Stumbling through a smoke filled room, Jae became acutely aware that someone’s eyes were on him. Swaying, he turned to look down the dark corridor, feeling something ghosting across his neck. He stumbled and fell on his back, screaming. Closed his eyes to ward off the demons coming at him.
Instantly, the warehouse fell away to reveal a burning sky. Around him, shattered glass. Gunfire zipping overhead, amidst the faint screams of civilians. And the sensation that his life was bleeding out around his body. He opened his mouth but only a faint gurgling emerged, along with a violent gush of blood that swept over his chin. He couldn’t breathe. Someone’s hand in his. Brushing his hair away from his face.
You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay, Jae.
And then, mercifully, darkness.
“What happened last night?” Jae staggered into the kitchen. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.” He fell into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
“It would’ve been a whole lot worse if I hadn’t dragged you guys out of there,” Brian pushed a coffee mug at him. Jae swirled the thick, dark sludge around and pulled a face. “Grow up. You’re lucky to even be alive to get this coffee; you could literally be a pile of ashes right now.”
“Thanks, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” Jae mumbled, forcing himself to swallow down the slightly-warmer-than-average and definitely-more-bitter-than-average coffee. “This your place?” He looked around at the dingy light hanging overhead and cupboards painted the same shade as clotted cream. It all looked remarkably alike to his late grandmother's kitchen, right down to the fading tiles on the walls.“… charming.”
“It’s Sungjin’s,” Brian said shortly.
“Why am I not surprised to find that you brought us to Sungjin’s place instead of your own?” Jae turned to find Brian pouring some milk into his own mug. “Wow, thanks for the hospitality.”
“You need something stronger. And this is the safest place for all of us,” Brian said without turning around. He placed the milk back into the ancient looking fridge and slammed the door shut. Bottles rattled. “Sungjin’s protected by the Power Regulation Committee, Jaebum would be an idiot to attack us here.”
“Or it might just spur him on to start a war, you know, nothing special,” Jae took another gulp of coffee. His throat clenched against it, and he forced it down despite the feeling that he might throw it back up. “Did you see the look in his eyes when he came down from the ceiling? He’s definitely lost it.” He pushed the mug away and toyed with the handle. “I’m starting to wonder if they all have.”
“I get where they’re coming from though,” said Mark, limping in through the door. His hair stuck up on one side, and in the daylight Jae could see the pale patches over his arms and neck where his skin was still regenerating. He looked away. “None of us really wanted this forced retirement, did we?” Mark slumped into the chair opposite Jae, who discretely slid his unfinished coffee over to him.
“We didn’t want it, but none of us decided to become anarchists because of it,” Brian leaned against the stovetop. “That’s just how the world works; some things have to end.”
“Well, yeah, but imagine how those guys felt. They were barely out of apprenticeship when heroes got shut down. It would’ve sucked to have your dream stolen from under you when you were literally an arm’s length away from reaching it. And they were good. Like really good. If I were them I’d be bitter as hell.” Mark took a gulp of coffee and instantly spat it back out, choking. Jae passed him a sympathetic glass of water. “Speaking of bitter, the hell is this?”
“Brian made it,” Jae said instantly.
Brian coloured slightly. “Shut up,” he snapped. “It’s Sungjin’s coffee; I just found it in the cupboard.”
“Sungjin, your coffee’s shit!” Mark yelled through the door. Sungjin himself poked his head into view, a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.
“You guys ate through my entire month’s stash of instant noodles last night and now you’re complaining about my coffee? You think I earn enough money to serve you Starbucks or some shit?” he demanded around his toothbrush, then withdrew. They heard him spitting into the sink and the sound of running water, and Jae shook his head. They always used to joke that Sungjin had no taste, but if he thought the pinnacle of coffee brands was Starbucks then there really was no hope for the guy.
“I’m pretty sure he ate 3 packets all by himself,” Mark emptied a tube of sweetener into his cup. “And I’m pretty sure I remember him throwing in some chocolate too. Who the fuck eats chocolate and ramyun?”
“Says the guy who ate everything dry and then tried to pour boiling water into his mouth,” Brian smirked. Jae snorted.
“So… what’s the plan now, chief?” he asked when Sungjin shuffled into the room. “Since we tried talking and that obviously didn’t work.” Sungjin accepted the mug that Brian gave him. Jae noticed that the coffee had been mixed with milk, and he almost scoffed. Trust Brian Kang.
“Obviously,” said Mark, examining his red eyes in the tarnished toaster.
“Last night was… a good taster about what we’re up against.” Sungjin took a sip of coffee. “I didn't want to resort to this but... we might have to call in reinforcements.”
For a second silence fell over the group. Jae noticed a million thoughts running through Brian’s face, but there was no way the guy was going to spill what he really felt. All those years he’d spent pining after Sungjin without saying a word and now it looked like he’d been relegated to the position of just ‘sidekick’. It made Jae almost pity him. Mark, on the other hand, looked like he was going to ask a question Jae didn’t think was particularly important, so it looked like it was up to him to be the first to say something.
“I thought we were supposed to keep this low-key.”
“Who’re you thinking of calling?” Mark asked at the same time. Called it.
“I’ve got a few guys on my mind,” Sungjin said, answering both questions at once. “They’re not ex-heroes, so they’ll fly right under the radar. I’ve… dealt with them a few times before.”
“Oh no,” said Jae. Brian and Mark looked at him. “Not vigilantes. Anything but vigilantes.”
“I wouldn’t really call them vigilantes,” Sungjin screwed his mouth to the side. “More like… kids who didn’t get the chance to become heroes and became adults still trying to pursue that dream?”
“I don’t know what’s worse, calling them vigilantes or kids,” Jae groaned.
“Are we sure we can trust them? I mean, if any of them are as jaded as those 4 are, it wouldn’t be hard for them to get swayed to join the other side,” Brian remarked drily.
