Epione was aware of everything around her even while she slept. Her dreams used her power to perceive, so she knew that Jason couldn’t sleep at all, even while he stared at her sleeping. His frustration bloomed into her dreams like a vibrant rainbow, a thunderhead flashing with lightning bolts jade, yellow, crimson, navy blue.
Optimism, deep at the center of the storm. A pleasant, creamy orange color, straight from the sun. She’d call it his core, but it was smothered under the shadow of his worry.
He’d been the victim of a group mugging this morning. A Welterweight leader used his power of cohesion to stick their victims to walls while the other gang members stole their shit. One person tried to fight. That one person being God’s perfect little dumbass, Jason.
Epione decided to wake up.
Jason quickly closed his eyes, and pretended to snore. Even in the dark she could see the bruises on his face, the red abrasions on his cheek, and his split lip. The gang did a number on him. She’d soothed his pain as best she could, stitched the wounds that needed stitching, and comforted him.
“I know you’re awake,” she said.
Jason opened his eyes and sighed. “I know. I can never get away with that.”
“No.” Epione reached out and stroked his cheek. She hated touching most people except for him, and maybe Remise on occasion. As she moved to touch him, she noticed the blanket and sheets were gone. Jason lay there in the nude, his wounds and nice abs on display. “Where is the blanket?”
“You were complaining about it in your sleep, so I got rid of it,” he said.
“Thank you.” She hadn’t noticed. Physical sensations didn’t come through to her dream space.
Epione leaned forward and kissed Jason. She pulled him in close. He only moved in response to her: she’d spent five days educating him on how to approach her, how to respond to her kisses and hugs, even her sexual advances. He’d aced the course, so he was the only one allowed to touch her.
The colors swirling around her were pink and silver. The mood was right. She trailed her hands down Jason’s side and smiled for him, his favorite smile. She’d made it just for him.
A trickle of black filtered in through the color. Not from Jason. Someone else.
“Someone’s… here?” Epione said.
The bell chime went off downstairs.
“Hang on.” Jason got up and threw some pajama pants on.
Uninvited guests, this late at night, made her skin itch. Epione wrinkled her nose and stood. She put on a night gown, paused to smooth out the wrinkles, and followed Jason downstairs.
Despair. Pain. Depression. They spread like inky tentacles through Jason’s colors, through Remise’s teal dedication and purple contentment seeping from her room down the upstairs hall. The dark colors fumbled awkwardly around Epione’s gray rock state, tickled at the edge of her being. Whoever was out there was in trouble.
Epione was halfway down the stairs when Jason opened the door.
“Hello?” her boyfriend asked.
Ah, right, a stranger. Epione needed to smile. She brought out the stranger smile, lifted her back and chest, tucked her chin slightly down. Proper posture, Mother taught her that.
A young black girl stood outside in soaked pajamas and sweatpants. The rain slicked her curly hair to her face, where the locks covered her nose and part of her mouth. A single desperate eye looked out at them from the tangle. “Please, please, help.”
“Oh!” Jason said. “Uh, come in?”
“Hello?” Epione asked. “Who is this?”
“I don’t know. What’s your name? Are you okay?” Jason asked the girl, closing the door behind her.
“Ashley.” The girl walked in slow, each step unsure. Black fear still spread from her, but yellow gratitude started to melt through that, mixing with sky blue shades of hope. She eyed the lobby, the paintings, the tile floor. “Wow.”
“What’s wrong?” Jason asked.
“These guys were following me home,” Ashley said. “They followed me in a van. I didn’t have any way to fight them, so I ran, and I knocked on doors until you answered.”
Jason looked at Epione. “Are they still around?” he asked Ashley.
Ashley nodded. “They’re down the street. Waiting. They told me they wouldn’t give up until they got what they wanted.”
Epione didn’t like the colors swirling around her boyfriend. Red rage arced out from him like lightning from a thunderhead, grumbled in an orange cloud of determination above his body, and spilled out with a rainfall of golden courage. All great colors on their own, except maybe rage, but combined in Jason? That meant he was about to do something stupid and there was nothing Epione could do to stop him.
