Real Men Wear Tights

High school can be tough for everyone. This is especially true when you're hiding a secret that can never be told.

http://archiveofourown.org/works/469179/chapters/811056

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8. In Which Heir Falls

5 days later

 

 

/ / /

John had spent nearly a week both hoping for and dreading his next run-in with Hemogoblin, but every night following their trial run together, he hadn’t so much as seen a hint of the other hero. That led him to one of two conclusions: either Hemogoblin hadn’t been back on the job since they last met, for some reason, or the wind which John had always relied on to lead him to where he was most needed would avoid directing him towards crimes that Hemogoblin was capable of stopping on his own. That would be great for the city, he figured, since having its two heroes always separated would ensure double the amount of area protected, but it wasn’t so great for helping the teen to figure out his feelings. Either way, the wait to have his proposal answered was killing him.

Still, he was conflicted. While he honestly did want to know what they could achieve by working together, John was nervous at the prospect of potentially getting the chance to confirm what he could be feeling. He’d already spent the majority of the past five days debating with himself over whether it was good or not that he might be developing feelings for someone besides his seemingly off-limits best friend, and he still hadn’t come up with an answer yet. And if John were honest with himself, the whole situation felt like he might be jumping the gun a little, so to speak, at least where his emotions were concerned. He hadn’t even spent enough time alone with Hemogoblin to know much more about him other than that he liked the general sense of who he’d found the troll to be, and that their “date” had left a positive impression on him. Without knowing more about who Hemogoblin was as a person, John was basically falling for the impression he’d gained after a single night, which, compared to the month or so it took him to realize his feelings for Karkat, felt kind of stupid.

All he really knew was that Hemogoblin liked to put up a very flirtatious front, and that there was more hiding underneath the troll’s playful exterior than was immediately apparent. And also he was attractive. Like, holy shit, is-this-real-life, attractive. But it had been the glimpses of the person underneath the exterior that had really caught John’s attention. That was what he was attracted to. Besides the butt, his brain helpfully reminded him.

John sighed as he flew across the sky, shaking his head slightly and trying to refocus on his patrol as he scanned the city below. It wouldn’t do to miss something just because he was preoccupied with dwelling on what-ifs. Despite all the years of practice, he still needed to learn how to better shut off ‘John’ when he was ‘Heir,’ it seemed.

It was a good thing that he’d chosen that moment to refocus.

Flurried movement in dim light caught his attention below just before John felt a desperate backwards jerk from the wind, the sensation rough and more violent than anything he was used to. His control was immediately ripped from his grasp and John almost let out a startled yell as he fell, the now-free wind biting harshly against the skin left exposed above his mask. John managed to catch himself after falling just a few feet, his loss of control having only lasted less than a second, but the wind was still pulling at him, pushing him in the opposite direction of where he was trying to direct his attention.

Clenching his jaw, John focused his will and quelled the wind, bringing it fully under his control and settling it. His efforts were for naught, however, as the wind redoubled its efforts and John almost lost his balance again. Frowning, he focused in on the shapes of four identically dressed people rushing out of a building below him—one of the largest banks in the city. From his vantage point above them, he could only distinguish that they were all dressed head to toe in dark clothes and that each was carrying a large bag. John tried to steady himself in preparation for a swoop down to the street, but the wind refused to cooperate as he watched them jump into an idling black car, the tires screeching as the driver stepped down hard on the accelerator, the revving of the engine piercing through the veil of quiet that had settled on the pre-dawn streets.

It took a precious moment of struggle before he was finally able to exert enough control to swoop down towards the now rapidly retreating car, though the winds pressing against him as he angled towards the vehicle were doing their best to resist him.

Taking in his surroundings, John noted that there was no alarm sounding after what was very clearly a robbery, meaning that the people who had just hit it were knowledgeable enough to have disarmed it somehow. So why the noisy hurry after a clean escape?

Just as he was nearing the slick-looking black car, the wind picked up furiously, spinning wilding around him in a sudden torrent that pushed John back up from his dive and into the sky, but it was a warning that John understood far too late.

The bank exploded in a hellish ball of fire.

 

 

 

The pressure wave from the blast sent John somersaulting through the air without any form of control. As he fought for the security the wind had always offered him, panic registered in his mind when he couldn’t get a grip on his powers, his body tumbling out of control through the air with no sense of which direction was up and which was down.

Just as John’s panic was starting to come to a frenzy, a strong wind wrapped around him like an apology, its momentary disruption by the blast over just in time for John to right himself before he hit the wall.

His back connected with concrete, all the air stolen from his lungs as he was thrown back with more force than he was expecting, Casey’s shaft imprinting itself harshly against his skin. The impact whipped his neck back sharply, snapping his head backwards to connect with the unforgiving surface of the wall.

 

 

 

For a long moment, he couldn’t breathe. The unexpected onslaught of physical pain, the temporary terror of losing his power for a split second, and the incessant ringing in his ears had frozen him in place, pinned against the wall as he was battered with a wave of almost unbearable heat.

John closed his eyes as he remained suspended against the wall, trying to find his inner calm as he assessed his condition. It was difficult to do, because his thoughts felt slow, like there was cotton in his head right behind his eyes. When his lungs started demanding oxygen, John slowly inhaled, feeling each muscle ache as his chest rose. He was pleased to find that nothing felt seriously wrong there; the last thing he needed was a collapsed or perforated lung.

John gave a moment of pause to appreciate the fact that Casey had been slung on his back in just such a manner that the impact against the wall hadn’t sent the hammer smashing against his skull. That could’ve been a devastating injury, had it happened. Still, her head was poking painfully against his shoulder, and at the very least, John expected he’d have a disgustingly large bruise there the next day.

