The following is a complete work of fiction.
This is my first City of Heroes Fan Fiction. If you are not a person who knows the City of Heroes MMPRPG, some of this story may not make sense. However, like my X-Universe Fan Fictions, I have written enough background into the story that I believe it is accessible to anyone who likes science fiction and comic book worlds.
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City of Heroes - Book 1
Awakenings - Chapter 3
First day of college was a breeze compared to the first day of Paranormal Parole Training Neither were like my first day in the gang. In a lot of ways, induction into the Skulls had felt more like salvation than anything else. Killer hadn't tried to convince me that he was the boss, or that the smartest path was to follow him. I'd just known it. Just like I knew that if I fucked up in PPP, my life wouldn't be worth living. Simply because I knew it didn't mean my Parole Officer wouldn't remind me.
"Huge." That was all I could think as I stared at the behemoth standing at the front of the room. . I wasn't sure which was larger, the man standing nearly eight feet tall and possibly five or six feet wide at the shoulders, or his reputation on the streets. I'd never thought, in my wildest dreams or worst nightmares, I would be face to face with Back Alley Brawler. My fellow classmates, all five of them, were similarly awed, save for the big guy in the back.
"I don't make inspirational speeches. I won't handhold you losers. I won't give you any slack. You're here because you fucked up. I'm here to beat, cuss, kick and yell your worthless asses into shape." His eyes seemed to look at all of us at once. "Whether you get security clearance or not is up to me. If you ever rise in security level will also be up to me. Period, end of story. As of right now, you have a clearance of zero. Zip. Zilch. Bubkiss. Nada. This means you can't even arrest a jerk for J-walking. Don't even think about trying to go out and kick butt on the streets. If I ever clear you for that, you will be sidekicked with an experienced hero of security level ten or higher. You will work with your mentor, with no option for solo activity, until you have proven yourself capable. This means security level seven. At that point, you'll have the experience and authority to go out and kick ass on your own. I don't care how powerful you are, or what you did before you got into this program. You will toe the line, or I'll plant my toes so far up your ass you'll be chewing on them. That clear?"
I nodded, as did the twig of a girl to my right and the little shrimp of a guy to my left and back a couple desks. The rest of the group mumbled affirmative noises. I wasn't the only one who was intimidated, but I was surprised by the varied reactions to the intimidation. At least none of us pissed ourselves; though I think the little guy wanted to.
Brawler was one of a handful of the pre-war heroes who'd survived the Rikti invasion. He was an icon of Paragon City. More than a few of the most powerful Bone Daddies of the Skulls had faced him and had their asses served up to the courts for trial and prison. I wasn't about to make waves.
Brawler looked right at me, frowning like I'd just fucked up. I think my eyeballs were about to pop out when he stepped in front of me, crossed his arms, and growled, "You're the empath, right?"
"Uhm... yeah." What was I going to do, lie?
"Am I shitting you about this?" His gazed never left me as I squirmed.
"No... you'll kick our collective asses if we fuck up." Of that I was sure, all the way to my toes.
"What if you don't fuck up?"
I blinked up at him. "Huh?"
"What will I do if you don't fuck up?" He didn't give anything away. He was inscrutable. What was he asking me to say? What was the right answer?
"I don't know."
He snorted, his brows furrowing at me. "Come on kid. You're the only empath in the last three groups I've had. If you're worth a shit, you can answer the question."
My gut twisted in knots as I struggled to give him an answer. How the hell was I supposed to know what he'd do? I couldn't answer him. I dodged. "I'm a PK too."
Brawler bent down, putting his hands on the desk in front of me. The desk creaked under his weight as he lowered himself, arms bulging, until his eyes were level with mine. Now I was certain I was going to piss myself. "I don't give a shit if you can float my ass to the moon, kid. Empaths are rare. I can find a dozen guys who can throw people around using muscles, gravity fields, kinetics, or a million other methods. A hero who can get a feel of people around him, knows who's holding strong and who's cracking, knows whether the bad guy is really nuts enough to do something insane or whether he's just blowing smoke, is something we need." God his breath stank. It smelled like he'd eaten a dozen eggs and a pound of sausage, washed it all down with a gallon of milk, and it all was fermenting in his gut. Or maybe that was just me feeling sick. "Come on, kid. Read me."
I squinched my eyes shut and tried to figure out the sensations. It was hard to read him. Not because he was blocking, but because I was nervous as hell and trying not to throw up. It didn't help that I was getting feedback from the rest of my classmates. I thought about what Amanda taught me. I focused, breathed, followed the familiar feelings and blocked out the disruptive ones. After a while, all I could feel was Brawler's presence pressing me through the seat, and my own resistance to it. I opened my eyes, looked back into those harsh, determined, war hardened eyes that demanded an answer, and I opened up to what was there. Impatience, irritation, frustration and a dozen more feelings pressed against me. Behind them, below the immediate tension of the moment and the demand for control, there was something else. Honesty, sincerity, determination, and hope. The big badass actually believed that people could be something more, something great. He believed in us, even if he wasn't going to say it. "You'll back us up to the end if we prove we're worth it."
