It felt warm.
They were getting close to the town. This was it. They’d walk in and ruin more lives, more people, and she’d help. The fact that she didn’t want to didn’t matter anymore.
She had already given up. She had faced her fears.
She remembered the woods, before she got her power. The way her aunt used to take her when things were bad at home. Just so she could get away from it all. She stared out the window at the passing trees, and formed their rough shape in her hand as a mote of flame.
She wondered if she’d ever enjoy the woods again.
They’d stay in town for a few days. It was to make sure they knew exactly what to expect. Bonesaw would give them ‘masks’ to wear. Fake skin to cover up anything incriminating, at least for the ones who’d actually go in town. Jack volunteered her, and of course she nodded along. Everyone was either excited or bored. She hadn't known Jack for long, but he was excited, and some of the others were caught up in his energy. She already hated it.
She hated the people inside for not running when The Slaughterhouse was so close. There was no way they could have known, but she hated them anyway. Her fire pushed her to ignore the shock at her own thoughts.
And sometimes she fought it.
She had tried, once, back before Jack had found her. She had tried, and she had failed so miserably that she could never be a normal person again. Not even The Birdcage waited. They were going to kill her. The part of her that whispered she deserved it was buried deep, and the part of her that fought the fire always brought the guilt alongside it. She had to bury them both.
But every so often, she still tried.
And as they got closer to Santa Mosemar, it got easier.
She didn’t tell anyone. Not Shatterbird. Especially not Jack. She didn’t dare suggest they turn around and leave. Every day they inched closer to the town, and every day her shame and self-hatred was growing stronger.
But fighting the fire was easier. She’d use it, and she found that she could stop it, if she tried.
She was getting antsy. She just wanted to stop feeling, but she knew this place wouldn’t let her. Somehow she knew, this town would be different.
Then they entered the town proper, and Burnscar felt the sadness build. She hid the fact that using her power barely even helped anymore. It didn’t even feel good to use anymore. Now, it rose to the surface searing and burning, distracting and painful.
It didn’t feel warm anymore.
She couldn’t ignore the pain. Not anymore. Not here.
And she was afraid.
May 22nd, 2011
Hector heard the news the day after Sam came back.
Mathew had gotten unlucky. None of them could have predicted that a bunch of PRT officers in the middle of nowhere would have found him so quickly. Apparently, hunting some rogue member of The Fallen had brought them into his path. Running into Mathew had been a coincidence.
And yet, Russel had volunteered to discuss the terms of his imprisonment and release. Evelyn, Graf, Cody, and even Sam had volunteered to join him. Dana, for her part, had volunteered to stay and look after the town while they were gone.
Bee refused to go, only making them promise to come back with him safe.
Hector didn’t bother asking. He already knew what his mom and Russel would say. Either ‘It’s too dangerous’ or ‘you’re not ready yet’ or ‘next time.’
Always next time. He was getting tired of next time.
But he’d wait. It was the least he could do.
It was why I stood in the comicbook shop, alone. Bee was busy, Sam was gone, and Abigail, Michael, and Henry were busy ‘urban exploring.’ He didn’t exactly feel up to that, at the moment.
Then he saw her.
What stood out to him wasn’t the mess of black hair, or the way the red of her sneakers were caked in mud, or even the vibrant green of her eyes.
It was the way she stood. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, as if she were Atlas herself. No smile, no life, just exhaustion.
He couldn’t help it. It made him sad. Hector wasn’t good with people, a trait both he and Bee shared. Being a hero meant saving people, making them smile, being their beacon. The problem was, he hadn’t exactly practiced any of that much.
And here he was, still in Santa Mosemar. Hector, however, was wise enough to know now that you didn’t always have to risk your life to save someone. Sometimes, all you needed was a word.
As he approached her however, he realized that was easier said than done. He had apparently underestimated just how closed off she made herself to be.
But it was too late. He was here, standing not six feet away, and staring. He’d have to say something, fast, or else she’d rightfully tell him to go away.
So he said the first thing that came to his mind.
“Is that Misanthropes?” he asked, words tumbling out of his mouth in a heap. “I-I love that series. Have you read the prequels?”
Hector wanted to scream. That was the best he could come up with? Not an 'are you okay?' or 'can I help,' but rambling about a comic book?