“Just yesterday you were trying to convince me that there was something in them worth saving,” Jae turned to him. “Pick a side and stick to it, why don’t you?” Brian returned his scathing stare with a scowl but didn’t reply. Jae rolled his eyes. There were some people you were perfectly happy to put up with for as long as you were working with them and happily breathe a sigh of relief when the job was done and you never, ever had to see them again, and Brian – no, Jae will not call him Younghyun – was one of those people. Maybe they’d gotten along in high school, maybe might have even been something like best friends, but somewhere along the line Brian’s uprightness became suffocating. It was even worse combined with his inflated ego.
“I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to finally become heroes,” Sungjin mused, ignoring them. “So far their track record has been clean. Their only problem is that they keep using their powers in situations where they shouldn’t.” Jae didn’t miss the glance he gave Mark, who was busy draining the last dregs of coffee from his mug. He really needed to ask him what was going on between them one of these days.
“I think we should try something else too,” Mark set down his cup. “I still think we can try and infiltrate them from the inside.”
“How? Wonpil obviously wants nothing to do with us and Jinyoung and Jaebum are kind of unhinged at the moment,” Jae pointed out. “Jackson will work for the side he thinks is fighting a just cause, so he’ll pick whichever side promises him that and we definitely can’t promise him that. So I think we’re kind of out of options for double agents.”
Mark crossed his arms over his chest. “I think Jackson seems the most level-headed at the moment. I mean, I don’t know about just causes, but remember how he didn’t say a word the entire time the other 3 were talking about their plan? I think there might be something there we can work with.”
Brian nodded. “I agree.”
“We’ll talk over the infiltration more later,” Sungjin drained his mug and turned around to wash it. “For now we’ll concentrate on getting the manpower we need.”
“I don’t remember Jinyoung ever being able to mimic powers,” Jae mentioned aloud as they were getting changed. “I mean… he could imitate voices and habits and stuff but I don’t remember him being able to do… what he did. And Jackson… what was that?”
“I’m guessing Jackson went from manipulating his own adrenaline to being able to manipulate everyone else’s,” Mark replied, his voice muffled as he pulled a black turtleneck over his head. Jae couldn’t help staring at the healed and still-healing scars adorning his torso, some pale and perfectly circular – he tried not to think of bullets – and some much larger and darker in colour. He swallowed. “Hence the fight or flight response that kicked in. With Jinyoung… I don’t know. But abilities evolve. I know mine did.” Mark adjusted his hair in the mirror. “Didn’t yours?”
Jae flexed his hands. “Something like that,” he mumbled. “You know, I’m curious. Why did you decide to come back? You’re not a stickler for justice like Sungjin and you’re definitely not like me and Brian, you’d never do something like this just to keep him… satisfied. So… spill.”
“Like I said before, it’s all for the money,” Mark said lightly. He noticed Jae looking at him and gave him a lopsided grin in the mirror, one that looked almost familiar.
“You know, I get the feeling that isn’t all there is to it,” Jae remarked. Mark turned away from the mirror and leaned against the wardrobe.
“So what about you? What are you still doing here? You obviously aren’t too keen on saving the others since you seem convinced they’re basically villains now.”
“Yeah, well, I tried the whole saving thing once and it didn’t exactly work out,” Jae reflexively brought a hand to his neck and looked out the window at the clear blue sky and the sun glinting off the windows of neighbouring apartments. “Anyway, it’s not like I had a choice. You made me jump out a window with you.”
Mark smiled and it matched up perfectly with the memory Jae had of him standing under a tree with Jinyoung once on their day off, summer sunlight bouncing off his ridiculously shiny hair. “I made you come with me but I didn’t make you stay. We all make choices, Jae. Sometimes it’s better to just own up to them.”
“Hey,” Jae called as Mark placed his hand on the doorknob. “What would you have said? Back then. If you were in my shoes.”
Mark paused, gaze moving from one corner of the room to the other and back before finally coming back up to meet Jae’s. “Does it matter?” he asked cautiously, and to Jae it seemed like he’d suddenly reverted back into the person he was when they first met, cool and aloof and not really wanting to delve into anybody’s problems.
Jae fingered the scar on his throat. It was only a thin, smooth raised patch of skin now, nothing more than a remnant of a time long passed, but the memories were as fresh and sharp as the moment the bullet ripped through his skin. “No,” he dropped his hand and looked back out the window. “I guess it doesn’t.” Mark nodded curtly and left the room, and a second later Jae followed.
“So things just got a lot more complicated,” Sungjin announced when they entered the living room. He had the TV remote in one hand and fresh worry written across his face. On the worn-looking couch Brian was leaning over his knees, tapping his fingers restlessly on the coffee table. His expression was tense.
“It’s not like it could really get any worse,” Jae attempted, sitting on the arm of the couch. On the TV there was an image of a burnt up shell of a warehouse, and the headlines ‘LOCAL DRUG LORD KILLED IN SUSPECTED MURDER… DRUG STORAGE RAZED TO THE GROUND’ flashed across the screen. “… and it just did.”
“We… we didn’t do that did we?” Mark voiced out what everyone was thinking. “I mean… holy shit… did we… did we leave him in there to die?”
All eyes turned to Brian. “No! Fuck,” he rubbed his temples, “I got him out too! I fucking swear, I got him and his goons out of there, I left them where the fire wouldn’t reach them, I swear…” He was gabbling now, and Jae almost reached out to steady him. Almost. Instead, Sungjin placed a hand on his shoulder, looking disconcerted.
“I know you wouldn’t have left them there,” he said. “You wouldn’t do that.” Brian took a deep shuddering breath and closed his eyes.
“Was it me then?” Mark asked quietly.
Fresh, hushed silence settled over them. The newscaster took the opportunity to announce, “A gun was found at the crime scene…,” they all in turn looked at Sungjin, “…but at the moment police are still determining the cause of death. However, it is confirmed that arson was the main cause of the fire. Police suspect it may be part of an ongoing drug war that has been building in this city f-.” Sungjin muted the TV.
“What if my bullet ricocheted off something?” He threw the remote down on the couch.