The fucker cracked a grin, stood up and walked back to the front of the room. "If you sorry SOBs actually make it, I'll be the first in line to cover your asses when the going gets rough. Take that for what it's worth. Your choice: have me kicking your ass, or have me covering it. Every one of your trainers in this program has 'graduated' from the system. They were all where you are now." He nodded to the back of the room.
We turned in our seats, and saw two heroes, neither of whom I recognized, at the back of the room. One was an oriental dude with so many tattoos you'd think he was a living cartoon section of the Sunday newspaper. He stood, rigid and unmoving, as we looked at him. I couldn't feel shit from him at all. The second was a woman who looked like a demon dressed for walking the red light district. Lounging in one of the chairs, feet propped up on the desk beside her and her ankles crossed, she showed enough smooth, well toned flesh to make any guy think twice about ignoring her fangs, rams horns and green skin. Unlike Mr. Inscrutable, Hell Hooker was easy to read. She wasn't just amused, she was barely on this side of laughing her ass off.
"Meet your trainers, Hon'dah and Demonicalle. They aren't push over, high ideals, flag saluting, milk and cookies heroes in patriotic spandex. They are street toughened, hard knocks schooled, down and dirty heroes. The quiet, stern looking one with the hat is Hon'dah, an ex-Tsoo." The guy inclined his head, but was immobile other than that. "If you can get his story out of him, you've done better than most. The hotter than hell, hooker with horns, is Demonicalle. She's ex-hellion and still a hell raiser. Her bite is much worse than her bark." Demonicalle licked her lips, letting her tongue flick against her fangs. "They will be seeing you from zeroes to heroes. Give them grief and you might as well get your stripes painted on because you'll be in the cell block before the teleport network can reset itself."
Demonicalle laughed. "Brawler, give it a rest." Flowing up from her seat, she strode slowly down the aisle. Her hips moved with a rhythm that could have churned butter. "You've already tried to get them to piss themselves. They didn't. Intro's over. Let Hon'dah and I take it from here." Hon'dah followed, his wide legged pants made it impossible to see his feet. He could have been walking in small, precise steps or he could have been levitating. Either way, he moved like water and was silent as a shadow.
Brawler chuckled. "They're yours. If they give you any trouble, you know where to find me."
Hon'dah nodded. "We know our task. You have duties elsewhere."
Brawler glowered at us one last time for good measure, and then left.
Demonicalle slid up onto the front desk, crossed her legs, and smiled at us. "Okay, 'at ease', troops. All brow beating aside, we're here to help you refine your powers, learn the rules, and get mentally and physically ready to fulfill your duties as part of the Freedom Corps or Paranormal Police Force." She grinned at me. "Known lovingly on the streets as Pfffft."
I wasn't the only one who laughed. We had more than a few names for the heroes. I'd actually forgotten about Pfffft. The tension in the room defused like someone had let air out of a balloon.
Demonicalle smiled. "Okay. Now that the badass has left the building, let's find out who everyone is. You can use your real name or not, but definitely give us your registered hero identity, classification, known powers, and what kind of fuck-up you were before getting dumped into the Paranormal Parole Program." Her eyes fell on me. Why was I the first one picked? My seat was cursed.
"I'm Jason. My registered identity is 'Death's Head'. I think they classified me as a science-controller, what ever the hell that means, and I'm a psycho kinetic - empath." I shifted. "I was hauled in while I was with the Skulls."
Demonicalle laughed. "We sound like an AA meeting." She nodded to the twig a desk over. "And you?"
"I'm Janet, and I go by the ID 'Impulse'. I'm classified as a mutation-scrapper." She made a made a cat-clawing motion that blurred into side to side movements. "I bitch slap with the best." She smiled as we a few of us chuckled. "I was caught stealing pharmaceuticals."
"Oooh, big time," the guy in the back snorted.
Demonicalle looked passed us to the heckler and raised an eyebrow. "And what fuck up put your bionic ass in that seat, Battlement?"
He grunted. "I didn't fuck up. The only way to get legal mods is Caping it, so I'm Caping it."
"The fact that you were incarcerated for trafficking in black market, experimental technologies has nothing to do with why you are here?" Hon'dah asked, his tone did not lend to a sense of doubt or even curiosity.
"I served my probation." He flexed a mechanically augmented arm, puffing up his chest until his tee shirt was in danger of ripping. "Can't go all 'normal' without giving up the mods; the mods are me, so I applied for this joke of a program."
The guy behind me held up his hand, and Demonicalle nodded at him. He actually stood up before talking.
"I have a question."
Demonicalle smirked. "We guessed that. What's your questions?"
"If you already know our records, why are we doing this introduction?"
"Because, sweetie, I may know everything about you from your shoe size to your cup size, but your program mates don't." She looked at us again. "Unless someone has extra senses they didn't list in their applications."
"If only," the all-back-amazon behind me laughed. She wasn't just a negro, even if that had been her original race, she had pure, deep, glossy black skin that looked like living stone or black glass. "It'd be nice to make the boys self-conscious for a change."