Rightfully shaken, he let himself just breathe for a minute, knowing he would be of no use if he couldn’t get his head on straight. He was physically okay, and that’s what mattered. Now he just had to suppress the fear, despite having never experienced anything like what he had just went through before. He didn’t have time for being afraid, and could only spare a few moments before the people who did this would get away.

A second later, the ringing in his ears had died down enough for him to catch the sound of the last of the debris falling to the ground, a muffled noise not unlike a brief, heavy rain. By the time his hearing had more or less returned fully, John could hear the sirens of emergency vehicles speeding towards the blazing inferno that used to be a bank. He took a second to consider himself lucky that he hadn’t been permanently deafened after being hit with the shockwave, let alone turned into a splat on the wall. He idly wondered if he’d be getting blisters on the exposed parts of his skin, and absently commanded a cool breeze to caress against his skin. The thought that here he was, pinned to a building, using his powers of wind control to make himself more comfortable while his city burned almost made him laugh out loud, a bizarre feeling that had the teen questioning whether or not he might actually have a concussion.

John lifted his head from the wall slowly, turning it first to the left and then to the right, cautiously, lest he discover that he had a broken neck. When everything seemed to check out okay, John pushed against the wall lightly, the wind supporting him as he hovered in place, still leaning against the wall. The wind whipped by his face a moment later, catching John’s hair and whipping a few errant tufts to the side. When he inhaled next, the wind filled his lungs, and John felt a sudden burst of energy as he blinked strongly and his head cleared a little bit, the cotton feeling ebbing away into clarity.

Surveying his surroundings again, John watched the flames wildly jumping through the air and the billowing, oily black smoke rise from the wreckage as he tried to get a handle on himself. He watched the smoke curling and twisting with an odd sense of fascination; that was the first time he had been anywhere near an explosion of that magnitude, and the whole experience had taken on a surreal feeling, even though it’d just happened literally seconds ago. The loss of control that the shockwave had caused had him rattled, because never before had he felt that helpless without his wind. John didn’t like that feeling.

Looking around quickly, he tried to decide which was the more pressing concern: the flaming debris scattered in a wide radius around the former bank, or tracking down the car which had fled down the less than a minute before. John swallowed heavily, his throat dry, before pushing off completely against the wall. The immediate return to an open environment with no physical support had John’s head momentarily swimming with a sense of vertigo, but the sensation passed quickly.

Zipping over to the burning building, John surveyed where he could be of the most help. There was debris everywhere, with smaller fires starting to spread all around the area. Whatever type of explosive the criminals had used to cause this kind of destruction, they’d obviously wanted to erase any evidence of their crime having ever taken place. Simple compound explosives didn’t produce that kind of conflagration. This was something different. They’d either had someone extremely knowledgeable about explosives, or they’d taken the time to wire every inch of the building. There were less messy ways to get rid of evidence, for sure, but John had to hand it to them for their thoroughness.

In a matter of moments, he had taken care of the larger piles of debris that looked like they were threatening to ignite other buildings, extinguishing the flames by first erecting barriers of wind around them and then stealing the oxygen and depriving the fire of its fuel. Knowing the firefighters would be there soon, he ignored the larger fire which had by then completely engulfed the remnants of the bank, and with a push against the wind he rocketed high into the air.

Had anyone been around to see the look of angered determination that marred his features, they would’ve felt pity for whoever had caused it. Heir had some criminals to catch, and he had no intention of going easy on them.

John gathered a large gale of wind at his back and shot down the street in pursuit of the getaway car, trusting the direction he felt drawn towards as he focused on gaining speed. Sure enough, only a handful of blocks away he spotted the dark car racing away from the crime scene, hurriedly passing the small amount of traffic it came across. John grit his teeth and arched down, descending until he was sailing over the roofs of cars nearly close enough to touch them. His targeted car was hard to miss at street level: slick, black, expensive, and deep tinted windows separated it from the average getaway car John encountered in his day to day life.

As John approached, the two rear windows of the car rolled down slowly. It was too dark to see the occupants of the car as they sped along, but it was hard to miss the long barrels that appeared out of either side of the car from the opened windows. As the car sped through a vacant intersection, street lights gleamed off the muted black surfaces of two assault rifles as they angled up towards his position. John’s fingers found purchase in the wind as he pulled back with his hands, using the wind as an anchor point to both decrease his speed and give him a platform to raise his elevation, maneuvering his body so he shot up to give the gunmen a near impossible target. Regardless, a second later the night was filled with the noises of gunshots.

John’s frown deepened as he kept chase from high above, unconcerned with being hit with that kind of sporadic fire. The people inside had to have been stupid to expect accuracy from that kind of weapon when they were both moving and he was at that distance, especially while the wind around them was heavy and turbulent with his emotions. Still, it was a sufficient enough reason to keep him from getting too close to the vehicle, at least for the moment. It was not often that he came across people carrying anything heavier than a pistol, mainly due to cost and availability. That meant that these guys were either well-financed or well-connected, possibly even both. That wouldn’t protect them from Heir, however.

Reaching over his shoulder, John jerked Casey out from her bindings, letting the momentum of the heavy hammer’s head swing the weapon high into a striking position over his right shoulder. Tipping himself forward and twisting into a roll, he rocketed down towards the vehicle while urging the wind to give him all the speed that it could. John was almost a complete blur as he built up an airstream behind him, continuing to accelerate until he was almost upon the trunk of the car. Bullets whizzed past him, ricocheting off his barrier of compressed air and getting caught up by tendrils of the wind so they didn’t get the chance to find an unfortunate bystander.

