Right around midnight, Iso drives Epione and me into the University of Houston campus, aiming for the UH medical college. According to Epione, there’s clinics inside the college, and by extension, pharmacies we can get the drugs Bedevil will need for her detox. I’m not sure how it will look that Megajoule is stealing drugs from a college, but I don’t particularly care, anyway.
At a red light, Iso leans back from from the driver’s seat. “Okay, so that’s a 10 lb bag of rice, as many veggies as I can get, whatever meat is on sale, eggs, milk, and bread, and this shit ton of snacks.” He flicks the paper list with his finger. “Got a sweet tooth, huh?”
I chuckle. “Uh, well, no, mostly that was Saw Off.”
“The Captain Crunch seems very much like you, though.”
“I don’t need to defend myself.”
“Mhm.” Iso turns back around as the light turns green.
Epione hums next to me as Iso drives us down Wheeler Avenue. Half of the UH buildings are grim and old, made of cement worn down by time, with the lights inside all gone out for the night. The other half are brilliant, new, shining with colored lights throughout the windows. I can see young students partying, studying, relaxing, and living.
A normal life. I wonder what that’s like.
“I checked with my contact in the force, and the police have no orders to look for me, neither the mask or the journalist. Cynic must not have seen that deep into your thoughts. No beer or anything?”
“No.” That would defeat the entire point of this trip.
“All right, we’re almost there,” Iso says. Up ahead, a collection of towers rise over the campus, with a huge, neon sign that reads, “University of Houston Medical College.” Iso pulls in to the main entrance. There’s a brightly lit parking lot and a single door.
Epione produces an ID from her pocket. “We can use this to get in through the student entrance. I can swipe myself in for my clinicals.”
“What?” I ask.
“I shadow a doctor and apply my education to real life situations,” Epione says. “All it really means is I know exactly which medicines we’ll need for Bedevil.”
“You know where we’re meeting?” I ask Iso.
“Corner of Wheeler and Canfield. Thirty minutes,” Iso says.
“Here, wear this hat.” Epione hands me a red baseball cap with the University of Houston logo on it. She makes a weird hand sign with her ring finger tucked into her palm. “Who’s house?”
“Coog’s house,” Iso says, but I stay silent, unaware of how that phrase was supposed to end.
“Good.” Epione pats my shoulder. “You have no school spirit, you’ll fit right in.”
Iso drops us off at the gate. “I’ll see you kids in thirty minutes.”
We skulk up to the student entrance gate, and Epione swipes her card. “If FIS or OPI is watching for me to swipe a card, then they’ll know I just did that. We won’t have long.”
“I doubt they are. I don’t know if they even knew your name until this morning, if they even know that. That’s not enough time to figure out everything about you, I don’t think.” Still, we shouldn’t dally anywhere, really.
The gate buzzes, and opens.
Epione nods and marches in. “Okay. Let’s get in there. We’ll need to be fast.”
“What if we start a fight?” I ask.
“Not with a bunch of exhausted med students. I’ll get us through.” Epione charges in through the sliding double doors, and I follow.
A large lounge area with plastic couches, harsh buzzing fluorescent lights, and hypnotizing patterned carpet awaits. Med students hang around the lounge, way more than I thought there would be at midnight, all bleary eyed and twitchy from too much caffeine.
They don’t seem to notice Epione and I walking into the lobby. Their eyes are peeled to a TV screen.
The news is playing a clip of Rorschach suspended in the air by Snow Owl, but the cell phone footage zooms in on me, my fist shining with light. It’s not a great shot; just enough to make out my face structure and my age, but they can’t discern my eye color or the scars around my eyebrow. The clip pauses on that image.
The woman clears her throat, she’s pale, and the studio lights gleam off a sweaty forehead. “His outfit resembles that worn by the cloak Home Run, but no confirmation from OPI on whether or not the two are actually connected. The nature of the creature he fought, whether it’s a human mutated by their own power or something else entirely, is also uncertain.”
The headline reads: MEGAJOULE’S RETURN SHOCKS WORLD.
“He was declared KIA over six years ago,” an apparent expert on powers says. “As to his youthful experience, it may be that he was taken out by a power that could reverse human aging, or perhaps reverted him to child, and he aged naturally into a young man these past six years.”
They cut to a handful of people carrying posters like they’re at a protest. One of them reads, “Welcome Back, Mega!”
“What’s going on out here?” an interviewer asks a young woman.
“We’re just hoping we’ll catch a glimpse of him! We want him to know we’re glad he’s here, and we’re glad he never stopped watching out for us.”
The mantle. Megajoule was right. It’s not his name.
