By Krystal Claxton
I'm lousy in broad daylight. I spent my formative years learning from the best in the Conference how to remain hidden. To move with fluidity and silence through a city, like a cloud in the night sky.
Unfortunately it was not night, I was not hidden, and I could not fly.
I stood with my shoulders hunched, hands spread as I watched the young villain standing in the road. He was bigger than me, most were, and he watched me with a certain satisfaction in his brown eyes. A smirk budded on his maskless face. He had me where he wanted me.
That was the thing about being a healer. When you didn't have a partner and your knife was shining merrily in the sun on the ground behind the villain, people tended to think you were helpless.
"I didn't catch your name," I stalled so pedestrians could clear the area. It'd been a long time since Nevils Borough had suffered a superhero fight and their flight-responses were atrophied.
The villain's mouth split in a broader smile, revealing neat rows of perfectly white teeth. "The Crimson Number."
Well, that explained the red costume with the white number "two" splashed across his torso and bleeding down onto his thighs. "You know that doesn't make any sense, right? The number on your costume is white. Your jumpsuit's red."
His posture deflated a little.
"Plus, you know if you're in this for a long-term career, I don't think the number two is a great choice." I scrunched up my face; the gold mask that keeps my identity hidden was rigid against the expression. "I mean, aside from it labeling you as second best, you know it's also a euphemism for–"
Crimson Number launched himself across the pavement with an angry grunt, his fists held out like battering rams as he closed the space between us in the blink of an eye.
I felt my ribs crack and caught a glance of my own gold-clad legs folding upward as his punch knocked me into the air. I lifted my head, flattened my back, and spread my arms to absorb the fall. The brightly-painted wall of Sour Sallie's Smoothie Shack stopped me with a solid thud.
So then, Crimson Number had a touch of Hyper Speed–just a touch, since I'd seen him coming–and a bit of Super Strength–but only a bit, since I was still alive and not liquefied against the restaurant wall.
That explained how he'd managed to disarm me and toss me into the street before I'd spotted him. He was too young to realize the touch of power he had wouldn't get him very far as a villain, unless he was extremely clever. But he'd just robbed a bank in the middle of the day without so much as a mask to hide his identity, so he wasn't on the bright side.
Crimson Number discarded the backpack with the cash from his heist and sauntered toward me while I struggled to get to my feet.
"You know, I thought Bitter Remedy was a pretty stupid name too, but as least I have manners and didn't say so."
His red, laced-up boots thunked heavily against the pavement. Was he really coming within arm's reach?
"The thing I don't understand," he continued as he stopped, towering over me, "is why this neighborhood has been overlooked by the other villains. I mean, when I was hunting for a place to announce myself to the world," he gestured extravagantly towards his impressive physique, "Nevils Borough just screamed out to me."
He gripped the gold fabric of my costume at the shoulder and pulled me upright. I gasped. It was like daggers slicing from my ribcage to my toes.
Over the years I'd grown familiar with the sensation of going into shock, of my internal organs rupturing. My vision blurred, my breathing sharp and shallow, but I had to stay alert, had to make it home to my son.
"What was the Conference thinking?" His other hand wrapped around my throat. Squeezed. "Assigning you?"
I focused on his bare palm against my uncovered neck. I was still conscious. I still had time.
I called my power from the well in the center of my chest. It stretched outward, like a flexing muscle, building beneath my skin, tightening under Crimson Number's palm.
He smiled. Too elated at strangling me to notice the subtle aches and pains that would be blossoming in his neck. Blood pounded in my temples as his eyebrows twitched. He cleared his throat. His eyes watered. His smile faded as his teeth gritted tight. His grip loosened. His knees wobbled.
He tried to let go, to break away, but it was too late. I gripped his forearm with both hands, peeling his sleeve up to touch the skin on his arm with the palms of my hands.
My power surged down both arms and Crimson Number dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. The crushing pain in my chest faded to pinpricks, and at last, I took a deep, luxurious breath. Crimson Number's eyes grew wide as he realized he couldn't do the same.
I let him collapse face-up on the sidewalk. "Next time, do a bit of research. Just because I'm a healer, doesn't mean I'm harmless."
