“That will be twenty-five forty-five,” the cabbie said as we pulled up in front of my parent’s house. Foster parents, I quickly corrected myself. I pulled out my wallet and handed the driver his fare and a tip. “Thanks,” I said as I stepped out onto the sidewalk.
For some reason, I paused there, as the cab pulled away and left me alone. The house was nice, three stories in all, though the top floor was ordinally supposed to be an attic, but now it was fully-furnished. The foundation was off-white stone while the first-floor was red brick with vinyl siding taking over the upper stories.
Kenwood was a nice neighborhood, but it just made me uncomfortable. Everything just seemed so ordinary and nice. I felt like a stick of dynamite in a china shop whenever I was there. One wrong move, one slip up, and it would be me being blamed for something I couldn’t take back.
I sighed, starting to walk up to the front door. The whole deal with Cypher still had me stressed. Every second was taking me closer to Cypher’s report being submitted, and me being arrested. I had never been in a barrel about to go over a waterfall before, but I imagined it felt something like this. Like a sense of impending doom waiting just over the horizon.
On top of that, I couldn’t even be anxious in peace. It wouldn’t be fair to be depressed during what was supposed to be a nice family get together, so I put on a happy face and opened the door. “Hey, its me,” I called into the house. I hadn’t even gotten my jacket off when I heart footsteps racing around the corner. Janet was hurrying to greet, wiping her hands on a cloth, but before she reached me, her eyes widened in amused surprise as Ana cut in front of her, full sprint. “Ana!” she gasped, mockingly scolding her with a smile plastered on her face as my sister nearly tackled me with a hug.
“Hey Nate!” She giggled, as I returned her hug after regaining my balance. “Hey, Ana,” I wheezed out, overplaying her impact.
“I can’t believe it; the prodigal son returns!”
I hung my jacket on one of the hooks by the door and turned to hug Janet. She was a good bit shorter than I was; only coming up to my shoulder. Ana was about my height, but there wasn’t much else about us that was similar, and neither of us looked like Janet.
Ana had dark-brown hair and a warmer skin tone while I was usually as pale as a sheet with almost black hair. Janet, meanwhile, was heavier-set than either of us with wavy auburn hair and a round face that was almost perpetually fixed in a smile.
“Sorry,” I muttered in a lame excuse at an apology, “I don’t get over this way much.”
“Believe me, I know,” She laughed, turning back towards the kitchen and motioning for us to follow. “Come on, I know Paul wants to see you too.”
Ana motioned grandly for me to lead the way, and I bowed in thanks, each of our attempted straight faces crumbling as we couldn’t help but crack up. “So, how’s college?” I asked as we walked into the kitchen.
She sighed and raised her shoulder in a slight shrug, “not too bad, but its mostly just general classes for now. Kinda boring, you know? But hopefully it’ll get better when I start taking more major-specific courses.”
She was going to become a veterinarian and managed to get more than a few scholarships to make it happen. It was more than I could say about my academic career. “I thought you loved being bored in a classroom, Pages,” I teased, using a short-lived nickname I called her when we were younger. She punched me in the shoulder in retaliation and I winced in fake pain, before dejectedly rubbing my shoulder to milk the act.
“Nate! How ya doin’ buddy?” My fake pout turned into a grin when we stepped into the kitchen. Paul was stirring a pot on the stove that was slightly steaming from the contents inside. He rapped the spoon on the rim of the pot and laid it on a saucer. He was wearing a “kiss the chef” apron, and I couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled me into a bear-hug. I could have maybe passed for his son, but he was a built like a bull and almost a head taller than I was. I probably looked like a bleached broom being crushed in the smothering embrace.
He was heavyset, but not quite fat. Still, he carried some bulk with him. “I’m doing good,” I grinned. He clapped me on the should and turned back to the pot on the stove. “What smells so good?” I asked, leaning over to peer inside the pot.
“Spaghetti, or specifically the sauce,” Paul said. “Made it from scratch.”
“Mmmm, sounds good.”
I looked over to where Ana was standing and saw someone standing next to her I hadn’t noticed before. “Nate,” Ana said, lightly pushing the guy forward, “I’d like you to meet Ray, my boyfriend.”
