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Origin Story, 1

July 03, 2021 03:00AM

Origin Story

Blurb: Henry Tilney doesn't want to be a villain, but don't mention that to his father. Henry is not a hero, but try explaining that to Catherine. Modern, heroes/villains.

Northanger Abbey, because I can't stop messing with a good thing. This is a 2-parter. Please enjoy!

And thank you to Karen for the peer review!

Part 1: The Reluctant Villain

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," Henry muttered under his breath, scanning the headlines on his phone.

His father was at it again and every news source seemed to be spouting breathless coverage of General Terror's latest rampage in the English countryside. Why couldn't Henry have a normal father, like the kind who puttered in the garden or wrote scathing editorials in the local paper? Instead, his father was a villain -- a world-renown supervillain -- who considered the whole of Great Britain his stomping ground.

Henry's childhood had been singular. The best proof of that was that he had no friends with which to compare his unconventional upbringing and identify any strangeness. Languages, STEM, martial arts, world history -- he was homeschooled and never shared his tutors with another pupil. By the time he had been trained in useful villainy, he had been introduced as his father's sidekick ("Corporal Punishment", to keep with the General's military theming). Henry had tried to like it; his life would have been much easier if he could, but he wasn't made that way. And that fact got increasingly harder to hide from the one person who must never be allowed to find out.

Rather than waiting for his father to realize how disappointing Henry was, he preemptively announced that he was moving out. He made suitable obeisance to his father for his training, but it was time (he claimed) to prove his mettle on his own. And then, rather than waiting for his father to argue with him, Henry left. He got as far as the state of Washington along America's Pacific coast before the thought of crossing a second ocean gave him pause. At least the dreary climate was a fine reminder of home.

Henry tried to walk the straight and narrow when he arrived in the United States. He got a regular job on a regular work visa, earned a regular paycheck, lived in a regular apartment, and met regularly with co-workers and neighbors. There were no shrink rays, no neurotoxins, no robots, no trained sharks, no missile silos, no corrupt politicians, no mob bosses, no launch codes, no countdowns, no self-destruct buttons, no night vision goggles, no spandex. He was just Henry Tilney, the new guy with the funny English accent. Regular life was good.

He learned so many things after he left home, things that only called attention to how unique his early education had been. He finally realized how long it took to boil water when he didn't have a specially tuned laser to heat the kettle. He rode on public transportation and did his own shopping. He bought his own socks (and then went back to the store the next day to buy a second pair in the correct size). He tried keeping a houseplant alive (failing miserably, his father would be so proud). His charcuterie platters weren't yet good enough for the neighbors but he felt he was improving with each trial run.

Three months into his new life, Henry's father showed up out of the blue to help him "set up shop". This was villains' code for establishing a secret lair and pulling an elaborate bank heist in Henry's honor to introduce him to the city. Naturally Henry's sidekick costume and name had to remain in England lest some enterprising reporter figured out Henry's secret identity, but that didn't stop his father from picking an equally ridiculous American villain name for him. (For the record, Master Mind was just as bad and far more likely to get him booed in the States.)

Henry suddenly had to throw himself into villainy with the minimum amount of zeal needed to satisfy his father and send the old man back to England before people became suspicious of General Terror's hiatus.

And now he found himself in an unfortunate cycle of plotting and staging some elaborate, attention-stealing caper every few months just to keep his father off his back. It was exhausting, maintaining a double life. Between his villainy and the job he was ostensibly in the country to perform, Henry barely had time to take care of his dry cleaning much less establish meaningful relationships with people with whom he shared almost no cultural touchstones. He thought about running away again, starting over again, but he knew his father would merely follow, to the ends of the earth if needed.

There was a slight noise and Henry looked up from his phone. He had reached the front of the line at the coffee shop on autopilot while he doomscrolled the news reports and now the cashier was staring at him expectantly.

He had been coming to this shop once a week since he had moved to town so he gave his usual order: earl gray tea. Then he waited patiently for the cashier (a perpetual college student for the simple fact that he would never earn enough credits to graduate) to find someone else behind the counter who knew how to key in the order for tea into the coffee shop's register.

Content with this small, perfectly harmless bit of mayhem, he grabbed his cup of hot water with tea bag and searched for a vacant table. It was properly crowded at this time of day, and he'd have to share with some lunatic extrovert or take his cup and lurk at home in peace.

Just as he was about to give up, a young woman caught his eye.

"Are you looking for a table?" she asked as she gathered up scattered pieces of paper and shoved them into her backpack.

She started to get up from her seat, so Henry gratefully took the empty chair opposite her. "Thank you," he smiled.