Rolling with his momentum, John leveled and followed through with the path that his roll had sent Casey along, both of his arms gripping the shaft tight as he swung up with every bit of strength that he could muster, catching the car under the bumper and following through in a swing that would eventually see Casey being held over his shoulder again. With an angry yell tearing itself from John’s throat, metal rippled and bent in a long screech as Casey ripped through the trunk, the shockwave of the impact rattling the car and lifting it off the ground by at least six or seven feet.

 

 

 

John’s swing had lifted the car onto two wheels high enough so that it would still eventually fall back if given the chance, but the built-up and compressed jetstream of wind that followed in the wake of John’s rapid descent had other plans. With a rushing roar that sounded like the whistling of a freight train, the massive jet of funneled air slammed into the precariously balanced car, picking it up and tossing it into the air as if it were a toy.

The vehicle flipped twice through the air before it hit the pavement on its side with a cacophony of crushed steel and shattered glass. It continued rolling over several times with its momentum before it finally came to a stop about a hundred yards away from where it had first touched down.

The rage John had felt moments before slipped away as he watched what had just been a gleaming, new car steam in a broken heap. The hero cringed, having not fully realized what kind of destructive power he had been about to bring, and hoped that the criminals had remembered to wear their seatbelts. The last thing that he wanted was casualties on his conscience when they could have easily been avoided through restraint. In his few years of being Heir, he had never seriously hurt someone to the point where they could die. Tonight might have changed that.

After re-sheathing Casey, John cautiously floated over to what was left of the car and was immediately relieved to see the people inside—bruised, cut, and bleeding, but very much alive—trying to claw their way out of the wreckage. Acting quickly, John reached into the car through the broken windows and fished out their visible weapons, tossing them casually over his shoulder and into the air where the wind carried them all at least twenty feet away. Once he was satisfied with the number of guns and knives he’d retrieved, John began yanking the four bank robbers and driver out of the car, laying them out against its side. He was sure to be none too gentle as he ordered them not to move while they waited for the cops. None of them seemed up to resisting, not after that display of power.

The five were strangely obedient, quietly observing him as he returned the favour. The group consisted of two trolls, one of whom was female, and three humans, one of whom was enormous to the point of being intimidating. They were all dressed head to toe in, strangely enough, tailored black business suits.

Only the large man broke the trend with his black trench coat. John watched with tensed muscles as the man slowly turned and reached into the front seat, the wind picking up as he prepared to knock the man out for his disobedience. He let the wind die, however, as he looked on in confusion as the human pulled out a black wide-brimmed hat and placed it on top of his bald head.

He scowled up at John then, and the hero tried not to blanch at the hate he saw in the man’s eyes. Those eyes were those of a man who was no stranger to causing others pain. John had only ever seen those kinds of eyes a handful of times in his life, and they unnerved him more than he cared to admit. They were the eyes of a hardened killer, and right now, they were sizing him, the thug looking as though he wanted to do nothing more than to test his strength against the teen. There was a confidence there behind the glare, yet he didn’t move to act on it. John held the gaze for as long as he could before breaking away, slowly looking down the line-up once more to gauge the level of injuries on the rest of the criminals.

“Yer messin’ with the wrong people, kid,” the largest man spoke, voice coming in a low, gruff rumble that drew John’s gaze back to him immediately. John could only focus on the man’s eyes for a moment before he looked down at the man’s attire more carefully, taking note of the small black heart pinned to his breast. “The Midnight Crew won’t forgive this.”

 

 

 

John frowned, mulling the name over in his head, trying to place it. “Who?” The question received a scoff and a well-aimed gob of spit and blood to his boot. John looked down in disgust, brushing it off with a flick of the wind. The sound of sirens approaching in the distance caused him to look up and take notice of the flashing lights growing nearer, but when he turned back to try and persuade the man to give him more information, he seemed to have either passed out or was doing a very convincing job at acting as such. John sighed softly, letting the name roll off the tip of his tongue. The conviction that the man had spoken of the group had almost been unsettling. He’d be sure to seek out more information in the morning.

The Midnight Crew.

 

/ / /

When the buzzing of his alarm woke John the next morning, he quickly discovered that his body was aching to the point where he didn’t want to move. He lay in bed after slowly reaching for his snooze button, shifting gently from side to side to try and determine if there was damage behind the muscle ache which he might have missed during the adrenaline-filled night. Everything felt over-exerted and strained as he rolled his limbs and twisted, but nothing registered as seriously painful. Still, he would have to have his dad check the points which were bothering him the most before they left the house. It might make him late for school, but it was worth it to be on the safe side.

Being mindful of his body, John set about going through his morning tasks much slower than he normally would have. Making his way to the bathroom, he climbed into the shower and turned the water on hot, working his fingers over taut muscles to try and relax them. When washing his hair he discovered a bump on the back of his head and prodded at it carefully. The area was tender from where it had connected with the wall during the explosion, a dull throb coursing through his brain as he pressed against the spot. There was a slight sting when he pressed too hard, and when he pulled his fingers away and examined them, he discovered dried blood under the tips of his fingernails. Lovely. He’d probably bled all over his hood and hadn’t even realized it.

John headed downstairs after drying off and getting dressed, discovering an omelette waiting and steadily cooling on a plate for him on the dining room table. He winced and let out a soft hiss of pain as he sat down, a flare of muscle ache protesting against bending. His dad looked up in concern at the sound, watching as John stiffly reached out for his fork.

