Posts Tagged ‘Anti-Heroes’

Allen’s vision cleared in time to see the whole alleyway bathed in fire. Two men emerged. One was untouched like a messianic figure in an ancient story. The other was wreathed in the flames as if he was born of them. In his hand was a charred lump, and he tossed it against the pavement. It shattered. A piece of the object looked up at him with half an eye socket, empty and starring, and Allen jumped, scrambling onto his ass. The world tilted and he threw up.

Raptor charged. He took two long steps before his animalistic body was thrown back by an unseen force much like a child would toss a cheap plastic action figure. He dug his claws in and came skidding to a stop just before his thick tail came in contact with the wall of fire that surrounded them.

“You son of a bitch!” Corrosion looked beyond terrified. The words were probably supposed to sound threatening and angry, but his voice shook. “Freakazoid! Waste these guys! Freak!”

There was no answer, and it dawned on Allen with increasing horror that the shattered, burnt skull on the ground belonged to the guy who’d been trying to turn his brain inside out. His mind refused to connect that knowledge with any form of reality.

Raptor let out a low whimper of fear, cowering where his great body had landed. Corrosion was equally frozen in place. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said, as if declaring it would bend reality to his will. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The frantic tone in his voice increased with every word. “Y-you’re retired. Everyone said Inferno was retired!”

Inferno? It nagged in the back of his head, trying to make him remember where he’d heard it before, but Allen’s entire world had become focused on the blackened skull fragment. Why is it so familiar?

An appropriate name for a fire controller, to be sure. It sufficiently described the intense heat that licked at Allen’s hands and danced across the side of his face. He moved instinctively away. The fire wouldn’t burn him—Corrosion’s touch was the first time he’d felt anything of the sort since he was thirteen—but he didn’t want his jacket to burn. For some reason his custom-made leather jacket became of the utmost importance. It defined him as a hero. With the Delta Division symbol emblazoned in its full-colored glory across his back, it broadcasted him as one of the good guys. One of those people that believed in justice and the good of all mankind. This encounter—he didn’t even know what that was. This was not how heroes were supposed to act.

“Why are you here?” Corrosion’s tone had become pitiful now. He was so paralyzed his knees wouldn’t even bend to drop him to the ground in fear.

“I have a better question.” Inferno stepped forward and grasped Corrosion about the wrist. Corrosion screamed and his flesh began to blush around a prominent tattoo of a red dragon with black eyes. “Why’s the Scarlet Dragon gang beating up on a kid? A meta, too. Not your style.”

Now Corroision’s knees buckled. He screamed. “He-he was asking around after the Wilson bitch’s new bodyguard!” His eyes went wide. “Fuck! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have said that!”

Bodyguard?

“Maybe not. But keep talking anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in prison for the rest of your life. If not…well, how do you feel about cremation?”

Another scream came out of Corrosion’s mouth. “S-stop!” Allen heard himself say. “Y-you can’t do this!” This is so wrong! “Please just stop!”

Inferno glanced his way. Was it his imagination, or did the fire controller’s eyes grow soft? He released the thug. “Let’s make one thing clear. You and your gang are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood. Retired life is boring. Never know when I’m going to show up again, and if I see your face again, I will turn it into a flesh mask of pustulating blisters. Got it?”

Corrosion nodded. The fire vanished. “Go.” Inferno pointed a single finger down the alley and away from them. Both Corrosion and Raptor took off like a shot.

“The skull was a nice touch,” the other man commented. Allen regarded him with a stunned expression. What kind psychopaths were they?

“I thought so. Though I’m going to have a terrible time explaining to the rest of the science department where the hell their prop went.”

What? “W-wait, th-that wasn’t—”

“Really the mind freak gangbanger that was about to explode your brain?” The other man smirked. “Naw, Liam only burns people to a crisp on accident. Your friendly neighborhood mind murderer is quite unconscious at the moment.”

“Oh.”

“Allen Gray, if I’m not mistaken,” the man said. “I’m Donald Kazuki. This is Liam Roberts.”

“Oh!” Relief, reason, and realization struck Allen all at once. Inferno was the name Mitch used. This man was Mitch’s father. He was a scary son of a bitch with a wicked temper, but he wasn’t a murderer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, apparently. “Oh.”

Liam chuckled. “I think we need to work on your vocabulary, kid.”

Allen shot him an unimpressed look. Like he hadn’t heard that one his entire life.

“So, you were looking for Lindsay White?” Donald asked.

Allen nodded.

Liam frowned. “Who is apparently working as a bodyguard for a mafia princess. Fantastic.”