By the time the sirens announced the police, Crimson Number was turning an angry shade of violet.
Still, he managed to choke down air. I held onto some of the injuries–it was worth it to spare a life. Crimson Number was so young, probably not even finished with high school yet. Maybe the villain reform program could rehabilitate him.
The local news blared through my tiny apartment when I finally made it home from escorting the police to the rehabilitation center six boroughs east. Conley didn't look up as I dropped my keys on the kitchen counter. The tube TV cast weak, blue angles over the orange glare of dusk pouring through the living room window. I flopped onto the second-hand couch that divided the two rooms.
Conley was perched in front of the TV watching me, as Bitter Remedy, fly across the screen; a golden blur that rag-dolled against Crimson Number's attack. The voice over announced: "Veteran superheroine, Bitter Remedy, fatally injured during Nevils Borough skirmish."
I leaned past my son to switch off the broadcast. The sounds of the downstairs neighbors cooking dinner pressed into the apartment.
"You know they're just trying to get ratings," I said to the back of his head of brown spiral curls.
In his sullen, nine-year old way, he shrugged.
"They're wrong. I'm not fatally wounded. See?" I held up my arms in a "ta-da!" gesture. Forced a smile despite the sharp reminder that my ribs weren't quite healed.
He twisted around to face me, his eyes bloodshot. "You were so fatally wounded. If the bad guy hadn't gotten so close, you–"
"Would have been fine."
"Didn't look it."
"Well, it looked a lot worse than it was."
"You couldn't even stand up!"
"Conley," I warned in The Mom voice, "please do not raise your voice."
He glared at me instead. His eyes dark and perfect. His brown skin glowed in the evening light. His nose an adorably round button.He had my high cheekbones but that's about it. I couldn't look at him without trying to cobble together what his father's face must look like.
"What if I order a pizza tonight?"
"I'm not four. You can't just make it better with pizza."
I let out a noisy breath. "What do you expect me to do? Watch him rob the bank? This is my neighborhood. I have a responsibility to our citizens. To the Conference." To you, I didn't say.
He straightened, looking ready to pounce. "Other heroes have partners."
"No. We've had this conversation. Partners are dangerous. They get in your life. Figure out your secrets. Know your identity. And then they turn villain."
"Maybe if it was someone you trusted." The statement was too calm. His eyes locked onto me like a kitten's on a grasshopper.
"I've been a member of the Conference for twelve years. I know a lot of heroes. There isn't one I want as partner."
"If you would teac–"
"Absolutely not." I hadn't mean to sound so harsh. "Conley, there are federal laws against under-aged sidekicks. Besides, you don't have powers."
He looked away. "I might have powers. If we start training now, I could be ready to help you," he gestured at the TV, "the next time you really need it."
I rubbed both hands over my face. I'd had a double shift at the diner, then the fight, then the trip to secure the villain. I was ready to be done. "You've got another ten years before any powers you have will manifest."
"Some people get powers young."
I slapped my hands against my knees and fixed him in a glare. "I will not have my son out in the streets battling villains when he's supposed to be in school."
"I've worked hard to make this a safe place for us. I requested Nevils Borough specifically because I knew it would be quiet. Because I knew I could defend it on my own. Today was a fluke–a fluke that I handled like the trained professional I am. I do not need help."
I took a breath. Tried to soften my voice. Ran the back of my fingers over his cheek. "I'm sorry that you had to see me fight today. But that doesn't mean you get to waste your time heroing.
"You know–you might not ever get powers."
He huffed and started to protest, but I continued over him, "It may seem like something you want now, but if I had my say, you would be normal. And live a long, happy, normal life."
I climbed my patrol route across rooftops and fire escapes, inhaling the distinctive nighttime aroma of summer in the city: baked asphalt, soured sewers, thick humidity, and a faint lingering of charcoal barbeques. It smelled of home and with my injuries healed things were back to normal.
When I neared the only full-service bank in Nevils Borough I saw a slight, shifting shadow. My heart skipped a beat. Most people would have dismissed the wavering night, but I recognized the Light Manipulation instantly.