Jae thought twice about asking him about that. He'd been doing investigative work long enough to know who was authorized to brandish a gun and who wasn't, and PRC members were definitely in the unauthorized category. “Look on the bright side, at least we’re actually kind of a team now,” he shrugged instead. “3 ex-Supers turned suspected murderers and an ex-Super turned private investigator who might also be a suspected murderer since his power got stolen by some chaotic maniac who also, by the way, happens to be an ex-Super. I think this is the most aligned we’ve ever been in 5 years, guys.”
There was a muffled chuckle, and then Brian burst out laughing. Jae looked at him with horror. Of all the things that had come out of his mouth, this was the last thing he expected Brian to actually laugh at. It wasn’t even remotely funny. A telltale grin tugged at Sungjin’s mouth, and even Mark started sniggering along. “I can’t believe this,” Brian wiped tears from his eyes, grinning. “Ex-Supers turned suspected murderers. People would kill to write this story.”
“Except for the fact that at the end of the day somebody died,” Jae pointed out. “And if it wasn’t us then who was it?”
Sungjin sobered up immediately. “They still don’t know what killed him, and there’s no point in us standing around discussing things we sure as hell don’t remember. So until we do find out what happened, we’ll just have to keep moving with the investigation.” Brian got up as he grabbed his keys. “Let’s get going.”
Mark suddenly perked up as if smelling something in the air. Jae almost saw his ears twitch. “Hey, do you remember hearing something like a gun shot when our brains were totally fried?”
“I honestly don’t know what I heard anymore. All I remember is you using me like a chew toy. What was up with that, by the way?”
“I had some serious munchies,” Mark rubbed a hand through his hair. He grinned, sharp-toothed and innocent. “Sorry.”
“Stop yapping, start moving,” Brian threw his boots at him.
Jackson burst through the apartment door with so much force that it splintered slightly, leaving a small dent in the wall behind it.
“Seriously, we only just filled that in a month ago,” Wonpil looked up from his laptop, frowning. “I’m not a fan of these unplanned expenses, Jackson. It’s eating into our budget.”
“Like I give a shit about your budget,” Jackson glared at him, wild and bristling with barely contained rage. “What the fuck happened back there, Jinyoung?” he demanded, slamming a hand on the dining table. “I don’t remember us agreeing to kill anybody last night! That was in no way part of the plan! Now we’re all over the fucking news!”
“Calm down.” Jinyoung coolly got up and pulled out a chair for Jackson, who only eyeballed him. “No? Okay. Look, Jackson, I know it wasn’t what we discussed but this was the best possible outcome for us.” He sat back down beside Wonpil and crossed his legs. “This way we managed to get Sungjin off our backs and take care of Section 3 at the same time.”
“Except it didn’t exactly work, since they managed to get away.” Jaebum strode into the room, closing the door with some difficulty behind him. He sat down and poured himself a glass of tonic water from the bottle that stood open in the middle of the table, just barely catching the knowing tilt that graced Jinyoung’s lips.
Jackson narrowed his eyes at him. “So what was going to happen if Brian’s flight instincts hadn’t been as strong as they were? We were going to get them high and leave them in there to burn?”
Jinyoung shrugged, the perfect picture of innocence again. He slid his own glass towards Jaebum, who filled it and pushed it back. “Isn’t that we wanted?”
“I never agreed to murder,” Jackson growled through gritted teeth. He pointed a finger at Jaebum. “What do you think about all this?” he demanded. “You want to see Sungjin get offed the face of the planet? Is that what all this is really about?”
Jaebum’s expression faltered slightly, but tightened back up almost immediately. “It wouldn’t be a huge loss if he did,” he said quietly, so they wouldn’t hear the way his voice wavered.
“You guys…” Jackson shook his head, stepping away from them, “… are nuts.” And he turned heel and left the apartment, slamming the door behind him with so much force they heard a crack. It bounced back against the frame, completely off its hinges. Jinyoung winced.
“He’ll be back,” Wonpil said, glancing at the door with an air of resignation. “Well, since half of Section 3’s stock was in that warehouse and we razed it to the ground it looks we’ll have to start looking for other places of revenue.” He typed something into his laptop quickly, fingers clacking on the keys, and hit the ‘Enter’ button with much gusto.
“What’s next?” Jinyoung asked, peering over his shoulder. Wonpil grinned at both him and Jaebum.
“I know we only agreed to small robberies on chain stores and stuff like that, but how do you feel about robbing a bank?”
“That’s too excessive,” Jaebum raised an eyebrow, at the same time Jinyoung smiled and said, “Only if I’m allowed another gun.”
Jaebum glanced over at him warily. Lately a certain glint had taken hold in Jinyoung’s eyes when he smiled, one that in the almost 20 years he’d known him he’d never seen before. It spoke of reckless abandon and setting fire to warehouse stock worth thousands of dollars, of shooting a person he regarded as a nuisance in cold blood, and for what? Just to prove a point? If Jaebum was being completely honest, that glint had kept him up for more than a few nights. “We’re not harming anyone during this heist,” he stated, getting up.
“I swear I won’t,” Jinyoung looked completely solemn. “It’s just to instill some panic in the people.”
“You’ll get a model gun, then.”
Wonpil tapped a finger to his chin. “Actually Jinyoung and I were thinking… don’t you think it’s time we announced our arrival or something? I mean, it’s fun working from the shadows and stuff but there’s no point trying to become unforgettable if people don’t even know who we are.”
“Not yet,” Jaebum said firmly. “We’ll do it when we’re ready.”
“And when will we be ready?” Jinyoung asked.
“When I say we’re ready, since I’m the boss.”
“Are you really though?” Jinyoung said with a slight smile, eyes staring straight into Jaebum’s soul. Jaebum let him hold his gaze for no more 2 seconds then looked away, knowing that it wouldn't be enough time for him to copy his ability. “Hey, that’s playing dirty -,” Jinyoung started, and Jaebum pinched his fingers together and dragged it in a line before him, right to left. Jinyoung’s voice faded into silence. His mouth opened and closed into unheard sentences, but Jaebum could tell from his expression that he was probably swearing at him. He laughed.