“Uh, hey, Ray,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand. I hadn’t expected having to deal with meeting someone new. He was broader in the shoulders and a few inches taller than me with a buzz cut that didn’t look like it could be any shorter without making him completely bald. Football player? He looked the type.
“So, this is the brother I’ve heard so much about,” he said with a smile that didn’t look entirely genuine. And he he’d put such a strange emphasis on “brother”, it caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure how to reply, so I just shook his hand and smiled. “Do you go to U of I too?” I asked, trying to fill the eminent silence before it formed.
“Yeah, we met during orientation,” Ana answered, hugging his arm.
“Nate, help me carry some of this into the dining room,” Janet said from over by the counter. “Sure,” I replied, glad for the opportunity to break away. Did Ana tell them she was bringing someone? It wasn’t like her to spring surprises on people like this, but food wouldn’t be an issue. Paul and Janet always had more than enough to go around.
“Just grab the salad and the bread, and I’ll get the plates,” She said, directing my attention to two bowls sitting on the counter.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied cheerfully. She was already in motion with a stack of plates with silverware on top. I grabbed a bowl in each hand and followed her out of the kitchen. There were already napkins at all the seats. It brought back a flood of memories seeing the room again. I didn’t know why I was feeling so nostalgic. Maybe it was a subconscious excuse not to think about Cypher’s proposal. “You guys haven’t changed anything,” I said, laying down the food near the middle of the table.
“No reason to,” Janet said with a smile. She started laying out the plates and I helped by following her, putting out the silverware. “What do you think of Ray?” I asked in a low voice.
She pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. “I don’t like him,” She confessed, making sure only I could hear her. “And I’m a bit surprised Ana brought him. This was supposed to be just us, but oh well, I guess.”
I gave a shrug, “I dunno, but Ana seems to like him, maybe we can give him a chance.”
“Oh, of course, Soot. I wasn’t saying that!” She said quickly. “I think it’s the way he carries himself. He seems a little off-putting to me is all.”
Before I could reply, Paul announced the main course was ready, and soon we were all sitting down and digging in.
Paul was sitting at the end of the table with Janet and me sitting across from Ana and Ray. “So, are you from Chicago, Ray?” Paul asked, taking a bite of garlic bread. He looked at the young man inquisitively, like he was trying to figure him out. It wasn’t a normal expression from him, I’d seen him look that way before when he was dealing with co-workers, but never with friends or family. Paul could give the impression he was very easy going, and he was for the most part, but when it came to protecting Ana or me, there was no compromise.
“Nah, my family is from Rockford. I offered to drop Ana off on the way and she insisted I stay for dinner.”
“That was nice of you,” Janet said. “What degree are you working for?”
“Well I first I was going….”
I couldn’t help but pull away from the conversation. Being there and listening to all of them talk like nothing was wrong, it was just… strange. That was the best word I could think of. It was just so juxtaposed; here I was, having dinner with my family like anyone might, but at the same time I was about to be charged with being a vigilante. Would they understand? What would they think?
They had tried so hard to give me a normal life. They decided to adopt me when most turned me away; didn’t say I was more trouble than I was worth. And now I’d just gone and thrown it all away. Well, at least I would if I refused to become sanctioned.
Could I really do it? I mean, I could probably pass the exam. That would keep me out of prison, but then what? I’d be on a probationary period where I’d have to be at least somewhat active or I’d lose the sanctioning. Then, Argus could still charge me with vigilantism and who knows how many other violations of the Accords.
So, even if I did become sanctioned, I wouldn’t be entirely out of the woods. I’d be obligated to step in wherever I could. Failing to do that would draw the eye of A.S.E.T. My identity would remain confidential if I told Argus not to release it and managed to not get unmasked. But hero teams would still have access to my real name, and if Cypher was right about ‘cogs being useful, that would mean lots of unwanted attention.
Whatever I chose, time was running out.
I tried to focus back in on the conversation, but when I glanced at Ray, I noticed he was staring at me intently. His face was a mask of some emotion I couldn’t make out, but no, he wasn’t looking at me. Not exactly. His gaze was fixed to my left wrist.