The girl frowned, slowly closing the book turning to him. She reached up to scratch at her cheek just before stopping short and slowly pulling her hand down. Maybe some sort of bad habit? “What?”
“I just-” Hector tried again, pausing to take a breath before he continued. “I’m sorry. Sorry. I just didn’t know how to start a conversation. I came over to ask if you were okay? You just seemed...I don’t know. Like you had a lot on your mind?”
The girl stared at him, and Hector fought not to look away. The frown on her face fell, but was only replaced by a bleak neutrality. This...wasn’t what he expected. As she flexed her fingers. Hector shifted in place, and he offered her a small smile. “Uh...I guess I was just worri-”
“Don’t talk to me again.” she said suddenly, shoving past him. “Go away.”
Hector’s words died on his lips as she stalked out of the store, hurrying away once she was on the sidewalk. By the time he thought to turn around, maybe just to see where she went, she was already gone. The other occupants of the store tried and failed to hide curious glances, perhaps thinking of what just happened as a fight between friends.
Hector was just confused.
As he kneeled down to pick up the now crumpled Misanthropes volume, the clerk gave him a slow whistle. “She sure as all heck was mad at you. What’d ya do kid?”
Hector eyed the volume summary. Misanthropes; ‘Lyla Harriet wanted nothing more to run away from the world. With dangerous beasts, arcane spells, and powerful enemies, will she find a way?’
With a shrug, Hector looked at the store clerk and offered a weary smile. “I’m...not too sure to be honest.”
A beat of silence passed before the store clerk leaned in, a smile returning. “So...are you gonna buy that?”
Hector sighed, and after a moment of deliberation, fished his wallet from his jeans.
“Have you been practicing?”
Hector glanced up at Dana, and she gave a flat glare in return. They stood deep in the forest, the clearing and the surrounding trees providing just the right amount of privacy and open space for his ‘lesson’. He felt a little silly in his tank top and shorts, which he had always hated wearing. Meanwhile, Dana wore her own pair like a second skin, sure of herself in everything she did and thought.
He had to admit, it was a bit intimidating. He wondered if he’d ever feel comfortable with himself like she did.
“Ah...kinda?” he trailed off, rubbing his fingers together. “Russel is gone a lot, so...a-and I got college applications,, and I’m on online a lot studying capes and stuff so I can figure out how-”
“Okay,” Dana interrupted, frowning. “Stop. None of that’s an excuse. Your powers need another cape to work. You have to ask us to help you.”
Hector, with as much tact as he could muster, pushed a bit of defiance into his voice. “I know. I’m sorry. But it’s why we’re practicing now, right?”
Dana didn’t seem impressed with his reasoning, crossing her arms. Instead, she stood stock still before eight pink orbs fell into a lazy orbit around her, illuminating the area in a glowing neon light.
Then she nodded to him, her stance relaxing again. “Now; boost me or restrict me. Doesn’t matter which, just make sure you use that to do what we practiced.”
This he could do.
Hector focused, and for a moment, all that changed around him was the soft summer breeze that formed and flowed against his body.
Then he could see it. The blue-teal light of his power. Even as it resisted his pull.
He saw a glowing stream of light flow from his chest, snake-like in its shape before lazily searching the air as if alive. Then, it made a beeline to Dana, much quicker than before. Dana took a deep breath as the light flowed into her, and she flexed her fingers and gave him a curious look. “A boost, huh?”
“I’d feel bad if I messed up your powers,” Hector admitted, shrugging.
Dana only closed her eyes, her orbs growing a brighter pink as they circled around her. Dana hummed, once, before opening her eyes and giving him a nod. “Alright. You try.”
Right. Here came the weird part.
Hector reached for the new feeling of warmth in his mind, still so strange to handle even now. It resisted his control, almost painful to reach out to, before it reluctantly melded into him, permeating the entirety of his being.
Then, four faint orbs of pink light popped into existence around him, their orbits slower than the ones around Dana.
Hector held back a small cheer, and Dana watched with a smile. “Progress. You’re getting a lot faster at that. How are your combos?”
Ah. Hector frowned, scratching his head. “I mean...It’s weird. Some combinations are easier than others. I can pull on, say, Graf and Mathew’s power and use them together if I boost or shackle them, but they’re kinda...hard to use right? Together, I mean. I tried with Cody and Sam and it was an easier mix.”
