A sonic boom sounded in the skies over Alliance City. On his way to school, Allen Gray’s head jerked in the direction of the sound. His gaze followed the jet stream behind the man flying in the sky. Stryker. In the three years that the Paragon of Alliance City had been in the news, Allen had closely followed his career. The man was a hero. Moreover, he was the first hero.
That wasn’t true. Allen wasn’t quite naive enough to believe that, even if Samantha Clive hadn’t been forthcoming enough to say the Delta Division had been saving lives for decades in secret. Still, Stryker was the first one anyone knew about. For days after the press conference that announced their presence, no one really believed in heroes. Most thought it was some sort of publicity stunt at best; at worst, a practical joke.
Then a terrorist cell of political fanatics hijacked flight 783 from Boston to Montreal. The plane’s distress signal had barely rung before Stryker was deployed. Faster than the supersonic plane, he singlehandedly dealt with the threat. The homegrown terrorists were brought to justice and the lives of every man, woman, and child on that plane were saved.
Reluctantly, Allen brought his focus back to the sidewalk he traveled. If he didn’t hurry, he was going to be late. You could be one of them, a voice whispered in his head, and not for the first time. It was true. For a couple of years now, he’d known he was different. Once, when he was fifteen, he’d fallen from a tree at a height that should have broken at least one bone. It had scared the living daylights out of his best friend, Tracy. They’d attributed it to pure luck that he walked away without a scratch.
It wasn’t luck. Not long after, he found out he had powers similar to Stryker. Perhaps that’s why, even at a distance, he felt a kinship to the man.
But being a hero? The very idea terrified him. Not the inherent danger, but the…attention. He could barely talk to people at the best of times. He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone outside his family till grade school. And even then it was because Tracy Violet was determined to be his friend and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
As if contemplating their meeting summoned her out of thin air, Tracy walked beside him. “Hey.” He smiled.
“Hey yourself.” She gave him a brilliant smile. His heart did a quick skip before it settled back to its normal rhythm. He was falling in love with her, and he knew it. It scared him more than the thought of being in the spotlight, more than any danger he could face as a hero. She was his best friend, and he was falling in love with her. There was so many ways that would end horribly. He hadn’t even told her about his powers. How could he tell her he loved her?
They walked to school together in companionable silence. Tracy could hold up both ends of the conversation if need be, but neither of them were intimidated by the quiet either.
First period they had an English presentation, in which Tracy did all the talking, and Allen functioned as the assistant, flipping the holographic slides from the back of the classroom. Second period, Allen sat in History class, while Tracy went to Math. When the bell signaled his departure, he made his way to the cafeteria.
Billy Rivers had planted his behind on the table in front of Tracy. She stared at him with disgust.
“Don’t give me that, sweetcheeks. The dance this weekend. You and me. I’m not gonna take no for an answer.” His hand rested on hers.
Some girls might be swayed by his insistence and charm. Tracy wasn’t one of them. She yanked her hand away. “The answer’s no, Billy.”
“You just haven’t thought about it yet.”
Allen swallowed. He should say something. He walked up to the table. “L-leave her alone, Billy. She said no.” It didn’t come out nearly as intimidating as he’d have liked.
“Go away, Gray. No one asked you.”
In a remarkable feat of nerve, Allen didn’t go anywhere and looked him directly in the eye. “Leave her alone. Before I get upset.”
Billy laughed. “Oh, now I’m real scared. What you gonna do, Gray? Cry? Come on. Hit me? Go on.” He lifted his jaw and pointed. “Right here.”
Impulse simultaneously overcame his fear and good judgment. His fist was halfway to Billy’s face before he realized it. At the last second, he pulled his punch. He didn’t want to kill the guy. To his surprise, his wrist snapped inward, like he’d just punched a brick wall. Like he was a normal person who punched a brick wall. His super strength vanished. He was too shocked even to cry out. Tracy did it for him. “Guys, stop this really isn’t worth it—”
Billy wasn’t listening. He took a swing at Allen, which he ducked, but barely. As Allen took a step back, he noticed the weakness he felt in his body went away. He was no great intellect, but he could tell by pure instinct that something was happening. Billy was a metahuman, he was sure of it. Immediately on the heels of that conclusion, he realized that punching him in the face wasn’t going to do any good. The other boy drained his powers.