My pace quickened. What was he thinking? Was he concerned? Scared? Angry? He was staying quiet about it, so there was a good chance it would blow over. I swallowed and locked eyes with him for just a second. I felt exposed, like part of the carefully crafted disguise I’d spent my whole life making was peeled away. Ray had picked up a metaphorical dagger, maybe without meaning to, but he held it all the same.
With nothing but words he could point it out, make a scene, get enraged. It might seem like paranoia, but I’d seen people accosted for less. My mind went back to earlier that week. An older man was on the bus with a boy, maybe five or six, his grandson by the looks of it. The kid had a dampener, uncommon, but not unheard-of at that age. Something had him excited, he was turned in his seat, enraptured with watching cars and buildings roll by.
Then the bus slowed suddenly, and the kid lost his balance. He tried to brace himself on the seat in front of him, but accidentally touched the shoulder of the woman in front of him. It was an innocent accident, but the woman recoiled like she’d just been bitten by a venomous snake. Her husband, or boyfriend, whatever it was, whirled around and shouted at the kid, calling him a freak.
Freak, the go-to insult. Naturally, the old man jumped to the defense of the boy. He was apologetic and tried to stand up. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was his stop, or he was trying to work it all out. Either way, the younger man shoved him back in his seat, roughly. Every eye on the bus stared at the scene with laser focus and varying degrees of shock. But no one moved. No one lifted a finger. Including me. I was right behind them, but I stayed quiet.
I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was karma. I didn’t stand up for them, I didn’t come to their defense and now… there was no one there for me. Granted, the only other people here were my only family left on Earth, and I didn’t want them to know, even if they had noticed the dampener already.
My heart was beating hard enough for me to feel it, and every span between pules felt like an eternity. Ray glared for a bit longer, and I recognized the expression: it was the same one the man on the bus had.
It was ridiculous. After all, it wasn’t like I was actively hiding it, but it still seemed that if it were noticed, it’d be another bit of my mask ripped away. Then, like the answer to my silent prayer, he looked away, and put on a smile as if he never left the conversation.
My appetite was largely spoiled after that, and the rest of the dinner went by in a blur.
Getting to see Janet and Paul and Ana again had been nice, but that one glance from Ray, a total stranger, was enough to ruin the evening. One glance, like a single drop of poison into a cup of water. At first, its fine, but then the poison seeps until the entire cup is deadly.
Ray had left not long after we finished eating. He still had a drive ahead of him. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that knowing what I was made part of his motivation for not wanting to hang around. That thought plagued me the entire ride home. I hoped Janet and Paul weren’t too disappointed, I had left rather suddenly, but being… revealed like that, it reminded me why I moved out in the first place. To protect them. Or so I kept telling myself.
The City rolled past in a rhythmic pattern, and I just let my mind go blank as the buildings went by. It was easier than having to deal with anything. Still, decisions were coming fast. I just felt so trapped by everything. Was I really about to go to prison? It seemed so foreign.
As much as I would have like to just stay in the taxi, safe from the outside world, it soon pulled up in front of my house. Walking up the steps, I pulled my keys out to unlock the door, but I didn’t need to: the door was slightly ajar. I crept closer and saw the wood was splintered near the lock, like it had been kicked in.
Of all the times to get robbed, this was defiantly not one of them. Using all the anxiety and regret in my gut as kindling, a fiery anger roared to life. I was not in the mood. Just in case they were still there, I reached over to my wrist and switched the dampener off.
Inside, everything was how I left it, save for some wood splinters in the entryway. All the lights were off, and I didn’t hear anything. But my gut was telling me something was off. It wasn’t like when I had my visions, those were more… noticeable. This was good old-fashioned anxiety.
I looked around my living room and nothing had been touched. Odd, I thought. Who breaks in but doesn’t steal anything?
“Maybe they’re waiting for the owner.”
My heart skipped a beat, as I whirled around in equal parts shock and reflex. I barely noticed the cold sensation of my energy running across my skin. It started from the small of my back and flowed like water until my entire body was covered.
When I summoned it during the Warning, I hadn’t realized how much of a comfort it was, but now it was like a child’s blanket, keeping all the monsters from under the bed at bay.