"I ain't self-conscious about nothing you could measure," the dark skinned guy on the other side chided. "You can scan me as much as you like, Mz. Tall, Dark and Stacked."
She rolled her eyes. "Boy, you ain't packing nothing I couldn't crush."
"Care to put that to a test?" He grabbed at his belt and swiveled his hips off the seat while his other hand flickered with fire. "I can give you a real hot time."
Demonicalle held up her hand. "You can demonstrate your techniques later, Blaize. For now, why don't you give us the stats I asked for?"
"I just go by Blaize, only my mama gets to call me by my kid name." He flicked a few balls for fire between his fingers. "Like our skinny-chickie, I'm classified by Mutie, but I'm a blaster"
Demonicalle raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"I'm an ex-Outcast. I was down with a little muscling and shit, but when bro's started getting cranked because my boys were feeling rowdy, that just ain't cool. When the capes came in, I just put my hands up and said 'uncle'." He shrugged. "I figured this was better than my mama see'n me behind bars."
Demonicalle looked at Miss Attitude next.
"Sharonda, but you can call me Onyx. The faerie dust and crystal freaks over in M.A.G.I. tell me I'm descended from some African Shaman line or something. They classify me as a magic-tanker. All I know is I went from a black beauty to a stone-hard diva when the Rikti hit. I been on the streets since, doin' odd muscle and such. When my meal ticket paycheck got Caped, I decided it was time to switch teams."
Demonicalle looked back at the little question asker. "That leaves you."
"Uhm..." The guy actual phased, becoming some kind of shadow. After a few moments he shifted back again. "Sorry... I'm still not good at controlling it."
"I'm Lenny, all I could think of for an ID was Tar Patch because I can create this black, thick stuff that can slow people down." He frowned. "I guess I'm a mutant also, but they classified me as a defender, whatever that means." He swallowed. "I got picked up for freaking out the neighborhood; I sort of lost control of my powers."
I knew how that felt. I still had problems with items flying at a stray thought, but I was working on it. At least I wasn't the only fuckup, or the only one who felt way out of his league. I could live with that.
Summer in Paragon was humid, but a rainy summer afternoon on a week day was the pits. I grumbled to myself as I flipped through the channels for the third time. Two hundred and fifty stations and nothing was worth watching. Even the porn channels were lame; the women were all artificial tits and the men were hedge-hogs with donkey dicks. Who the fuck watched that shit?
Urioch looked up as he turned the last page of the trashy romance novel he was reading. "If there is nothing on the television you care to watch, Jason, why not read?"
I groaned. "I've already read a chapter ahead for my classes." I looked at the assorted books he had in his finished pile. "Harlequin just isn't my thing and I just don't think I'll get into 'Studies in Molecular Science'." I floated the book out of the stack and held it up. "Where do you find this shit?"
"There are several excellent used book stores near the university." He set down his now finished romance. "That is an obsolete text book, but the information is still useful."
I laughed. "For what? Knowing what materials you'll melt something down to when you blast it with your energy bolts?"
"The more we understand about our universe, the greater our ability becomes to interact consciously with it."
"Okay." Like I needed a Zen moment on an already sleepy afternoon. I floated the book back and flopped on the couch. "I'm just bored."
Urioch stood, stretched, and picked up our empty glasses on his way to the kitchen. "You seem to have lost interest in the internet."
"You can only look at so many bad porn pictures before they get old." Okay, maybe that wasn't true, but I wasn't going to be getting any ass any time soon, so why frustrate myself?
"Do you not know any games?" He came back into the living room, set a plate of veggies and cheese on the table and set my refilled glass near me before returning to his seat with a new book.
"Yeah," I snorted, "but strip poker and spin the bottle aren't good as solitary entertainment." I grabbed my ice tea and took a swig.
Urioch looked up. "I have never played either of those. I know what poker is, but I am unfamiliar with played spin the bottle."
I nearly spit my tea as I choked. Urioch looked at me, mildly concerned, as I recovered from trying to breathe my tea. "Well I'm not about to teach it to you."
"Oh." He opened a new book. The conversation seemed to be over.
"I'm not saying I wouldn't want to pay a game, Urioch." God. How was I going to explain this? "Those games are done in small groups, mixed gender, and usually lead to things like kissing and sex."
Urioch gave me an understanding look. "Ah, adolescent mating behavior."
I frowned. Okay, so they were only games you played in high school and college, but I was in college, damn it. "Yeah. Like I said, not something we'd play."
Closing his book, he looked at his book case. "Do you play chess?"
"Not very well," I confessed. My father had loved chess. My mother was a monopoly woman. One or the other game board was almost always out and in mid-game when my parents were alive. They also played Parcheesi, but I never understood that game.
"The best way to improve is to practice." He got up, pulled a chess set off the shelf, and set it on the dining room table. Not that we had a dining room, it was more just an extension of the kitchen with a small four person table in it.
I groaned. He was going to kick my ass.
