Seven – Payback
It is a little known fact that the rate of justice emulation is directly proportional to one's ability to bend both arms towards the hips. If one arm were, say, in a sling and unable to perform the correct hand-to-hip bending action the general sense of heroic sacrifice and unbeatable crime stoppability is at approximately zero. I know this because the bouncer of Panic won't let me in. Also, there was a question on it in midterms.
I'd done a lot of thinking during my mandatory twenty four hour hospital observation. My parents had only been allowed to see my briefly and despite my mom mentioning several times that I was never leaving my room again, I'd come up with a plan. I know what you're thinking. I've come full circle, right? I mean, here I am once again outside Panic with thoughts of confronting Lash running through my head. But I am far from getting to know him now. No. I know exactly who he is. And I know exactly what I'm going to do about it.
The thing was I'd had twenty four hours to stare at the blank form in my hands. Twenty four hours with nothing to do but try to ignore the pain in my arms and think about what had happened to my dreams of being the best hero support ever. It had been obvious, really, when my brain got down to it. I wanted to be hero support and Lash wanted to steal money. That's okay. It was his decision to make, after all, and even if I thought I could ever change his mind I'm not sure I'd want to anyway.
I guess this is what I was supposed to do all along.
Although maybe the baseball cap and mask were optional.
The bouncer was shaking his head as I tried to ignore the growing line of impatient people behind me. Honestly, who comes to a club at five in the afternoon unless they're on hero support business?
"But I don't want to stay," I jiggled from foot to foot, wishing for the millionth time that I didn't have to wear the stupid sling, "I just need to speak with the manager. It won't even be - "
"Beat it," the bouncer cut over me, jerking his thumb towards the street.
"Please," I continued, narrowly avoiding being trampled by a woman in thigh high boots as she pushed rudely past me. "It's about the robbery last week. I know who did it! I can lead you straight to him!" I tried to push my ID into his hands. "I can - "
"You can what?" he interrupted again with a snort, "Listen, I don't know what kind of a trip you're on, kid, but you have to take it somewhere else, get it? Otherwise you'll need to find yourself another sling."
I squared my shoulders. I knew the hat had been a bad idea. "Are you telling me," I tried to make my voice as cold and authoritative as possible, "that you are going to ignore the pursuit of justice? I have information that will help you catch the criminal responsible for robbing your place of employment. And… and… " I wavered as he continued shaking his head, "and I'm trying to help!"
The last bit came out in a desperate rush of breath, so I wasn't even sure he'd heard me correctly. He did look me up and down again, taking in my face – which was obscured by both hat and extremely cheap mask – the jeans and shirt I'd pulled on over the hospital gown in a rush and the sling keeping my sprained wrist in check. I had a pretty good idea that I looked like I'd escaped from somewhere with cages, but wasn't exactly in the mood to care. I was going to lose my nerve any second now. I could already feel it starting to slip away from me.
"Please," I said again, managing to choke back the 'citizen' I was desperate to add, "let me handle this. I'm a hero."
Never mind that my mind was screaming support at the top of its metaphorical lungs, as far as this bouncer needed to know I did this sort of thing all the time. Well, hopefully he hadn't seen too many heroes and wasn't expecting me to back that statement up with some sort of rhyming catchphrase and a spontaneous flight takeoff.
He was still scrutinising me, eyebrow raised, shaking his head as if crazy kids tried to pull this one all the time. Although if they do I doubt they have to keep sliding their masks back up.
After an indeterminable amount of time, during which I was sure the bouncer was about to live up to his threat of putting me in another sling, he grabbed my ID and waved me through.
Despite knowing what to expect this time around, Panic still threw me off. It was earlier and definitely quieter than the only other time I had set foot in this place. A couple of early-evening patrons were milling around the bar and a few security guards were helping an extremely skinny man lug a pair of massive speakers onto the stage. If I had felt out of place before in my Mary Jane's and pink sweater that was nothing – nothing – to what I felt now. I mean at Sky High you know that one day you are going to be patrolling the streets in a costume where people can see you, but it's a completely different thing to practice ducking while peering out of tiny eyeholes in all manner of ridiculous headwear and to actually be standing in public in a mask.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. I was doing what I had been taught to do. This could well be the defining moment that stupid radioactive butterfly had foreseen when choosing to bite me. If, you know, butterflies could think, let alone foresee.