“Are you alright, son?” John could see those worried eyes flicker over him, trying to catch sign of any visible injury. John sighed and rolled his shoulders, which made his joints pop audibly with the movement.

“It was a bit of a rough night. One of the worst I’ve had, to be honest. The group I stopped last night,” John paused, wondering how to phrase this. “They were....different. Totally different from what I’m used to dealing with. I caught a group coming out of the central bank downtown just in time for it to blow up in my face.” John paused again, knowing that his dad could react very negatively to this part. The look on his father’s face was patient, however, as he waited for John to continue. “I hadn’t been expecting that, obviously, so I got caught up in the explosion and was knocked into a wall about two streets over. I’d never felt something like that before; it was so strong that the wind wasn’t able to react to me right away. I managed to get it under control to slow myself down a bit, before I hit, thankfully, but if I hadn’t...” The alarm that registered in his dad’s eyes as he let him fill in the blanks let him know that he had gotten the message. They both knew that John had been lucky to have flown away from the scene only sore and shaken. He’d been lucky he hadn’t had his neck broken.

It took a few moments for his dad to speak, and when he did, John noticed that he was gripping the table with one hand, his knuckles turning white from how hard he was clutching it. When John looked up into his face, however, it wasn’t the expected anger that he saw. The man’s face was twisted in a grimace of what almost looked to be pain, though John quickly deciphered its true meaning. It was concern.

“You should have woken me last night when you got home, John. You could be hurt without even realizing, you know that. What if you’d had a concussion? You could be in a coma right now, and I’d still be waiting down here for you to come to breakfast.”

John had the decency to look slightly abashed. His father had always told him that if he ever received a head wound of any kind that he was to report immediately to the man for a once-over as soon as he got home, no matter what time it was. That had been one of the rules John had agreed to early on as a condition of his having nightly patrols. Still, John hadn’t even told him about his head injury yet. That the man was worrying about a concussion before John had even mentioned it made his concern seem somewhat overprotective, though.

“I want you to stay home until I make sure you’re fine. I’ll call in late.”

John didn’t disagree. That meant forgoing first period, if not the day, for recovery. He nodded, shoveling a large forkful of eggs into his mouth. He’d have to call Karkat and let him know he wouldn’t be there to greet him by his locker like he usually did.

“I know. I know I should have woken you, but I was exhausted when I got home and just crashed instead of thinking.” John chewed his eggs for a moment, looking down at his plate thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure that they blew up the bank to cover their tracks after robbing it, because I can’t think of any other reason why they’d do it, unless they just wanted to cause chaos. I didn’t hear an alarm of any sort before it blew, so they must have gotten through the security system somehow. Still, I’ve never seen anyone go to that kind of extreme before just to cover up a robbery. That was total overkill. When I did catch up to them, they tried to shake me off their tail by shooting at me. I didn’t really get a chance to examine their guns in any detail, but they were definitely assault rifles. Modded to be fully automatic, too. Definitely not your normal thugs. I, uh, took out their car. With Casey.”

His dad’s eyes widened slightly. “With Casey?” The warhammer was mostly for intimidation purposes, rarely coming out unless a wall had to be knocked down or something big needed to get pushed out of the way quickly. He could have picked the car up with the wind alone if he’d needed to just stop it, but to pull out Casey was an act of anger.

“That might have been overdoing it a little, but after that explosion, I just... yeah.” He’d long since mastered control over his strength, but keeping a control on his emotions was still something he needed to work on, apparently. If push came to shove and John gave in to his anger, he knew that someone could very easily wind up dead, and that was the last thing that he wanted. “No one was seriously injured, but when I pulled them out of the car, I noticed that they were all dressed the same way. The biggest guy told me that the Midnight Crew wouldn’t forgive my actions. Have you ever heard of them?”

The man’s eyes narrowed as a pensive look stole across his face. He regarded John carefully before sliding the daily newspaper across the table. “Was this them?”

On the front page was a colour picture of the smoldering wreckage of what had once been a gothic bank and a landmark of the area. There was an article overviewing the events of the night, smaller pictures of the group member involved at the bottom of the page. The most recognizable was the large man with the cold eyes who had his hat tilted over his brow and the collar of his trench turned up to cover as much of his face as it could. One hand extended to block much of the photographer’s view of him, and it struck John as just clichéd bad guy.

What was shocking was the line at the end of the article, just over the picture of the man who had intimidated John just by looking at him. John gasped, not believing what he’d just read, and scanned over the words again just to make sure.

“They released them! I can’t believe this; they made bail and they just released them!” John hurriedly read through the contents of the article. The journalist went over their speculations and what the police had supplied them, since the five had not made any kind of statement, sticking to their right to remain silent when pressured for answers. John’s frown deepened as he read through the article. There was no mention of any weapons or money having been found at the wrecked car, and with no real evidence holding them to the scene of the crime, all five members had been released on bail as soon as an amount had been set. That stunk of corruption, but there was nothing that John could do about that. Biting back a curse, he continued to read.

The reporter, along with the police, speculated that these people were part of a national crime syndicate which had gotten its start on the east coast, called the Midnight Crew. The syndicate had recently been noted as spreading its reach across the country, due in no small part to the organization’s almost fanatically loyal members and its ruthless code. The reporter claimed that their numbers were estimated to be in the hundreds and that despite ongoing attempts by the government to shut them down, their centre of operations changed constantly. With the sudden appearance of a nefarious gangster—the large man was a brute known as “Boxcars,” a supposed higher up in the group—the writer speculated that the Midnight Crew could very well now be operating out of their very city.

John had good reason to believe that they were.

John slammed the paper down, his pulse pumping loudly in his ears. “Do you know anything about the Midnight Crew or about Boxcars?”

