Welcome to the New Normal

A Cassie Sutton Story
A Denny McCloud Story

Thursday, 01 Jul 2027
Baxter Plaza, Downtown
Noon-ish

Denny sat on one of the low planter walls scattered across the Plaza, trying not to fidget and failing miserably. She pulled out a pocket-sized sketch pad and doodled to give herself something to do while she waited for Cassie to join her for lunch. She’d called the investment banker earlier that morning and begged for a meeting over the noonday meal and though Cassie had promised to meet her, Denny wasn’t entirely sure if her friend would manage to get away.

It’s cool, Den. If she can’t make it, she can’t make it and you can try again with Miriam. So chill.

She couldn’t make anything come out of her pen except random scratches that meant nothing. She turned it into an exercise in cross-hatching, something that wouldn’t come to life behind her back later.

Never could draw when you were upset or mad. That’s a big damn clue if you feel like paying attention.

Oh shut up. She hated it when her common sense was right. Denny set her jaw and continued to draw, her head bent over the tiny pad in her lap.

Cassie couldn’t help but smile when the call came from her teammate; she had begun to feel like the girl’s older sister. She actually found herself looking forward to talking to Denny. The girl was such a wonderful bundle of energy and enthusiasm and yet she tried so hard to give wise and thoughtful advice. Cassie couldn’t help but like her, this girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Not that I’m much older, Cassie thought wryly as she appeared in a favorite out of the way alcove and strode out briskly into the moving crowds. She scanned the Plaza for Denny, shading her eyes against the noonday sun.

A shadow fell across her lap and Denny looked up. The sun made a ruddy halo of Cassie’s hair and for a second, Denny wished she could paint it. Then she shook off the wish and stood up.

“Hey, sorry. Fell into my work. You ready to eat? I’m starved.” She grabbed the strap of her messenger bag, the one that held her aviator’s cap, goggles, and team jacket. Her evening with Drew had taught her that she should be prepared at all times, and that only reminded her of the reason she dragged Cassie into the sunlight on a work day. Denny pasted a smile on her face and hoped it looked genuine. “You feel like pizza or, hey, there’s a really cool shawarma place a couple of blocks that way.”

An eyebrow raised. “Shawarma?” There seemed to be some humor behind that word. Denny’s eyes twinkled and Cassie frowned as she first nodded and then shook her head. “Pizza please. I’m starving. I’m not feeling righteous right now and I’ll admit I’m just craving greasy cheese and meat products.” She waited for the teen to join her and then said, “Lead on.”

As they settled into the walk, Cassie unconsciously settling into the brisk stride that it took to keep up her brother, she looked at Denny with a serene smile. “So what’s up kiddo?”

“Lots,” Denny sighed and then perked up. “Shawarma’s a really yummy Middle Eastern hero sandwich. It’s like a Gyro. Actually … they’re pretty much the same. The only difference between them is geography. Bit messy though. Pizza’s easier to handle.”

As she strode along with Cassie something in the rhythm reminded Denny of a song she’d heard online and she hummed it under her breath as they continued to the pizza place:

That’s the way the whole thing started
Silly but it’s true
Thinkin’ of a sweet romance
Beginning in a queue…

Cassie waited for the teen to continue only to have the girl start humming. “Um, how about defining ‘lots’, Denny. Is everything okay at home?”

“What?” Denny shook off the song and looked up. “Oh, yeah. No worries there. Mom and Dad are fine. It’s just … well, Tuesday night I think I really borked things up with somebody and I really don’t know what I should do about it.”

It took her a minute to parse the words. “Borked up?” Abruptly her face filled with surprised delight. “Oh, a boy!” She gently punched the girl in the shoulder. “So what makes you think that? He hasn’t called you?” Cassie shifted to avoid a couple engrossed in conversation and resettled back into stride. “And by the way, I’m walking like I know what pizza place we’re going to, but I don’t have a clue. Maybe you oughta lead.”

“Sure,” Denny nodded, glad of the distraction from the distraction. Really, Denny, you’re being a total twit over this. The guy went home singing, for Pete’s sake. It wasn’t the disaster you’re making it out to be. Denny took Cassie’s arm and turned left at the corner of the building they’d walked under and found the pizza place three doors down. “Here we go. Geez, I hope you’re not on a tight leash. This might take a while.”

The place was packed out but there were still a few tables available under the building’s overhang, offering shade and a little more privacy for conversation. Denny dove through the door and took her place in line, already counting the change in her pocket. A drink and a slice and that’s about it. She turned around to address Cassie. “What are you getting?”

