuman rights, organizations that promised a cure, scientific institutes trying to recruit metahuman volunteers for various studies, organizations opposed to the registry, other organizations trying to end the stigma of supervillainy, and more.

And there was also the possibility that he might get called up for service. Peter thought about that, lying awake beside El and staring sleeplessly into the darkness. He'd do it, of course. He'd do it even if he didn't have to. Because it was right and proper and responsible.

But he had to admit, if only to himself, how much the idea scared him. Bad guys with guns he could handle. Bad guys wielding energy bolts and mind control ... alien spaceships with death rays ... misshapen monsters from other dimensions ... he couldn't even imagine how he'd deal with that.

Hopefully, he told himself, you'll never have to.

 

***

 

The first time Peter used his power in the field, it was a complete accident. It was also his first outing once his arm had healed enough to return to field work. They'd set up a sting to catch a gang of jewel thieves, with Neal posing as a fence. Everything was going fine until Peter's team moved in for the takedown, and then one of the gang members unexpectedly pulled out a gun and popped off a shot at Neal.

Everything seemed to go into slow motion. Peter felt like he was moving through mud; he was too far away to help, too far to do anything. Neal ducked to the side, blinking out of sight, and the bullet pinged off thin air and shattered a jewel case. Peter went on pure autopilot, disarming the guy with a karate chop to the wrist. "Neal!" he barked. There was no blood on the floor. His brain was only just now catching up with events and realizing that he had thrown up a shield and there had only been one shot, so he must have done it in time --

Neal reappeared in a completely different location. He was pale and breathing hard, but Peter saw him instantly begin to cover, putting on his game face. "Guess he's a bad shot," he said, and then, catching sight of the shattered glass case across the room, "... a really bad shot. Peter, did you shield me?"

"Apparently," Peter said, yanking their suspect's hands behind his back and cuffing him without gentleness. That gun had been pointed at Neal's head.

"Well ... thanks." Neal took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. Peter was close enough to see a fine sheen of sweat on his face. That had been very close, and Neal didn't like guns at the best of times. "Next time," Neal added with an air of flippancy that Peter could tell was false, "maybe you could do it a little sooner?"

Peter refused to rise to the bait. He didn't like how close that had been. And now there was going to be paperwork, not just for Neal -- he was used to that by now -- but for himself as well. Form 2014B, Use of Metahuman Powers in the Field.

Maybe he could stick Neal with the paperwork this time.

 

***

 

But he couldn't stop thinking about it. That had been way too close. He should have been able to defuse the situation before it came down to Neal almost taking a bullet in the head. He was a trained FBI agent, after all. And more than that, he was a trained FBI agent with super powers.

Maybe it was time to stop pretending he didn't have them and start using them. Even if it did mean extra paperwork.

Rather than merely practicing with his powers in general, he began to try specific exercises: raising and banishing a shield at maximum speed, and holding a shield while doing other things. He still didn't have precise enough control to use it offensively -- in theory he should be able to, say, knock a gun out of someone's hand from across the room, but in practice, he was worried about knocking the guy's head off instead.

Still, he ought to be able to shield his team, at least.

He was afraid to try it in the field without getting some practice first, so he called Neal, Diana and Jones on a Saturday and asked them to meet him in Central Park. Peter made a quick stop at a store along the way.

When he got there, he found the three of them conferring quietly. Peter frowned at Neal's shirt and slacks. "My text said to dress casually."

"This is as casual as I'm willing to be seen in public."

"Well," Peter said, reaching into the sack looped over his arm, "I hope you don't mind getting wet." He took out four plastic water pistols and handed three of them around to his team, who stared at him, temporarily united in their shared disbelief.

"Yes, that's right," Peter said. "You get to squirt me. I have a bunch of towels in the backseat of my car for later. There's just one hitch." He pointed his own pistol skyward and gave the trigger a tiny squeeze, releasing a small spray of water. "I shoot back."

The four of them spent an entertaining afternoon running around the park, hiding behind trees, and generally testing Peter's ability to raise and maintain shields while being ambushed. Neal seemed to be having a particularly good time, since his powers made it possible for him to stand in the middle of an open lawn and snipe anyone who came within range. Peter soon picked up the trick of using a precisely placed shield to get Neal to spray himself, however.

They all ended up soaking wet and breathless from laughing. Peter bought them ice cream afterwards; he figured it was the least he could do in return for asking them to spend their Saturday getting sprayed in the face with water pistols. No one seemed to mind terribly, though. Even Neal had stopped complaining about water damage to his clothes.

 

***

 

Other weekends followed, in other locations. Peter let them opt out if they wanted to -- it was hardly fair to expect his team to spend their Saturdays helping him practice his powers -- but they showed up anyway.

"You're over-thinking this, Peter," Neal said after one of their practice sessions. It was just the two of them this time in the Burkes' backyard. Neal had been throwing handfuls of rice; Peter used his shields to lightly deflect it in controlled patterns, trying to reflect the rice grains as projectiles at a target they'd set up beside the patio. They had practiced until Peter was exhausted and Neal was so bored that he'd begun turning different parts of his body invisible (hands, ears, a large hole in the middle of his chest) to make Peter snap at him, knowing Peter hated it when he did that.

Peter poured them both glasses of lemonade from the iced pitcher El had brought to the patio table. He noticed as he did so that his hand was shaking. The lemonade wasn't an incidental choice on El's part, he suspected. It had sugar and electrolytes, and El had picked up pretty quickly, while they were doing their early testing, that using his powers tapped out Peter's energy.

On the other hand, today she hadn't stuck around long, just watched for a little while and then faded back into the house. As Peter's shield practice had become increasingly combat-focused, El had quietly withdrawn from helping. Peter hadn't yet been able to determine if she was simply leaving Peter's superhero combat training to people with more combat experience, or if she disapproved.

Neal accepted the glass of lemonade Peter handed him, but with raised eyebrows that made it clear he was waiting for a response. Peter had to run the conversation back to remember what Neal had said. He really was tired.

"Neal, I'm not going to risk bringing my powers into a situation where lives are at stake until I'm competent at using them."

"You are," Neal pointed out. "What you're doing now, it's like drilling on the target range until you can get a perfect cluster dead center, and then moving the target back and practicing more, then even farther back, because you can't use your gun in the field 'til you achieve some sort of mythical sharpshooter status."

Peter snorted. "Is one of your fake degrees in psychiatry, Doctor Caffrey?"

"No, but I'm good at people, remember?"

And Peter was well aware that the scrutiny had gone both ways during the years of their cat and mouse chase. He might be the world expert on Neal Caffrey, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that Neal had the equivalent of a doctorate in Essentials of Peter Burke.

"So I should just throw myself out there with no plan and no training." Peter sighed and rested his aching forehead against the cool lemonade glass. "What am I saying, I forgot who I was talking to. Obviously that's your advice for everything."

"Peter, you can practice and practice, but you don't know what situations you're going to encounter, and you can never control every variable. At some point you'll have to wing it."

"Wing it," Peter said flatly.

Neal smirked over his glass of lemonade. "I still think you should call yourself The Shield."

"I'm not a superhero, Neal. I'm an FBI agent who happens to have certain powers -- power, actually. Singular."

"If you're done out there," El called through the open kitchen door, "I hope you're planning on picking up that rice. Uncooked rice is bad for birds."

 

***

 

Peter wasn't quite ready to admit the unpalatable possibility that Neal might be right about him, but he decided to cautiously be on the lookout for opportunities to use his powers in the field. This did little other than make him realize that shield powers weren't terribly useful in investigating white collar crime. Mind reading, now, that would be handy.

Still, he was able to do a few little things. Diana knocked her coffee cup off the conference table with her elbow, and Peter caught it from across the room. (The suddenly manifesting shield saved the mug but dumped half a cup of lukewarm coffee into her lap, which didn't endear Peter to her for the rest of the day. Neal thought it was hilarious.)