“Who are you?” I yelled into the dark house, scanning for whoever spoke.
“Oh, come on Soot, you know me.”
My eyes darted over to the doorway to the kitchen and saw a girl standing there I didn’t recognize. How did she know my nickname? Blue light from the energy surrounding me cast soft shadows in the dark room and made it easier to see. She looked familiar: blonde hair cut short, and thick rimmed hipster glasses…
“There you go,” She said with a smile, folding her arms and leaning against the doorframe. “I knew you’d remember. You’re pretty smart for a janitor, you know that?”
The Anarchist. I had looked her up after I’d ran into her and the rest of the Gold Diggers. Argus made a habit of making life hell for villains. If they could get ahold of photographs, they put it on their website, along with known aliases, most recent sightings, and power overviews. According to Argus, she was a telepath with other abilities they couldn’t confirm for certain.
“Oh, Argus isn’t that much of a hassle. Between people being dumb and them not really paying attention to the news, we get around just fine.”
Was she reading my thoughts?
“Yep,” She said with a growing smile. “I’ll admit, you threw me off at first with that little precog thing of yours, but now you’re just like everyone else.”
What was she talking about? And then it struck me: if she was here, that probably meant the rest of her team was nearby-
“Right again!” She said with a wide grin. “And they’re very eager to… talk.”
I needed to get out of there, but realized I wasn’t moving. Shit, it was just like during the fight. I couldn’t move.
“Tsk, tsk, Soot. You should know what I’m capable of by now.”
“Don’t call me that.” I hissed, really starting to hate this girl.
“Oh, I’m sorry, that’s what mommy called you, isn’t it? Wait, no, not mommy: foster mommy. Oh, don’t glare at me like that, Soot. My, you’ve been a very naughty boy. Do you sleep well at night, knowing what you’ve done?”
“Shut up!” I yelled, straining to move. I remembered what I’d done to get free before, but the energy didn’t respond.
“Aww, I hope you didn’t expect to get away with the same trick twice,” She giggled, stalking closer. “You know, you’ve been a terrible host. Quite rude, really. Maybe you need to be taught some manners. Cerf Tueur!” she called out to her teammate.
Even if I could move, I doubted I would have been able to jump out of the way of the twin spikes that shot through the wall that separated the kitchen from the front room. They speared through the air, but before it turned me into a glow-stick kabab, the tips forked in two. The area between the prongs caught me on both arms and launched me back into the wall next to my television. The forked antlers held my arms in place, with one tine above and one below.
Two more spikes shot out from the kitchen wall lower than the first two. They forked again and pinned my legs in place. My suit helped a bit, but the antlers still pressed into me hard enough that it hurt. I could feel the circulation in my lower limbs was being cut off, but there was nothing I could do. Even with the extra strength, the growths wouldn’t budge.
I swallowed and struggled harder. This was bad, I had to get out. My thoughts flashed back to being trapped in the cocoon on the street, only this time, there weren’t any heroes around to save me.
“You look pitiful,” another voice said. It was deeper than The Anarchist’s, a man. I looked over to see Hellequin walking down the stairs with The Butcher following behind him.
“Did we find you?” The Anarchist interrupted, seeming almost giddy. Oh right, she could read minds.
“What do you want?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Trying to act brave? Almost admirable,” Hellequin said, coming to a stop next to Cerf Tueur’s antlers.
“It’s very simple, Nathaniel. Upstart heroes like you are such a pain to deal with. The pros know there are bigger fish to fry than thieves like us. But you seemed quite determined to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. We just can’t have that.”
I fumed silently, not trusting myself to speak. Unfortunately, The Anarchist didn’t want to give me even that.
“Ooh, he’s a bit pissed you called him Nathaniel, and he doesn’t like your tone.”
“Oh really?” Hellequin asked. “Maybe you’re a bit bold under that barrier of yours. Cerf, if you would.”
I looked at the kitchen door where the deer-man brushed past The Anarchist and made a beeline for me. Without missing a beat, he stopped and raised his right arm. A thorn shot out of his palm and slammed into my shoulder.