He wasn't visible per se, but I could tell he was perched on the rooftop across the street from the bank. I doubled back around to approach him from behind, walking lightly across the flat roof. Neighboring buildings towered a story or two overhead.
"Out for a walk?" I asked when I drew near.
"Most people don't notice me," Glint said as he stood, dropped the shadowy concealment. His black bodysuit hid any distinguishing feature except for an emblazoned red "G" on the center of his toned chest. The stretchy black fabric covered his head, leaving the vague imprint of a face beneath.
"I guess that makes me special." I'd cocked a curvy hip. It would be easy to fall back into the old pattern with Glint.
"Remy," he said, "It's been a long time."
I crossed gold-covered arms over my chest, resolving to control my body language. "Yes. It has. What brings you to Nevils Borough?"
He inclined his head toward the street. "Right now, I'm waiting for someone to start robbing your bank so I can intervene."
My brow furrowed, pressing uncomfortably against my rigid mask. When Glint knelt by the edge of the roof, using the knee-high parapet as cover, I joined him.
He gestured with one long, gloved hand. "There in the alley–been loitering for twenty minutes, avoiding the cameras there and there."
"Who is it?" I asked.
"I can't tell," he said.
"You don't know?"
"Then what were you doing here before you noticed them?" I didn't try to hide my annoyance as I squinted into the night. The suspect wore a skintight suit beneath their long, ill-fitting coat, but they stayed out of the yellowed light cast by streetlamps.
Glint was staring at me when I turned my attention back to him. "I wanted to talk to you about what happened with Crimson Number."
I let out a dismissive snicker that was too loud and then compensated for it by using an unnecessarily soft voice. "Then you're wasting your time. Go home." I made for the fire-escape.
He called after in a hushed voice, "What about the bank robber?"
I whispered, "Go home."
On the street, I waited at the hard edge of a shadow for the would-be robber to make a move. Felt Glint's presence materialize behind me. "I do not need your help."
"That's not what it looked like on the news last week."
I turned to face him. "Have I ever come to any of your towns and critiqued your work? Ever? In ten years?"
He had no answer.
"Look, I've got this. Please just go back to wherever it is you're working now." I didn't say that I knew he was partnered with Pascal's Wager upstate. Didn't want him to know I kept tabs on him.
Glint's body heat radiated into the space between us. His clean scent tinged the night air. The urge to lean into him, to press my bare palms against his mesh-textured suit, rose up from a place ten years past. I tried to pull away, but there was nowhere to go without stepping into the light.
A rumble vibrated deep in my chest, shaking my insides.
We turned to the bank. To the alley. A trench coat on the ground. A purple costume with silver piping. Long flowing locks of golden hair. Acoustic Calamity.
I'd never encountered Acoustic Calamity before, but I'd studied the Conference's archives. Called her power to mind: Sound Manipulation.
Her hands were cupped around her mouth and pressed to the brick wall of the bank as the world shook around them. The woman could make everyone in a seven block radius deaf in a heartbeat. This was her attempt at subtlety.
The bricks turned to dust under her focused voice. As she pushed through the wall into the bank, I darted across the street. The bank's alarm would've already alerted the police. I had to subdue her before they arrived and she popped the eardrums of every officer on the Nevils Borough payroll.
I pressed against the cracked bricks next to the gaping hole in the wall. Glanced back but didn't see Glint. Hoped he'd listened and left town. More likely he was moving in on Acoustic Calamity on his own, concealed terms.
The lobby was empty. With quick, silent steps I made my way to the back of the bank.
Acoustic Calamity stood before the vault, considering the dense metal. She didn't notice me sneaking down the hall as she cupped her hands around her mouth again, pressing her face close to the vault door. I stumbled when the quaking shook the ground.Rattled my bones.
I decided against my knife. If I could get an arm around Acoustic Calamity's neck, or could overpower her and compress her chest . . . Well, Sound Manipulation isn't much use when you can't draw a breath.
I crept up behind, raising my arms to snake them around her body. Just when I coiled to pounce, the vibration of the building paused. Acoustic Calamity stopped to draw a deep breath. She glanced back over her shoulder casually, as though she knew I wouldn't have arrived on the scene yet.