“Good thing too, since he still has Jae’s power.” Wonpil smiled beatifically. “Before you guys came in he set one of the chairs alight,” he indicated with his chin at the slightly scorched chair in the corner. “As if I don’t have enough on my plate without worrying about broken doors and burnt chairs.” Jinyoung started gesturing wildly, and Jaebum sighed and slid his hand back, stopping short in the middle of the previous line he’d drawn.
“…ally think this is the coolest power in the world,” Jinyoung could be heard saying, albeit several volumes softer than his usual voice. “I mean, who knew he had it in him to do this? I thought all he could do was make us depressed.”
“Doesn’t help when you keep setting random things on fire,” Wonpil muttered. A timer went off on the phone on the table and he picked it up to look at the screen. “Thank God it’s just about to disappear too. Here we go in 3… 2… 1.” Jinyoung deflated a little.
“Well, it was a fun 12 hours at least,” he sighed. “Man, I can’t wait to steal Mark’s.”
“Let’s hope that won’t be any time soon,” Jaebum remarked, and went to go look for Jackson. It was bad enough that Jackson already drew too much attention from old Super fans when he went out in public; an angry Jackson would definitely result in something potentially disastrous. “We’ll talk more about our next step when I get Jackson back.”
Wonpil looked at Jinyoung. “Do you feel like he’s softening?” he asked.
Jinyoung’s gaze was cold hard steel as he stared at the door Jaebum had just left open. “Let’s just stay on guard,” he said quietly, downing the rest of his water. “I hope you don’t go soft on me too,” he added.
Wonpil frowned. “I can’t hear you.”
“Damn it, Im Jaebum!” Jinyoung yelled. It sounded like he was using his indoor voice.
The first guy to walk through the door looked almost like he was afraid to be there. “Choi Youngjae,” Sungjin announced. Youngjae bowed and smiled nervously, meeting nobody’s eye. “Voice projection.”
The second looked like he was too plain to even have powers. “Kim Yugyeom. Enhanced speed.”
“Oh my God, an actual normal superpower,” Jae whispered to Mark, who elbowed him in the ribs.
The third looked like a model who had stepped out from some gaudy 90s fashion magazine. In fact, he looked like he was made of legs and nothing else. “Kun… pi… mook… Bhuwa… kul,” Sungjin introduced with some difficulty. Brian’s lip twitched a little and Mark suddenly found his shoes very interesting.
“Call me Bambam,” said Legs, and dabbed. Instantly a high pitched squeal sounded in Jae’s head, and he reacted by clamping his hands over his ears. It made absolutely no difference.
Sungjin glared at Bambam. “Cut it out,” he warned. Bambam grinned, and the noise disappeared. “Tinnitus generation.” Jae watched him skip over to Yugyeom, and couldn’t make up his mind if this guy was going to be a major annoyance or a major help.
The last guy looked like he just didn’t want to be there, which was refreshing to Jae who was tired of Youngjae looking at Mark as if he wished the building would set on fire just so Mark could save him. “Yoon Dowoon. Perceptive amnesia.” As soon as Jae gave Mark a quizzical look he couldn’t remember if they’d even been introduced to anyone at all.
“Holy shit, it’s Ricochet,” said Bambam suddenly, staring at Mark. “Dude, can I shake your hand?”
“Uhh, sure,” Mark held out his hand.
“You have no idea how much I wanted to be like you, man,” Bambam jerked his arm up and down with no sign of stopping. “You were, like, the coolest of the new generation. You know, I remember when I was like 12 and you were interning under Thunderclap. You walked right past me on the street. You were awesome, dude!”
“How old are they again?” Jae whispered to Sungjin as Mark smiled sheepishly and tried to wrestle himself out of Bambam’s grasp.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re here to do a job,” Sungjin shrugged him off. “Okay, now that we’re all nice and cozy let’s get into briefing. We have a lot of ground to cover.”
“Isn’t this great, you guys?” Bambam dropped himself on the couch and put his legs up on the armrest. “Finally we’re living like Supers. This is seriously the best time of my life.”
Dowoon gave Youngjae a wry look. They were gathered in the west wing of the house Sungjin had rented for them during the duration of the mission, and it was leaps and bounds better than his own. Nestled in the middle of the countryside surrounded by greenery and furnished like something out of country home catalogue, it was… well, a little too perfect. But a job was a job, and he wasn’t going to complain.
“Doesn’t it feel kind of surreal?” Yugyeom asked, lying stomach down on the floor and tapping on his phone. “One minute we’re trying not to get caught by the Power Regulation Committee and the next we’re working for them.”
“We’re working for Sungjin,” Youngjae corrected him. “And don’t think this is going to last,” he added to Bambam, who stretched out like a very long, thin, cat and curled himself up. “When this mission is over we’re probably just going to be forced to drop the hero act forever and live like normal people.” He moodily swirled his teaspoon in his coffee.
“True,” Bambam sighed, staring up at the ceiling. He bounced up and leaned forward, his expression suddenly a lot darker. “Well you know… we could always just not get caught again.”
Yugyeom put his phone down and stared up at him, not caring when ‘YOU DIED’ flashed across the screen. “You’re gonna sell Sungjin out?” Dowoon asked easily, crossing one leg over the other and regarding him with a vaguely entertained stare.
“Just a thought,” Bambam shrugged. “If it saves our asses, why not?”
Yugyeom scoffed and returned to his game. “You wouldn’t have the balls to do it,” he remarked, tapping rapidly again. “I bet you a thousand bucks you wouldn’t be able to.”
“You’re on,” Bambam retorted, poking him in the side with his feet. Yugyeom grunted in annoyance and swatted him away to no avail. In the next second there was a blur and Bambam was flat on his back on the floor, Yugyeom sitting on him.
At that moment Dowoon’s phone buzzed. He read the message and motioned at Youngjae. “Time for training, kids.”
“Remember,” Mark paced up and down the two rows, hands behind his back. “The people you guys are going to face are nothing like any petty criminal you might’ve taken down by pure luck. So I suggest, Bambam, like I already have a thousand times before,” he grabbed said person by the collar of his shirt, who instantly stopped nudging Yugyeom and stood to attention, “that you take this pretty fucking seriously if you don’t want me to kill you before they do.”