“I’ll look into it, son.” The look he gave John was one of concern. “You need to be careful with this. Organized crime is something you’ve never had to deal with before, and this isn’t something that you can rush into head on. If this really is an incursion by the Midnight Crew, then they are extremely well-financed and well-equipped. It’s not surprising that they were able to make bail.” His dad took a sip of his coffee, the frown never leaving his face even as he gulped down his beverage loudly. “I’ll find out everything I can. In the meantime, don’t let your guard down.”

John nodded, letting this sink in. This was a lot bigger than him and he wasn’t sure if he could handle it on his own. But, he suddenly realized, he wasn’t alone, not anymore, and he immediately voiced his concern. “Hemogoblin might not know about these guys and the kind of danger they represent. It took me a week to run into him last time, and I haven’t seen him for days. What if the Midnight Crew finds him first? They don’t want heroes nosing around in their business, Boxcars made that pretty clear, but what if—” John couldn’t finish the thought out loud.

What if they killed him? What if they killed the only other hero John had met, because the wind refused to let their paths cross? No. He had to tell himself that the wind would guide him to where he needed to be if there was danger, especially danger involving someone who meant something personal to him. Still, John couldn’t shake the idea that if something happened to his fellow hero that could’ve been prevented by his forewarning, it would all be John’s fault. Hemogoblin had some kind of power, that was true, but whether it was one that could fend off a barrage of bullets or help him to survive an explosion was still a mystery. Unless he was much more than he’d let on, Hemogoblin could still bleed.

“I’m sure Hemogoblin can take care of himself and won’t rush into a situation he can’t handle, John. You should be worried about your own well-being first and foremost, even if he could one day be your partner.” John nodded, but his dad’s words hadn’t done much to calm the thoughts swirling inside his head. There was something to be said about trusting your partner to protect himself, but trust was a two-way street. Hemogoblin needed to trust that John would do everything he could to keep his partner safe, too. His mind made up, John clenched his fist. He needed to find Hemogoblin and get his answer about partnering before things escalated too high for either of them to handle alone.

He didn’t know if he was ready to take on something as big as the Midnight Crew singlehandedly, but if he couldn’t locate the other hero quickly, he might be forced to.

 

///

John and his dad stayed home for half of the day just making sure he hadn’t broken anything when he had been knocked into that wall. The fact that he had temporarily lost his hearing combined with the overall shock of his impact meant that he might not have heard the snap if something had actually fractured, but John hadn’t felt any swelling during his shower so he’d voiced his doubt. Still, he was prodded and asked questions until his dad felt sure he hadn’t actually done much damage. It would have felt embarrassing if it wasn’t so expected; his dad always acted like this whenever he reported receiving any injuries, as seldom as that happened. He did have to put up with another lecture after his father had found the bump on the back of his head and the already-healing patch of broken skin, but John felt that one was rightfully deserved. His dad’s earlier concern about concussions and comas really wasn’t all that unfounded, after all.

The speech he’d received when he’d called Karkat to inform him of his impending absence because of a morning stomach bug had been no less vocal than his dad’s lecture, though it had warmed John’s heart to hear the tinges of concern interspersed amongst rants about the troll not getting his daily intake of coffee. He had made John swear that he would call or text him during their lunch period if it looked like John was going to be absent for the entire day, or else Karkat would be skipping school and driving over there to check on his “lazy, bedridden ass.”

After the checkup, it was on to getting John’s muscles relaxed, at least enough so that he could go to school without limping like an old man who’d lost his cane. Soaking in a hot bath with Epsom salts after his checkup did wonders to reduce the tension in his body, though he was still rather tender afterwards. His dad helped him to apply muscle cream once he was dried off, which went a long way to making John feel like he was ready to face the rest of the day and the coming night, at least physically.

When John did finally make it to school midway through the lunchbreak, Karkat had immediately abandoned the small group he had been seated with to fuss over him. It felt nice to be the object of Karkat’s attention like that, even if he had been worried over John’s supposed illness all day. The troll “forgave” him of his illness when John had held out the usual thermos full of coffee and apologized for it being a bit late, something they both shared a small smile over.

The rest of the day went on like any other Friday, with the exception of John having to check in with his first few teachers of the day. Karkat had waited after school and drove him home, the two planning out another Saturday together before they parted. John was glad he hadn’t taken the entire school day off, if only to talk with Karkat and ease some of the mental strain he was having over his latest enemy. Try as he might, John couldn’t shake Boxcar’s words from his mind, the impending threat that the Midnight Crew wouldn’t stand for his interference looming over his head. He’d never had a bad guy tell him something like that before and made the threat sound so believable.

John’s afternoon consisted of stitching his suit back up where the material had been cut to expose the dark lining underneath. The shockwave from the blast had worn some patches here and there as if he’d skidded along concrete, and there were outright cuts where he must have been pelted with debris. The tougher lining and Kevlar weave on the inside of the outfit had kept anything from getting all the way through, but it was still a pain to have to repair. The suit was really starting to show some wear and tear from everyday use, and after less than a half a year of use, this one was already looking about ready to retire. John was glad that his father was capable of constructing Heir’s costumes for him, because John really wouldn’t have known where to start. Patching up areas and stitching tears was about the extent of John’s sewing expertise.

The hardest part of the task came when he discovered a patch of dried blood on the inside of his hood that corresponded with the bump on his head. It wasn’t much, but it caused John to frown, regardless. Blood stains were notoriously difficult to get out once they’d set in, so it was always a chore to remove them. It took almost a full hour of scrubbing with hydrogen peroxide and cold water to remove most of it, and even then there was still a faint outline of a stain. That would have to do, he’d decided, since he really didn’t have much time until his nightly routine.

