I’ve never really believed in gods of any kind. People talk about Megajoule like he was a god. Normally, I’d shrug it off or scoff, but I only have a fraction of his same power, and when I bring it to bear, I can’t help but wonder that maybe Megajoule really was something divine.
Light shines from my skin, the heat radiating from me stirs the air into shimmering patches like mirages in a desert, and Krater’s easy smile drops off his face as he sees the full power within me. The stone squeals beneath my feet, the canvas roof of the bumper car arena catches fire behind me, and the hidden behemoths of the park are revealed by my light.
Krater holds a hand out to block his eyes from how bright I’ve become. He hesitates for a moment too long, giving me a perfect opening.
I smash into Krater like a meteor. Steam pours from my boots, the light dims but flickers back to life as I reabsorb the energy of my attack. Krater blasts back so fast he breaks the sound barrier. He smashes into the supports of one of the roller coasters. The entire frame screeches and wobbles before falling back onto the walk paths.
Huge metal spears shoot out from the plume of dirt, pieces of metal beams ripped from the roller coaster. I use my power to blast away at supersonic speeds, melting the fence around the walk paths and abandoned shacks as I warp around them.
The rods pierce the earth with thunderous might, sinking like knives into the world. Krater sends more of these deadly spears my way, just missing me as I rocket in a circle around his position, revolving closer and closer like a blinding coin swirling down a drain.
I explode through the ticketing booth for the roller coaster, kicking off one of Krater’s spears into the sky, and blast downward with a kick aimed for his chest. Krater dodges at the last second and grabs my arm. He howls in pain from my heat, he sends me flying, but I stop mid-air with my power and crash back down into the walkways.
Krater comes out with a huge chunk of the roller coaster track, swinging it like a club. The metal melts on contact, warping the tracks around me and robbing the weapon of much of its force. I drink up the rest. A riposte from my fist spins Krater around on his feet after he refuses to let go of the cub.
We meet in a furious bout, a stone skin deity against an elemental of pure fire. We shake the skeletal frames down to the earth as my aura turns the steel to slag and the forces of our blows send shock waves that they must feel across the highway. Helicopters hover over the sweltering battleground, wavering as hot gusts soar up from below. They must be as close as they can get, and that is far away, hundreds of feet above even the tallest remaining skyscraper.
Must be like astronauts staring into the sun. I’ve turned the ground beneath me into molten rock, the air around me into a deadly soup of gases and blazing radiation. Krater’s entire body is covered in stone now, though he still moves, each of his thunderous steps shedding tons of debris. We trade blows that give me thousands of degrees at a time.
I don’t believe in gods but our battle questions that belief. My heat sense is overwhelmed by the symphony of energy. The music of thermal power weaves around me.
Krater rises. He hurls chunks of earth. I shatter them. He tackles me through the field of rock, swinging haymakers that would level skyscrapers. I drink their energy. Heat overflows. Another coaster squeals out its death as it falls into slag like all the others. I don’t know my limit, but I could very well incinerate the surrounding area if I don’t put an end to it.
I weave through another barrage of spears, most of which melt before they make it halfway to me, and speed around him in a circle, searching for the angle of my final blow. I find it behind on his left, where a huge chunk of stone skin hasn’t sloughed off, built up so he can’t swing his left arm right.
The thought occurs and I barely have time to blink before I’ve thrown Krater into the cement remains of a restroom.
Again my fist sings with kinetic energy.
Krater rises. And stumbles.
I seize a piece of metal that begins to melt in my hands immediately, and shout, “I call this one Heatwave Home Run!”
Hey batter batter, SWING batter!
My makeshift bat explodes into molten shards. Krater sails along the ground, disappearing into the roots of the last remaining roller coaster at Cosmoworld. The tracks rip apart. Their metal beams scream.
Krater does not rise this time.
I find him encased in solid stone amid the ruins with a metal support sticking out of his gut, slick and shiny with blood. That blood boils into steam as I approach.
Krater’s eyes follow me. He’s still alive. But he doesn’t move at all as I come close. His voice barely escapes his gravel covered mouth. “You gonna kill two capes tonight?”
“I’m not a murderer!” I jab my finger into his face. “I’m not! I’m just like you, I’m fighting to save this city!”
“If you were like me, you’d be saving people after this fight was over, and turning yourself in,” Krater says. “You’d be a cape.”
“I can’t be!” I roar. “You get your face on that fucking skyscraper, you get the interviews and the fancy life, you get the key to the city. You get to show your face.” I jab my shining finger at him. “I have to wear a mask!”
