Struggles of the first government-sanctioned superhero team. (Incomplete)
After receiving some good reviews from people I trust, I've decided to post this story I've been working on publicly here. This is my first major work in this vein, and something a bit out of my comfort zone. That said, I'm pretty pleased with how it's turned out so far. As stated in the intro block, this story is incomplete. It is partially edited, and it will probably undergo many more revisions before it's finished. For these reasons, I'm very interested in any feedback readers are willing to offer. From grammatical editing to comments on the overall flow and tone, any tips or comments are appreciated.
This was originally meant to be only a short story, but given its current length, and the fact that I still feel I'm in the introductory portion, I've moved it up to classification as a novella. I'll be updating it here as I write more significant chunks, probably once each chapter.
If you choose to give the story a read, thanks for your time and interest, and feel free to leave a comment or send me a message with any thoughts or suggestions. Finally, please enjoy.
Current writing progress: End of Chapter 2.
Current editing and revision: End of Chapter 2.
Hopper (Working Title)
The spotlight of a circling helicopter lit up the plaza as Daniel crouched behind a hedge across from the bank. He had gone looking for trouble, and he had certainly found it. To think that he would come across Caduceus and his minions in the middle of a bank robbery on his first ever attempt at heroism. He held his breath and steeled his resolve, getting ready for what he knew he had to do. This was his moment.
"Stop right there, evildoers!"
Daniel stood up from his hiding place, glaring across the ruined courtyard to the line of mutants even now filing out of the bank's entrance. Immediately, he felt each of their bulbous eyes turn towards him. His skin flushed under his whiskers as a deep red blush worked its way up his skin, and doubts began to surface once again. Perhaps the leotard hadn't been such a good idea.
Still, it seemed fitting. His grandfather had been a circus strongman, and that's what he was trying to be, wasn't it? A strong man. Certainly the rabbit charm had had some... side effects, but he was determined to use its gifts to do some good.
His train of thought was broken by a sound from the still stunned, motionless line of mutants. They were ugly brutes, misshapen hunks of muscle and bone only barely recognizable as human. Each one had the same expression, disbelief mixed with amusement. Alright, Daniel decided, the leotard was definitely a bad idea. He should have listened to Annie.
Presently, one of the largest of the thugs stepped forward. He had a face reminiscent of a children's art project, contrasted by muscles like slabs of granite and a massive cowl of bone covering his upper body.
"What did you just say?" the mutant growled.
Daniel gulped, and his ears twitched in agitation, but it was too late to back down now. "I said stop right there! What you're doing is against the law!"
"Oh yeah? You a policeman?"
He paused. The mutant had, surprisingly, made a very salient point. Did he have any authority to stop these people? What they were doing was obviously wrong, and the city's most beloved hero already worked as a vigilante, but...
"No, I'm a hero."
He said it in a firm voice, and the act made him feel better, more confident. He clenched his fists and raised them threateningly, his long ears now flattened against his skull.
"A hero? A little bunny rabbit hero? That's hilarious!" the mutant laughed, then rushed forward without warning. His first swing almost caught Daniel off guard, and he ducked just in time for an arm with the dimensions of a steel beam to cut through the air above him.
"I'm not a bunny! My name is Hopper!" he answered, swinging up in return. Daniel's fist caught the mutant right where his bone cowl met the skin, and actually lifted him off the ground. He stared in disbelief as the mutant tumbled backward, landing with a crash in a heap on the ground. Had he just done that? He knew the rabbit charm had made him stronger, but this seemed a bit extreme. The mutant was almost twice as big as he was.
Said mutant was even now picking himself up, an angry scowl twisting across his distended face. Of course that wouldn't be enough to take something like him down, but at least Daniel now felt he had a chance. With a roar, the creature bounded toward him. It feinted left, and Daniel realized his mistake as he ducked to the right and met the thing's other fist coming down like a hammer at his side.
The impact sent sharp pain running up and down Daniel's ribs, and he felt himself lifted off his feet this time. Something clicked inside his mind, some animal instinct he didn't know he had, and he twisted in the air. His new, furry ears pointed straight up as he landed on the ground. Gingerly touching his side where the mutant had hit him, he found to his surprise that it barely ached. It felt as though he'd taken a tumble and might have a bruise later, but nothing like the bone-cracking, incapacitating pain it should have been.
"The heck are you?" the mutant growled at him, raising its arms for another charge.
Daniel barely managed a smile. "I'm not sure I know at this point," he said, crouching down and gathering strength in his powerful leg muscles. At the same instant, the two of them burst into motion, flying at each other over the cracked concrete of the parking lot.
"Yes, that's right Amy. I'm here above the bank where Caduceus' men are proceeding with a large-scale robbery. There's still no sign of Burning Sol, but... Yes, someone else has arrived and is trying to stop them."
"Someone else? Can you be more specific Royle?"
"This is going to sound strange, Amy, but it looks like a big man with rabbit ears wearing a spandex leotard."
"A... what? Are you sure?"
"I don't believe it either, Amy. He's fighting one of the biggest mutants now."
"Do you think we should call an ambulance, Royle?"
"No, he actually seems to be winning. He's just as strong as the mutant, if you can believe it. And look at those legs! He looks as though he can jump over a building in a single bound!"
"Now that's just corny."
"Sorry. Neither of them seem like they can hurt each other, so it's a stalemate... No, wait, there's been a new development."
"Don't keep our audience in suspense, Royle."
"Of course. The rabbit man has lifted up a car from the parking lot and is beating the mutant with it. Some poor automobile owner isn't going to be happy about that."
"You've got to expect some collateral damage in these things."
"Of course. That seems to have done the trick. The mutant isn't moving anymore. Ah, but..."
"All the other minions got away while they were fighting. Now the big guy is just standing there like he doesn't know what to do next."
"Won the battle but lost the war, huh?"
"Looks that way, Amy. The police are moving in to surround him now. Even if he meant well, he has a lot of property damage to answer for."
"I don't envy him. This has been Amy Allbright and Royle V. Honeycutt bringing you live coverage of the bank robbery. We'll be back with any new developments as they come to light."
A mix of emotions battled for Daniel's attention as he rested on the cold police station bench. He was embarrassed, certainly. Not only was he still blushing from being seen in public wearing his grandfather's strongman leotard. That had been decided the moment he made that choice for his costume. He was also ashamed that he hadn't thought about the obvious consequences of his actions. Sure, Burning Sol got away with vigilante justice all the time, but he was also beloved by the people of the city. An unknown figure like Daniel; rather, like Hopper, couldn't expect the same amount of leniency from law enforcement.
At the same time, he felt elated. He had done it. At least, he had done a bit of it. Caduceus' minions got away with a lot of the money, but he had put one of them down for the count. A big one, too. The thrill of defeating what seemed like such a superior opponent, of really getting to stretch the limits of his new power, buzzed about his mind. It was almost enough to make him forget about the embarrassment. If only the power didn't come with so many side effects.
He was saved by decided what exactly he should be feeling when a voice called out from across the hall.
"You the bunny man? What am I asking? Of course you are. Come on in."
The officer who beckoned Daniel into his office was a tall man, well-muscled and with a pair of aviator sunglasses perched on his nose. Not only was it night by now, but they were definitely inside a building, so the choice of fashion seemed odd to Daniel. Still, considering his own outfit, he didn't feel like he was in any position to comment. With a nod, he stood up and entered the room opposite. Settling down in a wooden chair, he watched the other man cross around a desk and lower himself into a much more expensive leather seat.
The nameplate on the desk read "Lieutenant Guy Aguado". Daniel's eyes flicked down to it, his ears twitched involuntarily, and he looked back up. It seemed natural to him that someone who looked like this would be named "Guy".
"First off," Officer Aguado started, waving a hand vaguely at Daniel's chest, "What's with the... getup?"
"Is that an official question?" His answer came out a bit faster than Daniel would have liked, and he made an effort of will to push down the cocktail of emotions he still had bubbling around.
"Not exactly," the other responded, leaning back a bit and peering over his aviators. His eyes were a remarkable shade of green. "Think of it more as my own curiosity."
Daniel hesitated, but didn't see any reason not to answer.
"It was my grandfather's. He was a circus strongman. Er... I thought it would be fitting if I wore it for my first heroic act. I'm strong, so it was kind of an homage."
"You're strong. That's an understatement. Witnesses say you picked up an entire car and beat a mutant with it."
He had done that, hadn't he? Daniel smiled. "Yes, officer, I did exactly that."
"So that's assault with a deadly weapon and destruction of property." Without changing his expression, Officer Aguado wrote something down on a notepad in front of him. Daniel's smile froze, and what felt like an iron ball started to grow in his stomach.
"That's what now?"
"Assault with a deadly weapon and destruction of property. Look, I don't like Caduceus' thugs any more than anyone here, but they're still technically citizens."
"That's... not good." It sounded lame, certainly, but Daniel couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Not good. Not good. No, it isn't," Aguado heaved a sigh, then seemed to think of something and pointed at Daniel's head, "The ears?"
"Real. Um... I found a magical rabbit's foot charm and, well, something changed. It's part of the same package that let me pick up that car."
"You'd be surprised how much of that sort of thing we've been hearing lately. A rabbit though? Really? Don't answer that. Anyway, I've got a proposition for you."
"A proposition?" Again with the lame answers. He was supposed to be a hero, wasn't he? Did Burning Sol ever have to put up with this kind of thing?
"We can spin the whole thing as self-defense. It's still not going to look great for you, because of the car, but the big guy did attack you first." He nodded, poking at the paper in front of him with his pencil.
"That sounds good," Daniel mused, "but you said it's a proposition. What do I have to do?"
Aguado grinned. With the aviators hiding his eyes, and his hair slicked back, he looked every inch the roguish good guy cop. Daniel had to wonder if it was intentional. He decided that it probably was.