Staring out the window and down on the lawn and sidewalks of the university campus, I watched a couple students toss about a Frisbee, a few studying out on the grass, and wished I was out there instead of in Sociology 101. My attention was yanked back to the front of the room as my name was called out a second time. "Mr. Kilroy?"
I blinked back into focus. "Yes?"
Professor Duggan cocked his head. I'd never expected to have a teacher with hair down to the center of his back, wearing a black muscle shirt, with tattoos all over his arms, chest and back. He was the living expression of: don't read a book by its cover. "Did you watch the assignment, Mr. Kilroy?"
"Yes, sir. Last night." Yeah, I had procrastinated. I'd had better things to do than watch a classic science fiction movie from before my parents' time. Urioch had loved it, but I couldn't get into it. The effects were unrealistic, the animation was crap, and the acting was so mid-twentieth century.
"Can you identify another social commentary from the Forbidden Planet?"
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with something that wasn't already listed up on the board. "That no matter how enlightened or controlled, no one is above dark thoughts and desires?"
Professor Duggan nodded. "The monster from the ID." He wrote my answer on the board, sat on the corner of his desk, and gestured for me to continue. "What does this say about the culture of the time, and how does it apply or not apply to culture today?"
"Uhm..." I hedged. Was there something substantial about the movie that I'd missed? I was rescued by the sudden intervention of the bell. I thanked God for the save, but apparently I only had a temporary reprieve.
"Class, please pick one of the commentaries we listed, or another you recognized in the film, and answer the question I just asked of Mr. Kilroy in a minimum of a two page, typed, single space, no larger than twelve point, with no larger than one inch margins, report to be turned in this Friday. I will have the assignment posted on the class website by this evening." He always made certain he covered all the possible cheats we could use to get out of the work.
I spent the afternoon trying to do anything but read my text books or do my assignments. I hit the campus gym, wandered one of Urioch's favorite used book stores, dropped off his previous week's fix and stuffed as many of his new collection into my bag as I could. The owner just kept a running tab; Urioch was a very good customer. It was sunny, temperate, and breezy outside as I got off the Tram in Galaxy and headed for the apartment. All I wanted to do was find a quiet spot, away from people, and just enjoy the day. I stopped in the park near the apartment. It was after lunch and the place was fairly empty. Dropping my backpack against a tree, I peeled off my shirt and lay down on the grass. I used to lay out behind the game fields back in high school and think for hours. I hadn't done that in over two years. Closing my eyes, I just let the sounds of the city blur into the background as I tried to relax. It'd been two months since I'd woken up in the hospital after the overdose. Two months of having other people's emotions tap dancing on mine. Two months of having my life dictated by others. Two months of Urioch making me think twice about anything I said or did. Two months of knots and tension that left me with almost constant headaches and a growing dependence on Aleve. I just tried to push it all away and pretend life had never gone to shit. I wished I was fifteen again. I wished I'd never figured things out. I wished I'd told my parents I'd loved them before it all came to an end. Most of all, I wished I could go back and pretend the world was a safe place and just be a kid. I didn't know how long I lay there after I dozed off, but I snapped awake to the feeling of someone near.
Demonicalle lounged on the bench to my left, watching me with an amused smile curling her lips. "You know, hot stuff, sleeping in the park is begging for someone to mug you or worse." Running her tongue across her teeth she lifted her brows suggestively. "With all that young, tight flesh on display. I'd vote for something worse."
Demonicalle had no shame. I sat up, reaching for my shirt, and came back with a handful of grass. I rolled over, looking at where I'd dropped my book bag. It was gone, and so was the shirt I'd draped over it. "Shit!"
"Missing something?" Laughing, Demonicalle held out my shirt, draped off one of her manicured black nails. "Amazing what you find when you take down scumbags in back alleys."
"Oh, jeeze." I reached for my shirt, but she pulled it back out of reach as she sat up. I frowned, "Not funny."
"What's the problem, DH?" Demonicalle looked me over like a piece of meat. "I think I like you better this way."
"Give me my shirt, Calle." I snatched for it again, but she slid down the bench, propping her ass on the far armrest.
"I think I should get a reward for lost and found." I noticed my book bag hanging over the far back of the bench.
I threw out my hand, palm open, and snagged the shirt with my will. It flew from her fingertips and I grabbed it from the air. "How do I know you didn't just take them yourself just to give me grief?"
"Would I do that," she asked as I pulled my shirt on. Something about Demonicalle always left me feeling exposed. I wasn't ashamed of my body. Hell, I'd been working out at the university gym since I'd gotten my schedule straightened out. She just made everything so sexual. It made me edgy.
"Yes," I snapped, feeling the throbbing return to the base of my skull. My neck felt like it was going to start seizing up.
"Okay, so I probably would." Hefting my book bag off the back of the bench, she tossed it at me. The thing must have held forty pounds of books and she tossed it with a couple fingers. The woman was a lot stronger than she looked. "But this time I did actually take down a would-be thief a few blocks from here. Your name is in your textbooks, so I thought I'd make sure the crime wasn't more serious than a snatch and run."