Allen blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

Liam smirked. “Well, there’s a couple more words.” Allen’s nonplussed look returned. “The Wilson family is the unofficially and intrinsically involved in a disturbing amount of crime in this city. They’re in a bit of an upheaval right now. The patriarch of the family and every single one of his older boys has inexplicably vanished, leaving Lyndria as heir apparent. Makes sense that she’d want somebody like Spryte working for her.”

Allen shook his head. “Lindsay’s a hero. She might be a little…” He trailed off. ‘Unstable’ was the word that immediately came to mind. “She’s a hero,” he repeated. “She was trained by Stryker, just like I was.”

Donald raised his eyebrow. “Right. Because two people training side by side under the same mentor never end up at odds or anything.”

Allen had nothing to say to that.

Liam frowned. “I’m concerned that Delta would send a kid to look for one of their lost sheep. Especially someone who’s not exactly trained in the art of a manhunt. Not very surprised, mind you. The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

Allen shook his head. “No! It’s not like that. And they don’t. I’m not.”

“Those shit disturbers came close to killing you, kid.” Liam’s eyes darkened. “Delta’s like every other branch of the government. They strip the people they should be protecting of basic human rights, using fear-mongering tactics to justify it.”

A million arguments against that welled in Allen’s mind, but they refused to congeal into words. He stammered for a moment until he shut his mouth and forced himself to calm down. “Lindsay’s important, okay? Or at least she is to my friend. I don’t know what she’s doing here, or why she’s gotten involved with the mob, but I know that my friend is hurting and he needs her. I promised I’d bring her back. I’m not going to give that up.”

“And what if she doesn’t want to come back?”

“Well, I won’t know until I try.”

“No, no, by all means,” Donald interjected. “Let’s keep arguing about whether or not Allen should pack Lindsay in his bags on the way back to America. I mean, it’ll be hell in customs, sure.”

Allen blinked at him. “I-I…what? We can both fly, I don’t—”

“That’s the joke, kid. Try to keep up.”

Liam flashed him an annoyed look. “You have a point buried under there, I can tell. Why don’t you just get to it instead of telling jokes that only make sense inside your own head?”

“Two points, actually. Much like two prongs on a fork. Actually, that would be a terrible fork. Unless it’s for pickles, then it’s fine.”

Liam slapped his large palm against his forehead. “For the love of crap, will you just—”

“Isn’t anyone going to ask the obvious? What the bloody hell happened to the don and his family? And why are both students of a martyred hero here in Montreal, getting involved one way or another with crime syndicate drama?” His face took on a distant look as his mind appeared to wander off once again. “Ooh, that’d be a hell of a show. Your typical family drama, but they’re the mafia in a big city. But you still end up loving the characters, because even if they’re all criminals, they’re still human.”

Allen was beginning to consider that this man has long since lost his marbles. “Well, I don’t really know why Lindsay left. She just told Marcus…” He trailed off and frowned. She’d told him she couldn’t be a hero anymore. But would she really go against everything that Stryker had taught her and start working for the mob? “But I’m here looking for her. So it kinda makes sense that we’re both in the same place. I doubt it’s some kind of big conspiracy.”

Donald leaned over and hissed in his ear. “That’s what they want you to think.”

Liam cast him a scathing look. “Well, that was about as helpful as an Internet forum. You gonna start spouting out cat GIFs as well, or are you just gonna stick to nonsensical and overworked arguments?”

Allen thought that was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but he said nothing.

“See, the thing about nonsensical and overworked arguments is that they’re used so many times that just by sheer probability they’re going to be right at some point. Only problem is that, by the time they get around to being right, nobody believes them anymore. But someday the sky will fall and Chicken Little will be vindicated.”

Liam pressed his lips together. “Okay, you know what? While you’re getting around to making sense, let’s actually do something productive. Lyndria’s been making headlines since she was born, so she’s going to be dead easy to track. I’ve still got some contacts left over from my vigilante days. I’ll see if I can get some eyes around the city to find out which club she’s hitting up tonight. We’ll be able to find Lindsay by proxy. C’mon. Let’s head over to my place in the mean time.” He turned and began walking away.

Finally. A plan. A smile spread over Allen’s face. It felt good to be making progress after endless days of asking random people and getting nowhere except in deep shit. “Oh!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from using the same interjection that Liam had teased him about. “I wanted to say. I think I know your son. Mitch. Mitch Roberts. He controls fire too.”

Liam stopped, but he didn’t turn around. There was something about the set of his shoulders that made Allen regret saying anything.

“Yeah, we don’t say anything about his kid,” Donald said.

“Oh.”