Krater has no answer to my tirade.
“I showed them, I showed them what Home Run could do, what he’s capable of. I showed them that he has the power to save this city from Pandahead, from Dresden, from anyone!” I get on my knees and stare at Krater from beneath my goggles. “I can protect it better than you can.”
Debris rumbles and dances off his chest as he chuckles. One of his arm twitches but no more than an inch. “If this was a battle about whether or not Home Run was a hero, then you lost, little man.”
For all the heat and fury inside me, I suddenly feel cold. “What?”
“You just kicked the shit outta Houston’s Hero. Do you think they’ll praise you, now?”
“I didn’t kill you.”
“Nah. Don’t know why.” He groans and fumbles at the beam sticking out of his stomach. “Might still die. That’s what it is to be a cape, though.”
“I didn’t kill you because I’m not a villain, a cloak, or whatever. I’m just a mask trying to help the city.”
Krater looks up. “Some help, Home Run. Some help.”
“The capes and the fish have turned a blind eye to Pandahead!” I shout. “What’s your face on that screen for if you can’t save those kids? What’re you the Houston Hero for if you can’t rescue them?”
Krater stares at me. “I’m always saving kids from people like you.”
“I’m not your enemy. You can’t take Home Run from me like that. You can’t make him your monster! I’m not your enemy!”
“You’re Houston’s enemy. You’re my enemy.” Krater wheezes and coughs. “Houston… I…” He grimaces and closes his eyes. “I need help.”
I fall to my knees. He’s right. Why did I think that doing this would help? I should have just used my power to get as far away as possible, but I got so caught up in the fight that I just let it happen. Who knows how much property damage I just did. Who knows how many people Krater could have helped back near Shortfin’s house if I’d just stayed put.
“God damn it.” I melt the beam off Krater’s torso and lift him, feeding energy out of my body so that the light inside dies out, transferring instead to the ground below, where I can feel it churn and join the heat deep below me.
I carry Krater out of Cosmoworld, bounding in huge launches toward the south. I drop him off in front of a random house in the middle of the suburban jungle, ding dong ditch every single person on the street, and then blast off into the night sky.
I make sure that I am not being followed by winding around the city until I’m confident that if anyone managed to follow me, they’d have already ambushed me.
Where am I going to go? I stick to the dark as much as possible, gliding my way along the rooftops until I’m back into my part of town. I debate returning to my apartment, but I don’t think I could bear to see Doc’s face right now. Not after he asked me to keep my head down.
I decide that Epione’s mansion is the best option for now. I make my way there, noticing that the streets are empty, that sirens fill the city, that the side of the OPI Tower no longer displays the faces of the heroes, but an emergency message for people to stay inside their homes. Police cars roll down the roads but I take my usual path through the McMansion backyards until I arrive at Epione’s house.
The house is dark except for the living room, which carries the faint light of Epione’s television.
I enter through the kitchen and find the Underground staring at the TV, transfixed at the apocalyptic news. The look they give me is somewhere between horror and awe, and no words pass between us as I turn to see what they’re watching.
Krater is in the ICU, there are millions of dollars in property damage, and dozens of injured people from my fight with Hellcat. I am Houston’s newest cloak. FIS has deemed me an official supervillain, the likes of which they have not seen since Carnality. My mouth dries as I see pundits accuse me of being a Youxia from China, come to the UWC and the States, specifically, to tear the country apart. I see capes accusing me of being an upstart warlord. Home Run is a monster in their eyes.
Bedevil appears on screen. The reporter tries to ask her questions but she does not reply, she only sits there with her mouth hung open. I see all of the pain I’ve inflicted on her in the last few months staring me in the eyes.
I’m a monster.
Flashfire turns the TV off, and still, we have not said a single word to each other. Remise swallows. Maisa and Drone can only watch me in fear. Epione, for her part, still wears her polite smile.
Flashfire turns slowly to me, and says, “Get out.”
“Get. Out.” The demon I saw that night after I raided the Dresden hideout with Bedevil returns. Flashfire’s face twists with rage and he becomes a hideous gargoyle, pointing and shrieking at me. “You have destroyed everything we worked for! You destroyed an entire god damn theme park and might have fucking killed the greatest hero in this city!” He throws the remote for the TV at my chest, which bounces off me harmlessly.
None of the others come to my defense. Remise breathes out a single, “Flashfire.”