Okay, Alissa, this is your chance to do what's right.
Doing my best to look like I was completely comfortable with the situation, I headed over to the bar. A few people glanced at me over their drinks, but generally they ignored me. Gripping the top of the bar, trying to tell myself that it wasn't to hold myself up, I cleared my throat to get the attention of the nearest bartender and pretended I couldn't remember the last time I'd been this close to this particular bar.
"Um, what…?" the bartender started to ask uncertainly, looking from my mask and baseball cap to her hands and back again, "I mean, I'll need to see some ID."
"Actually I'd like to speak with the manager." She blinked at me and, feeling like I should say something else I added, "It's about the robbery."
The bartender blinked again. I hoped she didn't think this was some bizarre attempt at robbery itself or a way to drink underage.
"I don't want to drink any alcohol," I said quickly.
She added a small cough to her next blink. "Okay, the manager is it? I guess I'll… well, I'll just go get him." She paused and I could see her fingers drumming rapidly on the edge of the bar. "Kid," she leant over, hair falling into her eyes as she dropped her voice to a whisper, "take the mask off. It's weird."
I made a noncommittal noise in the back of my throat as she left, actually glad in that moment the mask was there. At least no one could see how red my face was getting.
This was ridiculous. What was I doing here? I wasn't a hero, I wasn't even really a sidekick. I had never thought I'd have to march into a situation like this alone. I'd always imagined my hero, whoever they were, would do most of the talking and thwarting evil and I'd just sort of stand back and make sure their cape didn't get tangled in anything. Despite what every kid in hero class thinks, not everyone in hero support dreams of the spotlight. Most of us are perfectly content in providing good, solid backup.
Besides, I really wasn't hero material. Everyone at Sky High knew that, I knew that, even my parents who think the greatest threat to mankind is enamel wear knew their daughter wasn't really cut out to scale buildings in the pursuit of a raging villain. I was definitely Robin material. Hey, I even liked riding in those little motorbike side carriage things!
So, again, what was I doing here?
Before I could answer that question the bartender returned with a man I assumed to be the manager in tow.
"What's this about a robbery?" he asked before I even had a chance to open my mouth and blurt out some quasi-hero line. Good thing too, because it probably would have started with 'citizen.'
"Ah, yeah," I squeaked. I cleared my throat and started again. "The one last week? I know who was responsible for it."
The manager peered at me and I knew he was trying to see past the mask to my face. I self-consciously pulled the baseball cap a little lower. A horrible thought was occurring to me. It involved CCTV and my face plastered on hidden security footage as Lash dragged me into his short-lived crime spree. Was it horrible to be wishing half of the supposed criminal team would get away scot-free?
"Really? And who might that be?"
"Um." I suddenly found myself floored. Should I ask about security cameras? Should I give myself up and offer to make a deal with the DA in exchange for a good behavior bond? "Do - "
Before the syllable was every fully out of my mouth a voice interrupted;
"Come on, sidekick, don't leave us in the dark. Who was it?"
My mouth turned very dry and suddenly there wasn't quite enough air in the club. The patrons had left their drinks and turned to watch the unfolding show now, and I could see the confusion on the manager's face starting to mix with a heaping dose of irritation. I'm sure I could see his lips moving as he said something - probably not very nice - to me. But all I could hear was the sudden roar of blood in my ears as my heart pounded madly in the beginnings of a panic attack.
Very slowly I turned around.
Lash was grinning at me. And it didn't matter that I was wearing the stupid mask. He could see right through it. I mean, it was obvious, wasn't it? Who else would be storming in here to turn him in? Although, quite obviously, he had a lot to say about the matter before any turning in could occur.
"Las - "
He cut me off again, "And how do you know who it was? Were you present at the time of this robbery?" His voice was full of mock-concern and I wanted to hit him. What was he doing here? How could he even stand in this place and act like it was just another day in his life after what he had done? Wasn't he even the least bit afraid of being caught?
