The Heroes' Holiday
Hello again! Here's a little holiday treat for you all starring the cast of Holding Out for a Hero. The only thing I have to say that I don't own about this is Christmas, which belongs to everyone whether you celebrate it or not.
It was pointed out to me by an astute reader that I neglected to give Jack and Erika hero names for the future. That, plus a few other little things I wanted to elaborate on, led me to write this extra chapter. I didn't feel that I could post it separately in the Beauty and the Beast section since it no longer parallels anything Disney.
Summary: It's almost Christmas, and Jack's ready to become an official superhero again. The only problem: he needs a name. With a spark from a young boy discovering his own powers, anything might be possible.
Jack was in his small room, adjusting his EMT uniform before heading to the local fire station. He tugged his collar straight, then examined himself in the mirror. After six months, his reflection still startled him occasionally. For the most part, he looked the same as he had before his shapeshift had become permanent: tall, with permanently shaggy dark-blond hair, a firm mouth that smiled easily, and skin that never seemed to lose its slight tan even in winter. His eyes were, if possible, an even brighter blue; a small physical side effect of the change in his powers. He'd put on some weight since his return to human form, but the majority of that was actually muscle. Training with Erika, Mai, and Erika's grandmother Akira, he'd been put through some of the most grueling workouts of his life, and they didn't seem to be getting any easier.
There was a knock on the door. "Come in," Jack called.
Tex entered, dressed as usual in cowboy boots, jeans, and a faded collared shirt. "Just about ready to go, sonny?"
"Just about. I'm meeting Erika at the station. We're hoping it'll be a quiet day, but not really counting on it. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff people get up to around the holidays. Lighting trees on fire, stabbing themselves with carving knives, swallowing mistletoe, that kind of thing. It's been a real education."
"I can imagine," Tex chuckled. "You'll have the day after Christmas off, though, right?"
"Happens to fall on one of the days we're not on duty. We were lucky." Jack glanced at his former mentor's face in the mirror. "Why?"
"I've heard through the grapevine that there's going to be an official decision from the Academy Board on that day. They'll be ruling on whether or not you're allowed back on the roll. Likely it will go in your favor."
"Finally!" Jack burst out. "It's taken them long enough." The pair started down the steps towards the coat closet.
"It's definitely about time," Tex agreed. "There were enough special circumstances to blow the roof off the rulebook, but there really should still be some sort of a limit on how long the Board gets to deliberate. In my humble opinion, anyway."
"So what will this decision mean?" asked Jack as he pulled on a heavy coat.
Tex rubbed his chin. "You'll get to declare if you want a partner to be assigned to your district with you."
"You know I do. Erika and I are planning on it." Jack fished around in the closet for gloves and a hat.
"They know that, too. Likely they'll remind you that means you'll have to wait to get a district to patrol until your girl's been cleared to work as well, and all that stuff."
"Yeah. We're hoping she might get cleared in the spring sometime. Her control's a lot better now; she doesn't spark when she gets annoyed these days. She's been working really hard with her grandmother. Until she's ready, we plan to keep working for emergency services."
"Erika's not the only one who'd getting better at control," Tex commented, "Time was you'd show up after a night on duty barely able to stand up straight."
"She's taught me a lot," answered Jack. He pulled on his hat and headed out the door.
"There's one more thing," said Tex from the doorway.
Jack flinched against the cold wind outside and turned. "What is it?"
"You should probably have a working name ready. Since I assume you'd rather not use Bear-man."
"Right," said Jack dully, his stomach sinking.
"Think about it. You've still got a couple days," replied Tex. Then he shivered, and shut the door. Jack pulled his jacket tighter, allowed himself one small wistful thought about a thick, warm fur coat, and started up the block towards the fire station.
Erika was already there when he arrived. He greeted her with what he intended to be a quick kiss that she deepened and held for several seconds. Jack had little objection to this, but it earned them several whistles from the rest of their shift.
"Save that for off-duty, you two," called one of the firemen once they'd broken their kiss. Erika stuck her tongue out good-naturedly at him and led Jack over to the table where she'd been sitting with a cup of hot chocolate.