“Your lunch,” Cassie announced, pulling out her All-toggle to pay. “Order what you want. I remember being a poor college student.”

“Oh geez, Cassie, you don’t have to—,” Good manners fought with her stomach. Her stomach won. “Um, I mean, thanks. Next one’s on me, okay?”

She ducked her head and figured it was too noisy for anyone to really hear anything she said next. She leaned in and confirmed Cassie’s guess.

“And yeah. So … You’re a girl, right? Could you maybe give me a few pointers on how to handle a guy who might actually like you?” She frowned, more puzzled than frustrated. “Not that I’m entirely sure why but … Boys. Weird. You know?”

It took all of her willpower not to laugh. Denny was so serious and so was the subject, but the way it was presented just hit her funnybone. Yes, boys weird. She did know. Jason had left her on the dance floor with a cryptic, ‘Soon.’ Whatever the heck that meant. Cassie hardly felt like the expert. Dressed in one of her best date dresses, she had come away kinda feeling like chopped liver, paying for dinner and very aware that Jason’s ex-wife was probably watching her finish the evening alone. She almost felt like porting the girl to Deirdre. Ken had been a dish. And they seemed to be progressing well on their romantic journey. She and Jason? Uh well. . .she could think of no way to spin that evening into anything other than a disaster.

Looking intently at the pizzas displayed, she chose a slice of garlic, tomato and spinach and then decided that she would also have a slice of meat lovers once they were able to order. The pause gave her a chance to regain her composure and it was with a calm nod that she turned again to Denny.

“Yes, I am a girl.” Another giggle threatened to burst free. Maybe? Enough to get fondled by the ID, not enough to pull off the slinky dress and get fondled by the good doctor. The irony was just almost killing her. “And I’ll try to help Denny. I’m hardly an expert. But shoot.”

Denny watched her friend’s face closely and wondered what flickered behind Cassie’s eyes before they fastened on the pizza. By the time the older woman had turned around again, her game face was back and Denny decided not to dig deeper. After all, we’re not here to discuss her love life but mine. If you could call it that.

“So it was Tuesday night and I’m at The Gutter, picking up my weekly bag, see?” The line moved up quickly now that the staff opened up another register. “And so I’m standing in the store reading one of my titles when this guy comes up and goes, ‘You like Fables?’, like it’s a total surprise that someone else buys the comic. Please. It’s like, an oldie but goodie. 25 years and counting. Willingham’s probably got one foot in the grave by now but … Anyway.” Jesus, Den. Focus, willya? “So I go, ‘Yeah’, like a total fail-bot, cuz I’m holding it in my hands plain as day. And again with the fail-bottery, I go, ‘You like Willingham?’ I’ll have the special: two slices of the Greek pizza and a Diet, thanks. And that’s with whatever my friend is having.” Denny looked over her shoulder and moved aside to let Cassie get to the counter to order.

“Tomato spinach and meat lovers. Water, thanks.” Cassie moved up to pay as the drinks were handed over and the slices put in the ovens to heat. Putting her arm around Denny, she guided her to an empty table in the corner where it was relatively quiet and yet where she could see their order come up. “Okay, lame segue by the guy, but kinda sweet and charming. Immediately says that he’s into what you’re into and opens up a conversation. So far, so good. It musta worked. You replied well. So, now my question is: Did this bit of back and forth open into a conversation? Or did it end there and you’re trying to re-connect?”

Denny flopped down where she was directed and propped her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands.

“In a perfect universe, the earth would have swallowed me up and saved the guy from further dorkitude from me, but no. I started going off at the mouth about Willingham’s first ten issues—the Snow White and Big Bad Wolf arc—and how I liked it better than the opening story that kicked off the series and then zoomed right into a couple of other titles and then asked him if he liked Chris Bachalo’s Death from The Dreaming better than the other versions of her and really Cassie I don’t know what the guy saw in me that made him ask me to go down the block to this really cool Thai place afterward and I haven’t a clue why I even said yes. It’s totally bugnuts. I can’t have a boyfriend. I have rent to make. I have a job to keep. I have to somehow find a way to get my artwork out there—more on that, by the way—and make money off it so I don’t have to sponge off Mom and Dad so much when I go back to school in the fall. And …,” Denny took a deep breath and let it out gustily. “Everything went into the crapper when the Weather Witch showed up and called me out. Well, not me exactly. But rather she was calling out for us to show up and play. Or whatever. And that’s the weird thing, how did they—wait. One thing at a time. I’ll get back to that later. And geez, Cassie, listen to me. I’m so keyed up I can’t even talk in a straight line, much less draw one. Me! Non-straight line!