Clearly he wasn't, else he wouldn't be smirking so confidently down at me. He knew what I was here to do. For all I knew he had come to do the same to me. But, as I glared at him through the eyeholes, watching the way he folded his arms and made no move to stop me, I realized he didn't think I could actually do it.
I squared my shoulders, ignoring the protesting twinge from my sprained wrist. He obviously had no idea what hero support meant. If nothing else, I wasn't about to lose my ground. He could leave me to hang onto a roof for my life, leave me to fall, I didn't care. But he would never second-guess my hero support capabilities.
Only now he was glancing significantly at the hospital gown peaking out beneath my jacket, grinning ear to ear like a dog that – through no hard work on its part – has managed to stumble upon a rabbit already caught in a trap. I had a feeling I was the rabbit.
"Escape again?" he asked in a drawl.
I grit my teeth, clenching my good hand into a fist. I turned back to the manager who looked like he very much wanted to start shouting at somebody. The situation was very quickly slipping through my fingers, and I tried desperately to grab at it before it got away altogether.
I'm sure I intended to say something that would both sooth his growing concern that I was indeed supposed to be in some sort of institution and inform him of the burglary culprit. Instead what came out was something that sounded a little bit like 'uh wellah but'.
The manager held up a hand to stop me. "Three seconds," he said in a very low voice, "to explain what the hell is going on here before I have you thrown out. Both of you," he added, shifting his gaze to encompass Lash.
From the corner of my eye I could see Lash's shoulders rise as he took a breath to no doubt discredit me further. I beat him to it.
"It was him!" I pointed.
The manager, the bartender and the patrons who had now abandoned their drinks altogether all turned as one to stare at Lash. I glowed. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt like this and, as it washed over me, I realized I couldn't understand why. This was what made it all worthwhile, this feeling, like a fire in your chest that burned bright enough to outshine any self-doubt or pity or second guessing you had. It was contagious. Catching the rest of you alight until every inch of you burned brighter than you ever had before as you itched to climb out of your skin and into the next good deed.
Lash, meanwhile, looked less like he was battling with the internal fire of justice and more like he was being slowly cornered.
"Him," I repeated, just in case there had been any misunderstanding the first time.
I'm not quite sure what I expected Lash to do next. Maybe hang his head a little in shame. In retrospect I should have seen it coming.
There was something close to silence as we all watched him bolt his way through the front door, earning a half-hearted shout from the bouncer. I couldn't move. The fire had started burning itself out, leaving me hollow. I looked helplessly at the manager.
"I think," he started to say before seeming to reconsider, shake his head and walk away from me. I could see the growing pity in the bartender's eyes.
Something began to shape itself in the rubble that had been left in the fire's wake. Something vast and quick and full of an anger that made me clamp my mouth shut lest it escape. I took a stumbling step forward, then another and another and before I knew what I was doing I was tearing out of Panic and down the sidewalk after Lash.
I had no idea where I was going. I couldn't see, I couldn't hear the yells as I pushed past people. There was a roar in my head that had nothing to do with blood this time as my hands suddenly felt weak with the need to throw something very heavy against a wall until it broke.
I became aware of a pounding that was my feet against the pavement and, next thing I knew, I could hear my own voice screaming itself raw. There were no words at first, just sound born on frustration and fury. Though they gradually began to form themselves into something a bit more legible.
I rounded a corner. He was nowhere in sight. Of course, he was much faster than I was even without the head start. There wasn't really much of a chance that I would catch up to him and…
And what? Tackle him?
I pushed aside the beginnings of common sense in favor of the anger. I didn't want to deal with any thoughts now. I just needed to feel the press of pavement beneath my shoes, the way the baseball cap was slipping from my head.
"Lash!" I shouted again.
I ignored the crowd that was beginning to gather. He could be anywhere by now, especially if he'd used his power to get away. I looked up, craning my neck to see the tops of the high rise buildings lining the street. Seemed like a pretty good place to hide.