"There's an administrator from the government, just arrived in town yesterday. She's been sent to put together a state-sanctioned 'Superhero Team'. The first of its kind," he shrugged, still smiling, "I guess they're trying to get at least a little bit of control over everything that's been happening. You know, since the meteor."
Daniel did know. It was the biggest event in recent history, and suddenly "magical" superhuman powers had erupted throughout the population. It was absolute chaos until certain powerful people took it upon themselves to become "heroes" and keep the others in check.
"I've been ordered to keep an eye out for any superhumans that might be a good fit for the team," Aguado continued, leaning forward for his next statement as though imparting a well-kept secret, "You seem like a decent guy, Daniel. If you join the team, one of the founding members, I'll do everything I can to let you get away from this whole ugly business scot-free."
"Hopper," Daniel responded quickly.
"Hopper. It's my hero name. If I'm going to join this team, I think I should go by that and not Daniel."
Aguado paused for a moment, then laughed, flashing a set of brilliant white teeth. "That's it? I don't need to do any more convincing?"
Daniel found himself smiling as well, and decided that, despite the poor circumstances of their meeting, he might just like this man.
"You're offering me a free pardon, and a chance to legitimately do what I was going for in the first place. Why the heck would I refuse?"
"Good point, good point," Aguado chuckled. He scribbled an address down on a piece of his notebook paper, tore it out, and handed it to Daniel. "Go to this address tomorrow. If I call later and hear you didn't show up, expect to be back here in cuffs. Got it?"
Taking the paper, Daniel realized he didn't have any place to stash it. Blushing a bit under the white whiskers on his face, he folded the parchment and slid it as surreptitiously as he could under one of the straps of his leotard.
"Crystal clear," he said, then paused once again, "Er... What now?"
Aguado spread his hands magnanimously. "You're free to go. In fact, I think your wife is already here to pick you up."
Once again, Daniel felt that strange confluence of emotions. Certainly, he was eager to see Annie again. He always was. At the same time, however, she was definitely going to have some strong words to say about what happened tonight. Thanking Officer Aguado, he stood and stepped out of the office, ears drooping only a little as he made his way out to the waiting room.
"I told you you shouldn't have worn the leotard."
Annie scowled at him from the driver's seat, but there was a shine in her eyes that he knew very well. She supported what he was doing, he knew, even if she didn't wholly agree with the way he had gone about it this time. Even at this time of night, he noted, she was dressed sensibly. Of course, Annie wouldn't let anyone at the police station see her at anything but her best if she could help it. That devotion to her own standards regardless of the situation was one of the things he loved most about her.
"You were right," Daniel raised his hands in surrender, nodding his head and causing his ears to bob in rhythm, "I admit it. Freely, and under no duress."
"You're darn right I was right." She seemed mollified now, and they sat in silence for a moment before she spoke again. "So this 'Superhero Team' you're joining, what do you think you'll wear for that?"
Fingering the address paper still stuck under the strap of his leotard, Daniel suppressed a small smile of relief. If she was asking that, she was as good as giving her approval to the whole idea. Not that he had much choice, but he had always known that Annie was smarter than him. Having her support on it made him feel a lot more comfortable with the idea.
He found himself smiling as he admired her brown hair, cut in a sensibly short length, and those dark eyes of hers, always so keen and knowing. Daniel smiled to himself, but then found himself falling into a stupor. He still hadn't answered her question, so he shook himself back to awareness.
"I... hadn't actually thought about it," he admitted, "Have any ideas?"
"What about a suit?"
"A suit?" Daniel was momentarily taken aback by the idea. What kind of a superhero wears a suit? Of course, he wasn't doing too well at being a traditional superhero so far.
"Yeah, that brown one you used to wear at work. It's very you, don't you think?" She was smiling now, eyes moving between him and the road in front of her.
"You have a point there, and... it's not like I have many other options. I'll go with the suit until I get a real costume, alright?"
"Mhm," she grunted in response. Something about it suggested that she wasn't entirely convinced, but Daniel was too tired at this point to really puzzle it out. His ears were drooping, and so were his eyelids. His first day of crime fighting had definitely taken a toll on him, compounded by the fact that he wasn't used to being awake at such a late hour.
"Superheroes don't fall asleep in the car," Annie teased, noticing him fading off.
"Oh shush. You're the real hero if you can get me home."
The next morning, Daniel awoke in his own bed with little recollection of how he had gotten there. He stretched, careful not to disturb Annie sleeping beside him, and was greeted by a dull pain in his side. Superpowered rabbit charm or not, it seemed he still had to deal with the consequences of getting hit. At least it was just an ache, and not the agony that taking such a hit should have left him with.
Rolling out from under the covers, he padded softly over to the bathroom and availed himself of a quick shower. Standing in front of the mirror, still half asleep and methodically brushing his teeth, he noted how strangely specific his transformation had been. His ears had migrated to the top of his head and grown a coat of fur; the most obvious change. They bounced up and down a little with the motions of his brush. It seemed the slightest motion was enough to send them jerking around. The sensation of them jumping this way and that was still alien to him.
He was thankful, at least, that he had started growing out his hair after leaving the company. It was a shaggy mess now, but it at least covered the spots where his ears used to be. Otherwise, he thought he might look a bit uncanny. That was another thing. The charm had turned all of his hair a stark, bright white, as though to match the puffy ears now on his head. This wasn't the hard silver of old age, but rather a snowy white one might find on a rabbit's coat.
Rinsing his mouth, he turned his head right and left, studying his reflection. At first he had been worried that the white hair, and his trimmed beard in particular, gave him the aspect of an old man, but he managed to convince himself that wasn't the case. He was still young, at least by his own estimation, and not quite into middle age. Still, he wondered sometimes if that was just him being hopeful. Annie had been notably tight-lipped on the matter. He felt he wasn't ready for old age just yet, not when he was starting a new chapter in his life like this.
It was a weekend, so he was careful not to make much noise as he selected his clothing and changed in the room. His hand hovered over the leotard for a moment, now hanging primly in his closet. Had his wife washed it last night? Daniel couldn't imagine why she'd do such a thing, given her loathing of the garment. Shaking his head, he moved a few other items to the side and selected a brown corduroy suit, just like Annie had recommended. He still wasn't convinced this was proper attire for an aspiring superhero, but he did admittedly feel more comfortable in it.
Whipping up a modest breakfast in the kitchen, Daniel ate alone and with a touch of nervousness. He hadn't ever done government work before. Was this group going to be military in nature? Would he be expected to go through drills, to wear a uniform, or to make reports? He could do all of those if he had to, he thought, but the uncertainty of it left his stomach unsettled. Not finishing the meager meal, he made sure to clean the dishes before stepping outside. With a breath of cool morning air, he headed, for the first time, to the address Officer Aguado had given him.
A short walk later and Daniel sat in an austere waiting room. More than just spartan, it looked as though someone had just started moving in and hadn't had time to finish. Piles of boxes were still stacked neatly in the corners, and a handful of chairs were the only furniture visible. None of that particularly mattered to Daniel at the moment, however, because sitting across from him was a skeleton.
He was still trying to figure out how he felt about it. Certainly, it was frightening to see a set of human bones walking around. On the other hand, it had just calmly entered and sat down across from him with a polite little wave. Hardly a necromantic monstrosity. The skull's permanent grin even seemed more playful than morbid, but that might just have been his own thoughts projecting onto it. Strange events were indeed on the rise in the city since the meteor had struck, but even so, this was a bit...
Too stunned to wave back, he only managed to raise his eyebrows an offer a feeble nod in return. The skeleton grinned at him. No, it always looked like that, and he chided himself to stop assigning emotions to that unchanging expression. It pulled a portable whiteboard and a marker out of... somewhere, and began to write.
Perhaps he hadn't yet woken up after such a tiring day yesterday, and was still dreaming. Daniel leaned a bit to the left, then to the right, but he was pretty certain. There was nowhere the skeleton could have drawn the whiteboard from. It's not like the thing had pockets. Leaning back in his seat with a small sigh of defeat, his eyes locked back on the skeleton's sockets, then traveled down. It was holding the whiteboard out, facing Daniel, and presenting a message that had been scrawled in surprisingly neat and elegant handwriting.
"Er..." Daniel hesitated, but he didn't want to be rude. Maybe this skeleton was going to be interviewing him for a spot on the hero team? He was still half convinced he was dreaming, but even so, he couldn't afford to make a bad impression. "Hello," he finally managed, "I'm Daniel."
The skeleton grinned at him again, then turned the whiteboard around and wiped the message away with a scratching sound like a coin dragged over concrete. It wrote something else and turned the board back to him.
"Stupid name for a rabbit."
His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched instinctively. Now the skeleton was insulting him? He was already on edge from having a literal monster right across from him. How had this situation gotten so far out of hand? Fighting off the urge to snap a reply, Daniel managed a professional answer. "Are you interviewing for the hero team?"
Again the scratching sound, following by the squeaking of its marker as the skeleton wrote another message.
"Nah, I'm here to join like you, dum dum."
"I... see," Daniel mulled the idea over, then asked the inevitable question, "You are going to be a superhero? A skeleton?"
The answer took a bit longer to come this time, but eventually the skeleton spun its board around.
"Makes as much sense as Bunnyman over here, doesn't it?"
He sighed. "Are you going to just keep abusing me?"
Very quickly, this time, it wrote a single word.
Daniel opened his mouth to respond. He wasn't the best at clever comebacks, but this undead twerp was really running down his patience. Before he could get a word out, however, the room's only other door opened.
"Daniel Montgomery?" a woman's voice called for him and he stood, eager to have a distraction from his interaction with the skeleton.
"Come on in."
"So your chosen hero name is Hopper," the woman stated, looking at a sheaf of papers in her hand, then paused. "Oh, I should introduce myself too. My name is Bethany Harlow."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Harlow," Daniel replied. He adjusted his tie absentmindedly. This felt like a job interview. Not exactly what he had expected when he decided to become a superhero. The woman across the table certainly looked like a government official. Her dark hair was done up in a neat ponytail and she wore a sensible navy pantsuit. A pair of slightly smudged glasses hung about her neck on a lanyard. The edges of her sleeves did look a little frayed, and the garment itself a mite rumpled, but Daniel decided not to comment. Her gauzy eyes showed the signs of someone who wasn't used to being up so early in the first place.