On a different occasion he stopped a pair of suspects from fleeing by throwing an invisible wall two inches from their front bumper while they were starting their engine. They put the car in gear and the front end crumpled on Peter's shield. While they were trying to figure out what had happened, Peter put another shield behind it, and then wrapped it over the doors for good measure. Holding the shields left him breathless by the time they reached the car and handcuffed their deeply confused suspects, but Neal tossed Peter a cheerfully approving grin.

"You've got the perfect nonviolent power," Neal said in the car afterward, while Peter contemplated the upcoming paperwork and wondered if it had been worth it. "You could just wrap a shield around someone and hold them in place until the FBI gets there. Or handcuff them with invisible handcuffs. No more guns."

"No, I can't. My control isn't that good. I might cut their hand off or suffocate them."

Still, Neal had a point ... which connected back to his earlier point from the conversation in the backyard. Peter realized that he needed to think outside the box a little in order to find ways to use his new abilities in the field. He could hold a door shut with a carefully placed shield, for example.

As it turned out, though, he didn't get a chance to try. The following afternoon, in the middle of a staff brainstorm session in the conference room, Peter's phone went off with a ringtone he'd never heard before, a series of tones similar to the federal Emergency Alert tones for natural disasters. Everyone in the room jumped.

Peter looked at his phone. The screen had turned red and bore a text message: Level Red Alert. Report to your nearest assembly center immediately.

Peter stared at it. This was it. He'd actually been called up for service. It didn't seem real. He stared at the bright red screen and wondered if they picked that color to induce panic. It was certainly having that effect on him. The last time he'd felt this same level of blank, empty-headed I don't know what to do now was ... when? Maybe the time he'd torn out his rotator cuff playing baseball in his early twenties, the pop of pain and heat followed by a slow spreading horror.

"Peter?" Diana said, and he looked up to realize that everyone was staring at him in various states of confusion and worry.

"I'm fine," he said, "I'm good, I --" and he made himself focus, concentrate: There are things you need to do, Burke, don't space out on everyone. "Diana, you're gonna have to head up the Lingenhoff forgery case. All my case notes so far are in a folder on my desk. Jones, you'll need to give testimony for the midtown jewelry heist in court tomorrow --"

As he kept talking, he saw the penny drop, one person at a time. Neal was the first, of course, a quick look of shock and horror flashing across his face. His expression was echoed in a more subdued style on one face after another around the conference table as Peter went on giving them instructions for his absence.

He wound down after offloading every case he was currently involved in onto someone else. What else needs to be done? Am I allowed to call Elizabeth? Usually he was the epitome of over-preparedness for this kind of thing, but there hadn't been any good way to prepare. He'd received a pamphlet when he left the MIB facility, though it was more patriotic catchphrases and pictures of smiling people in spandex than actual information. He'd also familiarized himself with the basic procedure from government websites. His nearest assembly center was, in fact, in this building -- an advantage of working for the federal government.

"Any questions?" he asked, sweeping a quick look around the room. No one said anything. Neal, in particular, looked frozen. "That's good, then, that's ... yes." He gave them all a firm nod and picked up his jacket before anyone got any bright ideas about saying goodbye.

A slowly rising swell of conversation was audible behind him as he left the room. On his way across the bullpen, he felt a slight draft, but didn't realize what it was until Neal materialized in front of him, leaning a casual hand on the glass doors leading to the elevators. Neal's casual pose would have been more convincing if he hadn't been breathing hard with his hair tousled; he must have run invisibly across the bullpen to get there ahead of Peter. Still, he opened the door with an elaborate after-you gesture. Going through the door was less effort than fighting about it.

Neal accompanied him to the elevator.

"Neal ..." Peter sighed. "You know where I'm going, right?"

"I do," Neal said, and he smiled brightly. "I've never experienced an alert as a superhero. I thought I might come along and see what it's like."

The elevator doors opened. Peter stepped in; Neal darted inside as well. Peter jabbed the "door open" button with his thumb. "Neal, you can't. You're not --"

"Not what?" Neal said, half angrily. "Not signed up for their federal register of 'heroes'?" The sarcastic quotes hung heavily in his tone. "Is that an actual requirement to help save the planet?"

"Well, no, but --" The doors started to close; Peter hit the "door open" button again. Why did Neal invariably pick the most inconvenient possible times to display a conscience? "You were never interested before. What changed?"

Neal held Peter's gaze for a moment, but he broke first. "You know what changed," he muttered, looking away. "Do I have to say it? You've never gone before."

The doors closed and this time Peter wasn't fast enough to stop them. Since he hadn't selected a floor, though, the elevator didn't move. Peter took a deep breath and selected the third floor, where the assembly point was.

"You'll do exactly as you're told at all times," Peter said, and Neal looked up with a hopeful expression that was bizarrely puppylike. "You won't break confidentiality, you won't steal anything, you won't go off on your own without my permission ..." He tried to think of what other rules might be necessary. The sheer possibilities for Neal getting into trouble -- Or getting killed, a small part of his brain whispered -- in the middle of an extra-dimensional invasion or all-out supervillain assault or whatever was going on boggled the mind.

"I'll do all of those things," Neal promised.

Peter bit his lip on most of the other things he wanted to say, but when they exited the elevator he said, "Thanks."

 

***

 

The "assembly center" was an ordinary-looking conference room on the third floor. The door was unlocked and the lights were on, but there was no one in sight. Neal, after circling the room looking at the standard government-issue furniture which was all there was to see, began pulling the chairs out from the conference table and giving each one a small spin.

The door opened to admit two young women. Peter recognized them vaguely; they both worked in the mailroom. "Oh!" said the shorter, ponytailed one. "Agent Burke? I didn't know you were a metahuman!"

"It's recent," Peter said, embarrassed.

Introductions went around. The young women were Emily and Arpita. Neal, of course, charmed them instantly. "What do you do?" he asked them.

"I float," Arpita said, and demonstrated by levitating a foot or so off the ground.

Neal was openly delighted. "You can fly? That would be useful." Peter didn't want to imagine what Neal thought it would be useful for.

Arpita blushed. "Float," she corrected. "I'm, uh, afraid of heights. I can only go up as far as I can fall -- about three feet or so, before it stops working." She nudged Emily. "Show them what you can do."

"I turn things different colors," Emily said with obvious pride. She passed a hand over her front, and her green blouse became suddenly blue. "I can do your hair, if you like."

"She did mine," Arpita said, pointing to a blonde stripe in her dark hair. "It's good for hiding gray," she added with a look at Peter.

"No ... no, I think my hair is fine the way it is," Peter said. He exchanged a look with Neal, and could see by the expression on Neal's face that their thoughts were, if not identical, then at least headed down a similar track. They're just kids. Kids who had been given no instruction or training, if Peter's own experiences could be assumed typical, and were about to be sent to war regardless.

Peter was suddenly so angry he could hardly breathe.

Neal took another look at Peter, caught his expression, and said to the other two, "Do either of you have superhero names picked out?"

"I think I'm going to call myself Hummingbird," Arpita said. She was hovering again. "That's a good name, don't you think?"

"I don't know about me," Emily said. "It's hard to come up with a name involving colors that doesn't sound silly."

"Chromatica," Arpita suggested. Emily wrinkled her nose.

No one official showed up during the next half hour, although a few more people trickled in: a barista from the coffee shop down the street, a nervous-looking lawyer who'd had business in the FBI building when his phone sounded its alert, a tourist from Missouri who had been similarly caught away from his usual assembly center. As the minutes passed with no one bothering to inform them what to do or even acknowledge their presence, Peter's fuse slowly burned down to a smoldering nub. What kind of organization ordered random, untrained civilians off the street and didn't even bother to give them more instructions than "Go here and wait"? Someone was getting an absolute earful about this, as high up the chain of command as he needed to go.

At least it gave him an opportunity to call Elizabeth. The lawyer was already calling his partner, and Arpita was on the phone to her fiance. Peter retreated to a relatively private end of the conference room and pushed El's preset.

"Hey, hon," she said in a brisk, cheerful voice. "What's up?"