It went unspoken that he tried to use Cody's power as little as he could.
Dana sat on the ground and rested her chin in her hand, nodding along as he spoke and as her orbs changed their positions so as to not hurt her. “Makes sense. Cody and Sam aren’t super in your face with their stuff, so it makes sense that their powers are good together. Still doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice with us all though.”
Hector grinned, his excitement returning full force. “Alright!”
“But since everyone is gone and Bee doesn’t like coming out of her cave, you’ll be training with me for now. Which means I’m not gonna go easy on you.”
Hector’s excited grin morphed into one of pain as he nodded, and he allowed himself a loud sigh. “Alright…”
Dana smiled, and Hector knew then and there that she was probably evil incarnate. Or something. “Good. Let’s keep going.”
May 23rd, 2011
She was there again.
The news that Russel and the others would be gone longer than they thought, at least a week and a half, brought Hector back to that same comic book shop he saw the girl at before. She was still silently reading through a volume of Misanthropes, a lightly intense look in her eyes that he was sure hadn’t been there before. He himself was a few shelves away, idly staring at some horror issue he had been curious about. Van Drake of Black Castle.
He was debating on whether he should say something to her, maybe an apology, before she turned to him suddenly with the same expression as yesterday, angry and searching.
Hector quickly turned away, silently berating himself. He wasn’t so rude or oblivious that he couldn’t tell when he wasn’t welcome. Kind words were nice and all, but not if she just wanted to be left alone.
He could take a hint, better than he could when he was younger.
With a final look at Van Drake, he pushed it back on the shelf and left the store in a hurry, heading to the outskirts. Hector figured he’d read the volume of Misanthropes he himself had a bit on the one hill he liked before heading home. His mom would need some help with the dishes and laundry, after all.
At least Santa Mosemar was nice to look at. He kept his head down and let the warm breeze meet him as he walked through the street, every so often nodding and smiling to those who passed. An excitable dog ran into his legs at some point, and convincing the owner that yes, he was alright and no, he wasn’t mad was only an example of the quiet camaraderie everyone in the town shared.
Then he reached the outskirts, and found the same quiet hill that overlooked both the town and the neighboring forest, smiling as he sat down to read.
Only to be blindsided as he realized the girl had followed him.
She trudged up the hill, and Hector took note of the intense frown she adorned before she stopped just below him, looking up and eyeing him. She stood there, silent for a moment, before her frown deepened. “You’re following me.”
Hector, at a loss for words, slowly shook his head. “I’m...well, I was just-”
Hector’s shoulders sagged, and he was more than a little unnerved by the edge in her voice. A kind word, this was not. He wondered just where he had messed this up.
He should have just left her alone.
“I’m sorry,” Hector hurried to say, frowning. “Really. I wasn’t trying to follow you, I swear. I didn’t know you’d be at the store today too.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she ground out, her fingers flexing again. Hector swore he felt the air around him grow warmer, almost uncomfortably.
“I’m not,” Hector tried again, his voice growing smaller. “I’m sorry. I told myself I’d leave you alone when I saw you again. I promise I will.”
For a while, she just stared at him. Hector couldn’t find it within himself to meet her eyes and instead stared at the now forgotten copy of Misanthropes in his lap, hoping she wouldn’t get angrier. Hector almost excused himself in an attempt to escape before she spoke again, her voice coming out quieter.
“...Is that good?”
Hector blinked. Then he blinked again. He slowly lifted his head to find the girl...a bit more relaxed. Somehow. Or was he just imagining it? She was staring at the volume in his hand, a small and faint curiosity warring with the exhaustion on her face.
After a moment, he held it up, his voice coming out small. “Well...I think so. It’s...um. It’s about this girl trying to run away from being a prisoner to a king. The premise is kind of corny, but it’s...It’s good. In my opinion.”
The girl nodded, and silence reigned once again. Hector looked left, then right, then cleared his throat. “Um...do you want it? I-”
“No,” she said suddenly, her voice gaining an edge. “I don’t.”
Then, she did something he didn’t expect.