And now, to steal some drugs from a school. I chuckle as I follow Epione down some halls full of doors with various numbers. Students, faculty, and doctors all shuffle past us, not even really noticing we’re there. Damn, I was kinda hoping someone would recognize me. Just a little part of me wanted that.
Epione leads me toward a counter. Red letters above a crabby woman say, ‘Pharmacy.’
The woman pulls a lollipop from her mouth. “What’s up?”
Epione smiles, and grabs the lady’s hand. “I was asked to come down and grab some things from the pharmacy. You wouldn’t mind letting us take a look, would you?”
The pharmacists’ eyes glaze over. In a flat, robotic voice, she says, “Of course.”
“Jeez Louise,” I say. “The fuck did you just do?”
The pharmacist disappears from behind the counter, and the door next to us unlocks and opens. After the lady opens the door for us, she shakes her head like she’s confused or drunk, but Epione grabs her hand again. “Got to keep in contact so her natural emotions don’t take over. All I did was stoke her desire to do her job: that is, help students get the drugs they need for their shadow hours, while suppressing her distrust and suspicion.”
I shake my head. “Mind control.”
“No,” Epione says. “Probably worse than that. I control the heart.”
“Either way, I’m glad it’s you and not somebody else,” I say.
Epione taps her chin. “Could it have been anyone else?”
“What, that got your power?” I ask.
“Does the person shape the power, or the power the person?” Epione continues.
“I don’t know.” I have never known. Did I shape my power to be worse than Megajoule’s? “How do you see it?”
“I see colors. Powers, colors, the same thing to me. When I steal a power, I don’t borrow anybody’s DNA, I borrow their colors.”
The inside of the pharmacy is a room crowded by white metal shelves lined with boxes and boxes of medicine. There are locked cabinets in the back with no labels, so I’ve got no clue what they might hide.
A short, chubby man rounds the corner of one of the shelves, adjusting his glasses, and gasps as he sees Epione holding the other pharmacist’s hand. Epione snatches his ear like an old school grandma with a lightning fast strike, and his eyes glaze over, too. “Hmm, this might cause some problems.”
“Yeah.” I check the other aisles to make sure no one else is hiding, but it seems there were only two pharmacists on duty. “I feel a little bad about stealing this stuff. Can we leave any money?”
“I have cash, I’ll leave it in this lady’s pockets when we go,” Epione says. “I know the base price of what we’re buying, so I’ll leave a little.”
I glance at the two pharmacists, standing like dull zombies. “Maybe something for the emotional trauma, too.”
“A tip,” Epione agrees. “Valium and Librium are the most important, but those will be in the locked cabinets. I have to keep these two restrained, and the cabinets need a pharmacist’s thumb print, so we’ll get those. You need to get something from the shelves, okay?”
“Got it. What do I need?”
“Valproic acid, ondansetron, labetalol, atenolol, and clonidine.” Epione leads the two pharmacists over to the cabinets. “Interesting, this lady is in the right field. She has the power to diagnose an illness just by looking at someone.”
“Glad to know she followed her calling,” I say. “I hope this doesn’t make her quit.”
“It won’t,” Epione says. “She’ll be scared, I think. But she will remember our faces. She’ll remember yours. I’m already suppressing admiration and shock. By the way, about earlier, when I appeared upset at Bedevil?”
I find the box labeled valproic acid. “Yeah?”
“It’s because I don’t love Flashfire anymore,” she says. “Yes, that cabinet, please.”
My grip on the box fails. The medicine clatters to the ground. “W-what?”
“I don’t love him,” Epione says. “Yes, and that cabinet. We’ll need Chlordiazepoxide and Diazepam, please.”
I pick up the box, and drop it again. My best friends. My mouth is so dry. I read that valproic acid is an anticonvulsant that stops seizures. I can see Bedevil on the wet pavement, trembling and staring at nothing.
“When I fought the Fear, I used my power to protect myself from the negative emotions it gave off. I stoked my love for Flashfire and used it as a shield.”
I stumble through the aisles, unable to respond to her revelation as I find the box labeled ondansetron. The box says it’s for nausea and vomiting. Bedevil is very pukey. The other three medicines are clustered together, each of them for high blood pressure and potentially a heart attack.
“I wasn’t careful.” Epione smiles at me. “It cost me my love, and it cracked the armor I made for myself. I’ve been out of sorts lately, and I apologize, but I’ve gotten control back.”
“But what happens now? To you and him?” They’ve been dating as long as I’ve known them. “Are you going to break up?”
“No,” Epione says. “I will figure out how to rebuild it. From scratch, if I have to. I am no stranger to doing things I have no emotion about.” Epione presses each of her thumbs against the pharmacists’ foreheads. “Good night.”
