• "Next to take the floor," announced the MC into the microphone, "after her long hiatus from the super scene, a former Division heroine now clocking in on the payroll of Commissioner Jasmine Freeman of the BCPD, please welcome the one-and-only, enigmatic Kilowatt, escorted by America's favorite savior himself and leader of the Frontline Force, Captain Justice!"

    From his place at Martika's side on the marble steps descending to the dance floor below, Ben watched as the petite but curvy little woman known to the public as Kilowatt curtseyed before the crowd, hand-in-hand with the blond, broad-shouldered Captain Justice. Kilowatt had swapped out the police uniform she had worn to the preceding conference for a glimmering, sleeveless gown in navy blue, dotted with tens of thousands of golden rhinestones, along with a matching masquerade mask and a gossamer sash draped elegantly over her elbows. Captain Justice's blue super suit would have matched her ensemble, if not for the silver star emblazoned across his chest and the gaudy striped cape he only wore to these sorts of see-and-be-seen public affairs, since capes had been banned on the battlefield by the Division for the last few decades. "I can't believe Kilowatt came here with that clown," Martika muttered to Ben.

    "I can't believe he came with her! She's openly admitted to playing him on your show."

    Martika scoffed. "Guys like Captain J don't bother listening in on gloom-and-doom social justice shows like mine. They think their chiseled jawlines, eight-pack abs and federal contracts make them invincible. Just you wait, though. In a few years, when those muscles start to go soft, he'll be the next one the Division decides to throw in cryo-freeze...if they don't just take him apart for organ donations when their newer, prettier ops take damage in the field."

    "Not to be outdone by his teammate, next on the dance floor, we have Human Taser, of the BCPD, accompanied by none other than his direct supervisor, Commissioner Jasmine Freeman herself!" announced the MC. The Commissioner stole the show in a periwinkle blue, floor-length gown, while her date--her subordinate--wore a simple suit and tie with a pocket square matching the shade of her dress. While she waved gratuitously to the crowd, all smiles, he stood stoically, expressionless. "This marks Mr. Taser's third time attending the Electromancers' Conference and Masquerade, and his first year attending since his retirement from the military. On behalf of the Electromancers' Union, I'd like to wish him luck in his future career as both an officer and as the Commissioner's spokesman against the nationwide epidemic of friendly fire against both government-employed and rogue superheroes alike."

    "I heard," whispered the man behind Ben on the staircase to his date, "Freeman only hired Taser as her second choice. She wanted Bombshell for her spokesgirl."

    "Really?" asked the woman on his arm. "I thought you said Taser made a big deal in the media about vying for that job. He's definitely the most qualified person here to talk about the whole friendly fire thing. Why would there even be competition from that destructive freak?"

    Martika glanced inconspicuously over her shoulder. "Don't look now," she murmured to Ben, "but we're right in front of Lightning Rod and Seismic Siren."

    At the sound of a familiar name, Ben started to whip around instinctively, until Martika gripped his arm to hold him in place, facing forward. "I said don't look!"

    "Sorry. It's just...I know that guy."

    It didn't seem like Lightning Rod recognized him, though, which tracked, sadly. They'd met at last year's Electromancers' Masquerade. Lightning Rod, under the influence of several glasses of free champagne, had bared his heart to Ben, sharing the story of his humble upbringing, followed by a hard college career at Rivington, ridiculed for his threadbare clothes and inner-city mannerisms, until finally, he had his big break and subsequent rise to fame.

    And who had Ben been back then, aside from the random electric fat guy escorted by Bombshell?

    "Next onto the dance floor…"

    Martika gave Ben's fleshy upper arm a squeeze through the sleeve of his costume jacket with her long, glittery nails. "That's us!" she said, her chubby cheeks rounding as she smiled behind the ornate, stainless steel mask she'd had custom made for the occasion.

    "The Union is always honored to welcome in new blood," said the MC.

    Nevermind that Ben had literally been to this event before...just never as Spark.

    "Therefore, it is my pleasure and honor to introduce Spark, the Northwest Coast's newest up-and-coming electromagnetic rogue hero, along with his date, the radio star you know and love as the voice of disenfranchised Deviants everywhere, Martika Mitchell of Nail Me to the Cross!"

    "That's Martika Mitchell?" hissed Seismic Siren to Lightning Rod. "Somehow I pictured her slimmer."