Denny covered her face with her hands with a frustrated moan.

“I’m screwed.”

“Datus interruptus,” Cassie blurted and then leapt to her feet. “Be right back.” She went to the counter and brought back piping hot slices. “You want cheese or hot pepper?” She put a container of both on the table and then returned the borrowed tray to the main counter. “Not that mine was a date. Jason and I were having a business meeting when all that mess started.” Her blue eyes darted around them, taking in the people around them. The noise of the room served to give them isolation; no one seemed to be paying too much attention to the mention of the Weather Witch and Denny’s possible connection. She sighed and settled back into her seat. “You did a Cinderella then and faded without leaving the slipper, huh? And you haven’t seen him since?”

“Remember what I said about perfect world?” Denny scowled as she picked up her first slice. It was hot and it scalded the roof of her mouth when she bit it. She sucked down some soda to save her gullet. “Ow. Ow. Ow. And no. I did see him since. I mean, I dragged him out the back of the Thai place, shoved him through the back door of The Gutter, and pulled an airhead excuse about going back to pay our bill and copped a fade. You’d think that would have been the end of it but no, I’m a glutton for punishment and when I got free of the Witch I went back to The Gutter—like total idiot, right?—to see if everyone was okay. Had I been thinking straight I would have gone back to the barn. But no, returned to the scene of the crime instead. And like, Rick and some of the others were scared for me.” Denny’s expression made it clear that it threw her. “But Drew came up to me and asked if everything was okay. And he said he was afraid that the evening was a total disaster. Like I wasn’t going to talk to him ever, like it was all his fault or something.”

You should shut up and eat. Give Cassie a minute to take it all in. You’re going at the speed of light, here.

Denny finished her first pizza with several hefty swallows of soda and started on her second. Hopefully Cassie hadn’t already written her off as a complete nutcase.

Ah ha! Finally a name, Cassie thought triumphantly. Drew. She grinned, her eyes crinkling as she delicately tore off a piece of pizza, chewed and let the girl finish. “Of course they were worried about you, you ninny. They are your friends. And that’s a wonderful sign that this,” she paused, considering whether or not to say “his” name and then forged on, “Drew, is very interested and very nice. If he was a jerk, he’da left and decided that you blew him off. He was nice enough to worry about you and nice enough to believe that he’d done something wrong to make you leave.” She fastidiously pulled apart her slice until she reached the end and then thoughtfully chewed on the brown crust. Denny was tearing through her food at sonic speed and she pointed to the desserts in the refrigerated case. “Go get a dessert,” she told the teenager and fished out her All-toggle so that she could pay for it. “I’m not even finished with my first slice and you’re almost done with all of yours.”

“Um …,” Denny wiped her hands and took the toggle shyly. “Okay. Thank you.”

Taking that as her cue to let the woman eat, she got a slice of chocolate cake and two forks and returned with it. She didn’t make a move for it while Cassie was still eating but left to refill her soda instead. She fidgeted in her seat for a few minutes more and then continued the conversation.

“He did. And it was kinda nice and all and … oh my god, I almost forgot.” Denny leaned in and kept her voice below the general roar of the restaurant. “This is where it kinda gets creepy. One of the things he said while we were talking before we left for the Thai place was how much he thought Artisan was way cooler than everyone else on the team. Cuz she could make origami come to life and ride a dragon. Like it’s a two-fer on powers and how cool is that? Seriously, I didn’t know what to say. I mean, does he know? Why would he say that to me? That’s why when the Witch showed up I didn’t dare stay in that restaurant with him. I didn’t want to get cornered and have to out myself in front of him, cuz what if that’s what he was there for? I mean, how else did the Witch know where to look, right? All this is zipping through my head as I’m sitting over my meal and trying to figure out how to keep him out of it and keep the Witch from hurting anyone and, oh, by the way not get outed. So I did what I could and got him out of there and me out of sight of him. And then I went back cuz I’d left my stuff on the roof and also to see if maybe, maybe I was just imagining things and he wasn’t in league with her at all and would still be at the shop, like any other innocent person and before he left I let slip that I was there every Tuesday picking up my titles. As if he wouldn’t know that already cuz he might already be stalking me, you know? If he isn’t, then he’ll show up on Tuesday and I’ll have to do this sort of cloak-and-dagger stuff all over again. And if he is, I just told him where he could get at me again.”

Denny flopped back in her chair and just stared at Cassie.