She made her way up to the top of the hill, hesitating before sitting down, next to him but still with enough distance so that he couldn’t get close without her noticing. She stared at the town below, propping her knees up as she wrapped her arms around them.
“Can you read it?”
The request was closer to a demand, still a definite tone of ‘don’t fuck with me’ present. Hector didn’t miss how small her voice sounded however, barely above a whisper as she asked.
He hesitated. Then, he nodded. And he began reading.
It was awkward at first, and Hector stumbled over his words and winced every time he did it, anticipating anger or a shout or something equally as distressing. She only listened however, staring intently at the pages as he turned them. Eventually he found his stride, and by the time he finished the sun began its slow descent into the earth, the light on them a burnt orange rather than a bright yellow. Hector closed the book on the last page, and turned to her to ask her if that was enough.
Then he saw it.
Her eyes, usually so forlorn, held an unmistakable wonder in them, and a satisfied smile had somehow found itself onto her face. Whereas before she was closed off, the posture she held as he looked was relaxed, comforted.
Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone. Seemingly remembering where she was, the girl stood and, without a parting glance or word, started back down the hill in a hurried shuffle. Hector watched her go only for a moment before stuffing the volume back into his backpack. He was drained all of a sudden, and decidedly planned to spend the rest of the day in his room playing video games when he heard her again.
Hector paused, turning back to see her looking up at him, closed off and uncomfortable. He nodded, once, offered her a small smile.
“That’s a nice name. I’m Hector. It...it was nice meeting you.”
She leveled a stare at him for a bit longer before she looked away, descending the hill and leaving Hector by himself on the hilltop.
Hours later, as Hector walked home, he entered the same store and bought the next volume of Misanthropes with the last of the pocket money he planned to use for food.
June 2nd, 2011
It became routine.
Hector would find her at the store, and he could never tell if she was waiting or not. She never bothered to greet him as he entered, and she only ever found him on the hill when he left. The distance she sat away from him, every day, grew less and less as he read to her. She smiled, only three times, and she frowned and was angry a lot more. But Hector figured she appreciated that he let her stay silent when they read. Training with Dana continued, as well as waiting for the others to return.
Slowly, he began to relax.
A week and a half later, and he felt he was getting comfortable in her presence. On a quiet day, as he read of the adventures of Lyla and escaping from a rather suave and cruel king, he even hadn't flinched when she had taken a place behind him, her head hovering just above his shoulder as she watched the pages. Eventually, they finished the volume, completing Misanthropes with Lyla finally jailing the king and moving on from the cold grip of his rule.
Hector closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. “I really like happy endings,” he admitted quietly, looking out over the town. Today they had finished early, and the sun still held its place high above the sky. “Did you like it?”
He scooted away and turned to Miriam, and she nodded as she looked back to him. “Yeah.”
With a smile, Hector continued, excitedly. “And the way she used that spell? I mean, uh, it was pretty cool. I dunno, I liked seeing her fight him off. That was interesting you know? And the...uh…”
Hector trailed off as he noticed a dark look pass across her face, and he frowned. After a few moments, he coughed and quietly put the volume in his backpack. “Are...are you okay?”
Miriam didn’t answer for a long time, so long that Hector was about to apologize for asking right before she responded, in a small and tired voice. “I...fuck. I don’t want to hurt you.”
That, he hadn’t expected. He tilted his head a bit, and rested his chin in his hand as he gave her a careful look. “Hurt me? Why would you hurt me?”
“...I’ve done it before,” she said after a moment, shrugging. “I shouldn’t have talked to you.”
“Oh,” Hector whispered. He mulled over his next words before answering, attempting comfort. “I mean...you haven’t hurt me yet, and for what it’s worth I think you’re really cool.”
“I’m not,” she replied with a tone of finality. “I’m new to this town. Being here...it’s different. I feel calmer. Grounded. Fuck, it’s...it’s almost like I’m a different person. And it’s weird. And for a while it almost made me forget who I really was.”
“What do you mean?”
Miriam didn’t answer, and Hector inwardly sighed. He wasn’t getting anywhere like this, and admittedly, seeing her sad made him sad, too. Hector chose his next words carefully, trying to find the right thing to say.
“Well...I don’t think you’ll hurt me. I’m pretty confident about that.”
Miriam eyed him, frowning. “Why?”