Peter had to stop and rearrange his thoughts. I'm fine; are you fine? was what he'd been planning to say, but ... of course she was fine -- she had no idea anything was going on. There were no sounds of panic or screaming in the background. Of course not. Outside this room, the world was going on just as it ever had.

Except something terribly dangerous was bearing down on it. They wouldn't have sent out a red-level alert -- the highest level, according to his instruction pamphlet -- if something terrible wasn't about to happen. Which meant Elizabeth was in terrible danger, even if she didn't know it. And Diana and Jones, and his parents, and El's parents, and the neighbor across the street who was always borrowing his tools, and the old buddies from college who emailed him every once in a while ...

Peter groped for a chair. Neal, being Neal, saw the look on his face and hastily rolled a chair in his direction. Peter sank into it.

"Peter?" El said, now sounding somewhat anxious at his continued silence.

"Hey, hon," Peter said, and though he thought he sounded normal, it was her turn for a brief pause.

"Did you get an alert?" she said then.

"How do you do that?"

"I don't know, something in your voice ... Peter, seriously?"

"Yeah," he said. "I've gone to the local assembly place. It's in the FBI building."

"Do you know what it is? The threat, I mean."

"No." He was uncomfortably aware that even if he did know, he wouldn't have been allowed to tell her -- legally, at least. But then, he'd never been good at keeping confidential information from El, especially something like this, which in his opinion she had a right to know.

"Is there anything I should do?"

"I don't know. Wait. Maybe pack a bag -- that way, you're ready to go if there's some kind of evacuation notice." Evacuation from Earth? Well, it would give her something to do.

"Right now?" El said. "I can go home, Yvonne can take over for me here --"

"No, no, I think you should just go through your day as usual." Which would be especially important if it was her, and everyone else's, last day on Earth -- No, stop it, brain. STOP IT.

"Okay," El said. "Honey, do you know how long -- I mean, do you think you'll be able to call, or ..."

"I don't know." And it was the not knowing that wound him up tighter than anything else. If he only had some idea of what to expect ... "I'll get in touch when I can."

"Okay." Her voice had dropped near a whisper. "Love you, hon."

"Love you."

Peter hung up and rested his hand over his eyes for a moment.

"Is Elizabeth okay?" Neal asked. He sounded anxious. Peter looked up.

"Yeah, yeah, she's fine, everyone's fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, it's just a normal day out there."

"Oh." Neal leaned a hip against the table. "Wow, that's ... weird. I guess it seems like it should be as tense out there as it is in here."

"Yeah," Peter said, and he was suddenly, pathetically grateful that Neal had opted to come along, that he wasn't having to do this alone.

The door opened just then, and the woman who strode in was wearing a dark suit with the bulge of a gun under her jacket and a clipboard tucked under her arm, so probably not one of the hapless bottom-tier metas. Peter rose. Finally someone to answer questions -- and receive complaints.

"You're all metahumans on the hero list, correct?" she asked, sweeping a sharp gaze across the room. There were hesitant nods all around. Neal moved a little closer to Peter, possibly without realizing it.

"Excuse me," Peter said. "We've been kept waiting for over half an hour, with no indication of --"

"What's your name?" she interrupted him, pen poised over her clipboard.

"Peter Burke. Agent Peter Burke, FBI. I'd like to speak to your superv --"

"Power or powers?"

Peter took a calming breath. "Ma'am, I'm trying to make a complaint about the way this operation is run."

"Agent Burke," she said, "I don't care. The fate of the world is at stake. If you'd like to write up a formal complaint, by all means be my guest."

"Don't worry, I will."

Hidden from view by the table, Neal kicked him lightly. Peter kicked back.

"With that settled ..." She raised her pen impatiently. "Power or powers?"

Clearly he was getting no satisfaction from this quarter, and snapping at a lower-level bureaucrat wasn't going to help with what was, as far as Peter could tell, a systemic problem anyway. She was just doing her job and there was no point in making it harder for her. "Shields," Peter said. "I make invisible shields, I mean. Like force screens."

She scribbled something down. "Metanym?"

"What?"

Neal rolled his eyes, and the woman with the clipboard said in a very slow, I-am-talking-to-an-idiot voice, "A pseudonym you use as a superhero, which is not your real name."

"Oh," Peter said. "I ... don't think I have one of those."

"He's The Shield," Neal piped up.

Peter wanted to kick him again, but he'd moved away.

She now turned her attention to Neal, who dutifully reported his power type. Peter hoped he'd falter on the metanym question, because Peter already had one all picked out for him -- Invisible Lad, and Neal totally deserved it -- but Neal said without missing a beat, "James Bonds."

Peter could see her brief moment of cognitive dissonance as she tried to relate nickname to power, but she gave up quickly and wrote it down. When she'd moved on to Arpita, Peter murmured, "That doesn't even sound like a superhero."

"Peter, there are superheroes called Awesome Man and Disco Superfly. I can be James Bonds if I want to be."

There was no more time to argue about it. Their cell phones were confiscated, to everyone's dismay, and then the group of them were shepherded out into the hall, and to Peter's surprise, into the elevator and up to the very top of the building.

"Do I get to ride in a black helicopter?" Neal asked cheerfully. He seemed to be enjoying this a lot more than Peter was, but looking at him more closely, Peter thought it was a front. Neal was scared and trying not to show it.

"There's no helicopter landing pad on the roof of the FBI building," he said.

"It's not going to land," the woman with the clipboard said, overhearing them.

They stepped out into whipping wind. It wasn't a helicopter, exactly, but something sleek and very high-tech, shaped more like a stealth bomber but supported by rotors. It was hovering perfectly stationary above them and had lowered a sort of steel cage, like a diver's cage.

"Oh, no way," Peter said, balking. Arpita clung to Emily; Peter remembered she'd said she was afraid of heights.

They weren't given the option of backing out, though, simply herded in. To avoid thinking about high off the ground they were (high, high, so very high) Peter speculated on what the options would be if one of them absolutely refused to get in. What if someone had a panic attack? Or a medical condition that caused them to go into, say, an asthma attack when they saw what they were going to have to do?

And it's avoidable, he thought, seething as he clung to the side of the cage. Neal, next to him, was holding onto his hat with one hand and trying to look nonchalant as the cage was drawn upward, slowly rotating. Arpita whimpered faintly, burying her face in Emily's shoulder. There's no reason why they have to do it like this. What's their urgent use for a guy who can turn invisible and a girl who changes colors? They could drive us, or have us drive ourselves ...

"Hey," Neal said to Arpita. His fingers were white-knuckled where he held onto the cage with one hand, but his voice was casual. "Look up."

"I can't," she moaned.

"It's pretty cool." Neal edged closer to her, hand-over-hand until he was able to rest his shoulder against hers. He gave her a gentle nudge. "The sun's setting, and you can see the colors of the clouds much better up here than from the ground. Look."

He finally got her to tip her head back, looking through the wire mesh to the thunderheads massing over the sea, gold and pink in the light of the lowering sun.

"You're seeing a sight that almost no one in New York City has ever seen." Neal, Peter noticed, had maneuvered his body so that his shoulder and pointing arm blocked most of her view of the city below. Not a bad trick. "See the play of light on the cloud? I'm a painter, so I look at light."

Neal had now managed to draw everyone's attention from their fear and discomfort to the rising mass of thunderheads over the sea, so Peter decided it was fair not to correct him and point out that forger was more accurate.

"You're a painter?" Arpita said. She sniffled. "That's really cool. Em paints too."

"Only a little," Emily said modestly. "I took some classes."

The entire mood in the cage had changed from fear and gloom to cheerful interest. Peter wondered, sometimes, what Neal might have been if he'd decided to nurture that particular talent -- his ability to captivate people, to lift their spirits and make them feel better about themselves -- for something other than distracting them so he could steal their wallets. He might have been a very good counselor or teacher. He might still be, Peter thought.

Well, assuming they survived whatever was about to happen to them.