“I mean, could I have screwed it up any further than that? Well, actually I could’ve. I could’ve given him my contact information. Luckily I didn’t. So if he really is a stalker, he’ll have to work a little harder to find out where I live. And I don’t wanna move. I like living where I work. Seriously, though, how did that crew know where we were? We were all on dates—or so I gathered—and in four different places in the city. How did they know where we were unless they were already watching us?”

Cassie opened her mouth to speak, couldn’t find a place to interrupt and after four more attempts, decided that she looked too much like a fish out of water and settled in to finish the meat lover’s slice. The chocolate cake sat between them like sin on a plate and she almost gulped the last of the pizza to reward herself with the cake as the teenager’s words finally came to an end.

“Denny, do you feel like he’s some sort of freaky stalker? Or that he’s a total fanboy who somehow, someway has figured out that you moonlight as mild-mannered university student in your off time?” She wiped her mouth and took a long drink of water before reaching for a fork and gesturing with it once she had loaded it with a cut of the luscious cake. She eyed the people around them again to assess if they were paying too much attention. But all were involved in their own lives and own lunches.

“You can live a life of paranoia, Denny. Or you can give the world a chance and this young man in particular. Deirdre has more to fear than anybody and yet she was out with a man who seems to adore her. Does she know that he’s not her stalker? No. Does of any of us? No. Could your boy, I mean man,” she corrected a bit sheepishly, “be part of some vast conspiracy?” She paused and licked her fork with a sigh. “Sure he can. Oh this is so good.” She carefully cut another piece, making sure that Denny was eating as much or more as she was.

“But sometimes you take a chance and you fail. You saw that with me. I’m scared, Denny. I’ll admit it. I’ve never been in pain like that and I pray that I never will again. But yes, my confidence is shaken.” She leaned closer, her voice going soft. “I have to believe that when I port that I’ll get there. That I won’t find myself taking a leap of faith and falling. I can’t do anything else. Because fear will keep you stagnant and in the end you die, full of regrets and bitter disappointment. You have been given a great gift. If Drew is a stalker, then you are more than capable of taking care of yourself. And you have us.” Her eyes grew soft and she cocked her head with a wry smile. “Have your dragon eat him if he bothers you.”

That last almost caused a spit-take. Denny managed not to lose it and swallowed.

“I can’t do that! No telling what it’ll do to—,”Denny put her fork down. “Oh, right. Ha-ha.” She took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts, a little calmer now that she’d gotten everything off her chest. Feels nice, doesn’t it? snarked her inner critic. Keeping all that idiot crap inside you was dumb. Now that it’s out of the way, you can think straight again. “Okay. One, the idea that Drew is either a stalker or knows who I really am is kinda dumb. Two, if it turns out he’s either or both, I have options. Three, if all else fails, I can count on you and the team. Okay. Noted. But while you say I should take a chance and trust that things will turn out fine, I still don’t know if I should. Is it fair to expose people to the crap that happens to us because we’re supers?”

Denny forked up another bit of cake and continued.

“I mean, say Drew and I hit it off. Like Dee and her guy seem to be doing. Okay, fine. Yay for us. Until something happens and they become collateral damage. Where’s the right in that? I’m not saying it’s going to happen to me, cuz Drew and I only just met and we could turn out to be just two buddies totally sucking up all the oxygen over comics and not each other, but regardless, what’s my responsibility here? How far can I go before it’s reckless endangerment?”

Cassie nodded, her face growing serious. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her rollypad and typed a few notes, her lips pursing. After a moment, she looked up, all business, the professional in full play. “Ok, I think I can draw up an iron-clad contract for him to sign absolving you of all fiscal and moral responsibility if in the course of your relationship he becomes the dude in distress as your boyfriend and suffers any financial or physical harm from it. Of course, he’ll probably try to claim some sort of emotional distress, but I think we can write it so that we don’t have to worry ourselves too much. I’ll run it by the firm’s lawyers, but I think it can be done.”

Denny chewed and swallowed her cake.

“I wasn’t joking.” Flat. Not amused. At all. Then: “I get your point.”

Now, when it was too late to do anything about it, Denny understood on a personal level why her mother kept matters involving powers strictly separate from her family. But even so, she took a chance on Dad and fell in love and married him. Maybe I should ask her how she felt she could do that.

Even so, there was nothing like a friend to deliver a swift kick in the pants when it was needed.

“Thanks, Cassie.”