“You did it all for that stupid name, that fucking label they just slapped onto you, and you thought you could change their fucking minds, and you did it all at our expense!” Flashfire’s fury is fervent, his face pale and his eyes wide. His voice grows even more frantic. “I have no idea if they’re coming for us, if Iso or the 2nd Amendment will throw us under the bus, and if they do I don’t know what I’ll do, I don’t know what I’ll tell them!”
“I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“It’s too fucking late for sorry, Gabe! You went on a crusade for yourself, not for the Underground and not for the kids!” Flashfire jabs his finger at me.
That last statement stokes the fire inside me, like he poured gasoline on me. “No, I almost died for those kids. I almost died trying to track Pandahead down but he tricked us—”
“He never would have gotten you if you’d listened to me! If you’d just trusted me and kept your head down, but you can’t fucking do that!” Flashfire gets into my face.
“I don’t know how you can keep your head down when Pandahead is out there letting the biggest buyer fuck whatever kid he chooses! I don’t know how you can sit by and let it happen!” I bring my full height to bear. I’ve already been kicked enough, I’m not going to take this. “You wait here for some magical piece of info to drop into your lap but all the while you wait for someone else to handle Panda, and that makes you just as bad!”
Maisa screams out, Remise jumps up to try and get between us, but Flashfire continues his tirade. “No, you want to rush in without thinking, and that’s going to get you killed! You need to be smarter! Do you think that Megajoule-”
I’m not shrinking back anymore. I square up, summon my height to tower over him. “Don’t talk to me about Megajoule.”
Flashfire socks me right in my jaw. I’m not ready for it, so I don’t absorb the energy. I fall back onto my butt.
“Jason!” Epione cries, the first time I’ve heard her say Flashfire’s real name in weeks.
Flashfire stands over me, fist curled for another. He hesitates and then looks at his fist in shock. So I sweep his leg.
Flashfire’s hand starts to smoke and a burst of phosphorous light blinds me. He pins my right shoulder with one hand and grabs my wrist with his other. He bends hard and twists me onto my stomach.
“I’ll talk to you… about Megajoule… all I want,” Flashfire says between gulps of air, driving his knee into my back. “He was a hero. A real one. Maybe the only one.”
“Get off of him!” Maisa screams, shoving Flashfire from me.
I turn over. My brain’s ringing anxiety sirens, my heart’s accompanying on timpani. This is fucked, I’m tired of having to justify myself. I stand up, with Maisa’s help. I put my glasses back on. “I’m not a hero like Megajoule, and I don’t fucking care anymore.”
Flashfire doesn’t reply, he looks to some distant star only he can see. He leans back against the sofa.
“I’m going.” My throat’s so tight my voice cracks.
“Good,” Flashfire says.
Hours later, after wandering the alleys and avoiding police cars, I return to my apartment.
Doc stands in the kitchen, his eyes red, his face a picture of worry.
I don’t say a word. My face feels like it’s going to fall off and my heart is a black hole, and I explode into tears.
Doc embraces me and rubs the back of my head, and pulls me into his arms. I bury my head into his shoulder. I weep. My legs give out and I only stay upright because Doc presses his arm against my back and I cling to his shoulders, and even then it’s not enough. I sink to my knees and Doc does not give up his support. His warm hands stroke my hair and rest on my shoulder as I claw at his shirt.
I spend all of my tears and after Doc walks me over to the couch. He lays me down there and I pass into merciful darkness, leaving this horrible day behind.
Knocking stirs me from my sleep. Rain gently patters outside. Doc is not in the living room, nor the bathroom, nor his bedroom. He must have gone out. Maybe to help where I could not.
I answer the door.
Bedevil stands there, clutching a bottle of Everclear like it’s a lifesaver. She’s not in her Inheritors outfit. She’s in street clothes, in joggers and a white t-shirt that’s a little too big, all soaked from the rain.
I can’t speak.
Bedevil stumbles toward me, clinging to the door frame. Her voice is frail: “Where- where have you been? Where have you been all this time?”
Her question musters my defense. “I- Bedevil, listen to me, I’m not who you think I am. I know you think I’m Megajoule. But I’m n-”
Bedevil drops the bottle of Everclear and grabs my face. She pulls me in with a harsh jerk and mashes her lips against mine, and then releases me with a gasp. My mind buzzes and shuts down; I can hear the neurons catching fire and exploding like transformers in a storm. Her eyes dance as she stares into mine, her mascara runs. Her chest heaves. The bottle of liquor orbits both of us.
Her eyelids flutter and her head wobbles, and she blacks out against my chest.