Hector shrugged. “You’re nice. I mean, sure we got off on a weird foot, but…I’m having a good time. And...I know what that’s like. I’ve seen it. Hurting someone you didn’t mean to.”
When she only stared at him, Hector continued in a quieter voice, but no less sure of himself. “My mom...after she lost her sister and mom, my aunt and grandma, she used to drink a lot. It got bad. Really bad. She wouldn’t hurt me or anything, but she would just sit there and stare at the wall. Like she was tired of trying. I was younger back then, so I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I tried to make her smile. I’d bring her these dumb little drawings or show her a flower I had picked her or something like that.”
Hector sighed as the memories came back, faster than before. “It didn’t work. My...my step-dad, basically my actual dad, would tell me to just ‘leave her alone for a bit’ or ‘let her rest.’ I didn’t really get why he was saying it, I was a kid you know? At some point, my step-dad told me to leave her alone and I didn’t really listen, so I went up to her room to show her a dog I had made out of sticks. Then…”
Hector swallowed, once, then finished. “She...she didn’t see me, you know? She was screaming, yelling, and I was just standing there in the doorway, not saying a word. I didn’t know what to do. So she threw a bottle and...I mean, she didn’t see me. She wasn’t even looking at me when the throw went wide. It was an accident. I know because...because as soon as it hit me, she turned and I just saw her face fall. After that she scooped me up and carried me off to bed, and I really just...clung to her. I was crying up a storm, but I still let her carry me. After that...things didn’t get better immediately. It was slow, and she had bad days. But they got better. And now we’re okay. She’s okay, and I’m happy she is.”
Miriam returned a softening expression to him, and shifted to face him directly. “That’s...fuck. I’m sorry,” she murmured.
Hector shook his head. “The point is,” he began again, more than ready to move past the topic. “Well...we do things we regret, but that doesn’t mean that’s all we are. People can change, and be better, and...I don’t know. I guess I just like that Idea. And you’re my friend, so…”
He trailed off as he saw her cycle through nearly a dozen different expressions as he finished talking. She finally settled on a quiet confusion and looked to him. “You think we’re friends?”
“Uh,” he began, nodding slowly. “Yeah? I mean I’d like to think so.”
Hope. middling, weak, but it was there in her expression. Then she seemingly pushed it down and looked up to the sky.
Then she stood. Hector didn’t try to stop her as she hurried down the hill, only offering a few parting words. “That’s naïve. Some people can’t be better.”
He winced. He didn’t expect to get through to her so easily yet, but to be shot down so quickly still hurt, just a tiny bit. “Yeah, I guess so. But I always hope. That’s...just who I am.”
Miriam hesitated, then turned to Hector and spoke quietly. “Hector. You're...you're a good person.”
Hector frowned. “Thanks. I think you are too.”
Miriam didn’t offer an answer. As he watched her walk into town and out of sight, Hector couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.
Even so, it was probably nothing. Russel and the others were supposed to return tomorrow, just in time for his birthday. Maybe he was just nervous about that. He’d have to talk to Russel, convince him to let him help next time.
Always next time.
Later, as Hector entered the house, he found Rosa, his mom, sitting on the sofa with a bowl of discarded popcorn and watching The Shining. She turned as he opened the door, offering a warm smile. “There you are, kiddo. I was wondering where you were. You’ve been out a lot longer than usual. Do ya miss school?”
Hector gagged, dragging himself over to the fridge and pulling out a carton of milk. “Don’t even joke about that. No, I just...my schedules kinda changed?”
She frowned, pausing the movie and turning to him fully. “Is Dana making you stay longer for those ‘practices’?”
Hector shook his head, smiled, and set the carton down. “No, It’s weird but…”
He thought about the past week and a half. Of reading under a warm sky, and of opening up about something he hadn’t thought of in a long time. For her.
“...I think I made a new friend.”
There, Rosa looked excited. “What? Really? Come watch this old, boring movie with me and tell me all about it.”
Hector looked at the screen, then adopted a mock offended expression. “The Shining is not boring,” he groused. He found himself joining his mom on the couch however, beginning with the first time he met the stranger. By the time he was finished, the movie was over and his mom was asleep.
