Her first instinct is to approach this man in her uniform. She rather enjoys the anonymity and the freedom she experiences in her suit. And a cape makes entering new places that much easier. People simply melt out of your way when they see that emblem of authority. After brief consideration, she dismisses the suit as a viable option. The Shield cannot be seen in public with someone who may turn out to be an Unregistered Hero. She also surmises that he may be more willing to talk to her human face than to her face mask. As that is her only intention in visiting him, she decides that incognito is her best approach. So she explains to Andrew that she has important errands to run, promises to return quickly and advises him to call her if the girl causes any more trouble.
Susan O’Connell is a bit of a local celebrity. When she goes out on the town, she has a car with a driver and two dedicated body guards that follow at a very close distance. She also has a herd of devoted paparazzi who stay just outside of the hundred yards of the restraining order. She is still underage and cannot be harassed by them at a closer distance. Whether they will have the nerve to get closer after her birthday in February is still uncertain. She does have a very rich, and thus very powerful, family with enough influence to have troublesome photographers quietly disappeared, entire newspapers bankrupted and even have Capes intervene on their behalf. The O’Connells are quite daunting and very popular due to their many philanthropic endeavors and frequent charity events.
It is quite ironic to Susan that her alter-ego, the persona that is supposed to be her refuge from the stresses of being an easily recognizable Hero and target for Villians, as actually more well-known than her Hero persona. The Shield is very forgettable, especially next to Lady Fabulous with her glitz and glamor. But Susan is a cultural icon, someone with fan sites and even a count-down dedicated to her impending 18th birthday. From this irony developed Susan’s alternative alter ego. She doesn’t have a name, really, though she’ll sometimes say it’s Susie if she’s pressed. She doesn’t wear designer clothes or even own a fancy town car. She doesn’t need body guards because no one is eager to take a photo of her about to sneeze and plaster some ludicrous headline over it. She doesn’t wear a wig to cover her unnatural white-blonde hair, though she does where sunglasses to hide her hazel eyes. She doesn’t wear specially styled clothes that give her a feminine figure. In jeans and a t-shirt she traverses the city, completely anonymous. In this case, it’s black yoga pants, a long-sleeved moisture-wicking lavendar shirt and matching zip-up fleece vest, the perfect camouflage for an early morning jog.
She takes her time, jogging at a realistic pace in the frosty, early morning air. When no one is observing, she risks picking up the pace to something a little beyond what a normal human would call a dead sprint. This little liberty is exhilarating and helps to relieve some of the worrying thoughts that have been crowding her mind ever since she brought that girl home. It bothers her that she can think of no logical reason for harboring a vigilante in her own lair. It is possible that Mr. Rupez induced her into the act, though she is certain her training would not only prevent such an attack but would also alert her to the attempt. However, it would not be the most surprising thing to happen last night. She resolves not to think of it until she has located this strange man and questioned him incessantly on the subject.
It takes her nearly an hour to reach the run-down apartment complex. All the while she wonders how humans stand remaining on the ground for such long periods. A straight flight would have taken half the time and energy, not to mention getting her away from the Sunday morning traffic. Crowds have never made her comfortable because they are more difficult to maneuver in. In any case, the traffic thins as she reaches the seedy neighborhood indicated by her phone’s GPS. The streets, often the territory of gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes, is mostly empty but for a few human refuse passed out in doorways and alleys. This neighborhood, with its active night life, is relatively peaceful when the sun rises.
Mr. Rupez’s residence is a four-story apartment building set in a rare open field in the crowded city. At one point, the lots on either side of it might have held equally drabby buildings that had long since been demolished into parking lots and eventually degraded into the weed-infested wilderness they now are. She could make out a rusty chain-link fence separating the broken asphalt of the parking lot from a potential children’s park in the right-side field. Someone had once thought to raise children in this neighborhood. Curious.
There is only one car in the parking lot, a beat up two-door junker, but there is no mistaking that the apartments are all occupied. She can hear a great deal of activity coming from every floor. As she gets closer, she can see that a significant amount of repairs have been begun on the structure itself and recently, too. This must be Mr. Rupez’s current project.
Now Susan hesitates. She had hoped to find him in private and spin a plausible lie to explain her curiosity in Joan. She couldn’t very well say that she was the hero that had been so helpful just last night. Entering the lobby of the building she finds that she is in a crowd of people, some in a line leading towards the smell of a hearty breakfast and still others crowded around cheap plastic tables, scraping plates clean and chatting in a very positive and energetic manner. This is quite uncharacteristic of the area, as far as Susan is aware. This part of the city is not known for its community breakfasts.
“Excuse me, miss,” a grungy old man addresses her. “You seem lost. Are you looking for someone?” He’s old and sick, but well fed, and though his clothes are shabby, they are very clean. Had she seen him on the street, she would have assumed him one of the multitude of homeless, but for his cleanliness.
“Uh, yes. I was looking for Mr. Rupez?” she answers politely.
“You must be one of the new volunteers,” he replies with a warm, though mostly toothless smile. “Peter’s in the kitchen, but he’s swamped with this group. You wait right here and I’ll see if I can steal him away.” The little man disappears through the crowd and Susan tries to position herself so as not to be in the way. Moments later, the man reappears and beckons her to follow him. It isn’t long before Susan is led to a room lined with large sinks, obviously to accommodate the many dishes being used. Mr. Rupez is bent over one of these sinks, vigorously cleaning off bits of gravy and eggs from a large stack of plates. On seeing her, he takes a break to dry his hands and holds out his right hand in greeting.
