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Always On Duty

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Stan and Lawrence decided to celebrate their respective graduations from college by taking a road trip. They drove west, stopping at several of the smaller national parks, and ended up sightseeing in Westbord. It was pleasant for both of them just to relax and enjoy each other's company, away from the demands of school or work.

Of course it was too good to last.

 

"What's with all those people, I wonder?" Stan said. "Let's go find out."

A crowd had gathered around a store window with a TV screen. Lawrence's view was blocked, but Stan was tall enough to see over all the shoulders. He read the highlights from the closed-circuit captioning aloud: "Train derailment... hazardous chemicals... explosion and fires... emergency services having trouble... people trapped... Rainbowtown? Where's that?"

An Asian man nearby looked at them. "You're not from around here, are you?" His voice had a slight edge.

"No, we're tourists," Stan replied, his arm around Lawrence's shoulders.

The man took another look at them and became friendlier. "Rainbowtown is the polite name. A lot of people call it the Gay Ghetto. It's about 20 miles north of here - along the 5 and then west."

"Who routes train cars full of hazardous chemicals through a residential area?" Lawrence sputtered, outraged.

"It's not just residential. There's some land out there that's still under cultivation, and there used to be some manufacturing, and the tracks were built a long time ago." The man smiled wryly. "That's one of the reasons it ended up being a collector for... people who are off the mainstream, after the factories died. Not just gay folks, but artists and other eccentrics too. It's not near enough to the freeway, kind of run-down and the rent is cheap."

Stan and Lawrence looked at each other. They didn't even need to discuss this one. "Thank you," Lawrence said to the other man, and they went straight back to their hotel to pick up their uniforms and the emergency utility backpack.

 

When they arrived at the disaster site, Stalwart Stan went off to find the person in charge and offer their assistance. Antimatter stayed in the background, because they both knew Stan was better at that sort of thing. There was a sudden startling flash of fire next to him, which resolved itself into a soup in a garish red-orange-and-yellow costume and leather half-mask, with the same colors streaked through his spiky hair.

"Oops, did I scare you?" he smirked - and then his eyebrow went up and he took a long, appreciative look. "Well now, aren't you a pretty little bird! Are you here to help?"

Antimatter had learned from Stan that when you didn't know how to react, dropping into "just the facts" mode was a better stall than either freezing up or stammering incoherently. "I'm Antimatter," he said. "My partner-," with a gesture in that direction, "is Stalwart Stan. If there are people trapped in those buildings, we can help get them out."

"Excellent," the other man said. "Don't worry about the fire - I'll keep it off your back while you're working. I'm Backdraft, by the way." He glanced past Antimatter and winked. "Gotta dash - see you later!" There was another flicker of flame, and he was gone.

Stalwart Stan arrived a few breaths later, in the company of a tall black woman in a police uniform. "This is Tracker. She can tell us where there are people trapped. Who was that guy?"

"He said his name was Backdraft, and that he could keep the fire away from us while we work."

"Backdraft? But he's a supervillain!" Tracker exclaimed.

"Apparently not today," Antimatter shrugged. "And I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Let's get started."

It was slow, tiring, but rewarding work. Tracker was a life-sensor with limited telepathy, who could pinpoint survivors inside the buildings even if they were unconscious. Once she had located a trapped victim, Antimatter would lighten obstacles and/or stabilize wreckage that was threatening to collapse; then Stalwart Stan waded in using his super-strength and extracted the victim to hand off to the medical team. Often it felt as though the fire was getting dangerously near, but somehow it never quite got close enough to make them have to pull back. Occasionally Lawrence caught glimpses of Backdraft; several times he appeared to be arguing with another soup who wore leaves and vines.

A twisted hunk of metal sat amidst a demolished building; Tracker took one look and shook her head sadly.

"What the... is that a railroad car?" Stan exclaimed.

"Yeah," said Tracker. "I'm not sure what exactly blew up, but it was a big enough bang to loft cars all the way over here. The main explosion was off that way, a quarter mile or so - that's why we're stretched so thin. Your help is much appreciated, by the way. I don't know if anyone else will remember to thank you, but you're making a big difference here."

One victim was conscious and unhurt, but trapped on the 4th floor of a building by fire that had blocked the stairwells, and panicky. "I've got this," said Antimatter. "Stan, you get over there under the window. Tracker, can you establish contact with her?"

A pause, then Tracker said, "She's listening."