I threw herself at her. Clutched her windpipe closed as I tried to leverage her legs out from under her.
Acoustic Calamity stumbled backwards, but kept her feet on the ground. Just as I was beginning to wonder why she was defending herself with only one hand, I saw the stun gun.
The muscles in my abdomen contracted. Breath filled my lungs in a whoosh. I lost my grip on Acoustic Calamity's neck and tripped backwards, falling to the ground.
She bent over me, taking a deep, menacing breath.
A single, electric-blue line of light cut between us, cleanly slicing off several blonde locks of hair that had spilled over Acoustic Calamity's shoulder. A laser. Glint and his Light Manipulation.
I gritted my teeth. Lunged. A shoulder tackle and we tumbled down in a heap of gold and purple. I clamped both hands around her neck, blocking off my enemy's powers. Pinned her shoulders to the floor with my knees.
As if on cue, sirens echoed down the street. Glint materialized beside me as I worked to keep the suffocating villain under control. Acoustic Calamity gave one last wrenching twist before surrendering.
After Acoustic Calamity was secured, I disengaged from the officers on the scene. I had to travel to the detention center again and the prospect of another long, sleepless night followed by a shift at the diner made me anxious to be rid of Glint. I didn't need him snooping around my town.
I found him on the roof of Nevils' Auto Loan, across the street from the bank, the same place I'd found him before.
"See?" I said, "I've got everything under control."
He appraised me. "It looked sketchy there for a minute."
"I don't have time to deal with you. If you have a problem with the way I manage my Borough then file a complaint with the Conference."
I spun on my heel to leave, but then he was beside me, gripping my arm, turning me to face him. "Remy, please just talk to me for a second."
I pulled away from him but stayed, crossing my arms over my chest. "Fine. What do you want to talk about?"
"I went to see the Laudable Ladybug."
My second partner, after Glint, though it had been seven years since we'd worked together. "How is she?"
"She saw the fight. She was worried."
"Right. Everybody's so worried. After years of no one caring how I got on, now everyone's concerned."
"Us not caring? You're the one who walked out on Lady. Hurt her feelings, I think."
That was true. Lady had gotten too close and nearly found out about Conley on more than one occasion.
I said, "Aren't you the one who taught me that you can't trust anyone? Even your partner? She wanted to know my identity, so I asked to be reassigned."
"You asked to go solo. That's not something that healers do."
"I'm not a normal healer."
"Maybe. Or maybe you're hiding something other than your identity."
The sounds of police investigation on the street below faded into nothing. My stomach did odd loopty-loops. Did he know? It wouldn't be hard to figure out. The child looked little like me–I figured if Glint got one good look at Conley, he would see his own face.
He asked, "Are you sick? Were you afraid that if the Conference found out you'd get benched? Is that what you're hiding from me?"
"Me hiding secrets from you?" I almost laughed I was so relieved. "I'm the one who showed you my face. I trusted you. You're the one who wouldn't so much as look me in the eye.
"Well, you were right. It's safer not to let anyone know who I am. And the easiest way to do that is by working alone."
His hands clenched, his posture tensed, but he didn't deny it. I might've been the one who walked away, but he was the one who had ended our relationship.
"Why are you even here?" I asked.
His voice was quiet. "I was worried about you."
Worried. Because of one stupid broadcast and yet never concerned all those years I managed to stay out of the headlines.
"Okay," I said. "You were worried. Now you see–I'm fine. Go back to your new partner." I could see that my words stung, but I had more important things to worry about than my ex-boyfriend's feelings.
"Take off your mask."
He froze, uncertain. I must've caught him off-guard, because he'd never hesitated before. The answer had always been no. His hands clenched and opened, clenched and opened.
Was he actually considering it?
"Please, Remy just–"
"Go, Glint. I don't need you."
When I walked away this time, he didn't try to stop me.
Conley was late.
A week after Acoustic Calamity, my injuries were healed but Conley was still sullen. It was too dangerous for him to be out alone, so during summer break he was stuck with our neighbor, Ms. Ruth, while his friends were off to summer camp. I compromised by letting him walk by himself to the diner for lunch every day.
