James allowed the night to end peacefully before he tracked down Jae. Protectively he had followed Karen and Dick home to ensure they weren't attacked, and then he stayed atop the apartment complex Karen lived in to keep watch. Surrounded by a light snowfall and a very chilly wind, he managed to sleep well up there. One ear was constantly on the alert for any strange sounds, but nothing disturbed him. Once the morning sun finally warmed his skin, he shook off the cold and pulled out his cellphone.
It was dead. Of course it was; he hadn't charged it in days. He was too caught up in playing vigilante to bother with such things. Annoyed, he crushed the small device inside his hand until it was nothing more than an unrecognizable mash of plastic and electronics. He flicked the remains away and refocused. It was a Tuesday, so both Jae and Charlie had classes fairly early in the morning. He assumed he could make it to the college campus just on the edge of town if he hurried. Thanks to the attempted hit on Karen and Dick, James knew it was time to get some help. He needed to do it fast, before the rest of the town was drowned in the corruption.
It took him a little under ten minutes to reach his destination, a feat not possible on foot without the power of Orbit. He trotted his way across the large grass field that separated the building from the busy road, his eyes dashing over the landscape in search of his friend. "Must have arrived too early," he said aloud to himself when he spotted only three people on the grounds, and none of them were male.
His eyes finally landed on a particular individual that heavily resembled Charlie. He dashed toward her, his speed so quick he was barely seen.
"Charlie?" he called to her. The sudden arrival of James's voice right in her ear caused her to jump.
A hand upon her fast beating heart, she turned to face him. "Jesus James, you scared me to death. What are you doing here?"
"Well, I was looking for Jae. Have you seen him?"
"Honestly, no. He wasn't at school yesterday, either."
Concern washed over James's face. "Is he alright? Did he get hurt or is he having a bad reaction to Orbit?" he asked. The words poured out at such a speed that she barely caught all of them.
"He's fine. Just overloaded with work," she explained to him. His shoulders relaxed, which was a sign that he had been holding his breath in worry. She wanted to giggle at the reaction but held it in. Instead, she turned to open the door she was moments away from entering before James had shown up. A slight twist of her wrist and a faint push later, the door was off its hinges.
Startled, she remained motionless. A forced, lopsided grin grew on James's face and he repeated a line Jae had used a dozen times, "They just don't make doors like they used to, do they?"
Grip relaxed, she allowed the door to slip from her hand and crash down. The noise echoed down the empty halls. Once the ring of the door subsided, she hesitantly faced James. His eyes were still on the door and the grin still firmly in place. Yet his brow twitched unconsciously from confused to furious. James never was very good at hiding his emotions.
"James I – "
"Can explain?" he interrupted. "Don't bother. How long?"
Afraid to answer the question, she repeated it, "How long?"
"Yeah. How long have you had these powers? When did you take Orbit?" he elaborated.
A faint sigh escaped her lips. It was clear that James had no idea how she had gotten her powers, and she mentally smacked herself for assuming he would know about her and Jae just because of a broken door. She told him, "About a week? I… I think someone slipped it into my drink at a study group. We're all trying to find ways to keep up with this fast paced society, you know?"
Any other person probably would have seen how fake her tone was. It was clearly a lie. James, however, believed everything she said. He didn't find it possible for her to lie to him. Instead of the expected skepticism, she was greeted with an excited expression and a bear hug. Timidly she returned the gesture.
"I'm just glad you're okay," he whispered into her ear.
When he finally pulled away she wanted to avoid eye contact, so her eyes fell toward his feet. On the way down, she noticed two rips in his hoodie and small blood stains. "Oh my god, James! What happened?!"
"Where?" he asked, confused. He followed the point of her finger toward its target: the old bullet holes he had received the night before. He laughed and enlightened her, "I was helping out Dick and his lady when some punks shot at us. It's no big deal though. I think the Orbit is evolving my body because check this out…"
He lifted his hoodie and the shirt underneath to reveal mere scrapes where holes had once been. A warm hand touched the spot briefly before she pulled away. "I'm glad you're not dead," she said truthfully. "Why were you helping Dick? Is he alright?"