Time for a ranged attack. He took two steps backwards and reached behind him till his fingers closed around a lunch tray. He whipped it with only barely reserved strength.
It wasn’t a lunch tray.
The whole cafeteria table flew from his fingers and smashed into Billy’s arms, which he raised to block the hit just in time. The plastic and steel bent around the boy. His shock and bewilderment was only slightly less than the same on Tracy’s face, and no more than the look of horror on Allen’s.
“Fight, fight, fight,” a few kids chanted, then the rest of the students took up the cry.
Billy didn’t seem overly interested in continuing their battle. He shrugged out of the dismantled table easily, and took a stance with his fists protecting his face, but he wasn’t eager to take the initiative.
Then the principle stood between them. “Gentlemen,” he said. “My office. Two minutes ago.”
* * * *
The silence was so heavy, its weight almost felt literal. Allen wasn’t entirely sure his difficulty breathing was psychosomatic. He and Billy avoided each other’s gaze. Tracy was there, but she wouldn’t look at him. She was angry.
You should have told her, you idiot! He chastised himself repeatedly. He should have trusted her, and he did, but of course she felt like he didn’t now. At least that’s what he hoped she was thinking. As awful as that was, it was better than the alternative. There was a small part in the back of his mind that was worried she would think him a freak. If she did…well, he didn’t know what he’d do.
“Boys.” The principle’s voice startled him, and he turned with a jerk. Allen’s jaw fell open.
He stood there. Stryker wore a gold-colored padded vest, something reminiscent of the plate armor of an ancient soldier. Thematically, that was carried through the helm he wore, open at the top, exposing his blond hair. It was a simple design and drew attention to his golden eyes that marked him as otherworldly. He was an alien from another plane of existence, evidently. Not that it really mattered. He was here, he was their hero, he was the Paragon of Alliance City.
Stryker gave them a lopsided, embarrassed grin at their adoration. He blushed a little, and Allen realized he wasn’t particularly fond of the spotlight either. “I am supposed to give you a talking speech about training and becoming good, better than yourselves, but…” He shrugged. “My English is not very good.” He spoke with a heavy accent unlike anything Allen had ever heard before. He smiled. “I believe you can be heroes. When you believe in something, you can fight for anything.”
He spoke to both of them, but Billy was staring sullenly at his shoes, so Stryker’s eye contact fell mostly it Allen. He could have been speaking directly to him. It felt like he was.
Stryker believed he could be a hero. This was beyond the standard recruitment poster. It felt so much more sincere than a man in a top hat pointing his finger. The Paragon of Alliance City wanted him, Allen Gray, to be a hero. He believed he could be a hero.
And suddenly, Allen found himself believing it too.
* * * *
The sun was settling into that obnoxious angle where it shone directly into Tracy’s bedroom. She sat at her desk, tapping her pencil repeatedly on her chemistry textbook as if that would magically make her pay attention to the formulas scrawled across the pages. Everything swam together. Tracy wasn’t sure if it was from the angry tears in her eyes, or from this new angle at which she saw the world after hers was turned upside down.
Motion on the sidewalk caught her eye and she glanced out the window.
He looked up and their eyes met. He had the most sorrowful, apologetic look she’d ever seen, and she was almost sorry for the anger she felt. Almost.
Allen vanished beneath the gables and a half-second later, the doorbell rang. Tracy gripped her pencil so hard, it nearly snapped. She was alone in the house, so she’d be the one to answer the door, but right now she wanted to be anywhere but at that door, facing her best friend who had lied to her for God only knew how long. She didn’t want to look at him right now.
