There was an awful gurgle.
Not a human gurgle.
But it came from Gunze nonetheless.
“Go to him,” Patrickson said, coolly. “I’m not cruel. Here what he has to say, now that the unkillable is finally being slain.”
His soldiers milled uncertainly, their rifles wavering from the first time, and Patrickson turned to him, glee written across his face. “Gentlemen, maybe I remind you what we are here for? We’re to destroy this building and all of the association members inside of it.”
No murmurs, just the blank silence of his men watching him. Would he keep his word?
His hand snatched up Osteor’s com and he smashed it across the ground. “Bone witch… do you give up your role in the association?”
Her head snapped up, the doctor staring at him in disbelief.
“It’s What, Sir,” Patrickson corrected. “As I have you at my advantage.”
Osteor glowered at him.
“Oh, but you’re right,” The commander said, considering. “You do have a higher degree than me, so I suppose that makes up for the dozens of guns in the room under my control. Fine. Resign or die, if your pride matters that much.”
He gestured lazily at his guards.
I slowly stood up, body shaking, muscles quivering, and walked over to Gunze, limping, broken. But still moving. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t give any sort of resistance.
But I wasn’t dead, and I was going to hear Gunze’s last message.
“I resign from my post at the Dauphin island Association building.” The bone witch said, slumping back against her table.
“Ah, see? And now there are no members of the association left in the building,” Patrickson said, looking over at Gunze. “Or there won’t be any left terribly soon. So our job is almost done.”
I reached Gunze and felt his body lean against mine. His chest gurgled and red spread across his finger tips. Somehow he still looked surprised, grappling at his heart. But his eyes were still aware and he stared me in the face.
From the corner of my eye, I watched Hands go paler and paler to the quivering beat of the dying man pressed against me, her eyes flicking around the room.
Did she think we were getting out of this?
“No…” Gunze said, weakly. “Matter what happens, Gale. Keep them together. Don’t let them break apart.”
I stared at Gunze, one hand weakly pressing against my chest. “You’re the greatest hero we had, Gunze.”
“In rank only. If I were truly great…” He laughed, and flecks of blood danced across his lips and rolled down his chin. “Then we wouldn’t be here, now would we?”
“I… Don’t say things like that. Don’t die with words like that on your lips!” I hissed.
“The only thing that I’m dying with…” Gunze said, slowly, his hand going weak against my chest. “Is the knowledge that my last stand wasn’t worthless. Go on. Keep moving. Never stop. Don’t mourn. Not for long.”
A tear trickled down my cheek and whistled over my bruised, cut up face. Then another.
Then another. Like a hot down pour to cut through the nightmare in front of me.
“But…” I whispered, as the thread master grew somehow more limp, and somehow quieter, and somehow less of a human being, drifting farther apart.
“You’ve gotta go far kid. ” whispered across his lips. “Keep the world safe. It’s going to get harder from here.”
Then he slumped, and the life fell from his eyes like the tears were falling from mine, and I was left on top of a cooling corpse.
“Sir… I came here to break the association.”
“And it’s been broken,” Patrickson said. “Look at how they lay on the ground. No lights in their eyes.”
I glared at him, but it was pointless.
“Pick up his com,” the commander barked at me. My hands quested down to the man’s hip and pulled it free from his belt.
Old model. First generation, perhaps.
“He was a good man,” Patrickson eulogized. “Good doesn’t really stop bullets, as it turned out. Glad we did this experiment.” He locked eyes with me, a pleased look sprawled across his face. A bruise was slowly forming across the cut I’d made, but it just made him even more sinister. Then he turned away.
“Take your wounded and leave, Gale.”
“Boss?! Are you being serious?” One of the soldiers said. “They know who we are.”
“If our other friends have done their job…” Patrickson’s voice grew somehow more smug. “There won’t be anyone left to complain to. Nobody who can do anything about us. The whole of the gulf of mexico will go silent… if we kill these four.”
His boot flicked across Colton’s limp body.
“Don’t we want the gulf to go silent?” said the same soldier.
“Of course not,” The normal said, walking over to the table and grabbing his gauntlet. “We want to have a valuable partner in the upcoming conflict. We don’t want a deadlands the size of North America when the time comes.” Patrickson turned his gaze on the soldier. “Unless you want to challenge me on this?” His eyebrow raised.
Silence from the rest of the room.
“Well? You’re a dozen highly trained men. With guns. Do you really think you can’t take me?” Patrickson’s eyebrow quirked higher.
“Or am I right?” He held up a hand and stared at his soldiers. “We’ve won.”