    Martika nudged Ben into the spotlight, but let the music play for a bar and a half before stepping up to join him in what he could only assume was a calculated move on her part to make him look good…

    And it worked.

    For a split second, he was alone before the crowd. And then…

    Then the indomitable Ms. Mitchell sidled shyly up to his side, a vision in her big, beauty-queen curls, and yet, so understated. Her steel-gray dress, though voluminous enough to give stately curves to her plump frame, was free from much embellishment, and she'd left off the high heels for the night in favor of dainty ballet flats. A simple diamond necklace with a yellow citrine centerpiece completed her look and tied her color scheme in with Ben's gray and yellow ensemble, and as much weight as her name held, she made a show of looking up at him as if to show the world that appearing on Spark's arm was the highlight of her life.

    "I'm not used to you being this much shorter than me," he muttered.

    "Doesn't it make you feel big and strong, though?" she countered. "All eyes on us, big guy. Please tell me you know how to foxtrot."

    "The basics." Oriana had been the one to teach him, and there was only so much dancing you could stand to do with your cousin.

    "Here, just step forward on your left," she said, gripping his hand in her fingerless-gloved one.

    "I know that much."

    "Then this should be easy for you."

    Though she guided the pair of them around the dance floor, between the other dancing couples, any onlooker would have guessed he was the one leading, so effortlessly did she signal each change in direction with a subtle squeeze of his shoulder or barely-perceptible tug with her steps. He felt the others' gazes upon them--and not all of the eyes were kind--but not once was Martika shaken from her graceful dance.

    "How do you do it?" asked Ben.

    "Do what?"

    He shrugged. "Glide through life like nothing bothers you."

    "With ease and poise, knowing my left shoe is worth more than everything and everyone in this ballroom," she replied. "But it's really not about the money. It's about realizing that no matter how much better than you anyone might think they are, it doesn't give them any power over you. Not really." As the song came to its conclusion, she began to glance around the room, over each shoulder. "Are you dizzy? Do you want a snack, or maybe a drink? You know what I could really go for right now?"

    "A snack?" Ben guessed. "Maybe a drink?"

    "Bingo. I'll be right back, I'm going to go find us some refreshments. Why don't you socialize with...oh! Kilowatt!" Martika beckoned the woman over with a wave of her hand. "Kilowatt, this is my date, Spark. Spark, this is Kilowatt. She was a guest on my show."

    "I know," said Ben. "Kilowatt, right? Sorry the Division...y'know...froze you."

    "Awe, bud, you don't need to worry about it! Loads of people in this room have it way worse than I did. At least I got to be asleep through the whole thing. Spark, was it?"

    Up close and personal, Kilowatt was a beauty...and Ben felt guilty for thinking it, but it brought him comfort to see that the elegant electomancer was not exactly thin in build. She wasn't a big woman, by any means, but she wasn't built like a typical police officer, either. She had high cheekbones, visible collarbones, and an hourglass waist, but her DD chest, pillar-like upper arms, and voluminous hips looked like they could have belonged to a heavier girl, and it wasn't a bad thing. It was hard to place her, ethnically, especially under strobe light and a disco ball, but her heavy-hooded, dark eyes, along with her accent, hinted at Spanish descent.

    "Yep...Spark. That's me." As many months ago as Chloe had suggested the name, it was still a bit strange answering to it. "So how long have you known Mar--"

    Crap, he thought to himself as he looked over his shoulder into empty space. Martika had already left to fetch the snacks.

    "Ya know, it's the craziest thing," said Kilowatt. "I was actually introduced to Ms. Mitchell through this mutual friend, 'Crucifix' or something like that. Or, I think it was Crucifix. And I assume she knows Ms. Mitchell. I might be wrong. I never got a good look at this Crucifix person, or whatever her name is, or was, if she yet lives. But she and two or three other people broke me out of cryo-freeze. Super disorienting, my head was spinning the whole time. And then, while I was still warming up, they asked me to use my lightning powers to help them thaw out a few other heroes the Division had froze...and how could I say no? The next thing I know, I'm waking up on Martika Mitchell's couch, and she wants my story. Crazy, right?"

    "Yeah," Ben agreed. "Crazy." And slightly sketchy of Crucifix to play with Kilowatt's head like that...but then again, sometimes anonymous salvation was a necessary part of being a hero, wasn't it? There was a whole course about it Ben was scheduled to take in the coming semester. Bombshell never revealed her identity. Hell, she never even followed up with the people she rescued.

