ARC 8: SECOND CHANCE
“She’ll be okay,” Doc says, looking down at Bedevil sleeping in my bed. “But she’s an absolute idiot, and you should have stopped her.”
My room doesn’t feel like my room anymore. Saw Off put up some posters of random horror thriller movies and a boy band called Red Midnight. I take a knee next to the bedside, to find my old sheets have been replaced by silk pink sheets. “Damn, what did you let Saw Off do in here?”
“Didn’t let her do anything, this is her room now. She started paying me for it.”
Wow, I’ve been evicted from my own room. Oh, well, I guess I did tell Doc I’d live somewhere else for a while. “How’s Lugs?”
“Surviving. He’s in my bed.” Doc rubs his chin. “I don’t know when our apartment became a hospice center but here we are.”
I place my elbows on the bed and look at Bedevil. Her nostrils are caked in blood, but other than that she seems peaceful. I brush an errant strand of hair from her face. It reminds me of how she dozed off on the couch this morning, while Pawpaw and the cats whined at me for food.
It hits me. Pawpaw and the cats are still at her apartment, and she just became an enemy of the state. “I have to go do something, Doc.” If I’m fast enough, nobody will be searching her place, yet.
“Good grief, kid, haven’t you done enough tonight?”
I can’t break away from her face. “No. She needs me to do this. You ever lost an animal?”
Doc doesn’t say anything in response, so we just sit there quietly for a few seconds while I gather the strength to stand. When I do, he stares into my eyes. “She needs real help. Help you can’t give.”
“Even if she gets that help, she’ll still need someone supporting her through it. She’ll need somebody to push her. Somebody to make her stick to it.” He looks at Bedevil sleeping in the bed Saw Off commandeered from me. “You want to do that.”
“I don’t think she wants me to,” I say. She’s incredibly stubborn, self-reliant, and I know she’s distancing herself because of what happened between us already. I don’t know how to bridge that gap.
“She could do it alone, likely. It would be miserable.” Doc doesn’t look at her anymore, just at me. “She could spend every night fighting, making ground but never enough. Yes, you could do it alone, anyone can do life alone.” He opens the door and slips out.
I think about how Megajoule must have felt at the top. The number one OPI cape, the one that everyone counted on to save the world. Did he feel alone?
He had a team.
No, he had sidekicks.
Bedevil is not my sidekick, I don’t want her to be that. As she starts to snore and drool, I realize that if she were going to be anything to me, it would be a partner. Not just her. Epione, too. Remise, Drone. Flashfire. All of them my friends, none of them my lackeys.
I get my ass kicked when I’m alone, trying to carry all the world by myself. The only reason I ended up overcoming Sledge by myself was because she pushed me this past week to see the walls I’d built up in my head.
I step out into the living room with my last back-up jacket and a spare mask. I check myself in the bathroom mirror before I leave. Sledge left three hideous claw marks through my left eyebrow, one of which cut into my eyelid. Doc wanted to take the wound. I only let him put the sealing gel in.
I put my mask on before heading out. Dustdevil and Carapace are still in my living room, so I can’t just walk around willy-nilly.
Remise, Epione, Drone, Iso, Carapace, and Dustdevil crowd my living room, filling the tiny space with a heated argument. Dustdevil’s still wearing her mask, weirdly enough.
“She mind-controlled us!” Dustdevil says, jabbing her finger at Epione.
Epione stares down at the floor.
I got the details of what happened from Remise. Epione stilled their emotions and used their powers to fight the Fear. I don’t blame her for making that call, because she might have saved the entire city. At the same time, I get why Dustdevil is upset. Remise doesn’t look very happy, either.
Carapace is the other participant in this argument. Her eyes are red, her face is broken. “But you’re alive.”
“I don’t care. She just warped my brain while I was pissing my pants at that monster, and acts like I should be grateful about it!” Dustdevil turns her back on everyone, and sees me. “And you! This was your stupid idea!”
It was. I can’t blame her for that.
Dustdevil walks up to me, and stabs her finger into my chest, too. “You brought us all on this. Echo lost her entire team, we lost Asperity, and we have nothing to show for it. You don’t even have the decency to show your face.” Dustdevil takes off her mask. She’s a young, black girl with long purple-silver hair, scowling with rage. Maybe 17 years old. I didn’t expect that.
I don’t really have anything to say. All this is my fault.
Remise raises an eyebrow at me.
I could show her who I am. That would fix some of this, maybe. Give her something to believe in. But if I take off my mask, and show her that I’m Megajoule, we won’t be equals anymore. We won’t be partners. I don’t want that. I’m trying to fit Home Run into the Underground.
There’s a part of me that knows he won’t.
“I’m sorry, Dustdevil. You’re right. I fucked you over.” I turn away from her. “There’s something I have to do.”
“I’m fucking out,” Dustdevil says. She collects her backpack and heads for the door.
“Wait!” Carapace cries. “Don’t leave. Don’t leave. Asperity… I can’t be alone, Dust!”
Dustdevil runs out the door, and Carapace buries her head into the coffee table. She wails into the oak. After a moment, she quiets, and then runs out the door to chase Dustdevil down.