 

///

Sure enough, it didn’t feel long at all before John was once again flying around in the chilly night air, patrolling and on the lookout for ne'er-do-wells. He was on high alert, keeping more of his attention on the subtle shifts of the currents gliding past him than he had the previous night, trying to be more sensitive to the feelings that the wind was displaying. The other night he had ignored the urgency of its alarm, and he wasn’t going to repeat that mistake again. Especially not when he already had such a foreboding feeling nagging at the edge of his consciousness.

John flew cautiously higher as he neared downtown, his senses relying on the tendrils of air constantly surrounding him to bring information back to him. Flying at such an altitude meant he would miss seeing Hemogoblin’s dark shape running through the shadows and over buildings if he were in the area, but his altitude decreased the likelihood of an ambush or attack. All he could do was whisper a request to the wind to watch over the other hero and to keep him safe from harm. The breeze picked up for just a moment after he’d thought his request, and John hoped that that meant it had heard him.

The wind pulled him down not even an hour into his night and he quickly descended, alert for any sudden changes. Hovering high above a parking lot, he rather quickly spotted two guys trying to break into a car. No suits, no bigger-than-a-gorilla gangster looming in the shadows, just a run-of-the-mill carjacking by a young pair of trolls wearing handkerchiefs over their faces. A small crime, but an opportunity to inform these young adults that crime wasn’t the direction to be taking their lives in.

John flew closer and hovered behind them, waiting for a few moments with his arms crossed. When they still didn’t notice him, he cleared his throat loudly, causing both to drop their tools and turn around wildly to search for the source of the noise.

“Up here, fellas.” They froze, one glancing up quicker than the other and letting out a choked scream. The other followed suit, looking up into the sky to where John was casually waving. The teen made a startled gasp before they both turned on their heels and bolted for it. John sighed, frowning tiredly behind his mask. Why did they always run? John gathered the wind around him, pushing it behind him as he prepared to chase after them.

A sudden flicker of orange and yellow sprang into life in the distance, moments before a loud boom followed in its wake, the flash lighting up a point on the horizon like a miniature sun before a black plume of smoke bellowed out into the sky.

John’s blood ran cold.

 

 

 

The wind around him picked up a few degrees in temperature despite the distance of the inferno many blocks away, and the windows in the building below him rattled in their frames, vibrating in the aftershock of the blast. John instantly knew that that had been a bigger explosion than the night before, because if he had been standing anywhere near that blast just now, he probably wouldn’t have walked away from it.

He also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, who was responsible.

The cold feeling in the pit of John’s stomach hardened into a lump. He had been expecting something like this, but so soon? That was ridiculous. It was only last night that he’d had a run-in with the Midnight Crew, but it seemed that they were already itching for another encounter. Collecting himself, John looked to the sky, quickly abandoning the chase of the would-be car thieves for the much bigger crime. The heavy smell of smoke carried swiftly on the wind which was calling him to action, but John didn’t need the wind to tell him where to go. The glow of the fire burning uncontrollably in the distance was so bright it was almost like a sunrise. Whatever was burning, this target had been larger than the bank, and the intention hadn’t been the removal of evidence of a crime. It was a mark, something that the bomb-maker had set up to burn as big and as bright as possible.

It was a declaration of war.

 

///

It only took minutes for John to fly across most of the city and enter the factory district. He kept pushing the wind to propel him as fast as it could in order to get to the source of the inferno, despite the gnawing doubt that such a large blaze was already well out of his ability to control.

Still, John kept his eyes on the target as he rapidly closed in on it, all the while keeping in tune to every breeze flickering against him. He was listening for a warning that his enemy was near, strongly suspecting that a trap had been laid out at the scene and that he was flying straight into it. His attention split between racing at his top speed and watching for signs of an ambush, John could feel the slight strain on his powers, the itchy feeling working its way along the back of his neck and down his spine. He couldn’t keep that level of concentration up for too much longer, especially when he had no idea what the rest of the night could potentially bring.

As John closed in on the burning building, he noted that the wind wasn’t being its usual calming source of power. It was swirling around him in alarm over the disturbance in a way that made the hero suspect it was picking up on the nervous energy he was exuding. In his almost half a decade as Heir, John had never before tangled with an enemy so large and dangerous as a professional crime syndicate, and his trepidation was bleeding through his confidence. That was more easily said than done, however. What kind of evils could an organization with almost unlimited funding bring against a single hero? John really didn’t want to think about that, and so with a conscious exertion of his will, he clamped down on his emotions and centered himself, the wind quieting and coalescing into the protective barrier it always maintained.

His doubt tamped down, John drew near the building. It wasn’t just any building, however. The hero shielded his eyes as he came to a hover as close as he could possibly bear to one of the largest warehouse refineries in the area.

 

 

 

The entire structure was ablaze, every inch burning in a massive conflagration which he couldn’t possibly hope to handle by himself, especially with his enemy potentially close by. No matter where he looked, there were flames engulfing every surface, crackling and popping and destroying everything in sight. It dwarfed the scale of the bank explosion so extremely that John was at a momentary loss as to what he could possibly do. He was a good twenty or thirty feet away from even the edge of the blaze, and already the heat was so unbearable that John was pretty sure he’d be suffocating if it weren’t for the wind continuously whipping by his face in an attempt to regulate his temperature. The inferno was overwhelming, and John was frozen as he tried to simply process something so much larger than himself.

