Keith sat on a fold-out foam couch in the TV station's small waiting room. He was alone. He sipped hot tea through a straw from a cup with "Hi-Strata Catering" printed on it and looked at the framed posters on the wall. They were twin pictures of Sternbild City, both of them shot from the same location, one during the day, one at night. The photos must have been taken around holiday time because in the night picture the city's column supports were twined with multicolored lights.
He counted the columns in the picture just like he counted them a night or two a week, up close, forming and riding air currents that blew the dank scent of the Bronze Level underpasses out to be dispelled in the crisper atmosphere of Gold.
For a while he'd done that every night – painstakingly patrolled every single support, that was – but lately he'd tried to return to his old routines, his old routes through the city. He supposed he'd wanted to go back to them not long after running into Fire Emblem one evening at number six ...
The rumble of a well-tended motor had heralded Nathan's arrival even before his voice.
"Well, hello! If it isn't Sir Works-A-Lot," Nathan had called up at him. He was leaning out the window of his car, wearing his Hero suit with its beautiful, glowing cape.
"Hello, Mr. Fire Emblem! Were you looking for me?" Keith glanced at his wristcomm; he'd never, ever missed an alert.
Nathan laughed. "No. I was just driving around. I'm not nearly as obsessive as you, though, honey, and don't ever say I am."
"I won't," Keith said. A quiet downthrust from his jet pack landed him lightly next to the car. Together they looked at number six for a minute or so, at the grimy-smooth column that rose up to the Silver Level, and the grim statue face peeking out from around the edge of the street above. They listened to the gentle creaks which meant that the support was doing its job, the metal and concrete absorbing and distributing the massive weight of the activity it held.
Nathan had sighed. "They just look like targets anymore, don't they?"
Even now Keith couldn't remember what he'd said in reply, only what he should have said. He did that a lot.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with being Sir-Works-A-Lot," Keith whispered to his foam teacup. Sometimes the world seemed so fragile.
But there was so much good in it as well, he would remind himself when he thought things like that. Like people's happy expressions when wonderful stuff happened to them, and licks on the cheek from dogs, and sunshine.
The door to the waiting room opened, and a young woman wearing glasses smiled at him.
"Mr. Sky High! Hello. I'm Lilah," she said, holding out her hand.
Keith stood and shook it. She had very nice brown eyes. "Hello, ma'am! I talked to you on the phone."
"Yes, that was me! – I – uh – you're up after this break, so we'd better get going. If you'd come with me, please?"
"Of course," Keith said, making sure to duck his helmet as they went out the door.
Lilah led him through a dim hallway and through a few more doors. "Thank you so much for coming on such short notice," she said, sounding a little like she was out of breath. "I was – when Barnaby Brooks, Jr. couldn't make it, we were – I mean, pardon, never mind. You're one of my – Oh, God, I feel so stupid."
"Why should you feel stupid, ma'am?" Keith said. Lilah didn't answer, just held a finger over her lips in the shush gesture as she opened a door with a sign posted upon it that said, "QUIET on the set THIS means YOU!!" Keith zipped his lip – or at least the opening in his helmet – and followed her through the darkened backstage until she halted him at a yellow line painted crookedly upon the floor.
And there was Sara Bernini on her set, sitting on her blue chair with her head tilted oddly sideways and a faraway look in her eyes. A man wearing headphones was adjusting something on the lapel of her sunshine-yellow blouse.
Keith's chest warmed and stretched a little at the thought of meeting her in person. It was very good luck that Mr. Brooks hadn't been available to make the show, if that meant that Keith got to be here instead! His manager had certainly been happy, at least. Keith mentally crossed his fingers that he wouldn't disappoint anyone.
The man in the headphones glanced over at Keith and Lilah and whispered "He's here" to Miss Bernini. She frowned.
"Yeah, okay," she said back in a low voice. Keith had very good hearing. Not many people knew that, though it was a matter of science, the way sound waves traveled the air.
The man whispered, "Not who you wanted, huh?" and Miss Bernini's eyes narrowed.
"Listen. I know what this show is," she hissed. "I know we're at a shit time and all the people who should be watching me are in their kitchens heating frozen food in the nuker while What's For Dinner With Millie is showing in the other room. But I still don't see why I have to settle for–"
"Sara, we're back on in six," someone interrupted from the other side of the stage. "And five, four ..." The person's voice cut out as Sara waved the headphoned man away. A monitor flashed "3, 2," and then "1," and there she was, the Sara Bernini Keith saw on TV every day, the one smiling widely, as pretty as a pepper in a pot with her white teeth gleaming.
"Welcome back to Late Tea with Sara, viewers! If you're just joining us, it's time for my special guest, who we all admire and who I'm sure is just full of juicy Hero gossip! Let's welcome the former King of Heroes, Sky High!"