The impact hurt, but the barrier protected me from the worst of it. I could have maybe withstood that, but the deer didn’t stop. He kept increasing the pressure, and my shoulder began to ache. Still, he kept pressing harder, adjusting his stance for better traction. The point dug harder, and it really started to hurt, the pain building by the second.
I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins as my heart started beating harder and my breath quickened. I gritted my teeth to keep from crying out. Fast, hard breaths escaped from my lips, but then a whole new wave of pain erupted from my shoulder. Under the increasing force, my energy suit had ruptured, popped like a bubble. A pained breath turned into a raw, primal yell. I screamed until my lungs emptied. I drew in a ragged breath, and my entire body shuddered under fresh stabs of pain. It felt like waves of burning magma coursing through my body.
Every breath moved me just enough to elicit fresh hurt. If it wasn’t for the adrenaline, I was sure I would have passed out.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Soot,” The Anarchist giggled. “The human body can take a surprising amount of punishment.”
“Fuck off,” I croaked, barely managing to get the words out in a garbled mess.
“Let’s be clear here, Nate,” Hellequin nearly spat my name. “You are on the razor’s edge. Luckily for you, we can’t kill you; Cypher is one hell of a vengeful bastard, and I don’t want him gunning for us personally. This is your one and only warning, stay out of our way.”
Hellequin’s demon head turned and he started to walk away, but he didn’t even make it a step before The Anarchist’s voice called out, “Attendez!”
“Qu’Est-ce que c’est?” Hellequin snapped back, seemingly annoyed.
“He’s not sanctioned, remember…?” The Anarchist replied, switching back to English. “I do,” Hellequin said slowly in such I way I could almost feel an eyebrow raised behind his mask.
“Mmhmm,” The girl nodded. “He doesn’t want to be a hero. He’s almost accepted going to prison instead.”
“Interesting. Why is that Nate?” Hellequin asked, leaning in close. “He’s… guilty. He doesn’t like his powers.”
Oh, how I wanted to punch that girl in her smug face.
“Then maybe I’ll make an annulment to our deal and offer this in its stead,” Hellequin began. It seemed like he was catching on to what the girl was getting at, and I didn’t like how this had changed. On top of the almost blinding pain, dread crept back into my gut. His tone was monstrous, like a beast who had found fresh prey.
“So that’s why Cypher took interest in you. I’m sure he’s just urging you to become sanctioned right? Stay out of Argus’ meta daycare? And that is exactly what you’re going to do. You are going to become our little hero puppet. You go out there and act like the little boy scout Cypher wants, but when we call, you come running. Understand?”
I didn’t say anything, so the villain grabbed the spike digging into my shoulder and twisted it. I yelled again, but Hellequin didn’t stop, pushing it in deeper. “Understand‽” He yelled.
“Yes!” I cried out, doing anything to make the pain stop.
“Good. You are going to become sanctioned and stay away from us until we yank your chain. Because if you don’t, we know where your family lives. Where your sister goes to school. The second you slip up, we will kill them, slowly and painfully. Butcher will gnaw on them, eating them slowly. Then we’ll gut them while they scream and ask why you did that to them. We’ll make sure there is nothing left for you to bury. Understand?”
“Y…yes,” I croaked, feeling tears roll down my face.
“And don’t think you can escape us. Now that The Anarchist is in your head, she’ll track you down wherever you go, and the second you try and tell someone, she’ll know. Understand?”
I merely nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“Good. Now before we leave, I believe the Butcher wanted to take a little souvenir…”
I could only watch in horror as the woman with the monstrous maw walked forward and grabbed my right hand, agitating my shoulder. I grunted in pain, but my heart stopped when she opened her mouth, revealing the unnatural teeth behind her molars. She pulled my arm harder and I cried out again as she put my hand in her mouth. I couldn’t think straight, my head fogged from the pain, so I didn’t think to curl my fingers before she bit down. Hard.
Another scream. The bones in my hand crushed and jumbled around as my ring and fifth finger were torn away with a violent shake of her head. I could smell the blood, causing even more panic. The pain consumed my thoughts, pushing everything else out. I didn’t even notice as the antlers fell away and I collapsed into a screaming wreck on the floor.