Chapter 1: Rhodey Rhodes
Rhodey Rhodes, Colonel of the United States Air Force, decorated military man, and Avenger, was sitting in Stark Tower when he heard the news. Stacey West, a reporter for Bugle News, had the story.
"In local news today, Justin Williams, an 18 year old black male, was shot today by Officer Smith down by 57th Street. Local authorities say, Williams was armed and that the shooting was an act of self-defense." Self-defense? Rhodey thought. Isn't that what they always say?
Tony Stark had stepped out on a business meeting, and his new AI, Friday, was not yet ready to run. So, Rhodey was stuck house sitting…and for once, he didn't mind being off base for.
"Authorities have also found that Williams, the victim, had had a criminal record and-"
Rhodey clicked the television off, and leaned into the couch. The tower was quiet, not even the sound of Stark's equipment could be heard. And inside of Rhodey Rhodes, decorated military man of the United States, sat a deep, cold stillness. Another person dead. They always bring up the criminal record, as if saying he went to jail for a small charge makes taking his life okay. They always chime in that the officer was terrified for his life. Who exactly had the right to be more afraid? The man with the gun, or the unarmed kid who was just trying to make his way home?
When James Rhodes was a boy, his mother would always send him out to the store for some small trinket. A jar of pickles or dinner, or some whipped cream for the cake she was baking. Nothing too big for him to carry alone.
"Now remember," she told him "Always ask for a bag after you buy your item." She would lean in close to him, close enough for him to see the fear in her eyes, "Do. Not. Leave that store without your purchase being in a plastic bag. Do you understand me?" She placed her hand on his shoulder…and it shook. "Do you understand me?" she repeated.
And Rhodey would nod.
It wasn't until he had gotten older, until his naiveté had subsided, that he understood his mother's fear. It wasn't until he learned what being black meant in the outside world. The distrust, the sideways glances, the whispered resentment that came with rising in the ranks of the military.
"What the fuck does that boy think he's doin' here?"
The men in the military, just like the people at MIT, and the people in the barracks, were not welcoming. To them, Rhodes was an outsider who did not belong in the realm of the elite, the heroes who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Captain America, and Peggy Carter, and Bucky Barnes. Real Americans. To them, James Rhodes was an eyesore who should have gotten shot on his way home from the store, or thrown into incarceration with the rest of his kind.
And yet here he was.
He was glad he was off base for this news. As much as the other officers liked to think themselves agents of peace and change, their comments were always so…uninformed.
"The officer was just doing his job," Private Jack would say.
"If he were really innocent, he wouldn't have had a record," Lt. Bradley would chime in. Colonel Rhodes had a record, he had gotten into fights as all boys his age had, but unlike his associates, his mistakes cost him his record. His mistakes cost him the trust of people who already don't want his face representing their nation.
And yet still, here he was. Colonel James Rhodes, partner to Iron Man, hero of the United States military, a man who had seen the face of true terror, and spat in its face. A black man. A Negro. A thug who wasn't even meant to be here.
"That's what they always say," Mama Rhodes was a woman of great inner stature. She always faced each day with a strong resilience, and often times Rhodey wondered how she managed. She held a job, kept a family together, was a loving wife and mother, and lead the church's choir rehearsals. The woman was magic…and working with Thor, and learning about Asgard, Rhodey knew his magic. "They'll always shame you, and black people who do amazing things because they're terrified," she said.
"Terrified of what?" Rhodey asked.
"They're terrified of the hope you bring."
Hope, given to those who need it most.
When he accepted his role as Iron Patriot, it was just to bring peace through the world (of course, that in and of itself was an arrogant idea. No one nation could bring peace to all corners of the globe), it was to bring hope. Hope that, for once, the image of a black man could inspire something more than just distrust, and fear. Hope that, just maybe, someone, somewhere might see the humanity within black faces. Hope that a scared cop with a loaded gun would look at an unarmed black man, or woman, and instead of firing, would find the shared humanity beneath the scared expressions, and biased media stories.
He could fly. He could fight. He could protect those who needed him…a black man who the world deemed a thug before he was even old enough to walk.
Rhodey shoved his hands into his pocket, and ran his fingers across his cellphone. He could call Tony, check in on him, take his mind off the news. But Stark couldn't ease the stillness in the pit of Rhodes stomach. Tony wouldn't be able to understand, to emphasize. He would try, of course, he would ask questions, he would bring up statistics, and promise to do what he could for this kid. But he wouldn't understand. Not in the way that Rhodey needed. Not in the way that could ease the heavy stone sinking into his guts. No, this was something Rhodey faced, and would always face, without Tony. But that never stopped him from pressing forward. From spreading hope for those who needed it most.
And hope, was something the world would always need.