    The music abruptly cut. Tap-tap-tap, went the test of a microphone. "Hello? Can everyone hear me?"

    "Oh, hang on. This is important," said Kilowatt. She directed Ben's attention to the center of the room, where Human Taser had taken the podium.

    A tall, athletic-looking man with square-cut hair and broad shoulders, Human Taser was much closer than Kilowatt to Ben's mental picture of an inner-city cop. "If I can have your attention for just a moment," he went on into the mic, "as much as we've all been enjoying the festivities tonight, it's important to remember the purpose of the formation of the Electromancers' Union. Here to say a few words is a beloved American heroine, who, depending on how long you've been a part of our family, you may have been waiting to hear from for quite sometime. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Miss Scarlet Flame to the stage."

    He stepped aside with a humble gesture of his arm.

    Only...nothing happened.

    He cleared his throat and stepped back up to the podium. "Welcome Scarlet Flame to the stage!" he repeated.

    There was a murmur from the crowd. Someone walked up behind Human Taser and whispered in his ear. He forced a smile and leaned down into the mic.

    "It seems Ms. Flame has been called away on urgent business. But that's no problem, right? Sorry to bother all of you. Please, let the celebration commence as planned!"

    Things around Ben started to happen incredibly fast. "I brought you back a beer," said Kilowatt, coming up behind him with two bottles in one hand. He hadn't even realized she had gone anywhere.

    Then, Human Taser joined them. "Un-be-frigging-lievable," he muttered to himself, head down. "Third year in a row Flame's done this to us, and that's not even counting the years before I got here."

    "Captain...it's okay," said Kilowatt, placing a hand on his shoulder.

    "Thanks, Lieutenant. Say...is one of those beers for me?"


    "Sure," said Ben. "I think Martika's bringing me something stronger."

    "Perfect, then!" Kilowatt made to open one of the beers, but struggled with the cap. "Stupid, stupid arthritic hands!"

    "Here, I got you girl," said Human Taser. With that, both the caps popped off, hands-free. Kilowatt handed a beer to her colleague and they clinked the necks together in cheers.

    "So," said Ben, "I'm kind of new. If you don't mind me asking...why was the Union founded?"

    "Look," said Human Taser, "I don't mean to drag Scarlet Flame's name through the dirt. I really don't. But do you remember the Electric Elite?"

    Ben couldn't say he did. "Um…"

    "A while back, the Division put her in charge of that team. And then they had her lead them into a massacre. That's when we knew we had to band together and get each others' backs. Voltage was the one what started this operation...Rest In Power, Queen. But I think she's proud of us up there where she is, with God drinking Veuve, or whatever the hell it is God drinks."

    "The Division had ways--" Kilowatt started.

    "I know, I know," said Human Taser. "It would just mean a lot to the bunch of us to hear Flame say she's sorry."

    "I'm sure she is," said Kilowatt, both to her superior and to Ben. "I'll tell you right now, Spark, it's not easy trying to be a superhero, no matter who you work for. I was picked up by the Division early on, and you know how that went for me. But HT here has had it even worse. Back when he was in the Marines--"

    "I don't really want to--"

    "Come on, Captain. The new guy deserves to know the risks that come along with our line of work."

    "And you can tell him all about your time in a block of ice until the damn cows come home, alright? But I don't want to talk about my life, and I don't need you to talk about it for me. Got it, Lieutenant?"

    "Okay, okay," said Kilowatt, baring an open palm in surrender. "I hope you're at least talking to Dr. Castro about it, though."

    "Maybe you should just leave it," Ben told her, tentatively touching her forearm.

    "Effin' thank you!" exclaimed Human Taser. "See? The new guy understands boundaries. Bro, where have you been this whole time?"

    A guilty rush of heat crept up Ben's neck. Where had he been? It seemed like this bunch were long overdue to meet someone with a knack for de-escalation. And where was Martika with that drink?

    "Probably in my little sad-guy dorm room, drinking vodka-and-LaCroix and watching Splice Sisters," he admitted.

    At that, Human Taser's eyes lit up. "I thought they canceled that show! I've been trying to find it forever! I mean, not for me, but I have this nine-year-old cousin who just came into hydro powers, like, crazy early, she'd love it!"

