Holding Out for a Hero
Disclaimer: This new story will only loosely be based on Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but I will faithfully acknowledge them as the originators of a great storyline anyway. Oh, and the title of the story is also the title of a song from the movie/musical "Footloose" (and Shrek 2, if you're more familiar with that)
The hunt was on. He could smell the fear in his quarry as he stalked the man through the city streets. Sometimes he allowed the man to get so far ahead that his prey might harbor the delusion that he'd eluded his pursuer, but a low growl from somewhere behind would always put him back on the run. Jack grinned fiercely, sharp teeth glittering dully in the ill-lit streets. This would be the day; the day he would have his revenge at last.
The man he followed carried both gun and knife. Jack could smell the tangy metal mixed in with the man's sweat and fear, and his sensitive nose combined with his mentor's training allowed him to assess precisely what sort of weapons he was dealing with. A small handgun, maybe a .38 caliber, and a pure steel knife of about six inches. Nothing Jack couldn't handle. He'd bagged enough criminals in his fairly short lifetime as the superhero the papers had dubbed "Bear-man" to handle anything this guy could dish out. Yet, this man was no ordinary criminal. It had taken him years, but Jack finally had proof that the man who had been systematically robbing every Potbelly's Sandwich Works in town was in fact the same man who had murdered his parents and younger sister in their family-owned restaurant when Jack had been only ten.
"Bear-man" the papers might call him, but Jack's alternate form was far, far more than a bear. As the "Bear-man," Jack had the size and strength of a grizzly bear, the ears and nose of a wolf, the night vision, teeth, and claws of a tiger, and the horns of an ox combined with a human's opposable thumbs and intelligence. Jack had no idea where his shape-shifting abilities had come from, but for as long as could remember he could at will become a massive, shaggy brown creature that seemed from a distance to be a bear but from up close was clearly a nightmare animal woven from the forest's best offense and defense. He had been chosen at an early age to study at the local D.C. school for budding superheroes, and had proved himself upon graduation to be the best of the best. He brought in twice as many criminals a month as most of his classmates combined after he finished his year of mentorship with another shape-shifter. Jack still remembered his high school years fondly, unlike most of his current age of twenty-one. It hadn't hurt that his human form was quite a ladykiller. One look from his ocean blue eyes, a toss of his shaggy brown hair, or a ripple of his well-developed muscles and the girls back in high school would all begin to helplessly swoon. His current girl, however, was a civilian through and through, meaning that she had no powers and had no idea where Jack went at night after she was fast asleep.
Jack pulled his mind away from Melanie and back onto the chase at hand. He knew his teachers back at school, as well as his mentor, had expended a lot of energy worrying about how his parents' and sister's murders had affected him. There had been enough examples of superheroes going bad when pursuing revenge subtly tossed his way over the years to cause him to hide from all who knew him the deep hatred he still harbored towards the man who had deprived him of a warm, loving home. He knew that revenge was especially dangerous for a shape-shifter, because of the undeniable fact that if he or she gave in to the animal instinct and forgot the qualities that made them human, there was no going back. Ever. But Jack could never quite bring himself to care, not with his parents and sister cold in the ground. Besides, he had too good of grasp of himself and who he was as a person to get caught in such a trap.
And now, he was sure that this man was the one he had been chasing all these years. The scent he had smelled at his family's murder site matched that of the one he was pursuing tonight. He had been on stakeout near one of the few Potbelly's that had not yet been robbed, waiting for the intruder so that he could nab him for the police, when he had caught the man's scent. He knew immediately that this was the right man. After years of fruitless searching, his prey had tumbled right into his lap. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Accordingly, instead of grabbing the man immediately and hauling him in to the local police station for questioning, Jack had let him get away. But he also let him know, without a doubt, that his worst nightmare had found him at last and was stalking him from the shadows.
He heard a sharp intake of breath from a block or two down the road. Jack's teeth gleamed again. He knew every corner of D.C like the back of his hand; there had been a whole class in street navigation his sophomore year in high school. The street the man had chosen in his desperate attempt to escape took a sharp twist and ended in a brick wall. Perfect.
Jack dropped to the street level from where he had been clinging to a nearby roof, landing softly for one of his immense bulk. He padded silently to the entrance of the alley, keeping himself out of sight. When he was in position, he growled again, more loudly than before.