Chapter 2: Sam Wilson
It was already closing time for Sam Wilson's latest group session when he heard the news. Somewhere in between stacking the folding chairs in the empty athletic center, and seeing the last members of his support group empty out into the hallway. Most of the time he left the small radio on to distract him from his work. It wasn't anything too serious, just a small local radio station that played soft, subtle Jazz. Something the kids today would never think to embrace. But, that day, at the end of another group meeting, Sam Wilson felt his heart drop.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," DJ Kool K had slipped the needle off of an old Shep record, the smooth Sax solo stopped before it could cast its spell, "But we've just got word, a young African-American man named Justin Williams has been shot." Kool K's voice, which was usually as soft and subtle as the records he played, had become agitated and shaky. "Officials say the Officer was shooting in self-defense, believing the victim to be armed." Sam Wilson could almost hear Kool K's head shake. "Rest in Peace, my brother," Kool K said, "This is getting ridiculous."
Kool K was always so up on things. News, concerts, which musicians would be coming into town, it was as if he had a second sense for what was coming down the pipeline. But now, Sam wished that, for once, Kool K hadn't of been the first to know.
Sam froze, and he leaned hands and head first against the fold up chair he was holding. "Again?" he asked to the empty room. His knees locked against the rest of his body, it was all he could do to keep from falling over onto the floor. "A-again?"
Rest in peace.
When you go to war, when you've seen your comrades die at the hands of a senseless mistake, or a careless action, you learn to push most everything else away. It's hard enough to cope with the idea of not breathing, let alone the sight of your friends never being able to joke with you again. After two tours in Iraq, after marching in a hot dessert with a gun pressed against his chest, after watching his best friend Riley be blown from the sky (body and blood raining from the heavens) Sam had decided he had seen enough death.
But when he came home…there was nothing for him there. No jobs for someone who had held a gun. No opportunities for a soldier to turn his life towards peace. Sam Wilson, like so many others, was denied the right to heal.
So he began a support group, a place to drown out the nightmares, and wash the taste of blood out of a soldier's mouth. More so for himself, than for anyone else. He told the world it was for the veterans who served, but he knew better than anyone it was an excuse to deal with his own scars. And if he could help others in the process, why not? He rented a space at the community center, told his old war buddies, made connections, hell, he even set up a Facebook account. And the soldiers came. Each one broken in their own way. Lisa, who marched through Pakistan. Jordan who watched his infantry's tank blow up with his friends in side. Susan who worked as an army doctor, and saw more deaths than anyone should be allowed to.
And then there was Nick.
Nick was a tall man, strong like base guitar in a Jazz ensemble, or the Harlem air after the sun sunk beneath the horizon. His skin was dark and brooded, with a deep, brown undertone that made him glimmer in the light. His nose was round and wide, his lips full like a soldier's pride. Just from looking at him, you'd think he could take your head off with one swing of his arm. A black man with enough power to do harm. Perhaps that's why so many of the others shied away from him. They sat two seats away from him, isolated their fellow soldier from the rest. A man alone in a dark world. People were always like that. To the world at large, black people had no right to brokenness. Even Sam had known that. When Sam voiced his fears, he was met with a nonchalant shrug, yet when white soldiers did the same, their feelings were validated over and over. Black pain meant less than fool's gold.
Nick had done several tours in the Middle East. He had a father who even fought in Vietnam, and a grandfather who did his part in World War II. He was a military man, one generation of strength leading into the next. Nick had seen dead bodies. Nick had tasted blood and sand and watched the world burn. He had come home with a mind full of busted memories. In group therapy kept to himself, but Sam worked hard to bring him out of himself.
It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to have flashbacks of their time spent in war. One minute you're laughing with friends over a cold beer, and the next, your standing in the middle of a war zone, bullets flying, and heads rolling against a horrid battle ground. Nick was no exception. Sometimes during group sessions, he would scream, jump out of his seat, and dive onto the floor, as if a missile were headed straight for him. He quivered. He shook. He screamed names of people Sam had never heard him speak of. And Sam understood.
They bonded over Jazz. Over New Orleans food. Over service. Over history. Over small details that build upon a tapestry. They were brothers in a sense, men who had served. There was nothing stronger than comradery between those who had heard gunshots.
One day, Nick wasn't present for group therapy. It happened. Everyone had lives. People were busy. And it happened again. And again. And again. Weeks went by, and no word from Nick. Perhaps, Sam thought, he had gone back into the service. It wouldn't be the first time a soldier went back to the only life he knew.
But that isn't what happened. While reading the newspaper that week, sprawled across the obituaries in a font that was barely readable, came Nick's name:
Nicolas Grant, gunned down in Statin Island last week by Officer Rost. Rost states that the perpetrator was behaving erratically, and took action to quell the danger.