"Thanks," I mumbled, really wanting the pounding to go away.
She tilted her head, furrowing her brows as she looked at me. "You okay, Jason?" When Demonicalle dropped to using our real names, she was concerned.
"Just a headache." I shrugged. "Stress."
Sliding off the bench, she came over, stepped around me and settled down on the grass right behind my back. I shuddered. There was a throb, like an energetic heart beat, that warmed me from behind. "I won't bite, Jason. I've got a few talents that might help."
I bit back my immediate response of, "Will I have to pay extra?" Headache or not, she wasn't talking about sex.
Her hands came to my neck and the warmth increased to the feeling of a tingly, burning. It wasn't painful or unpleasant. It felt sort of like bengay or icy-hot. Her thumbs dug into the back of my neck, just above my shoulders, and I moaned. "You've got knots bigger than your balls back here. Why didn't you mention this in training?"
I shrugged. "We're training to be 'heroes'. Stress is just part of the package." I groaned as she hit another knot and worked at it. The heat from her fingers seemed to penetrate right into the tissue and in moments the knot let go. God, she was good. In a few minutes, my neck felt better than it had in weeks. I could actually feel my headache draining out as she worked.
"Better?" she asked, patting my shoulder.
"Yeah." I blinked a couple times, rolled my head about, and shrugged to feel what was left. She'd melted it all. "That was incredible."
"You'd love how it'd feel if we weren't in public," she purred, her fangs scraping my ear as she chuckled.
I rolled away, my gut twisting into the knots she'd just gotten rid of in my shoulders and neck. "Uh, no thanks."
Demonicalle laughed. "Chill, DH. I'd never do someone below my security level. Especially not one of my trainees." Standing up, she brushed off her boots. "You're cute, but you're definitely not my type."
"Thanks," I replied dryly as I picked up my bag, "nice to know I'm not meal material for a green skinned demoness."
"You'd better get home, DH. I bet Urioch is wondering where you are."
I snorted. "Like I care? He's my roommate, not my father."
Demonicalle licked her lips. "Oh, I'd definitely fake a daddy complex if he were my roomie."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I don't swing that way." Settling my bag over my shoulder, I wiggled my eyebrows. "Not to mention, he's too butch and hairy. I wouldn't be able to pretend he's a girl."
"Yeah, Urioch is anything but a girl." Demonicalle grinned. "I wouldn't turn him away for eating crackers in bed."
"Go find your entertainment elsewhere, Calle. I'll see you tomorrow." Pausing, I looked back at her. "We're on site tomorrow, right?"
"Yep, first day of in-the-field training."
Shaking my head, I started towards the apartment. "Yeah, right. Playing paranormal security guard for a construction site. Woo hoo."
"Nite, DH." She stretched her legs for a moment, and looked up at me from a low crouch. "Do me a favor, okay?"
"Don't pull a stunt like that again. The guy could have just as easily cut your throat as taken your stuff."
I grinned. "Yes, Mom." I was still smiling as I got back home.
Security guard duty; it was probably the most boring task known to man. Why the hell would anyone want to "revitalize" King's Row? The place was a wreck. Okay, so it had survived the invasion and wasn't Boomtown, which I'd only seen on vids and was certain it couldn't have been that bad after two years, but Kings Row was all old brick buildings. The only new stuff was in the Industrial Avenue district. It would have been a social blessing if the Rikti had blown King's Row to ash instead of Baumton. I sat on one of the lower I-beams of the super structure, feet dangling, while I chewed on my tuna fish on wheat. At least we got a fifteen minute break every two hours. Twelve hours of watching construction workers crawl around like ants, some thirty stories above us, wasn't my idea of fun. It might have been cool if I could fly, then I could have watched the work being done, but the best I'd managed to do was levitation. It was called, hovering; I could move about, but I moved so slow that it wasn't worth the effort. The only nice thing about it was that I could keep from falling to my death if I were ever pushed into an empty elevator shaft.
Impulse blurred up beside me. I liked Janet. Her ability to absorb electromagnetic energy was cool. The fact she could supercharge her nervous system with the excess power and move faster than the eye could see was even more amazing. Her only problem was the danger of being overloaded. Any form of electrical attack threw her nervous system into cross-circuited chaos. Her ability to run up vertical structures at super speed made her perfect for doing perimeter sweeps of the construction site. "Hey, Head."
"Hey, Miss Manic." I wasn't all that fond of the reduction of my hero name to "head". It made me think of either a toilet or of a blowjob. Neither was something I wanted to be known for, but Janet used it as a term of endearment. I was pretty certain the less flattering connotations of the name hadn't crossed her mind.
"Ewww, fish!" Janet frowned as I finished my sandwich. "How can you eat that?
"Urioch is a great cook." I smiled. "At least that's what I tell him. It keeps me from having to do kitchen duty."
"The way you eat, I'd say the guy is probably a good cook and you don't want to give him credit for it." She grinned, pulling some beef jerky out of the paper bag she'd been opening. "It wouldn't work with your Mr. Badass image." Laughing, she added, "Nice ass, by the way. The costume works for you. It hides your face, and puts your best feature on display."
