Endangered Friendship

The silence was interrupted by a knock at the door—faint and quiet, but recognizable to someone who had been listening for it in vain for the past several nights. Hope rising inside of her at the sound, Emily stood to her feet and walked over to answer. As she moved the door out of the way, an unmistakable figure came into view, his vivid form standing against the black night sky.

His clothes were the most noticeable thing about him—a tight mask covered his head, stretching down to his nose, then parting to each side to leave his mouth and lower face revealed.open as well. The mask was a bright metallic gold in color, the same as the bodysuit that encompassed the area from his neck to his toes. A black letter 'K' emblem rested on his chest, a sharp contrast from the surrounding gold and confirming him to be the hero known as Kinetic, the youngest member of the super-powered peace keeping force, the Justice Alliance.

Kinetic looked about her age or slightly older—he was clearly not a boy, but not necessarily a man yet either. A spectator might be unsure of his age—Emily, however, happened to know exactly how old he was, and many other things about him, too.

"Zack!" she exclaimed, overjoyed and relieved to see him, but concerned upon noting his dull, almost exhausted expression. "Oh no, you look terrible! What have you been doing? Wow, I haven't talked to you in days! I—" She stopped herself, realizing that she was babbling. "Here, come inside and sit down. You look like you could really use it."

"Thanks," Kinetic uttered, gratefully following her inside and wearily collapsing on the living room couch.

"Just remember to keep your voice down," Emily added in a whisper. "Mom and Dad are asleep upstairs, and you know we wouldn't want them to find out about the whole secret identity thing…" Her voice trailed off.

Despite his weariness, Kinetic was able to concentrate his mental energy and telekinetically remove the mask which covered his headface, revealing a face that might have looked pleasantly boyish, had it not appeared so tired and worn. The thick brown hair was unkempt, sticking out in odd places, and bags had formed under the tired blue eyes. Those eyes now saw the empty mask hovering a few feet in the air, and gently dropped it down onto the couch beside their owner. Once such a task had been difficult for him, but he was now an experienced superhero and performed much harder feats on regular occasions.

Emily sat down next to him, examining the familiar yet exhausted face. "Zack…you look terrible," she repeated. "What happened?"

"Don't worry about me," he replied, trying to convince himself of the words he spoke. "This is nothing unusual. I'll be fine. Actually, I just stopped by to make sure you were okay."

"Me? Why wouldn't I be okay?" Emily asked, confused.

"Well, I thought that the whole ordeal with the Prankster must have been difficult for you, and that maybe you were still a little unnerved."

"That's kind of you, Zack…" she replied. "The Prankster…I was totally freaking out when it happened. But I'm okay now."

The Prankster's very name made him sound silly and frivolous, and his appearance suggested that he was some sort of a children's entertainer. Despite this, he was a dangerous, possibly insane criminal whose props and toys were weapons, and whose pranks were deadly. He had been a foe of the entire Justice Alliance in the past, and recently, having been defeated by their youngest member, a mere child in his eyes, he had come back to seek revenge specifically on Kinetic himself.

"I guess you must have been freaked out while he was holding you hostage," Zack replied. "Was that a giant jack-in-the-box he was trying to trap you in?"

Emily shuddered at the unpleasant recollection. "I don't want to think about what he would've done with me. Truthfully, the one thing that was running through my mind the whole time—and that I still haven't figured out—was my connection to you. How did he know to come after me? How did he find out that you and I were…you know…friends? Don't tell me he found out your secret identity—"

Zack shook his head. "I hope not. No, I don't think he did. But we have had a few public encounters where you were with me as Kinetic. If someone was watching closely, they could easily realize that we were…friends, and be able to come after you…That's the dangerous thing about the life I lead, and I am so sorry that you had to be brought into it."

She gently put her hand on his shoulder. "No, Zack, don't be sorry. It wasn't your fault, you know that. And besides, I told you I wasn't hurt, and I've been fine since then. It's just that…"

He glanced at her quizzically. "What?"

