Screaming, and the pain rose to meet his volume. The taste of copper filled his mouth and he slipped away again.
Red and blue lights.
Something dull thudded against his skin. He tried to scream again, and there was a flash of blue as he lashed out.
He was gone again…
Mike emerged from sleep like an exhausted swimmer collapsing upon shore. He was awake, but too weak to do much as sleep teasingly washed over him and retreated. He felt conscious of the inflation and deflation of his lungs as he breathed. It seemed lacking somehow, like they weren’t moving enough. He tried to take a deeper breath, forcing them to expand fully. The movement hitched, and a choked wheeze, a sword down his throat, made him open his eyes and his muscles tense.
The edges of the lights blurred into gauzy halos, and Mike squinted, looking away. Half- drawn curtains hanging around the bed blocked the light from a window set in the white plaster walls. Grey-blue blankets were tucked in tight enough that Mike couldn’t move his legs much.
Hospital. He was in the hospital. It was hard to move his head, to look down at his chest, but he managed. He saw a hospital gown, and a thick white bandage peeking out from below the collar. An oxygen mask was around his mouth, and he caught the black edges of something around his eyes.
He felt like an overstuffed sausage. There was a tightness in his body, his torso especially, and it attributed to the too-small-lungs feeling. With that jolt having roused him more fully, the other sensations began to fill in. There was pain, his throat hurt, a constant tight pain that stabbed hot and fresh when he swallowed. The pain… didn’t bother him though. He experienced the pain, in a way, but it was detached, like it was happening somewhere in an indeterminate shift of his body, not centered properly.
The itchiness sure was fully present though. It was near unbearable on the underside of his left arm, but it crawled over his whole body. Mike looked over at the arm and saw an IV in it, the skin red and patchy with a rash around it. The itchiness crept through his body and curled around his organs, combining with a general sense of nausea. Mike felt like he should panic at the sensation, but the emotion was muted, distant, like the pain. Instead he reached over to scratch at the insufferable prickle.
His arm stopped short with a jerk. Leather straps tightened around his wrist.
The cause and effect felt disconnected. Mike tugged again, and then with the other arm, harder. His whole body felt like it was coated with saran wrap, sensations not dulled but off: a layer of touching that wasn’t connected to anything.
Handcuffs around his wrists, trapped against the bed frame.
Fuck he- his mind swirled faster, somewhere between panic and the thrill of a roller coaster about to descend. Mike’s jerks became more frantic; he struggled to apply his muscles through the haze and weakness, but he tugged hard enough to rattle the sidebars of the hospital bed.
There was a flash of blue as the space against his skin ignited with light. Pure indirect sensation tightened around every inch of his skin. His stomach clenched like it was suddenly filled with rocks and he felt the pain fresh without merciful disconnection.
“Whoa! Hey there! Calm down buddy!”
Even with the oxygen mask Mike felt like he wasn’t getting enough air – lightheaded as his head snapped too fast towards the voice leaving him woozy. He fell back against the bed, losing the few inches he’d managed to lift his head in his panic.
A tall, lanky, man in an outfit of teal and silver stood in the doorway, hands up as if in an admission of surrender. The teal looked like the same kind of stuff you’d make a wet suit out of, but imprinted with a faint pattern to make it textured like scales. The silver was plates of body armor and they looked like solid metal – too heavy to normally carry, especially the stylized pauldron shaped like a conch shell on his left shoulder. The cape hanging off his shoulders and the long brown ponytail emerging from the back of the stylized helmet betrayed how he carried the heavy armor; both floated gently through the air, impossibly fluid and light, as if he was underwater.
A cape. Familiarity struggled to make its way through the mire of his mind and brought no name with it.
It hardly mattered. The cape immediately offered up his name, “I’m Nautilus. The hospital warned us you were likely to wake up today. I’m here to talk you through some stuff. Whole new program we’re trying out,” he paused, Mike feeling the cape’s eyes pouring over him, “Want out of those straps?”
“Yuughh” Mike’s tongue and throat didn’t cooperate as he tried to speak. He cleared his throat and regretted it with the strange tightness and pain in his throat. Instead he nodded.
Nautilus moved forward, hands still up, bit paused before reaching the bed. “Think you can ease up and stop doing that first? Your powers are still new territory for everyone,” he said, gesturing at Mike’s general being.
He looked down at his arm.
Sky-blue energy broiled down Mike’s arms like billowing smoke trapped beneath glass. Mike couldn’t tell where its source was supposed to be but there was a very clear direction towards his still clenched fist. He could still see through the shifting energy to the skin below but it was most dense at the tip of his knuckles, where it was too solid to see through.