Donald continued as if the uncomfortable incident hadn’t happened. “Let’s not forget ask Lyndria where she put her family,” Donald interjected. “I remember the last time I couldn’t find something, I’d accidentally put it in the cupboard.”

By Liam’s face, Allen could tell that he was so done. “We’re not going to find them in the cupboard. They’re not a set of dishes, Donald, will you please shut the fuck up.”

“The freezer, then. People accidentally put things in the freezer all the time. Though that raises the question, would they hypothetically be dead before or after?”

“Well, that got dark quickly.”

“Says the guy who chucked a severed head that looked like a giant lump of charcoal.”

Advertisements

A few weeks passed, and no one bothered Mitch about his extracurricular activities. He wasn’t assigned Blink and Stryker’s route, but he still visited it every now and then. With Charity down for the count, there was a whole bunch of people who were left twisting in the wind in terms of training. She was the one who was supposed to be taking care of the energy controllers. It made sense. She was the one with the power that was tough to control. She understood what it was like to have something burning inside you, just waiting to be unleashed.

Mitch hated that feeling.

He never again saw the thugs he’d beaten up. That almost disappointed him. He was hoping they’d screw up again. However, they were but an early symptom of the boldness that seemed to overtake criminals in general. He followed a drug dealer home once, only to find the man was a meta too, with some kind of precognition ability. Mitch nearly got himself shot trying to get away from that one. He never reported the incident.

He came home one night after cracking a few skulls to find a car parked in the driveway—a beat-up pick-up truck that had to have been a hundred years old if it was a day. What paint hadn’t been eaten away by rust was covered in a thick layer of mud. The tires weren’t black anymore—they were dirt brown. His mother didn’t drive, but he recognized it as belonging to the guy his mother started dating about a month ago. Oh. Wonderful. The guy was a useless waste of space.

Michaela greeted him at the doorway with arms wide open. “Heyguesswhat!” She bounced with excitement, and flung her spindly arms around Mitch’s neck, only lingering for a second. “Vic’s here!”

“Yeah, I saw his car in the driveway.” Mitch wasn’t nearly as enthused. His sister loved the man, though he could never figure out why.

“Mom’s making spaghetti. I made her set a place for you, even though she wasn’t sure if you were going to be home for supper.”

Well, the spaghetti might make it worth his while to stick around. He just hoped Vic wasn’t going to be an ass tonight. He’d already burned most of his willpower not turning on his heel and walking away the moment he saw the car. If the guy was going to be a dick, he would put his fist through his nose. Or set the car on fire. Yeah, that would be awesome. Mitch let himself dwell on that image for a moment.

He was still imagining the vehicle’s hood buckling under the heat when he walked into the living room, which doubled as a dining room when they had company. Vic sat at the head of the table, chair tipped back and feet on the table. A worn baseball cap sat lopsided on his head, which he constantly adjusted. He’d stretch out his tall, lanky form, whip the cap off, twirl it in his fingers, bend the brim, and shake before finally putting it back in a position that made even less sense.

Mitch wanted to burn that goddamn cap.

“Mitchell! Sonny boy!” Vic waved the tips of his fingers at Mitch. “Glad you could make it.”

Mitch hated it when he called him that. “Whatever.” He plunked down at the table and slammed his elbows on the table and put his chin in his hand.

“Mitchell Robert, get your elbows off the table,” his mother scolded. “Go wash up, and for heaven’s sake, get out of that jacket.”

He was still wearing his Inferno outfit. He never bothered with the whole secret identity thing. If someone really wanted to do him harm, there wasn’t going to be a point in hiding because they could find out easily enough.

He was rather filthy. His hands were covered in soot, and his face was all smudged with the stuff. He complied with his mother’s orders. The jacket went on the hook by the door, and he’d gotten soap up to his elbows when Vic slapped his mother’s ass and she bent down to kiss him. Mitch’s mouth curled in a snarl, and the water on his hands evaporated from heat, leaving the soap as a dried crust.

Stow it, he reminded himself. He ran his hands under the water again, and splashed his face, running the droplets through his short, red hair before wiping the excess water off on a dishtowel. He took a seat again.

“So. Mitchell.” Vic drawled out his name into two distinct syllables in a mocking manner that set Mitch’s teeth on edge. “Your mother tells me you’re a hero.”

“Yup!” Michaela piped up. “He’s all, like ‘Bam!’ ‘Pow!’ And saving the world and stuff, right, Mitch?”

Mitch couldn’t help smiling at that. Michaela was eleven, and more than a little excitable. She pumped her tiny fists into the air at each exclamation, as if she was the one punching away imaginary bad guys. “Something like that, Kala.” That was his nickname for her, left over from when they were much younger, and he couldn’t quite pronounce her name.