"Behaving erratically?" Sam asked in disbelief.
And that was the end of the report. Nick's life all in those small lines. Nothing about his service to the country. Nothing about his PTSD. About his flashbacks to the Middle East; about the bullets he had to dodge, about the sand that hung in his mouth, even after he had come home to a world that did not want him. Nothing about the stars he used gaze upon at night, or the Jazz clubs he would frequent. He was simply taken down like a rabid dog, denied the right to heal like a decent human being.
Sam Wilson shook with a deep sadness that was always inside of him, and now there was another black body, Justin Williams, whose blood and veins had been splattered against a hot New York street.
"Jesus Fuckin' Christ." Sam stood up, and felt the room spinning around him. Soldiers, airmen, gunners, generals, all people who no more of savagery than anyone. They know what war is, and what it means. They know how it taxes the soul, how it burdens the heart, how it shoots the mind like a sniper, always attacking at the best opportunity.
And these people, all of them, have a right to come home, to hold their families, to wrap themselves in a cool cloth…and heal. But Nick wasn't allowed to heal. Justin wasn't allowed to heal. Sam wasn't allowed a right to his own pain. To this world, black people did not have a right to depression, to sympathy.
"We're not allowed humanity," Sam whispered. "Not without being beaten, spat on, feared, or just plain murdered."
And if humanity wasn't something he, or Nick, or hell, even Justin had a right to…then how could any of them heal? How could anyone?
Chapter 3: Nick Fury
Probably the worst thing about working for SHILED, Nick Fury thought, was that everyone always believed America's faults were due to some secret HYDRA plot, or Nazi scheme to discredit the "best country in the world". Even Phil Coulson, in all of his Captain America fanboy glory, believed there was something inherently wrong with the way things operated…but Coulson never placed the blame where it belonged.
SHILED was a global enterprise given the authority to monitor, to watch for grand threats that no normal law enforcement could handle. There were different branches, of course, French SHIELD delegates sanctioned in Paris, Brazilian delegates sanctioned in Buenos Aires. It was Fury's idea, of course, no one country could solve the problems of all, especially if the person encroaching on that problem new nothing of the culture, history, or inside politics of a nation. Too much damage had been done by "heroes" who believed they knew what was best for a people they knew nothing about.
Even though Nick Fury had gone into hiding, hunting down rogue HYDRA agents, he still kept his ears on local news, and monitored twitter feeds. Perhaps some local reporter had found something Fury's one eye missed. Tonight, Fury was holed up underneath one of Manhattan's many bridges, with nothing to keep him warm but a tattered coat, and an old beanie that smelled like rotted flesh. Nick had a small, inconspicuous radio sewed into his jacket. It was untraceable, but could still pick up a few signals.
"Zzzzt…This is Bugle News…word has gotten….Justin Williams….shot by...zzzzt…Officer Smith."
Fury tapped his wire, it must have gotten damaged somehow, perhaps while he was investigating that warehouse? Who knew, who cared? Nick didn't need to hear the rest of the broadcast to fill in the blanks. A young man, most likely black and unarmed, was gunned down by an Officer of the law in "self-defense." SHIELD had seen reports of those same incidents happening since its founding back in the 40's, and even still, black bodies had been brutalized since before SHIELD was even a concept. Since before the Wright Brothers created the plane. Since before Alexander Bell created the telephone. Since before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Black men and women being gunned down was a daily affair in this country. There was that young man who was pepper sprayed on his way home because some officer thought he had drugs in his pocket. There was that young lady who was shot three times in her back because an officer believed she had a knife on her. There was that older man, old enough to have marched in with Dr. King, who was arrested for leaving the store with a can of iced tea that he paid for. The cop who booked him thought he stole it right from under the cash register's nose. Injustice against black folk were so common that Nick had almost become numb to the very idea of it, and that scared him.
When Nick was still director of SHIELD, they'd get reports like this daily, and each time, Phil Coulson was shocked. Shocked that the American justice system would allow its own citizens to be shot, and beaten, and tear gassed just for simply assembling.
"I-I just don't understand," Coulson said as he monitored the video feed from SHIELD's surveillance, "Tear gas isn't even a weapon allowed to be used in war time. Why the hell is America using it on its own citizens?"
Nick just shrugged. The real shocker was people thinking this was something new.
"This has got to be some kind of plot," Coulson said, "There's no way the US would do something like this, not in this day and age. It aint the 40s."
"You think this is new?" Fury asked, his one good eye sweltering.
Coulson turned and rubbed his fingers against his palms in a nervous motion. "Well, this isn't 1959 Nick, we're supposed to be past this. I mean, with the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King, everything was supposed to be better by now."
Nick Fury held back a chuckle. Is this what white people told themselves every day? That somehow, everyone was equal just because a guy got up on a podium and said "I have a dream"?