Hector smiled, fishing a blanket from a nearby closer and gently draping it over her before trudging upstairs. He went through his usual ritual of taking a shower, brushing his teeth, throwing on a robe, and finally leaving his lamp on as he dropped his backpack on the floor and climbed into bed.
Tomorrow was a new day. He’d turn eighteen, start thinking about college, and would probably have to start preparing for a move. Only a few months away. Or he could throw himself into being a hero, no matter what Russel said. That, he had to admit, sounded better. He was ready.
And maybe he’d see her again soon.
June 3rd, 2011
He woke up early.
Hector sighed and muttered to himself as he pushed himself out of bed, checking his phone. Nothing, except...well then. Thirteen new texts from Bee? He’d have to check that out after toast.
The lights were off as Hector left his room, using the early morning rays to navigate as he yawned and stumbled downstairs. The living room was empty, save for the new butcher knife his mom must have bought from the store, and the man-
There was someone-
He was unable to finish his thought before the figure in the dark moved, the glint of a butterfly knife shining through the dark. "Finally awake, young man? I understand wanting to sleep in, but you were making us all quite worried."
Then, it stepped into the light.
And Hector's blood ran cold.
It wasn't like the pictures. They had seemed so distant and far away, like a bad dream fading in the light of the sun.
But Hector knew him. The beard, the widow's peak, and taunting blue eyes that threatened to pierce through him.
Hector's body froze as Jack slowly strolled around the living room, picking up the butcher's knife and examining it as if one would a painting. Every part of him urged him to scream, to run, to get away. A tiny, weak part of him told him to use his power. Maybe-
Then he saw them. Two legs behind the far couch, bloodied. Wearing his mom's shoes-
Please not her,
Jack turned to Hector before following his gaze, letting out a quiet laugh. "Oh yes. Your mother here was just beside herself waiting. For you. Now don't you worry, she's not dead; we just convinced her to quiet down in time for the beginning."
Hector didn't answer, and Jack frowned. "Nothing to say? Speak up."
"I..." Hector tried, his body threatening to collapse. Every part of him was on fire, every part of him felt twisted, weak. "Why...we didn't do anything..."
He didn't know where trying to reason with Jack came from, but Jack seemed to take it in stride with a satisfied smile. "Very true. Although it's not like we'd need a special reason. In fact, I was disappointed enough that Blacklight was out of town. It's a good thing he's coming back today isn't he? Rosie here told us all about it. Sit down."
Hector didn't move. All he needed was a few seconds, the tiny part whispered, and then he could use Jack's power against him. Maybe, maybe he could-
Jack sighed. "Sit. Or I'll force you to watch all of the interesting things I'm going to do to her. Every single bit."
Hector's body moved on autopilot as he dragged himself forward and slowly lowered himself in the chair closest to the window.
Then Jack began his approach.
Hector bit back a scream as Jack got close enough to stare out of the window. Outside, the cars moved and the sun creeped over the horizon and people walked. The day was just beginning. And in that sudden, excruciating moment, Hector wanted it to stop.
‘I'm here’, he thought, his breathing growing more unsteady. ‘Please-’
"You don't have to worry," Jack began, looking down at Hector. "If you cooperate, you'll get to live to see another burning sun. In fact, I need you two. Well, one of you. But I like to keep a backup. Someone I know even has a vested interest in keeping you alive. Isn't that nice? If you wouldn’t mind, dear friend?” He asked suddenly, looking to a space behind Hector.
Hector nearly asked who Jack was talking about before a hand clasped his shoulder. Hector turned to look.
He wished he hadn't.
A nude woman stood staring out of the window covered in black and white stripes, with long flowing hair and long nails too close to his face. Only the hand on his shoulder sat in the light, the rest of her shadowed. The yellow glow of her eyes was just bright enough for Hector to see the lazy grin she gave him, full of bloodied teeth.
Hector couldn't help it. The tears ran freely now, although silently.
He was going to die.
Jack turned away, walking over to the body of Hector's mother, throwing her over his shoulder before continuing to the other side of The Siberian. Her other hand met Jack's shoulder and his mother's back. He leaned in close to Hector, and hummed. "You're lucky. You're about to see our grand entrance. Then we’ll have a talk with dear old dad.”
Hector didn't have time to question what he meant before the glass on the windows exploded.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it began.
And all he could do was watch.