“I almost forgot how much of an asshole he could be,” Jae heard Brian remark drily to Sungjin, who nodded. But that was what Jae appreciated most about Mark – his ability to treat everybody like dirt when called for it was something almost respectable. Brian, on the other hand, mostly just treated everybody who wasn’t Sungjin like dirt no matter the occasion.
“As for today,” Mark continued his pacing and stopped at the head of both lines and smirked, “we won’t be doing pairs. I think it’s the time for tag team battle. First team to get that flag,” he pointed at the top of the jungle gym they’d erected in the middle of the warehouse, “wins.”
Jae groaned. So far he’d managed to just about scrape through each pair battle he’d had by the skin of his knuckles (and setting fire to Bambam’s leopard print shirt once because the guy just wouldn’t shut up) and he was feeling exhausted. It had been years since he’d actually engaged in a physical fight with anyone, and he’d never actually had to use his updated power in actual combat before.
“Here’s the strategy,” Mark announced when they collected in a huddle. “Jae, you distract Bambam. You know he just can’t resist a taunt. Brian – sorry, I mean Younghyun – you keep Yugyeom busy. Sungjin, keep Dowoon in your sight at all times and I’ll deal with Youngjae. When I’m done with him I’ll come for Bambam. Then it should be nice and easy from there on out.”
“Sounds like a solid plan,” Brian said a little doubtfully.
“Well, you know you can’t go into too much detail with these things,” Sungjin tried to sound reasonable. “And you know fights never go according to plan.”
“That’s why I’m worried,” Brian cracked his knuckles and stretched. “Alright, let’s get to it.”
It definitely did not go according to plan.
“Is that all you got, old man?” Bambam parried a kick Jae aimed at him and grinned. “You were a lot faster yesterday.”
“Seriously, give me a break here.” Around them was general chaos. Across the room Youngjae’s voice was getting louder and louder, practically pummeling a defensive Mark with soundwaves and every so often Jae felt his feet shift along the floor from the force. Sungjin had completely lost hold of Dowoon, who slipped in and out of everybody’s memory when their attention was focused on the person in front of them and Brian’s back was drenched in sweat as he spun in the middle of the room with his hands tensed in front of him as if he was pulling a bow. Yugyeom kept blurring out and coming back into focus as he ran circles around him, trying to escape his magnetic clutch. And all the while the high pitched whine in Jae’s ears never let up.
At that second, Brian looked up and into Jae’s eyes, and he knew exactly what they were about to do. “Too bad the age of heroes is over,” he heard Bambam say over his induced tinnitus. “I would’ve loved to see how you guys would hold up against new heroes like us.”
“At this point I’m not sure it’s really over,” Jae dodged a punch, feeling the wind from Bambam’s knuckles dusting over his skin. Close call – the ringing in his ears was so distracting he could feel his concentration slipping. He gritted his teeth and forced his brain to focus for just a while longer. “But you know, hard to judge when only one of us here is the ex-Super.”
Bambam reddened, looking enraged. “Go to hell,” he charged at Jae and punched him across the face, knocking him to the floor. His head swimming, Jae grinned up at him.
“I would, but it wasn’t in the rules,” he panted. Bambam swore and let go of him as his shirt caught fire for the second time that week, and Jae arched his head backwards to look at Brian. “Now!”
Brian released his hold on Yugyeom, who was clearly not expecting it. The speed he had been building up turned him into a human projectile and he shot straight at Bambam, colliding in a mess of arms and legs and flying straight into the wall of the warehouse with a loud crash. The ringing in Jae’s ears instantly ceased, and he flopped back on the floor with a relieved sigh. “Nice work,” Brian said, pulling Jae to his feet.
“Good thing we still know what we’re doing,” Jae remarked with a grin, blood flowing from his lip where Bambam had split it open. He swiped at it, and they both instantly felt the weight of the past 5 years settling back firmly on their shoulders. Brian was the first to look away.
“You let your guard down,” he said curtly, and went off in Sungjin’s direction.
Jae rolled his eyes and smeared the blood between his fingers. “Yeah well, if it hadn’t been for me you’d still be in the middle of the room twirling about like a dumbass carousel,” he muttered. He was about to go set Youngjae on fire when a whoop went off behind him and he turned to see Bambam pumping a fist in the air despite Yugyeom still being slumped over him on the floor. At the top of the jungle gym, someone stood holding the flag.
“Well, well,” said Mark, straightening up. Glowing bands of light pulsed under his skin, and his eyes shone with unreleased energy. “Looks like you won’t be getting any injuries today,” he remarked to Youngjae, who smiled nervously.
“Dude, are you okay?” Jae caught him as he staggered to one side. He propped him up on his shoulder, felt his skin burn where his fingers held on to Mark’s wrist.
“Yeah, I just absorbed too much,” Mark panted. “Youngjae never gave me a chance to let any of it go,” he grinned weakly at Youngjae. “He’s getting better. The singing isn’t half bad either. I don’t remember ever fighting anyone who serenaded me while beating the shit out of me.” He steadied himself and pushed Jae slightly away from him. “You might want to take a step back.”
“What -?” Jae started as Mark gathered himself, crouched down into a sprint position, then took a running leap. He jumped right across to the other side of the warehouse, taking off so hard that he left a crack in the floor, and bounced back and forth between all 4 walls - a rapidly fading beacon of light - before finally coming back to rest in front of Jae. “Woo!” he hollered, his eyes back to their usual dark brown. “Glad I got that out of me.”
Jae looked up at the guy climbing down the jungle gym, trying to recall where he had seen him before.
“It’s Dowoon, remember?” Sungjin stood beside him. “It’s a helpful power isn’t it? Being able to make people completely forget you exist the minute they take their eyes off you.”
“Maybe for introverts,” Jae quipped. His shoe ignited, and he stamped it out.
“You think they’re ready?” Brian approached as Bambam and Yugyeom ran over to Dowoon, jumping around him eagerly. Youngjae was smiling without the unease Jae usually saw him with, and Dowoon even managed a small grin.