The cage decanted them into a cargo hold, similar in style to a helicopter's. The clipboard lady showed them to a set of jump seats along the side, stayed to make sure they buckled in, and then vanished into the cockpit. The timbre of the engines changed, shifting into a higher register. Acceleration pressed them into their seats -- sideways, due to the angle.

"I get airsick," the lawyer said, turning pale.

"If you're feeling sick you're supposed to focus on the horizon," Emily offered. She was holding Arpita's hand tightly. The self-described Hummingbird was doing better since Neal's distraction in the cage, but still looked shaky.

"There aren't any windows!"

The flight was, fortunately, short. They decelerated soon enough that Peter guessed their target was the same MIB facility where he'd been taken after the incident at the warehouse. After they'd landed, Peter got everyone up and grouped together before anyone came for them. It wasn't Clipboard Lady this time, but another agent with a no-nonsense look about him.

Peter cleared his throat. He'd already decided on his approach: polite, not at all belligerent, but firm and no-nonsense. "Excuse me, we'd like to know where you're taking us, and why."

He was completely ignored; instead they were impersonally herded into a large landing area which appeared to be on top of a low, wide building. This was a different area of the facility than the medical wing where he'd been kept. Peter was starting to appreciate how huge this place was. Windowless towers surrounded them. Other groups of nervous-looking civilians were clustered about, and the sky hummed with black-helicopter activity.

Neal shuffled close enough to Peter to murmur, "You want some advice from an expert?"

"Do I look like I want advice?" Peter muttered back.

"They're not going to listen to you. They have a system and they're going to hustle us through it. And keep in mind, their side has superheroes. Our side has a guy who can turn invisible and ..." He cut his eyes at the rest of their motley, low-powered group. "Just follow the guards' rules and don't make trouble. First rule of prison."

"Neal," Peter murmured through his teeth, "I've said this before: it's not a prison."

He felt foolish as soon as he'd said it, especially when Neal raised his eyebrows. "You want to be the one who tries leaving? Because I bet it wouldn't go over well."

"The worst they can do is arrest me."

"For treason," Neal murmured. "Which, last I heard, was a capital crime in this country. At my last prison, the guards just shot you if you tried to escape, rather than putting you through a trial and then shooting you."

"And yet you're here," Peter shot back. It was a low blow, especially since he knew Neal had only come along because he had.

"I didn't sign onto their ludicrous 'hero' list. They can't stop me from leaving."

Peter almost pointed out that it was highly unlikely they'd let Neal leave without his handler, but locked down on the urge. He'd done enough venting. It didn't help and it wasn't fair to take it out on Neal, who had, after all, walked into a vaguely prison-like situation out of loyalty. Also, he'd begun to wonder if Neal's situation was more precarious than either of them had realized. Neal, Peter guessed, was counting on his own escape-artist skills -- but escaping from mostly nonpowered humans was a different situation from evading the metahumans and metahuman-capable defenses that surrounded them here. On the other hand, Neal didn't have the guarantee of safe conduct that was Peter's position on the hero list -- it might make Peter a prisoner, but as long as he cooperated, he was in the system; there was a paper trail if he went missing.

Neal, on the other hand ...

Peter resolved to stick close to him just in case. At least the FBI knew Neal was with him. There was a pretty clear paper trail for that.

They ended up, eventually, with hundreds of other people in a big echoing room that reminded Peter of a high-school gymnasium without the gym equipment. They were all given name tags and sorted, first of all, on the basis of their relative level of experience at metahuman combat -- Peter was put in the neophyte group; Neal tagged along -- and then by their power type. The criteria were not immediately clear to Peter, though he could tell it had something to do with the offensive capability of their powers. The MIB agents were using different colored stickers shaped like little dots and applied to their name badges. Peter's badge got a yellow sticker; Neal got a purple one.

"We're not going to be separated," Peter told them, pointing at Neal. He'd already lost sight of the rest of their group in the throng.

"That's fine," said the MIB agent who was sorting them. "Lots of people have preferred partners or groups, regardless of power type."

To Peter's relief, it didn't seem like they were herding platoons of untrained civilians off to the front to be slaughtered, although he did wonder with some concern what happened to people with strongly combat-capable powers. He'd overheard a young woman near them telling the MIB agents that she threw lightning bolts; she was given a red sticker and taken off somewhere else.

"You're an FBI agent, correct?" a different MIB agent asked Peter. When he nodded, she gestured him to follow her. Peter made sure he had Neal in tow as well.

"Your friend --"

"He's also with the FBI," Peter said. "He's a consultant. You can check his paperwork."

She didn't argue. "It's always good to get people with a law enforcement background. They're good with confidentiality and don't require as much training." She glanced at the tablet computer tucked under her arm. "This is your first time to be called up for service, correct?"

"Yes, ma'am," Peter said.

"Since you're FBI, as long as you stay out of the way, you can come up to the command center."

Peter glanced at Neal, who mouthed, "Command center!" with some enthusiasm.

An elevator took them down -- underground then, Peter thought -- and opened onto the ground floor of a vast room. Peter's first impression was of someplace vaguely akin to the New York Stock Exchange, bustling with purposeful activity, people calling to each other across the floor or scurrying about with papers. Banks of equipment rose in tiers up the middle of the room and around the sides; there were catwalks overhead. It went up six stories at least. Enormous screens dotted the walls, and the ceiling was one giant screen or possibly a projected display. Peter thought at first it was showing a night sky, like a planetarium, but then he caught a glimpse of a luminescent, blue-swirled curve -- the edge of the Earth -- and realized that he was looking at outer space.

Peter had always loved looking at the stars, and for an instant he was swept back to his early childhood in the space-crazy sixties. Watching the moon landing on his parents' small black-and-white TV. Old daydreams of becoming an astronaut sharing mental space with his dreams of becoming a baseball player or a cop, until the cop finally won.

Outer space.

He realized Neal had been trying to get his attention, nudging him repeatedly. "What?" Peter snapped, jolted rudely out of his reverie.

"Peter." Neal pointed off to the other side of the display, opposite the lambent, cloud-swirled arc of the Earth.

At first Peter had no idea how to even resolve what he was looking at. It was just lines and curves and bulges and flashing lights, a massively complicated shape glittering against the stars. It was baroque and bizarre and indisputably alien.

That's a ship, he thought, dazed. The scale was impossible to determine, but ... If the Earth is there, then that must be a spaceship the size of a city. It was rotating slowly and ponderously, and as he watched, another one became visible behind it.

Make that spaceships, plural.

A brief glow blossomed in front of the closest ship -- a weapon? An explosion? Whatever it was, it died out quickly.

"Well," Neal said, "I guess now we know what the threat is."

 

***

 

No one gave them anything to do. No one, in fact, paid any attention to them at all. They ended up finding a relatively out-of-the-way place to sit along the wall while watching the activity going on around them. The scene on the overhead display didn't seem to be changing much, except for an ever-shifting tapestry of little glitters here and there around the spaceships, but the tense urgency in the room was a clear indication that things were serious.

Peter tried snagging a couple of people to get information and was ignored. He gave up, located a coffee machine and fetched them Styrofoam cups of bad coffee.

"I could go look around," Neal said hopefully.

Invisibly, he meant. "Yeah, that sounds like a good way to get shot," Peter said. "Do you know how much top-secret stuff is probably going on down here?" This did not have the quelling effect he'd hoped; now Neal looked almost euphoric. "No. The answer is still no."

They leaned against the wall and watched the displays. The overhead projection showed an overall view of what was happening, while the individual screens up and down the walls displayed details, schematics, or in some cases video feeds for long-distance conversations that were happening at the smaller workstations below. It was deeply weird to see famous world leaders displayed 20 feet tall on the walls, their lips moving in silent conversations, drowning out by the overall babble of noise around them.

