"Hola, Beatrice, Carmen, Liz, Morgan."
He nodded to the heads of his and Turbine's fanclubs at Union High, offering his usual wide grin. The girls answered with wide smiles of their own, though he could see a pained, glossy sheen in the eldest girl's bright eyes. She was an insightful girl, not unlike himself. There were a lot of children in his little Heaven that were what he was. But they all knew better than to start taking off masks, and so did he. All but this one.
Morgan hesitated, asking with her eyes the question he feared. Are you okay? He could hear her say, her cold voice becoming warm and wet with concern. It was nearly her catchphrase. After a few meetings he had started keeping count—172 different times to 51 different people in the last year in his presence. 35 to Turbine, 67 to him. Perceptive.
"Is there a problem?"
"You look worried. I was about to ask the same thing." Bold. That was another thing about the children of this town. They were bold. He supposed that was why all the evils of the world collected here, or perhaps a side effect of the chaos on whose edge this city teetered. And Turbine's fans especially were fierce, though Morgan's temerity was a meek one.
It was a frightening mask.
"There are problems of a more mundane sort to be dealt with," he said decisively, truthfully. The most honest thing I have said in many years.
"Oh," she acknowledged, giving him her standard unsatisfied half-smile, her voice dripping with a worry. "Well, good luck with it." And she walked on to join her fellows.
That will be the death of her. The death of them all.
It depressed the Luchador to think of youth and of the future lately. These children in Union City were so bright, so beautiful, so promising, and so brave. He had heard Morgan's voice boom with fury on the High School's stage, too strong for a girl so meek. He had seen Andrew debate with a steely stoicism in a debate he knew boiled the young boy's blood. He had been granted the surcease of true smiles at the bubbly enthusiasm of Carmen and Liz, he had marveled at the wit of José and the wisdom of Ernest. Union City had the most perfect teenagers in the world.
That will be the death of us all. Perfection.
Lobo Fuerte clenched a fist, obliviously aware of the physical manifestation of his rage. Perfection was mortality, and it was the price of knowledge. Perfection, the very thing that made him such a hero, such a luchador, was the very thing that would one day destroy him. It would be the thing that would one day push little Morgan to snobbish recession into her art; it would be the thing that would unite Andrew and Carmen into an unhappy, unholy marriage. It would take Liz one step too far into the righteous arms of her God, and would make a drunk of Jose and a bachelor of Ernest.
And it would be, as all things that he had seen before had become. The problems might mix around a little bit; it might be Morgan and Ernest who married, might be Liz who receded from the world. But it would come to pass, as it did for him.
That revelation was what pushed him back into the reality of his stroll down Union Boulevard. The murky future. The future of him and his apprentice.
He had known that Turbine was never going to be the stable, even-voiced hero that he was. Lobo had always accepted that. The smaller, younger man would always be firey and burning; he would never have the dull holy glow that was Lobo's salvation. Lobo had always accepted that. But lately he wondered if the good in Turbine was going to turn to ash.
When he had problems, he would always go to Turbine or Laurant. They were the only two he could trust anymore—once Maxine too, but she had shattered that trust. But going to Laurant would only stir the fire; the old bastard would try to badger Turbine into stability. But going to Turbine? That would be like taking a napalm shower.
He knew that the boy would have problems, especially when he saw the fate of the Mask Turbine once had worn. When one wears a mask, one can never fully take it off; there will always be some mark, some remnant. But he had thought that he would be ready. He had thought that he would be strong for the sake of his charge.
But as Lobo passed Ramon's old mask shop, he wondered, Who put on the mask that night? Was it Turbine, or me? Who sold their soul to Satan?
And then he smiled. I had already done that. Long before, though I did not see it until then. But I was dishonest. I should have been honest about my capacity for humanity. Just as I should be honest about my happiness. But I cannot. I cannot let go of the lies.
And neither could Turbine. Turbine, telling himself that it was his fault, that he should have been more careful. Turbine, trying ceaselessly to make amends to others for a loss that was almost soley his own. Turbine, coming to breakfast smiling even after screaming in the night, biting his lip and growling out of consideration instead of yelling what he felt. Turbine, trying to be perfect.
It was too much.
The idyllic life of which Lobo had dreamed all those years ago had turned to dust. There was no saving the world from evil; there was fighting back an unquenchable darkness that seemed to feed on the goodness of the one city he could protect. There was no undefeated Champion; there was a tired man who kept on winning empty victories. There was no trusty sidekick and meek mentor; there was a broken but brilliantly firey child and a cantankerous old friend behind the curtains. And there was no beautiful ally of a wife… only a distant, forbidden soulmate and a toxic, unconsummated attraction to a little spitefire of a blonde.
Perfection is not the goal we seek, it is the price we pay. To force a mask of perfection is to commit spiritual suicide.
And I have killed another with my lies. I have killed Turbine by not allowing him to die.
He had never felt his feet ache this way before.
Three hours he had walked since the girl's compassion had drenched his soul. Three hours he had walked since he had passed four pieces of evidence of his guilt.
He knew the pain was largely in his head, and did not limp, but it hurt.
He supposed it was psychosomatic. He had had many psychosomatic problems lately, as had the others. Lobo's was headaches; throbbing dull headaches that would last for days. Turbine was restless and shaky. Maria… well, her health was not of a gentleman's concern. Laurant complained of aches, and even the Mayor seemed sickly and pale. They all knew. Everyone knew.
Everyone knew what Lobo had done, even those who didn't know. He could see it in all their eyes, except for those of the children. The children, oblivious to his sin, saw only his pain.
He walked into Tornados, deciding he needed a drink, and maybe the warmth and light of a place that allowed teens at this hour.
And as he left the pale light of the waning moon, and entered the dark brightness of the club, he heard someone sobbing under the music. Wet sobbing, the clunking of rain against the roof, wet like the eyes that had interrogated him earlier. It was Morgan. She had broken.
He made his way over toward the bar, where a group of fans, Turbine fans, had gathered around a shriveled facsimile of the meek fury. She sobbed bitterly, a meekly-flavored smoothie clutched in shaky-white-knuckled hands. At her side was a firey young man in a flame-printed mask, chastely patting the shoulders of the girl and the others who had joined her in her tears. His mask looked damp under the eyes, but there was a strength in his voice that Lobo thought he had forever destroyed.
Lobo smiled, and realized that he was crying too.