"Just Beth is fine," she responded absentmindedly, still reading the paper, "Why don't you tell me about your powers?"
"Of course. I'm, well, very strong, and I can take a hit," he nodded to himself, then pointed at the two white fluffy ears extending from the top of his head, "I've got very good hearing as well."
"The general 'super strength' suite, then. Not the most original, but always very useful."
"That's right. I can also jump very, very high. That's why I chose the name Hopper," he continued.
"And the origin of your powers? I assume it has something to do with..." she waved her hand in a vague motion he was becoming familiar with. She meant the ears, of course.
"Also right. I, well, I should start from the beginning I suppose,"
Beth nodded and set the papers down. She placed her hands on the desk in front of her and smiled encouragingly. Now that he had her full attention, Daniel felt a bit more at ease as he continued.
"My aunt is- was a treasure hunter, you see. I come from a strange family. Anyway, she passed away a couple months ago and left all of the 'treasures' from her adventures to me." He paused for a breath, then began again, "A lot of it was the kind of weird stuff you'd expect. Carved wooden masks, sinister totems, giant seashells, all sorts of things. More than enough of it was the real deal for me to quit my job, though."
"You quit your job?" Beth raised her eyebrows. "You don't seem the type. I mean, as professional as you look now."
Daniel silently thanked Annie. The pressed suit he now wore looked excellent on him, at least according to her, and he was just grateful he hadn't tried to show up for the interview in his grandfather's leotard.
"I probably wouldn't have, except for the next part." He hadn't told many people about this, but the evidence was pretty hard to hide. "One of the treasures she left me was a lucky rabbit's foot charm. You know the kind, like you find on keychains. Anyway, when I touched it, I felt sort of a jolt, and then I started to change. My ears moved to the top of my head and grew until they looked like a rabbit's, and all my hair turned white. I think I got a little taller too, but it's hard to tell."
"This was after the meteor struck?"
"Yes, not long after that." Daniel remembered exactly where he had been when the news of that event had reached him. He imagined most people did. It was one of those events that would change the whole world, he remembered thinking at the time.
"We're still not sure exactly why, but after that event, a lot of 'magical artifacts' around the world suddenly started actually working. You're not the only person I've spoken to who got their powers from something like that."
Daniel paused. This was the first time anyone had offered an explanation for what had happened to him. He had figured it was somehow connected to the meteor, but it was strange to think that similar things had been happening all over. Seeming to notice his hesitation, Beth continued.
"That's one of the reasons 'superheroes' stopped existing just in comic books and came to life."
"Right. Sorry, I just hadn't really considered that I might not be the only one in that kind of situation. Anyway, I didn't exactly want to go back to work looking like a rabbit, and I did have enough money to retire on. I decided to try to put the powers that came with it to use, and become a hero, like Burning Sol."
"I've heard a lot about him since coming here. Are you a fan?" Beth had a glint in her eye now. Daniel presumed that even if he wasn't a fan, she certainly was.
"Not exactly, but one of my daughters is. She loves superheroes, and she gave me the idea," he answered.
"You have daughters?"
"Two of them. That's, well, one of the biggest reasons I chose to give the hero career a shot. It's a chaotic world out there after the meteor hit, and I wanted to do what I could to make it a bit safer for them." Daniel felt another blush rising up his neck and settling beneath his whiskers. He wasn't used to talking about such personal matters with anyone but Annie.
"That's sweet," Beth smiled, flipping back to the first page of her paperwork and checking a few boxes, "Well, Mister Montgomery. Hopper. I think you'll be a great starting member for this team. We'll need a tank, anyway."
Daniel wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. "A what?"
"Oh, you don't play many video games, do you?"
"No, not really. A tank?"
She waved her hand vaguely again, searching for words. "It's like, a big guy who gets right up in the enemy's face to distract them from his allies."
"Ah," Daniel nodded, feeling more confident in that explanation, "I think that's something I can do."
"Great!" She slid the papers over to him, "This is government work, so we'll have to go through all the usual legal hoops. ID, references, all that. I don't think you'll have much of a problem, but I can't say the same for the other applicant out there."
He made a face. "The skeleton?"
"Think it has a driver's license?"
"I see your point. I'll just get out of your hair, then." He stood from the chair and reached across the desk. Beth grabbed his hand with her own and pumped it up and down. Her grip was surprisingly firm.
"Come back tomorrow with the paperwork if you can, Mister Hopper. I think we can find a place for you on this team."
Clutching the paperwork in one hand, careful not to let his large fingers crease the pages, Daniel stepped out of the office and back into the waiting room. As he'd feared, the skeleton was still there, waiting for him. He made eye contact with the thing's sockets, and it immediately began squeaking its marker across the whiteboard on its lap. Daniel stifled a sigh. He'd hoped to just slip out without going through this again, but it didn't look as though that was going to happen.
"Did you get the gig?" it read.
"I think so," he answered, not even sure why he was bothering to reply. He always did have trouble with this kind of person. It was like his own polite nature was running up against a brick wall. For that matter, was "person" even the right word?
"I just have to fill out this paperwork," he waved the sheaf with one hand. Once again, the sound of marker on board filled the room.
"Careful, you'll put someone's eye out with those sausage fingers."
As soon as Daniel had read the message, the skeleton turned its whiteboard back around and began writing another one. It seemed like this one was a two-parter.
"Not mine, of course. Guess I'm lucky."
Choosing to ignore what seemed to pass as humor for the pile of bones, Daniel began making his way to the door out once again. He stopped as a thought occurred to him.
"Come to think of it," he reasoned, turning halfway back around to the room's other occupant, "How are you going to apply? This is a government position. You'll need I.D., and references. Things like that."
Squeak squeak went the marker.
"A skeleton must keep its secrets."
He frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Before the thing could answer once again, the office door opened and Beth stuck her head out. "Er... 'Numbskull'? I guess there's only one person that could be, huh? Come on in."
It stood, but before making its way to the office, flashed Daniel one last message along with its ever-present comic grin.
"See you again soon, teammate."
The paperwork wasn't anything Daniel hadn't handled on countless other occasions in his previous job, and, with a little help from Annie, he was back the next day with a full list of references. Infuriatingly, the skeleton had arrived before him, along with a new figure Daniel hadn't seen before.
This newcomer sat alone, in the corner of the room, steadfastly refusing to look over at Numbskull. He was slender, wearing an earthy brown cloak and hooded cowl covering his face up to the eyes. The top of the hood was fashioned into a semblance of a bird's beak, with two glaring eyes painted above it. Daniel thought the whole thing looked a bit corny, but it did at least go with the rest of the man's leather costume. Choosing to heed the stranger's wisdom and ignore the skeleton, he walked over and sat across.
"Was I supposed to bring my own costume?" Daniel rubbed the back of his neck and chuckled, offering the other man a smile, "I didn't think we'd gotten that far yet."
Across from him, the hooded figure gave him what appeared to be a dirty look at being disturbed, but it was hard to tell with the majority of his face covered. "I find it pays to be prepared," he said, shortly.
"Well, you've got me there. My name's Daniel. Er, Hopper, that is, assuming I'm approved to be part of the team." Daniel stuck his hand out, but the hooded man just stared at him, eyes wide and incredulous.
"You're revealing your secret identity that easily? Seriously?"
Daniel frowned, but kept his hand out. "It's not exactly a secret. Not like it's going to take people long to figure out who the guy with the white beard and bunny ears is."
The other man snorted and leaned back with his arms crossed, making no move to take Daniel's hand. He withdrew it, finding himself annoyed once again. Were all of his teammates in this thing going to be so insufferable?
"I think it's pretty unprofessional," the hooded man said, looking down his cowled nose at Daniel. "My hero name is Gearhawk. I won't be giving you my real name."
"Fair enough. I think my own Hopper is pretty obvious, but why Gearhawk?"
He leaned forward, and Daniel thought he could see the tracing of a smug smile underneath the cloth covering the man's face. "Because I turn like a gear and strike like a bird of prey."
"That's... very vague. Don't you think you should come up with something catchier?"
This time it was Gearhawk's turn to frown, evidenced by the irked crinkle around his eyes. "I doubt you have anything better, 'Hopper'," he said with a slight note of disgust in his voice.
"...Yeah, I guess not. Look, we're obviously not getting off on the right foot, so why don't you just tell me how long you've been waiting and I'll go talk to Numbskull over there. At least he seems good natured when he makes fun of me."
Gearhawk shrugged, shifting his weight back once again. "A half hour. Bethany hasn't arrived yet."
"Thanks," Daniel said, then stood and walked over to take a seat next to the grinning skeleton. Just as he'd expected, it retrieved the same whiteboard as before and wrote out a message.
"Back for more, eh bunnyboy?"
"Bunnyboy? I thought you called me 'Bunnyman' yesterday."
"You've been demoted."
Despite his better judgment, Daniel opened his mouth to respond, but was saved by the arrival of Bethany. She opened the door, a large backpack slung around her shoulders, and looked quite surprised to see the three of them there in the waiting room.
"Oh! You're all here already," she said, swinging the pack down onto a table and unzipping it, "Sorry, I'm used to working with the government. It takes forever to get anything done, so I'm usually the first person anywhere."
"Is this all of us?" Daniel asked, looking curiously at the large black binder Beth was drawing from out of the sack. She motioned Gearhawk over and waited for him to skulk to a nearby chair before answering.
"Hopper, Numbskull, and Gearhawk. No, Mort isn't here, but you guys will meet him later. He's at his day job right now."
Gearhawk scoffed. "You're hiring a hero with a day job?"
If she was bothered by his affect, Beth didn't show it. "He's going to be working more in a support role, so he won't usually be going on patrols with the rest of you."