"Wow, thanks." I rolled my eyes. Okay, so I wasn't going to admit it, but I did look pretty good in the tights. I wanted to build up my shoulders, back and chest more, but I had good legs, and yes, a great ass. My time on the street hadn't hurt those features any. I hadn't had access to a gym for a while, so upper body was a bit imbalanced. I hit the gym daily, so I was making up for lost time. I really didn't want people watching my ass when I was kicking theirs. Impressive, daunting, intimidating, those were the impressions I wanted to make. Not, "damn, the guy who kicked my butt had a fine ass."
"What, no reciprocal compliment?" Janet frowned at me as she chewed on a bite of beef. "I spent a long time coming up with this outfit."
I grinned, looking out at the construction yard. "Your metabolism is so fast that you look like a long distance runner on crack."
"Thanks for building my confidence there, Head. You're just what a girl needs."
I looked at her, scrutinizing the outfit. "Actually, the outfit is cool. I swear you're smaller than you were when the program started."
Janet nodded, looking out at the skyline. "Yeah, I just can't seem to eat enough protein. The more I use my powers, the more I burn through my fat and muscle stores. The docs are thinking of trying a steroid treatment plan to compensate."
"Ugh, that sucks." I hated having the neural stabilizers pumped into me, but without them I'd have twitched out months ago. "It's better than burning out."
"Yeah." She chewed through another piece of beef before changing the subject. "How're your classes going?"
Her quirky smile told me that she wasn't buying it.
I shrugged. "Okay, only suck because I have no time for anything but training, class and homework. The subjects are pretty cool."
"Fashion school doesn't start until September."
I laughed. "And you're worried about what your costume looks like?"
Janet frowned. "Just because I know I can design good stuff doesn't mean I look good in it."
I wasn't touching that one. "So, what are you going to do when you get out of school in a couple years?"
She smiled. "I want to work at Icon."
I laughed. "Fashion designer for the spandex generation!"
"Hey, it's good money and a niche industry." Janet pulled out a tub of peanut butter and some celery sticks and began spooning in the stuff. If I ate as many calories of fat and protein as she did, I'd have been two thousand pounds and on the top of the list for heart attack.
I looked down to see Tar Patch closing up his cooler and stowing it in the security lockers. I sighed, "It's about time for us to get back to work."
Janet groaned, and I watched her hand blur in the space between the jar and her mouth. In seconds, the peanut butter was gone and the celery bag was empty. "Okay, done."
Standing up, I tossed my lunch sack at the dumpster from twenty feet up. The sack circled the dumpster, flew straight up, paused, and then dove in like a homing missile. I hadn't expected the explosion that rocked the girder we were standing on. Impulse and I stared at each other.
"How the hell did you do that?"
I shrugged as we heard the creaking of metal and yells of alarm from above. "I didn't." Above the construction site, arcing like a huge, metal bat or some ugly ass bird, a starship oriented on several blazes of light that were circling back on it. I pointed. "That wasn't an explosion -- that was a sonic boom."
"Holy shit," Impulse blurred to one of the vertical supports and grabbed on. "Sky Raiders!"
"Oh, fuck!" That was all I could get out before the ship blasted the capes pursuing it. Two dodged, but the other two were blown from the sky and shot toward the site like meteors.
Construction workers dove for anyplace safe, as if there was someplace safe twenty or thirty stories up in a steel framework. The first cape blew between the scaffolding and super structure, and hit the street on the far side in an explosion of power. The other cape went through the superstructure like a log crushing weeds as it rolled down hill. The steel bent with the impact, pulled like a spider's web to a point where beams began to snap. Workers, construction materials, beams, and anything else that had been up there were falling for the earth. It was raining men, and not in a good way.
"Impulse, go!" Not that I needed to tell Janet what to do. She was up the twisting structure like a bolt of lightning, snagging the closest falling men and speeding them to safety. Looking around, I saw Tar Patch, Onyx, and Blaize scrambling to do anything. Tar waved madly, tossing sticky fields of darkness in the air like safety nets. The workers fell through them, but the trailing darkness seemed to slow their descent. Onyx got to one of the damaged supports and dug her fingers into the steel. Heaving like only a tanker could, she anchored herself and tried to keep the building from pulling out of the foundations. Blaize stood there, and I could see on his face that he was frozen. His powers were all offensive. He couldn't even fly or try to catch people; his flame aura would burn them to death.
"Where the hell is Battlement?" I yelled at Blaize.
"I don't know!" He looked about, apparently as surprised as I was that our heavy hitter was MIA.
I didn't have time to question his absence. There were maybe ten or twenty seconds before men and metal would be crashing down all around me. There were too many people to snatch up one or two at a time. I extended my arms and imagined myself wrapping them around all if it, every girder, man and tool. It was impossible, but it didn't matter. I couldn't watch two dozen people fall to their deaths. I'd been able to lift small groups of objects, like a few books or a scattered bag of M&M's, but I'd never tried to hold so many or so much weight. It felt like my head was going to implode as my power wrapped about the area and latched onto anything that came into my reach. I dropped, staggering from the pain, and thought I was going to go head first off the beam, but a hand grabbed me and held me fast.