Phil caught wind of Nick's skepticism. "I mean, even Gabe Jones was one of Capt.'s Howling Commandos, and he was a black man. Shouldn't that count for something?"
Sure, Nick thought, it was a testament to Gabe Jones' strength. Those old Captain America comics and movies like to make it seem as if Gabe Jones was openly accepted, but really he was ostracized, assaulted, and threated for even breathing the same air as Captain America. By those kinds of stories never make it to print. Anything less than absolute heroism makes the entire country look like a nation of hypocrites.
"This has got to be a plot," Coulson speculated, "Some kind of ruse to discredit the country in the eyes of the rest of the world." Phil turned to Nick, "What do you think? You've always got an eye for this kind of thing."
Nick shrugged, "The only thing that's going on is America's own sins against its people. No conspiracy needed." Nick didn't even think HYDRA could dream up something so inhumane.
And now, even after the fall of SHIELD, even after the rise of the Avengers, even after the "death" of Nick Fury, and still nothing has changed. Nick Fury, former director of SHIELD, sat cross legged against the backdrop of the New York skyline. He may not have the grand stature of the SHIELD databases, or the mobility of a million different agents across the globe, but he was still a man who believed in justice and humanity. But this wasn't something that could be solved with green fists, and magic hammers. This was an ingrained distrust, something the country could only change when it itself realized its faults. And that was something that America was never good at.
Chapter 4: Luke Cage
Luke Cage always hated the term "fugitive." It made it seem like he was some kind of animal who had escaped the slaughter. He wasn't some freak who needed to be put down, just a man who had been placed in a world he didn't belong in.
Luke had holed himself up at one of those old motels Harlem was famous for. Cheap curtains that kept the windows blind, and bed sheets that smelled like dried semen, and a hotel television set that only had one channel. Luke had always done his best to keep a low profile, keeping towards odd jobs that were off the books. Being paid in cash so that he wouldn't have a paper trail. He didn't need any one on his trail. Not when he was so close to his goal. And sure, opening that bar in Hell's Kitchen might not have been the best plan for a guy trying to keep a low profile, but he had made stupider mistakes. And Kilgrave's fire had destroyed any evidence that Luke Cage had even existed there.
Luke reached into his pockets and pulled out a deck of cards. He fiddled with the Ace of Hearts, ran his fingers across the King of Spades, and just counted each card until his mind went numb. The television fritzed and froze at different intervals, it was almost impossible to even understand what was on. Luke couldn't tell if it was a news report, or a crappy reality television show.
"Our top story tonight," said a cooled and calmed announcer over the static gave Luke his answer, "A young black man, Justin Williams, has been shot by Officer Smith earlier today."
Why did that sound so familiar?
"Officer Smith states that he victim was belligerent, and attempted to pull a weapon when the officer asked for identification."
Bullshit. Luke thought. He flipped his playing cards over and over, ace of diamonds swapped for Queen of hearts. He tapped the corner of his deck against the table. Tap. Tap. Tap. It was a nervous tick he picked up on the run. He always had to keep an eye out for blaring sirens, and weasel-eyed snitches. He had learned, from years of experience, that you couldn't rust anyone. Least of call cops. Nuthin' but bullshit.
"Officer Smith's report states that Williams even had a criminal record before-hand. Details are still being revealed." Luke turned his head to the faint glow of the TV set. In between the gray static and lack of reception, was a picture of a young black man, probably no older than eighteen. "We've gotten a picture of the late Williams now," the reporter said. Williams was a young man with a dark complexion, a stout, strong chin that seemed to point in a straight line, and a soft gleam in his brown eyes. Anyone with common fucking sense could tell that boy wasn't a threat to a damn spider. Luke had been incarcerated, he had seen men get their teeth beaten out. He had seen men bleed out over their bedside because they said the wrong thing to the wrong guy. Luke Cage had seen monsters in the shape of men; cold killers who didn't even know the value of life, let alone how to show respect for it.
"However the NYPD has gone on record stating that they intend to look into the incident and ensure the proper actions were taken," the reporter said as she shuffled her papers.
"That's bullshit," Luke said as he shook his head. "Some New York cop takes out a kid and the NYPD is investigating it?" Luke scoffed, "That's like having Nazis investigate the damn Holocaust." And they even mentioned this kid's record, almost as if they were making excuses for his death, Luke thought. Tapping his cards harder and harder against the wooden finish of the table. The wood was beginning to splinter on the pressure of his strength. Oh, it's alright folks, he was just a thug, no need to get worked the fuck up. Luke clenched his fists, and his cards crumbled in his hands. He needed to be careful, his strength was greater than that of anyone else. He needed to show restraint at all times…which meant constant control. He didn't have the luxury of losing his temper, or slamming his fists against the tables…even though he wanted to.