A squeaking sound announced that Numbskull had something to add, and the other three patiently waited until the skeleton turned around its whiteboard.
"That's what we're going to be doing? Patrols? Sounds boring."
Daniel wasn't as surprised, but he did have to admit that it wasn't the high-adrenaline, villain-smashing action that came to mind when one thought about superheroes. Surely Burning Sol didn't spend his time on patrols. In fact, nobody ever seemed to see him until something big was already happening.
"Boring it might be, but remember that you signed up for government work. We have to do things by the book," Beth responded, pointing to the large black binder she now held.
"That book?" Gearhawk voiced, looking at it dubiously over his cowl.
"This book," she affirmed, setting it down and opening it up. The thick text crammed on the pages inside reminded Daniel of his old desk job. He was familiar with that type of policy manual, but hadn't been expecting to see another one so soon.
"That's the second reason I wanted you all to gather here today," Bethany continued, "Both so you can turn in your paperwork and so we can go over this. This is going to be your bible. It lists all the things you can and can't do while you're on the job as a government-sanctioned superhero."
Daniel nodded, understanding. "They wouldn't be able to organize something like this without promising a lot of oversight."
"That's right. You can expect every move you make to be scrutinized based on these rules in here. We're the first group of this type, so we're going to be walking on thin ice."
A clicking sound drew their attention. Numbskull was clicking its fingerbone on the whiteboard, upon which it had written a message without anyone else noticing. It was a single, simple word.
Beth just smiled. Her patience was really starting to impress Daniel.
"This is all in the agreement you signed when you did the application paperwork. You did read it, didn't you, Numbskull?"
The skeleton's shoulders raised and fell in what it took him a moment to realize was a breathless sigh. It produced a stack of surprisingly neat, creaseless paperwork from somewhere on its person. Daniel craned his neck, but again couldn't see where it had pulled the objects from. Still, he was agog. This irreverent skeleton thing had the proper credentials to apply for a government job?
A second thought occurred to him, and he figured that he shouldn't be so quick to judge. His own awakening to superpowers had changed him, as evidenced by the floppy white ears on his head. There was no reason to believe that others couldn't have undergone even more extreme transformations. It didn't help his patience that the skeleton was such a prick about things, though.
"Thank you," Bethany said, smoothly sliding a folder out of the backpack and the stack of papers into it, "Do the rest of you have your papers?"
Daniel had his own folder, of course, and Gearhawk soon produced a much more rumpled stack, both of which were safely delivered to Beth.
"Excellent!" she clapped her hands once, pushed the papers back into her pack, and then turned back to the binder on the short table, "Now, of course, I don't expect all of you to remember all of this. That's why I've shortened it down to just two simple rules.
"Number one! Never harm civilians."
Those assembled all nodded at this. This was what they had expected from these kind of rules. Not harming civilians seemed like the most obvious of groundwork for a hero. Beth took in their expressions. That is, she took in Daniel's expression. Numbskull was grinning as usual and nothing penetrated Gearhawk's cowl.
"I know what you're thinking... I think. That's obvious! The most basic of basics for a hero. You're right, up to a point, but this doesn't just mean you can't hurt innocents out on the street." She tapped the binder a few times for emphasis, "Unless someone has been officially marked as a villain by the government, you can't touch them. This means no mundane bank robbers, no thugs bullying old ladies in the parks, nothing like that. You can intimidate these criminal types, and try to scare them off, but unless they're officially a villain, you can't do anything that might hurt them."
"That," Gearhawk said with a terse note in his voice, "Is going to make it very hard to do our jobs."
"You're not wrong," Beth agreed. "The policy will probably be relaxed in the future, but since we're just starting out, we have to be as careful as possible. Fortunately, anyone who belongs to a 'villainous organization' is also considered a villain under these rules, so henchmen like Caduceus' thugs are fair game. We're grandfathering you in under this precedent, Hopper."
The others turned to look at Daniel, who merely shrugged. "I'll tell you about it later," he said, hoping to turn focus back to the book.
"Right. Rule number two, and just as important, is no killing," Bethany continued. Daniel wasn't sure, but he thought he noticed a slight nod of thanks for helping things along. "Our responsibilities don't include passing death sentences on villains. Get it? No matter what they've done, they get a fair trial and punishment under the law. Once we drag them in, and make sure they're safely restrained, our job is over.
"Of course, that doesn't mean we can't use force. We're dealing with supervillains, here, and someone like Caduceus isn't going to just let us waltz up and take him in for questioning. Just... try not to be excessive. Avoid any permanent injury or death, and we'll probably be fine. It's still a gray area, I know."
Numbskull took a moment to add something to its whiteboard. "What if they're really really asking for it?"
Beth chuckled. "I shouldn't even have to answer that, but not even then. I don't think we'll have to worry about you, anyway. This is more for Hopper and Gearhawk, whose powers can actually do some damage."
The skeleton's marker darted back and forth once again. "Are you implying that 'skeleton' isn't a deadly superpower?"
"Yes, I am."
Bethany stared at Numbskull for a long moment, and the skeleton's eye sockets gazed back. Then, with a small sound of bone striking bone, its jaw fell open in an expression of morbid surprise.
"Anyway," Bethany continued with emphasis, turning her head away from the display, "The biggest point is that this organization was created to deal with supervillains. You know, those crazy do-badders with powers beyond human ken. We're not intended to take on burglars, muggers, or any other type of mundane criminal. Leave them for the police."
Daniel thought this new information over. "So by extension, you're saying that the police aren't capable of dealing with superhuman threats."
Bethany sighed, as though she had been avoiding the issue until he brought it to the forefront. "That's right. The police can deal with the occasional super who pops up with limited control over their power or no idea what they're doing, but the big names, like Caduceus, are just beyond what they're able to handle. That's why we were was founded. The Bureau of Superhuman Affairs, or B.S.A. None of you should know that acronym, because up until now, we're a secret. In fact, you guys are more of a... trial run than anything else, but don't think of yourselves like that."
Gearhawk snorted. As before, Daniel couldn't see his expression except around the eyes, but he felt safe in guessing that the man had a low opinion of the police force not being able to deal with superpowered threats.
"We'll be working closely with the police," Beth continued, the binder of rules lying open before her forgotten for the moment, "Some of you have already met our liaison, Lieutenant Aguado." She punctuated this with a glance at Daniel that he hoped the others missed. He still had some complex emotions connected to that whole situation. "If they run into a superpowered problem they don't think they can handle, they've got authorization to call us in."
She clapped her hands suddenly, causing Numbskull, who seemed to have dozed off at some point, to jerk its head up in surprise. Having no eyes or breath to judge by, it was hard to tell if the skeleton had actually been sleeping, or was just joking around as usual. Could it even sleep? Daniel didn't think it was likely. What did a skeleton, with no bodily systems, need sleep for?
This line of thought was interrupted by Beth's next comment. "We'll go over the rest of the rules later. As you can see, there are quite a lot, and I don't know about you guys, but I want to get on to the exciting bit."
She fished around inside the backpack and produced three polished silver badges. Each medallion was formed in the shape of a shield, and had the initials "B.S.A." raised on its surface. Behind these was a stylized square of what appeared to be fabric engraved on the metal. Daniel originally took it to be a flag, but on closer inspection he realized it to instead be a cape, with its ends clasped together above the initials.
"We don't have costumes for you three yet. Actually, we only really need a costume for Hopper, since Gearhawk has his own and Numbskull is a skeleton," she amended, handing one badge to each of them. Hopper clasped it to the lapel of his corduroy suit. He then watched as Gearhawk pinned his to the breast of his leather shirt and Numbskull just sort of wedged it in between two ribs.
"In the meantime," Beth finished as they all fiddled with their new accessories, "These badges grant you limited authority to work under the B.S.A. name. We're going to spend the first day out on patrol, then we'll get Hopper measured for a costume, and finally we'll work out an actual schedule." She beamed at them. "Any questions?"
"Could I get a copy of that rulebook?" Daniel asked. He wasn't entirely comfortable with how Beth had just skimmed over the hefty volume, reducing it down to just two simple rules. If he was going to be a government-sanctioned superhero, he wanted to do it right. More importantly, he didn't intend to have another legal snafu like what had landed him in front of Officer Aguado before.
The woman gave him a withering look. "You're not going to be a rules-lawyering type are you?"
"One," Daniel raised one thick finger on his right hand, "I don't know what that means, though I think I get the general idea. Two, aren't you supposed to be the government agent here? I'd expect you to be a bit more strict about the rules."
Numbskull squeaked out a contribution and turned the whiteboard toward them. "Flopsy has a point," it read.
"Are you ever going to call me Hopper?"
"Probably not." That note, at least, seemed to him to be honest. He stifled another sigh and decided to drop it, turning back to Beth.
"I was chosen for this position," she said, seeming a little miffed by his calling her out, "Due to my excellent qualifications and open-mindedness toward superhumans. Not because I'm good at pushing papers. To answer, yes, you can have a copy. You'll all get copies, of course. That's how the government likes to waste paper. But just follow the two rules I set out, use your common sense, and you should be fine."
Daniel nodded and she stood up, not bothering to return the binder to her bag as an eager smile once again slid onto her face. "Now, who's ready to patrol the city?"
It was still morning by the time Daniel and Numbskull found their way onto their patrol route, and the chill air made the hairs on the tips of his ears stand on end. He felt a bit silly, admittedly, walking around town looking for mutants or superpowered henchmen committing crimes out in the open. Still, the world had changed a great deal since the meteor struck and, while he had never encountered such activities himself, he supposed it could happen. The B.S.A. badge was an unfamiliar weight on his lapel, and the authority it represented granted him a bit of extra confidence.
Certainly, they were drawing strange looks. Daniel's shoes made a soft clacking sound as he strode down the sidewalk, matched by the clicking of skeletal feet beside him. He still had his reservations about being paired with the skeleton. They hadn't exactly gotten along, but then again, he hadn't become best friends with Gearhawk either. Frankly, it surprised him that the two, with such temperaments as they had, would sign up to be official superheroes in the first place.