“I see,” Vic said. “Saving the world from what, exactly? Disaster, famine, corrupt politicians?” He grinned. Mitch glowered. The man was deliberately trying to bait him.

“We do disaster relief, sure. I’d like to see you run into a burning building.” Literally. He would love to see the man run into a burning building. Coming back out was optional.

Vic took his time shaking parmesan cheese onto his pasta. “So, you provide public service. And do it better than trained professionals, how, exactly?”

Mitch hated that argument. He heard it way too much. “Look, we train. In fact, that’s most of what we do is train. So that’s kind of bullshit to say we don’t know what we’re doing. Delta wouldn’t let us out if we didn’t.”

“Oh, sure, sure.” Vic twirled his spaghetti in his spoon for a moment. “And beating up thugs in an alleyway? Is there training for that?” he glanced up at Mitch.

Shit. He knew. Mitch had no idea how the guy knew, but it didn’t even cross his mind to question if he knew or not. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. Like your little sister said, you beat up the bad guys, but tell me, Mitchell, how can you tell who the villains really are? You’re distracted by the appearance of evil, the obvious depravity of the ones who, say, steal money, or threaten to kill someone. But what of those who sit behind a desk and manipulate people’s lives, are they also evil?”

Mitch blinked. “W-well, sure. But—“

“And who says you’re the ones who get to define that evil? How do you get to say what is good and bad? To save a life, you might have to take another, is that the actions of a hero or a villain? You know who gets to say that? The one who writes the history books. The ones with the power. The ones who win. It seems to me you’re the ones who create villains.”

“There is an ultimate good and evil. We fight—“

“You sure about that? One man’s evil is another man’s truth. Are you sure you know evil when you see it?”

Mitch tried again. “We fight—“

“You fight against what you are told to fight. You trust those around you to know what’s right, but do you trust what they see? The criminal you beat up on the streets, or the one who gives you orders, which of these sentences a person to death? Who is the villain?”

Mitch was entirely confused by now. “I—I…”

“Look at me, Mitchell. Look me in the eye and tell me you can spot a true villain.”

Mitch looked at him. He couldn’t say why he did what he was told, but he did. He looked the man directly in the eye, and as he did, the man’s visage shifted just a little. His eyes went all black, and his skin turned slate gray. His ears extended just a little. Mitch paled. His jaw dropped and he felt nausea tightened in his stomach. Vic was a Fae.

He leaped to his feet so fast his chair hit the ground with a bang. He tightened his fists, and fire flared from his hands. “Get the hell out of my house, you—“

“Mitchell!” Mitch’s head swiveled at the sound of his mother’s voice, then back to Vic. The man looked normal now. Normal, unevenly tanned face, normal gray eyes, normal dirty blond hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. Normal ears poked out from underneath his dirty baseball cap.

Vic chuckled. “You see? If you can’t even sort out what reality you’re seeing, how are you going to see true evil?”

“If you hurt them, you son of a bitch, I swear to God…”

“Mitch, sit down, all right? Just sit down, and let’s eat.” Mitch’s mother was talking in her calm, pacifying voice—the one she always used to use when Dad was about to lose his temper.

“Mom, please, can’t you see he’s…he’s not…” Vic was grinning at him, even as tendrils of black shadow snaked around the table and chairs. They encircled his family’s wrist and neck. They didn’t see. They didn’t know. This…creature was threatening to kill them, and they didn’t even know it.

Mitch never felt so helpless in his life. With nothing left to do, he dismissed the fire and dropped his fists. He calmly picked up the chair and set it right before sitting down on it.

“That’s better.” Vic’s voice somehow sounded even more mocking now. “Let’s all sit down and have a nice meal like a nice, happy family.”

Mitch glared across the table at the Fae. “I know you can read my mind, you sick, demented creature. I will burn you from the inside out, do you hear me? I will fry every piece of you into twisted charcoal until you scream for mercy, except that I have none because you messed with my family.”

Vic smiled back. “Do that, and your little sister will be dribbling nose blood into her pasta sauce before you can spark. You want to be responsible for that? Look at her. Such pretty red curls. She’s going to grow up to be such a lovely young thing. It’ll be a pity if she has no mind. And your mother. I see her thoughts. I see how afraid she is of you. How do you feel about that, flamebrain? Your own mother is afraid of you. Afraid you will burn her and her house to the ground.”

“I will burn you in your sleep.”

“I don’t sleep. Tell me this, if we were to have this out right now, shadow and fire, who would your mother beg to stop?” Mitch could see it. Against his will, against his own mind, he saw his mother on her hands and knees, covered in flame and burning cotton, screaming. Michaela screamed too, her hair flaming, not with the color, but with his fire. Their skin was melting and running together into the carpet.