He’d left with Stryker and that smug-ass bastard Billy just after their introduction to the Paragon of Alliance City. Even Tracy had to admit she was a little star-struck. In his own stumbling way, Allen had tried to ask if she could come with them to their trip to the Delta Division headquarters, but Tracy just couldn’t deal with it. “That’s your world,” she’d said in a clipped tone, and marched out of the principal’s office.
That might have been a little harsh.
A noise on the shingles outside her window startled her. Allen landed on the roof. From the ground. He can fly. Of course he can fly.
Her bay window was cracked to let in the breeze, and it carried Allen’s voice as he took a seat on the roof, his back against the wall. She could see his profile, silhouetted against the setting sun. When he glanced in her direction, she looked away.
And water was wet.
“You have every right to be. I should have told you.”
“Damn right, you should have told me.” For some reason, she had to force the anger into her voice. It came out sounding more hurt than anything.
“I don’t—I don’t know if it’ll make up for it, but if you’ll let me, I’ll tell you. Everything. The truth.”
She studied the wood grain on her desk. An eternity passed before she nodded, unsure if Allen could even see her assent, but she was unable to look up.
“I—I figured it out, maybe three years ago. I was stronger, tougher than I should be. And I could—I can—I can fly.”
“Maybe I should have joined Delta then. Be one of…one of them. But I didn’t want to stand out. I just didn’t know if I could be a hero, and I didn’t want to be in the spotlight.” He laughed a little, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “Somebody filmed the fight with Billy. The number of hits on that video practically double every hour. So, um, yeah.”
She glance up just as he twisted around to look at her. “Tracy, if I could go back and do it over again, I would. I’d tell you everything because you’re my best friend, and you’re the only person who could really understand. But I can’t. I can’t change what’s already happened. The only thing I can do now is ask you to forgive me.”
A glance in his soulful brown eyes was her undoing. He was scared and overwhelmed, but excited at the same time, and she could tell that he wanted more than anything to share this with her. And she just couldn’t say no.
“Fine. On one condition,” she continued before the relief in his eyes could get any more penetrating. “Promise me you’ll never keep something like that from me ever again.”
He hesitated just a fraction of a second, and no one else but Tracy would have noticed, but he hesitated. Oh my God, there is something? What could he possibly be hiding? Don’t tell me he’s an alien or something.
“Okay. I promise. And if I’m going to keep that promise, there’s something else I need to tell you.”
Tracy’s mouth went dry. What in God’s name could it possibly be? What could be bigger than what he’s just told me?
“I love you.”
Tracy rolled her eyes. “Is that all? Seriously, we’ve been best friends forever, of course we—”
“N-no, Tracy, just listen. It’s more than that.”
The snark vanished from Tracy’s face, and her lips parted as the enormity of what he meant finally sunk in.
“I-I don’t even know when it changed. How it happened, I don’t know. All I know is that when I’m around you, I can’t imagine ever being happier than I am in that moment. Except that I’m always wrong because I’m even more happy the next time I see you. I love you, Tracy.”
Tracy forgot how to breathe in the stunned seconds that followed, their eyes locked together. Allen was the first to break, his cheeks flaming as glanced away. “Th-that’s all I got. I promise. That’s the only secrets I have.”
Tracy’s heart pounded in her ears, reminding her that eventually her brain was going to need oxygen. Biologically speaking, that rush of endorphins that flooded her system was probably from the deep breath she finally took, but all she could feel was an emotion so strong she was baffled as to how she never noticed before. At that moment, she couldn’t imagine anything else but a lifetime with Allen.
“I’m glad that’s out,” she said breathlessly. That emotion that welled in her heart seemed to fill her whole being until the corners of her mouth buoyed into a smile. “I think it might be worth seeing where it goes.”
Inexplicable joy lit Allen’s face, and she suddenly knew what he was talking about, because she couldn’t imagine being happier than she was at that moment.