I checked the clock on the wall again. Asked if the cute old couple in my section needed coffee refills without really seeing them.Ran my thumb back and forth over the familiar groove in the coffee pot's handle as I refilled the mugs at a table of off-duty cops I knew, but who didn't recognize me in civvies.
I wandered into Julie's section and refilled the mug of a man sitting alone without bothering to ask if he wanted more. I checked the side-street outside the diner's window. Conley waited at the crosswalk for traffic to clear.
"You're late," I chided when he entered.
I crossed the diner to guide him toward my section, happy to feel his small shoulders beneath my fingers.
"Can I have some chocolate milk?"
"Did you finish your reading assignment?"
"If you work on it right now, I'll score you some chocolate milk."
"Thanks." He unzipped his backpack.
I maneuvered around the diner's long counter to fish a bottle of chocolate milk out of the cooler.
Julie was speaking to someone. There was something about the pitch of her voice that drew my attention.
When I turned to see what had startled her, a man was rushing out the door. One of the off-duty police officers eyed the diner's still swinging door, but seemed to lose interest when Julie lifted a twenty-dollar bill from beneath the coffee mug.
How could I have been so distracted? I hadn't even looked at the man's face when I filled his cup.
I ran to the door, Conley's milk in hand, and stepped onto the sidewalk. The man was jogging. Already up the block. His head of short-cropped, dark hair ducked down as he turned the corner, out of view.
Something familiar about his movements . . .
No. It couldn't be, but–he was Glint's height and Glint's build. Conley was on the sidewalk next to me now, his face creased in confusion.
"What's going on?" he asked.
I looked down at the son who looked so very little like me.
Every night for the next two weeks I gave Glint the slip.
I understood his abilities the way few people did. On my home turf, he had no chance of finding me when I didn't want to be found. He seemed to give up. At least, I hoped he'd given up.
The summer months passed with little activity. Taking down Acoustic Calamity had repaired the damage to my reputation. No more villains challenged my small Borough. No more heroes visited to question my abilities.
Conley had calmed down too. I hadn't offered him a reason when I'd told him he wasn't allowed to eat at the diner anymore. Taking away his bit of independence should've caused an epic struggle, but he'd recovered after a couple of days.
I came home early one August night to spend a few hours helping Conley finish his summer assignments before school started again.
Only Conley wasn't there.
Ms. Ruth should have been in our apartment with him, but I found the gray-haired neighbor at home, in the apartment next door.
"Wait. What did he say?" I asked.
The woman weaved her arthritis-swollen fingers together just to untwine them again. "He said that you found a scholarship for the day camp at that park."
"How long has this been going on?"
"Weeks. Almost two months. I thought you knew. We have breakfast when you leave for work and I wait with him at your apartment after he gets back. I'm so sorry."
I waved away her apology. It wasn't her fault–it was my responsibility to take care of Conley. "When does he normally come back?"
"Any minute now."
"Thank you, Ms. Ruth." I shouldered the door into my own apartment. How long had he been gone today? Seven hours? A little longer? How far away could he travel and still make it back? I considered all of the communities surrounding Nevils Borough. The drugs in Meilanville. The gangs in Wilstin Borough. Maybe he really had gone to day camp.
The lock on the front door jiggled.
I charged across the room and flung the door open. Conley stood in the hall, eyes wide, eyebrows high, keys clutched in his small fist. He was a mess, covered in dust and dirt smears. His shorts revealed freshly skinned knees and his old shoes were covered in mud.
Jaw set, he shuffled in.
I yanked one of the kitchen chairs out from under the table, turning it towards him. "Sit."
I paced between the front door and the kitchen sink, the small space doing little to contain my agitation. Everything was okay. He was home safe now. I just needed to figure out what was going on and handle it.
"Are you okay?"
He hesitated. "Uh. Yes?"
"You're not hurt?"
Conley's shoulders slumped forward, a guilty look played across his features. "No, Mom, I'm fine."
I knelt in front of him, running my fingers lightly over his skinned knees, pulling my power to his scrapes. They faded and light pain blossomed on my knees, my pants adhering to the fresh stickiness of missing skin.