One screen displayed an aerial view of New York City from, Peter guessed, a couple of miles up. It was looking south across the towers of Manhattan, with Brooklyn fading into an indistinct haze beyond. He thought at first that it was simply a static image, but as sunset's colors gradually faded into a glittering tapestry of city lights, he decided that it must be a live feed. He had no idea what sort of structure or vehicle could possibly be supporting the camera recording the scene -- a satellite, an airplane, even a balloon would have moved in the time he'd been watching it, but the image hadn't wavered. Some sort of MIB technology, obviously. He hoped Neal didn't tell Mozzie about it.

Somewhere in that hazy sparkle of Brooklyn lights, Elizabeth would be making dinner, walking Satchmo, maybe answering business emails on her laptop while an old black-and-white movie played quietly in the background. Peter stared at the screen until his eyes watered from the strain, as if by looking he could discern which of those tiny, hazy lights was his house.

The starscape above them was beautiful and grand, but its charms paled quickly. In that little dot of light in Brooklyn, hidden within an unknown constellation and blurred by the city's smog, Peter found infinite beauty and variety. It seemed close enough to touch on the screen. If only I could.

"We're in the command center for the defenses during an alien invasion, and it is really boring," Neal remarked, drawing Peter out of his gloomy thoughts. Neal tipped his head back against the wall, and then brightened, intrigued. "Oh, wow. Peter, look. Those are people, I think."

"What?" Peter followed his pointing finger. Little sparks darted around the spaceships, visible in clusters and clouds and occasional flares of brilliance. Some of them were clearly spacecraft of some kind. Others, though ... the scale was much too large on the overhead display to see them as anything other than occasional firefly sparks, but on the more zoomed-in displays, he could see that Neal was right. Those little bright spots were people, clad in spandex or powered metal suits. Flying and fighting in space.

"They're just out there in space," Peter said in disbelief. "There's no air."

"Superheroes," Neal said, fluttering his fingers in the air. "Hello."

Peter stared up at the battle raging on the screens above them. Now that he could see what was happening, he felt even more like a useless bystander. He clambered stiffly to his feet.

"Hey!" Neal scrambled up after him. "Where are you going?"

"I think I just figured out what a guy who makes shields can do to help."

"Oh, no. No, no way." Neal blocked his path. "I think I just figured out why I came along to be massively bored in Conspiracy Theory Central. Someone has to stop you from being a heroic idiot."

"Neal, move." Peter feinted left and went right, but Neal anticipated him.

"No, Peter. Elizabeth will kill me if I let you go fight aliens in outer space."

"Not if you don't tell her," Peter said desperately. Neal just gave him a What, really? look. "Neal, listen. They brought us here to help. I can't sit here and do nothing when I have skills that might make a difference."

When Neal didn't budge, Peter gripped him by the shoulders and, gently but firmly, removed Neal from his path. However, Neal stuck close to his heels as Peter wove through the crowd looking for someone who appeared to be in charge. It was hard to tell; most of the people in sight were clearly office workers and technicians, and the handful of black-clad agents were not differentiated in any obvious way. He finally spotted someone he recognized: Agent Regan.

She was in deep consultation with a group of clipboard-bearing individuals. Peter, having had a great deal of experience at getting the attention of busy people who didn't want to talk to him, loomed at her elbow so that when she swiveled on her heel to leave, she almost ran into him. She glanced up, but not as far as his face: just to the name tag clipped to his shirt. In less than a second she took in his tag color and dismissed him -- he could see it in her face -- and angled to the side. Taking a cue from Neal, Peter body-blocked her.

"Excuse me," she snapped, and, reading his name off his tag, "-- Mr. Burke, this isn't a good time."

"We need to talk, Agent Regan," Peter said, and this time her gaze did flick up to his face.

"I know you," she said. "You're -- the meta who manifested in the warehouse, aren't you?"

"Good memory," Peter said, impressed despite himself. It had been months by now.

"As much as I'd love to chat, Mr. Burke" -- her tone implied nothing of the sort -- "you might have noticed I have other responsibilities right now."

"That's the point," Peter said, going for a no-nonsense approach since politeness wasn't getting him anywhere. "I can help. I have shield powers --"

"That you're not trained to use," she pointed out. "This isn't the time."

Peter's temper flared. "Training I wasn't offered! You people spent taxpayer money keeping tabs on me and getting me here so I could sit in a corner waiting for someone to give me instructions. I have powers that could be useful. Let me help."

"I sympathize," Agent Regan said. "I really do. But the teams out there are used to working together. Throwing someone new into the mix is going to make things worse, not better." She looked around, then pointed to one of the equipment banks. "Why don't you see if the techs need help? We're always in need of people to fetch and carry. Otherwise, just wait until we call you."

With that she eluded Peter with eel-like speed and vanished into the crowd again.

"That went well," Neal said.

Peter, not in the mood, simply glared at him. Neal raised his hands in a wordless apology, but, being Neal, was unable to keep from talking for long.

"Peter, you're just a tiny cog in a machine here. They're not going to listen to you. All you can do is hang out, entertain yourself, and," Neal shrugged, "keep your eyes open for opportunity."

Peter's frustration and anger was co-opted by his well-developed "investigating Caffrey" circuit. "Is this the voice of experience talking?" And then, suspiciously: "What sort of opportunity are we talking about?"

"Whatever comes up," Neal said, looking innocent.

Over the next hour of continued waiting, Neal's "whatever comes up" encompassed finding food for them, prepackaged sandwiches swiped from ... somewhere. Neal had supposedly been going in search of a bathroom, and Peter had watched him from across the room for most of that time; he hadn't even noticed a detour. He had to marvel at Neal's effortless sleight of hand.

"I hope you paid for those."

"They were just on a cart," Neal said. "I don't think you have to pay. If we're going to be stuck here all night, the least they can do is feed us. Here, I even found deviled ham for you, which you should consider a sacrifice of the highest order."

While they ate their sandwiches, Peter produced a pen from his pocket. There had to be something they could do to pass the time, while the space battle went on above their heads. They tried playing tic-tac-toe on the backs of some of Peter's business cards. Neal won five games out of six.

"You're cheating. You have to be."

"You can't cheat at tic-tac-toe, Peter." When Peter continued to fix him with a sharp stare, Neal admitted, "Well, there is some psychology to it. You can subtly guide which squares the other person chooses."

"So you are cheating."

"Guiding," Neal said. "Subtly."

"Show me."

So Neal taught him a couple of techniques for winning tic-tac-toe through small misdirects that made the other person think they were freely choosing a square when they were actually being led.

As Neal was winding up a demonstration of using small gestures to direct the other person's motions while playing any game, Peter said out of the blue, "Do you feel like a cog in a machine a lot of the time?"

Neal didn't bother obfuscating or pretending shock; he merely pointed at his anklet. "What do you think?"

"I don't just mean that."

"There's an electronic monitor reporting my exact location to the government at all times. How much more do you need?"

"It's just that I'd never really thought about it before," Peter said. Neal was making it difficult to catch his eye; Peter could see him only in profile. "In that way, I mean. How old were you when you were --" He almost said diagnosed, but changed at the last minute. "-- detected?"

"I hid it pretty well as a kid," Neal said after a silence. "I mean, being invisible loses a lot of advantages if people know you can turn invisible, right?"

"True," Peter agreed. "Since you weren't listed anywhere as a metahuman, it took us a long time to figure out how you'd done some of the things you'd done. I guessed you were an undetected meta pretty early on, but I couldn't figure out what your power was."

"You can partly thank my mom for that. She figured it out after awhile, but encouraged me to hide it, even helped me stay home on the days they offered meta screening at school. She kept telling me not to let the government put me on any lists. I didn't understand at the time. I thought she was ..." Neal hesitated. "Well, she was paranoid, I guess. In a lot of ways, most of them not very healthy." His face grew distant for a moment. "But I understood it better once I grew up. She was afraid we'd stand out too much."

"Did Ellen know?" Peter asked quietly.

Neal cleared his throat. "If we're playing Truth or Dare, I think it's my turn to ask a question. Do you actually want to go to space and fight aliens?"

Peter let it go, making a mental note to circle back at some later point. If there was a later point. "It's not a matter of whether I want to; it's whether it needs to be done."