“Stop. Stop this. Goddamnit, stop!” Mitch couldn’t control the temperature in the room anymore. He could see the sweat beading on his mother’s forehead. At least, he thought he saw it. He didn’t know anymore, couldn’t tell the difference between reality and the illusion that Vic was pressing into his mind.

“Oh, I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop until you go mad, until you slaughter your family, burn them with your own fire, because then at least you’ll know they’re dead for real. And don’t think hounding the Delta Division for a solution will help either. Do that, and I’ll take them away, and you will never know if they’re alive or dead. Your own imagination will decide their fate. Your choice, Mitchell Roberts. Let them live in peace and happiness and ignorance, or tell the truth and watch the world burn.

“Now, tell me, Mitch…who is the villain now?”

* * * *

They trained with the Fae in mind now. Drake taught them to interpret the world around them a little differently, and introduced breathing and mental exercises to resist the Fae. Every day, Mitch would take what he learned and try to break Vic’s hold on his family. It never worked. Every day, he became more and more desperate. It showed.

There was combat training too. Drake paired Allen and Marcus together and pit them against Mitch and Lindsay. The two boys worked together like an oiled team, which pissed Mitch off. It wasn’t fair that they’d had time to practice. It was only when he got the drop on Marcus that he was able to eat into their advantage. He saw Marcus going for a generator and blew it up before he could get there.

Marcus went flying with pieces of shrapnel. Mitch’s boots hit the gravel and he yanked Marcus up by the collar. Marcus wasn’t unconscious yet, so it didn’t trigger the automatic shut-off for the simulation. Mitch didn’t give him a chance to tap out. Rage and fury took over him and he slammed his fist into Marcus’ face. Over and over again until he could feel the blood run over his knuckles until he didn’t know if it was his or the other boy’s. Marcus’ jaw cracked, and his eyes swelled up.

Then Allen dove in with a surprise attack knee to the face. Mitch felt a spike of pain, and the simulation shut down.

Marcus yanked the helmet off and grabbed Mitch. “What the hell, man? What is wrong with you?”

Mitch shoved him back. “Lay off, London.”

Marcus wasn’t going to give up. “Dude, you beat the crap out of me, and you’re telling me to lay off?”

“It’s a goddamn game, Marcus, why are you making such a big deal out of it?”

“I don’t know, you tell me. You’re the one who just caved my virtual face in. What is your problem?”

Instead of responding, Mitch slammed his fist into Marcus’ face—for real, this time. “I said, lay the hell off!

Marcus blinked in surprise, but only for a moment. He body tackled Mitch. They both went to the ground. Marcus got a good punch in, and Mitch a couple kicks, before Allen intervened. Mitch’s collar yanked into his throat, and part of him reflected that it was no joke when a guy with super strength pulled apart a fight. The rest of him was just pissed. “Screw off, Gray, this doesn’t concern you!” He threw in a heat wave with his shove because he was angry, and Allen could take it on the chin. Fire flared around them, hot enough to make the other boy flinch.

But he was persistent. Before Mitch could react, Allen had both his wrists pinned to his sides. “Seriously dude, you’re being a goddamned dick. Is there something going on? Because all we want to do is help.”

Mitch nearly threw up in his mouth from the sickly sweetness of the kid’s sympathy. “Get the hell offa me! I told you, it’s none of your goddamn business!” Allen let him go suddenly, and Mitch flew backward, nearly tripping over one of the chairs they sat in to play the VR simulations. He heard Allen apologize, which somehow made him more mad. He turned and ran from the room, praying that no one was going to follow him, and half hoping they would.

Somehow, he ended up stumbling through the labyrinth of the Delta Division Headquarters and up three flights of stairs before he finally stopped running. The area he was in didn’t get a lot of traffic. He didn’t have the faintest idea where he was, or what the area was used for, but he really didn’t care. He just wanted to be left alone. He could feel the madness creeping in, and all he wanted was for it to stop. A sob escaped his lips against his will. The plastic railing melted under his hands before he realized how hard he was gripping it. Furious at himself, he swiped viciously at the hot tears coming from his eyes.

“You know, they’re right. You are kind of being a dick.”

Mitch nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Lindsay’s voice. He’s forgotten she was there in the VR room. She hadn’t said anything when the fighting broke out. At least, he was pretty sure it was her, standing there now. It could be another illusion from the Fae, just one more thing to drive him mad. In lieu of the melted railing, he gripped onto the brick windowsill and closed his eyes. He forced his breathing to slow and his mind to quit racing. He muttered a nursery rhyme, concentrating on each syllable. It was a trick that Drake taught them to at least dissuade a Fae from getting in their heads. It wouldn’t stop them if they were determined enough, but it was all Mitch had.