I stood and leaned against the kitchen counter. "Wanna tell me where you've been?"
"If you tell me now, I promise I won't lose my temper."
"Okay," he said, "I was with a hero named Glint–"
"You said you wouldn't lose your temper!"
Conley tried to shrink away as I launched off the kitchen counter and knelt down at his eye level, gripping the back of the chair in either hand. "I know what I said. What did you say?"
"I was with Glint. He's a hero. I can show you; he's on the affiliate roster of the Conference's webpage. Like you."
My hair fell across my shoulders as I bent my face away from his. Of course it was Glint. And I had feared Conley might've joined a gang. "Why were you with Glint? What did he want?"
Conley waited until I met his eyes to answer. "He's teaching me to be a hero."
I gripped the chair so tightly my hands shook. Forced myself to stand. "Go to your room."
"I've heard enough. You're not going with him anywhere anymore. You're grounded."
With practiced grace, I moved from alley to rooftop to alcove. I made it easy for Glint to find me, standing in the open on the rooftop of Nevils' Auto Loan. I recognized the faint wavering of shadows even before he unveiled himself and stepped into the soft light cast by the streetlamps below.
His posture was tense, his hands open where I could see them, but he didn't expect an attack.
Head high, shoulders back, I strode toward him with purpose.
He managed only to say, "Remy–" before I grabbed his costume at the shoulder.
I pulled him forward, kicked his legs out from under him, and turned my hips to plant him on his back on the rough ground. Lightning-quick, I pinned his shoulders with my knees and wrapped my hands around his neck. I squeezed tight enough for him to understand that I was serious.
"How dare you call me that."
He was tall, strong. If he wanted to he could get out from under me, I had no doubt of that. Instead, he rested his fingertips against my forearm. "Please."
"No." I squeezed harder. "You don't get to show up in my town. You don't get to invade my life."
His hand wrapped gently around my wrist. "Okay." His voice was too calm. "Okay, I'm sorry."
I studied the black mask, the rise and fall of his features beneath. I'd once found it mysterious, charming. How I'd grown to hate that mask. I hated also that my anger wavered at his touch, at his familiar voice.
I released him. Put a few paces between us. Gulped the thick summer air.
Glint waited, his face turned toward the ground, his arms limp at his sides. He looked helpless.
"You shouldn't have come here," I said evenly.
"I was worried."
"It's time for you to leave."
"I can't," he said.
"Yes. You can. And you will. I have Conference sanctions over this neighborhood and I can take care of myself just fine–I've been doing it for years."
"And why is that, exactly?" He straightened, his chest puffing up as he challenged me. "It's clear that you can do this solo, but why did you choose to? Why did you push Ladybug away? Why have all of your old friends lost contact with you?"
"It's none of anybody's business what I do, so long as the job gets done."
He moved closer now, keeping to the light. It had always been so hard for him to be in the open. He didn't have any special toughness or healing. His best defense was staying hidden.
"I've seen what it's like for you to try to work alone. There's a good reason why you've isolated yourself." His tone took on a certain fragile quality as he asked, "You want to tell me what that reason is?"
I hugged my arms over my chest.
Glint took another step. Brushed the palms of his hands against my shoulders. "Were you ever going to tell me?"
"No. You . . . didn't want me. Didn't seem like you'd want him either."
Glint ran a single finger under my chin to force my gaze up toward his face. My lip quivered, but he couldn't see my eyes, my brow, any better than I could see his. It was such a soulless exchange, even as the tears slipped from under my mask.
"You were the only thing I've ever really wanted. I was just too young and too afraid to tell you the truth."
I shuddered, a silent ripple I couldn't keep inside any more. He pulled me close, his warmth soaking through me. "You knew. That day, you told me to show you my face or find a new partner. You came to me looking for support and I blew it. I'm so sorry–"
I pulled away. Wiped at the tears. The fabric of my gloved fingers didn't absorb liquids well, and so I only managed to smear the wetness. "No. I should have told you."
He nodded his agreement at that.
It didn't change anything. He'd never trust me. Not then, not now. "What were you thinking? Training a child. Like I wouldn't find out."