"For now. But I can't keep fighting this alone. It's bigger than I thought. If I want to keep him safe – and you, Jae, the rest of this town – if I want to keep everyone safe, I need help. Even with these powers, or whatever they are, I can't change the fact I am outnumbered."
She opened her mouth to speak, but words didn't follow immediately. When she did speak, it was slow and deliberate. "I know Jae won't help you. I think he finally understands that this is real, that this isn't just a trick in his mind. But you know he doesn't believe in 'justice' the same as you. But…"
A long pause hit. He was patient for her to continue.
"… I will," she told him. "I will help you any way I can."
"Are… are you serious? For real?!"
She allowed herself to laugh at his childish excitement. "Yes. For real."
He embraced her again. This time, she returned the hug without doubt.
Training was something Charlie had anticipated but never really received. James just grabbed her and rushed off to show her the places in town gangs frequented. During that first trip, they ran straight into a drug deal and in order to survive, they had to fight. Charlie wasn't as strong as James, but regardless she was able to knock out anyone with a single hit. Instinct had her dodging and ducking more than actually throwing punches. It seemed as though they targeted her first, since she was a girl.
James? He didn't take too well to the sight of his former girlfriend being brutally besieged by wannabe thugs. His strength had been refined since he first took Orbit, and he had a skill set to match. This meant it took only one strong punch from him to render them dead and sometimes decapitated. It was a well thought-out dance for him. He wanted to make sure Charlie didn't see the devastated bodies he left behind.
Once his fist connected with the last punk's temple, he grabbed her and took off. A fast pace had them easily barrel through city block after city block, until they were far enough away James felt confident stopping. He never left a scene that soon. His fear of mentally scarring Charlie didn't appear before the showdown, but now he couldn't let it go. He kept her hand in his long enough to see if he could feel a physical reaction.
Her heart was beating rapidly and she was sweating. A reassuring squeeze was given, but was unwarranted. No frown or look of worry was on her face. Instead, a large grin had broken out. It wasn't the reaction he was expecting.
"Wow," she breathed heavily. A small laugh escaped with the word. "That was amazing. Just POW! One punch! And they were out cold! Why doesn't Jae do this? We really could clean up this town fast!"
"Uh, yeah. Of course we could." His tone and pacing made it clear he was surprised by her excitement. Still, he was happy to see that she embraced the idea of playing vigilante so well.
From then on it was rather smooth sailing. A lather, rinse, repeat of that day's events continued for several weeks. They would either stake out known gang territory or they would follow the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Day in and day out, they slowly began their trek to make their town free of any thugs. Yet it was not the appearance of these strangers that bewildered officers and citizens alike that truly garnered much attention; the constant body bags of dead gang members with their heads crushed in did not cry for a call of celebration. It was an incident that didn't involve any deaths or assaults that finally gave James the glory he wanted.
It started when a flurry of red and white lights flew by the two young adults as they watched a busy intersection. Their eyes went to the horizon. In the distance they could see a small plume of smoke slowing rising to the sky. It had been a slow past couple of days so they decided to follow the firefighters and EMTs as they hurried to the scene.
Eventually, the busy midday traffic proved to be costly. The roads were so swarmed with cars and people that the emergency vehicles came to a dead stop. James carefully planted himself on top of the furthest fire truck and laid down to listen in on their conversation.
"For fuck's sake!" one of the men inside yelled. "I thought this was the clearest way there?! What the fuck?!"
"Dispatch this is 136, currently stuck on Wade, no movement. Inform all other units. What is the situation on Luther and 17th?"
"Negative 136. Requesting backup from neighboring districts…"
"For fuck's sake…"
James pried himself away and met back up with Charlie on a nearby rooftop. Once at her side, she asked, "What's going on?"
"No idea. Sounds like they have to call in other departments since everyone's stuck. We should get ahead and see if there's anything we can do in the meantime."
Her response was a nod that wasn't seen by James, since he had already taken off. At the end of the day, despite the amount of punks he had killed – what was it? A dozen or two now? – he still did it to protect people. The knowledge that people were in danger and couldn't be helped propelled him forward. He wanted to save or help those that were at that fire, no matter what. Charlie had completely slipped his mind, and almost slipped behind because of the speed he moved at.