This shit never changes. Luke Cage was framed. Drugs placed on his person by a guy he believed was his friend. When the cops found him, it was jail time with no chance of bail. Hell, white guys got off for more murder, but a black guy with pot? If Kilgrave had been convicted, Luke knew the worst thing that would happen to him was community service (and he'd be given it without needing to mind control the judge and jury). But even still, Luke counted himself lucky…being black in this country was reason enough to be shot. He had always been big for his age, with a black countenance, a shaped goatee and muscular frame he was considered a threat just by walking through a door. And that was before the experiment that gave him his abilities.
As a way to gain a shorter sentence, Luke Cage, or rather Carl Lucas, had volunteered for some kind of experiment. A recreation of the super soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into a living legend. He took the deal, and now he was what he was. A man who had been given strength, and a pardon from his sentencing as long as he could keep himself out of sight. He changed his name to Luke Cage. To the world, Carl Lucas had died in the experiment.
It was better that way. Luke was given a second chance, but Justin Williams wasn't. No, Luke knew that behind the reporter's fake smiles, and the regretful looks of the NYPD, they were all silently glade that this young man was gone. One less thug to rob liquor stores. One less leech to mooch off the system. One less black man to change the hearts and minds of an entire nation. One less black man to create the next grand piece of technology. One less black man to run for president. One less black man to lead the world into a bright new tomorrow. Luke knew he was dangerous, and not because of his strength or his unbreakable skin, but because of something far more potent. He was dangerous because he was alive. To the world at large, the only thing scarier than a black man, is a black man who is still alive to tell his story.
Chapter 5: Mike Peterson
When you become a parent, your whole world changes. A world that was once, self-centered and small, opened to become all about the small bundle of human possibility cradled in your palms. Mike Peterson knew this. When Ace, his son, was born Mike's whole world became this small child, and what a marvelous world it was. Ace Peterson. The child who ate his cheerios with one hand. The kid who splashed in the sink when it was bath time. The kid who played Jack and the Beanstalk in the back alleys. All he did was explore.
Mike Peterson, after the ordeal of HYDRA and SHIELD, escaped to east New York, and found a hotel that didn't ask any questions, something Mike was grateful for. If the lady at the front desk was at all disturbed by Mike's missing eye, his hooded figure, or the clang of his metal limbs, she did not show it. She merely slid him his reservation papers, and sent him on his way to his room.
When Mike reached his room, he stripped himself of his hooded sweat shirt, and allowed his metal plate to shine. HYDRA had enhanced him, taking his skin and replacing it with something less breakable, and less human. They took his name, and replaced it with a moniker, "Deathlok." They had tried to rob him of his compassion, but his son Ace, could never be wiped from his memory. The memory of the son could never be bleached from a father's heart. Ace was the lifeline to an old life. The hotel room was fancy. A big bed sat fat and lazy against the wall, and the curtains were drawn, hiding any moonlight that wanted to come inside. For a brief second, Mike thought of peeking outside, and gazing at the world. HYDRA had taken so much from him, his senses, the sensations of rain against his body, the sound of Ace's laugh after an afternoon of make believe. Perhaps he could at least try to reclaim some of it. But he quickly abandoned the thought, he had to do better at staying hidden. After all, of HYDRA found him again, who knew what would happen. Even worse, they may try to go after Ace again, and that was a nightmare Mike couldn't bear to relive. No, the best course of action was to stay away from his old life.
He flicked on the television set. It was one of those new casts that they often played late at night, far past Ace's bedtime.
"This is Thomas Clancey with New York news, our top story, broadcasted through multiple different news outlets, Bugle News, Twitter, Facebook. Justin Williams, a young African-American male, was shot down by Officer Smith earlier today. There were no witnesses at the scene, however Officer Smith has gone on record stating that Williams may have had a concealed weapon. More info as it comes, but in the meantime we've secured a picture of the victim." The screen flashed, and Clancey's face was replaced by a photograph of a young black man. "Sources also say that Williams was 5'7, 18 years old, and had a criminal record."
Mike Peterson saw the crisp, black skin against this young man's bones, the light in his brown eyes that had been snuffed out too soon. Mike did not see a stranger on his screen, he saw Ace, he saw his son, cut down before his life could even blossom.
Mike knew this fear. The fear of losing a child to an evil too great to defeat. When Ace was born, that was the single most proud, and terrifying moment of Mike's life, because he knew that Ace wasn't just a boy, but a black boy. A black boy who would never be allowed to be a child, whose every mistake would be chastised, and used as an excuse to punish.