Sungjin blinked, the expression on his face giving nothing away. “We’ll see.”
“Hey,” Youngjae rapped on the door. Mark looked up from his place on the floor, leaning against the open sliding door. The lights were off, the only source of light the full moon hanging overhead, and the sound of distant insects echoed pleasantly through the space. Jae lay fast asleep in a futon on the floor, several bandages plastered over his fingers and a bruise forming on his cheek.
“What’s up?” Mark asked. It fell a little flat.
“I… just wanted to apologize for just now,” Youngjae faltered slightly, watching Mark wind a bandage around his arm. Even in the pale moonlight he could see the tips of Mark’s fingers peeling, and his face looked rough and raw. “I didn’t need to go so hard on you.”
Mark regarded him with a thoughtful look, then smiled and crossed his legs. “Nah, it’s all good. It’s better that you did, actually. It shows that you’re getting stronger.” He indicated at the space on the other side of the doorframe, and Youngjae crossed the threshold quietly and seated himself there, not saying anything. “The first rule of being a Super is: don’t apologise to your enemies. And don’t hold back,” Mark finished wrapping up his arm and folded it over his stomach.
“But you’re not my enemy,” Youngjae argued. “Not really, anyway.”
“Take it from me, kiddo. When you’re a Super and you get into a fight, everyone is your enemy.”
Youngjae sat silent for a while, straight backed and legs folded neatly beneath him. Mark shifted and stretched his legs back out on to the tiny deck that opened straight out to the hills beyond the house. “So… what’s your story?” he asked, glancing at Youngjae.
“How’d you get yourself into this situation.”
Youngjae cleared his throat. “It’s nothing that would interest you, really. I think it’s probably the same story as a hundred other people you’ve met before.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Mark tipped his head to one side. “I haven’t exactly met many people like you lately.” Youngjae coloured slightly but kept his gaze on the floor, at a spot just beside Mark’s legs. “Well, you’re a cool guy and I guess I’ve got nothing better to do right now. Want to hear my story?”
Youngjae looked up, starry eyed. He nodded eagerly. It reminded Mark of another boy looking at him in the same way 10 years ago, dressed in a school uniform and his books gathered close to his chest. Eyes full of hope. He looked out at the hills, at the perfect full moon hovering above them.
“When I was a kid, all anyone wanted to be was a Super. They were everywhere - on TV, on billboards; sometimes if you were lucky you even managed to see one take down a criminal right in front of you. They were pretty much like celebrities. Hell, they were probably more popular than celebrities.” He cracked a wry grin. “But of course their main schtick was that they saved people. They were the people who gave others hope.” He glanced at Youngjae, who was hanging on to his every word. “But you probably know all this already.” Youngjae nodded. Mark looked back outside.
“Well, I went through the whole shebang. Got into one of the top Super academies, multiple internships before even graduating, passed top of the whole year, went solo without needing to do an apprenticeship. Everyone kept telling me I was the best rookie, that I was probably going to make it into the top 10 ranks before I was 25. And, for a while, they looked like they were right.
“But you know what the weird thing was?” Mark scratched his neck. “I didn’t want any of it.”
“Huh?” Youngjae looked confused.
“I mean, I had a goal, and that goal was to make it to the top. But the fame, the glory, my face plastered on posters and people screaming my name or wanting to shake my hand or pose for photos every time they saw me or stuff like that? I didn’t want any of it.” Mark looked Youngjae straight in the face. “All I really wanted was the money.”
He didn’t wait for a reaction. “And then Bucheon happened. We took down a supervillain at the expense of destroying three quarters of a city and a quarter of its population, and the public decided that we were more of a threat than an assurance. How old are you now?”
“I was that age when I lost the job I had basically worked for my whole life.” Mark laughed and looked up at the moon. “It’s kind of ironic, really. I took on a role that would make me a public figure when I never wanted to be a public figure, so the universe decided it’d probably be easier to just take it away from me. But the thing that really, really weirded me out about losing my job was that,” his mouth tilted into another sardonic smile, “when I got the notice, I didn’t feel anything but relief.”
"Oh..." said Youngjae softly. Mark kept looking up at the moon, trying to remember what had happened the last time he'd told this story to someone. Was it ever really worth it in the end?
“I always wanted to be a Super,” Youngjae broke the silence. But I never made it to Super high school. Didn't make it into any of them, actually. I didn't come from a good primary school, and they all said I was too weak, too timid, and I'd never make it. But since I was a kid all I knew was that I wanted to help people, and I wanted to be strong. So I kept holding out that maybe someday, somehow, I'd maybe get the opportunity to do some hero work. But when I turned 18 any hope I had was suddenly snatched away from me.” Mark’s head shifted slightly. “So I became a vigilante instead. I wasn't formally trained or anything. I busted some small, petty criminals in the neighbourhood, got caught by the Power Regulation Committee, and ended up on their watchlist. That’s my story.”
“That’s definitely not a story I’ve heard before.”
Youngjae looked at him, the starry look faded from his eyes. “It’s weird. You were the guy I looked up to the most when I was in school. You had the life I’d wanted ever since I was a kid. But now I’m sitting in front of you and...” Mark heard everything he was trying to say in his silence. He’d heard it before, from another boy who’d looked at him the same way. Eyes full of spite. “I grew up thinking that Supers were always honorable and righteous, that the reason they existed was solely to protect the people. Was I wrong in thinking that?”
A dark cloud floated past, partially obscuring the moon. Mark couldn’t read the expression on Youngjae’s face. “Some of them were.”
“But you weren’t.”
Youngjae shifted on his legs, looking down at the floor again. “You’re a good guy,” Mark told him. “And you’re strong. You’re probably a hundred times better than me as a person. In fact, you remind me of someone I knew once, a long time ago.”
“But I still wouldn’t have been able to become a hero.”
Every cell in his brain was screaming at him to not let this guy down. To just, for once, not kill the hopes and dreams of every single person who had ever looked up to him. The cloud slipped across the sky, and blocked the moon completely. Mark opened his mouth. “Maybe not.”