This was the first attempt at such a team, and people probably weren't taking it too seriously just yet. In fact, Daniel wasn't even sure the existence of the B.S.A. was known to the public at large yet. Would his badge actually carry any weight? He thought of Officer Aguado's accusing sunglasses staring across at him from behind a desk again, and winced involuntarily. As he did so, a pair of young women walking toward them on the sidewalk passed warily to the other side of the street. Daniel wasn't sure if it was his sour expression that had driven them away, or the literal skeleton walking beside him. On second thought, it was almost certainly the skeleton. Numbskull gave them a friendly wave.
The two had been silent on their walk so far, other than some written grumblings from his partner about being paired up with the rabbit. It wasn't terribly practical for Numbskull to write down messages as they paced along, so Daniel worried a bit about communication should anything happen. Certainly, he could call out to the skeleton, but he was fairly certain that with no lungs it wouldn't be able to answer him.
All in all, he decided that it would be best if their first patrol was entirely uneventful, and hoped that would be the case.
Bethany had described their patrol routes as passing through the most densely populated areas of the city, and the most common places where superpowered crimes had been committed in the past few weeks. Since it had only been a few months since the whole world had been turned on its head by the meteor fall, there wasn't a lot of data to work with. According to her the organization was doing what it could with what it had. More importantly, she had explained, it was key to start acclimating people to seeing obviously metahuman people walking around on the streets without recognizing them as an immediate threat.
Gearhawk had been assigned a more dangerous route involving several of the slums and high-crime areas, but he didn't seem to mind. Judging by the just-short-of-dangerous impression Daniel got from him, he might be right at home in that environment. It seemed odd for him to be sent out without a partner, but Beth had insisted that the other hero named Mort was going to be joining him when he arrived. First an animate skeleton, and then someone named Mort, of all things. Daniel found that he wasn't too happy with how the overall theme of this team was coming together.
Presently, they found themselves walking in one of the small parks that cut through the central business area of the city. Numbskull jostled Daniel's arm, and he turned to look, squashing a little flare of annoyance at having his reflections interrupted. Somehow, without him noticing, the skeleton had written out a message on its whiteboard and held it up for his inspection. Now that they weren't sitting down, Daniel all but towered over his bony companion, and he had to lean down a little to read the florid handwriting.
"Check out the lady up there with the designer bag. Total burglar bait."
He followed Numbskull's pointing finger bone and noted the woman it was indicating. Daniel was no expert on such things, but she did indeed have a purse slung across her shoulder that looked to be of very expensive leather. She seemed to notice them looking at her and, with a nervous half-turn backwards, she quickened her pace. Daniel resisted the urge to speed up his own step to keep up with her, and put a gentle hand on Numbskull's polished head to prevent the skeleton from doing the same.
"We aren't here to spook her. Just look out for anyone else eyeing that bag." he said, then turned a slight frown at his unintentional use of the word "spook". He guessed from Numbskull's jolly grin that his partner had caught it, but then again it was hard to tell.
They now approached the center of the park, which held a large round area with a raised stage for public performances. It was occupied, packed with a thronged group of people shouting and raising signs in the universal display of protest. Daniel had seen them before, though never in such numbers. A meteor striking the earth and apparently bringing the supernatural into reality was sure to shake the status quo, and some more zealous individuals had taken it as a sign of the end times. This was a collection of just such believers. The signs they hoisted up and down bore messages like "Repent!" or "The Return of Witchcraft Hails the End Times!".
Though rambunctious in their own way, the protesters didn't seem particularly dangerous. Daniel found them a bit unsettling, if he were to be honest, but it was nothing he was going to act on. When he turned his attention back, however, he found that the woman they had been trailing had vanished somewhere into the foot traffic. Further, Numbskull was no longer by his side. How he managed to lose a walking skeleton was beyond him, but it was more than a little worrying. He wasn't sure what that prankster would get up to if left to its own devices.
Not knowing what else to do, he cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed to be heard over the chanting of the protesters. "Numbskull!"
A few pedestrians turned to give him angry looks. Daniel's blood rushed to his face and he felt his ears flatten themselves down onto the top of his head. He hadn't realized how that would sound shouting it into a crowd. Maybe they would need to have a chat about the skeleton's chosen name later.
There was no answer from his partner, though he wasn't sure what he had expected. A clattering of bones, maybe? The thought brought a wan smile to his lips as he scanned the footpath, looking for any sign of a polished white head contrasting against the park's thick green foliage.
Just when he was starting to tire of the exercise, he heard a woman's scream come from somewhere in the woods to his left. The sound sent what felt like a jolt of electricity through his spine, and his feet were moving before he realized what he was doing. Was it the woman from before? Was she being robbed? Or perhaps Numbskull had just sneaked up and popped out at her in a lame attempt at a prank. His heart thudded in his throat as the screams continued, then cut short, and he soon discarded the last idea. No way was Numbskull that scary.
Bursting through the underbrush into a clearing, Daniel came upon an uncanny sight. A young woman, not older than her teens, with a black bandana holding back a tangle of dark hair had her hand held out and was clenching as though holding something up. He recognized the display as the same motion performed by a certain famous cinematic villain, and indeed, the woman from before was floating above a small stream, clutching at her throat. Her bag slipped from her shoulder and landed in the water with a splash, but the youth did not lower their arm.
Taking in the situation as quickly as he could, Daniel resisted the urge to tackle the teen and bear her to the ground, hopefully breaking her concentration enough to save the woman. With his enhanced strength, however, there was no telling what would happen to an average person if he launched himself at them. Instead, he cleared his throat loudly and spoke.
"What are you doing?! She dropped the bag, just take it and stop hurting her!" he shouted. Though he was doing his best to appear in control, his heart was still beating faster than he thought it ever had before, and slivers of both anger and fear slipped into his voice.
The youth turned and looked at him, expression slack. The gaze that met his own caused Daniel to shudder involuntarily. Something about the teen's eyes struck him as incredibly disturbing. They were a dull, slate grey, and appeared entirely empty. Whatever quality it was that would normally give him the impression there was a person behind those eyes was entirely absent. It was like coming face to face with a morbidly realistic doll.
He shook himself and took two steps forward. Creepy eyes or not, the teen didn't seem willing to listen, and the woman was gasping for air. He began to go through his options in his head. Punching was out, he'd probably cause some serious damage. Maybe a gentle shove, just to knock them to the ground?
Before he had decided, a heavy thwack echoed through the clearing and the teen fell heavily to the ground in a limp pile. Numbskull stood over her unconscious body, holding its whiteboard in two hands like a club. Daniel couldn't help notice that on the board, written in marker smudged by its contact with the back of the attacker's head, was the word "BOO!" in capital letters.
At the same time, the woman fell from a few feet above the ground and stumbled as she landed in the shallow stream. Daniel took one more step and grabbed her arm, pulling her steady.
"So, Mister Hopper. Mister... er, Numbskull." Lieutenant Aguado glared at the two of them over his aviators. "What part of 'villains and henchmen only' don't you understand?"
Nearby, a team of EMTs was helping the fallen teen onto a stretcher. The youth herself professed no memory of the incident, and was complaining loudly about the wound Numbskull had left on her head. Daniel winced, but he wasn't about to back down.
"If we- if Numbskull hadn't acted, that woman could have died!"
"So you act by calling the police! Common criminals are not under your jurisdiction!" Aguado snapped back. He pinched the bridge of his nose, as though already fed up with the situation.
Daniel's lips creased into a deep frown. He wanted to shout, to take his frustration out on Aguado, but sensed that doing so would only cause the situation to escalate. Instead, he concentrated on his breathing, and said in what he hoped was a measured, reasonable tone, "She was being choked right in front of us. If we hadn't acted, she could have died in the time it took us to call the police and wait for you to arrive."
Numbskull stood by his side, finger bones clacking down in a constant, nervous rhythm on the skeleton's whiteboard. Not being able to keep up with the conversation through writing, Daniel had instead become the de facto spokesperson for their group. The other's skeletal grin, so jolly before, now seemed to Daniel as though it were terse and pained.
Turning his attention back to the officer, it was clear Aguado was still angry. He seemed to recognize that Daniel was trying to be reasonable, however, and made a visible effort to calm himself down as well.
"Alright, Hopper. You have a point, I admit. I would have done the same thing in your position," he took a deep breath, "The problem is, we've only got your testimony to back it. The girl over there is telling a very different story."
The youth in question was gone now, presumably spirited away to the nearest hospital, but Daniel had a lingering feeling that he hadn't seen the last of her.
"If it weren't for the victim backing you up," Aguado continued, "you two would be in some real hot water right now. As it is, I'm going to have to talk to your boss about this whole 'patrol' thing. You're supposed to be a specialized response team, not a bunch of street cops."
Daniel nodded himself and he felt his ears lift up from his head, no longer flattened in agitation. He had to admit that Aguado had a good point. Were they really going to find supervillains committing petty crimes out here on the streets? He thought they'd be better off on standby until the police ran up against a situation that needed a superhuman touch. Still, Bethany did seem to have her reasons for sending them out on patrol like this. Absently, he touched the badge pinned to his lapel.
"I agree," he said, looking Aguado dead in the lenses of his sunglasses, "We won't get in your way any further, officer."
The other smiled and, for the first time since arriving, once again gave off that 'good cop' vibe that Daniel had noted in their first meeting. "Go head back to your HQ for now, and give Beth my regards. Tell her I'd like to talk to her at the first opportunity, would you?"
"Understood, I'll make sure to let her know." Daniel gave the officer one more parting nod and left him to his work. Turning away, he found Numbskull's frightful visage right behind him. The skeleton was holding up a whiteboard to his face.
"That was weak."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "I'm not in the mood for this right now, Numbskull. We've got to get back and report what happened."
"You know we were in the right. She was being strangled!" The next message came before he had even finished speaking.
