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Origin Story, 2 (end)

July 09, 2021 01:51PM

Part 2: The Reluctant Hero



Faced with a sudden, sharp, and sustained drop in temperature, Henry's body froze. Without his Master Mind costume, the cold leeched right through his civilian clothes and he shivered as much as his limited range of motion allowed.

Catherine had been standing right in front of him, holding his hand and looking quite kissable just a moment ago. She was still there but she now looked panicked, her fingers clutched painfully in his. "Oh, my goodness! Henry, are you okay?" she cried, heedless of her own distress.

Henry tried to tell her that he was fine, but his teeth were chattering too hard to let him speak. He couldn't even turn to glare at the blundering hero who had frozen him.

"Release the damsel from your clutches, villain!" ordered the oaf as if Henry was dangling Catherine off the edge of a skyscraper.

Henry did not obey, mostly because every muscle in his body was trying to clench for warmth. It was agony for him but he had to be squeezing Catherine's fingers something fierce.

"Stop it!" Catherine told the hero. "You're hurting him. He hasn't done anything wrong."

"Release her," the hero ordered again, strutting into Henry's line of sight, "and I will let you go."

The man's chin looked vaguely familiar. Maybe Henry had witnessed him posturing on the news, issuing challenges that Henry never bothered to meet. That was one of his father's lessons: no one can be your nemesis without your consent.

But this guy was definitely pretending to be a hero, with the same catch phrase and freeze gun as Celsia, and a matching costume. Henry wasn't aware of any weapon that could transform a body like that, but he couldn't discard the idea out of hand. It's wasn't like he kept on the cutting edge of mad science.

"C-c-celsi-si-ia?" he pushed through his chattering teeth.

"What? No!" the man shouted in affront. "Celsia's not here right now so I get to keep an eye on the city for a bit. I'm getting rid of the riffraff for her." With that, Henry could hear the gun charging for another shot. "Now do what I said and let her go."

Henry was hardly in a position to fight back on a level playing field. He had no defenses against the cold such as he was, and his brain had probably jettisoned 40 IQ points to help his body stave off hypothermia. He tried to relax the death grip on Catherine's fingers and in short order she was free.

"There!" Catherine exclaimed. "He let me go, now honor your promise and unfreeze him."

The hero yanked Catherine behind him as if to shield her from the cold mist sublimating off of Henry. "Don't worry, miss. I, Mr. Perfection, will protect you!"

Mr. Perfection? Henry nearly gagged, wondering if hubris was this man's kryptonite.

"I don't need protecting," Catherine said, struggling to free herself. "He wasn't hurting me. You're supposed to be a hero; help him!"

"Stand back," the hero -- Henry was not going to refer to him as Perfection -- posed. With one hand he swept Catherine behind him while he used the other to aim the freeze ray at Henry.

There was a blast of light and heat. No longer frozen in place, Henry felt every muscle relax in exhaustion. His jelly legs dumped him unceremoniously into a heap on the ground.

Catherine called out to him, but Henry was too dazed to reply coherently. He merely moaned noncommittally as his body tried to schedule when it would begin thinking about how to move again.

"And now, fair Catherine, I think I deserve a kiss as my reward," the hero announced.

Henry couldn't have heard correctly, because heros didn't expect rewards. Or their idea of reward was something altruistically stupid like witnessing good triumph over evil. People didn't get into hero work for the diamonds or the action figures or the naming rights, or at least they didn't stay in it if that was their motivation. And they certainly didn't demand kisses; that was creepy and gross.

But Catherine had apparently heard the same thing, because she started to get away from him, saying very stupid things like, "What?" and "You can't mean that."

Henry had grown up knowing one didn't say things like that to a villain. Smart people didn't use phrases like Do your worst or No when a villain was more than capable of doing evil even without provocation. Henry began a mental countdown to whatever fireworks were now coming and wished his limbs would be more responsive.

The hero… the villain… the perfect idiot grabbed Catherine by the waist and launched them both into the air, propelled by Celsia's wind-maker. Henry was flattened by the downdraft, but when the gusts faded to a gentle breeze he was able to get shakily to his feet. He looked in the direction where he had last seen Catherine, carried off by a new evil-doer who had clearly stolen the local hero's hot-and-cold gun and wind-maker.

He had been quite slow in realizing that Perfect Idiot was actually a villain, but Henry was still a villain too. And it was a good thing for Catherine that villains were ferociously territorial.

.o8o.

Knowing he could do little for Catherine while only Henry Tilney, he travelled to his secret lair as fast as he could, listening to the news as he went. If Celsia had been attacked and defeated, he would have expected breathless coverage of the battle but there was silence on that topic. On the other hand, the announcer repeated a story of how a routine press conference at an underfunded shelter had ended dramatically when the mayor's daughter had rescued two children from a rickety jungle gym and had broken her leg in the bargain.