Black children were distrusted, and when they grew up, they were feared out right. Innocence was only for those whose skin was as light as milk. The world outside Mike's home wouldn't care about the possibilities Ace had within him, or the magic he held in his heart. To them, he was a threat that needed to be beaten down until all thoughts of strength were shattered. Mike spent his days in fear, watching his son grow taller and taller, waiting for the moment when he would be tall enough to be a threat to some coward with a gun and a badge. A black man who grew too tall was always the one who got cut down. Mike prayed that his son would never grow too tall. Mike prayed that Ace's voice would never grow deep enough to scare the birds when he spoke. Ace was his world, Ace was the one thing that kept him going in this mad dash against HYDRA agents, and superheroes, and giants of all kinds.
Ace was only twelve years old, but the world looked at him as if he were twenty. A nerf gun in the hands of a black child was a deadly weapon to the eyes of a cop. A water pistol was a death sentence. A hooded jacket was an invitation to be followed around by a neighborhood watchmen. And at any moment, Ace could be stolen away by force that Mike couldn't even begin to fight against. Who the fuck wanted to live in a world where a child's innocence had to be proven?
Mike clicked the TV off, and the room was filled with silence. The only thing that ran through his mind was Ace, and the only thing he wanted to feel was his son's face against his chest. At least in Mike's arms, Ace could be guarded against the world's hypocrisies. But Ace was so far from him now, and out of his reach. Being close to his son would place him in danger once again, but being away from him would do the exact same thing. There was no one to teach his son what the watch out for, what to avoid, how to walk in stores so that he wouldn't be followed, how to speak so that his words wouldn't be met with suspicion.
Ace was alone now, in a world that wished to do him harm, and that terrified Mike more than HYDRA ever could.
Chapter 6: Claire Temple
Hospitals are places of duality. That's what Claire Temple had learned working at Metro-General Hospital. It's not like on those medical shows that are all the rage on ABC. There's no quirky voice over at the end of a long shift to make people feel like the world isn't as cruel as it makes itself out to be. To this world of cotton balls and lab coats, life and death was as fragile as a signed waiver. Hospitals were beats of duality, and Claire knew duality, intimately like a bitter lover.
When Claire was a girl, her grandmother always advised her dating life. Every dinner conversation was peppered with little anecdotes, and stories plucked from her Abuela's youth. T
"Don't date Jerome," she said, "His skin is too dark. Necesitas adelantar la raza."
You need to push the race forward. And Claire knew what that meant. Her grandmother tried to push skin lightening creams, and hair relaxers, and colored contacts. All tools meant to hide a flawed heritage.
Abuela's words came from a place of concern, her worst fear was that Claire's children would bear skin darker than her own, and kiss with thick lips. "I don't want you to make the same mistake your mother did."
The same mistake, as if Claire's mother had made a grave error in judgement falling in love with a black man, whose skin was as rich and strong as the midnight skyline. And Claire was given her father's features, his dark skin, and brown eyes, and full lips, and strong chin. Remnants of a man long since dead. She was of two worlds, the world of Spanish phrases, and the world of strong Soul.
Working at Metro-General, she had seen heartache, drama, hard times, victories, and more blood than she cared to think about. But it was worth it, right? She was saving lives, making a difference in Hell's Kitchen, watching the backs of all who came to her in need. What more could anyone ask?
That night, Claire worked the ward where the patients recovered. The hallway was lined with beds filled with gang members recovering for a recent shoot-out down of Hopkins Avenue. It seemed like every day, more and more bullets were flying through the air. Each bed held a different person with a different story. A gang member who wanted to prove his stature to his crew, a grandmother who got caught too close to the fire. This was New York, right? This kind of shit happened all the time here. So then, why did it never get easier?
The television set was flipped on, more so for the doctors than the patients. Sometimes the best way to deal with the tragedy around you, was to focus on something else, and the news was great for that. Except, tonight, it wasn't. Not for Claire Temple, at least.
"Our top story," came a ragged reporter's voice, "A young black man, Justin Williams, age 18, was shot down earlier today by local NYPD's own Officer Smith. Smith states that when asked for identification, Williams became belligerent and tried to pull a weapon. Some sources have stated that Williams may have been involved in gang related activity, but nothing is clear as of yet."
Claire ran a latex-gloved hand through her hair. Shit, she would have to change gloves now…but that wasn't what was weighing on her mind. In a Hospital, a dead body meant something. Someone screwed up, or something went wrong, or that person was simply meant to go…but it meant something. When death was involved, there were always questions. What did we do? What didn't we do? Was there a way to save the patient? Should we have done surgery?
But a bullet in the chest? That kind of death was preventable. What exactly did the cop do to offer aid? Mouth to mouth resuscitation? Gauze on the affected area? Not pull the fucking trigger?
"Claire?" Nicole tapped Claire on her shoulder, "Are you alright?"