"Oh, my god, your accent! You're English," she told him, dropping back down. "The latest General Terror thing is all over the news. You must be traumatized. Do you know any of the people who got hurt?"

Henry had a whole speech prepared explaining that the United Kingdom was approximately one-and-a-half times larger than the state of Washington and had about nine times as many people. The odds of him actually knowing any of the victims were small, even before factoring in being raised by a homicidal misanthrope.

However, before he could begin it, she continued with, "Of course, you get to deal with the master in America, so I suppose you're not totally safe here either."

"I'm sorry," he said, before he could think of a wittier reply, "but are you referring to Master Mind?"

"Oh, yeah, he's like our own hipster version of General Terror," she told him. "I mean, I think he used the same hoverbots to spray paint rainbows on the county correctional center as the general used to close down Heathrow."

"Oh," said Henry and he tried to figure out how to back away slowly. He didn't want to be evil but there was a certain class of people -- about a third of the general population -- who teased it out of him. The sort of people who campaigned for "leopards eating babies live on television" and then got angry because it was their kind of babies being eaten; the sort of people who had no problem with seeing other people's babies get ripped apart by ravenous animals. Empathically blind fans of evil. The sort who should never be given babies to begin with. The sort who made him think that he wasn't the only person who had been raised by a psychopath. "You like Master Mind?"

"I did not say that." She didn't disavow it either. "Oh!" but she exclaimed for no apparent reason, "you should tell me your opinions on villains on both sides of the Atlantic. It'll be perfect!"

His expression fell into the uncanny valley between confused and horrified.

She just laughed at him. "I'm a student," she said as if that explained anything. "I'm taking a media class and Professor Allen gave us an assignment to do a ten minute video segment on 'Both Sides.' I think most people are doing both sides of some hot-button issue, but I think getting your opinions on both the general and the master would be amazing."

"Don't call him 'the master,'' Henry told her.

"So you'll do it," she inferred, obviously hopped up on caffeine.

"I didn't say that," he sputtered. "I don't even know yo--"

"Catherine," she anticipated him, holding out her hand as if they were about to make a blood oath. "Catherine Morland."

"Henry Tilney." He shook her hand, his body (and mouth) moving via muscle memory rather than any real desire to keep going down this rabbit hole. He was nothing if not very, stupidly, politely English.

"Thank you so much for helping out, Henry!" She made it sound as if his cooperation was already a foregone conclusion. "Are you free tonight, or what about this weekend? Whenever, I'll owe you a coffee or something."

"I don't drink coffee," he said.

Catherine gasped, properly scandalized. Henry, bless his villainous heart, thought it made her look rather cute.

"Henry," she warned him in a stage whisper, "you're in America now! You can't say stuff like that! We throw foreigners into cages for lesser crimes!"

He giggled, an entirely inappropriate sound for someone whose bona fide secret lair had its own miniature dungeon, too smitten to do more.

The endorphins had worn off long before he was supposed to meet her again. It was only her text, "see u in 30min," heavily emoji-ed, that gave him the impetus needed to go to the address she had sent him.

She and another young woman met him at the front door. "Henry, this is my friend Isabella. She's partnering with me on this project," Catherine said politely. Then she turned to Isabella, "This is the English guy I told you about who knows General Terror."

Before he could explain that he didn't actually know General Terror -- who truly knew their own father? -- Isabella latched onto his arm.

"Yes, I see what you mean," she told Catherine conspiratorially as if Henry wasn't standing there with two perfectly functioning ears. "John will be so jealous."

Catherine gave a too-loud, uncomfortable bark of laughter and tried to explain. "You see, Henry, John is Isabella's brother and we were going to interview him for this project until you came along. He was sweet to offer, but both sides in politics isn't very --" Catherine stopped abruptly, as if she had just realized the topic was uninteresting. "Anyway," she shook herself, "let's get started."

With that, the three of them entered the building and wove through hallways and stairwells to a small office where a young man was already getting the equipment set up.

The new addition was quickly identified as John, who did his best to appear manly and intimidating. He crushed Henry's hand in greeting and stood territorially close to Catherine. Henry, however, had been raised by a madman and was not easily cowed by amateurs. He had stared down the chief of police, the mayor, far too many tech-bros, and a handful of up and coming heroes. He realized that John was merely projecting strength to mask weakness. Had Henry been vindictive, he would've found out where the guy lived and then terrorized him, but that was an important difference between himself and his father.