Antimatter thickened the air in a column from the windowsill down to the ground, until it had roughly the buoyancy of water. "Tell her to reach out and press down on the air outside the window." They saw her react to feeling the apparently-insubstantial air resist the pressure. "Now tell her to climb out. She'll fall, but slowly, and Stan will catch her." It took some persuasion, but eventually she climbed out and could be lowered safely into Stalwart Stan's waiting arms. She burst into tears and clung to him, and it took a few minutes for Stan and the medic to convince her to let go. Tracker went over to help.

Without warning, Backdraft was standing next to Antimatter again. "That was impressive, pretty bird!," he said. "So tell me, what are you doing later tonight?"

Antimatter could hardly believe his ears. My god, is he actually FLIRTING with me? NOW? Out loud, he said, "Presumably, having a large dinner and a shower, and then collapsing," - and then, pointedly, "With Stan."

"So it's like that, is it?" Backdraft smirked and shook his head. "You're wasted on a hero, you know - you'll always come second to his job. Think about it." And he was gone again.

It's my job too, Antimatter thought. And then Stalwart Stan and Tracker were back, and it was time to search for the next victim.

 

When the worst of the fire was under control and all the survivors had been pulled out, Stalwart Stan went off to let the officer in charge know they were leaving. Antimatter sagged against a wall, exhausted; his hair had lost its usual glow, which was a sign that he'd pushed himself too hard. But food, a dose of blue, and sleep would fix that, and he'd lost count of the number of people they'd saved.

Antimatter was too tired even to jump when Backdraft materialized again. "Here, pretty bird, let me show you my favorite trick," he said. "Don't flinch - I promise, it's nothing nasty."

He reached out slowly toward Antimatter with a flame-covered hand, pausing a few inches away from his skin. "See, no burning," he said. Then he stroked the flame down Antimatter's face and throat, not quite touching him with his hand. The sensation was indescribable, and Antimatter shivered in spite of himself. "How do you like that?"

If I could learn... Antimatter's expression sharpened with interest despite his weariness. "How do you do that?" he demanded.

Backdraft laughed. "I could explain, but it won't help you," he said. "There's no physics about this - it's all power. You'd have to learn how to be me to do it."

Thirty feet away, Stalwart Stan was glaring so hotly that Antimatter thought he might combust. Backdraft followed his glance and laughed again. "Your hero doesn't like me much, does he?"

"Can you blame him? He's a paladin."

"And I'm not, and here I am messing with you. I wonder which part bothers him more?" Backdraft made a fist for a second, then opened his hand, and a spark fell to the ground. "That's for you, pretty bird, as a thank-you for helping with this mess. It's a fire-gem - perfectly safe to touch, just don't get it wet because it'll melt." Then he was gone in a swirl of flame.

Stalwart Stan came over, still fulminating. "What was that all about?" he asked.

"I'm not absolutely sure," Antimatter replied. "I think he was just wanting to thank us for the help."

Stan snorted. "Hmph. I don't think I rated much of that thanks. And what's that thing he dropped?"

"He called it a fire-gem. He said it was a thank-you gift, and that it was safe to touch but we shouldn't get it wet."

"And you trust him about that?" Stan asked sharply.

That cut through even the power-drain exhaustion, and Antimatter considered his response carefully; Stan was obviously angry, though exerting himself to keep it under control. Being angry with supervillains was nothing unusual for Stan, but this had a different flavor, and he thought Backdraft might have had a point. "I think I do, about this. He's not your average supervillain, or he wouldn't have been here helping with fire control. But I'd be very cautious about trusting him on anything else."

Stalwart Stan relaxed slightly, and the hard edge seemed to go off his mood. That's not like him, Antimatter thought, we're going to have to deal with this later. He leaned over and picked up the fire-gem. "Whoa," he said. "Look at this! It really is like a flame trapped inside a faceted gem."

"Be careful with that." Stan's voice was back to normal; this was ordinary caution, not that tightly-wound suspicion.

"I have a sample bottle in the backpack. I'll store this in it - that should keep it from interacting with anything," Antimatter said. His head was starting to ache abominably; considering how he was feeling, Stalwart Stan probably wasn't much better off. "C'mon, let's go get some food; I used a lot of energy here, and so did you."

"Shower first," Stan said. "I know you're exhausted, but we won't be able to taste the food if we still reek of smoke." He walked Lawrence back to the car, lending his own strength to aid dragging steps. Once there, he pulled out the backpack and put an energy bar into Lawrence's hands before wolfing several of them down himself. Then he got out the bottle of blue and anointed Lawrence's wrists, and his forehead as well for good measure, and handed him a second energy bar. "Lean back and veg out if you can," he said. "I'll get us back to the hotel."

 

A hearty dinner did a lot to put both of them back into emotional equilibrium. The news was all about the disaster, and they were able to pick up more details. "So, the train derailed," Lawrence said, "and a bunch of tanker cars, that just happened to be loaded with lubricants, went downhill on an old siding path and straight into an old warehouse that just happened to be full of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer?"