"That's a very you sort of answer, Peter."

"Well, it's true," Peter said. "Of course I don't. I'd rather be having a cold beer and watching the game at home. But I doubt if anyone up there wants to be there, either. Someone has to do these things so everyone else can have their cold beer and watch the game. And right now I've got powers that mean I can be useful. So I'm here."

"Peter, you're here because they made you come." Neal stabbed a finger upward. "For all you know, we could be the aggressors. Did you think about that?"

"Does it matter right now?" Peter countered. "Look, if a guy takes innocent people hostage or steals some grandmother's life savings, I don't need to know why; I just know there are people who need protecting right now."

"But you do care why," Neal said. "I know you do. I've seen it. Do you want to know one big reason I'm not on the hero list, Peter? It's because I'm not going to take orders to attack and -- and maybe kill people without being told why. I want the option of picking which side I'd rather be on."

"You don't always get that option. Sometimes there's just -- whoa." Peter stopped in midsentence, staring upward.

A flood of light had caught his attention. Around the MIB command center, there was a hush, a breath-holding pause. The overhead screen had gone completely white, lighting up the cavernous room like a sudden flood of sunlight.

When the light faded, the spaceship had come apart into a large, scattered cluster of ragged chunks, drifting apart even as they watched. The other ship was retreating.

Peter had to remind himself of the staggering scale; the largest of those chunks of debris, comprising the main body of the ship, was probably bigger than some small towns.

Around the room, clusters of sporadic clapping broke out, along with cheers. Most people, though, were glued to the screens, watching the drifting debris.

"Wonderful," Neal muttered. "We just killed a bunch of people. Do you still wish you were up there?"

"Hush." Peter thought he knew why the atmosphere in the room was still so tense. He could see that the debris was shifting trajectory as some of it became trapped by Earth's gravity. Some would probably enter a high-altitude orbit. But a lot of it was being pushed by inertia from the explosion, particularly that big piece, which was already flaming around the edges as it entered the atmosphere.

Peter discovered that he was holding his breath, waiting to see what everyone else would do. Some of the big screens around the room were now displaying plots of the various debris trajectories, with wireframes and dotted lines. His eyes flicked automatically to the screen showing New York's nighttime skyline -- he'd been looking at it every few minutes during their long wait, wondering what Elizabeth was doing now. This time, though, something else drew his eye: a bright flare in the night sky above the city.

Aghast, Peter looked back at the trajectory plots. One of those pieces of debris, the biggest, was on a collision course with New York City.

He could see, on the screens, some of the aerial superhero teams scrambling to intercept it and the rest. There was also a squadron of fighter jets in the air. Peter remembered high school physics only vaguely, and he remembered the concept of terminal velocity rather than the actual numbers, but he did know that the debris could fall only so fast and no faster. There was time to plan -- and time to think about their fate if it couldn't be stopped.

He caught sight of Agent Regan on one of the catwalks above them, in consultation with a number of other people clustered around a bank of equipment.

"Neal, stay here," Peter said, and started in that direction. As he charged up the stairs to the catwalk, he was vaguely aware of Neal -- unsurprisingly -- following him. "Agent Regan! I need to talk to you."

"Not now," she snapped.

"Can you stop that thing?" Peter demanded, pointing in a general aboveward direction.

"Every second I talk to you, Burke, is another second I don't have to work on a plan."

Which meant they didn't have anything, yet. "I think I can stop it," Peter said. He heard Neal's intake of breath.

Regan zeroed in on him instantly. "How?"

"I make shields," Peter said. "That's what I do. I might be able to shield the city."

"Might?" Agent Regan said. "That's not much."

"I don't know. I've never tried to make a shield that big. Do you know exactly where it's coming down?"

She turned to murmur to one of the techs, who pointed to a large map on his screen and traced a finger around an area encompassing much of lower Manhattan.

"That's the projected impact area, within that zone," Regan said. "Something that big, though -- the shockwave will devastate everything nearby."

Including Brooklyn. And Elizabeth.

"Even if you stop it above the city," Regan went on, "the impact will still be a problem. It's going to hit with a lot of force, and the force has to go somewhere. It'll be transmitted through the atmosphere."

"I can make my shield higher, then," Peter said. "Just tell me how high you want it." He tried not to listen to the little voice in the back of his brain saying You can't do this, you're not strong enough. He had to be. For Elizabeth's sake, for everyone's sake, he had to be.

Neal said his name, and when Peter ignored him, plucked at his sleeve, trying to get his attention. Peter swatted him off.

Regan looked at the screens and back to him. "Do you think you can deflect it? Change its course so it hits out in the middle of the Atlantic?"

"That's going to create one hell of a wave," one of the techs said. "It'll still devastate coastal regions."

"We could go back to the original plan and blow it up," someone else said.

"And we still have the original problem: all that debris is still coming down."

Regan snapped her fingers. "We'll combine it. Blow it up and catch the debris on your shield. Can you do that? Catch it and dump it in the ocean?"

"I think so." Peter's mouth was dry.

"That's not good enough."

"It's all I've got," he shot back. "It's all you've got. It has to be."

"Talk to me," Regan ordered the techs, looking up again to the screens. Minutes had passed and the bright light in the New York skies had not grown visibly -- but it was approaching, Peter knew, screaming through the atmosphere, burning as it came.

After a hurried consultation, their spokestech said, "It might work. It depends on how much he can catch and how gently he can dump it. There'll still be the water displacement to deal with, but we can warn maritime traffic and coastal areas. There's a big difference between a forty-foot surge and a five-foot surge --"

"Get the warnings out." Regan tapped the earpiece buried in her hair. "I'll need authorization for this. Wait here." She turned and trotted off down the catwalk, speaking as she did so.

"Peter!" Neal protested. "You can't! I've seen how much it takes out of you just to do a little shield. How can you possibly create one that's miles across?"

"Thanks for the pep talk," Peter said. "Why can't you be Mr. Optimistic when it would come in handy?"

"I'm too worried about you having an aneurysm."

"Look," Peter said. He drew Neal out of the way of traffic; it was impossible to have true privacy here, but at least they could get into a quieter corner behind the equipment bank. "At best, I only have to hold it for thirty seconds or so -- just enough time to catch the debris and tip it into the ocean. Just in case this doesn't work, though --"

Neal flung up his hands. "No. No. I am not conveying your last wishes to Elizabeth." His face was set and angry.

"Just tell her --" But it all fell apart there. Tell her what? I'm sorry? I love you? She'd already know all of that. "You'll know what to tell her," Peter said at last. Neal was good with people, after all. He'd find the right words.

Neal looked even angrier now. "That's your last request? Peter, that's a ... that's an awful last request."

"Well, hopefully you won't have to."

Then there was no more time to talk. Regan was back, one hand cupped over her earpiece. "You're sure you can do it," she said to Peter.

"Yes." Maybe if he said it enough times, he'd start believing it himself.

"Then it's a go." She tapped off her radio. "Burke, we're going to nuke the target. When I give you the signal, catch it and dump it ... as close to here as you can get." She pointed to the map, to the wide blank space between Florida and North Africa.

Dumping a bunch of radioactive debris in the Atlantic? Better than the alternative, maybe ... "There must be people out there. I don't want to hurt anyone."

"At this point," Regan said, "we're choosing between ten million casualties and maybe a few hundred to a few thousand. I'm taking those odds. It's on me. Wait for your signal and go."

Peter took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and tried to center himself. He could do this. He could. He'd been practicing, training. It was really no different from using his body to do anything else.

Something brushed his arm. He opened his eyes to find Neal very close; their shoulders were almost touching. Neal caught one of Peter's hands, squeezed it briefly, and then let go. Peter tried to smile at him.

It was hard to tell exactly what was happening on the screens. The long-distance views of the falling debris showed nothing but a bright spot arcing through the sky. Zoomed-in views were too shaky and blurry to see much. He saw when the missile hit it, though, a blossom of fire in the sky.

Agent Regan gave him a thumbs-up. "Now," she said, and touched her radio.