Keith's heart sank a little; she was going to be disappointed because he sure didn't know any gossip.
"Go," Lilah whispered as she gave Keith a gentle push out towards the stage.
But the studio audience was applauding and Keith, who had never been on Late Tea but who had been on other talk shows, bowed to them and to the cameras. "Thank you all. And thank you again!" he said.
"Ah hah hah," Sara said. Her teeth were a very straight line between her lips. "Have a seat, Sky High!"
Keith sat and waved. "Thank you, Miss Bernini. And–"
"Please, call me Sara! Oh, and that's a great suit you're wearing," Sara said, clasping her hands under her chin and looking him up and down. "I'm surprised you're not in your full Hero suit, but I like this sharp afternoon look."
"Thank you," Keith said, feeling his cheeks warm and getting embarrassed because he was blushing, which only made his cheeks hotter; then he remembered he was wearing his helmet and all was good. He wondered what else he might say besides thank you. He tried to remember other kinds of things Sara liked to talk about on her show. Celebrities, mostly.
Well, he'd worn the suit just for this occasion, but he wouldn't need to say that because he was here, wearing it, right? Normally he was just a plain, old, Hero-suit or jeans kind of guy. That didn't mean he didn't notice when other people were dressed very nicely.
And they liked being complimented. Mister Barnaby Brooks had passed through the Hero Training Center looking quite crisp that one day, when Keith had been just been finishing a physical therapy session. Barnaby had seen Keith and halted, then nodded, and then had resumed walking, the heels of his shiny shoes clicking on the tiled floor.
Keith waved at him. "Why, you look very well today, Mister Brooks," he said.
"Ah. Thank you?" Barnaby said, halting once more.
Keith grinned at him. He winced a little as he rubbed his shoulder, which was growing much stronger but which still twinged when he moved it just this way or just that way. "You're welcome! So many people take such care with their appearances. I don't have a clue how they do it, though I should like to have a nice suit myself, some day."
"Hmm," Barnaby said. He was silent for a few moments as he twiddled his fingers at his sides. The lights shone on the lenses of his glasses so that Keith could not see his eyes. He was always so cool, so collected, and while he was a very polite fellow, Keith was never quite sure what he was thinking. "I. Ah."
"Pardon?" Keith said.
Barnaby straightened. "I'm on my way to an appointment with my tailor just now, as a matter of fact. Would you like to come along, and I can help you find one?"
"Oh, I don't want to be a bother," Keith said, feeling his face warm at the thought of going all sweaty like this to what was probably a nice place, and also delaying Barnaby from his own business.
"But you were. Um. So thoughtful on my ... birthday. I'd like to repay the favor." Barnaby said.
"Very well, I accept!" Keith had said, feeling the tingle of excitement in his stomach at maybe getting a whole new look and becoming a whole new person, all in one afternoon. "Thank you, and th–"
"My driver will pick us up outside in five minutes," Barnaby had said.
And off they had gone! That was a good story, Keith thought. He looked at Sara Bernini.
"Mister Barnaby Brooks, Jr. helped me pick this suit out, in fact," he told her.
Her smile grew way upwards. "Really! How wonderful."
"Yes," Keith said. He couldn't name the tailor, of course, because that was confidential information, and he couldn't really say how kind Barnaby had been to him because their conversations had revolved around private matters and other heroes. "I said one day, I'd like a suit. And he said we should go and get me one!"
"How fascinating," Sara said after a moment. She twirled her finger at him, her red-lacquered nail like a missile spiraling in towards a target. "Tell me more about Barnaby. What's he like?"
"He's a very good Hero. Very dedicated, as you can tell by his rescue points in particular!" Keith told her.
"Hmm, of course. How is he around his friends?"
"Oh. He is a very nice person, but when he's not helping people he's so busy with all his fashion shoots and television appearances ..."
"Quite, I'm sure," Sara said, and her smile tightened again.
Keith suddenly realized why Lilah had said I feel so stupid. "Ah. Yes."
Sara cleared her throat. "And tell me, does he have a special lady?"
Oh, it was going to be the gossip after all, Keith thought. He swallowed around the foot still stuck firmly in his mouth. "I ... don't think so?"
"I'll bet Blue Rose has a crush on him, like we all do. Right, ladies?" She waved her hands and the ladies in the audience clapped while the men whistled like they always did when Blue Rose was mentioned. It was really quite inappropriate, Keith thought, because she was very young. But saying so wouldn't make for a very good story. And besides, as Wild Tiger had pointed out to him not long ago, they could have been whistling for Barnaby, who was very popular right now with people of all sexes.