“Should we not take the high ground here, Men? We have proven our point; their leader lays dying. We have proven that the backbone of their cause is weak, and when we leave, they shall shore it up. and what will come from that is not the organization we came here to destroy.”
Patrickson swept his gaze dispassionately across the dead body in the room.
“No words on the matter? Gale, what do you think?”
I shook from my position on the ground and felt my teeth grind from where my jaw had been slammed out of alignment.
“If someone disagrees with my train of thought, just shoot me already,” Patrickson spat. “No? Good, fine, then I’m still the leader, and we’re leaving the rest alive.”
His hands gripped the gauntlet tightly and the gauntlet settled across his fist like it had never left.
“Back to business. Gale-?”
My arms shook.
My legs shook.
My heart fluttered.
“I’ll never forgive you,” I swore, staring at him.
“Good. Means you still have your pluck even after I beat the shit out of you. Keep that. It’ll be great to crush it out of you later,” Patrickson quirked an eyebrow at me. “I’ll look forward to it.” He gestured with his free hand. “Men?”
“Sir, yes sir.”
“Fan out. We’ll give our new friends an hour to get what they need and get out. Then we blow the building. Make sure to release the prisoners… come six months, I want to see what’s been built here. Claim it for myself.”
The commander’s eyes flicked over the four of us who were still alive, who hadn’t been turned into sacks of flesh with all the soul taken out, shot us a jaunty grin, and left the room.
I’m not entirely sure how long I saw there, staring down at the old man. When had he moved from being someone I hated to someone I liked? When had I moved to someone he was willing to sacrifice himself for?
If there had been just a few more seconds, I would’ve outed myself. Would’ve eaten that bullet. I would’ve proved that I had been responsible.
But Gunze had taken that choice from me. Had known, somehow that I was going to do it.
It didn’t make sense. I was the weakest here. If I died, we would’ve lost the least.
It wasn’t a matter of taste, or choice, or anything suicidal. It was cold hard logic.
And yet there I saw, Gunze’s blood on my hands, staring at the walls of the research lab in vague horror.
Had it been worth coming here? Had it been worth standing up?
What had he seen in my eyes, in my face, that told him… that I was worth keeping around?
Hands gently touched my shoulder, and I turned, wide eye, and stared at her. Then stared at Osteor.
I swallowed. Last words from Gunze. Needed to live by them. Remember Excelsior. Remember everything.
Slowly, I stood up and faced the bone witch.
“You can still heal, right?”
Osteor flicked her gaze from the dead body to my face.
“Of course. I was the medic for this base.”
I breathed in, then let out a slow sigh. “We need to get out of here…”
My hands shook, and I stared down at what remained of my nose, battered, bruised, strips taken off of my flesh.
Then my eyes jerked back to Osteor’s. “And I need you to heal me up. They can’t see me like this. I think it would break their morale.”
It was night. Almost pitch black out, with the stars roaring over head and Ironmarrow met us and the milling students that joined us outside at the bridge and counted our number one by one. Her face was tired, wrinkled. She looked half destroyed as well, her short covered in bullet holes and knife marks.
Our powers had returned, one and all, once we were away from the gauntlet’s radius. Didn’t matter. Gunze wouldn’t magically spring back to life.
“Where’s Gunze?” She asked.
I stepped around her and stared at the bridge onto Dauphin island, then back at the single car we’d brought. The island burned under the weight of missile strikes.
“Gone,” I said. “We got the nurse and the students out.” Couldn’t think about it now.
“What about their teachers?” Ironmarrow asked, peering over our new ranks.
“Montgomery,” Hands returned. I was propped up over her shoulder, barely standing on my own. But there was so much more road to walk before I could sleep.
“Orders?” Marrow asked, staring at me pointedly.
I gave her a shocked look. Something like disbelief. Something harsher. Softer. Weaker. My eyes fluttered. Too much action. Too much stress. Too many fists in my gust. Too much blood on my hands. Too much. How could she expect that from me, now?
“Get us home, and get these students integrated in to whatever patrols are still running.,” I muttered. “Wake me up when we get there.”
Before I got healed, before I did anything else, I called up the same man who’d helped sift rubble, and who had carved out Faraday’s tombstone.
There was a small ceremony held in the wee hours of the morning, where the only thing we had left of Gunze, his communicator, was buried in the soil. I stared at the carver as he engraved a final message into the stone.
“Keep moving. Never stop. Don’t mourn. Not for long.”