There was a click of a gun cocking. "W-who's there? Show yourself!" the man demanded from around the corner.
"I'll show myself when I'm good and ready," Jack snarled, then sighed. Answering a criminal back when they asked a question. An amateur mistake, and one that shouldn't have happened to a hero of his caliber. But the fact that the murderer of his family was but feet away excited his senses beyond belief. Jack could close his eyes and see him, standing stiffly with that gun pointed at nothing. The stink of fear was hot in his nostrils.
He used his claws to pull himself up the wall again. When he was in position, he crouched low. "I want you to think back for a moment," he said. The gun went off as the man aimed to where the voice was coming from, but the shot went wide. Jack didn't even have to duck. "Think back," he continued, "To the night of September the 18th, 1991. Tell me where you were that night."
"I…I have no idea," the man mumbled. "Been a long time since then…"
"Allow me to refresh your memory. You were in a restaurant. You shot a man, his wife, and their daughter to death."
"I-I don't know nothin' about that! That wasn't me!" the man screeched.
"Don't insult their memory by lying," Jack said. "You killed them, in cold blood. Innocent people who had to indecency to try to stop you when you were robbing them out of money they had honestly earned. Well, tonight it ends, and they will finally have justice!"
"Who are you?" the man yelled. Jack heard his shoes scrape as he spun, trying to cover all quarters with his single weapon.
"I am the son you robbed of parents that night. I am the boy you robbed of a little sister. And I am the last thing you will ever see." At this, Jack leapt.
The gun fired again. Jack felt the bullet hit his shoulder, but he barely noticed as he landed, all 500 pounds of him, on his victim. The man screamed once, and buckled. Jack went down with him, clawing like a wild thing, all thought devoid except to make certain the man never rose again.
Abruptly, he came to himself. He was a superhero, they never killed if they could help it, though often their powers made it all too easy. He backed away, staring at what he had done. There was blood everywhere: on his muzzle, his paws, the filthy alley road. The man's body was a shredded mass.
Remarkably, he was still conscious. He was staring at Jack, his fading eyes glazed in horror. As the last breath left his lips, he whispered something. In his human form Jack would never have heard it, but his sharp animal's ears made it all too clear.
Jack stared at the body for a long time. It was the stinging of his shoulder that finally brought him around. He looked, and remembered the bullet wound. Changing back to his human form would heal it and remove the bullet itself, though he knew from experience he would feel the bruises for at least a week. Jack closed his eyes, willing the change to his handsome body to begin.
Nothing happened. A tremor of nerves ran through him, though Jack refused to panic yet. He tried again. Still nothing. And nothing again in response to a third try.
A sudden breeze caused the acid scent of blood to wash over his sensitive nose. At that moment, Jack suddenly realized what he'd done. He'd killed a man, for the first time in his life. The animal side of him, the side he'd always been able to control, had taken over. His mentor's words sounded in his ears like a siren: "Never forget, boy, your animal side is build for the hunt. Use that instinct in your quest for justice, but never let it control you. If you do, there is no coming back from it. You will be that animal, forever."
"Isn't there any way of turning back into a human once that happens?" He heard again his own innocent question.
"There is none that has ever been successful, except for death," his mentor had replied solemnly. "So pay attention, and don't ever allow such a fate to come on you."
For the first time since he had been informed of his family's demise, Jack was truly afraid. Closing his eyes, he threw all his effort into one last attempt to change back into a human. Then his brought his hand up before his face and opened his eyes.
A shaggy paw, tipped with retractable claws and smeared with brilliant red blood, glared back at him.
"It can't be!" he gasped. Forgetting all else, he turned and blindly ran on all fours through the dimly light streets of D.C.
He was staggering from exhaustion and bloodloss when he finally realized where his steps were taking him: to his own apartment. He lurched inside, panting heavily, and fell on the bed, begging the nightmare to be over when he woke up.
A scream roused him instead. He opened his eyes to see Melanie, her eyes filled with horror, shrieking bloody murder as she frantically dialed on the telephone.
"Melanie, it's me," he said, confused at her fear. But when he heard his own growling voice, his heart sank. He tried to get up, but he was far too weak.
"Police! Police!" Melanie was screaming into the phone, "There's a monster in my boyfriend's apartment, and there's blood all over the place! Please, help!"
