The first time it happens is a huge shock, such that it barely even registers until afterwards, when Gail is standing still and watching everyone staring at her.
One moment, she's standing at the edge of the playground, and then there's a panicked shout from the birds and a moment later she's twenty feet to the left, heaving a huge broken-off bough out of the way just before it can connect with the boy from her math class with the dark hair, lying oblivious under the tree.
The bough is lying some feet away, a splintered dent in the side. Gail is floating down, shocked, to the ground. A couple of the younger kids are staring openly, but it all happened far too fast for the majority to notice - not that that matters, because a moment later those few are raising up a loud, chanting chorus of "Gail's a Super!", and shouting again, and again.
Gail panics, runs because there's nothing else she can do, leaps the high fence around the school without a second thought. Sparrows fly as a cloud surrounding her, a shield of soft brown feathers and fierce, protective beaks and claws, and they call out encouragements and reassurances to her as she runs.
(She'd always spoken with the birds. It had never occurred to her that this was unusual.)
She is nearly twelve. She arrives home gasping too hard to speak, just sobs out confusion and fear. Her mother holds on to her tightly, and waits until she's ready to talk.
The news would have spread around the whole school by now. It's so unfair, Gail reflects later, that they all knew about it as soon as she did, and before she could even get used to the idea. Her parents are calm: Supers aren't uncommon even out in their little town. The three of them talk it over together later that night, curled up close on the sofas with hot chocolate in hand.
They decide they'll move to the suburbs of Metroville: some of the Supers have just opened up an organisation there, and Gail will be able to start at a new middle school with the freedom to decide whether to tell people. They won't miss this town, her mother reassures her: it's always felt a little too small.
One of the local sparrow flocks moves out with them. They fly with the car, dappled shadows falling over the road as the family drives, and they're already waiting in the old apple tree outside Gail's window when they arrive at the new house. She stays up late that evening, listening to the birds chatter excitedly over each other to tell her all about the surrounding area, sipping hot chocolate out on her windowsill.
Some of her sparrows come with Gail to school for the first few days, and sit out on the windowsill to chirp occasional encouragements. She insists that she's fine, and then smiles at them from behind a hand, feeling glad of the company.
She decides to keep her head down at school: she studies, and stays quiet, and hope that no-one will notice the way that the local crows and swallows fly a little closer to her end of the classroom when wheeling circles out on the soccer pitch.
The Supers call the organisation the Academy, but it's more like an informal club. It's shared learning, many Supers working together to play with and control and direct their powers. She goes along three evenings a week, signing up for classes in history, strength, and public relations.
She's the youngest at the Academy by far, and many of the Supers don't quite seem to know what to do with her. She's a little intimidated by Metaman, who is tall and silent and only seems to talk to older Supers and the press. Splashdown says a quick hello, then buries his nose in a book on marine biology. Thunderhead, though, is broad-shouldered and smiling and kind: he crouches down to talk to her, and asks if he can pick her up. She's really too old for that sort of thing, but decides to humour him just this once, and he spins her around and around until she's breathless and giggling.
She rides around the building on his shoulders and he introduces her to the others: to Apogee, who levitates up to high-five her; to Dynaguy, who shows off his brand-new forearm rockets; to Phylange, who punches Thunderhead in the arm with a grin. Thunderhead asks her what kinds of weather she likes the most, and promises they'll play with the clouds that weekend.
The first time Gail flies, it's just her and the sparrows. She starts out on the lawn, and concentrates hard as they fly around her, squawking excited encouragement. Peeking through scrunched-up eyes, she sees she's already gone three feet up, and drops immediately to the ground, heart thudding. She tries again, slow and careful, short bursts up into the air until finally she can reach a tree branch with her fingertips and pull herself up.
It's later that evening, when she's on her windowsill, animatedly telling the sparrows about science classes with Apogee, that she catches her empty cocoa mug with a foot. It drops straight down towards the paving slabs two floors below, and before she's had time to think, she's off after it. She comes back up slowly, mug in hand, to hoots and cheers from the birds, and she laughs with joy as they fly in triumphant spirals around her.
She is thirteen, and she flies out with the birds most nights, waiting until dark before wrapping up warm and exploring the city in all directions. Her mother makes her an eye mask, and she wears it just in case: she still hasn't told anyone at school, and there are rumours at the Academy that anti-Super feeling is on the rise in Metroville.
She doesn't let the rumours worry her: she's too busy. She goes flying, sometimes, with Dynaguy and Apogee, while Thunderhead stands on the roof of the Academy, directing sunbeams towards Apogee and pulling in low-lying clouds to shield them from civilian cameras. Dynaguy is still a little clumsy with his rockets, and Gail and Apogee fly circles around him, then shoot off to race each other to distant trees.
She finds her name, one day, in geography class: they're learning the layers in air, their properties and temperatures and it's their names, most of all, that entrance her. She whispers the idea of it to Thunderhead that evening, heart pounding, and he doesn't laugh and he doesn't question it. He does give her a tight hug, and offers to use it when it's just them alone, sparring or studying, so she can get used to it.
It sits awkwardly for the first few weeks, and she blushes a little as she and Thunderhead tell the other Supers, one by one. She grows into it slowly, she thinks, learning and inhabiting the shape of it, every syllable, letting it settle onto her until it finally fits comfortably. Stratogale.
She is fourteen, and she and Dynaguy go together to pull two civilian helicopters out of the sea, where a megalomaniac supervillain is blasting them with lasers from a newly-built robotic shark. Dynaguy blasts holes into the sides of the helicopters, then turns to take on the shark, while Stratogale pries the holes wider and reaches in to carry out the pilots.