Henry sighed in frustration. In Master Mind's only second fracas with Celsia, he had thrown the fight early and fled the scene. It was a feint, obviously, and he had a drone trail the hero back to her lair and discovered she was secretly Eleanor Vickers, the mayor's daughter. Know your foe had been another one of his father's dictums of successful villainy, which was intended to cover a hero's strengths, weaknesses, and attacks. Henry had taken it one step further but he had no plans to exploit that information; he was a villain but he had boundaries. In general, Henry wanted to keep matters with Celsia strictly professional and figured attacking her civilian identity was a line he didn't want to cross. That had been a big reason why he had vandalized the park the night before the Bettinam-Vickers wedding rather than crashing it the day of when Celsia would be acting as a bridesmaid.

Nothing in the broadcast explained how Perfect Idiot had stolen Celsia's equipment, but at least Henry knew he couldn't count on the hero to save Catherine from this wannabe. It also meant that Henry wasn't going up against Celsia right now, so he had no qualms against sneaking into the hero's lair to hunt down Catherine's abductor.

When it came to it, stealth proved unnecessary. He could have waltzed in wearing tap shoes and strobe lights for all the attention paid to him. Catherine and Perfect Idiot were engaged in a shouting match. Henry could hear her yelling to, "Stop this now!" and, "Let me go!" with enough force to allay Henry's immediate concerns about her wellbeing. Celsia's replacement shouted back that, "You don't understand!" and, "Think about it, Catherine!"

Henry finally got close enough to see the pair. Idiot's mask was off although Henry could only see the back of his head. Catherine tried to project an air of calm but she was red in the face from shouting.

"John, please," she said, striving to be reasonable, "whatever you think you can achieve, this is not the way to do it."

Henry'd had enough. He didn't bother to announce his presence, just fired a tranquilizer that struck Perfect Idiot in his unprotected neck. The man stopped blathering midword and collapsed in a heap. Satisfied with Idiot's initial reaction, Henry strode forward to double-check that a full dose of the drug had been successfully injected. Better safe than sorry was another one of his father's precepts that Henry took to heart.

He paused for a microsecond as he recognized the junior villain as John, Catherine's clingy shadow from the interview. It explained why Henry had been attacked and why Catherine had been abducted, but since Master Mind wouldn't know any of that, he was forced to feign ignorance. Still, he took gruesome delight that John wouldn't wake up any time soon, and would be in pure agony when he did. He picked up the discarded freeze ray and turned his attention to Catherine.

Catherine had yelped in surprise when Mr. Perfection had lost consciousness. When Master Mind picked up the weapon, she looked absolutely panicked, like her situation had gone from bad to worse.

"Are you okay? Did he hurt you? I'm going to try to get you out of there," he said, his tone nothing but professional detachment. As Henry, he'd help her deal with the trauma later (it was called post traumatic stress for a reason) but first things first, he needed to unfreeze her before her ankles suffered frostbite.

She didn't say anything exactly but her throat made frightened little noises. Henry fiddled with the gun, testing it on a spot of the floor before he took aim and fired a hot blast at Catherine's feet.

"Don't try to stand up just yet," he told her when the ice was gone. "Get the circulation flowing for a bit before you try to walk." He'd had the recent experience to guide her.

Catherine nodded, not looking at his face. It was a weirdly purposeful avoidance, as if she might later be able to deny she had ever been near Master Mind if only she didn't look directly at him. She wiggled her toes and grimaced at the painful sensation. She gave him a quiet, "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," he told her. Innocent civilians shouldn't be grateful to villains like him.

"What did you do to him?" she asked, her eyes flicked to her abductor.

"Administered a very powerful tranquilizer called Blackout," he replied. "He'll wake up tomorrow with the worst headache he's ever had and he won't be able to remember how he got that way."

Catherine seemed to consider this. "He won't remember he kidnapped me," she concluded.

John wouldn't remember much of the last six to eight hours, but he was still the sort of person who would abduct Catherine if he had the means to do so. And if John had stumbled upon Celsia's hideout this morning or earlier, then he'd still remember he had the means.

"This is important, Catherine. I need you to think carefully," Henry told her. "In all of your conversation, did John mention when he found this place?"

Catherine's head jerked up in surprise and she nearly looked at him until her survival instincts kicked in and forced her head back down. "How do you know our names?"

Henry barely needed to think of an excuse. "You were shouting at each other," he reminded her, "you and John. It's not really a secret at 90 decibels. So what did he tell you before I walked in?"

Catherine was chastened but still answered. "I, I, I don't know," she stuttered. "He didn't say."

"If you had to guess?" he prompted her.

She shrugged, tearful. "Today? Maybe?"