Hon'dah spoke, low and controlled, as he kept me from falling. "You are wood, Jason." Something about his voice sank into me, talking passed the pain and fear. "You will bend with the wind but you will not break. Bend. Let them pass through your branches and slow their passing."
It was all over in less than a minute, but it felt like hours. I kept bending and bending, until I was sure I'd snap. The last thing I remembered was crying, the taste of blood in my mouth, and begging Hon'dah to let me go. I woke up on a stretcher, my head feeling like it was split open, with Demonicalle pressing her palms to my skull while radiating a green, pulsing light. I coughed, feeling an itch in my throat and my sinuses. Demonicalle opened her eyes and smiled. "Hey there, Super Skull."
I groaned. "My skull feels ten sizes too small." Ugh, I could taste blood. Was that what the icky feeling was at the back of my throat?
"I'd keep quiet if I were you, kiddo. They're taking you off to Crowne Memorial to get you a neurological scan." She grinned, and for once her fangs didn't look menacing. "We'll talk later."
I closed my eyes and hoped the throbbing would end. "Great, another trip to the hospital," I thought. This really wasn't my year.
I woke up to the sound of heart monitors, distant calls for doctors to report to rooms, and the distinct smell of over oxygenated air. The lights were dim, except for one reading lamp beside the bed. I turned my head, feeling like I'd been through this all before. The last time, my final view had been of the eyes of an angel. This time, I'd passed out in the hands of a demon. At least the angel was the one sitting in the chair, closing his book and smiling at me as I groaned.
"Welcome back, Jason." I was used to the deep resonance of his voice, but it still made my stomach go to goop. "Are you in pain?"
I laughed, and immediately wished I hadn't. My throat was raw and I could still taste blood. At least my head didn't feel like it was going to split open. "We've been here before."
Urioch smiled. "You are in a different room, and we are not as concerned about your possibility of survival, but the circumstance is very similar."
"You didn't have to come," I mumbled, feeling embarrassed and touched at the same time. It was like having a big brother.
"I can read as easily here as at the apartment. Being here saves the time and effort of checking on your status."
God I was glad to see him. "You're a big, softy for a muscle bound, pointy eared freak. You know that?"
Urioch smiled. "I believe that was a backhanded compliment, Jason. Thank you."
I grinned, looking away. "You're welcome."
I was startled by the sight of a silent, tattooed sentinel standing near the window. He lifted his gaze to meet my eyes. There was something there. I wasn't sure what. Maybe it was respect. He nodded at me before flexing his hands. "I shall inform the others that you are awake." He vanished in a swirling of darkness and light.
"You saved many people today, Jason," Urioch said, pulling my thoughts away Hon'dah.
"Whoo hoo," I mumbled sarcastically. "Some hero I am. I use my powers and crumple like a rag doll."
Urioch sat back, scrutinizing me as I wallowed in my inadequacies. "That was not the impression I received from Demonicalle or Hon'dah's recounting of the incident. My understanding is that you managed to slow the fall of nearly a ton of steel and over a dozen workers long enough for your teammates to get the victims to safety."
"I didn't catch them all, did I?" I knew the answer already. I'd felt them, like marbles slipping through my fingers as I struggled to hold more and more. It wasn't fair. I should have been able to hold all of them.
Urioch held my gaze. "No, Jason, you did not. Of the twenty-eight workers who fell, neither you nor the other trainees were able to save three. You managed to catch eighteen. Tar Patch and Impulse saved another seven. There simply were not enough of you, or enough time, to save them all."
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying not to remember what it felt like as they slipped passed. It'd been more than the physical aspect of my psycho kinesis that I had felt, I'd felt them all empathically. All the fear, terror, and horror stabbed at my gut, but that had been nothing compared to the sudden, violent wrenching I felt when they hit the ground. I'd felt them die. With each one of them, a part of me had died too. "How can you stand it?" I choked the question out as I tried to stop the tears from falling. "How can you go out there, day after day, knowing you can't save them?"
Urioch squeezed my shoulder, and all I wanted to do was curl around his hand and hide from the memories. "You treasure every victory, every person you save, and every 'thank you' you receive. You accept that you did everything you could, and that is all anyone can do."
They weren't the most inspiring words in the world, but he believed them. I grabbed on to them, and hoped some day I could believe them too.
I got out of the hospital on Thursday. The funerals were on Friday and Saturday. Friday, after the PPP counseling session, I stood in Brawler's office, arms crossed, staring out of the window. "This is bull shit."
Brawler frowned. "No, it's the rules. Police, Firemen, EMTs, can't afford to go to the funerals of the people they couldn't save. Period, the end."
"It's still bull shit."
"And it's still the rule; live with it!"