Though not with Karina, who was a very odd young lady sometimes. Of course she was nice, but ... Keith thought of that time he'd had lunch at the Center with Ivan, who'd told him that Karina was very pretty but dismissive of dating. He'd said something about the kind of boys that he thought Karina liked ...
That would be fine, surely? Keith crossed his legs and leaned over with what he thought might be a confidential tilt of his helmet. "So tell me, Sara, what is a DILF?"
The whistles and applause in the studio became wild laughter, and Sara's eyes widened like full moons. "Ahh, Sky High, I'm afraid my show isn't rated for that conversation. Though I wish it were!"
"Oh, pardon," Keith mumbled. Perhaps very soon he should ask someone privately – maybe Wild Tiger – what a DILF was. Though on second thought, perhaps he really didn't want to know.
"We won't say any more about it," Sara said, looking at the cameras and tapping her nose with her finger, one of her signature gestures. "How about yourself, then?"
"And Blue Rose? Gosh, no."
Even above the renewed laughter from the audience, Keith could hear Sara's teeth clicking against each other as she smiled, hard.
"No, I mean, do you have a special lady friend? I'll bet the girls are just falling at your door."
"I sure hope not," Keith said, and then realized he probably shouldn't have said that. He uncrossed his legs and squeezed his knees. "Hero work keeps me very busy, ha ha! Very busy."
Sara clapped her hands once, loudly. "And generous sponsors keep us all very busy. We'll get right back to this wonderful chat after a short commercial break! See you soon, everyone."
She beamed at the cameras until someone on the set whispered "three, two, and one." Then she slumped in her chair and sighed so heavily that the strands of dark hair framing her face were sent dancing by the outrush of breath. She fiddled with something in her left ear.
"Right. He talks loudly enough that mine is picking him up, but can someone tell me why he is not wearing a mic?"
"Oh God, I thought he'd been prepped I'm so sorry–" Lilah cried as she ran out onto the stage, followed by the sound guy in headphones. The man clipped something to Keith's lapel while Sara continued to gripe. It seemed she didn't even want to look at Keith.
"Scram, Lilah, jeeze. How the hell are we gonna save this cluster of a show?"
Keith knew this was all his fault – for not being smooth like Barnaby Brooks, Jr., who would have charmed everyone. For not being good enough to, well, do anything, lately. He'd been screwing up ever since – since Jake Martinez, in fact.
Keith's shoulder ached for the first time in a long time and he began to droop in his seat. But then he felt what might have been a small touch on that shoulder, gone as quickly as it had been there. Through the edge of his helmet's eye-slit he saw Lilah shuffling away; she muttered in a sad-sounding voice, "But Sky High is my favorite Hero."
Keith's limbs lost their slump and warmth grew in his chest and spread quickly; he had a duty not only to protect the city, but also to inspire its people, and to be an inspiration, one had to do and say ... well, inspiring things. He cleared his throat.
"Miss Ber– Sara, I want you to know that I don't watch What's For Dinner With Millie. I watch your show every day, and I'm sorry that I wasn't prepared with better gossip for you."
Sara turned to him at that, and it seemed it was the first time she'd actually, really looked at him. Her cheeks grew pink. She sighed and touched his arm with gentle fingers.
"No, I should have known better, or I should have consulted with you first. You're not really much for the on-dits, are you?"
"I'm afraid not," Keith said, since he didn't even know what ondies were.
"Well, from here on out we'll take a different tack. How about if we stick to Hero business – will that put you more at ease?"
"That would be very kind – thank you," Keith said. "And thank you again!"
Several voices in the audience said awwww and Sara's face went from pink to red. She began fanning herself. "Aaaaand that'll remind me to be more civil or more quiet."
"Back on in six, five, four," someone called, and again the numbers on the screen above counted the rest of the way down for them. Sara removed her hand from his arm and Keith straightened in his seat, like standing tall in a stiff breeze, and greeted the cameras with her.
"Welcome back, viewers! Now, I know it's dinnertime and I know we usually try to keep things light. But our Heroes are so important to this city, and we've had a lot of things happen in the last few months. So let's talk about what Heroes do instead of who they're doing, okay?"
She looked at Keith, really looked again, and continued. "We know how hard you all work, and not only for our entertainment. We all feel safer here in Sternbild for it. But I hear we may have new heroes in training, even now. Is that true, and how do you feel about that?"
Now that conversation, Keith's experiences had trained him for. "Yes, it's true! There's the school, of course, where young NEXT can learn how to control their abilities. Some of the recent graduates have been chosen as trainees – like our understudies. They'll start by handling smaller crimes and emergencies."
Sara nodded. "Wonderful. I can't wait to see what some of them can do. And what some of them will be wearing, of course!"