Peter raised his shield.

He'd never tried anything like this, wasn't even sure what it would feel like. For a moment it wasn't too bad; he could feel the huge shield quivering in the air far above New York, soap-bubble fragile. It was like executing a difficult dead-lift and holding up the weight, the same kind of breathless strain.

Then the debris hit it.

If the shield had been a deadlift before, now it was a deadlift with an elephant on the bar. He was borne down beneath the weight, physically and mentally -- he fell to his knees, barely aware that Neal helped catch him, stopped him from falling facefirst to the catwalk. Blood sang in his ears; strain throbbed along every nerve.

Someone was saying his name. He looked up into Neal's face, saw Neal staring at him in shock and alarm. Warm liquid splashed on his hand -- bright spots of blood, dancing in front of his wavering vision. No wonder Neal was looking at him like that.

But the shield was holding, still holding. There was something else he was supposed to do -- he had to draw it out of his memory one piece at a time. Dump it. He had to dump it. He didn't know how he could possibly move it. Just holding it took every scrap of strength and concentration that he possessed. He couldn't breathe. Black spots danced in front of his eyes.

He reached down deep inside himself -- thought of El, of his parents, of Neal: everyone who would die if he let the shield fall -- and gave the whole thing a tremendous shove. It slid sideways through the Manhattan skies. He could see it on the screens, a blaze of light in the sky above the glittering towers of the city. He pushed and pushed, and it fell and so did he, plunging down a black tunnel into warm soft black nothing.

 

***

 

Peter drifted awake incrementally. He was lying on something soft and warm. When he cracked his eyes open, his main impressions were "white room" and "Elizabeth", which he put together into "hospital".

"Hey, hon," he whispered.

"Hey, yourself." She leaned down to kiss him lightly. From the look of her face, she might have been crying. Peter's hand twitched to reach out and comfort her, which was how he discovered that his arms felt like rubber and really hurt.

"The city ..." he murmured. "Did I ...?"

"You did." Her hand tightened on his.

"You ... okay?"

"Am I okay? Oh, Peter ..." She dashed at her eyes. "Yes," she said firmly. "Yes, I'm absolutely fine. Everyone is fine, thanks to you. Would you like a drink of water?"

She held a straw to his mouth from an insulated mug of ice water. It helped clear away a little of the crusty feeling. He felt slow and stupid and heavy, like he'd been asleep for days. Actually ... "How long has it been?" he asked. His voice was a little less cracked-sounding now.

El looked away. "Three days."

"Oh, honey." No wonder she had that worn-down look.

"They were worried about --" She had to take a deep breath before continuing. "... brain function. They said they wouldn't know for sure until you woke up. Do you, uh ... You know who I am, obviously. And you know who you are, right?"

"Special Agent Peter Burke, FBI," he recited. "Born in Syracuse, 1963 --"

El touched a finger to his lips. Fresh tears had sprung up in her eyes. "That is definitely you," she said, and kissed him again. "I'm supposed to fetch a doctor when you woke up so they could run some neurological tests. Do you feel up to that?"

"I guess so." Mostly he just wanted to sleep, but from the sound of things he'd been doing more than enough of that.

"It'll also give me a chance to call Neal. Actually ..." She smiled. "Do you want to do that while I get the doctor? He's been hovering a bit. Well, not actually hovering since we're outside his radius, but texting me twenty times a day for updates."

"Sure," Peter murmured. El tapped a preset on her phone and handed it to him before rising from her chair. She had to help him lift his hand to his ear; his arms were still limp and he had to rest his hand on the pillow to keep it there.

"Elizabeth?" Neal was saying anxiously once Peter finally got the phone in place.

"Hey," Peter said. "Guess who."

There was a brief, startled silence; Peter was about to ask if they'd been cut off when Neal said in a slightly strangled voice, "I'm going to remind you of this the next time you lecture me about doing something stupid."

"Yeah, El said I scared you guys." She was still in the room; Peter smiled at her and she smiled back before leaving quietly.

"Oh, no, not at all," Neal said. "Nothing to be worried about. It's only that you started bleeding from the nose and eyes and then fell over and weren't breathing."

"What did you do?" Peter asked, morbidly curious.

"Started rescue breathing and screamed for help in between breaths; what was I supposed to do? As well as breaking a bunch of blood vessels in your face, they said they thought you might have had a stroke, but they wouldn't know for sure until you woke up. Which you then failed to do." Neal was speaking very fast by the end of this speech.

"... in my face?" Peter tried to reach up and touch his nose with his other hand, but it didn't make it far off the bed before flopping back down. His eye sockets ached -- in fact, his whole face hurt. He hoped El hadn't been having to look at some kind of bruised monster for the last three days.

"Whites of eyes, nasal membranes, that sort of thing. Hence the bleeding. Don't worry, you're not hideous, or at least you weren't the last time I saw you. Of course you also weren't breathing and were being hooked up to a lot of alarming equipment before the Men in Black hustled you off."

"MIB stands for Metahuman Intervention Bureau," Peter felt compelled to point out.

"I know what it stands for," Neal said. "You are continuing to miss the part where I'm very upset with you."

"No, I got that part. I would apologize except that you scare me to death approximately once per week and I don't recall getting any apologies for that. Now you have an idea of what I go through on a regular basis."

"I can't believe you're using your own near-death experience as an opportunity to lecture me," Neal said. "Oh wait, yes I can. Did you see a tunnel of light, by the way?"

"No tunnels, no light. I don't remember anything ..." There was a sharp indrawn breath on Neal's end, and Peter hastily finished the sentence, "-- since passing out. Everything before that I remember pretty clearly. Calm down."

"People have been telling me for three days that you might have brain damage. I'm kind of uncalm."

"Neal," Peter said, trying to inject as much force into his voice as he was presently capable of. "Sit down, if you aren't already."

"I'm sitting," Neal said. "I'm at my desk."

"Okay, good. Now take some deep breaths and settle down. I'm okay." The door of his room swung inward. El was there, along with a couple of people in white coats. "I gotta go, I think I'm about to be poked and prodded. Are you calm?"

"Calmer," Neal said, but he sounded a lot better than he had at the beginning of the conversation.

"Right. Go get some work done. And get something to eat."

"You don't know I haven't eaten."

"Yeah I do. I know you. See you soon."

Neal sighed, and then he gave a sudden laugh. "Peter, it's good to hear your voice."

"You too," Peter said, which he realized after he'd already hung up was kind of a dumb thing to say, maybe, but at least he knew Neal was okay.

Which made him aware he had no idea what had happened in the last three days. Elizabeth had said the city was okay, but was there still danger? Had there been damage? Death? Did I kill people, when I did what I did?

But there was no opportunity for answers now, just a series of MIB doctors running tests on him. They brought a portable EKG machine to his room, along with various other devices he wasn't sure about, and after taking some baseline readings, asked him to try to generate a shield. When he made the effort, there was a sharp ... not pain exactly, but a sort of hot or electric feeling, a weird pre-migraine sensation, and for an instant he was so nauseous that he gagged. El bolted forward to grab his shoulders, but it passed. "I don't think I should do that again," he said when he could.

"No," the doctor said thoughtfully, making a note. "Probably not."

They eventually wheeled him down to take an MRI. Before going into the machine he asked to use the bathroom, which also gave him an opportunity to examine himself in the mirror. He didn't look as bad as he'd feared, just a little puffy and hung over, with the whites of his eyes alarmingly discolored. He'd looked almost as bad after drinking too much a couple times in college. Of course, in those cases he'd at least had the fun of partying first ...

By now he was feeling a little better -- less weak and shaky -- but hunger was a growing distraction, to the point that he could think about little else by the time he was out of the MRI machine. After he'd snapped at the researchers a few times, they took him back to his room and Elizabeth, where someone finally brought him some food: a bowl of soup, crackers and a cookie. Nothing had ever tasted so good, especially the cookie, which was unusual as he wasn't normally that much of a dessert person.