He held his palms up. "He was already training. Out in the open, where anyone could see him using . . ."
"Conley has powers."
"No. He doesn't."
"He's been trying to keep it a secret from you," he said.
Emphatically, "No–he doesn't."
Glint only watched me.
"He's nine years old. He's too young to manifest," I said.
"There is a precedent for manifesting in childhood."
"Right. Like el Capitán Universo or Mistress Omnipresence."
"Yes. Like them," he said.
A skeptical laugh trickled out, though it wasn't at all funny. "You think he has Prime level powers?"
Glint didn't shrink from the answer. "Yes."
If he was right, it would mean that my son had near-limitless potential. There would always be some villain, crisis, disaster that demanded his attention. He'd be beyond famous. He would never find peace.
"What am I going to do?"
Glint said, "I think given our situation we can get him help from the Conference."
His fists balled. "I'm not asking anything from you except for you to let me help protect him."
"Does he know?"
"That I'm his father? No. But I couldn't leave once I figured i–"
Hot blood splattered across my face.
The synthetic fabric of Glint's costume took on an oily glimmer as blood saturated the area beneath his collarbone. He collapsed.
Then I was airborne, the wind driven from my chest. Training trumped instinct and I rolled when I hit the ground, assessing the scene.
I wasn't injured, but I'd been thrown to the opposite side of the roof. A figure stood between me and Glint.
The villain was tall and lean. His costume a mesh of pixelated colors that helped him blend into the nighttime scenery. His mask covered everything except a handsome smile.
"Bitter Remedy. So nice to see you well."
Beyond the villain, Glint was gasping for breath, drowning in his own blood.
The figure leveled a pistol at me; a silencer added disproportionate length to the muzzle.
"You have me at a disadvantage."
He laughed. "There are those who call me The Crimson Number."
My breath caught in my throat. I called his powers to mind: Strength and Speed–and now a gun.
I crouched ever so slightly, shifting my weight to reach for the knife in my boot.
Crimson Number cocked the pistol; the single click served as warning.
"I took your advice," he offered. "I did my homework this time. You have Accelerated Healing and you can absorb or inflict wounds. But, you can't transfer an injury if you're not hurt. And you need skin contact. Your boyfriend," he tilted his head toward Glint, "can control light for concealment or to create lasers, but he doesn't have a bit of toughness, healing, or invulnerability."
He smiled again. "So, then, a gun is the most effective weapon. One bullet in him first, since he's the real threat. A second in you before you can get close and before you get injured. Simple."
I swallowed hard.
"Next I'll make a stop at forty-four Peachtree Avenue, apartment B-nine, and add an emerging Prime to my resume."
My heart sank into my stomach. To dodge a bullet at such close range I'd need to move before he fired, but Hyper Speed gave him enough time to correct his aim.
Crimson Number said, "Thanks for all your help. Good-bye, Bitter Remedy."
A light flared in Crimson Number's face.
Glint's tactics. I closed my eyes and ducked my head as I drew my knife and charged on the night-blinded villain.
I grabbed his wrist and twisted, using my momentum to drive the knife cleanly through the meat of Crimson Number's forearm. His muscles and tendons skewered, the gun clunked to the ground.
Almost faster than sight, Crimson Number clamped his other, gloved hand over my face. Hefted me off the ground. I reared back with the knife, but he slung me across the roof.
I landed on Glint. Lost the knife. He tried to support me as I groped the ground for my weapon, but his grip on my arm was weak. His other hand clenched over his wound.
Crimson Number was a blur of urban camouflage in the night. Then he stood over us, gun in hand once again. He didn't stop to boast this time as he leveled the pistol.
From the adjacent rooftop, a thin figure in a blue mask drew the villain's attention.
The gun pointed at my son.
Glint's hand came up, glistening with blood, but he was too weak to call any power. I lunged to put myself between the gun and the child.
The ground heaved.
The flat rooftop beneath us lurched and warped. Crimson Number stumbled, fell, but he didn't fall to the ground–the ground rose up to meet him. It flared out in five directions, a giant hand made of asphalt membrane that bent and flexed to squeeze him against its palm.