There was a smattered murmur and applause from the audience. Their approval was the balm Keith's ego needed. He leaned forward and gestured at his helmet and his suit.
"Of course, we veterans will have to give some of them tips on how to dress!" he said, as smoothly as Barnaby ever could.
"Let's hope so!" Sara said, and she winked at him. "Can you tell us about any new Heroes in particular?"
"Hmm," Keith said, thinking. He found that putting his hand on his chin – well, his helmet's chin – actually helped.
And experience worked for him again: he'd gone out for drinks with Rock Bison not long ago, and they'd encountered the most remarkable people ...
There had been a strange noise rising in the back of Michael's Bar, a collective shout that sounded like "Omm!" and "Amen" and "T'chaim" and "Namaste" all at once.
"Gah!" Antonio had said. "It's those stupid foodsters. Good thing Kotetsu's not here, or he'd only encourage 'em."
"Foodsters?" Keith said, looking around for the source of the weird chanting. He'd heard of people called "foodies," who went around looking for interesting new dishes to make and sample. Like modern gourmets or something. "Oh, are they cooking something tasty? Do you think they'll share?"
"You don't get out a lot, do ya? No, the god-foodsters. The something-something league. They go around making religious chow."
"Religious?" As Keith watched, there was a flash of light from the back of the bar and a chorus of "oooohs" erupted from the group and those seated around them. He stood to get a better look.
"Not you, too," Antonio moaned. He tossed back the last of his beer and signaled for another while Keith went to investigate.
There was a group of people whom he supposed must be NEXT, all of them wearing white robes, sitting in a rough circle. They had dragged several of the bar's back tables together to make a large surface, upon which they appeared to be playing with their food.
"My turn. Behold this bread," a bearded man said as he held up what was, yes, definitely a piece of bread. He closed his eyes and there was another flash of bright, yellow light; when it dissipated a second later the bread was glowing.
No, it wasn't just glowing; shining through the bread was the outline of a golden face, the face of a tiny Buddha, complete with shaded, chubby cheeks and a dot in the center of his forehead.
Keith caught his breath and clapped. "Nicely done!" he laughed, because while he'd heard of Jesus appearing on a pancake, he'd never seen any such thing with artwork done as well as this.
"Just wait until you lay eyes on my potato Anubis," one of the white-toga-clad women had said.
Keith had waved at Antonio to come see, but Antonio had only made a rude gesture. Keith would not recreate the gesture for the Late Tea audience, but perhaps they'd like to hear about the rest of it.
He nodded at Sara. "Well, there is a group of NEXT who create religious iconography out of food–"
Her eyes widened and she leaned forward. "Yes, the League of Pious Prophets! They are very new, I hear. Have you met them?"
"I did." Keith told her about the bread, and the amazingly beautiful and detailed Shiva he'd seen, made out of crispy fish skin and shining with rainbow iridescence. He remembered he even had a picture on his cell phone he could share with everyone, of the dog-headed potato Anubis. He'd gotten a nibble of it. "And all of it is completely edible, too!"
"Amazing," Sara said. She leaned back in her chair and tapped her nose, then pointed at him. "But do you and our other famous Heroes, who are powerful enough to capture criminals and rescue people, find people like them sort of ... hmm, ineffectual, in the end?"
"No," Keith said. Antonio thought so, and Agnes Joubert certainly thought so, but he didn't. "They create art! They show that people who are very different can get along with a common purpose. I think people might find that ... well, inspiring! And these days, we all need inspiration."
The audience cheered, and Sara's eyes shone. "We do, don't we? It's been a tough year, and life these days feels ... dangerous, sometimes."
In all his days of watching Late Tea, Keith had never heard Sara say anything like that. He thought of the posters in the station's waiting room, of trying to find purpose in powerlessness. Sunshine and dogs.
"I ... as awful as that time with ... with Jake was, we have to believe we are stronger after it. Life really is neat, how every new experience, good or bad, stays with you and those experiences build on top of each other until it seems like every day you could be a brand-new person."
"Not everyone may agree with you, but I do." Sara looked out at her studio audience. "How about you all?"
"Sky High!" the audience cried, and many of the people, in unison, set their thumbs to their chests and then waved their hands up and outwards, palms flat, like Keith had done to world so many times before.
Maybe he wasn't Barnaby Brooks, Jr., but Barnaby Brooks, Jr. didn't have a famous signature move like that. Keith grinned so widely his mouth hurt, but he was blushing like his head was a lit match, too, so it was just as well nobody could see his face. "Sky High!" he said back to them. The gesture he made back was privately done for his friends and his life, those things which had made him and let him survive Late Tea with Sara.
"Thank you all for watching," Sara said, standing and waving, and somewhere backstage someone counted, "three, two, and one."