"You're a little late," she observed when they were settled.
"Tex sprang something on me at the last minute as I was going out the door," grumbled Jack, running a hand through his already mussed hair.
"What was it?" she asked when he didn't elaborate.
"I'm up for recommissioning on active status. The Board is formally announcing the decision the day after Christmas." They could never discuss superhero business too openly while at the station. None of their comrades knew the pair of them had powers, and they planned to keep it that way.
"It's taken them long enough," she commented, echoing his earlier thoughts. "This is a good thing, right?"
"I have to have a name picked out by then," Jack said in a low voice.
"Oh." Erika looked thoughtful. "That would present a problem."
"What were you going to do about it? I mean, you were pretty close to your solo year when we, you know."
"I know," she agreed. "I hadn't really come up with a solution yet either. Now, I'm thinking of trying on Hurricane."
"Oh, great. How am I supposed to come up with a name in less than three days when you couldn't come up with something after years of being a healer?"
"I'm sure you'll—" she started to say, but then her head jerked up as the alarm rang.
"House fire," someone shouted over the scraping of chairs as everyone leaped to their feet.
"Just what we need," Jack muttered, but there was no real heat in it. He hadn't realized until his first day on the job here how much he'd missed being able to help total strangers, and the feeling still hadn't worn off despite the grueling hours and little thanks.
Within seconds they were in the ambulance and blazing out of the station. Jack held on grimly and wondered what sort of state they would find the place in when they arrived.
They soon found out. The house was a moderate sized one, larger than Tex's or Erika's. Only part of the second floor was in flames, he could see through the windows. The firemen quickly got to work.
A woman was being restrained by several paramedics from running back into the house. "My son is in there! Davy! David!" she kept screaming.
Jack and Erika came to help hold her back. "I'm sure they'll get him out, ma'am," Jack reassured her. At that moment, however, he saw a fireman come out of the house shaking his head, saw him mouth the words "Too hot." Jack only had to glance at Erika, and then the two of them were sprinting towards the house. Around the back they ran, through the unlocked back door and inside. As they charged up the stairs to the second floor, Jack could feel the heat tighten his skin.
"We don't have much time," Erika said. "It won't take them long to realize we're not out there."
Jack nodded. "Can't you cool it down?" he panted.
"A little. I can't do too much or it'll be noticeable when they investigate the cause of this fire," she said. She held out one hand in front of them. Mist seemed to radiate out from it like tiny crystals, and the heat reduced to a bearable level. Erika's mouth quirked a little. "I can't make snow; not yet. But this should do the trick."
"It's perfect. Now we just need to find the kid." Both of them started calling as loud as they dared. A noise like a child's whimper was their answer from the far end of the hall.
The door disintegrated as they approached. "David?" Erika asked as they peered inside. Then she clutched Jack's arm with a hand that was cold even in the fire's heat. Jack felt his eyes widen.
In the center of the room, curled up in a miserable ball under the charred remains of a bed, was a boy of about five or six, a skinny little thing with a mop of sandy hair. He was practically naked, his clothes having burned off him. He was also on fire. Little flames were licking all over him, but his skin was unmarked.
"Dear God," breathed Erika. "He's a pyro. A fireworker. He's got to be."
"He started the fire, probably by accident," Jack added.
"Poor thing," she said sympathetically. "David?" she called. "Can you come out? We're here to help you."
The child's head shot up at the sound of her voice. He stared at them with wide eyes that were an odd gold color shot through with flecks of orange. Then, quick as a flash, he squirmed out from under the blackened bed and ran to them. Burning arms wrapped themselves around Jack's waist, and he couldn't suppress a yell of pain. The boy only squeezed harder.
"Erika! Do something!" Jack cried.
"Working on it!" In seconds they were all soaking wet from a miniature rainstorm. The flames dancing over the boy extinguished themselves in a hiss of steam, and the pain of his arms grew less. Jack could still feel the burns, though. The boy began to sob.