“I’ll go talk to them,” Jason said. His hand smoked, but didn’t ignite. He threw on a jacket, and stepped outside. Ashley stammered and reached a hand out to stop him, but Epione restrained her. When Jason was like that, there was no stopping him.
Epione smiled at her new guest. “Tea?”
“Um, sure?” Ashley said.
“Hang on, let me get you out of those clothes!” Epione fetched one of Jason’s shirts and a pair of gym shorts. He wouldn’t mind, and Epione was so slight she doubted the girl could fit into her night-wear. She returned and gave Ashley the change of clothes. “Bathroom’s on your right!”
Ashley nodded. Deep blue trepidation, worry like bad milk spilling around her. Epione mostly saw colors for emotions, but sometimes she heard music or smelled scents, too.
“Don’t worry! I’ll wait for you!” Epione smiled the stranger smile.
Ashley went into the bathroom and came out a moment later, dressed in Jason’s clothes. “Thanks.”
Remise came down the stairs right after, wearing a flimsy tank-top and pajama shorts. “What’s goin’ on? Who’s the lass?”
“Ah, Remise,” Epione said. “Jason stepped out. Would you go with him? This is Ashley. She’s been getting harassed.”
Remise studied Ashley, and then smirked at Epione. “Be my pleasure. Fret ye not, lass. No one’s gonna harass you after this.” She walked right out of the house, indecent as she was, cracking her knuckles the entire time.
Ashley shook her head. “Are they… capes? OPI?”
Epione smiled, the only thing she knew how to do. “Nope! Jason hates OPI.” She had a joke for such occasions. “Besides, the Japanese say they’re a bunch of boobs.”
Light blue confusion spread out from Ashley, a sickly aura that shrouded all the other colors.
“Boobs?” Epione asked again. “Oppai?”
The confusion only grew in size, spreading to the rest of the room. Ashley turned her attention to the other parts of the living room, to the TV, to Epione’s broken movie player, and to the kitchen.
Epione was sure that joke was funny. Remise had liked it! Then again, Remise was a polyglot. “Tea?” Epione asked again.
“Yes,” Ashley said.
“Yes,” Ashley said, and Epione saw that was true: pink desire flowed from Ashley’s stomach.
“Okay!” Epione went into the kitchen, boiled water in her auto-kettle, and made rice in her fun steamer pot that walked around and cheered when the rice was done. She returned to Ashley with two bowls of steaming hot rice and oolong tea.
Ashley looked at the bowl. “Thank you.” Her gratitude returned, and she took a spoonful.
Epione knew how to make friends, her mom had taught her: find something to bond over, and then talk about it! “I’d offer you a movie to watch, but my player is broken. We could watch TV, I guess.” The problem was that Epione wasn’t very good at talking to people, so she usually had a movie or a TV show ready to go, and they’d be friends afterward, when they could talk about the show.
Ashley put the bowl down. “Let me look at it.” She walked on her knees over to Epione’s entertainment stand and looked at the player. She pressed the on button. The little LED screen lit up, displaying only 000000. Ashley closed her eyes.
Her colors vanished, and Epione’s player started to give off colors, instead.
“Oh!” Epione said. “What are you doing?”
Ashley didn’t respond.
“Hmm,” Epione said. She ate some more rice and watched while the player ebbed determination and other odd flashes of emotion. Suddenly, it whirred, and the colors snapped back into Ashley.
“A bug in the code,” Ashley said. “Not a hardware issue, so I don’t have to get into it.”
“What did you do?” Epione asked.
“I can… put my mind in machines.”
Epione felt a genuine surge of admiration. She hadn’t cut admiration off from her psyche; she didn’t get that emotion very often, and it wasn’t a powerful one, so she felt safe to revel in the respect she now had for Ashley. “That’s the coolest!”
Ashley pursed her lips. “Thanks.” Behind her head, Epione felt that Ashley didn’t really mean the thanks.
“What’s wrong?” Epione asked.
Ashley’s eyebrows raised. Surprise, Epione felt. “Uh, nothing.”