"Melanie, don't," Jack tried to gasp again, but all that came out was a weak growl. "Melanie…" His vision blurred, and he blacked out again.
When he finally was able to peel his eyes open, he was confused by what he saw. It was dark, and there were trees all around. "What…" he started to say.
Something moved against the black-on-black background. Jack's cat vision easily identified the figure: his old mentor. There was no mistaking those weary features and long braided silver hair. His alternate form was a grey wolf.
"Yer lucky," he said, his voice even in human form half a growl, with a bit of a Texas twang that revealed his origins.
Jack choked on a part-snarl, part-laugh. "Lucky?"
"Lucky to be alive, at least. Though under the circumstances, if I were you I might rather I was dead." He paused. "I got you outa yer apartment, brought you here to the park, patched you up. Couldn't get the bullet out, but you should survive. That shoulder will still give you some pain. How long, I can't say." Another pause. He looked down at his leather boots. "I'm sorry."
"Jack, sonny, I warned you. We all warned you where revenge would go. I hoped it would never come to this, but this is you now." He held up a mirror. In it, Jack saw his own face, the one covered with shaggy fur, with a snout of gleaming teeth, swiveling wolf's ears, and small, sharp horns. Only the blue eyes were left, but they had a cat's slit pupils instead of round human ones.
Utter despair rolled over Jack. "Is there…nothing I can do?"
"I heard a story, once, that a shapeshifter was able to regain his human form by falling in love with a human girl and getting her to love him in return. It's a long shot, I know, but it's all I have."
"That's all? That's all I get? One story that might let me change back again, if it's true? Look at me! No one will ever love such a hideous creature."
"You broke rule numero uno, kid. There isn't supposed to be any comfort in that." His mentor crossed his arms, his golden wolf's eyes hard. "I'll keep an eye on you as I can, but only because I once thought there was some decency in you. Don't expect any more from me." He vanished into the darkness of the park's woods.
Jack could have easily followed him, had he wanted to. But sudden shame washed over him. He was a monster now. He didn't deserve the company of humans, or even someone as close to him as his mentor had once been. And Melanie…maybe she had loved his human self, but he had always known deep down that she would never come to accept his other half. The half that was now his whole self. The other part, the part he'd once taken for granted, was gone forever.
With a wailing, painful cry that made people within half a mile of that park start up in their beds and clutch at whatever was nearest and most familiar for comfort, Jack turned and fled deep into the park.
Legends grew up about that park over the next few years. Strange pawprints that matched no living animal that the Smithsonian Institution could identify turned up in the wet mud after rainstorms. Small animal bones were sometimes found by joggers. Druggies who went into the park after it was closed to do their thing came running out again, claiming that some dark monster was chasing them through the trees, a monster that spoke with a human voice. No one really took the stories seriously. Squirrels and other small animals were easy targets for local hawks and owls. Pranksters could have made those footprints using carved foam or wooden forms. And the druggies…who knew what they saw while they were on something? Still, very soon no one dared to venture into the park. Never at night, and especially not alone.
And so the years passed. Jack severed all contact with the human race, even with his mentor. It was too painful of a memory, of what he'd once been but could never be again. He did discover one new thing about his powers that he had never known before: he could communicate with most of the animals that lived in and around the park. Rabbits and squirrels seemed to be an exception. Those he ate, raw, regretting as he did the necessity of avoiding fire in order not to attract attention. And he waited. For what, he didn't know. Redemption? He didn't think so. He did not doubt his mentor's words that only death would release him from his misery. Even at the worst of times, the older man had never lied to him, or tried to soften any blows. But what then was he waiting for? He could never be sure. Maybe just a reason to hope
Author's Note: I'm almost afraid to begin this story, I freely admit it. After Nightingale and Whisper Plantation, I feel as if my "choice of style" is established as cultural adaptations of Beauty and the Beast. This is sort of a cultural adaptation, but it's also a modern retelling and a superhero story and probably a lot of other things. But thanks to the encouragement from Cywyllog and Aphrodite's Dragon, I decided to go for it. Of course, they had no idea what they were saying when I surveyed them, so I think this will be as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else. Or maybe it won't be. They know me pretty well. Anyway, this will be an adventure on a grand scale, and you're all along for the ride! Here we go!