    "Oh, it did get canceled. But the whole thing's on FlickStream," said Ben.

    "Shut the front door! No it's not!"

    "Why would I lie about something like that?"

    "Excuse me...excuse me...oof! Sorry," squeaked a new voice as a small shape softly bumped into Ben from behind. "Oh my god, so sorry! It's my first time here."

    Ben turned around and regarded the stranger, a short, hard-muscled and wide-eyed youth of ambiguous gender with their dark hair gelled into a swooping faux-hawk, its fringe falling messily over the eye-holes of a rhinestoned mask. The newcomer wore a black gown that overflowed with tulle and shimmered in a pastel rainbow of hues reminiscent of the Northern Lights, but Ben didn't want to make any assumptions before the introductions were over with, even if he was overcome with the strangest sense of familiarity. "Wait...where have I seen you?" he asked.

    The stranger shrugged. "The news, probably? I'm like, the sixth person to be introduced as 'the Division's first openly queer superhero,' since, ya know, the first five of them died. Name's Ember. Anyway, where is everyone getting the booze?"

    "Here, I'll get you a beer!" Kilowatt piped up. "In fact, why don't I get a bucket of beers, for the bunch of us? Spark, do you mind helping me? I don't like touching ice."

    "Right...since they froze you and whatnot," Ben nodded, following Kilowatt away from the group as she led him by the arm.

    "Oh. My. God. I am so embarrassed!" confessed Kilowatt, once they were a safe ways away. "So, please don't judge me, but I kind of dropped Ember's name in my interview on Ms. Mitchell's radio show, and I completely misgendered her. I MEAN THEM!" she quickly corrected herself.

    "Ember, Ember, I know that name...!" said Ben. "Didn't Bombshell open for them on an episode of Fredo Flores?"

    "I heard Bombshell is the sweetest, despite her bad rap. Is it true? I mean, not that….sorry. It's presumptuous to assume that every fat hero has shot his shot with Bombshell just because she likes them. Not that I'm calling you fat!"

    "It's okay."

    "You're really just chubby. Man, why can't I go anywhere these days without sticking my foot in my mouth? Do you know anything about the science of being in deep freeze and whether or not it might, uh...might cause permanent brain damage?"

    "Kilowatt! It's okay. I know I'm pretty fat." He gave the side of his stomach a pat with his free hand through the fabric of his costume. His expanse of flesh jiggled slightly under his own touch, and it was...nice? "It's cool. I like being the friendly neighborhood electric fat guy."

    "Good...good," said Kilowatt. "I bet you're fun to hug."

    "Do you want a hug right now?"

    "I have always been a hugger."

    Without another word, he wrapped her up in his arms... even took her about a half inch off the ground. Instantly, he felt comfort radiate off of her, even if he wasn't reaching for it.

    "Thanks," said Kilowatt as the embrace broke. "Have you ever thought about a career in law enforcement? You could be good for the force. You calm me down, and as for the Captain...this is the first time I've ever heard him talk about anything as normal as cartoons. Of course, it would be up to Commissioner Freeman. But I could put in a good word with her?"

    "That's alright. I don't really see myself as a cop," said Ben.

    After all, he couldn't guarantee that he and Crucifix wouldn't be robbing any more hospitals.

    They reached the drinks station, where a bartender graciously handed them an iced-down bucket of beers before either of them even had to ask. "Here, I'll take it," said Ben, grabbing the handle while Kilowatt kept her wary distance.

    "Thanks," she said with a small, wry smile. "Seriously, though, do you think Ember's mad at me?"

    "What, over your segment on Nail Me? I'm sure they know no harm was meant. Again, you got frozen, and you basically missed the 2010s. A lot's changed about a lot of things. The conversation about gender...the Internet...oh! We totally impeached a President, too."

    "No way!"

    "Again...why would I lie about something like that?" said Ben. "But the point is, it would be stupid to expect you to be all up-to-speed about everything right away, and you're obviously trying your best. But if you really want to know what Ember thinks, the easiest way to find out is ask."

    It was a short walk back to their original cluster of new friends. "HT, do you mind?" asked Kilowatt. With a sigh, Human Taser performed his bottlecap trick on all six beers in the bucket with a slight backwards pop of his head.

    "Y'all finna make me change my name to Human Beer Opener, swear to effin' God."