"You don't have to stay," he told El between spoonfuls of soup. She was curled up at the foot of the bed with her laptop and an afghan.

"Nowhere to be," she replied absently. "Satchmo's at the neighbor's, Yvonne's doing quite a good job of running the business in my absence ... oh dear, they can't really be using those floral arrangements for the reception! The color is all wrong for the bridesmaids' dresses."

"See, hon, they need you to keep them straightened out."

El smiled at him. "Nice try, but I brought a well-stocked overnight bag and I have everything I need right here. They even gave me a room down the hall to stay in, although I had to talk them into it."

Peter could only imagine how that had gone. El could be very persuasive when she wanted to be. Peter sometimes thought that in another life, she might have had a successful career as the world's nicest mob enforcer. She wouldn't even need to threaten to break anyone's kneecaps; she'd just use guilt and muffins.

A different doctor arrived that evening with the results of his tests. Peter had been drowsing as it grew dark outside the window, until hunger woke him again and El went to fetch him a sandwich from the building's cafeteria. He was interrupted halfway through, but at least he got some answers this time.

"As far as we can tell, you did suffer a mild stroke," the doctor told him. El's hand flew to her mouth. "The damage is very localized, though. There's a part of your brain here --" She used a stylus to circle an area on the MRI (Peter assumed it was his own) displayed on her tablet computer. To Peter it just looked like a bunch of colored blobs. He tried to look as if the blobs meant something. "Increased activity in this part of the brain is implicated in the functioning of most metahuman abilities. Yours has been damaged. See the darker areas? There's little to no activity there. It shouldn't affect any of your other mental functions --"

"No more powers?" Peter asked, cutting straight to what seemed to him the point.

She looked unsure. "Well, that's over-simplifying. It's entirely possible for other parts of your brain to take over the lost functions, as with other forms of brain damage. However, since you developed your powers late in life, we consider this unlikely in your case."

"No more powers," Peter repeated. He leaned back against his pillows.

"Effectively, no."

 

***

 

They released him the next day, still tired and unusually hungry, with instructions to take it easy and rest a lot. Peter had just gotten settled on the patio with a cup of coffee, a plate of cold cuts and cheese, and a newly retrieved Satchmo under his feet when the doorbell rang. A few minutes later, Neal joined him on the patio.

Peter squinted suspiciously at him. "What were you doing, keeping surveillance on our house? Is Mozzie out there with binoculars now?"

"Elizabeth texted me," Neal said, sounding smug.

"I knew she'd been too quiet."

"On the other hand, I can't say what Mozzie's been up to. You might want to keep your bedroom curtains closed for a while." Neal settled at the table. On his trek through the house he'd picked up a cup of coffee along the way, probably courtesy of El. "I guess you're caught up on the news?"

"Basically." By way of El's laptop and the radio in the car, he'd gotten the gist of things: there was some damage to outlying areas of the city, some deaths related to falling debris and waves from the wreckage he'd dumped in the ocean. Radiation cleanup was ongoing. There had also been small impacts elsewhere. Most of the smaller pieces of debris had been neutralized by the other superhero teams, but there had been a lot of them.

Elizabeth kept telling Peter that it wasn't his fault, that he'd done all he could and he couldn't possibly have saved everyone. Technically, he knew she was right, but it was hard to convince himself. The casualties had included a group of night-swimming teenagers swept away into the ocean, and a honeymooning couple killed in their hotel by a chunk of debris.

Into Peter's pensive silence, Neal said, "I hope you're not planning on running off to be a superhero again for at least a week or two."

"Not ever," Peter said, and at Neal's intrigued look, "Apparently I burned out that part of my brain."

Neal blanched. "That sounds ... bad."

"Apparently I wasn't using that part of it anyway." When Neal opened his mouth, Peter added hastily, "Do not speak."

"I wasn't going to say anything." But the sparkle dancing in Neal's eye said it all anyway. Sobering, he said, "So no more shields, no more hero list?"

"Guess not. Just plain old Special Agent Peter Burke."

Neal preened a bit. "I guess two superheroes in this partnership was too many anyway."

"Oh, you're a superhero now?"

"I did show up to save the world," Neal pointed out.

"Yes, you did," Peter said, relaxing into a smile. "You did."

"Not that I'm going to be putting myself on a list anytime soon."

"I don't blame you," Peter said, and was rewarded with a look of surprise.

Cupping his hand around his ear, Neal said, "What's that? 'You were right and I was wrong, Neal'?"

"I did not say that. When the world is in danger, you should go help. It's the right thing to do."

"But it's different if you're being forced to, isn't it?" Neal said. He sat back in his chair, hands cupped around his coffee mug.

Peter shook his head. "It's a flawed system. They're wasting time and resources to pull in untrained, uninterested civilians who are only going to end up getting in everyone else's way. Not to mention breeding resentment and creating an artificial class of haves and have-nots. If you aren't on the hero list, people assume you're a supervillain. But that's ridiculous. It's not an either-or thing."

"You could be a mom who doesn't want to leave her kids," Neal said. "Or someone who doesn't trust themselves to a government watch list, say."

Peter raised his eyebrows. "Hypothetically speaking?" Oh God, was Mozzie a meta too? That thought had never even crossed his mind.

"Sure." Neal stole a piece of cheese from Peter's plate. "So what's your solution?"

"Better outreach," Peter said immediately. "This top-down, involuntary draft plan is ... well, it's unworkable, for one thing. It's wasteful and exploitive. I don't know what would be better, maybe something like a neighborhood watch -- volunteers with training and regular meetings and a local leadership. That would also give metahumans a sense of local community and someone to bring their concerns to, even if they didn't normally show up for meetings. Like a local contact point, someone to go talk to the MIB on their behalf if they felt they were being exploited or discriminated against."

"You've thought about this a lot," Neal said, looking intrigued.

"Had some time to think lately."

"Sounds like a lot of work to set that up," Neal said. He popped another piece of cheese into his mouth. "And you're not even a metahuman anymore," he added around it. His tone was challenging: Why do you care?

"Some of my friends are," Peter said. "A lot of the people I serve and protect are."

"Serve and protect is the cops' motto, not the FBI."

"Similar thing," Peter said. "Stop stealing my food."

"Elizabeth buys good cheese," Neal said, unrepentant. "So ... are you serious about this? Because it's not going to be easy. It'd go against the MIB's entire way of relating to metahumans in the U.S."

"Which is?" Peter asked. "How do you see it?"

Neal turned evasive, but when Peter kept gazing calmly at him, his resistance faded. "Control," he said. "Control and division. They separate us into good and bad metahumans -- the ones on the list, and the ones not on the list -- and then they have an excuse to monitor both groups. And they've got us keeping an eye on each other without having to lift a finger. Divide and conquer. Self-identified superheroes don't trust anyone not on the list, and it goes the other way too."

Peter felt a sarcastic response hovering on the tip of his tongue -- You sure I'm not talking to Mozzie? The problem was, Neal was right. There were a lot of legitimate reasons why someone might not want to be on the hero list, not just paranoia but also the perfectly legitimate point that not everyone was temperamentally or physically suited to go up against powerful enemies. But the end result of the MIB's meddling was that they'd effectively substituted the hero list for actual morality. Being on the list meant being a good person -- and the inverse was also true: If you're not on the list, then you're bad. Metahumans became complicit in turning each other in and hunting each other down, not for committing crimes but simply for being unregistered. It was pretty vile once you looked at it that way.

He still thought that it was an originally well-intentioned idea. There were a lot of metahumans who used their powers to evil ends and were physically beyond the reach of normal authorities -- it was tough for the cops to apprehend someone who could control people's minds or blow up a city block. And there was a legitimate need for a superpowered fighting force to combat the high-level threats that the planet received.

But ... not like this. Not like this.

"You're going to make some enemies if you take them on," Neal said thoughtfully.

"I've never let that stop me before."

Neal looked conflicted, then he said, "We."

"Huh?"

"We've never let it stop us." And Neal held out a fist.

Peter bumped it.