Silence. When had the insects stopped chirping? The night was still as death, a fresh chill seeping into the air. Heavy with disappointment and shattered dreams. Whether it was his or Youngjae’s, Mark couldn’t tell. “I should head back now,” Youngjae stood up. “Thanks for the chat.”
“Youngjae.” Mark looked up at him. “You’re gonna do great things.”
“Thanks.” And he was gone.
Mark exhaled softly and resumed his post, fingers absently tracing his bandaged arm. Already the skin of his fingertips were smoothing out, no longer catching on the fabric of his t-shirt. “That was a shit move,” said Jae suddenly, voice muffled beneath his futon. Mark narrowed his eyes at him.
“I thought you were sleeping,” he grumbled. “And he’s a big boy, he can handle reality. It’s better that he knows so he can move on with his life.”
“I wasn’t talking about that.” Jae emerged. Without his glasses he looked younger. Less like a wise-cracking smart ass and more like the kid who had spent most of his hero career worrying that he wasn’t good enough, eyes bleary and rimmed with dark circles. “You just love pretending you’re an asshole, don’t you? Like the only thing you ever cared about was the money. Stop trying to paint yourself as some kind of shitty anti-hero.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Did it make you feel better about what happened with Jinyoung?”
“If you keep pushing people away and lying to yourself that it’s for their sake, one day you’re just going to explode.” Jae fell back on his pillow and rolled over, pulling the futon over his head. Mark ran a tongue over his teeth and took one more look outside before sliding the door shut. “Look who’s talking,” he said to the lump on the floor. Jae, fast asleep, didn’t reply.
In the morning they awoke to find Youngjae gone.
“I can’t fucking believe this,” Brian growled, pacing up and down their living area. “We’re about to strike any day now and this guy decides to up and run? I just can’t – I knew recruiting vigilantes was a bad idea. They were always a bunch of untrustworthy good-for-nothings. Just solving some petty crimes and thinking they could claim to do the same job that the pros did. What a joke.”
Jae glanced at Mark, who sat slumped on the sofa with his head propped on one hand, staring at nothing. He felt the need to speak up in Youngjae’s defence but what was there to say really? If what Youngjae said last night was true then he was just as heroic and noble as any of them, if not more. But the reality was that he had left them with nothing but a huge dilemma and a mounting sense of doom.
In the background, Brian was still ranting. “Seriously, if I ever get my hands on that worm…” Jae rolled his eyes and covered his face with his hands.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Jae uncovered his face, alarmed. Mark was on his feet, fists clenched at his sides and his eyes spitting fire at Brian. “You don’t fucking know a thing about him so stop acting like you do,” he hissed.
“Oh, and you do?” Brian scoffed, marching up to him. “Got cozy with your fellow vigilantes, ex-top rookie? Think I didn’t know that you’ve spent the last 5 years of your life breaking the law? It’s people like you and Jinyoung and Jaebum who give heroes like us a bad name.”
Without warning, Mark punched Brian squarely across the face. “Jesus, Mark!” Jae inserted himself between them despite not knowing what the damn hell was going on. Mark shoved him back on the couch and pulled a dazed looking Brian up by the collar of his jacket.
“You just think you’re the shit, don’t you?” Mark growled in his face. A thin rivulet of blood ran down his chin where his lip had split open. “Yeah, maybe I’m not as worthy as you. Maybe I’m not as honourable as you think you are. But maybe if you stopped being such a fucking douchebag I might actually believe that you used to be a hero once upon a time.”
Holy fuck, Jae thought. This was not what he had signed up for. Beef between him and Brian was one thing, but beef between Brian and Mark was something that should be avoided entirely. And now here he was caught up in the middle of it.
“Hah,” Brian panted with a sneer. “You’re going to tell me what it is to be a hero? You? The guy who never did anything if it wasn’t for money? Who can barely keep his temper under control? You.” His voice was dripping poison. “You were never truly a hero. Never was, and never will be.”
“Knock it off, you guys!” Jae yelled as Mark shoved Brian back on to the floor and raised a fist. Brian reacted immediately, repelling him backwards through the papered frame of the veranda sliding door. Jae watched as Mark landed some feet away in the wild grass, then turned back to Brian. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Well, that hasn’t happened in a while,” Brian said, looking at his hands. “Guess I’m really pissed off now.” He regarded Jae with a scornful look. “Don’t fucking look at me like that, he started it. And since I’m in this mood I might as well give you a piece of my mind too. Sungjin might have forgiven and forgotten, but I’m not as benevolent as he is. You and I both know you’re the real reason we’re in this mess in the first place.”
Jae felt his breath become shallower, and his hands instinctively reached for this throat. “I’m not going to do this with you,” he said defiantly.
Brian’s eyes narrowed. “Always dodging issues, aren’t we? You were always like this, even back in school. Taking everything so lightly and behaving like nothing was ever worth anything, just saying whatever the fuck came into your head without thinking if it was appropriate or not. Your lack of tact was what got Junhyuk killed.” At that moment Sungjin slid open the door. He took in Brian’s bleeding lip and the broken veranda door, and paused.
“You want to dig up ancient history? Yeah, I'll admit it, Junhyuk died because of me. But I don’t remember it me being a total uptight asshole that made him want to leave in the first place!” Jae sneered. “Because that was you, wasn’t it Brian?”
“Shut up!” Brian looked like he was struggling to control himself. The windowframes started rattling, tables and the couch scraping across the floorboards towards him. Pictures on the walls flapped on their nails, sucked into the magnetic field he was creating in his rage. “You just can’t make up your mind about who you want to be, do you? One second you act like you’re the smartest person in the room and the next you think you’re incapable of anything. Some mood maker you're supposed to be. Every time you open your damn mouth you just make things worse! You know, I’m not surprised your power evolved into something so haphazard. You could never do anything without messing things up.”
Sungjin stepped forward. “Younghyun, that’s enough -.”