Heavy boots were pounding on the stairs behind them. Jack peeled the boy off as nicely as he was able and performed as fast a healing on himself as he'd ever done. The burns flared blue and turned into fresh pink skin as the boy stared.
"How'd you do that?" he asked, speaking for the first time.
"Explanations later, kid," Jack whispered brusquely, "Let the grown-ups sort things out first." They turned to face the firemen dashing towards them. All of them skidded to a halt when they saw the boy clutching Jack's hand.
"We found him," Erika said weakly.
Fortunately, there was still a fire to put out, and the firemen didn't waste time on awkward questions. Erika, Jack, and David were herded out of the house, where the boy was enveloped in his parents' arms. Then all three of them were examined by fellow EMTs. It was only as then that Jack noticed that they were no longer wet. The fire must really be hot. Either that or Erika's ever-expanding control over the wind had had something to do with it.
The EMTs couldn't believe none of the small group had been burned, or even sustained much damage from smoke inhalation. Jack and Erika they wrote off as lucky, the burns on Jack's pants notwithstanding, but the boy they insisted on taking to the hospital to have him checked. David's father had to stay at the house to handle insurance claims, so it was David, his mother, Jack, and Erika that climbed into the back of the ambulance.
As soon as they started driving, Erika pulled out her cell phone.
"What are you doing?" Jack whispered. "You can't call them here!" They both knew he meant the Board.
"I'm not. I'm calling Haha. She'll handle all that for us," she whispered back. Jack heard Mai pick up on the other end. Erika had begun to teach him some of the basics of her mother's native language, but most of the following conversation was far beyond his level to follow.
David, clad only in a blanket, leaned over so far he was practically in Jack's lap, watching Erika talk with wide eyes. Jack was tempted to lean away, the pain of the last time the kid had touched him still fresh in his mind, but there was no room to do so.
"What language was that?" asked David's mother when Erika hung up. Jack detected only casual curiosity in her voice.
"Japanese," Erika replied in that disarmingly frank manner of hers. "I needed to ask my mother a few quick questions."
"Oh, are you Japanese? I'm sorry, you don't…" the woman trailed off, apparently aware that she was being politically incorrect.
"I understand," Erika agreed earnestly. "My father was Irish. Irish-American, anyway. I'm Erika Cavanaugh, and this is my partner Jack Bruin." The woman shook both of their hands.
"Thank you so much for finding my son," she said warmly.
"Is she your girlfriend?" David asked Jack.
"David!" his mother admonished. "That's not a polite question at all!"
"It's OK," Jack assured her. To David, he said, "Yes, she is." He put an arm around her shoulder to prove it.
The boy smiled sweetly at them both. "I could tell. She's pretty. And nice. You're lucky."
If Jack could have boiled his sentiments about Erika into three sentences, those would probably have been close to what he'd come up with. "Thanks," he said, in charity with the little fireworker for the first time.
Erika spoke to the mother. "They'll probably check him in at the hospital for overnight observation, just to make absolutely sure nothing happened to him in the fire."
Jack recognized the tone of her voice; it was the one she used when she wore her superhero mask. Then it clicked. Of course the hospital would check David in, but not for any medical reasons. The Academy had several contacts at the hospital, and they would want to talk with David and his parents on neutral ground about the boy's future.
The rest of the ride to the hospital was relatively quiet. David seemed content to just watch Jack and Erika, Jack in particular. He had the air of figuring out a puzzle, which made Jack uncomfortable. It didn't take a genius to guess what the puzzle was; he was willing to bet the kid would be far less surprised by the true purpose of the visitors from the Academy than his parents.
They unloaded at the hospital. At the point of clambering out of the ambulance, suddenly David turned back and flung his arms around Jack again. Jack could not help wincing, but there was no burning sensation this time. "You'll be all right, kid," he managed.
"Come see me, won't you?" the boy begged.
"Of course," Jack promised without thinking.
"Good." David released him abruptly, took his mother's hand, and the two of them went through the automatic doors to the emergency room.
"Come on," Erika prodded Jack when he stared after David and his mother a moment too long. "We've still got work to do."