“No, I can tell, you’re upset. About what I just said.” Epione knew she was pushing that. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about her powers, besides Jason. Well, she wasn’t even supposed to tell Jason but she wasn’t going to keep that from her boyfriend.
“It’s just… when people find out what I do, they just want shit from me.”
“Oh, I see!” Epione didn’t quite get that, but that was okay. She’d learned it was better to say ‘Oh, I see!’ than ‘I don’t get it.’ “Well, I don’t want anything from you!”
Ashley eyed up her house. “Yeah, you probably don’t want much, huh?”
“No,” Epione said. “I don’t want much, you’re right.”
Ashley gave Epione an interesting look. Her emotions led Epione to believe she found Epione odd.
The door opened, and Jason and Remise returned.
Remise went into the kitchen, and Jason sat on the couch next to Epione. He had a black eye, a split lip, and his knuckles were bloodied. He looked at her, his emotions expectant, and offered his hand. Epione nodded to allow him to touch her. Jason placed a hand around her shoulders.
“So, that was your brother, huh?” Jason asked.
Ashley squeaked. “H-how did you know?”
“Oh, he had plenty to say when we kicked the shit out of him and his friends. Told me anything I wanted to know!” Jason grinned and reclined on the couch. A victorious splay of gold and orange shot up from his colors. “But worry not, young lady! He won’t bother you again!”
“Too bad Gabe couldn’t be here for tha’,” Remise said, returning from the kitchen with a beer. Her knuckles were bloody, too, but she had no other marks.
“He’s on the way, he was up when I called,” Jason said. “Told him someone might need our help.”
Ashley’s face was blank, but her colors were a tempest of different emotions. Guilt, disbelief, gratitude, hope, amazement. Sadness. Anger.
“She’s powered!” Epione blurted. She put a hand over her mouth. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
Ashley shook her head. “No. It’s okay. I am.”
Jason grinned. “That’s cool. We are, too, in case you couldn’t tell.”
“We can’t want anything from her,” Epione said, winking at Ashley.
More confusion, and a splash of amusement.
“What’s your power?” Jason asked.
“Machine telepathy,” Ashley said. “I can put my mind in machines.”
Glee bloomed from Jason’s colors like a mushroom cloud. “No way. That’s so cool.”
Ashley chuckled, the first positive movement Epione had seen her make. That gave way to a neutral expression. “So… are you vigilantes?”
Flashfire smiled. “No. We are but noble freelancers. Tell you what. I’m guessing you came here because you don’t have a home to go back to, right?” Jason asked. He looked at Epione. “How do you feel about picking up another member?”
“It’s your Underground, darling,” Epione said. She patted his hand and gave him the Jason smile, the one that was just for him.
Jason turned with excitement oozing out of his aura to hash the details out with Ashley.
While he talked with Ashley, Epione ran over her lines for Flashfire’s banter in her head. He’d call her the money, she’d joke about his true motives. They gave that one to Gabe, and it seemed to go over well. She could do jokes! That Oppai one was good.
“So, it’s settled,” Jason said. “Now, you just need a good code name. Like mine, Flashfire.”
“Um… I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Oh!” Jason said. “What about… Televathic!”
Epione didn’t like that. She smiled politely at Jason and shook her head.
“Yeah, I knew it as soon as I said it. Machine Mistress? Circuit?”
“Drone,” Remise said from the kitchen.
Epione nodded. “Drone.”
Ashley furrowed her brow. Her colors told Epione she was concentrating on that, considering it, warming up to it. After a handful of seconds, she said, “Yeah. Drone.”
“Welcome to the Underground, Drone,” Jason said.
“It’s gonna be so much fun to have you here!”
“Have me here?” Ashley, now Drone, asked.
“Of course! You need a place to stay, don’t you?” Epione asked.
“I didn’t…” She stopped. Her eyes welled with tears, but pure, vanilla joy radiated from her head in a beautiful halo. “You don’t have to…”
“No,” Epione said. She got up from the couch and went over to Drone. “But I’m going to.”
And, as mother taught her to do when someone did something very nice for her, Epione threw her arms around Drone in a bear hug. She swapped out the stranger smile for the Underground smile. The friend smile.