“You wanna know why my power evolved?” Jae threw his hands up in the air. “After Junhyuk died I drove myself nuts trying to figure out why he saved me. You don’t know what that feels like! Knowing I was walking around because a friend I thought was a villain ended up not being one after all? I tried to save him and he gave his life up for me! Me. The Super no one even knew existed. I was the last person who deserved to be saved!” The scar on his throat throbbed. Brian was staring at him. He took a deep, shuddering breath, and felt all the anger and rage suddenly fade away. Leaving him empty.
“All I could think was that I should have died. That I should have stayed dead. And all that time, the only person I could talk to was myself.” He managed a sardonic laugh. “You can’t make someone depressed more depressed. And anyway, my powers only worked on others. And when I stopped being depressed, I became angry, but I still didn’t have anyone to direct that feeling at except the things around my house.” Jae looked at his hands. “The first night the fridge burst into flame, it took my whole apartment with it. And I knew that if I didn’t learn to control this, I’d end up hurting everyone again.”
Silence reigned. Brian blinked, his mouth moving but no words came out. He closed his eyes and sighed. The veranda door suddenly collapsed, revealing Mark. From the expression on his face he’d heard everything. Jae felt completely drained, and he collapsed on to the couch.
“I’m sorry Jae,” Sungjin laid a hand on his shoulder. Jae didn’t react. He didn’t feel like he had the energy to do anything anymore. “I’m sorry, to all of you.”
“Don’t say that,” Brian muttered. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“But it was.”
Jae lifted his head. Sungjin’s jaw was clenched in his most stalwart fashion.
“What was?” Mark asked cautiously.
“It was me. I was the one who broke Junhyuk.” Brian shifted on his feet, his expression incredulous. Sungjin looked down at Jae, his hand still on his shoulder. “Junhyuk wasn’t fit to be on our team. He was a megalomaniac and an arrogant asshole to boot. So I told him… I told him it would be better for everyone, for the whole world, if he gave it up. I told him he’d never become truly amazing. I told him he wasn’t fit to be a Super, to be on our team. And then I told him to leave. It was all me. It wasn’t Jae or Younghyun or anyone else.”
“What… why?” Brian asked, hushed.
“It’s funny,” Sungjin said, but none of them even remotely felt like laughing. “At the time I told myself it was for the good of the team. And when he reached into the darkest parts of himself and became what I always thought he would become – a villain – I told myself that I was right. That I’d always known it was going to happen.”
“You… you made him become a villain,” Mark breathed, aghast. “If you hadn’t said anything… we’d… we might still be Supers… and he would still be alive…” He ran his hands through his hair, eyes wide.
“But he saved me,” Jae said quietly, calmly, trying to quell the confusion and rage rising within him. “So you were wrong.”
“I told you when all this started,” Sungjin looked at him. “That you of all people would know that people don’t change. I realized that when you died. Junhyuk’s power was destruction, but he could reconstruct too. He only needed a material to build something out of. And he chose to rebuild life for you out of his.” His expression turned to something more agonized. “I was wrong. I was wrong about him, and I ruined everybody’s lives because of it.”
“So what is this now, some sort of redemption arc?” Jae asked scathingly. “You think that if you save Jaebum and the rest that it atones for what you did?”
“I know what I did!” Sungjin snapped. “I’m not asking for forgiveness! I just… I can’t let Jaebum and the others walk down that same path. I know who they really are… you know who they really are! I joined the Committee so I could keep tabs on you guys and make sure I could protect you if I needed to, but it backfired on me. Jaebum thinks I betrayed him and -.”
“This is bullshit!” Jae exploded, knocking his hand away and shooting to his feet. In an instant the couch burst into flames, fire greedily spreading on to the broken door frame that lay fallen beside it. “All that time when I was worrying about how I would ever be able to face you guys again, you were the only one who knew that I had nothing to do with it at all. You left me alone for five fucking years… I can’t… I can’t believe you, Sungjin.” In the flickering light, Sungjin closed his eyes.
“Jae,” said a low voice. Mark looked up at him, fingers closing tightly around his shoulder. “You’ll burn the house down.”
Jae looked around the burning room, at the stricken look on Brian’s face. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down. With each long inhale and exhale, the heat seemed to lessen a little. When he opened his eyes there was just the burnt remains of the couch and the smell of the bitter truth swirling in the breeze blowing through the window. Mark’s hand was still on his shoulder, anchoring him down.
For a long time they only stared at each other until harried footsteps padded down the corridor, and the door slid open with a bang. “Dowoon’s gone too,” Yugyeom said into the charred silence, looking anxious.
Jae and Mark exchanged glances. “Who?” asked Mark.
In downtown Seoul, a few hundred miles away, Jinyoung turned to the masked man beside him. “You were filming the whole thing, right?” he asked. The guy nodded. Jinyoung turned to another man standing at a table, laptop open. “Let’s go.”
Jaebum was shoving bundles of cash into a duffel bag when a loud gasp rippled around the hostages they had made to sit on the floor. He turned. Jinyoung stood atop a table, hair tousled, his balaclava hanging at his side. In the other hand, his rifle was pointed to the ceiling. His grin was charming, innocent, the same smile that had once graced numerous magazine covers and TV screens when they announced him as the top rookie. Jackson, unmasked, stood before him, holding a video camera, and Wonpil was typing rapidly on a laptop.
“What the…” Jaebum started.
“Seoul!” Jinyoung suddenly announced, holding his arms wide. Jaebum heard it echoing outside the bank, and knew that Wonpil had hacked into the TV networks. They were being broadcast live. “It’s a privilege to have your attention again. For too long you’ve lived in make believe peace! A peace made by exiling the people who protected you and forcing them to disappear. This is the world you asked for! A world where you can protect yourselves! Well I, former hero Mimic, am here to tell you,” he lowered his gun, “that in the process of forgetting us, you forgot the most important thing!”
His expression turned deathly serious as he stared into the camera. “You forgot that without us, none of you are capable of protecting yourselves! That without us, you are nothing! My name is Park Jinyoung, and don’t you ever forget it.” And without warning, he fired a shot straight at the group huddled on the floor.