John’s mind raced through his options and which would be most beneficial to the city. If he used everything he had to try and suffocate the fire, he might be able to make it more manageable for the fire crew to control, but then he knew it would be pointless to try and exhaust all his efforts into something that couldn’t be saved anyway. There was no chance that the building wouldn’t burn to the ground regardless of what he did. That’s probably what the firemen would do, anyway: let the building burn itself out while making sure it didn’t spread to other buildings. This was beyond him. His best course of action, then, was to focus on finding who did this and why, despite already knowing the culprits and having a pretty good idea of the motive.

He drifted further back, watching as the flames spiked high into the sky, uncontained and wild. Even at this distance, he still felt like he had been thrown right in the middle of an oven. John turned his back on the factory and searched for any signs of his enemy, all the while feeling like a failure for being so powerless to do anything. He couldn’t even investigate for people caught in the blaze, not when getting close would mean instantly burned skin.

At least the thick, acrid smoke billowing from the site was being funneled around him so he was only catching hints of it in the back of his throat when he breathed. It was little consolation, as the smoke was now obscuring much of the area around him. John moved his hand through the air in front of him, cutting a path in the haze so that he could see. That was no good; he needed to retreat further to have a chance to take in his surroundings and find clues as to where the perpetrators of the blaze might be. It was very possible that this might have been remotely detonated, and that there was someone hidden among the surrounding buildings at this very moment, watching him, maybe through the lens of a rifle’s scope. At that chilling thought, John drew the wind around him even tighter, compacting it into a more dense barrier.

As John flew a couple of blocks away to where the smoke was thinner, he noticed something strange on one of the roofs nearby. There was a flashing light flickering in consistent bursts on top of a warehouse building a bit to his left. As he drew near, he noticed that the device emitting the light was placed in the direct centre of the roof, so that the slight illuminations couldn’t be noticed by anyone on the ground. John felt a sinking feeling weigh down in the pit of his stomach as that led to the logical conclusion that this was intended for someone in the air to see.

John swooped in, scanning the area quickly and reinforcing his barriers before landing on the rooftop. He looked around for any potential hiding places that an enemy might take advantage of, but the surface of the roof was entirely flat save for a slender ventilation tube off to his right. Nevertheless, John formed the wind around him like armor, not letting his guard drop for a second.

As he strode into the middle of the roof, John discovered a portable strobe light pointed straight up. John nudged the innocuous device with his boot, half expecting that it might trigger a detonation, but it did nothing but slip the light away from the white cue card partially hidden underneath it. Wearily, John bent and slipped the piece of paper out from underneath it, before holding it up to the light so that he could read the short, typed note.

This was for you. We don’t appreciate meddling. Dockyards, Dock C, by midnight. We chose an empty facility this time. Next time we won’t be as generous. Don’t keep us waiting.

- MC

 

 

 

John crumpled the note in his fist and let it fall to the roof, anger rising up inside of him as he processed the threat. The Midnight Crew wanted a fight, and they were willing to sacrifice innocent people and wreck his town until they got what they wanted.

John growled lowly, the wind whipping up in response to his emotions, the tightly-wound barrier coming undone in a massive gust that sent clouds of smoke rolling away from his location in the same way that waves of water rippled out from the drop of a stone into an otherwise calm pond.

By the time this night was over, the Midnight Crew was going to regret ever having wished to pick a fight with him.

 

///

John didn’t waste time hanging around the rooftop to contemplate his next move. Even without checking the small watch he kept stowed in one of his pouches, he knew midnight was rapidly approaching. He couldn’t afford to be indecisive, not with the clock ticking down like a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Just as the Midnight Crew wanted. The timing of the fire and the conditions on the cue card were obviously planned to be tight. They wanted him off guard, and didn’t want to give him much time to strategize his plan for a counterattack. He was expected to blindly rush in because they hadn’t left him any other option.

He flew quickly, wondering just how many members of the Midnight Crew would be waiting for him. If he put everything he had into it immediately without giving them a chance to act, he could win even if he was at an extreme numbers disadvantage. It didn’t matter how many people you threw at a hurricane, after all. No matter what, the wind would always wear you down.

Thinking about not holding back gave him pause, however. Even John wasn’t quite sure what the full extent of his power was like. He understood the kind of devastation his physical strength could cause, but he’d long mastered it and could keep it in check as long as he kept a level head. Just how deep his control over the element of wind went was unknown, however, even to him. He’d never really had reason or opportunity to go completely all out, to throw every bit of considerable willpower behind a sustained attack. Definitely not in the city proper.

The affinity he had with it had started out as hardly a curious whisper and a small offering—a test to judge his worthiness of its curiosity and attention—but it had only grown in strength as he grew older. His bond with the wind had deepened into something unbreakable. The wind had become a constant presence in his life, an omnipresent source of comfort to him that lovingly taught and guided him like a parent. At times, he felt himself to be a part of the wind itself, the breezes that shifted through the air a perfect extension of his limbs. But he had never before tested its connection to the extent he was now considering. He wondered just how far it would bend to his will or rather, just how far would he be permitted to assert himself on it. Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to find out.

He tried not to think about the fact that it was very likely someone could die, but if this confrontation was going to be anything like he imagined it would be, he might not have much choice in the matter. He just hoped he was ready.

John dropped down near a building in Dock B, sticking to the shadows as he made his way to Dock C while hovering less than a foot off the ground. He ducked behind a warehouse of some sort as he crept closer to the intended meeting spot, keeping his back to the wall as the wind swirled defensively around him as he looked around. The warehouse lights were on and illuminating a large open space of concrete in front of the water, what looked to be like a dry dock. There were too many places where people could hide around the area: crates, equipment, and shipping containers were everywhere, all large enough to hide a man behind or inside.