Both of the pharmacists slump to the ground, ready for their naps.
Epione turns and smiles at me. Her mask, the carefully composed, completely neutral expression she always wears? That mask is cracked. Small facial tics like an uncontrolled twist of her lips, a random eye twitch, she’s scrunching her nose.
“Are you really back in control?” I ask. “You were looking at Bedevil kinda funny.”
Epione frowns. “My armor. Jealousy, leaking through. I am sorry.”
“I… I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was hurting you.” She’s my friend, and she’s so hard to read. If I was better I’d have known she was hurting.
“No. Don’t do that,” Epione shakes her head. “You’d be hurting her more than you’ll hurt me by not holding back about how you feel.”
I still have no fucking clue what to say to her.
“If you hold back, I will pinch your cheek,” Epione says.
Her light threat catches me off guard, tickles my chest with a laugh. “Okay, okay. I won’t. Are you going to talk to him about it?”
“I will, eventually,” Epione says. “Not right away, not until all this settles down.”
“Okay.” I don’t know if it ever will, Ep, but it’s a nice thought. I give her the boxes I picked out. “We’ve got a lot of drugs here. Will we really need them all?”
“I really hope not,” Epione says, putting them in her backpack. “Shall we?”
I step over the slumbering pharmacists, and follow her out of the clinic. We power walk back to the student lounge. The dozen or so students are gathered underneath the screen, but I keep my head down. Epione glances over, and says, “Gabe. Look.”
The screen displays one thing: a high definition picture of my face, standing and smiling next to Bedevil and Epione in front of the crater I buried Rorschach in. From the angle I’d have to guess it came from the airplane, from someone with a very nice camera.
The woman’s voice narrates over the picture: “His age seems to be in his early twenties, and he has scarring above his right eye. It’s unmistakable though; he is Megajoule. His sidekick Bedevil…”
“I can’t believe it,” a girl student says. She reaches up at the TV screen. “He died when I was in high school.”
“Wild,” a guy murmurs.
“I wonder how he got those scars?” another dude asks. “From the monster?”
“Actually, it was from a mask named Sledge.”
Everyone stops, including Epione, including me.
Because I am the one who just spoke.
The students notice me and Epione at last. The girl’s face lights up like sparkler with a smile I’ve only ever seen aimed at him. The rest stammer, gawk, they nearly get on their knees.
I take off the hat.
“It’s you. It’s you,” the girl says.
Phones come out, pictures get snapped. The rest stare as if that’s all they can do.
“Say something, Megajoule!” a guy says, his camera pointed at me.
I went public, but I never thought about what I’d like to say. At first I take this for a misfortune, that he will upload this footage and OPI will be all over this building in less than five minutes. But this could also be a blessing in disguise; a way for me to get ahead of whatever OPI and FIS do to cast me in a bad light.
“I’m not him. Sorry to disappoint. I’m his son.” I’ve always felt that was the closest thing to the truth. The advice he recorded for me, the way he thought of me.
I am his son.
“You look just like him,” the girl says.
I chuckle. “I get that a lot.”
“Gabe, we have to go,” Epione says.
“Gabe,” a student says. “That’s your name?”
What else to do, but smile and nod.
“What are you going to do now?” the girl asks.
“Help my friend,” I say. I’d rather not name names, or reveal we’re going to help Bedevil detox, or even say that I also mean busting Flashfire out of prison.
“And then? Are you going to help the world? Be an official hero, like Megajoule?” she asks.
I hadn’t thought about that. I have this vague wish to make the world better for everyone, but no ten step plan on how to accomplish that feat. Saying that’s not going to satisfy anyone, whether it’s these students or people watching this on whatever social media or news outlet gets the video first.
Megajoule always smiled for people. So I smile, too. I may not now how to build a better world, but I know who can do it. “I’m a pretty simple guy. I fight pimps, I fight big monsters. I even fought Krater.” I laugh a little. “I can do a lot, but I can’t do everything.”
“What do you mean?” the girl asks.
“I can’t do everything. I can’t save the entire world. I could help people out my way, by protecting them and rescuing them from big dudes and monsters. I can’t help them out by being a doctor, like you. I didn’t even know what medicine I needed to help my friend through withdrawals.” I look up at my face on the screen. I feel the weight of the mantle he left behind. More weight than one man could ever carry. “We all want him to come back, and fix all of our problems. Maybe it’s time we all fixed it, together.”
The guy filming stops, and puts his phone away.
“That’s what I’m going to do next,” I say.
Epione grabs my arm. “Time to go.”
“Wait!” the girl calls as Epione drags me toward the door.
“What?” I ask.
“Can… I take a selfie with you?”