The tomb was feet away from Faraday’s. It was the greatest honor I could give him, while the Association was still in crisis mode.
Startling, I found that I didn’t care when the Association came out of crisis mode, as there was officially no authority to be found in the city apart from my own.
So it was up to me to bury the hero.
Beside him, with no expenses spared, I buried the name tag of the hero who’d died, whose ID I had stolen. It felt like years ago now, but he deserved to be remembered to.
Besides. Gunze would’ve loved to have his last words be literal.
The local infirmary hadn’t been destroyed. Excelsior had often talked about how much he hated the healing after each mission, and I had never understood the reason why until that moment. Staring at the walls, listening to the radio broadcasts be interrupted by continually reminders that Alabama was still in a state of emergency. That there would be no emergency capes on their way to clean things up, and to trust local authorities instead, it made me think about exactly what Excelsior had put onto my shoulders.
One life had been lost for the sake of twelve more who could live. What made Gunze so special that I could not trade his life for twelve others?
Had I not been willing to do the same just days before, fighting against Negalli? Willing to trade my life for the citizens of Mobile? What made this victory seem so hollow, but Negalli so much better?
Both were sacrifices, but I had survived one of them. Had lived through one of them. Had gotten out of one of them.
Faraday’s body drifted across my vision and I stiffened.
Rebecca walked through, the bone witch in a doctor’s outfit and held up a mirror.
Maybe it was day. The time wasn’t clear. I’d lost many hours. Had I slept? Had I dreamed? Did I yet live?
My nose was slightly crooked, but it wasn’t broken anymore. I was still bruised, but nothing was broken. Tarnished, but not destroyed. My eyes peered intently at myself, and I stared back, desperately hoping to try and find something there, some flicker that would tell me what all those great heroes had seen staring back at them.
That made my life worth more than Gunze. That had inspired Excelsior to go to Montgomery without a weapon.
What was I?
“You’re cleared to go. Take it easy the next few days, and report to me on the third so I can check your ribs,” The healer said, sternly, then offered me her hand. I took it and she pulled, slowly lifting me out of bed.
“Is that all?” I said, my voice a bit blank. Flat. Wooden. My hand brushed against the skin of my nose and I marvelled at how little of a mark had been left on it.
Then my eyes focused back onto the doctor.
Her lips quirked. “There are some people who want to see you downstairs.”
The stairs were awkward. Each step sent a bit of pain down my bruised legs. Bruised tailbone, and bruised back. Not broken, but I hadn’t been under the nurse’s care long enough to get any real healing done, apart from my nose.
I was grateful for that, at least. I sounded like an idiot otherwise.
The end of the stairs caught be staggering from the sudden change in position. Nearly fell, if it weren’t for an arm snapping out to catch me.
It took me off guard, and I squealed like the hands of death itself were upon me. Two hands sought out like iron claps around my fingers, stopping them from moving, choking off the gust of air I’d been trying to summon. “Hey, hey, hey,” Colton said. A bandage was wrapped around his head. I was glad to see him on his feet. So damn glad to see him on his feet and not staggering around.
He carefully shouldered part of my weight. “Sorry to startle you like that.” Blunt. Cold. Not too cold. Was I imagining things? How far from a deviation was Colton from my nightmares?
He flashed me a grin and I relaxed, just a hair. Needed some more time to not be so sensitive to things. My mind flickered back to the feel of Patrickson’s palm against my face, back to Gunze’s dying words.
Back to the thought that this hadn’t had to happen, if I were just smarter.
I’d get smarter.
“Colton,” I said, trying to recover, though I was flushed from embarrassment. From what I’d almost done to him, trying to escape.
“Ah, so you do remember my name,” He returned, playfully. “That’s good. Thought you might forget what happened.”
I’d never be able to forget what happened.
“What’s got you so happy?” Needed a subject change.
“Drugs!” He gave me a finger gun from his spare hand and smirked. “The good stuff! I can’t feel anything!” His smile faded slightly as he read something in my face, something I hadn’t kept hidden.
I looked at the bandage around his head, then down at his jaw, puffy from an injection.
“Right, You got your shit knocked in, didn’t you?” The knife master said, pausing. “Heard something about what happened. Can’t really believe it but…” His eyes settled on me for a long moment, and I felt something akin to the predator’s gaze settling across my bone structure. Where things had been split open and only recently healed.
“What happened to you?” I asked, to change the subject.
“Cracked my jaw on the way down. A shame about the old man.” Colton explained, still grinning. I could count all of his teeth, gleaming like daggers in his mouth.