Remise crosses her arms. “Epione, ain’t gonna say what ye did was right. But I’m glad you saved our lives.”
Epione wears no expression, betrays no thought or feeling. She’s fallen back to the flat state she showed to me the other night.
Remise looks at me. “You shoulda taken your mask off.”
“What, and then have her do whatever I say because I’m Megajoule?” I ask.
“Maybe she’d understand. Ye don’t know as long as ye hide behind it.”
“What?” Drone says. “What if Dustdevil or Carapace decided to tell FIS?”
“What if you had, back when you joined?” Remise says. “But you didn’t. Neither would they. They ain’t stupid.”
She’s not wrong, but neither is Drone. I don’t know what the right path is here.
“Lemme show you something, Gabe.” Remise turns on my TV, and flips to a news channel. She uses our TV’s rewind feature to go back a few minutes.
My favorite stern newscaster lady is on an emergency update. A scrolling subtitle reads WAR IN THE SECOND WARD. “-terrible event that has many recalling memories of the Anarchy. FIS and OPI are currently involved in a manhunt for both members of a terrorist organization known as Sanctified Remnant, as well as Tim Prince. Citizens are advised to stay out of the Second Ward as they are still at large. As for the large monster that was witnessed by many, no trace of that has been seen since the incident.”
“Nothing about Epione bringing it down,” Remise says. “But!”
“The cloak Home Run interfered yet again with authorities trying to capture Pandahead,” the newscaster lady says. “FIS is offering double the reward for information that will lead to his capture, but U.S. authorities and the public wonder if the UWC is doing enough about these threats.”
Remise pauses the video. “Your mask is holding you back.”
I don’t know what to do about it right now. “I’ll be back in a little.”
I head out into the night, moving along the rooftops as fast as I can. After a little, I take off the mask and hop onto the sky rail, taking that over to Bedevil’s apartments.
I feel responsible for Asperity’s death, for Maisa not getting rescued, for all this coming down on our heads. If I wasn’t a vigilante, would I still have all this in my way? If the world knew who I was, would they help, or hinder me?
The sky rail drops me off near Bedevil’s place, and I rush up trying to figure out how I’m going to get all these animals with me. I can’t take the sky rail back. I’ll have to hoof it.
I crank Drone’s watch and rush up the stairs. I still have my key. “Drone, can you check if there’s anybody in the apartment?”
My watch lights up. “Yeah.” The watch goes dim as she ports her mind into the CCTV circuit. She comes back after I rush up another flight of stairs. “Door’s not open. No FIS vans or OPI heroes around.”
I head up to her apartment, and open the door.
Pawpaw and the cats run up to greet me.
To my right, someone says, “This is agent Aguellar, checking in.”
I snap my head to the kitchen.
Mr. Gold stands there. He stares at me, his golden gun in his hand, a practiced finger along the side, showing his trigger discipline. His other hand holds a phone to his ear.
I hold my breath while I wait for him to finish. “Yes. The apartment is clear. I’ll call you back if I find anything.” He hangs the phone up. “I wondered when you would show.”
I close the door behind me so the animals wouldn’t get out. “Is anyone else here?”
“No. I came alone. They couldn’t devote too many agents outside of the Second Ward.” Mr. Gold holsters his gun. “I figured if anyone knew anything about Megajoule, it would be his former sidekick.”
“Well, you weren’t wrong.”
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Getting her animals back.”
He studies my face. “You aren’t Megajoule. I realize that.”
“No.” My heart is beating so fast. Are we about to fight? Advantage, Mr. Gold is alone. Tight quarters means he can’t use some of his gold manipulation tricks. Disadvantage, I’m burnt out from tonight. Pawpaw whines at my knees, wagging his tail with all his might. “What are you doing here?”
“I want to help.” Mr. Gold approaches me from the kitchen.
I retreat a step back.
Mr. Gold holds a hand up, and removes a data drive from his pocket. “Everything I could find on Pandahead’s ability. Which, I think we both know by now, is not his ability.”
“This is about the Fear?” I ask, taking the drive.
“Yes.” Mr. Gold steps back from me. “Most of the information out there is beyond my security level. I had to call in some favors and promise some to get what I’ve got on that drive. The most important thing is that the Fear is not some force, or single entity.”
Chills all across my body as I realize what he’s suggesting.
“They are a species. The one inside Pandahead’s Thermos is one of many.”
I don’t know what to do with that information right this second. “Why help me?”
“I realized I was on the wrong side when a child trafficker ordered me to gun down Megajoule.” Mr. Gold shakes his head. “There’s something else. I know where they’re holding Jason deClaire.”
“A secure facility called a Rogue’s Gallery,” Mr. Gold says. “There’s one near Galveston. Where are you taking these animals?”
“Back to my place.”
“I have my car downstairs,” Mr. Gold says. “Would you accept my help, here?”
“What are you going to do after this?” I ask.
Mr. Gold furrows his brow, and rubs his chin. Some of his mannerisms are similar to Doc, actually. “I don’t know. I’ve no intention of turning you in. I could give you the information I have, and go on my way.” He pauses and considers his next words. “I served this country for twenty years. Serving this country now means stopping Pandahead. It means preparing for that.” He points at the drive.