Before John could invent a new challenge, Catherine sketched out the interview questions. This allowed Henry to think of his answers while Isabella positioned him in a chair and adjusted the two small lights so that he would look neither washed out nor heavily shadowed. Then Isabella pinned a small microphone to his shirt, meticulously smoothed the fabric over his chest, and asked him to say a few words to check the sound. It was an impressive coordination, especially given the fact that they were both tripping over John.

"Ready to start?" Catherine suddenly asked. "Let me begin by asking for some basic background to get you comfortable and then go through the interview questions."

"So do you have any closing thoughts on the villains?" Catherine had been remarkably professional throughout the interview compared with the gregarious college student who had lured Henry into this. If maintaining two separate personas was not so thoroughly ingrained, he might have found it odd or clever.

Henry sighed. "They're evil. Of course they are. But not all heroes wear capes and not all villains wear goggles. One person doing a villainous act doesn't necessarily make everyone else a hero. And we may never unmask General Terror or capture Master Mind, but everyday we need to choose to be good, so we don't create new villains in ourselves."

Catherine just looked at him, smiling like mad, and Henry didn't have the strength to look away.

"And cut!" John announced as he turned off the camera. He had been consistently, irritatingly inserting himself into the interview, forcing Catherine to repeat questions or Henry to repeat answers to get clips without John's voice cutting in. It had gotten bad enough that Isabella had pulled John out into the hall for a little conversation so Catherine and Henry could get 5 minutes of uninterrupted back-and-forth.

"That was a really good interview," Isabella complimented. "You English types are always so good with words."

Henry blinked. She didn't look like she was trying to be stupid or condescending, but he didn't know any other ways to interpret that remark. "Yes, well," he said, as if that explained it.

Isabella began to remove the microphone from his shirt and carefully checked the fabric for wrinkles while John loomed over Catherine and rested a hand heavily on her shoulder. "Ready for an all-nighter to edit this down to ten minutes?" John asked in a quiet, low voice.

"Um," Catherine began, shrugging off his hold. "I kinda promised Henry that I would take him to dinner after this."

That sounded like a much better deal than coffee, even if Henry drank the foul stuff. Before he could wonder how much of this metamorphosis was Catherine's true interest in Henry and how much was something else, he was yelping as Isabella accidentally stuck him while removing the mic. The noise distracted Catherine from whatever John was going to offer next, and she leapt from her seat to help put equipment back in its cases. Isabella, however, quickly shooed her away, claiming that she and her brother could put everything back and the two young women could work on the editing tomorrow night.

Catherine needed no further prompting, and Henry was disinclined to see John's extended reaction so they were speedily up and gone.

When they were outside and safe from eavesdropping, he said, "I thought you offered me coffee."

"Some people have coffee for dinner," she said.

Something about how she spoke -- or maybe it was the way her eyes smiled -- told him this was a date, but he felt obligated to address the spectre of John hanging over her.

"Are you sure your boyfriend won't mind?" he asked with deliberate insouciance. It was blatantly clear to him that John felt some proprietary claim, but it was considerably more murky whether Catherine honored it. She could have been flirting with Henry in earnest, or she could have acted friendly toward Henry merely to get the interview.

"My what?" She had not been expecting that, but she understood exactly what Henry was talking about. "John's not my boyfriend. He just has this I want to date you vibe," she said, dropping her voice to a macho register for effect. "But it's a family trait. I'm sure you noticed that Isabella is super flirtatious; she's also really pretty so I've yet to meet a guy who has a problem with it."

Henry would be deceitfully obtuse if he denied that Catherine's project partner was aggressively tactile, but she was also a manufactured beauty. Compared to Catherine's natural ease, it was no contest who Henry preferred. However, Catherine wasn't about to let him get a word in.

"And I've always been like, John is Isabella's brother, not… You know? That's just how he is. How can I be okay with Isabella being flirty but not with John? And as long as he doesn't, you know, take it too far, it should be okay. But then for my birthday, he got me this gift. Like, a really nice gift. Really nice. And I just told him that I couldn't accept it, because obviously it was something you'd get a girlfriend, not just a regular friend.

"And he was all, ew, Catherine, I don't like you like that, now it's all awkward between us, and I was like, no, no, sorry, my bad. And I just felt like, you know, like… Do you know what I mean by an earthquake machine? If I had one, I'd've used it right then and just cracked the ground open and crawled into it and just, like, never come out."

Henry had received a contraption from his father as a housewarming gift that would produce exactly the destruction that Catherine was looking for, but he held his tongue and simply nodded.

"So, to summarize, I don't have a boyfriend, so no one's going to mind if I take you out to dinner right now." She gave him a winning smile before it got confused and slipped into a frown. "Are you, um, are you seeing anyone?" she asked nervously. "Because I wouldn't want her to feel weird or anything about this. If you want to invite her to join us, that's cool. I'm sure she's really nice and stuff."