Slowly, through the detached lens morphine afforded him, Mike unclenched his fist. The glow faded, and the energy disappeared. The stiff pressure on his internal organs abated.
Nautilus’ hands darted quickly to the strap and undid it, backing up quickly after it was done.
For the first time Mike noticed the nurse hiding slightly behind the unearthly billow of Nautilus’ cape. She had a needle in her hand with a clear liquid in it.
Sedation again? For if I didn’t back down?
“Sorry for the restraints Bud, you woke up twice while you were intubated after the surgery and freaked out. You’re pretty dangerous now so precautions were taken,” Nautilus said.
Just turning his eyes to look at the cape instead of the nurse in the doorway was like trying to turn his whole head. Bud, buddy, guy... The way Nautilus referred to him casually and confidently with just that hint of condescension rubbed Mike the wrong way. It didn’t help that he kept pacing around and making Mike follow him with his head and eyes, lightheadedness following.
His thoughts melted into one another but the thought that he hadn’t introduced himself bubbled to the top.
“Muh-ike,” his voice was raspy and wrong. It didn’t sound like his.
Mike worked his lips and tongue a bit, taking a deeper breath “‘M Mike-”
“OH , lalalalala! Can’t hear you,” Nautilus spun on his heel away from Mike and put his hands on the side of his helmet, miming covering his ears, even though Mike was pretty sure it didn’t do much, “Seriously don’t, don’t tell me your name. If the PRT really wanted they could figure out who you are but hold onto your identity until you’re in a better place. We’re footing the bill for your current stay, but you’re going to need long term care - and uh, a liver transplant fairly soon but as a cape you-. Ah- shit.”
Nautilus was speaking too fast for Mike to process what he was saying, the stiff turn in conversation tripping up Mike’s thoughts. He was having trouble sorting his thoughts into anything he even wanted to ask. His hands were freed though and he rubbed at his wrists, there was still a thin ringed bruise around the wrist where he had struggled against the metal cuffs against...
“I really shouldn’t be talking to you about the healthcare stuff that’s for the doctors. Legally. I’m sorry I’m not really trained in this crisis point stuff. It’s all new and we’re a small department. I told myself I’d open up with a joke all ‘rough night eh?’ and try to lighten the mood and then segue into trigger stuff but I’m realizing how monumentally insensitive that would’ve been-”
Nautilus’ voice pitched up a bit as he began to talk quicker. Words began to blur together and Mike closed his eyes. He was thankful for the artificial calm of the morphine. Something in the back of his mind squirmed and wriggled uncomfortably at the situation he was in. The confinement, the bed sheets pressing against his legs. His skin itching. His insides itching. Her nails digging into his soft flesh where she held him down, needles digging into his esophagus-
“And-Did he fall asleep?”
Mike opened his eyes with a hoarse, “No.” The goosebumps on his skin felt strange under the force field and morphine.
Nautilus and the nurse were now huddled in the corner together. The nurse glanced between the two of them and said, “N-no, but he’ll sleep again soon. This was still probably a bit early for him.”
“Ah,” Nautilus moved back over to the bed, sitting down in one of the chairs set aside for visitors for the first time. It creaked under his weight. Even then he wasn’t completely still: the floating hair and cape moving slowly around him.
“Listen, you’ve had… a hell of a night. The worst one anyone could possibly have. You survived but you’re damaged… mentally and physically,” Nautilus said and then paused dramatically, “But! You also have power now, real power. But all that damage and the power are all tangled up a bit yeah? The PRT can help you untangle that stuff. Give you power testing, support, more than just paying for your medical care. You don’t even have to join, not right away. And if you just want to talk-” Nautilus had to shuffle around in his costume, presumably to some hidden pocket. He pulled out a card, an embossed gold, PRT logo on the back of it. Nautilus placed it on the tray next to the bed.
“Call us? You can even ask for Nautilus and if I’m not on patrol or something I’ll pick up. Talk to you blue-power-guy to blue-power-guy…” he laughed at that, nervous and cutting off quickly again as Nautilus looked back down at Mike.
Mike had been thinking of Nautilus as an “adult,” still framing himself as a college kid versus the adult with a job, but he was starting to suspect maybe Nautilus was younger than Mike’s own twenty-four. Nautilus was athletic, lanky, taller than him… Mike still felt like a stuffed sausage: his stomach bloated and swollen. The nurse cleared her throat, and Nautilus glanced over at her.