She was able to catch up when he finally reached the stated Luther and 17th street. An automobile accident had pushed a truck through the first floor of a rundown two-story apartment complex. Only the back bumper of the truck was still visible, and barely so. Fire had erupted soon after the accident and the apartment had partially collapsed. The two surveyed the area for a moment. A small crowd had gathered; two men tried to dig through the debris while another yelled at them for "making it more unstable."
"We have to hurry," Charlie said. "If there's anyone inside, they'll die of smoke inhalation before they burn to death, and that's assuming the truck doesn't explode."
No words came from James. He leapt off the building he rested on and sped across the street to the apartment. Charlie scurried behind him. As soon as James reached the rubble he grabbed the back of the truck and tried to pull it out. The end result was a broken tailgate in his hand but the truck remained unmoved.
"Man, what the hell're ya doin'?!" one of the guys trying to move the heavy debris screamed. "Ya makin' it worse, kid!"
He ignored him. "Charlie, I'm going to lift this beam and I want you to pull the truck out!"
"Can I do that?" she questioned.
"You have to!"
He didn't give her any more time to doubt. He lifted the large support beam that had caved on the truck bed. Her hands hesitantly grabbed the truck and she yanked as hard as she could. It barely budged. One of the bystanders, despite finding the sights before him unbelievable, was able to gather his wits. He jumped under the debris and near the back wheel he gave the truck a push. Again, it rocked, but not enough to get the truck unstuck.
"Hey, old man, I need you to move," James called to the man attempting to help. There was no hesitation from the stranger to jump out of the scene and away from danger. James took the risk and let the support beam fall again. With all of the speed he could summon, he grabbed the back of the truck with Charlie and yanked. Somehow, he managed to do so just as the beam was affected by gravity. His figure was just a blur thanks to its speed.
It worked. The truck rolled out and continued its trek from the chaos back into the street. The driver inside was gravely injured but still alive. The front end of the truck was badly damaged and the average citizen couldn't get the door open. Charlie ripped it off with ease, while James pulled away the twisted metal that pinned the driver.
"Was anyone inside the apartment?" Charlie asked the bystanders. They were all speechless, unable to comprehend the superhumans in front of them.
"Where's the injured?"
The voice was familiar. A quick peek into the crowd that had formed and they could see the people part as a rushing man in a dirty EMT jacket pushed his way through. It was Jae. He was so in the zone and focused on his job he didn't even see James and Charlie. The two knew it was best to keep it that way. They put their effort into getting into the collapsed apartment.
James took point. He would lift debris, allow Charlie under until she found a good spot that could house them both, and then James would follow her. Each time he picked up a piece of debris and set it down again, they could feel the very foundation of the building shake. Finally, they reached the back portion of the collapse. It was there, where the kitchen laminate met the living room carpet, that they found an injured boy.
His leg had been partially pinned by some of the heavier debris. James cleared the rubble away. Carefully, Charlie picked the child up. She asked, "If there are any survivors, this would have to be it. No one could survive the rest of that. But how do we get out with him?"
"We go up."
James climbed the burning ruins until he was in a stable spot. He looked down at her, opened his arms, and waited for her to respond. Hesitantly, she handed him the boy. With the injured cradled in his arms he leapt onto the second floor. His footing wavered when the flooring threatened to give way. His embrace on the boy, however, remained strong. Her voice called after him, "We could just go out the back door, you know."
Her words fell on deaf ears. James had his attention focused solely on the life he carried against his chest. The boy was awake, shaking, frightened and in pain. Tears had stained his puffy cheeks and he struggled to breathe between sobs and coughs. These were the people he had gone to war for; these were the lives he had dedicated himself to protecting.
A memory of a warzone thousands of miles from home crashed down on him. This time, it wasn't a boy he held but a girl of a different culture and a different people. Fighting had broken out in the town she resided in, and unfortunately she was collateral damage. Blood had replaced the tears on the innocent's face and the sounds of the raging fire faded into the bombardment of fine dust. The vivid sensations of cradling a dying child locked his chest up so tight he could barely breathe.
"James, are you alright?"
He snapped back to reality. Charlie was at his side. "I'm fine. We should hurry."