John pulled the watch out of his pouch. 11:57.

It definitely seemed like the intended meeting spot. They weren’t willing to give up their advantage and be waiting for him in the open, of course. That would have made it far too easy for him to take them out and, unfortunately, they didn’t seem dumb enough to paint such obvious targets on their chests. Time was running out, he knew it was, and he wasn’t willing to risk innocent lives by taking his time with an inevitable conflict. Unless he started throwing wind around at every place someone could be hiding, he had to make a move. Mind made up, John took a step forward into the light where he was sure he’d be spotted.

The wind picked up in alarm almost instantly, howling at him in a way that urged him to turn back. There was only danger going forward, it whispered, danger which it might not be able to protect him from.

In that brief moment when the wind first picked up and starting tugging at his frame insistently, John wanted to heed its warning. He wanted to allow the wind to pull him into the air, to fly away and not look back. He wanted to be in home or maybe over at Karkat’s, watching movies and just being a normal teenager. But he couldn’t, he reminded himself. He was a hero and his city was in danger. This was something that he had to do.

John looked around, eyes peering into the darkness. He could sense that he was not alone, and could feel the hidden eyes on him, but no one made a move. Everything was eerily quiet. The only sounds that he could pick up on were of waves lightly slapping against the docks and a few far-off sirens answer the call to help battle the factory fire. There was no sound of movement, nothing except for the unsettling instinct telling him that he wasn’t alone.

“Save the dramatics and come out. I know you’re there,” John called, trying to sound as confident as he wanted to feel. He was Heir. Criminals were afraid of him. They always ran, because they knew that he could stop them. He could control the wind and crush cars with little effort. This would be a piece of cake, like it always was.

Despite those thoughts, John didn’t feel very much reassured. This was organized crime. It was uncharted territory for him. And the last twenty-four hours had shown that this was much bigger than the stuff he was used to. His dad had told him to be so careful, and here he was rushing headlong into an ambush with no other realistic option to turn to. He was also so young compared to the people he was trying to stand up against; they had probably been members of the Midnight Crew longer than he had been alive. He hadn’t even had his seventeenth birthday yet.

John closed his eyes briefly and exhaled, tugging on the wind around him as he found his centre and steeled himself.

“Someone tell me why you called me here,” he shouted, eyes opening and darting around the darkness. He didn’t have to wait very long for a response.

Slithering out of the shadows to surround him like wraiths, John counted no fewer than twenty people, a mixture of troll and human, all dressed in the same black suits that he had come to expect from this organization. Each of them was carrying the same model of assault rifle John had gotten a taste of the other night, and he was keenly aware of how each and every one of them already had their weapons trained on his body. He kept the wind drawn around him, pulling it in and condensing it before layering it on top of itself in the hopes that he’d be able to protect himself if someone got a bit trigger happy. John wasn’t sure what caliber those guns were sporting, but he knew it would be leagues stronger than any of the small arms fire he’d had to protect himself against previously. Whether that would be a problem or not, John wasn’t sure.

The giant of a man whom John had apprehended the previous day walked forward past the ring of his goons, his stature making him apparent as soon as he made a move. There was a split in his lip from the crash John has caused, but otherwise he was not visibly injured. His previously ripped trenchcoat had been replaced with an identical one, black heart pinned in the same place. He wasn’t carrying a weapon of any kind that John could see, but he somehow still managed to be more intimidating than any of the others. Probably more than all of them combined.

“Hey, kid,” he started. His voice was just as gruff as it had been the previous night, but the casual tone in which he was speaking threw John a little bit. “I didn’t get to properly introduce myself last time. The name’s Boxcars and these guys,” Boxcars jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the men directly behind him, “are my associates.” He took one step towards John and the wind instantly tried to force John to fly up. He couldn’t run, though, not with the threat of further bombings looming over him.

“We had a misunderstanding the other day.” Boxcar’s voice took on a menacing tone when he said “misunderstanding,” like the word was some vile thing that he couldn’t wait to get out of his mouth. “Slick wasn’t too keen on havin’ a little hero try to throw a wrench in our plans. Expansion, and all. Sorry, kid, but it’s nothing personal. Yer just bad fer business.”

“I knew this was a trap, you know,” John growled, glaring around at the assembled thugs as several of them started to fidget. The wind was roaring in his ears, now, the sound sorrowful and low. This was it. John could feel their short conversation reaching an end. They were planning on killing him, right then and there, as if he were nothing more than a minor inconvenience that needed solving. They were not going to take him down without a fight, however.

Boxcars just shrugged his shoulders and nodded almost solemnly as he agreed with John. “Yeah. I know. But you came, anyways. You hero types always do.” Gone was the menace from his voice, and instead there was something somber there. It confused John for a second, because the man had almost sounded a bit wistful.

John’s focus snapped back into place and his muscles tensed for action when Boxcars raised his right arm, causing every single one of the thugs to level their weapons in unison. The clicking of safeties being flicked off thrummed in his ears like the sharp beats of a drum, and John’s eyes darted around as he tried to judge who would make the first move.

 

 

 

Don’t hesitate, John told himself as he reached slowly around his back, his gloved hand finding purchase on Casey’s handle. Everything was silent for a long, tense moment, save for the mournful wailing of the wind in John’s ear.

“So long, kid.”

Boxcars threw his hand down in a sweeping gesture.

John jerked Casey from her sheath and pulled the wind tightly around himself.

“Fire!”

The silence of the night was broken by sharp flashes of light and the staccato of gunfire.

 
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