They fly back with Stratogale holding the pilots' belts, and land on Metroville's main pier and into a storm of flashbulbs. Journalists are shouting her name, and firing questions at the both of them; people are bringing small children close to her to say hello, and touching her without asking; there are so many of them, and it's far too much. She glances at Dynaguy, who is calm and professional and already balancing two babies in his arms - he gives her a nod, and she takes off in relief, flying back out to sea.
Stratogale and Thunderhead are sharing coffee after a seminar - he's telling her about his youngest, Scott had said she'd taken a few shaky steps from the sofa while he was out diverting a hurricane yesterday - when Splashdown stops by their table. He passes on regards from the fish, and Stratogale responds in kind, with regards from the birds: it's their inside joke, now. They're both shy and quiet and really more comfortable talking with animals than with people, and she's happy that he understands.
Thunderhead says he'll go with her next time the press are around: he's always loved playing with the kids who come running up to Supers at press conferences, and waving at the ones hiding behind their parents' legs. As he joins in, it gets easier - at least, easier to interact with the children. The press themselves are louder, these days, their questions more invasive and hostile. More than once, Dynaguy or Metaman end the questions early, dragging the team back towards the Academy with a frown.
Stratogale is fifteen, and occasionally goes on rescue missions alone. Sparrows cover her head and shoulders when she addresses the press, and the little ones adore playing with them. She's heard that a few Supers in the next city over have had trouble from the media and the courts, and she's noticed Metaman speaking with Mode in hushed, concerned tones after some press conferences, but she has more urgent things on her mind.
Namely: there's this girl. Okay, so, she's seen her around in the library for ages, and every lunchtime that week, she'd caught Stratogale's eyes and smiled at her. Yesterday she'd come over to chat about English class, and they'd ended up talking about the volunteering Stratogale did at the zoo, and look, she's not sure where she's going with this, but she thinks that maybe she should ask her if she'd like to grab coffee this weekend? Maybe?
She explains it all to Thunderhead, and he laughs and claps her on the shoulder, pointing out that she's vanquished over a dozen mega-villains in the last year, not to mention foiling an exploding volcano and an imminent earthquake just last month: how scary could this be?
Stratogale thinks it over while she's streaking through freshly-cleared skies towards an airliner that had gone into freefall - what if she isn't into girls? oh, heck, what if she is? - a nearby eagle's squawk brings her back to herself, and she dives neatly under the airplane's nose and gives it a careful nudge upwards.
There: easy, and from here Stratogale can see passengers cheering and waving from the windows in relief. One kid presses their stuffed owl up against the glass, and she flies up, smiling, to say hello. She's in the airstream now, close to the window and still smiling and waving, when just behind her she feels this sharp and sudden tug -
Mode does not emerge from her office for days.
Splashdown does not speak to anyone. He runs directly for the sea.
Dynaguy takes Apogee and Phylange to the bar, where they sit in absolute and terrible silence.
Metaman beats up a mountain, and then comes back, pulls himself together to address the press. It kills him to stand and calmly read out statements, but he'd be damned if he'd see any of the others have to do it.
Thunderhead doesn't sleep. He counts the children in their beds, one by one, every hour. He stays up all night on the sofa, alternating between howling great, heaving sobs into Scott's chest, and staring silently into the middle distance. He follows Scott to the kitchen when he goes to make cocoa, never breaking touch with him except to go and count the children. When the eldest three leave for school in the morning, he squeezes them tightly, unable to speak. Cold rain pours down all of that week.
Despite engine damage, the plane lands safely. Shocked parents and inconsolable children are greeted at the airport by members of the press, shouting about emotional harm and bringing litigation.
An anti-Super protest group finds out about the funeral, and announces plans to bring in media and picket it. One of the younger girls from the plane round up some of the other passengers, and some others from her school, to create a counter-protest barricade.
Stratogale's parents walk past the barricade, wet-eyed and looking straight ahead at the casket. Apogee stops at the line, to thank the children and invite them to the wake later. Metaman stays with them to help with the barricade, and glare at the press and protesters.
The casket is empty and open. Her family and schoolmates and the Supers have piled it up with band t-shirts, books about birds, bottles of dark nail polish, and bars of chocolate. There are birds covering the trees all around, keening and wailing in an almighty chorus.
None of her classmates knew, and none are quite sure what to make of the tall, imposing group of Supers that form the front row.
The rain had stopped that morning, and blazing sunshine now falls bright upon the casket. Thunderhead sobs openly, Scott's arm around his shoulders. Apogee grips Dynaguy's knee, her face closed and hard, while silent tears stream down Dynaguy's face and his hand rests on hers. Splashdown does not make eye contact with anyone. Mode is nowhere to be seen.
Anti-Super feeling continues to increase, and Mode introduces new, compulsory seminars on media relations. New Supers continue to join the Academy, but slowly, now: she suspects many young people are choosing to hide their powers rather than risk ostracisation.
It is Mode who faces the press on the day that Metaman, while lifting an express elevator back into place, is snagged on a steel girder and crushed. The media are incandescent with rage at the six lives lost in the elevator's fall, and Mode sympathises, of course. She doesn't point out that none of the press seem concerned with the loss of their strongest Super.
When Thunderhead's suit catches on a missile the week after, and Splashdown vanishes into a vortex two days after that, Mode sends out press releases from behind her closed office door.
Apogee spends her days negotiating details with the new Superhero Relocation Program, ensuring the remaining Supers can be housed close to each other and, in some cases, can share workplaces.
When it's time to go, they pack up the Academy together, carrying piles of boxes out to waiting vans. As Apogee takes one last look around the empty space and makes to turn off the lights, she notices that Mode is still locked in her office, utterly silent.