El Poder were just going to buy some kids to fuck, as it turns out. They don’t have any info other than that, other than that they are predators who hurt children and who prey upon the streets. So, when Flashfire asks me to burn their hideout to the ground, I do so and I relish it. It doesn’t make me feel like a hero but a judge, a jury, and an executor, but when this gang has survived for years by recruiting poor powered teenagers, and by making those kids do horrible things in the name of their gang, a trial and due process become barricades to justice.
I know I shouldn’t think that. The capes and masks dichotomy comes from it, and the masks have many more killers in their ranks if I’m being honest. Many more criminals, thugs, and greedy people looking to take advantage of their superpowers. The capes at least try to honor a system that holds them accountable. Megajoule held to it.
But he didn’t fight in the trenches. I do.
The gang scatters — I only kill one of them, their enforcer who decides now is the time for loyalty. A woman with cruiserweight strength and the scars of many battles. She ends on my restrained strength, the strength I can only just control.
Sometimes, I feel like I can’t control my body.
The gang scatters, screaming my mask name. “Home Run! Home Run!”
That makes me feel better. I climb out of the pyre of their hideout while Flashfire and Remise gather the younger members that decided to stop being gang members when a meteor of a man crashed through their roof, and Kitsune keeps the building from collapsing with her telekinesis. Hmmm, if I were a cape, would I be Meteor Man? No, that sounds very dumb.
“Earth to Home Run!” Flashfire snaps his fingers at me as Remise and Maisa get into the van. Kitsune looks like she wants to talk, waiting at the end of the alley.
I see the smoke of the hideout burning only a few blocks away, but I don’t remember running to our van. Sirens wail into the night. They’ll know soon that I put the fire out as I left. “Hey, sorry. Sorry. Just a little out of it, tonight, I guess. Listen, about the 2nd Amendment.”
Flashfire waves a hand. “I already said I really don’t want to talk about her.”
“It’s not about her. It’s about an Archimedes Bullet they threatened to use on me. Mil-dot said you were the one who found it.”
The words crumple Flashfire and drive him to his knees, and he puts his hands over his head, shaking in fear. I’m nothing if not his friend, so I rush to his side, get down on my knees, and stroke his back. “Hey, hey, man,” I whisper. “It’s alright, it’s okay. Forget I asked. I’m sorry.”
Flashfire weeps. I’ve never seen him cry, let alone sob, and so this Flashfire trembling beneath my arms and spilling tears onto the ground is not one I’m familiar with, nor do I really know how to handle him. Still, he is my friend. I let him cry and stroke his back, and when Remise tries to come back for us I shake my head and tell her to leave us be in a voice so low only she could hear it.
“I thought… thought I’d…” He stares in terror at nothing. “Thought I’d thrown it away, thought I’d gotten rid of it.”
“Where did you throw it away?” I ask.
“When I was Flashbang. I had three. 2nd Amendment used two of them.” Flashfire shakes his head. “I tried to throw it into the bayou it so they couldn’t use the third when I’d left. I should have taken it with me but just having it made me feel sick.”
I realize that he needs to talk about this, that this is the first time he’s ever talked about it. I know the sound of a story that’s been held too long. “Where did you get them?”
“Syria, in Syria.” Flashfire’s shaking stops. Tears drip off the tip of his nose and mingle with snot as they stain the ground beneath him. “There was this one mission. When I was Centurion class, serving, you know. We were near Tartus on the beach and we were chasing down some cell… some fucking thing or another… Anyway, the Primum get involved. Never liked them… white fancy armor… we’re in fatigues and camo ceramics, dirty as hell. They get involved and one of them is this real Superman type, with flying and super strength.
“This guy flies in thinking he’s gonna stop the whole thing by himself and the enemy. I’ve got no fucking clue how but they’ve got a revolver full of those bullets and they pop him right out of the air in front of us.” Flashfire reaches up to me and grabs the collar of my jacket, and I’m looking into the eyes of a man that’s still lost on that beach, still lost in Syria with no way home, no future that he can see. “I lost half my brothers and sisters, half of the team… I can’t do that again, Gabe, I can’t.”
I don’t have any answers for him or any comforting words. I just sit with him and let him vent out his frustration and pain. I do manage a weak, “I’m sorry.”
“I took those bullets and the revolver in case I met one of the regime’s supersoldiers but by then most of them were dead, I think.” Flashfire sits up and wipes his eyes. “And then I came back here. I thought I could leave that disquiet behind, but I brought it back here with me. Pandahead’s just another Kassandra, the gangs here are just more regime cells.”
“It’s not the same.” I don’t really know if that’s true, but maybe it will be one of those helpful lies.
“You’re right. I promised myself not to be a mindless soldier. I don’t even know why we were in Syria, or what we got out of it, but God damn it, I know why I’m fighting here. I know that I won’t take a life if I can’t help it.” He pats my arm. “I know how hard you fight, Gabe, and how hard you try. Thank you. Thank you.” Weakened from the outburst of emotion, he buries his head into my shoulder.