I twitched at the comment and he watched with the smug satisfaction of a cat. The quivering certainty that he knew was building.
“Right… but why were you waiting on me?” I asked, unable to stop the slight grin from rising to my face.
“To see what saved me,” Colton said, clicking his teeth. “See if you really had changed from what I remembered.”
“Have I?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.
Our eyes met for a long moment. The shark inside of Colton’s eyes circled slowly, dazed, confused. There’d be hell to pay later, we just needed to admit that.
Hell to pay for everything that happened, even if we were going to pretend it was all fine. Just for this one night.
We both knew I hadn’t really changed.
“Come on, they got this thing for you,” He gestured vaguely at the door out of the stairwell, and I followed his cue, step by step out the door.
My heart had finally stopped pounding when I turned and stared at the lobby.
There was a cake on display on a table, and the area was filled with survivors from Dauphin island. The people whose lives Gunze had traded for. The people I had fought to save.
Bizarrely, I thought I understood Gunze far more in that moment, looking at the faces of all the people who could’ve ended up face down. Before it was something noble to fight against Negalli, knowing that someone would take up the fight after me.
Now I understood why Gunze was willing to die with no back up. Willing to keep going on fighting, to protect the people around him.
The people were just so… good. They were a complex series of movements and decision trees that arced off into the night, and I could not predict all of them no matter how much I wanted to. How much I wanted to predict them all. I stared at them all and felt tears pooling up into my eyes.
“Hey, why’s Gale look so sad?” Hands asked.
“Shut up!” Colton shouted. “You’re going to scare off the guest of honor!” Only I heard the sarcastic lilt. How far gone was he? How much was intentional? How much was in my head in this false party?
I blinked a few times, rather rapidly, then tried to focus back on the situation at hand. A concerned pair of eyes or two settled on me.
“Concussion,” I muttered.
“Concussion!” Colton shouted.
“Concussion,” Hands agreed, stepping to my other side to keep me stable. “You sure you don’t want to lay back down?”
“There’s cake Hands. I didn’t even get cake for my last birthday.” I was whining. I didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to leave all the people here. Didn’t think there was much for me back up in the room.
Hands rolled her eyes and thumped her shoulder up underneath of my arm to keep me supported. “Come on, there’s more than just cake.”
The cake had been made by the wedding bakery down the street. I could smell the familiar icing, the same as the icing on the cupcake I’d had just a few days ago, and could see the layers on it. How many people could this have fed?
I stared at the crowd around me and thought how silly it was for me to think about how many people this could feed, when there were so many people around me… but…
“Hands, Colton,” I muttered.
Colton quirked an eyebrow. He looked fantastic when he wasn’t plotting to kill everyone around him. That was the concussion speaking.
Hands blinked at me. “Yes?” I saw her again, terrified in the lab, and wondered how she was dealing with it. How I could help. I needed to keep helping.
Needed to keep them all together.
“Remind me to figure out the food situation,” I muttered, and then disengaged from both of them, slipping into the crowd.
There were twenty people there. Half or so were students, people that had hidden themselves away in the building or been dragged out, kicking and screaming. The doctors had done their best to bandage cuts and bruises, to keep them, off of their feet.
But at the end of the day, we were all heroes. There was hardly anything that would keep us down.
“And they’ve got something to present to you.” Colton said, using a knife to pick his teeth clean. Hands snatched it away from him and it dissolved back into nothingness. “I tried to get them to stop. Didn’t want to bother you with it.”
Our eyes met again, and through the pleasant air the knife master had, mostly propped up by drugs, I could see. And I knew.
“Who?” I asked.
The rise of heroes had led to the rise in a few particular fringe markets. Specialized gear and armor. Strange insurance plans.
Costumes. Higher ranks got better costumes. Got custom jobs. C and D tiers had to scrape together their own, but B ranks… they had to be recognizable.
The woman walking towards me ran the custom costume place in town. Behind her trailed the most beautiful cape I’d ever seen. Purple and black. Massive G in the center of it. Fluttering in the wind of her own passage.
“Since you’re the highest ranking hero in town…” She said, gesturing at the cape. “It only seems right that you’d have the right uniform for the job.”
The cape was thrown over my quivering, shaking shoulders, and I felt another tear roll down my face, staring at the city of Mobile.
The city I’d unwittingly become the protector of.
I couldn’t afford to make another mistake like Dauphin island.
My fingers rolled up into fists.
I wouldn’t make another mistake like that. Not even if it killed me.
For this was a victory…
A pyrrhic victory.
Dauphin island still burned in the distance.