"Remember what Beth said about us being the first official superheroes? We're on thin ice right now, and we can't afford to make mistakes like that."
"That was a mistake? You'd rather just let her die?"
"No, that's not what I..."
Truthfully, Daniel was troubled. He felt Numbskull had acted appropriately, and actually felt a bit of respect for his new partner after seeing the skeleton act when he couldn't. At the same time, he understood why they couldn't just go around knocking out teenagers in parks, especially while on official business. The correct thing to do would have been to call the police, but would they have arrived in time? Daniel doubted it. It seemed like there was no obvious right answer.
He sighed. Maybe there'd be more information in that book of policy Bethany had promised to copy for him. More likely, it would only make things more complicated, but he'd at least feel better knowing fully how he was expected to act.
Numbskull seemed to have no qualms, and, as the two left the park, Daniel found himself feeling a bit envious of the skeleton. It had acted with no doubts in a situation that had made Daniel hesitate. Even now, the skull's grinning face showed not the least bit of guilt at what had happened. Not that it would, but that conviction was still something that he admired, or at least wished he had in more ample supply.
When they arrived back at the B.S.A.'s headquarters, such as it was, Daniel was surprised to find Gearhawk already there. Standing next to him, with hands self-consciously behind his back was a man he didn't recognize. This newcomer had lank, black hair and sallow cheeks. His eyes were sunken and glassy, but the overall effect was compromised by a friendly smile that lit up when they entered the room. Daniel put the pieces together, and deduced that this could only be Mort.
Before he could make any attempt at introductions, Gearhawk was upon him.
"What did you two do?" the man practically snarled. "Miss Harlow called us back, because something happened on your patrol. We had barely gotten started."
"Miss Harlow?" Daniel was momentarily nonplussed. "Oh, Bethany? Yes, we came back to report to her. There was an... incident." He rubbed the back of his neck, now feeling as self-conscious as Mort looked. This was the second time he had tried to do some good, and the second time it had just ended in trouble. Heroism, it seemed, was much harder than Burning Sol made it look on TV.
"What do you mean, 'an incident'?"
Daniel raised his hands to placate the other. Being at least a head taller than Gearhawk, he noticed that Bethany had slipped out of her office behind him and was now watching the exchange. She made no effort to intervene. Instead, she merely looked at the aggressor with a curious expression on her face.
"We ran into a mugging. Or an attempted murder, or something." he answered, turning his attention back to Gearhawk.
"So we whacked the perp." Numbskull stuck its bony shoulder in between the two, holding a whiteboard up for Gearhawk's inspection.
"You whacked the perp," Daniel corrected.
Numbskull looked at him for a moment, then wrote out a reply and showed it to each of them in turn. "You were going to. Don't lie."
"I wasn't lyi- ...No, you're right. We couldn't just stand by and do nothing while a woman was being choked right in front of us."
This reply seemed to mollify Gearhawk, at least a bit, and he finally took a step back. Daniel noted that his eyebrows were still furrowed in anger under his hood.
"What part of 'villains only' did you not get?" he asked, glaring.
Daniel felt a bit of his patience snap. Could this man really be suggesting that he just stand by and let an innocent die, when he had the power to do something? Isn't that what being a superhero was all about?
"What use is our power," he snapped, poking a finger toward the cowled hero for emphasis, "If we have to stand back and watch someone suffer? I genuinely hope you would have done the same in our position, Gearhawk."
"Now, now," a new voice called out in a soothing tone. Mort, or the person Daniel supposed to be Mort, had approached at some point during their confrontation. He held his hands up and lowered them slowly as he stepped between them. There was something about his manner that reminded Daniel of a kindly old man, though Mort himself couldn't have been older than his late twenties.
"Why don't we let our handler have her say before things go any further?" he continued, smiling between the two, then turning his head toward Bethany. She now stepped forward, as though taking her cue, and cleared her throat.
"Ah, yes," she began, her expression more serious than Daniel had seen it before, "I actually have some good news."
Daniel no longer felt quite so defensive, but tension still hung palpable in the air between himself and Gearhawk. All assembled waited for Beth to continue.
"I've been talking to Lieutenant Aguado, and there's a whole bunch of legalese about it, but basically he's letting you off the hook because what you did counts as a citizen's arrest."
Relief swept across the room, and Daniel felt his own shoulders slump. He hadn't realized he'd been carrying that much stress about what had happened, but he definitely didn't want his superhero career ended early because of something like this. Bethany smiled along with Daniel, Mort, and Numbskull, though hers appeared a little more strained. He guessed that being on the phone with Officer Aguado about that incident couldn't have been fun.
"It would have been a different story if Hopper had punched the girl, or something like that. Some serious injury. We're lucky to have the victim's testimony to back us up, too. You might be happy to hear that she's very grateful."
Numbskull brushed some invisible dust off of its bony shoulder and stood a bit taller.
"So basically, because of Numbskull's 'reasonable' use of force, we're safe as long as it's understood that you two acted as citizens, and not under the authority of the B.S.A."
This last note elicited a frown from Daniel once again. "Hang on," he said when Beth had finished, "We were visibly wearing our badges, and were out on patrol for the B.S.A. Isn't it a bit hard to believe that we weren't working under their authority?"
"Good point," Bethany raised one finger, as well as her eyebrows, and continued, "In this case, our organization being pretty much unknown works in our favor. Nobody knows about the Bureau of Superhuman Affairs yet, so there's no public backlash. For all anyone else knows, you two just like wearing shiny badges along with the rest of your ridiculous costumes."
"I take offense to that." Numbskull scribbled out, and Bethany coughed once.
"Anyway, we get away with it this time. Don't try anything else like this again, though, especially once we start to get a public image."
"I can make the right decision, but what if Hopper here can't control himself when he sees someone in trouble?" Gearhawk asked. Though his expression was hidden as always, Daniel got the impression that the other man was sneering at him under his cowl. His fist tightened involuntarily, and he had to shrug off the impulse to wipe that expression off of the hero's face. Numbskull he thought he could deal with at this point, especially after what they had been through together. Gearhawk, on the other hand, seemed to be doing everything he could to make an enemy of Daniel. He could only hope that Bethany had noticed it too.
"I hate to say it, but he has a point," Daniel gave a tight nod toward the hooded hero, "What if we do come across someone else in danger? I don't want to just stand by and call the police when we could be doing something to help."
"Fortunately," Bethany lightly exclaimed, some of her bubbly demeanor seeming to have come back to the fore. She seemed excited about whatever this next part was. "We have something that will help with that now. Mort?"
The sallow-cheeked man, who had been standing to the side with his hands still clasped behind his back, now stepped forward.
"Ah, yes. Just a moment." He stuck one hand into the pocket of his severe collared shirt and came back with a pair of small golden objects in his palm.
"I came up with this design just after Miss Harlow told me what had happened. It's a pair of portable speaker and receiver systems connected to each other with no hypothetical limit on distance." He took in the blank looks everyone, including Bethany, was giving him, then cleared his throat and started again. "In short, it's something like a walkie talkie. You press this button and speak into it, then the sound is transmitted to and reproduced by the other one."
Numbskull was already writing, and when the skeleton turned its whiteboard around it was bearing the question that was on everyone's mind.
"Alright, brainiac. Why don't we just use walkie talkies?"
"A good question!" Mort answered, that bright smile once again lighting up his otherwise pale features. He genuinely seemed happy to be able to talk on the subject. "These devices provide many advantages over conventional walkie talkies. As I said before, there is theoretically no limit to their effective distance. Even if you are miles away from the other user, they should still function. They also don't use radio waves, so there shouldn't be any chance of anyone else, villains for example, listening in on your conversations."
"So," Daniel began slowly. He was staring at the small golden object lying in Mort's palm. It looked almost like a pocket watch, but with a speaker where the clock's face would normally be. An obvious button stuck out of its top. Surrounding these two points of solid reference, however, was a meshwork of what appeared to be metallic golden threads, twisting and weaving in mind-boggling complexity. Daniel was almost certain that he was seeing some patterns that shouldn't be possible with geometry as he understood it. Looking at the thing made his eyes water, and he realized after a moment that everyone was still waiting for him to speak. He affected a cough, then continued.
"So if it doesn't use radio waves, what does it use?"
"Ah," Mort said, his smile slipping slightly. "That is indeed the question. To be honest, I am not entirely sure."
"You're not sure?" Gearhawk asked. "Didn't you make the the thing?"
"Well, yes. This is my power, you see. I can create devices that do just about anything I can think of, so long as I have the raw materials. I'm not entirely certain how I do it, just that it all sort of makes sense in the moment. Then, when I'm finished, all that knowledge slips away." He made a sweeping motion as though brushing a thought away.
Numbskull's elegant handwriting once again appeared on the whiteboard. This time, Daniel was surprised to see a sympathetic message signed across its length.
"Your power didn't come with an instruction manual either, huh?"
"That is a good way of putting it, yes. I'm sure I can be of some use to the team, even though I'm not quite certain how my creations work just yet."
Bethany spoke up for the first time since calling on Mort to explain. "Like I mentioned before, Mort's going to be in a support role for our team. I had him go with Gearhawk today just so I could introduce you all, but he won't be actually participating in patrols or fights against supervillains."
Daniel nodded. If he was honest with himself, he found Mort's kindly demeanor refreshing, especially after dealing with Numbskull and Gearhawk. The man had a certain earnest quality to him that Daniel found endearing. With a moment of conviction, he stepped up and extended one large hand to Mort.
"We'll be happy to have you on the team," he said, and smiled as Mort took the offered hand and shook. The other's palm was cold and clammy, but the smile he gave in return seemed genuine.
"We've decided that Hopper should have the first er... Do these things have a name?" Bethany stopped, then asked Mort, who was even now wincing as he looked at his reddened palm. Daniel thought he had only given a gently firm handshake, but this was another reminder that he still had to get used to his enhanced strength.