Lindsay laughed. “Humpty Dumpty? Really?”

Mitch swallowed. He hadn’t realized he was saying it out loud.

“Well, I guess I can’t judge. Mine’s Little Miss Muffet. Dunno why. I think my dad used to call me that. You know, my real dad.” Oh, that’s right. She’d mentioned she was adopted. “So, why’d you think there was a Fae trying to get in your head?”

Shit.

“That’s what’s been going on, isn’t it? Why you’re always so worked up?”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Mitch. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Tell me. What’s going on?”

“A Fae’s got my family.” The words rushed past his lips before he could bury them. Dumbass! He slammed his fist into the brick wall so hard it bled.

“I see. And if you’ll tell anyone, blah, blah, blah, right?”

Mitch grabbed Lindsay by the shoulders. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t tell anyone. Not even Marcus. Please. He said he’ll make my sister disappear. Please.”

He could feel the tears starting to burn in his eyes again. She looked at him, eyes so big and blue. “Okay. I won’t tell anyone.” He let out a sigh of relief. “But you know, so long as you’re afraid of him, he’s going to keep doing this to you.”

“I…I don’t care. So long as Mom and Michaela are safe. I don’t give a damn.”

“Hey.” She hugged him. It wasn’t anything beyond platonic, but it was still somehow comforting. “We’ll figure something out, okay? I promise.”

For some reason, Mitch believed her.

“So you’re taking point on the investigation.” Sam was a little stunned, and Eric couldn’t blame her.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I have to admit, I’m a little surprised.”

“No more than I.”

“Have you any background in investigation, Mr. Harrington? What qualifies you for this position?”

That was a damn good question. “I’m a fan of detective novels, does that count?” He meant it as a joke, but the woman didn’t even crack a smile. “To be honest, I’m not sure. All I know is that Drake asked me. The man’s incapable of leaving something this important in the hands of someone he doesn’t trust.”

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that assessment. I do think I should give this assignment to someone with more training.”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, I don’t believe that’s your call.” He found that he relished the look of surprise on her face. “Look, I get that you’re the one in the Director’s chair, and that’s fine. Your intellect and people skills are unparalleled. You may not think much of me because of the internal feud you’ve got going on with my girlfriend, but to be perfectly honest, that’s irrelevant.

“Thing is, I’ve learned you put your people in positions for a reason. You’re damn good at understanding people’s capabilities, at working with what they will and won’t do. Drake’s a good man. A little bat-crap crazy if you don’t mind me saying, but a good man nonetheless. There are reasons he’s your best investigator. And there are reasons he chose me to work where he can’t. Those reasons might baffle you and I, but frankly I’d rather trust him and trust his faith in me. I’ll do my damndest. All I ask is that you let me.”

Sam wasn’t the kind to be swayed by a pretty speech. She regarded him for a moment that seemed to take forever as she picked up the teacup from her desk. Sam had a weakness for Earl Grey tea, a habit shared by her predecessor to the Director’s office—and his girlfriend. Eric wondered what Charity would say if she knew her arch nemesis liked the same kind of tea she did.

“Frankly, Mr. Harrington, you haven’t the luxury of experience,” she said, just before taking a sip. “You’ve been here all of, what, four years now? I’m having difficulty with—”

She stopped short. In fact, she stopped breathing altogether. “With—” She coughed. The teacup rattled onto the desk. “Call the doc—”

That was all she managed before she collapsed.

Eric had no love for the woman either, but he wasn’t about to stand back and see her suffer. The fact that she could be dying didn’t occur to him, but he did have the presence of mind to hit the intercom as he dashed behind the desk to catch her as she fell. “Geoff, get Dr. Franks in immediately.”

Her lips were blue and she wasn’t breathing. A part of his mind noticed with some irony that Sam was possibly the only one who could give dignity to choking to death.

Sam’s secretary practically broke the door down with the doctor in his arms. Geoff found a corner to stand in and wring his hands, while Dr. Franks knelt beside Sam. “It’s okay, Ma’am, relax, I’m here.” She glanced at Eric. “Was she eating or drinking anything?”

“The tea,” Eric said, with a glance at the offending teacup.

The doctor nodded and dipped a finger in the liquid. The woman had control over the chemical composition of liquids. As soon as she understood the poison, she touched Sam’s face and broke down the chemical clawing its way inside.

Sam gasped and sat up. “Easy, easy, Director,” Dr. Franks said. “You’re okay.”