    "Oh, Ember," said Ben. "My new friend Kilowatt had a question. See, a while back, she was on this radio show--"

    "I probably missed it," said Ember. "I haven't been able to get much free time to listen to podcasts lately, or have any me-time at all, really. But whatever you said, Kilowatt, it's fine, I swear, it's fine." They grabbed a beer and took a hard pull. "It's been a rough year to be a Deviant."

    "What a relief," said Kilowatt. "I mean, not that you've been so busy. Just that we have no bad blood. Oh, who are you here with, by the way? Or did they change the bit about having to be an electromancer without a date since I've been here last?"

    "And are you old enough to drink?" asked Human Taser.

    Ben glanced off to the side and tried to act natural, being too young to drink himself, not that anyone ever carded him.

    "What are you, a cop or something?" asked Ember.

    "You miss the introductions or something? Kilowatt and I are both cops--"

    "And everything's legal at the Electromancers' Masquerade, unless they changed that while I was in the box," supplied Kilowatt.

    Ember took another big gulp of their beer, pointed skyward, and sent forth a bolt of lightning that didn't quite reach the ceiling, but got damn close.

    "CRAP!!" snapped Kilowatt. "But...I thought you were a pyromancer! What the hell, girl?! Sorry! Dude! Does 'dude' work for you?"

    "Honestly, I'm less worried about labels right now," said Ember, "and more worried about what I'm going to do for work now that I've effectively defected from the Division."

    "Good for you!" said Kilowatt. "What was your back-breaking straw?"

    "You know, I've never liked how willing they've been to just bury their gays," said Ember, "but what really nailed the coffin shut for me was when they locked me up in a filthy underground lab and forced my body full of all these extra superpowers." They looked pointedly at Ben. "He can tell you more about it. He was there, if I'm not mistaken. A little ways down the hall from me, in the holding cell next to that scary-quiet brunette, right? And weren't you also neighbors with that insufferable Novak girl?"

    Ben's stomach did a backflip.

    So that was where else he knew them from.

    Ember's gaze shifted to a point past Ben's shoulder. "I better go. Kilowatt, heads up."

    No sooner had Ember gotten rid of themself than Captain Justice appeared at Kilowatt's side. "There you are! I wasn't expecting to find you among the riff raff." The broad-shouldered blond took Kilowatt around the waist and stooped down to kiss her neck. "Is it just me, or did your chest get bigger?"

    "Blame the Commissioner, and all the donuts she keeps around the station. She says they're for her, but she never eats them. I think she's just obsessed with thick women. But if you approve, I see no reason to change my eating habits…" She reached backwards over her shoulder to touch his cheek and hooked him with a seductive glance.

    Human Taser chuckled under his breath. "Girl's working him like a case and he don't even know it."

    "So you and the Commissioner--?" Ben began.

    "Nah, man. It's all professional between us. Jazz likes girls, I like guys. She just wanted to test the waters tonight, see if she could recruit. If you see her, she'll probably try and get you on the force. Ember was just talking you up as a natural born hostage negotiator. I just assumed y'all had a class together at hero school at some point, but I guess you musta pulled some tricks out the sleeve while you two were locked up together, huh?"

    "Aww, shucks." Ben shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. "I guess I rose to the occasion once or twice."

    "I'm sorry Scarlet Flame didn't show," Captain Justice said to Kilowatt. "I can talk to her the next time I see her?"

    "Don't bother," shrugged Kilowatt. "Some of the newer electromancers are too young to know this, but she tried to come and state her case the year before I went under. And when she got here...well, we were drunk, and we were burning her in effigy. If I was her, I wouldn't want to come back, either."

    About then was when Martika finally returned with a plate of canapes and a glass of sangria for Ben. "What have I missed?"

    "Oh, thank God." Ben took two spinach puffs off her tray and shoved them both in his mouth at once. He hadn't eaten since before the Faraday matches--the conference always opened with the most confident members of the Union challenging their leader for his post in a combat tournament. For the last two decades, it had not gone well for the challengers. Killowatt and Lightning Rod had both gotten their butts kicked. That had been over four hours ago. It was only a matter of time until Ben's body ran out of available calories and started relying on ambient emotional energy instead, and with the personalities present in the room, he didn't want to wait for that to happen.

    "Poor thing," said Martika, resting her hand on his upper belly as those first bites made their way down his throat. "You look ravenous! Want me to fix a to-go plate and we can go back to my car?"