"That's right, er..." Mort agreed, then continued after he finished massaging life back into his palm, "It seems as though Gearhawk will not be as likely to get into confrontations, and Numbskull, obviously, cannot produce any vocalizations without lungs. Therefore, it appears most logical that Hopper have the prototype."
"Lieutenant Aguado has agreed to carry one as well, so you can consider this your direct line to him," Beth said with a confident smile. Daniel guessed that she felt pretty pleased at having figured that problem out, and he couldn't blame her. Having immediate contact with the police would certainly allay a lot of his worries about going on patrol again. "He'll be on call if you encounter another incident. The Lieutenant will either get involved himself or counsel you on what steps to take. Just, uh, don't abuse the privilege, you know?"
"Great, thanks," Daniel affirmed, taking the proffered device from Mort and giving it another quick look before stashing it in his pocket. "So, if there's only one of these now, what's going to happen with Numbskull over here?"
"Yeah, why does Bunnyboy get all the good toys?" the skeleton's board read.
"I've been considering some ways in which I might better facilitate communication, " Mort said thoughtfully, "But for now..."
"You two will be partners," Bethany finished for him. "Until we can work something out, neither of you is to go on patrol or respond to any incidents without the other. Got it?"
She pointed at the two of them, and Daniel and Numbskull exchanged a glance. He felt better about such a pairing now than he would have this morning, but he still wasn't thrilled about having the eccentric skeleton as a partner. From the strained grin Numbskull was offering him, he guessed that the other felt the same. Then again, maybe he was just projecting emotions onto that unmoving smile once again.
A moment passed in silence, which was then broken by the sound of Numbskull's marker on the whiteboard. "I guess there are worse things than having a pet rabbit. Just don't get in the way."
Daniel stifled a smile. "Of course, when you're taking down the bad guys with that whiteboard of yours I'll make sure to stay well clear."
Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel noticed Bethany's shoulders lower ever so slightly in relief. He guessed that she hadn't been overly confident about this pairing either.
"If you can talk, now is the time to tell us, you know," he added, with a small note of hope in his voice.
"Braniac is right. No lungs, no voice," came the written reply.
Daniel nodded thoughtfully. He hadn't actually considered the logistical problems that came with being a living skeleton. Of course, why would he have? "That sounds... inconvenient."
"Ah, yes, like I said, I may be able to find a way to better help Miss Numbskull communicate with all of you. Better than that whiteboard, at the very least," Mort interjected, then paused. Everyone in the room was staring at him, Daniel included, and he blanched. "Er... Did I say something wrong?"
"Miss Numbskull?" Daniel and Gearhawk said it simultaneously. Bethany looked more amused than surprised, and Numbskull was already writing something down on its... her... whiteboard.
"Yeah? What about it? Skeletons come in both types, you know."
"Well, it's just..." Daniel began. It shouldn't change anything, but he couldn't help feel a bit awkward about how he had treated the skeleton up to this point. Especially now that he was forced to consider her in this new light.
"The pelvis, you see. It's a bit more rounded than it would be on a male skeleton. Er, I'm sorry if that was supposed to be a secret," Mort wore an expression of genuine concern.
"Don't get your briefs in a jam about it. I don't have any flesh, right? No cooties."
Gearhawk snorted. "It's a surprise, but it doesn't change anything. Are we done here, Miss Harlow?"
Beth turned to him, still distracted by the other conversation. "Oh? Yes, yes we're done for today. I don't dare send you out on patrol again after what happened. Come back here to check in tomorrow morning, and be ready in case some sort of super-powered event crops up. I've got all your numbers, and Daniel, keep that device Mort gave you handy. I've got a feeling Lieutenant Aguado might decide to test it on his own later."
"Right," Daniel said, patting his pocket and feeling the oddly-shaped lump of a device there. "We weren't out that long, but it's been a tiring day already. Bethany, before I go, can I get a copy of the regulations to take home?"
Beth made a face, but agreed, and soon he was on his way back with a heavy, paper-laden binder under his arm.
Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to focus. He had been reading the binder of rules for the better part of the afternoon into the evening, and hadn't made nearly as much progress as he would have liked. Now, he lay in bed with only the table lamp illuminating the page, and willed himself to concentrate. It wasn't easy. His eyes kept drifting away every time his focus wavered.
It didn't help that, for all of the text crammed into these pages, it seemed to actually say very little. There were whole sections on the legal definitions of "heroes" and "villains" according to the B.S.A., and exhaustive lists of all the kinds of situations he might find himself in as a hero. Despite his determination to make sure he didn't keep perpetrating the same kind of mistakes that landed him in hot water with the police, he found himself agreeing with Bethany's abridged version of the book. It really only boiled down to two rules. Only fight villains, and avoid the use of deadly force. Everything else was just clarifications on those points.
The door to the room opened, and Daniel looked up from the binder. Annie entered, still wearing her work clothing and looking more than a little bedraggled. She was still working as an administrator at White Financial Trust. Though he had tried to convince her that she didn't have to work anymore thanks to their inheritance, she had insisted that she continue to do so. By her account, the more she earned now, the more they could leave to their children in the future. Daniel found it hard to argue with that. Indeed, sometimes it made him feel a bit guilty for leaving his own career, though what he was doing now was also in the interests of securing them a peaceful future. They had agreed on that.
"They kept you late again, huh?" he asked, though he could see the answer written in an annoyed scowl on her face.
"For the third time this week," she grumbled, then made her way to the bathroom and shut the door. Someone else might have slammed it, but Annie was always careful not to let her temper get the better of her. Daniel felt he had gotten better at the same over the years, thanks to her influence.
He returned to his reading while she ran a shower, but any vestiges of focus he had left were long gone, spirited away by the arrival of his wife. He closed the binder and instead rested his back on the headboard. His eyes landed the small device Mort had given him lying on the bedside table. Even now, he hadn't made any progress in deciphering the odd patterns surrounding its central speaker. More importantly, he hadn't tested it yet, and Lieutenant Aguado hadn't used it to call him either.
With the ghost of a shrug, he picked it up and depressed the small lever at its top.
"Hello?" he said into the speaker, holding the thing close to his mouth.
He waited, but there was no reply. Perhaps it didn't work at all. It certainly didn't look like it should work, and he didn't really have any way to tell. Daniel made a face and put the device back down on the bedside next to his phone. Even if he had his doubts, he wasn't going to be the one to miss out on an important call because he doubted a teammate's abilities. Indeed, with both of his attempts at heroism having ended in a mess each time, he was beginning to feel a powerful need to do it right the next time. It was a determination to redeem himself and prove that he really could do this superhero thing.
So lost was he in his thoughts that Daniel almost missed Annie slipping into bed next to him, still damp from the shower. On nights like these, she would usually fall asleep quickly, seeking a quick escape from the frustrations of the day. He turned to her to wish her good night, but found that she was already staring at him with a piercing look.
"I know that expression," she accused, frowning at him, "What's going on?"
Daniel hadn't been aware he was making any kind of expression, but his doubts must have been showing on his face. He stifled a sigh, then turned the frown into a smile for her.
"Well, it's like this..." He went over the events of the previous day, giving her an overview of everything that had happened, focusing especially on how his second attempt at being a superhero hadn't really ended any better than the first.
"So?" she asked.
"So you did what you thought was right," she said, "Or you were going to, if that skeleton hadn't stepped in. You'll need to introduce me sometime, by the way. That's something I want to see with my own eyes."
"Anyway, the important thing is that you didn't turn away, and you didn't leave that victim to their fate. All those other rules and things can go screw off."
Daniel found that his smile, which he had been forcing before, had become genuine. She was still speaking from a place of annoyance, but the sentiment was clearly genuine. "It's not quite that simple, I think, but you're right as usual."
She grumbled something in the affirmative, and dug herself further underneath the covers. Daniel obligingly turned the light off and did the same, feeling just a bit better about the whole thing.
Daniel woke up with a start. Had someone just called his name? Not his real name, but his superhero name. Had he dreamed it? It sounded almost like Lieutenant Aguado, though that wouldn't be the first time he had appeared in one of Daniel's less pleasant dreams over the past two nights. He was about to dismiss it, but then the sound came again.
"Hopper! Does this thing even work? Pick it up right now if you can hear me."
No, that was no dream. Annie mumbled and turned over next to him, but Daniel scrambled to grab at the bedside table. Officer Aguado's voice, a bit cracked and distorted as though it were coming through a radio, was emanating from Mort's device on the bedside table. Fumbling in the dark, he pressed the switch down and managed to grunt out a sleepy and surprised reply.
"Get your fluffy little tail out of bed and to the station, we have a situation."
"Just get down here!"
Still half-asleep, Daniel stumbled out of bed. The suit he had worn yesterday was still laid across the dresser, so he pulled it on and, careful not to wake Annie, slipped out of the room.
The cold night air was enough to fully wake Daniel up, and he felt significantly more sobered by the time he had arrived at the police station. He was surprised to find Bethany and Numbskull already there. Gearhawk's presence, on the other hand, wasn't unexpected.
Beth offered him a small wave as he trotted up to the group. Daniel felt like he should be out of breath from such a run, but he was barely even breathing hard. Another hidden benefit of that rabbit charm's blessing, he guessed. He managed to raise a hand in greeting before Lieutenant Aguado's familiar form stepped out of the police station's glass doors and beckoned them over.
"Not bad for a first response time," he said. Aguado was wearing his "good cop" grin, so Daniel guessed the situation couldn't be that bad. Still, to call in a hero group in the middle of the night like this couldn't be for anything good.
"What's going on?" Bethany asked, surprising Daniel. He had figured she would be keyed into whatever was happening, at least.
"This had better not be a drill," Gearhawk growled. Numbskull just scratched the top of her skull with one bony finger, wearing a perplexed grin.
"It's not a drill. The situation-" Before Aguado could finish, an explosion rocked through the night air. Daniel almost felt sure a shockwave rolled over him, and he could see red light reflected off the clouds in the night sky. Whatever that had been, it was close. His instincts were telling him to run toward it, or to run away. To do anything but stay here. With an effort of will, he squashed the impulse and waited for the Lieutenant to finish.