Eric got to his feet. “Dr. Franks, I’d like you to make sure an analysis is run on the tea. I want to know every molecule in it. Geoff, walk me through—”

“I can tell you what’s in it, Eric,” Dr. Franks interrupted, rather annoyed. “It’s composed of—”

“Thank you, Doctor, your mental analysis is quite accurate, I’m sure, but I’d like to get the evidence on paper if you don’t mind. Now, Geoff—”

“Hold on, who died and made you king?” Dr. Franks snapped.

Eric just looked at her. “I’m taking point on the investigation into Stryker’s death. One of our own has been murdered, and we just came damn close to making that two. Do you believe that’s a coincidence? Run the analysis. I want everything above board and by the book, understand?”

Dr. Franks looked at him with surprise. She glanced at Sam, who nodded. Then her gaze went back to Eric, clearly unimpressed. “Fine.”

Eric nodded. He took a breath and tried, again, to question Geoff. “Can you walk me through the process of making the tea?”

It took two hours to go through the ten-minute process of brewing the tea. The poor secretary was terrified he was a suspect, despite the fact that it took the first two moments for Eric’s gut feeling to eliminate him. He was completely devoted to Sam, and furthermore, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Gentle and built like a beanpole, the man was entirely uninterested in violence, let alone murdering someone.

The strange thing was that Sam habitually scanned with her retrocognition ability. She could read into the past of objects and people. As a security measure, she always read the past of anything she ate or drank. Of course she was a target. She’d been a target since she sat in the most powerful chair in the country—arguably the most powerful organization on the planet.

But it didn’t take very long for that avenue of investigation to run its course. Geoff had nothing to do with it; simply an unwitting pawn. The nearest they could figure out brought them full circle.

The Fae. Already they were massing together in a gathering unprecedented. The investigation into Ptah-Setker-Osiris proved fruitless, so either the little creatures were not involved with another god, or the Egyptian composite deity was doing a damned good job of hiding their tracks. Eric wasn’t sure which option he disliked more.

So that led him to an avenue of investigation that made him feel more than a little uncomfortable.

* * * *

The bell rang above the door of the Eyre’s Eye. Music nearly a century old played in the background, drowning out the voices of the sizable crowd in the bar. A few flicked their gaze over to his entrance, but most seemed entirely unaware of his presence. Eric wasn’t sure how he felt about this crowd. On the one hand, his meeting would hopefully go unnoticed; on the other, anyone who would go about noticing would also be lost in the mass of people.

He’d dressed down for the occasion, with a comfortable pair of jeans and a plaid shirt left unbuttoned over a white t-shirt. This was so not his usual crowd. College kids and blue-collar workers made up most of the customer base, which made sense considering the slightly shady part of town. It wasn’t that he felt distain for anyone who regularly lived paycheck to paycheck—after all, he’d deliberately gone to a public high school and subsequently met the love of his life there. He knew he was privileged. The problem was that they all did too and treated him often with contempt.

Charity was different. She kept him grounded and loved him for what was in his heart. He had more to give than money, and she saw that without a hint of a sarcastic ‘oh, poor little rich boy’. That alone was worth more than all the money he had.

He wasn’t entirely without street smarts. He knew not to ask for his favorite imported whiskey. The place wasn’t a dive, exactly, but they certainly didn’t have the budget for his regular drink. Instead he went with what they had. He ordered a bottle of the cheap stuff. He wouldn’t make such a ridiculous statement like “whiskey is whiskey”, but for the sake of not drawing attention, he’d be satisfied with something made of alcohol.

He was about halfway through the bottle when his contact finally showed. “You’re late,” he said.

“Not at all. I’ve been in the bar for an hour, arriving precisely at the time I said I would. Not my issue you didn’t see me.”

Eric didn’t rise to the bait. The man went by the handle the Spyder. No one really seemed to know his real name; frankly it didn’t matter. According to Delta’s file, he had super hearing and invisibility—and was one heck of an informant. He wore a black overcoat and a fedora that fit comfortably just over his eyes.

He smiled as he saw that Eric made no response. “I understand you and I have a transaction to make.”

Eric gave him the same smile: suspicious and without mirth. “Ah, yes. I’ve been told you see this as business. I suppose that’s fair. Knowledge is power, after all, and people will pay a great deal of money for power.”

The Spyder chuckled. “I find it quite amusing how many people assume I am motivated by money.” He shrugged. “An effective means to an end, to be sure, and if you’d like to buy your information by the dollar, I am prepared for that as well. I understand you’re quite capable of providing.”

“Then you know that I too am a businessman. I understand the value of commodities beyond that of a dollar. I have come with the necessary currency.”