Henry wanted to massage a nascent headache at his temple but he was wearing goggles so he settled for rolling his shoulders. Ambiguity wasn't good; it was really just a synonym for bad. In this case it meant that he needed to have a professional chat with Celsia about whether she had any security system that would have recorded when John first found this place. It would be phenomenal luck if John couldn't remember the break-in, and it would be as much Celsia's problem as his if there was a new villain in town.

"Are you going to drug me too? So I don't remember being kidnapped?" She stared at her feet as she rubbed her ankles.

"No," he said. He didn't want to hurt her and that headache was legendary. Besides, he didn't have an endless supply of tranquilizer and he wanted Catherine walking and talking to help him as needed. "It's for the best that you know exactly what kind of person your friend really is. Not all villains wear goggles."

"Henry!" she exclaimed like an epiphany.

The name came at him unprepared and gave him a visceral twist of panic. "What?" Had she figured him out? Had he given himself away somehow?

"Henry," she said again, less explosive and more expository, "he's my, my friend. We had just finished dinner when John showed up. And then John froze him and just left him there."

As heartwarming as it was to listen to Catherine worry about him, now was not the time. In addition to getting Catherine safely home, he needed to dump the John problem on Celsia.

"He'll be fine," he said distractedly, trying to decide if Celsia was the sort of hero to have a holding cell where he could store John for the night. There had to be at least a closet he could repurpose. Henry needed to talk with Celsia tonight to see if she had security recordings that could pinpoint when John discovered her sanctum so they could determine if the Blackout drug would wipe all traces of the secret or if they needed to get creative. And yes, it might look like John was being kidnapped and held against his will, but that was just karma.

"You don't know that," Catherine told him, still fixated on his civilian self.

"Catherine," he said, trying to sound calm and reassuring rather than cold and menacing, "you were hit by the freeze ray and you're fine. I'm sure this Henry will be the same. Now, before I take you away from here, I need to lock up John so Celsia can deal with him later. Stay put a bit longer for me."

He would have said more but she had apparently gotten over her earlier aversion and was staring openly at him. It was a little unnerving how she observed him, like she was breaking him down into his component parts. He stalked off before Catherine could say anything else.

He soon found a small room that would serve the purpose and then dragged John into it, ankles first. With the door shut and locked, he sighed wearily and tried to roll the tension from his shoulders. Leaving the would-be villain locked up like this only reinforced that he needed to speak with Celsia as soon as he took care of Catherine.

When he had originally discovered Celsia's civilian identity, he had done a thorough if slightly illegal investigation into the mayor's daughter. As such, he had an aptly named contact -- "Weather Girl" -- on his phone with an unlisted number he had never called. He had never needed to contact her or coordinate with her before now, but short of showing up at her apartment, he didn't know how else to get a message to her. At least Master Mind had the tech back in his lair so he could call her without her being able to trace anything back to him.

Confident that John wouldn't be going anywhere for a while, he decided it was time to get Catherine away from this place. He probably needed to phone her as Henry as soon as Master Mind dropped her off at wherever she asked to go. By remarkable coincidence, he could feel his cell phone vibrating in his pocket. Almost no one had that number and fewer still ever used it.

Like a curious and well-trained idiot, he fished it out and looked at the display: Catherine. He blinked rapidly and tried to decide if this was a conversation he could have now (no, absolutely not) and what possible excuse he could give for not answering immediately or not calling her back as soon as possible (perhaps the freeze gun had drained his battery) before he silenced the call. It was probably the rudest thing he had done all day, barring legitimate villainy. Without waiting for regret to prompt him to do something foolish like send her an apologetic text, he shoved the phone back in its pocket.

"Are you ready to go?" he called out to Catherine as he strode closer.

She yelped in response and put her own phone away, then nodded mutely and trailed after him as meek as a lamb. He led her to a vehicle that looked like a nondescript minivan on the outside. The thing was so dull-looking that it actively repelled attention; in that respect, it was nearly invisible. The inside, however, was a completely different story and he had the satisfaction of seeing Catherine's mouth fall open in awe as he ushered her into the passenger seat. He didn't bother with a blindfold because he expected Celsia would move her hideout very soon now that she knew it had been discovered. And he believed that blindfolding Catherine after she had already seen everything was pointless theater.

They had a terse conversation in which she gave him an address at which to drop her, and then they were in motion.

"So what's going to happen to John?" she asked timidly.

"That depends," said Henry. "I need to talk with Celsia and see if she can pinpoint when John figured out where her lair is. If it was this afternoon, then the Blackout drug should make him forget all about it. Otherwise, it's a great deal more complicated and I'm sure Celsia will want to take the hero's highroad which puts you at higher risk."

"Do you think he'll kidnap me again?"

"Celsia will protect you from John," he told her with confidence. "Now that she knows about the two of you, she'll keep an eye on the situation." If the hero wasn't going to speedily resolve the problem, she could hardly abandon an innocent civilian to evil machinations.