"Improperly-stored ammonium-nitrate fertilizer," Stan put in. "Don't forget that part."

"And when something sparked, it blew up with enough force to launch entire cars into the nearby residential zone. Man, think about all the things that had to go wrong just right to make that happen."

"You couldn't put that in a story," Stan said. "Nobody would ever believe it."

When they got back to their hotel room, they both flinched at the smoky odor of their discarded uniforms. "Phew!" said Stan. "We should have put these in a plastic bag or something. They're going to have to be washed, but we can do that tomorrow." He found a plastic laundry bag in the closet, stuffed the smoky garments into it, and tied it off, while Lawrence went over to open the window so that the room could air out.

Lawrence was trying to decide on the best approach to discussing the afternoon's events when Stan looked over at him and said, "Lawrence, I'm sorry."

"Sorry about what?" He'd learned that it helped to get Stan's perceptions first in this kind of situation. Sometimes the thing Stan thought he should be apologizing for was not the thing Lawrence thought he should be apologizing for; there were still a lot of differences in the way they looked at the world.

"I wasn't mad at you, but I came close to taking it out on you. And I'm not very happy with myself right now."

"Why not?"

"Because I wanted to pound that guy into the ground for the way he was looking at you!" Stan said angrily. He paused, then continued in a somewhat surprised tone, "And that's not normal for me. You've got plenty of gay friends at school, and some of them are outrageous flirts, and it's never bothered me like this before."

"Yeah, but first off, you know them, and second, none of them are soups," Lawrence said. "More to the point, none of them are non-hero soups, and knowing that Backdraft is officially considered a villain may have put you on edge about him to begin with."

"That's true, and it makes sense," Stan said slowly. "I've never had to feel like I was competing with another soup before. Usually it just amuses me when other guys try to flirt with you. This was the first guy I ever thought might be able to tempt you with more than I could offer, and it kind of scared me." He shook his head. "Boy, when I put it like that, it really sounds dumb, doesn't it?"

"Not dumb, just human," Lawrence replied. "And you know, I have to admit that I'd like to learn how to do that cold-fire trick of his." I don't think I should ever mention exactly how that felt, he thought. "But he said it was part of his power, not anything he could teach. And even if he could, you know that's not something I'd do without talking to you about it first."

"Yeah," said Stan. "Plus, I don't trust his intentions toward you, and I don't mean that in a sexual sense. I'm still feeling kind of grumpy about it, but that's not your fault and it'll go away eventually."

"And just in case you haven't figured this out - he really doesn't have anything to offer me. He's not my type, and I lost my taste for being a villain a long time ago. Also, geez, he can't come up with anything better than trying to flirt with me in the middle of a disaster? SO not interested!"

Stan laughed outright at that. "I would have realized that, if I hadn't been tired and hungry myself. I just had to think it all out, to get it out of my head. Thanks for helping me." He sounded relieved.

"Not a problem. Now come over here and let me show you how not tempted I am."

 

Two weeks later, an envelope with no return address showed up at their apartment, addressed to Antimatter. Stan eyed it dubiously. "Well, it doesn't look like there's anything nasty in it, but maybe you'd better let me open it."

"Oh, so are you Bomb Squad now?" Lawrence teased.

Stan snorted. "Humor me," he said, and eased the flap open. Inside, there was nothing more unusual than a folded piece of paper. He handed it over.

Lawrence opened it up and read it. His eyebrows went up, and he handed it back to Stan, who read it in turn. What it said was:

"Dear Antimatter,

I owe you and your hero an apology. Not that I didn't mean every word I said to you - but I was playing a double game there and, well, let's just say it worked.
Also, I owe you a favor. If you ever need a little something extra in the way of fire control, melt the fire-gem in water. I will feel it, and know where to find you.
I would enjoy working with you again sometime. Safe roads to you and your hero."

Underneath, where a signature would normally be, was taped an unlit safety match.

Stan looked at Lawrence. "Interesting," he said. "Did you know he could do that?"

"No. I looked up his dossier at SPOON, and there's nothing in it at all about fire-gems, let alone that he can use them as signal flares." He paused, looking at Stan. "Should we tell them?"

Stan thought about it for several minutes, frowning at the floor. Finally he looked back at Lawrence. "No," he said. "He can't do this sort of thing very often, or there would at least be rumors about it. Which means he's trusting you quite a bit - and it is an offer of help, if we should need it. I think, in this particular instance, we can afford to reciprocate his trust."

Lawrence smiled. "That's what I thought you would say."