A few steps away was the family room window which stepped onto a fire escape. Normally, he would allow Charlie to go first, but since he had the injured boy he exited immediately. Once out onto the metal grate and above the growing crowd, he sighed heavily. The fresh air felt great on his lungs.
He didn't bother with the ladder. With an energetic bounce he leapt down. The impact with the ground was enough to catch everyone's attention. Charlie, on the other hand, gracefully moved down the fire escape.
Again, a motionless crowd stared back at him. Finally, someone moved to grab the boy from his hands. Once the injured child was being brought over to the busy Jae, a man said, "Holy shit, son. That was incredible."
"Are you… like… an alien? Or ya got nanobots or somethin'?"
"I must be high as fuck right now because I swear you just lifted those beams up like they were air."
Before he could blink, he was surrounded by the chirping crowd, all singing his and Charlie's praises. All of the compliments and doubts scrambled together to just become white noise, but one line in particular forced him to smile:
"You both must be gods."
Jae would never fully admit it, but the sight of gore was somewhat fascinating. He blamed it on his human nature, which begged him to take in every inch of every single murder he was ever called to. Then they started to find decapitated bodies or skulls that had been hit so hard the brain was pushed out the other side. Occasionally they would haunt him when he was alone, but they never made it impossible to sleep. By the time James and Charlie were becoming local legends, he was more bored with the sight of the dead than scared by it.
Case in point: the body he observed in a back alley not three blocks from his own house. He was the first to arrive on the scene, and found himself dealing with hiding the sight from passersby rather than trying to save the man. Hit so hard that the neck snapped and the flesh ripped, there was gaping hole where the throat once was. It seemed as though only tendons and muscle held the head on. Whatever had hit him… Not 'whatever,' it's whoever, he thought silently to himself.
When the police showed up, they asked him to stick around to help clean up the body once they were done. This meant he spent the next ten minutes peeking at the crippled body from over the shoulder of a few beat cops and a couple of detectives. He listened in as the chatting cops discussed the situation.
"Dayum, this is disgustin'! I think I can see his trachea!"
"What the hell is a trachea? And how many is this now, anyway? A dozen?"
"Baker's dozen, starting with the dead kids at Denny's Mart. That's not even counting the brain dead and crippled. Think it's those kids that helped with the car wreck on Luther about ten days ago?"
"James," Jae breathed out without thinking.
"Yeah, that guy. He had a girl with him," the cop said to Jae.
Jae couldn't hide the surprise on his face. The only girl he could possibly picture with James was Charlie. Yet to imagine her playing vigilante with James blew Jae's mind. With his mouth agape and brow twisted, a detective snatched him. The sudden grip on his shoulder forced him back to the present situation. The detective smiled, flashed his badge quicker than any human could see, and said, "You look familiar. Do you have a brother named Dick?"
A small stutter followed by, "He's my cousin. Are you… one of his boyfriends… Or did he screw your sister…?"
The detective laughed, unoffended by the questions. There was something that felt forced about the sound. It made Jae feel uneasy and he couldn't help but glance around the alley and check for an escape. He was getting paranoid. When the detective again put a hand on his shoulder, he jumped. "Whoa, easy! I'm good friends with Dick. Just saw him the other day, in fact. I used to run around town with him. I went by my middle name then, to avoid getting in trouble with my parents actually!" the man said with another laugh. "I'm Darren Trent Harrington. I'm the guy who broke the window to your mom's room back in high school."
Jae gawked at him, unable to believe the drugged out punk that got so high he tried to superman it through a window was now a respected member of the local police force. It seemed as though all traces of that past life were long gone. He wanted to comment on how proud he was of the young man, and to say he only wished his cousin could do the same, but something about Harrington seemed too good to be true.
When Jae said nothing, Harrington continued, "Enough about that, though. That's the past. Right now, I just have a question for you. I see you around a lot of these murders. You don't happen to know anything about them, do you?"
"I just happen to be the first on the scene. It's my job," he answered lamely.