I put the drive in my pocket. “Okay. I’m with you there. You’re willing to be an enemy of the state?”
“No one has to know that I’m helping you,” Mr. Gold says.
“How can I trust that you’re not going to pinch my friends?”
Mr. Gold meets my eyes. “You don’t. You have to trust me.”
He looks sincere enough. His behavior at Parlor lines up with what he’s saying right now. And the Underground can scatter fast if we get pinched. “Okay. I’ll trust you. But I’ll kick you if you backstab me.” I walk over to Bedevil’s couch and grab the pillows Bedevil gave me while I was sleeping there. I pull the pillow cases off them. “Put the cats in these.”
While Mr. Gold wrangles the cats into those cases, I check her room for any valuables she’ll need, wallet, charger, clothes. I look through her closet for a duffel bag.
There’s a box labeled “Inheritors” in the back. Consumed by curiosity, I open the lid.
There’s a collection of mementos from her time with the team. A group photo of her, Megajoule, Longinus, Templar, and Wind Rider. Wind Rider, Jamie. Same person. Same broken ring. Underneath the photo is her old, red domino mask, small like Jettison’s. Beneath that, her old boots.
Below all of her little things is a white cape. She never wore a white cape, but Megajoule did.
I close the box and pick it up. She could probably stand to lose every single thing in this closet, but I don’t think she’d forgive me if I left the box behind. She does have a travel bag, so I load some summer clothes, her charger, some underwear, as well as her toothbrush, soap, and shampoo from her shower. I notice she has an acoustic guitar, so I grab that, too. Might as well, since Mr. Gold is helping me.
Last thing. I grab a few of her shark documentaries and the one case I know has the ring inside. I hear the two halves clink together as I put the movie inside her duffel bag. “Okay, that should do it.”
“You’ve got a lot there,” Mr. Gold says, three pillow cases full of yowling cats in his hands. “We should hurry.”
I hook Pawpaw’s leash to his collar, and we book it out of there. True to his word, Mr. Gold brought his personal car, a little black sedan, and we put everything inside. We let the cats out into the back seat, and I have Pawpaw sit on my lap, and we take off into the night.
I don’t even know how to strike up a conversation with the man who tried to arrest me two weeks ago. Neither does he, so we ride in tense silence. I pet Pawpaw, who tries to lick my face over and over.
We make it to my apartment complex, and put the cats back into the pillow cases despite their protesting, and head upstairs.
I knock on my door.
“Nice place,” Mr. Gold says, eyeing the concrete apartment block.
“Is that a compliment?”
Doc opens the door, and sees that I have a bunch of shit, a dog, a new friend who has three cases full of angry cats, and a guitar. “Kid. What the fuck.”
“Yeah, yeah, let me in.”
Iso took off, but Remise, Drone, and Epione are still here. Saw Off’s chewing on a pixie stick in the kitchen. Guessing Mil-dot’s still in Doc’s room, with Lugs.
“Ah shit, tha’s a dog! Tha’s a puppy!” Remise says, a smile lighting up her whole face. Pawpaw’s presence unleashes her full accent. “Come ‘ere ye stupid mutt!” She holds her hands out, and Pawpaw lumbers over to her for pets.
Drone stammers at the sight of Mr. Gold. “You’re a fish.”
“That’s extremely disrespectful,” Mr. Gold says, letting the cats out of the bags. They aren’t very happy, but they settle down fast when they see they have a new apartment to roam around.
Doc puts a hand to his forehead and groans. “Oh my God, kid. You can’t do this.”
“Whoops,” I say, carrying the bag and guitar to my room.
Bedevil’s still asleep, so I set her stuff gently by the bed, trying to not make any noise. Unfortunately, the guitar gives me away, buzzing with sound as I set it against the wall.
“Hmmm?” Bedevil stirs from her sleep, and blinks in the dark.
I turn on my lamp.
“Gabe?” Her eyebrows shoot up her face in shock as Lyle, Tim, and Kyle the cats run into the room, following her voice. “Gabe,” she squeaks, petting them as they nuzzle into her chest.
I smile as she cries into their fur, but our reunion is interrupted by Remise entering the room. “Gabe, I almost forgot, I have to show ye this.”
Remise carries a zip lock baggie full of shattered plastic. She opens it and dumps the contents on the floor, inviting me to huddle next to her by patting the carpet. I get on my haunches and look at the remnants. “What is this?”
“The Thermos,” Remise says. “Take a good look at it.”
Pandahead’s Thermos. Remise told me Epione broke it, and Tim ran for it after that. The cup’s an old piece of junk, the printed design is worn and faded so much I can’t really tell what used to be on the outside.
Until Remise starts putting pieces together for me, so I can see the message printed right underneath the rim of the lid.
Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.
I recognize the design on the body of the Thermos after that, the same one that was on the poster near where I rescued Maisa, the one that played the clip of the Titan Tower incident. A cartoon Megajoule flexing his muscles and grinning for the audience.