Claire stared down at her gloved hands…was she shaking? "N-no. I don't think I am."
It wasn't as if Claire was a stranger to what was going on. More black men and women were rolled into her hospital than anyone else. Sometimes it was a shooting, other times heart problems, or a tumor, or cancer, or some disease that required the upmost care and attention.
"We're gonna take good care of you," Claire would tell her patients. The young black girl with braided hair, or the tall lanky black men who were just coming out of puberty.
But the doctors always made Claire a liar. He would glance up from behind his clipboard, scribble some prescription down, and then send the patient on their way. Of course, there were procedures, the stethoscope to the heart, or the thermometer in the ear, but it was all so detached and forced, as if the human being standing in front of them was not worth their time.
"Give them one bottle of meds, and send them on their way," the doctor said.
"Only one bottle?" Claire asked, "But the patient needs at least three. Her pulse is-"
"I've already given the prescription Nurse Claire." And he would fold his arms over his chest. "Look, she doesn't seem to be in too much pain, and besides, it isn't anything serious."
Those were always the words that came out of their mouths. It isn't anything serious. For black people, cancer wasn't serious, erratic heart beats weren't serious, bullet holes in the chest wasn't fucking serious. And if they thought that about the black mothers who came here, their children's hands clenched in their fists, then what the fuck did they think about her?
This was a hospital right? So then, why did it seem like they were trying so hard to rush their patients out the door? It was as if every doctor, and surgeon in this place was taking cues from her Abuela.
Necesitamos adelantar la raza
We need to push the race forward. Erasing a flawed heritage…in every way possible.
And it made Claire want to puke. She saw how doctors shied away from the black patients who needed more medical attention. She saw how nurses would speak in a cold detached tone when confronting black mothers about their children. She saw how secretaries placed their hands on the phone, itching for a reason to call security, when a black father demanded answers about his daughter's health.
And tonight, she saw how a policer officer could point a gun and end a life…and how the world breathed a sigh of relief.
Clair peeled her gloves off of her sweat drenched hands, and replaced them with fresh ones. She did not have the luxury of breaking down now. Not when there were people who needed her.
"Keep it together," she said. "For all of their sakes."
Nurses heal. Claire knew that. She knew that better than anyone, and the only way to heal a wound, is to see its infection and treat it. She knew of this infection, this obsession with eradication. It was forced on her, fed into her mind like bitter chlorine, but she could see it everywhere she went. She wiped the sweat from his cheeks, and stood straight and tall.
She could see it, and she would change it. Even if it meant fighting alone.
Chapter 7: Malcolm Ducasse
After Jessica Jones defeated Kilgrave, Alias Investigations became a local wonder. The phone never stopped ringing, case after case was brought to Jessica's desk, and Malcolm Ducasse was the only person who seemed capable of keeping all of the influx organized.
Malcolm had just returned home from another day at Alias, honestly, it seemed like the more and more he did, the less and less got done. The second he, or Jessica walked through the door, already spent on a case, another three more popped up in its place. Malcolm sat down on his couch, the thing was so old it was sprouting mushrooms, and grabbed the remote. A little distraction might do him some good, recharge his batteries for the next assignment tomorrow. But still, Malcolm couldn't help feeling gladdened. What he and Jessica Jones were doing was good. They were helping people in their darkest hours, comforting them when all seemed lost, giving them hope when there was none to be found.
When Malcolm was being controlled by Kilgrave, he felt as though the world had become a dangerous place. It was bad enough some Norse God from the skies rained hell and fire down onto their city, but now they had to worry about killer men who could will others to do as they pleased? This is what he went to school for. This is what he got his degree for. This is why he started that support group for. To help others when they needed it. To make the world a less scary place.
The television lit the dark room with a faint glow. "Our top story tonight," came a stagnant voice, "Officer Smith, one of the NYPD's own, shot down an assailant today. A black man named Justin Williams. Sources say that when Smith asked for identification, Williams tried to pull out a weapon. Thankfully, Smith is unharmed. The NYPD is now doing an investigation on the matter."
And in the blink of an eye, the world became scary again.
Malcolm knew stories like these. Hell, living in New York and being a black man, news casts like those were basically bed time stories for him. At night, when Malcolm was small, he did not fear the creatures lurking in his closets. He feared the red and blue lights that slashed through his bedroom curtains. He feared the echoing of bullet shots across an empty streets, and the voices of authority that cared not for his well-being. He breathed fear as if it were the only thing keeping him alive.
Malcolm clicked the television off. He couldn't watch anymore.
Growing up, Malcolm believed if he simply acted differently, he'd be spared the distrustful glances, and the crooked smiles. He kept his hair cut close to his scalp. Kept his face clean shaven, trying to make himself seem as innocent as possible. He kept his clothes ironed. Studied hard in school. Advanced through college, grabbed hold of his degree as if it were a life raft. This should keep me safe, he thought, as if a piece of paper could deflect bullets. It was strange, almost as if he were trying to make amends for his own skin color.