She hesitated, trying to maneuver through the undesired words and find some way to say this tactfully. 'Well, the thing with the Prankster…that was almost two weeks ago. It's almost old news by now, and you haven't really talked to me about it since then. I've hardly talked to you at all since then."

"Emily, I'm sorry…"

"The scariest thing about all of this was wondering when I would hear from you, thinking that maybe you had forgotten about me…"

"Emily, I would never forget you!" Zack protested. "I like you a lot, and you mean a lot to me. You know that."

She sighed, slightly exasperated. "I know. Of course I know that. But ever since I found out you were Kinetic, it seems that the whole superhero thing comes between us so often. I hardly spend any time with you anymore."

Zack returned her sigh. "Trust me, Emily. I would so love to have more free time to spend together. But the thing, is, we live in a dangerous world, and people need my help—the help of the Justice Alliance—fairly often. Sometimes more often than I'd like."

"So just what have you been doing since the Prankster thing?" she asked, dually upset of the restrictions that his powers caused them both, and curious as to the events of his alter ego at the same time.

He didn't respond for a moment, recollecting the various events of the past few weeks. "A few days after that, there was a bank robbery. Just small-time crooks, so nothing too serious. I was actually excited because it was the first time that the Alliance let me go stop the bad guys by myself."

"Well, I sure hope they did," Emily answered, trying to be complaisant to his comments. "After you handled the Prankster, I'm sure you can take a few thugs off the street."

Zack nodded in agreement. "That was their reasoning too. So that happened, let me think…Thursday night. I think it was Thursday night. And then Friday…"

"What happened on Friday?"

"Friday was worse. Cyber-Man, that cyborg guy from the Forces of Evil, somehow broke loose, and was teamed up with some new guy named Circuit. Another part robot, but this guy could somehow get into electronicelectric devices and computers and stuff, and control them with his mind. Really dangerous."

"Wow," Emily replied, somewhat shocked despite the similar stories Zack had told her before. "I think I heard about them on the news. You weren't hurt, were you?"

"Not too badly, thankfully," he said. "But I wasn't able to take them myself. So after our first encounter, I got the Volt to help me—he was good, because he used electric currents to mess up their robot powers. So we caught Cyber-Man and Circuit on Sunday."

"Hmm. And what else?"

"A couple of days later, Fire Cracker showed up again."

"Fire Cracker?"

"The guy who has like fifty million different kinds of explosives. And is crazy enough to use them as weapons."

Emily scowled in recognition. "Oh, yeah. Him. How'd you beat him?"

"Same way as last time. It seems the guy isn't actually too smart. I just used my powers to separate him from his arsenal of explosives, without which he's just a regular crook. From that point on, it's easy."

"Maybe so…but he still sounds dangerous."

"He is," Kinetic agreed. "And he almost beat me in combat. That's why I was busy for the next two days."

"Why?"

"Because Wolf-Man saw how all my battles were going. I don't think he was disappointed, but considering that I'm still inexperienced compared to the rest of them, and that he is a senior member of the Justice Alliance, he took it upon himself to give me a few sessions of combat training."

"That was…thoughtful of him," Emily commented, not sure what else to say. "But how can he train you? He doesn't have any powers, right?"

Zack shook his head. "Wolf-Man hardly needs any powers. He's a master of all these different combat techniques, and is like a super-genius detective, too. Even if I had the powers of Dr. Energy or somebody, I wouldn't want to run into Wolf-Man in a dark alley."

"Doesn't sound like a very friendly guy," Emily noted.

"I admit, Wolf-Man isn't the most sociable member of the Justice Alliance," Zack replied in understatement. "But he's definitely a loyal and powerful ally, and I'm glad to be on his team." The conversation stopped for a moment, neither one having more to say. Then Zack added, "Oh yeah. And after all of that, I needed a few days to rest. You know, catch up on school work, not fight crime, get more than five hours of sleep…"

"You look like you could still use some sleep," Emily pointed out.