"I don't have a girlfriend," he said, putting her out of her misery.

Catherine's smile was back to full wattage.

After the interview, Catherine felt released from any obligation not to sway Henry's opinions. She was finally able to share her thoughts on Master Mind and General Terror as they ate. She wasn't exactly a fan -- Master Mind had caused far too much chaos for that -- but she could appreciate nuance. It was immoral cruelty to release herds of exploding sheep into the English countryside while it was clever vigilantism to hack into the public school district's computer system and delete all the student debt records.

"Or what about the flowers he stole?" she said as she dug into her dessert.

"The what?" Henry played dumb to get her take on it.

"City Council and the mayor's office pumped a bunch of taxpayer dollars into revitalizing the old Carlisle Botanical Gardens, which, okay, is a public park, but then the mayor's son had his wedding and reception there right before it reopened to the public. It just feels a little sketchy."

"You think Mayor Vickers used taxpayer money to bankroll his son's wedding," he clarified.

Catherine nodded. "I mean, yeah, of course, just the venue. But then Master Mind snuck in the night before the wedding and removed all the flowers," she smiled. "He didn't hurt the plants, not really, and everything was still green and lush in the pictures, but everyone in the bridal party looked like they had swallowed a lemon. That wasn't a crime as much as it was performance art."

Henry pulled a face. His father had not been pleased with the prank, calling it beneath a villain's dignity to commit petty gardening, and if he wasn't ready for a city of his own, he needed to get back to England where his father could put him to proper use. Henry tried to explain that this was a strategic attack on the mayor's family, and that the elected official was responding as irrationally as predicted. He then had to forward several links to his father of the mayor's office announcing draconian changes to the park system and the police chief declaring a special task force to catch the elusive Master Mind and bring him to justice. It had mollified his father somewhat, but Henry still wanted to avoid more criticism.

Catherine reached for the check when it arrived but Henry was faster. It only made sense, he said, that he would pay for dinner. He had a real job that paid real money, and a secret trust fund to cover any outrageous or criminal expenses. Catherine allowed this generosity, but only after he promised to let her pay for his coffee or tea or whatever that weekend, which just proved that this was a date and it had gone very well.

They stood outside the restaurant, trying to gather the momentum to part for the night. Henry liked Catherine, a lot, and he wasn't really sure what to do about it.

"This was a good day," she said. "I'm glad I met you, and I'm glad you helped with my project, and I'm glad we could have dinner together."

"I agree completely," Henry said. "Except for the cheesecake. The cheesecake was awful -- really deserved to be fired into the sun. If you happen to know anyone who keeps a spare rocket for that sort of thing..." Henry's father had four of them.

Catherine was laughing, such a joyful, good sound. Her hands somehow got nested in his and of course she had to be standing close for that. And then she wasn't really laughing anymore but she was looking at him so sweetly. Henry leaned even closer as if he might kiss her because that was something he realized he very much wanted to do. Her eyes sparkled with encouragement until the last few inches when they fluttered shut and he could feel her breath warm on his face. And then --

"Freeze, villain!" ordered a voice from behind him. Instinctively he tensed but Henry thought the command was ridiculous on so many levels.

Firstly, this city already had a hero that spouted that line -- Celsia -- and Henry knew Celsia professionally, and that was not her voice. Heroes weren't territorial in the same way as villains, but they were respectful of each others' space. With Celsia flying around town with her wind-maker, using a signature catch phrase, and carrying a gun that could shoot hot and cold, similarly inclined heroes should have looked elsewhere for a city to protect or risk being branded a copycat.

Secondly, Henry wasn't being a villain; he was an ordinary citizen resident on an impromptu, ordinary date, and he had been about to kiss someone who had given every indication that she would like to be kissed. There was no villainy here. He had even called an Uber for her and stayed with her while she waited for it to arrive, putting him solidly on the chivalrous side of things.

Thirdly, cold! Cold, cold, cold! Cold as the coldest thing he could think of which, given the shock to his system, was himself. Up and down his back, from his neck to his ankles, he was frozen and immobile.

Unless the idiot had figured out his secret identity, this was a big, painful misunderstanding. And Henry secretly swore to himself that in the future he would restrict freeze rays and similar weapons to super heros and people properly dressed for the attack.

But first he needed to get out of this mess.

Origin Story, 1

NN SJuly 03, 2021 03:00AM

Re: Origin Story, 1

Suzanne OJuly 08, 2021 11:20PM

Re: Origin Story, 1

MichelleRWJuly 03, 2021 05:16PM


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