"That kid was cute, in a dangerous sort of way," Erika commented that night at a small Chinese restaurant near her house. "He seemed to really like you. Must recognize a kindred spirit."
"Ha ha," Jack grumbled, a little more snappishly than he intended. He was no closer to coming up with a name than ever, and now he'd promised to go see the kid at the hospital the next day.
"I'll go with you if you want," Erika offered when he mentioned this.
"I'd appreciate that. I'm not sure what I'd say to him," Jack admitted.
"You might not have to say anything," she pointed out. "He may just want reassurance. Accidentally setting fire to your house has got to be traumatizing. And I can only imagine what finding out you have superpowers must be like."
"How did you find out about yours?" he asked, curious.
"It seems like I've always known," she replied thoughtfully. "The consequence of growing up in a household with superhero parents. What about you?"
He thought briefly. "I was excited when I found out, and a little scared. I guess I was about David's age then. But I never really destroyed anything major, either. A couple of doors and a table or two is all I remember."
Erika laughed and put her chin in her hands. "Ooh, I want to hear about this one."
They spent an enjoyable evening swapping stories about childhood scrapes. It was only much later as he was getting into bed that Jack remembered his worries about David and choosing a superhero name. He sighed and pulled up the covers. Erika still maintained the ability to make him forget his troubles, at least for a time. He smiled and closed his eyes.
The next morning came all too quickly. Jack met Erika at her house early for a workout and quick breakfast with Mai and Obasan. Then the pair took the Metro to the hospital.
The children's wing was brightly decorated for the holidays, and Jack remembered with a start that it was Christmas Eve. He felt a stab of sympathy for David. Poor kid, stuck in the hospital on Christmas Eve morning. He should be at home, counting presents under the tree. Even when Jack had lived at the Academy after his parents died, the teachers and staff who lived there year-round had made it an exciting time.
David's mother and father met them in the hall outside his room. Both looked as though they hadn't slept.
"Good morning," Erika greeted them cheerfully. "How's David feeling?"
"Fine," his mother said with a ghost of a smile. "He hasn't stopped asking when you were coming this morning," she added to Jack. But she seemed reluctant to let either of the two young people into her son's room.
"We had a visit from some very interesting people yesterday afternoon about David," his father said abruptly. There was an awkward pause. "Did you know?" he finally demanded.
"Sir, this is hardly the right place to talk about it," Erika said, her professional mask-voice back in place.
"Did you know?" he persisted.
"Well—" Erika started, then stopped. She smiled, ever so slightly. "I'd be careful with whom you talk about this, sir. Though there are probably more of us than you might guess." She played with something between her fingers as she spoke. Jack saw both parents' eyes fix on her hand, then grow round. It took him a moment to recognize that the thing she toyed with was a miniature bolt of lightning that snaked between her fingers like a docile piece of string. Boy, her control's better than I realized! he thought.
Erika closed her hand; the lightning balled up and vanished. "I know this is a lot for you to grasp right now, but please understand. We are not the enemy. We're not here to steal your son away, by any stretch of the imagination. He has a gift; a gift he can use to help people, given time and training." She glanced at Jack. "Why don't you go talk to David while I see if I can help them feel better about this? Is that all right?" she asked the parents. At the mother's nod, she led them to a nearby set of couches. Jack slipped into David's room.
The boy's face lit up when he entered. "Jack!" He scrambled out of bed and hugged Jack around the waist, hard. He mumbled something into Jack's jeans.
"What?" asked Jack, prying off the vicelike grip.
"Can you fix me?" David asked in a small voice.
"Fix you?" Jack repeated, thrown and feeling a bit stupid.
The boy crawled back onto the bed and drew his knees up to his chest. "The people who came to see us yesterday said our house almost burned down because of something I did. I saw you fix the way I accidentally burned you before. Can you fix me?"
