The offices in the back of Donny’s Department store weren’t made to be secure, but they would keep the group Will had been leading safe. Will and Hawthorne had retreated back into the store proper while they got settled in. They had hidden themselves among the racks of clothing, where anyone passing the front of the store wouldn’t be able to see them. Hawthorne’s pollen still clung to every surface in the store, but it had dried out and would soon flake off.
“We can’t leave him here,” Hawthorne whispered.
“We don’t have a choice,” Will didn’t. “He’s traumatized; he can barely even walk fast enough to keep up with that group, and you want to drag him along into a war?”
Hawthorne’s helmet had pulled pack to reveal her eyes to Will; he did his best to ignore them but he could still feel the heat of her glare on him.
“Whether we like it or not, he’ll be ten times safer in here then when we’re hunting down the leader.”
“So you want to leave him in a building full of strangers instead? What happens if they’re attacked?”
They both knew the answer. No matter how young he was, Red Racer had a hero’s costume on; anyone who didn’t expect him to fight off an attacker wouldn’t stay around to help. Even worse, he would probably try to fight even as they abandoned him. If anyone investigated the store, Red would probably end up dead.
“Of course I don’t want to leave him here. I want to leave him with his sister or take him to his grandparents.” Will did his best to stay calm, but some anger had started creeping into his voice. “But we can’t do either of those, and I’d rather him stay here then take him into the middle of another battle.”
The roots of Hawthorne’s costume started writhing, as if she were covered head to toe in thousands of baby snakes. “There has to be a better option.”
Will didn’t say anything. Of course there was a better option; Red Racer could forget what he saw or overcome his fear and join them. But even if they had months to help him, Red would probably never be able to wear his costume after tonight without a miracle, and Will didn’t believe in miracles.
“This is the best thing we can do for him”
Red Racer listened to their conversation from the next aisle over. He’d snuck out of the room to try and stay close to Will and Hawthorne, but couldn’t bring himself to get closer after he heard the start of their conversation.
He sat amongst the clothes, hugging his knees tightly and resting his chin on top of them. Their words quickly dissolved into a stream of pointless noises, leaving him to dwell on the thought of staying behind.
He didn’t want to go back out there. He didn’t want to see the bodies that had been left scattered across the city. But he didn’t want to stay behind either. Even in the short amount of time between Will and Hawthorne leaving the group and him following, the others had loomed over him in the half light of the back offices. Every muscle twitch had nearly sent him running form the room, or charging to attack.
That had only lasted 90 seconds; the idea of staying in the same room as them for hours on end caused his heart to beat so quickly it felt frozen. He didn’t want to know what he might do if he had to stay there any longer.
“-take him home-“ the words managed to drift past Red’s thoughts. Take him home? That wouldn’t be any better. The only thing there was cold food and a sister who couldn’t wake up.
Red’s mind stayed frozen there, at the thought of his sister laying on the floor, so motionless he thought she might be dead. She’d never have let him leave the house. She’d have done everything she could to make sure that he never had to fight a single mercenary.
She’d have been able to save that girl.
Hawthorne walked back to the offices, but Will didn’t follow.
It took Red a moment to realize Will was sitting next to him, holding out a small bag of tissues. He hadn’t even noticed that he started crying. He carefully pulled one of the tissues out and dabbed at the wet streaks flowing down his face. But the tears weren’t stopping.
“I’m not sure how much you heard, but I think it’s best that you stay here.”
Despite himself, Red shook his head.
“You can barely stand. You’re not going to be much better in five minutes. You can’t even talk well enough to try and prove you’re ready to come.”
Red shook his head again. He couldn’t let them leave him here. As much as he knew they couldn’t take him, he couldn’t stay behind. He couldn’t be responsible.
Will sighed. Red knew he didn’t want to leave him behind either.
“Why did you want to be a hero?” Red Racer’s voice was tiny, almost impossible to hear. Will turned to look at his face, but couldn’t get him to let their eyes meet.
“Because someone said thank you.” Will’s voice wasn’t much louder than Red’s. “No matter how many people I couldn’t save or who didn’t want to be, somebody would always say thank you.”
Red nodded slowly and rested his chin back on his knees.
“I know you don’t want so stay here, kid. But right now, I need you to. And so do Hawthorne and your sister. When you can run again, you’re free to go wherever you need to, and no one will judge you. But until then, you need to keep still.”
Red stayed silent for a long second. His head never left his knees, but his eyes darted back and forth constantly.