I am nothing if not his friend and so I hug him. “I know what you’re fighting for, and I’m here for it.” As long as it doesn’t disrupt Home Run, I’ll fight for him. Right now, though, I feel like we could use some time off from all of this. From Pandahead and from Home Run, from the gangs and the war that followed him home.
I help him climb into the van. “What do you say we drop by the clubhouse for a mask brunch?”
Remise nods her head vigorously. “Fuck yes. I’m in.”
Still weepy, Flashfire manages to nod. “Yeah. That… that sounds good.”
Maisa enthusiastically agrees. She’s wearing the mask Drone made for her, a simple black mask and goggles that are very similar to mine, but the mask reveals her hair, bound in a ponytail.
I look back and see Kitsune getting ready to fling off into the night again. “Hey! Why don’t you join us, K?”
Kitsune stops. She stands still for a second and then shakes her head. “No, that’s… not a good idea. You don’t want me around.”
“I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t.” I hold my hand out for her. “The masks stay on for a mask brunch, that’s the whole point.”
Kitsune is torn between running and staying for a moment, but a police siren on the street startles her, and she returns and takes my hand. I guide her into the van and we drive off toward the clubhouse.
The mask brunch came about because there are enough vigilante masks in Houston interested in protecting the streets from gangs and petty super-powered thugs that we often cross paths and help each other out. Breakfast food seemed the natural choice for these meetings; pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee, all the natural lubricant of diplomatic meetings between unregistered superheroes.
Remise keeps a clubhouse in Montrose for just that purpose, a worn down room above a bar that she rents out as her space since she bounces for them occasionally. We park in a covered garage out back and climb up some rickety stairs hidden behind a brick wall, and go through a rusty, metal door that Remise unlocks with a key the size of her middle finger.
The clubhouse is a drafty piece of shit made of bricks and iron, furnished by couches with ruined canvas and cracked leather, and presided over by a really nice flat screen TV and a sound system with five speakers and one subwoofer behind the couches. Remise clicks a button and the TV turns on to one of her streaming accounts. “What are we feeling for brunch, kids?”
“Pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee.” I smile as Kitsune flops onto one of the couches and Maisa marvels at the speakers and their pristine sound.
“Ah, Home Run, ever predictable,” Remise says. “Breakfast classics, coming right up.”
Remise goes to work her magic in the kitchen while Flashfire kicks up his feet on her coffee table and relaxes on the couch opposite Kitsune. “So,” he says. “The brunches are usually to plan. They’re for different groups to work out a common goal. Kitsune, you’ve been hanging around Home Run a lot, but you’ve definitely made it clear you aren’t in the Underground.”
Kitsune sighs and rolls her head. “Yeah. Not interested.”
I know Flashfire. He’s a salesman at heart, and he’s about to put the art of the deal on this girl. “Look, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been the lone hero on the streets fighting to change it. But you can’t change everything alone and it’s a good way to get yourself killed.”
“Not dead yet,” Kitsune says. She waves her hand above her head.
“Why not join us? You’re basically sticking to Home Run’s side, right?”
Kitsune turns her head. “I’m not basically doing anything. We’re… working together… We’ve dismantled more of Dresden than anyone else has.”
“Should be careful about it,” Remise calls from the kitchen. “They could retaliate.”
“I’m sure they will.” I puff up my chest and put my hands on my waist in a classic superhero pose. “I’d like to see them try.” Admittedly, I’d like to see Kitsune become a member of the Underground but she’s not one of those people you just bludgeon into agreeing. The last two months or so of working together have been nice.
Maisa imitates my stance. “Yeah. We’ll beat them!” We really do look a pair, like two siblings in similar costumes. I chuckle at her enthusiasm and pat her on the shoulder.
Kitsune snickers. “Sure. It helps that Home Run can swallow fire.”
“You know, I’ve never tried.”
Remise serves us up my requested breakfast and we eat together, masks lifted up just enough to see our chins and our mouths, and our smiles at hot coffee and pancakes covered in syrup. All I can hear satisfied sounds of eating Remise’s incredible food. Enhanced senses make her a far better cook than any of us would be. Even Kitsune is happy. She hums and bounces in her seat as she eats.
She’s got a lovely voice.
I have a crush on her.
Am I even allowed to have a crush on someone? Is she the kind of girl that Megajoule would have a crush on? Does that dictate who I should be attracted to? I don’t even know what his wife looks like, really. I’ve avoided looking at her, but I worry that she’ll have golden hair like Kitsune’s, that she’ll have nice lips and a lovely singing voice, and I’ll really know then that I can’t escape his shadow. So I won’t look, because not knowing if I’m bound to his desires is better than knowing that I am for certain.
Am I? I wonder.
I wonder if I am a series of questions, and that if I answer them, I’ll disappear.
“Earth to Home Run!” Flashfire shouts, snapping in my ear.