"-just got a lot worse." the officer said. His expression was inscrutable behind his aviators, but Daniel couldn't help notice that Aguado's grin was gone.
"What's the situation down there, Royle?"
"Well Amy, as you can see, Caduceus' heist isn't going to plan."
"He was going after a diamond from the national history museum this time, wasn't he?"
"That's right, but the bomb he placed for entry seems to have destabilized the whole building, and the apartment complex next door."
"That can't be good. You don't think it was his intention, do you?"
"Judging by how flustered he looks down there, I don't think so. Besides, you know as well as I do, Amy, that Caduceus never goes out of his way to harm bystanders."
"That's right, he's famous for it. Or is that infamous, because he's a villain?"
"Doesn't matter at this point, it looks like our boys in blue are having a hard time dealing with it."
"It'll be too dangerous for them to go into the apartment complex themselves, but they can't just leave the people in there to fend for themselves either."
"You've got it in one, Amy. But there is good news! We've got some heroes on the scene."
"From the new organization? The Bureau of Superhuman Affairs. Are we supposed to be talking about that yet? What's your take, Royle?"
"Absolutely not, Amy, but it'll be hard to keep it a secret for much longer after this. They're a motley bunch to be sure. We've got our bunny-eared strongman from before, but it looks like he's ditched his leotard."
"That's a mercy at least."
"It most definitely is. There's also what looks like a Halloween skeleton and a man in a bird hood."
"That last one at least looks like a real hero."
"We'll see if they're real heroes or not soon enough, I think. This is Royle V. Honeycutt."
"And Amy Allbright."
"We'll be keeping you up to date on the situation as it develops."
Daniel was having a hard time taking in everything that was going on as he arrived at the scene of the explosion. It had only been a block from the police station where they met Aguado, so they had run over after getting instructions from the Lieutenant. Overall, it didn't look good. Down on the ground, a group of hulking mutants surrounded a man in a green cloak that Daniel recognized from the news as Caduceus. He wore a cap of the same color hanging over his face, and a white surgical mask covering his mouth. In his hand was the staff from which he took his name. Currently, he was gesturing wildly with it, and looked as flustered as Daniel felt.
Though normally having a villain right in front of him would be an opportunity too good to waste, the rest of the situation demanded their attention. Some large explosion, obviously designed to blow a hole in the side of the Natural History Museum building, had also damaged the foundations of a towering apartment complex just next door. The huge structure teetered with a sense of horrifying instability, ready to collapse at any moment. A steady stream of people was escaping from the front doors, but the sheer number of them was slowing down others and causing the walls to buckle even further. There was no telling how many would still be trapped inside when it fell.
"Damn!" Lieutenant Aguado cursed, "This was supposed to be a cut and dry heist. Perfect for a bunch of rookies. What are we going to do about this?" His teeth were bared, not in his usual charming smile, but in an expression mixing anger, tension, and fear. Daniel did not find it encouraging. What were they going to do about this?
"Agents of the B.S.A.!" A commanding voice brought Daniel back to the moment, and everyone looked to see where it had come from. Surprisingly, it was Beth. She had a stern expression on her face, and was gesturing toward the building.
"Ignore Caduceus for now. We have two objectives! First, find a way to stop that building from falling. Second, evacuate the residents to safety!"
"What?!" Gearhawk shouted back at her over the sounds of terror coming from the apartment complex. "How are we supposed to stop that thing from falling?"
"We're just going to ignore Caduceus over there?" Numbskull chimed in with her whiteboard.
Beth ground her teeth. She looked like she had gotten caught up in the moment, and was now regretting saying that piece without a plan to back it up. Still, she paused for only a moment before looking directly at Daniel.
"Hopper, just how strong are you?"
His brow furrowed in confusion, but a moment later he grasped what she meant. Could she be serious? That was clearly insane, and he had no idea if he'd be able to pull it off but... what choice did they have? He rolled up the sleeves of his suit.
"I don't quite know, Miss Bethany, but I'm willing to give it a try." He stepped forward, but felt a hand on his arm.
"Wait!" Beth said, then fished around in her pack and came out with a brown top hat. It was the same color as his suit, and looked like it had holes for his ears. The brim had a B.S.A. badge pinned to it. Leaping up to reach, she placed it on his head. "Your costume. Be careful!"
Daniel touched the brim of the top hat, then grinned. He was sure he looked ridiculous again, but that seemed to be the way of these things. With a nod to her and a glance to the others, he started running toward the building.
"As for you, Numbskull, yes we're ignoring Caduceus. Are you stupid? Those people need our help! You two get into the building and help however you can. Gearhawk, can you get to the top floors?"
Gearhawk made an annoyed noise, but affirmed, and Daniel heard Numbskull writing something else. Then, he was out of the group and coming up quickly on the teetering complex. There was a crowd around the place, too close for comfort, Daniel thought, and he shouldered his way past a red-haired man speaking into a camera.
"There he is, Amy! I'm not sure what he's planning, but-"
The rest of whatever he said was lost to Daniel as he broke into a sprint. A pounding quickened in his ears and he consciously pushed down a growing lump in his stomach. This was definitely not a good idea, he told himself, but it had to be done. He didn't want to get crushed here, but he also couldn't just let those people die when he might have the power to do something about it. A hero's life, he thought, was full of contradictions.
With a crash, Daniel hit the side of the leaning building and put all his strength into his arms as he grabbed a jagged edge of concrete and heaved upward. His muscles started to burn almost immediately, and the rough edges of the wall cut into his hands. For a moment, he was certain that the whole thing was going to come down on him. He winced, and felt his mind go blank as he imagined the complex falling down, crushing him under a mountain of rubble.
Somehow, miraculously, his strength held. The building stopped its horrible swaying, and he managed to get a foothold. The pain in his arms was building quickly, but he found that if he adjusted his pose, he could put most of the load on his legs. His muscles there were powerful, the same ones which gave him his hero name, and they accepted the impossible load with only the barest complaint.
Still, he was sure he couldn't keep this up forever. With a grunt, he uttered a short prayer under his breath that Numbskull and Gearhawk would be quick about it. From somewhere above him, he got a glimpse of motion. Something brown and fluttering cutting through the air. Was that Gearhawk? Maybe that abrasive young man really could fly like his namesake. He wasn't sure what Numbskull would do to help, but that wasn't his problem. All he could do now was keep the building steady.
Moments passed, but each second felt like an eternity. Even his powerful legs were growing tired. Daniel tried not to think about it, to concentrate on the sounds around him, but the pressure on his bones was getting more and more insistent. There was still screaming and shouting coming from the entrance of the complex. That meant that his job wasn't yet done. From somewhere behind him, he also heard excited chatter, and even some cheers. He allowed himself a brief, pained grin. For once, he was doing something worthy of the title "Superhero", and it felt good that someone out there was recognizing it. There would be time for celebration later, he hoped. Right now, he had to put all of his willpower into what was in front of him. The building seemed to be growing heavier by the moment. He felt it shift, and readjusted his grip quickly.
"Hopper! Can you hear me?"
That was Beth. He could manage only a grunt in response, and hoped that she heard it over the mess of sounds happening all around them.
"Gearhawk has almost finished evacuating the top floors, and Numbskull managed to scare a few people out. We're almost done!"
That was a relief. Daniel's vision was starting to fog. His feet were sliding very slowly backwards on the concrete. He redoubled his efforts, but it didn't seem to be helping. Just a few more minutes, he told himself, but he felt the rock above slipping out of his grip. He shouted in defiance, raged against his own body to keep it up for just a moment longer, but...
Suddenly, the load lightened. He heard a grunt to his right, then another to his left. Somewhere behind him, the crowd gasped. Daniel opened his eyes and looked to his side. One of Caduceus' mutants, a massive brute with four arms and impossibly huge muscles, was grasping the side of the building right next to him. A similarly titanic creature was to his left, pushing up on the complex's failing wall. He couldn't believe his eyes, but took the opportunity regardless to adjust his grip. Together, the three pushed, and pushed, and the building remained still.
The shouting was dying down. From somewhere to the side, Daniel heard shouted orders, and the sound of receding voices.
"Hopper!" this time it was Lieutenant Aguado's voice. It sounded as though he was a good distance away, speaking through a loudspeaker. "Great work! We've cleared the area, and you just need to let the side of the building down slowly."
That sounded wonderful. Even with the help of the mutants to either side, he felt as though his body was at its limit. Still, it wasn't like he could just let go. Would the whole thing collapse if they stopped pushing? Would he even have time to get clear? Aguado seemed to realize this as well, and spoke again.
"Alright, new plan. Just let it go, and we'll get you out of there before anything can happen."
Just let it go? That seemed like an awful idea. At that moment, however, the mutants dropped their share and it was no longer his decision. The full weight of the complex settled on his arms, and he had no choice but to release his grip.
Daniel's vision was filled by the massive wall towering over him and leaning ominously, about to fall and crush him beneath it. He raised his arms to shield himself, for all the good it would do. Before the building began to tip, however, he found himself swept off his feet.
"Tch. You're way too heavy, Hopper!" Gearhawk complained, his arm wrapped around Daniel's waist and pulling him through the air. They were moving quickly, almost flying, but something about their momentum felt off. Rather than shooting forward, the sensation was as though they were tethered to a point at the center of the street and swinging around that. It was a bizarre experience, but they soon touched down almost a block away from the complex.
Daniel immediately fell to his knees, his legs giving out from under him. He looked up, from under the brim of his new hat, and offered a weak smile. Above him, he saw Bethany and Numbskull, grinning like idiots. Aguado wore a stunned expression behind his sunglasses, and Gearhawk, as ever, was inscrutable, but Daniel heard him breathing heavily as well.
He opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment the building collapsed, and everything was lost in a storm of sound and concrete dust.