Though it was night, there was still an orange bruise on the horizon where the sun had disappeared, when the curly-haired girl ran towards the edge of the rooftop, hopped onto its edge in one smooth motion, and leapt.
Ayesha actually had to bite down on her lip to stop herself shouting with pure joy as she left the side of the building. Her body was driven through the air by the force of her pushing off. For an all too brief moment, she was weightless. Ayesha’s arms moved in what felt like lazy pinwheels, her legs kicked at nothing. She loved this feeling.
She landed on the building on the opposite side of the street, her feet connecting with its edge. She rolled. Was on her feet. Still moving. She leapt from the other side. Caught a fire escape. Dragged herself up the stairs. Another roof. Leapt again.
She stopped for a moment at the edge of another rooftop. She wasn’t tired, but she did need to orient herself. She felt the white hot fire in her muscles recede a little, and found her thoughts clearing. She was heading generally southwest to Brooklyn, but it wasn’t easy to track directions when she was moving this fast. She tried to push the headache to the back of her mind.
Glancing around her through eyes that were struggling to keep from repeatedly blinking, she realised that though she had turned to far South. Reorienting herself, she got back on track.
Now, she ran length-ways along the block, and as a result could build up some real speed. Vaulting the barriers between rooftops, or sometimes hopping them altogether, she darted forwards. Her feet skittered on the concrete roof as her feet adjusted to how much purchase they could find. Her legs wrenched her forward in a long stride, moving so fast that the air began to feel like a liquid. White fire rose powerful and sweet in her body and her min. It was over 200 metres and she covered it in a couple of seconds.
She approached the edge faster than most vehicles. Jumped. Twisted in a complicated pattern.
Flying through the air. Upside-down. Grabbing the edge of the building. Swinging her momentum downwards. Falling. No way of knowing if there would be handholds. Windowsills. Grabbing and twisting. Still falling, but slowing now. Nearing the street. No one around.
She let herself drop the last two stories. She had already slowed her momentum using handholds, and she was confident her legs could take the force of landing. She felt her balance reorient her, twisting her body instinctually in response to the weightlessness of falling.
Inhumanly lightly, she landed in a crouched position on the empty street with barely a sound. Still only for a moment, she stood up. With a dry cough, she pulled her jacket closer around her, and crossed the street at a much more human jogging speed.
Ayesha was wearing her uniform. It was black with orange highlights, the same colour as the streak in her hair, and skin-tight to give her complete freedom of movement. The black material underneath the jacket covered up most of her body, merging into a mask that covered the lower half of her face but left her eyes and scalp bare along with her hands and forearms. Her long curly hair had been bound in a tight bun to prevent drag.
What stood out in the uniform was her footwear, which were cheap, worn-out running shoes. Formally they had been white. Now, they were the colour of a rainy sky.
She darted across the street to an alley, still painfully slowly compared to her speed across the rooftops. It felt constrained, like she was coiling a spring too tight. She wanted to tap her foot or shake her head. Anything to move.
Finally, after the eternity it took to cross the street, she was in the alley, and away from the potentially prying eyes in the windows. Although Ayesha didn’t care if someone happened to glance a figure on a darkened rooftop running quicker than it should be possible, even she felt openly using her powers on a public street could be a bad idea.
Out of sight again, she immediately began to move. Running at one wall of the alley. Jumping from it to the other. Running back, forth, again. Flitting up the wall. Finding handholds. Pulling. Upwards. Onto the roof. Running.
The intoxication of movement was in her now. Every step was joy.
Before she’d even made it across two rooftops, her throat became unbearable. The dry, raspy feeling had increased tenfold, and she could feel her lips cracking and stinging. Her headache was increasing, and even her vision seemed to be blurring.
She slowed to a halt, stifling another dry cough, and reached into a compact runners bag. The bag was meant to be worn at the waist, but she was slender enough that she’d had to sling it over a shoulder instead. From it, Ayesha removed a water bottle and began to drink. She drank like someone who had been running across a desert, in great relishing gulps that emptied the bottle in seconds.
Immediately, she felt the result. Her throat cleared, her eyes stopped blinking, and even her headache seemed to recede slightly.
Then, Ayesha began to feel an steady, but insistent pressure.
Idiot, she chided herself, Little and often.
Quickly checking her phone, she found a coffee place that was between her and her destination. After that, she continued darting from rooftop to rooftop in a continuous, flowing dance before finding the correct street. She dropped into an alley, far from anyone who might see her.
Or so she’d thought.
As she slipped down, she heard a startled noise from behind her, and saw a woman sleeping rough in a doorway. Ayesha’s presence had woken her up.
‘Where the fuck did you come from?’ she slurred, slowly pulling herself from sleep.
Ayesha was about to say something witty, but decided against it. The pressure had become slightly more insistent. She ignored the woman and crossed the road out of the alley.
She had reached a slightly more built up street, filled with stores and cafes, unlike the residential areas she’d been passing through before. As she exited the alley, she dropped the mask down her face. Like that, it almost looked like a scarf. With the same motion, she zipped up the sport’s jacket which covered the skintight portion of her uniform. To the causal observer, she now just looked like someone out for an evening jog.