“I should get going. Did you have any questions for me right now? Don’t strain yourself-”
“The cape-” Mike croaked.
“The cape?” Nautilus echoed him.
“Did you,” Mike had to swallow and winced as he did so, “-get her?”
Nautilus clasped one hand around his other, fingers tapping against his knuckles. “Her then. Right. That cape. No we haven’t, weren’t even positive it was a cape… Other than some stuff we pulled out of you but... We’d also like to follow up on that. Probably. I think. Anyways – I’m sure some of the desk jocks will come around to take a statement at some point when you’re more... whole.”
That squirming discomfort in Mike’s head turned cold and frenetic, even with the morphine. Erica was still out there. The PRT hadn’t even had her on their radar hadn’t they. Mike’s focus waned as his mind split into a thousand tiny horrid avenues of thinking. What did her power do? Had it done something to him they couldn’t detect? She was out there, lurking around bars, her dark smudgey lipstick framing those too white teeth against the eel-like tongue-
He felt lightheaded.
“Sorry bud-“ Nautilus said, and reached out to pat Mike on the shoulder. The force field snapped on harshly. Nautilus jerked his hand away like it had been burned.
No, no burn there. Just Nautilus cautiously flexing his fingers, testing them before saying, “I-I think I’m just going to go…”
The hero left the room, cape drifting like a phantom behind him. As the door swung shut he saw a much shorter woman step up to him, angry, red mask framing literal silver eyes.
“You idiot,” she whacked Nautilus’ chest white the back of her hand, “touching a freshly triggered tru-“ the door swung shut, cutting Mike off from the conversation.
Backup? Like the needle for the nurse? The door shut and Mike lost the conversation. And his energy,the nurse had stayed in the room but Mike let his eyes close again.
“Alright, I’m not going to touch you without warning you first okay?” she said, nervousness either gone or concealed better, “Since you’re lucid enough to converse we’re going to put you in charge of your own pain medication and comfort okay? A doctor should be coming in about an hour to discuss the details of the emergency surgery you went through. Can you nod if you understand?”
Mike nodded, but drifted away before he finished digesting the morphine dosage and timing restrictions.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Like I’m dying,” Mike said flatly.
The doctor glanced at Mike briefly, and then back to the chart, scribbling something down.
Mike felt bad for making her job harder, but it was hard to summon the energy to care much. Dialysis was a bitch and he was freezing.
After the several long seconds of silence save for the scribble of the pen, Mike supplied, “Tired, less itchy after the… whatever it was you gave me.” He watched dully as the doctor checked a few boxes.
His temperature was taken, blood pressure measured, fluids checked. He was dehydrated, as usual, but concerned noises were made as they drew blood and checked his whatever-levels. He was declining. Dialysis was no replacement for a working liver long-term even if today was a relatively good day. A good day… fuck this was a good day. He had managed to not fling his force field instinctively when they took his blood even, but it was a blur of another day of agony softened by the oblivion of drugs and boredom.
“Are you feeling up for a visit with your transplant consultant? The walk down the hallways?”
His transplant consultant. They found a match?
It was enough to drag him out of the depressive mire for a moment, he sat up straighter on the bed.
“Uh, yeah ,” he said. Of course he was going to go see his consultant and walk on his own two feet. He couldn’t stand the idea of toddling in there in a wheelchair after these weeks, still… laid low by-
His mind brushed by the memories and he felt himself tense, and there was the faintest ripple of blue. His doctor took a step back, but when nothing else happened he said, “You will need to be mask-on for this consultation.”
That was weird. His identity was protected by doctor patient confidentiality and the stupid hospital domino masks were more of a formality for visitors than anything else. He took the mask from the bedside tray and slipped the elastic around his head, feeling the slight delay of it fully settling against his skin past the invisible powered membrane surrounding him.
He fumbled to re-button his shirt, and looked down at the angry red scar running down the center-line of his chest and stomach, his hands looked pale, and every day he felt like he could see a yellowish tinge starting to set in.
Making the long, exhausting shuffling walk down to the elevator, Mike found his way to Dr. Cutner’s office. Patients gave him obvious sidelong glances at the sight of the mask and nurses and doctors tried to give him less obvious looks. Mike felt himself burning under their glances until he found the door and knocked, taking refuge inside.
“Uh,” Mike froze, stomach tightening at the woman sitting in the second chair. She didn’t look anything like Erica had, with dark skin, hair in a neat bun, but her sudden appearance still put him on edge.
“Sit down M-, Sir, this here is a representative from the PRT,” Dr. Cutner said, shuffling some papers around and smiling curtly at Mike.