"I'll be okay," Zack insisted. "I'm still tired, but I've had more sleep than usual in the past couple of days. Really, I'm fine."

"Glad to hear that you're fine," Emily answered, with a tone suggesting a sudden change in mood. "Because it's clear that with being a superhero, you don't have any time for me anymore."

Zack turned his head to face her, a somewhat guilty expression on his face. "Emily…" He really wasn't sure how to answer.

She stopped him. "No, Zack, it's okay. I know that you're a hero, and people need you…but it's not always just the people who are in physical danger who need to be with you."

"What do you mean by that?" Zack asked her, though he already knew all too well.

"I mean, I would really like to see you more often. And not when I'm being rescued from a supervillain, either."

She had a point. He couldn't deny it. But how was he supposed to respond? Zack took a deep breath and spoke. "When I officially joined the Justice Alliance, not long after our first battle together last year, I knew what I was getting into," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Maybe I didn't fully understand how much it would cost, but I knew that some things would be different. I'd love to be with you, too, and I can't always do that…but while we're together, I will do everything I can to make sure that your life is protected from the danger that comes with mine."

"I'm sure you say that to all the girls," Emily replied, her tone somewhere between sarcastic and bitter.

"Emily, no…" Zack said quietly. He knew that Emily didn't fully believe what she was saying, but the words still hurt.

"I know…" she answered. "But it's just…"

Her voice broke off, and Zack quickly realized that she was on the verge of crying. She managed to speak between sniffles and tears. "When the Prankster had me, and I thought he had defeated you…I was so scared, I thought we were both dead…" The tears increased in number, and the crying rose in volume.

"But we're not dead," Zack reassured her, placing his arm around her to comfort her. "We're not dead. We're safe now." There were a few moments of silence as Zack contemplated what to say next.

"Emily…I wish I could say I will always be there for you. But that's not true—I can't be everywhere, and I can't do everything. But I promise, as long as I have these super abilities—and even if I didn't have them—I will do everything in my power to make sure that no harm comes to you. Next time a villain tries to come after you, the entire Justice Alliance and I will fight them as long as necessary."

She smiled, despite the tears. "I know," she uttered. "I know…thank you, Zack." The crying began to subside, and she wiped the tears away with her sleeve. For a minute or two, neither of them spoke, both just sitting together, enjoying each other's company, and considering the unpleasant yet necessary situation they were in.

"Thank you so much, Zack," Emily said at length, gently embracing him in her arms. "I…I don't know what I'd do without you. I'm really, really glad to have a friend like you."

Zack had to struggle to hold back his own tears of mixed joy and sorrow. "Emily, I like you," he told her. "I like you a lot. And I want you to know that I…" Once again, he debated the right words in his mind, then spoke. "I'm really glad we're friends too."

"Yes," she agreed. "Such good friends…"

Zack glanced at a clock hanging on the wall, and took in the unpleasant reminder of the time. "It's getting late," he said. "I've got to go soon."

"All right," she replied, almost reluctantly. "Will you be all right?"

He smiled. "Yes, I think I'll be all right," he affirmed. "Will you?"

His smile was dwarfed compared to the one on Emily's face. "I will now," she assured him. "So…I'll see you around?"

"Tomorrow in school," Zack replied, telekinetically lifting his mask up into the air and replacing it on his face. "I'll be there. And, maybe, if there's a problem…I'll ask the others in the Alliance if they can handle it by themselves. Maybe we could, you know, go somewhere…"

"I'd like that," she told him. "I'd like that a lot. But now you have to go, right?"

"Yeah," he said. "I've got to go."

"Goodbye," came the response. "I'll miss you."

"Good night, Emily," Zack told her. And then he was out the door, walking off into the night.

Emily got up and walked to the front window, her viewing portal into the night. Her eyes began to moisten once again as the diminishing figure of her good friend Zack, the one who was known to most as Kinetic, was swallowed up by the darkness.