As she walked through the doorway to the coffeeshop. After the chill of the March evening, it was like walking into an oven.
The sudden change in temperature disoriented her. Made her feel momentarily woozy as her body adjusted. When she regained her composure, she saw a surprisingly long line that snaked its way around the store. The pressure was as insistent as ever.
Ayesha clicked her tongue, and shut the door behind her.
Glancing around, she saw a barista behind the counter, frothing milk.
Ignoring the line, Ayesha walked up to her, a small, mousy woman with glasses and messy blonde hair.
Ayesha pretended to be slightly out of breath, trying to complete the illusion. ‘You have a washroom in here?’ she said, as sweetly as she could.
The woman barely glanced up. ‘It’s for customers only,’ she said, ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to buy something.’
‘Queue’s to the door,’ she said, indicating behind her, ‘I’ll get something afterwards.’
The barista fixed her gaze on Ayesha, and Ayesha stared back, blankly, her eyebrows slightly raised.
‘The code is 5473,’ she said, ‘It’s over there.’
Ayesha thanked the woman, and headed to the corner where she’d indicated. When she was finished, she left the washroom and joined the queue, which had shortened a little.
Ayesha waited. The coffee shop was full of the babble of voices, some loud, and some quiet, all irritatingly distracting to her. A loud man was obnoxiously blabbering to a young woman about his painfully uninteresting job. On the opposite side of the room, two old women were chattering about television shows, talking on and on about fictional lives rather than living their own.
Ayesha’s foot started tapping involuntarily, and she thought that she felt a twitch begin somewhere in her left leg. She crossed her arms, then dropped them to her sides, then folded them again. She pulled around her bag, took out the bottle, but the bag back. With unceasing small movements, the queue edged forwards.
Once or twice she began to move for the exit, but the headache was starting to grow again, almost but not quite imperceptibly, and she had no water.
After the crushing eternity of what had been, in reality, less than sixty seconds, it was her turn at the counter. The counter itself was crowded with sugar packets and milk jugs, as well as displays of baked goods. Several muffins caught Ayesha’s eye.
A different barista served her this time. A tall bearded guy with bare forearms, covered in tattoos.
‘Hey,’ she said, smiling up at him, ‘I know I’m being a pain, but could I refill my water bottle?’
‘Of course you can,’ he said, taking it from her. She noted the way his chest bulked up slightly when he spoke to her, saw the way he purposefully looked but then didn’t look at her.
Ayesha smiled like a cat with a mouse.
‘Busy today, right?’ she said, letting a little smoke creep into her voice. Easy when her throat was this dry.
The big barista shrugged, ‘Usually like this at this time of night.’ He was filling up her bottle at the tap, but still glanced over his shoulder to smile at her. ‘What’s the outfit for?’ he added, ‘Is that a super-high tech jogging suit?’
The barista had been perceptive enough to pick up that the uniform beneath her jacket was more than a little unusual. Though skintight, it was very lightly armoured in places, and had patches of a different, shinier materials along both sides of each leg and up the torso. Of course, Ayesha had an eternity to come up with a response.
‘Ugh, I wish,’ she said, ‘This is my uniform. I’m animal control.’
He walked back to her with the filled bottle, ‘Animal control?’
‘That’s right – Could I get a glass of water too?’
He returned to fill her a cup from the sink. Ayesha thought she heard someone behind her in the queue tut in anger, but she didn’t turn.
‘Yeah, someone put out a call that there was some kind of big, wild dog sighted out near the docks in Brooklyn. I picked up the call, and now I’m gonna see if I can catch it.’
The barista looked at her as if he wasn’t sure if she was joking. ‘Animal control just puts out calls and you pick up them up?’
‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘They even put out how much the job is worth. Then there’s sometimes a race to get there first. It’s like bounties in the wild west.’
‘And you’re a cowboy?’ he said, grinning a little and bringing her the glass of water.
‘That’s right,’ said Ayesha, taking a long, heavenly sip.
‘So you catch big, dangerous animals all by yourself? But you’re so…’ he trailed off, and a tiny hint of rose creeped into his cheeks.
‘I’m small, but feisty,’ she said, holding his gaze.
The barista’s expression remained cool, but his cheeks had now fully turned red. Clearly coming to a decision, he scribbled something on a napkin.
‘You can tell me about the dog if you catch it,’ he said, handing the phone number to her.
She smiled without saying anything, taking the napkin. Putting her bottle in her bag she turned to leave. The mousy barista that she had spoken to at first made eye contact with her for a brief moment as she left, and Ayesha was pleased to see that the woman was fuming.
She left the store without a backwards glance. Crossing the street, she entered the alley where she had first touched down. The homeless woman had returned to sleep.
Ayesha approached. The woman was lying facing into a doorway, covered in blankets and newspapers, her head resting on a backpack. Ayesha crouched down, and opened her own bag.
Smirking the entire time, she removed two muffins and placed them next to the woman.
She kept the third for herself.
Crumpling the phone number into a ball and throwing it into a darkened corner of the alley. She leapt up four metres to the fire escape, and returned to the rooftops.