"You coward!" I yelled at the nearest building, "You hear me? You're nothing but a wannabe villain! You don't even deserve your powers!"
The anger nodded in agreement, rearing up to meet my yells with a roar of its own. I continued running, not even bothering to stop when the cap flew off my head completely, sending my hair streaming out behind me with every step I took. All I knew was that somewhere very deep down, hidden beneath the anger and the sheltering voice of reason, a part of me knew what I had said was true. Lash didn't deserve his powers. Someone else did.
"And are your parents proud of you?" I continued, screaming up at the buildings I passed, down the alleys crowded with shadows, "Are they proud how you use their powers?" I thought of Peter, so polite and neat, who had glanced sideways at me like I was a criminal when I'd had the audacity to look at a photograph he had put on display. "Although I guess it could run in the family!"
I had said this last part more to myself, without thinking, and the next thing I knew I had been grabbed from behind and pushed roughly against the nearest window display. I had the vague notion of a sea of tables lit by tiny red lanterns behind the glass before I was turned sharply around and found myself face to face with Lash. He was very, very angry.
And I knew, right then and there, without even having to think too hard about it, I knew I was going to regret the words that were pushing themselves desperately out of my mouth. When all this was over, when the anger had faded and the shame of having made such a scene set in, I was going to wish I had been able to keep my mouth shut. But I couldn't stop myself. The image of that beautiful woman's face flashed out at me and I grabbed at it.
"Is that what it is, Lash?" I shoved against him, pushing him away from me, "Mommy issues? Have something to prove? Because if you think - "
He stumbled backwards against the shove, momentarily caught off guard enough to lose his balance. When he righted himself he stepped towards me again, teeth bared as if he would actually bite me or something and the words caught, tangling themselves around my tongue.
"Tell me!" Lash roared, "Go on! Tell me how I have to go and save the world! Let's go rescue the citizens of Maxville and if we're real lucky we'll get ourselves blown up!"
He lashed out and I only just managed to duck out of the way as his hand went through the window behind me. The glass shattered instantly against the impact, spraying the sidewalk with sharp, glimmering shards.
I stared at the space where the window had been, pressing a hand against my mouth. There were people inside, sitting at the tables, eating dinner, telling their children to behave themselves. They all stared back at me.
"Oh my God," I breathed, looking at Lash. He was standing very still, staring dully down at his bleeding hand. "You tried to hit me!" I managed to blurt out before a voice from inside the restaurant began shouting at us.
"Run," Lash suggested.
Too shocked to listen to the little voice of justice telling me to help clean up and offer to pay for half the damages – because, in a right world, Lash would pay for the other half… oh, who am I kidding? I'd pay for the whole damn thing! – I followed him. It was close to fully dark by now, the streetlights starting to come on as we ran. I chanced a quick glance back. Several people were standing around the ruined window, with more streaming from the restaurant. Under the glowing sign announcing that the place was called The Paper Lantern, I saw that none of them looked particularly pleased with us as with fled.
Lash led me through several blocks of faceless buildings. At every turn I expected to be stopped by police, but there was nobody. I could hear my heart pounding in my head and it was completely different from the way I had run after him before. The anger had completely left in the face of what had just happened. I couldn't even remember clearly what it had felt like. It was like stumbling through a dream. Every step felt too heavy, too slow, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't keep up with his steady pace.
At last he stopped in a narrow alleyway crammed with overflowing dumpsters nestled between two shops full of darkened windows. Panting, covered in sweat, my sprained wrist throbbing with pain, I slid down along the bricked wall, not caring how dirty I got. I ripped the stupid mask off my face and threw it blindly away from me.
It was several minutes before I realized Lash was staring at me.
"I suppose there's no easy way to ask this, so I'll just throw it at you. What's your name?"
I blinked. It's moments like this that really put your life in perspective. I mean, I'd known Lash for, what? Four years? We'd gone to the same school, he'd made my life miserable for a good portion of that time and, basically, he'd just said that I was so much of a loser no one remembered my name. Way to make a girl feel special.
"Alissa," I said weakly, closing my eyes and I leant my head back against the wall, "It's Alissa."