I couldn't live with it. Saturday morning I found myself standing at the funeral of one of the men I'd let die. The widow, Charlotte Bronson, broke down complete. She screamed at God. She demanded to know why her husband hadn't been saved. There was no answering her grief and loss. I almost couldn't keep standing. As soon as Charlotte was pulled away from the coffin, crying and begging for answers, I slipped out of the crowd and staggered as far away as I could get. I was glad I hadn't had any appetite for breakfast, because it made a lot less mess when I puked.
Demonicalle found me, sitting on one of the benches at the far end of the cemetery, with my head between my knees as I waited to puke again. She didn't say anything, but I could feel her annoyance; the "I told you so."
I glared up at her as I clenched my jaw. Why were we so angry? Why did we want to take it out on each other? With all we could do, why did we feel so powerless? "It fucking hurts, Calle"
"Yeah, I know." She looked down at me for a moment before extending her hand.
I took it, and she hauled me off the bench.
"If you'd done as you were told, you'd see how we deal with this shit." She started walking for the street. I followed her to a waiting cab. The back door opened as we got to the taxi, and she slid in. "C'mon, Jason."
We didn't say anything while the cab took us to wherever it was we were going. It obviously wasn't back to the PPP complex. We stopped in front of an old-time diner that looked closed.
"Out," Demonicalle ordered me as she handed the cabbie some cash.
I stood on the sidewalk until she closed the door, turned to me, and nodded to the diner door. "In."
If I hadn't been to Ceridwyn's Cauldron with Urioch, I'd have freaked when reality shifted upon our entrance. Instead, it was just another "one of those things." We walked for a large booth and I saw the guys, sans Battlement. He'd been MIA since the construction incident.
Blaize looked like he'd been sick too. Poor guy, I felt like a failure, but he felt worthless. His emotions gnawed at me as we walked to the table. Our eyes met, and it was like someone drilled a spike through my head. It wasn't so much painful as shocking. He reached out, cupped the back of my neck, and pulled me into a hug. I'd never expected to get a hug from an ex-Outcast. We gripped onto each other and he mumbled, "I couldn't do shit, Deathman. Don't punk on us. We all hurtin."
"I know." I held on, feeling how hard he was trying not to crack. God. I was a selfish prick. I squeezed Blaize. "You're a good guy, bro. We'll get through it."
He let me go and held out his fist. "Losers, unite."
I laughed, a bit too bitterly, and butted my fist against his. "Yeah."
Tar, Onyx and Impulse all butted their fists with ours. We laughed. It was better than crying again.
We spent the rest of the day at Thelma's. Yes, it's a hero diner. Thelma was a retired hero from before the Rikti Invasion. She opened the diner to give her fellow heroes a place where they could just go, sit, have some food, and talk about their problems. All her servers were ex-heroes, hero relations, or new heroes needing a safe place to work. It was like Jonothan's place, but with more chatter and activity. It made heroing feel normal in some small way that let us pretend we were part of a community, not just freaks trying to save the world.
The rest of the weekend sucked. We were all off at training on Monday. Everyone felt like shit, and none of us knew where Battlement was.
"Pause," Hon'dah called, holding up his hand.
Brawler entered the training area followed cautiously by a woman and a little boy. He waited for us to get to some form of attention before he spoke. "Team, this is Melissa Grousard-Martin and son Tommy. They made a request that deserved to be answered."
The little boy clung to his mother's leg. We weren't the usual bright and shiny heroes most kids recognized. My black and grey costume with the skull designs probably didn't help. How did a hero not look menacing to a child dressed as I was?
The woman smiled at us. It wasn't a happy smile, but it was sincere. "I wanted to thank you all for being at the site." I blinked as she continued. "You saved my husband, Tom, and most of the crew." Pausing again, she looked at us. "My son wanted to know who Death's Head was."
I coughed, not sure what to say. "That's me."
Melissa knelt down to the little boy who stared up at us with big, wide eyes. "That's him, Tommy."
Tommy was all of four years old, skinny and possibly a bit small for his age. He clung to his mother, looking at me as if I was the monster in the closet.
I knelt down, and though I knew it was a bad idea, I pulled my mask off so I'd look like a person. "Hi, Tommy."
He cocked his head, and his mother ruffled his hair. "See, he's just a nice man like daddy says." She whispered to him in a conspiratorial tone. "They only wear scary clothes to frighten bad guys."
After a few moments, he walked over and wrapped his arms about my neck. I thought I was going to ball again. "Thank you for saving my daddy."
I couldn't help it, I balled. I wrapped my arms around the kid and cried. I never in a million years had thought I'd hear something like that from anyone. As I stopped acting like a putts, and realized Tommy still had his arms around my neck and wasn't crying, let him go and smiled the best I could manage. "Thanks, Tommy."
Melissa gave me a hug after I stood up. "Thank you." She looked at the rest of the team, and smiled. "Thank you all, so much."
Brawler introduced them to each of my team mates; no one else got the hugs, but the handshakes and sad smiles were sincere. I watched, remembering that Urioch told me to hold onto every victory and every thank you. As Melissa left with her awe struck little boy, I tucked away his words and the feeling of lightness they gave me. It wasn't much, but it was something. In a way, it made the struggle worth it.