“Then, by all means, shall we begin our negotiations?”

“Of course. Let’s start with the value of your business. I’d like to know more. After all, before I buy a piece of property, I do my research. Sometimes months go by before the paperwork is drawn. I see no reason why our deal should be any different.”

“Then you should know that requests for any personal details will bring an end to our negotiations immediately.”

Eric waved his hands dismissively. “You misunderstand me. I have no interest in what hides behind the name you chose to show the streets. Your past is a closely guarded secret.” He smiled. “And therefore of greater value to any who might actually know it.” Eric had no idea who the man was, but he pretended he did. After all, if he could unnerve the guy, it might give him an advantage.

The Spyder didn’t seem to buy his bluff. “You know my terms. What is it you wish to know?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the assassination of Stryker.”

“Sounds like the title of a bad chick lit movie.” He shrugged. “I’d have to be deaf and blind not to notice. I see that Delta’s spinning its tires to figure out the meaning of it all.”

“Do you know anything about the assassin?”

“That’s information. I’ll need something in exchange?”

Despite himself, Eric’s lip twitched in annoyance. “If you have no information, I fail to see why I should pay the fee.”

Spyder gave that smarmy smile again. Eric’s attempt to control the situation wasn’t going well. “When you buy a box of pills from the pharmacy, you trust that the pills are in the box; because who cares if they work or not if they’re not there? I don’t do bad business, Mr. Herrington. Let’s see what you have to offer, and we can continue. Rest assured, if I don’t have the answers you are looking for, you’ll be reciprocated.”

Eric didn’t like it, but he figured he needed to give him something. “Our analysis of the scene show that the man was entirely and intentionally unremarkable. Even a post-cog scan of the place revealed no details of the assassin. He—or she, if we are to show due equality of the sexes—was a complete professional, cleaning the place thoroughly. The shot was at a distance that would provide a challenge for anyone untrained as a sniper, yet close enough that even the marksmanship itself was not overly notable.”

“So in other words, you don’t have a damn clue about your culprit.”

Eric shrugged. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What we know about the killer should be enough for me to know if you’ve got any information or not.”

He chuckled. “Indeed. As it happens, I know nothing about your assassin.”

That actually surprised Eric a little. “Among your entire network not one of your informants saw or heard anything? I was quite certain you had your eyes everywhere.”

When the Spyder hesitated to answer, Eric realized he finally had something of an advantage. It was his turn to give that deprecating chuckle. “If you’ll pardon a momentary science lesson, let me ask you: how do we know of the existence of black holes? Not because we can see them, certainly, but because we can’t. It is pure nothing.” He paused to let that sink in. “You’ve got a black hole in your information network, Spyder. Furthermore…I know why. So let me ask you…what is that information worth to you?”

The Spyder regarded him for a moment. “It’s not Solstice. They’re as baffled by this as you are. They haven’t the faintest idea how it was done. You’re just lucky your Mister X got to the bullet as fast as he did, or they’d be able to reverse engineer your fancy sonic scream that’s evidently brickhead’s weakness.” Eric stiffened at the insulting epithet for Stryker. “Oh, I’m sorry. The flying brickhead.”

Eric thought about that for a moment. Well, that was one suspect down. That was a bit of a relief, anyway. It meant they could focus on Fae involvement. Especially since it seemed their influence was more widespread than he first thought.

“What I’m about to tell you will seem like a crazy fantasy at best, but I assure you it’s true. There are creatures that live in this world that call themselves the Shadow Fae. They’re…not exactly from around here.” He held up his hand. “I am telling the truth, Stryker. After all, I know the necessities of quality of product as well. These creatures often take the image of small children. They have the ability to disguise themselves within the minds of others. They’ve even been known to fool technology. Frankly, the only reason why we generally know they exist is because they want us to.

“Infiltrating your information network would be…if you’ll pardon the pun…child’s play. They are masters of deception. And if they don’t want you to know something…then you won’t.”

The Spyder was quiet. “How does one counter such things?”

“You don’t. You get the hell out of dodge.”

Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.

He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”

Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.

A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.

“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”

Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.

The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.

Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”

To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”

Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.

“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”

Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”

Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“

Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”

The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”

Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”

Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.

Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”

Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”

“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”

Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.

And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.

We can do it.

Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.

He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”

* * * *

Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.

They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.

The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.

Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.

It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.

And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?

Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.

Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.

“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”

“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.

For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.

“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”

He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.

He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.

When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”

The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.

“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”

Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.

That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”

Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”

“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.

“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”

The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.

Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.

“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”

The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”

Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”

“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”

The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.

“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.

Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.

“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”

He dismissed the flames and left them there.