Cassie leaned back in her chair, studying the flow of emotion over Denny’s face, from anger to irritation, remembering all too well how it felt to be that age wrestling with adult subjects. “I’m sorry. I know you’re serious. But Denny, nothing and I mean nothing is guaranteed. And moreover, you owe him the respect that if the time comes that such a horrible thing happens, you give him the chance to make his own choices on the matter. If you’re going to worry about adult things, then you need to realize that you can’t fairly make choices for the people you love if you love them. He’s a young man, on the verge of adulthood just like you. How would you feel if Jason decided that you were a baby and needed to stay in school and graduate before joining the team? That in good conscience, he couldn’t risk your life with no guarantee that something horrible wouldn’t happen to you? But he didn’t. We didn’t. Your parents didn’t. This Drew boy deserves that much.”

She inhaled and released the air with a sigh. “Darn it all kiddo, surely there is some hero comic that covers this?”

Denny didn’t say anything for a moment, letting Cassie’s advice sink in. Finally. Smartest thing you’ve done in the past 48.

“Okay,” she said softly. “I can see that. And for the record? No, there really isn’t any hero comic that covers this and gives it a happy ending. Gwen Stacy. David Qin. Barbara Gordon. Never mind. Doesn’t matter. Point is,” Denny said, pushing the last of the cake at Cassie. “We’re in the same boat as First Responders everywhere. You get up, go to work, kiss your loved ones goodbye and hope that you and they will still be alive when it’s time to come home again. You have a job and it’s dangerous and you can’t not do it. So … you do the best you can, right? There’s just one thing. Firemen, cops, EMTs—they don’t have to hide who they are or what they do. We do. So nothing happens to Drew or anyone else. But what if they find out who we are and feel like we took the choice of knowing about our identities from them? Like they couldn’t handle it and they feel we should have told them straight from the first?”

Cassie pushed back a lock of hair and speared the last of the cake after a moment’s hesitation. “When you love someone, it’s all faith Denny. You tell them if you believe that they can handle the knowledge or hide it if you believe that it will break them and deal with aftermath if they’re are hurt that you didn’t tell them. They can say that they can handle it and you share your secrets and yet when the rubber hits the road, they fold under the stress.” Her mind cast itself to Jason’s face as he pulled from her and left the dance floor. “So there isn’t a right answer.”

She rose to her feet and gathered the trash. “But I do know one thing. . .” Her eyes crinkled although her face was solemn. “You sure as hell won’t know unless you give the poor kid a chance.”

“It keeps coming back to that.” Denny frowned. “I’m stuck, then?” Cuz I actually do like him, she admitted. It would be nice to have someone who wasn’t frightened off by her intensity. And it would be nice to plumb the depths of his knowledge of All Things Geek. She sighed. “Stuck it is.”

“C’mon.” Trash put away, she jerked her chin to the door. “And it’s not stuck, you ninny. Stuck is stationary and somewhat helpless. You’re not helpless. Not stuck. You can totally reject him. You have that control.” She pushed open the door as Denny followed and put on her sunglasses against the afternoon light. “It’s just whether or not you wanna take a chance and have an adventure. Life is an adventure. Just ask my brother. This new boy Drew is an adventure. You move with adventures, take control of your destiny and push your own boundaries. You may fall. Or, you may fly.” She grinned with a little shrug. This was more talking that she had planned, more advice than once she had thought she was capable of. But it’s what Mark has told me so many times. Stop being a whiny mushroom, get your butt up off the ground and try Cass. Maybe being a hero was bringing her further out of her shell, pushing her out of her comfort zone.

She winced, knowing that Mark wasn’t enjoying the same evolution. His discontent showed when they ran in the morning, the lack of success on the amazing scale that he was so used to gnawing at him. His powers weren’t what he deserved, less than what he could have so capably handled. He had been nothing but supportive of her, pushing her out of her recovery into overdrive to try to teleport again without fear. But he emoted doldrums and that ever present disappointment and sense of loss. And despite being together almost as much as before their change, he seemed to be pulling farther and farther away. She looked at Denny, young and so worried with a new relationship and smiled sadly.

Just a few years separated them. And yet, somehow their worries were worlds apart. Jason, Mark. The men in her life were beyond her abilities to help, new powers or not. She had begun to realize that all she could do was stand by and hope that they were strong enough to wrestle their own demons and survive. Reaching out, she patted Denny’s shoulder. “It’s all faith Denny,” she stated with another sigh. “Life takes faith.”

Faith manages, whispered a voice from memory. Denny shook her head and grinned. Life lessons from Babylon 5? There’s far worse … and few better. Except maybe my friends.

“Then I’ll take faith.” Denny slipped her arm around Cassie and hugged her. “C’mon. Let’s get you back before Wall Street crashes or something. Life comes at you fast. Best be ready for it, right?”

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