I looked up at Conley in wonder. He held his hand out, motioning as the building stretched and buckled beneath us to accommodate his wishes. He squeezed his fist and the building's grip tightened around Crimson Number. Somewhere in the back of my mind I noted his power: Matter Control.
Crimson Number became limp in the morphed roof-hand, the gun slid down the slope of the roof-wrist, pinging off my toe as it skittered away. Crimson Number wasn't fighting anymore. He didn't seem to be conscious anymore.
Conley was still squeezing.
I wasn't prepared to watch my son become a murderer–but I wasn't sure I had the power to stop him either.
"Conley." My voice was too weak. Glint motionless beside me. There wasn't time to talk him down slowly–Glint needed me now. I summoned The Mom voice. "Stop, Conley! Let him go! Now!"
He faltered, his arm trembling, his masked face turning towards me.
"That's enough. Put him down."
Slowly at first, and then all at once, Conley unclenched his hand. Crimson Number lay limp in the open roof-hand. The ground settled beneath me.
I didn't check that the villain would live. I turned my full attention to the dying hero.
He was unresponsive when I rolled him onto his back, tearing away my mask to get a look at the wound.
Blood coated everything.
I ripped open his costume at the shoulder and pressed both my naked palms to his red-tinted skin. Ignored the sticky feel of his cold flesh. Closed my eyes and focused on calling my power. The familiar pressure burst down both my arms, rippling like a second set of muscles.
My power leaked into him, searching for some spark to latch onto, some piece to restore. His hurt rose to meet me and I siphoned it greedily, teeth gritted against the blossom of pain beneath my collarbone.
I pulled it into myself, not stopping to check if he started breathing as I struggled to draw breath, not opening my eyes to see if he regained consciousness when I grew dizzy.
Long fingers wrapped around the hands pressed to his chest. A voice sounded muffled, like it carried underwater. "Stop."
I opened my eyes. Glint was trying to push me away. I ignored him and folded his injury inward, absorbing his hurt.
"Remy. Enough," he struggled to say.
The idea seemed foreign, incomprehensible.
"Mom." Conley's voice. "Mom, you have to stop. He's okay."
Glint was sitting up now, supporting my weight. I was half collapsed on top of him.
With a shuddering breath, I relaxed my power.
"Should we take her to the hospital?" Conley asked in a voice pitched high with worry. He'd made it down to us at some point. How long had I been healing Glint?
With a great force of will, I pulled away from Glint, sitting up under my own power. The angry wound in my chest had soiled my gold uniform, but the seepage was slowing. "I'm okay."
Conley clutched his balled-up mask, looked from me to Glint and back.
"Let's give her a minute," Glint decided.
Conley was probably right, even with Accelerated Healing I felt awful, needed medical attention. Glint, too, since I hadn't taken his entire wound before they'd stopped me.
But that was in the future. Where I'd have to deal with my son as a Prime and my ex-boyfriend back in my life. I glanced over the still form of the villain in the distorted grasp of the roof to see his chest rise and fall.
For the moment, I wanted only to sit very still.
Glint obliged, keeping me steady with a hand under my elbow. He turned his attention to Conley. "You did good for your first time out."
The boy beamed. "I didn't know I could do that until I saw him," a furtive glance at the suspended villain, "with the gun like that."
Glint said, "I think there's a lot you can do that we don't know about yet."
Conley turned to me. "I get to keep training with Glint now, right?"
Through lingering dizziness, I considered my son. "I guess that's up to Glint."
We turned to the silent man. He didn't look at either of us as he weighed his answer. At length, he reached up, gripped the top of his mask in hand and pulled it off.
My mouth hung open. After more than a decade of secrecy, he looked me in the eye. The resemblance to Conley was unmistakable.
"Actually," he said, "my name's Brian."
About the Author
Krystal Claxton writes speculative fiction in the sliver of time between raising a four-year old with her unreasonably awesome husband and being a full-time computer technician. She enjoys attending Dragon*Con in costume, science magazines, and feverishly researching whichever random topic has just piqued her interest. Keep up with her at krystalclaxton.com or @krystalclaxton on Twitter.
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