“Good morning! Always thankful for more strong backs and helping hands. I’m Peter.” Susan, still wearing her thin knit gloves doesn’t hesitate to shake his outstretched hand. She is uncertain of his level of abilities, but she does know that he operates mostly on a kinetic level. He has to touch things to have power over them. This theory is confirmed when he places a companionable hand on the old man’s neck as thanks for his chaperoning services. She feels the slight tang of power on her skin and can instantly sense that whatever is ailing the old man has diminished just slightly. “Thanks, Archie. Tell everyone that service should be starting in another thirty minutes. We have quite a crowd to serve first.”
Archie exits the room and Susan takes the opportunity to introduce herself. “I’m Susie Emerson and I’m not actually here to volunteer.”
“Oh?” Peter turns back to the dishes and says, “So what brings you here, Ms. Emerson, and to me in particular?”
He knows you’re lying. Why this thought immediately occurs to her is a mystery, but she trudges on, making her story up as she goes. “I’ve been reading up on all the improvements you’ve been making. The community center and everything. It’s all rather amazing. You’ve made such a change on this neighborhood in such a short time.” This was all true, of course, though why he was brought to her interest in the first place is a different matter. “I thought I’d write an article about it for my school paper.”
“You do not need a ruse to gain my confidence, young lady. I know perfectly well who you are.” The splash of water and clink of plates is the only sound for a few pained seconds. Susan is unsure if she should try to push the lie or admit the truth, since this statement hardly tells her what he knows or suspects about her.
“I don’t quite follow you, Mr. Rupez,” she says at last. Two can play at the ambiguous answer game.
“Cloth is no barrier to my abilities,” he replies. “I recognize you from last night. I am a little surprised to find you a girl, but there is no mistaking those wings.”
“Yes. The unseen manifestation of your flight ability. I can tell a lot about you, Susie. For someone trying to be secretive, you are surprisingly easy to read. There is so little true subterfuge about you, especially in this, your most honest presentation.”
“You are making very little sense, sir. This was a mistake,” she mumbles and turns to leave. She can return at some other point in uniform and force him to speak plain if she must.
“Now, there is no reason to pout. You came into my home and lied to my face though I have done nothing of the kind to deserve such treatment. You must allow me a little ambiguity as my due as an old, mysterious fellow.” Susan pauses, finding herself liking the man in spite of herself. This must be another of his abilities, though being aware of it gives her little power to resist it. “Meredith? Could you take a turn on the dishes? I need a few moments to show our new volunteer around.” A voice from the nearby kitchen answers in the affirmative and he guides her out of the washroom, down the hall and into a sparsely furnished apartment. He offers her a chair and something to drink but she denies both, though politely.
He busies himself around a small stove top and soon sits himself in a worn, old recliner with a cup of hot tea. “So, I know your name really is Susie and you are definitely not here on a school errand. I assume that since you did not bring the Alpha or any of the Council’s other goons that you are still determined to leave me at my liberty despite my acts of vigilantism last night. I can also guess that my dear friend is still recovering otherwise you might have brought her with you and if she had expired, I am certain you would have started with that news. Which leaves me wondering why you have come to visit me in my humble abode?”
Feeling a little unbalanced by all the information he managed to infer from one handshake, Susan eventually replies rather bluntly with, “I need to know who and what she is.” There is no question who she is asking about.
“That is a complicated question and one I cannot fully answer as I do not know the whole history myself,” he replies after a moment’s thought.
“Tell me what you know, then,” she says, a little impatient with his evasive answers.
He doesn’t respond immediately, but continues to sip his tea in apparently deep thought. Finally, he lowers his cheap ceramic mug and stares into Susan. It’s the same penetrating gaze that Bernadette felt weeks before. Susan feels the invasion and instinctively fights it. It only lasts a moment, though, passing so quickly she can almost wonder if she imagined it. “I am engaged all this morning, unfortunately. Service will be starting any moment and after that, I have several prayer groups to oversee. However, if you would like to ensure I do not head for the hills, you may participate in the morning’s activities. As an observer, only, of course. I understand your kind are not very comfortable in church. After lunch, I will have plenty of time to fill you in as much as I am able.”
Susan considers this. She is loath to leave him, mostly because her training dictates that given the chance, he will try to escape from her attentions by leaving the city. It would only be logical. However, the idea of sitting through some sort of religious ceremony and group sessions seems odious to her. The heavy scents of breakfast are a steady reminder that she hasn’t fed her high metabolism since returning from the incident late last night. And she inexplicably trusts him. Instead, she sets a time for her return and promises to bring Joan with her if the girl is fully recovered. Peter smiles and walks her out of the building.
Already, the tables have been cleared away and the folding chairs placed in neat rows in the spacious lobby. Most are filled with the people Susan would have expected to be recovering from whatever drug-induced activies of the night before. But no. There are whole families sitting anxiously in the metal chairs as though some great treat were soon approaching. Susan feels a tug of curiosity about this religious service, but dismisses it. Nonsense.
Still, as she jogs away from the little oasis of smiling faces in this grimy corner of Darclann, she wonders if maybe the nonsense has its uses.