Mike slowly edged into the other chair, nervously eyeing the PRT representative.
“You’re understandably nervous Mister- have you decided on an alias to go by yet in these situations?”
“No,” Mike said, voice rough in his throat.
“Hm, alright Mister then,” she sounded slightly put off by the awkward name situation “You’re understandably nervous, but I’m here to give good news. We’ve found you a liver donor.”
Oh thank god. Mike felt a rush of relief, so intense and sudden he felt tears swell in his eyes. He wasn’t going to die. He wasn’t going to be killed by that bitch and slowly wither away in a hospital bed as he poisoned himself from the inside. He felt the trembling he’d been fighting off showing start to push through. He was going to live.
Mike lifted his face out of his hands, breath coming ragged and short. The representative smiled, pitying him.
“- the liver is designated as only to go to Protectorate or PRT members or staff. There are a lot of people who donate with specific clauses, and a lot of people want their organs to go to heroes. A lot of our capes and their families know how many capes get hurt and how hard it is to get organs if they need them. While it’s technically illegal for donor boards to discriminate against parahuman patients, it’s absolutely true that every person on those panels knows the statistics of how long unaffiliated capes live after triggering. There’s-”
“Stop,” Mike croaked. He couldn’t listen to this. His bones ached with how tired he was of hearing the things he’d heard over and over, about how close he was to getting a liver but how he fell short.
“It’s a good match,” Dr. Cutner cut in, “better than the one two weeks ago you almost got a part of. It’s a whole liver too, not partial.”
“What do you want? What do you need me to do? You wouldn’t have called me in if I had no chance at it. What do you need?” Mike asked directly, tucking an arm against his chest, feeling the thick corded scar already on his chest even through his shirt.
“Well… you’d have to join the PRT. Sign the legal papers that is. You wouldn’t be asked to start any actual patrols or heavy training until you were fully recovered, four to six months I’m told, but you’d be on the payroll and expected to attend meetings and do some minor classes to get caught up on protocol etcetera in the meantime. We have great physical therapy here in Scottsdale and we’d be able to fully fund your hospital stay instead of what we are limited to right now! But of course if you wanted to move to a different city there’s other Protectorate teams who would love to have you,” she said, as she opened up the folder in her lap and took out a stack of papers two inches thick. She set them on the table and pushed them into the middle between herself and Mike.
Mike looked over at Dr. Cutner, who was smiling blankly, giving Mike a nod, expression frozen.
“I-” he cut off. This had been the plan all along hadn’t it? They had let him slowly die while getting stuck every day with needles and his insides dying until they could twist his arm with a hope he would join them? He- he wasn’t even all that opposed to it but-
“Can I ask why you’ve been resistant? We’ve talked to you several times…”
“I’m a college student. I just- I just want my masters degree and to find a job- and… I’m not a cape,” Mike said, starting to tremble. He didn’t want to think about this. He didn’t want to acknowledge how he got like this.
“... You’re a cape now whether you like it or not,” she said, voice softening before trying to cheer up again, “A lot of our members pursue school while serving their communities. We don’t provide scholarships past bachelor’s level, but your degree’s been put on pause anyways for your recovery and you should be able to fund it as you were before…”
Mike looked up, eyes red, feeling trapped.
“You know it’s been paused? So you do know who I am. Why even bother with the mask?”
The representative closed her eyes and sighed, “Sorry Michael, it’s a matter of security and well, politeness. It’s good practice, and it’ll only get harder to keep things under wraps if you go back to your roommate and your home by yourself. You’ve called the PRT several times inquiring about the investigation into the cape that did this to you, and we’d like to help, but we can’t involve you directly unless you’re on the team Mr. Walsh. We are trying to help you. We’re doing as much as we can legally but we can’t subvert the medical system or the wishes of donors.”
They should’ve already been looking. They should already have her the PRT had hundreds of capes. Why weren’t they flying thinkers over to find her? If she was still out there… hunting other guys…
He felt his throat tighten with nervousness, the sensation pulling up bad memories that only made him more nervous. He looked at the pages, and Dr. Cutner, still with that stupid smile on his face helpfully nudged the papers closer.
“Okay,” Mike said, wiping at his eyes and feeling his broad palm rub against the synthetic fibers of the cheap hospital mask. “I’ll do it…” He didn’t have a choice did he? Without it he would be dead within a few weeks. He would be alive. He would be alive and healthy, that had to be the first step didn’t it? To putting this behind him.
He just wanted to be whole again.