Harrington raised a brow at him, and said, "You mean to say you don't know who might be involved with this, do you? I'm not trying to stir anything up. Dick is a good friend of mine, but I know he's still battling with… problems. All of these guys are connected to the same drug runners he's friends with, and he has been spotted at a couple of the scenes. I heard you say someone's name earlier but I didn't quite catch –"
Jae repeated without missing a beat, "James. I said James. He's a –"
"James? You mean Jimmy Wade?" Harrington questioned. It was clear based on his demanding tone that he wasn't pleased to hear the name. Jae was taken aback by the sudden hostility. He couldn't help but lean away ever so slightly. Harrington noticed. He snatched Jae by the shoulder again. This time, his grip wasn't friendly. At first, Jae was arrogant in thinking that the Orbit's strength would protect him from feeling pain. The iron grip of Harrington tightened, and that belief was gone immediately.
A sharp cry emitted from Jae's mouth. He attempted to curl out of the way, but Harrington was too strong. A few of the police looked at the two men and they clearly saw a struggle about to break out. To Jae's surprise, they ignored it. He saw over his shoulder as the attention of the cops turned back to their meaningless chatter. Panicked, Jae tried to pry Harrington's arm off of him, but he failed miserably.
"We're going for a walk. You're going to tell me everything you know about Wade and what he did with those pills," Harrington snarled. Jae was helpless as he was dragged further down the alley. Kicking and clawing at Harrington, Jae found himself thrown down between a large dumpster and a small stairway. His head smacked against the wall hard enough for him to recoil.
As he nursed the back of his head he said, "Look man, I don't know anything about it. I have barely seen James since he got home. We had a kickback at my place but that was the last time I really saw him. He never mentioned anything about… whatever you said!"
It was a lie. Jae always believed he would spill the truth on any subject if he felt frightened, so it took him by surprise when he heard a falsehood escape his own lips. Was protecting his friend really worth possibly getting the shit kicked out of him?
"Don't fuck with me!"
A fist from Harrington hit the concrete wall just above Jae. Debris from the hit rained down on him and he had to cover his head. A quick glance up and he could see a perfect indent right where Harrington had punched. This guy was juiced. Dumbfounded, Jae didn't let his eyes leave the spot.
"Listen punk," Harrington spat as he grabbed Jae by his collar. A small shake had Jae grab for Harrington's hands. Of course, he was unable pry them off. Harrington continued, "James is messing up a lot of things for me right now, and your punk ass cousin is gonna find his fingers in the wrong hole. James may have scared off my guys the first night, but they're gonna catch him eventually."
A flashback crossed Jae's mind and he recalled the very night he first took Orbit. He could remember waking up in the alley and having to fend off a couple of thugs. He had to ask, "That… that was you? Those were your guys?"
"I knew James had taken that shit the moment they said some creepo was in the sky. Only high doses of Orbit do that."
"Holy shit. It was you! You – I don't even… fuck. Let me go!"
Jae started to thrash hard. It was fight or flight time. Harrington let one of his hands drop Jae long enough to throw a punch. There was no chance for Jae to duck. The heavy blow struck Jae directly on the bridge of his nose. Not only could he feel it crunch, he heard it, too. The blood flow was instant; while still gasping from the pain he could taste it on his tongue. Blinded by the rush of tears, he couldn't see Harrington but he felt the tightness of the ironclad grip lessen. Finally, he was dropped completely.
His hands wiped away the tears first. Once he could see, he saw Harrington knelt on the ground holding his arm. The force of the hit had broken both of their bones. At first, Harrington was silently seething as he tried to push the bone back into place. Eventually all of his rage exploded and he screamed, "You fucking dog! I'm going to hunt you down and kill you!"
Jae didn't wait around. He scurried off down the alleyway without looking back. The confused officers that waited by the body watched as the only EMT on the scene fled. One commented, "Aw, man, did Harrington get too pushy again? Guy's gotta bring it back a bit."
Harrington tried to hide his broken bone when he returned to the cops. They didn't comment on the rumble they just witnessed. He asked the cops that gathered, "Did any of you catch that young man's name?"
"Who? Him? That's Jae Young. Kid shows up all the damned time. Only one who seems to give a shit around here."
They awaited more questions from Harrington, or at least an acknowledgment that he had heard. There was nothing. Instead of pushing for him to speak, the officers merely shrugged and went back to work. Harrington made sure to store the name in his memory banks for the time being. He had other, more pressing problems to take care of.