There were only four chairs.
Will stayed in the shadows by the entrance as the group filed in one by one into the empty auditorium. It was the quietest they had been since the first meeting. Even Red Racer’s energy was drained to nothing.
Burnout didn’t sit down.
He vaguely stared at the last empty chair before walking around and sitting on the stage.
Will gave them a few moments before he walked out of the shadows.
Burnout met his eyes.
*16 Hours Earlier*
“Nobody? What do you mean nobody can help her?”
Will didn’t turn from the window. Burnout had followed him when he walked the agent out of the hospital, and he’d made sure to lead him a room far from Mach’s.
“It’s not the kind of damage that can be fixed. The part of her brain that controlled her legs has been fried. She’s lucky that’s all she lost.”
“She’s a mecher. She’ll find a way around it.” Burnout nodded forcefully as he spoke.
Will shook his head. “If it was something in her spine sure. A healer would even be able to help with that. Or if it was actual mental damage a good tel could help her. But even if she made something that walks for her, she’d have to think about every step. She has a chance to walk, but she’ll never run, and she definitely won’t be able to fight.”
Will looked away first. He had three others to worry about.
“For most of you, this is the first teammate you’ve lost since you put on a mask.”
He hated this speech. Even before he’d quit being a hero, he’d had to give it half a dozen times a year. It changed each time, but it made him feel like a cardboard cutout with a voice box taped to it.
“And for the rest of you, you’re learning that it doesn’t hurt any less. It never does.”
But that didn’t mean you couldn’t get used to it.
“And sometimes it hurts a lot more.”
An image flashed before his eyes. She had her back turned to him, but he’d recognize that shade of brunette anywhere. The smell of warm apples brushed against his nose and a soft song reached his ears. He tried to run after her, but his feet didn’t move. He watched as she slowly drifted into the distance.
“Some people will call you lucky. Mach’s alive. They think that that’s the better option.”
But she would never be Mach again. The girl behind the mask would have to find an excuse for why she would be crippled for the rest of her life.
“But that’s a lie. The fact is that the girl you knew will never stand by your side again. You might stay in touch, you might even be best friends the rest of your lives, but it will never be the same.”
Because neither of you will ever look at the other the same way again.
“Because you’re the hero who gets to keep saving people. And they’re the person you couldn’t save. No matter how much time passes or how close you get over the years, that will never change.”
This was the part he hated the most. He was telling them something they already knew, something they’d already admitted to themselves. But it had to be said, because they would spend the next decade trying to figure out what they could have done differently.
Will took a breath.
“You’re going through one of the worst times of your lives as heroes. That also makes this one of the most important times of your lives. Because soon, you’re going to look in a mirror, or stare at the stars, or just freeze, and you’re going to ask yourself a question.”
*16 Years Prior*
Rumor stayed in the shadows as they lowered the coffin into the grave. The name on the stone was Blake McGuile, but he’d never known him by that name.
He wanted to get closer; he wanted to be able to pay his respects before they filled in the grave, and to tell Blakes mother that her son had been brave and selfless and that he didn’t deserve to die. But he wouldn’t be welcome. Rumor may not have been the one to throw him off that building, but he had been the only one who had a chance of catching him.
Blake’s mother was whispering to the grave now. A line of family and friends had already formed behind her. One by one they carried their flowers to the grave and tossed them inside.
Rumor stayed through it all. There wasn’t anywhere he needed to be more than here right now. Here, he was surrounded by the dead. It felt like he belonged.
A small cat wandered through the tombstones and stopped next to him. It stared blankly at him before sitting down and absently started to bathe itself.
The crowd was walking away now. It was time.
The cat followed Will as he approached the grave.
Memories flooded his mind with every step. Had it really only been two weeks?
“I’m the Wizard Baroque, and you would do best to remember it.”
“I know I’m not the best mage around, but I’m not gonna let that stop me.”
“I’m going to people remember by name. There won’t be a prowler or jaunter around who won’t run away when they hear I’m coming.”
And then it had been over. Bunyan had tossed him off the side of the building like it was nothing. And nobody could reach him in time.
Rumor stared at the gravestone.
“I know it doesn’t mean anything, but I’m sorry. You were supposed to become the best hero in the city, and I let that giant oaf to ruin it for you. It won’t mean much, but I’ll never forget your name, Baroque.”
He walked away from the grave, with the cat following close behind.
A single question ran through his mind.
“What happens next?”