"What about you?" Catherine asked.

"She'll protect you from me as well," he said.

Catherine frowned with her whole face, from her lips to her eyebrows. "No, I mean, will you protect me?"

Henry made a few abortive choking sounds but the vehicle had enough collision detection software to avoid crashing into anything while he paid no attention to the road. "No. That's not… I don't," he tried to explain. "Are you, are you serious? Have you any idea who I am? I'm not one of the good guys; I'm evil, I was raised to be a villain. And one happy accident isn't going to override a lifetime of conditioning."

His words were harsher than he intended but he couldn't exactly walk them back and still prove his point. Instead, he sat like some miserable gargoyle, a true credit to his father, eyes forward and hands on the wheel.

Silence fell over them, thick and oppressive until she called out a turn. It wasn't the way Henry was planning on going, but he complied because he was sure he had scared her enough for one night.

"Drop me off here," she said, pointing to an open spot along the curb.

He pulled in and then waited patiently for her to leave. She fidgeted a bit, her hand on the door, until she blurted out, "Thank you. Thank you for everything you did tonight."

The gratitude made his skin crawl with an unfamiliar sensation. "Don't thank me," he told her. "I'm not a hero."

"Well, you kinda are," she pointed out as if to spite him, "to me."

He wanted to warn her against disagreeing with people like him. No matter her moral convictions or abstract principles, it was needlessly reckless. Heaven knew Henry had plenty of practice in silencing his own ethical conscience with his father; he could give Catherine lessons in how to behave. And speaking of his father, if the General ever heard of tonight's escapades, there would be more trouble than Henry wanted to deal with.

He needed her to realize the danger. Surely she would be careful to avoid it if he just explained it to her.

"Catherine," he said, preparing for a lecture.

"Henry," she parroted back.

"What?" He couldn't have heard her correctly. He prayed it was some by random auditory hallucination.

Catherine looked through the one-way glass as traffic flowed around them, pedestrians on one side and cars on the other. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to figure it out," she said in a small, contrite voice.

"How?" he sputtered.

She looked at him like the answer was obvious to anyone paying attention. "Your costume -- the goggles and the hood --" she said, pointing to her own eyes and hair -- "they're really effective at obscuring your identity. I mean, I had no idea. When I met you at the coffee shop, it didn't even occur to me. But then I must have spent most of dinner just staring at your mouth and that's like the one part of Master Mind's face that I can see. And, well, once you know what to look for, you can't not see it."

It was a testament to his father's training that Henry briefly thought of the tranq gun before dismissing the idea out of hand. He didn't want to hurt Catherine. He didn't want to make her forget. But he did need her to be smart.

"I won't tell anyone. I'll keep your secret," she volunteered. "It's just, after today, I can't think of you as a villain anymore. You said it yourself: not all villains wear goggles, and not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes it's the hero who wears the goggles instead."

He started to protest.

"You saved me, Henry," she told him, the words weighted with importance. "So many little things you could have done differently and you chose the hero's path. You're not evil, and I have a bone to pick with whoever tricked you into believing otherwise."

That indignation on his behalf? That was funny. He laughed and it released some of the tension he had been carrying. "Remind me never to introduce you to my father," he said. He couldn't imagine how such a meeting would go down except in flames.

"So," Catherine began as she thought through his words and came up with the best interpretation, "does that mean I'm going to see you again? I mean, I still owe you, like, a coffee or a tea or something. It's not smart to be indebted to a guy with his own EMP generator."

She gave him what he could only interpret as a flirtatious grin and he smiled back. After everything, if she didn't have a problem with his hobby, why should he let it get in the way of spending time with her?

"Saturday, ten o'clock, same place as we first met."

Catherine gave out a girlish noise of victory and pressed a quick kiss into his cheek. "It's a date," she confirmed. "Text me when you get home, yeah? I don't want to be up all night worrying about you." She then slipped out of the car and onto the sidewalk, waving to him as she walked away.

Henry huffed a sigh, too pleased with this cock-up of an evening for his own good. There would be plenty of negative consequences from this night, but he couldn't bring himself to regret it. Instead, he maneuvered his vehicle into traffic and headed home. He had a hero to call, and a text to send.

// THE END //
SubjectAuthorPosted

Origin Story, 2 (end)

NN SJuly 09, 2021 01:51PM

Re: Origin Story, 2 (end)

MichelleRWJuly 12, 2021 01:08AM

Re: Origin Story, 2 (end)

Suzanne OJuly 10, 2021 12:49AM

Re: Origin Story, 2 (end)

NN SJuly 09, 2021 01:55PM

Re: Origin Story, 2 (end)

MichelleRWJuly 12, 2021 01:12AM

Re: Origin Story, 2 (end)

EvelynJeanJuly 10, 2021 05:43AM



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