"You don't need fixing," Jack began indignantly. Then he drew a deep breath and contained his temper. "I can't fix you, kid, because there's nothing wrong with you. Just like there's nothing wrong with me, or with Erika." David still looked distrustful, so Jack tried again. "You know how some people have blue eyes and some people don't?" David nodded. "Well, it's kind of like that. Some people have powers and some people don't. You and I, and Erika, we have power. Erika can make it rain when she wants. I can heal people when they're sick or hurt. You can, well, start fires. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. If you work hard and learn to control it, you can use your power for good the way Erika and I do."
"Are you superheroes?" David asked eagerly.
"Yes. Well, in a way. It's complicated right now," Jack replied. Seeing he had his audience's rapt attention, he sighed. "We're superheroes in training. When we're both ready, we'll be partners and use our powers to help people who need it."
"Do you get to wear masks and costumes and have cool names so nobody knows who you are?" David asked eagerly.
Jack winced, but only replied, "Yes."
"What's your superhero name?"
Jack swore inside his head. Somehow he'd known the kid would ask that. "I…well…I don't have one yet," he confessed. He could feel his face burning and wished briefly for his old fur coat to hide it.
"Maybe I can help you pick!" offered David eagerly. He spent the next few minutes rattling off various suggestions, several of them quite creative. None seemed to fit, but Jack actually came to appreciate the boy's unabashed enthusiasm. Eventually they turned on the in-room TV and sat watching it together, David still occasionally throwing out ideas based on words he heard or saw on the screen. Once, David was laughing so hard from the cartoon character's antics that he bumped the remote. The Weather Channel appeared.
"Change it back!" David exclaimed, then paused. "What's that word?"
"What word?" Jack glanced up from the myriad buttons on the remote to see where the six-year-old pointed. The weather was being given for several cities in Arizona. "Oh, that's…" he paused, and let it sink in. "Phoenix," he breathed.
"Fee-nix?" David repeated. "That's a funny word. Can that be your name?"
"You know, kid," replied Jack, "You might have just hit on something."
"Are you boys about done? We should be getting home," announced Erika, poking her head into the room. She saw the expression on Jack's face. "Jack? Are you OK?"
Jack gave his head a small shake to clear it. "I'll tell you later. Did you clear things up out there?"
"Think so." Erika twisted her mouth wryly, and Jack grinned back. Apparently she'd had a worse time than he had convincing David's parents of the potential virtues of their son's abilities. "They'll be seeing him at the Academy in a year or two, at least."
"'Bye, Jack!" David exclaimed, throwing out his arms for a hug. Jack returned it without reservation.
"See you later, kid," he said with a wave. He passed David's parents on the way out. Behind him, he heard an enthusiastic boy's voice say, "I'm gonna be a superhero, Dad!" He smiled, put an arm around Erika's shoulders, and the pair left the hospital.
Walking Erika home from the Metro stop, she leaned against him. "So what was it you were going to tell me?"
"Oh, right. I think I figured out a name possibility."
"Well?" Erika looked at him eagerly.
"What do you think of Phoenix? I know there are connotations of fire that I don't have, but…"
"I think I understand. You've risen from the ashes, proverbially speaking. And with your healing, you help other people rise, too." She paused. "You also seem to have helped David rise from ashes of his own, without using your power at all. I think it's perfect."
Jack felt something light and feathery brush his cheek. He reached up and wiped it off. A tiny white crystal shone one his finger before melting away. Several more snowflakes drifted past his face to settle around them. A few feet in front and behind them, no snow was falling. He glanced down at Erika. "Are you…"
She grinned. "Not sure how long I can keep this miniature White Christmas Eve up. But it's my first real snow."
"You could just say 'hurry up and kiss me,'" Jack pointed out.
"You figured it out quick enough." They kissed gently, the snow drifting around them like little pieces of the sky falling from heaven.
"Merry Christmas, Hurricane," Jack whispered when they parted.
"Merry Christmas, Phoenix," she replied. Arm in arm, they continued walking down the sidewalk.
Author's Note: Happy Holidays, everybody! I know it's shameless to use part of my penname for a character, but I can honestly say I didn't think of that when I decided to call Jack "Phoenix." I hope you don't mind.
Thanks for the wonderful reviews thus far!