"Shit," he said. Malcolm shook his head, clenched onto his hair, and pulled so hard it felt like his scalp was going to rip from his skull. "Not again." His heart rate beat fast, "Not again goddamn it." If Kilgrave and Jessica had taught him one thing, it's that danger can come from all places. What you believe to be a friend, is really a creature from the darkness. A summer sky could change to a rain of hell storm, and an officer of the law, may be the worst monster you've ever come across.
He was scared. Malcolm was scared. It was like living with Kilgrave still alive, peeking into your windows every day, following you on your way to buy toothpaste, and floss. But the fucked up part about it? The part that made Malcolm feel as though he would never see the end of it? Was that to the rest of the world, he was the enemy in question. To the world at large, his black skin was as alarming as a cocked gun, or a worm hole in the sky, or a man who could control your mind with one glance. Somehow he, Malcolm, a man who only wanted to help those who needed it, was the villain in this tale. And no one would cry for innocent blood, if they already believed it to be tainted.
Sirens blared from the outside, shaking the silent streets, and breaking into Malcolm's apartment window. Streaks of blue and red filled the empty apartment in a dance that Malcom had always hated. Blue. Red. Blue. Red.
And then darkness engulfed him once again. No matter what he did, what good he strived to spread, what hope he wanted to bring…the world would always be a scary place for him.
Chapter 8: Misty Knight
When Misty Knight joined the police force, she did it with the intention of making a difference. The force always prided itself on its special brand of justice, a brand that meant blacks got harassed while whites could get away with murder…most of the time literally. If Misty had a buck for every time a cop got off for shooting an unarmed civilian she'd be richer than Tony Stark.
That night she sat at her desk in the Harlem PD office building. It had been a long day of drug raids, interrogations, and gun practice. But the night was still young, and she had more that needed to get done. For the past few weeks Misty Knight had been working on a case, one most other officers seemed unconcerned about. A few years back a man named Carl Lucas was incarcerated on charges of drug peddling. He was sent away…and never heard from again. Now, disappearing convicts was a thing that happened too often, especially when those convicts were black. Instead of an investigation to find them, departments wiped their hands clean, as if to say "One less thug on the streets."
It was sickening. For some reason, convicts didn't count as citizens anymore, and wasn't protecting citizens what they were here for? Christ.
Misty fingered through the open files spread out upon her desk. It said that Lucas had worked for Cornell Cottonmouth, a club owner in downtown Harlem. And that's where the info stopped. Nothing on Cottonmouth, where Lucas would have disappeared to, or any indication as to who he'd turn to.
"Shit." Another dead end. Of course, that wouldn't stop her. Growing up in Harlem, with her black skin and her wild and bold afro, she was subjected to teasing, hair pulling, second glances, and wandering fingers that believed they could explore her body.
Of course, even as a child, she shut that shit down quickly. Misty Knight knew that she needed to be strong. Stronger than anyone else to get half as much. Stronger, and better, and more willed than any man, black or white, and any women, white or not, to get to where she was. And she knew damn well the world wanted to make her fail. As harsh as it was on black men, black women had it harder, and Misty's mother never let her forget that.
"All those brothers out there thinkin' they got it bad," Mrs. Knight was a woman Harlem, or strong church fortitude and solitary conviction. "They don't know shit, try being called a nigger by white folk and a hoe by black men, then they'll know what we know."
And Mrs. Knight never let her daughter slink away into the background. When Misty's personhood was challenged, she encouraged her daughter to fight back. "If you allow them to, they'll bury you baby, and if you let them, they'll blame you for the shit their dumbasses made in the first place." And with a solemn grin, her mother always dispensed the same wisdom. "Never let them."
And Misty never did. Not when her teachers told her that her hair needed to be cut, or relaxed, or shaped to be more pleasing to their eye. Not when her boyfriend told her she'd be prettier if she kept her mouth shut. Not when her white professors tried to explain her own experience of black womanhood, of which they knew nothing about.
Misty Knight was not going to let that shit slide. Not even for a second.
"Hey, Officer Knight, working late again?" Walking up to her desk was Officer John Barrowman, one of the new hires for the Harlem PD. He was a nice kid…mostly. With blonde hair that sat lifelessly on his head, and green eyes that dulled when he wasn't paying attention, people thought he could be the poster boy for a California surfing ad.
"Hey Barrowman," Knight said without looking up from her papers. "Just doin' some research."
Barrowman leaned against her desk, and Misty Knight tilted her eyes from her papers to his face. A cold glare that was so sharp it could pop a balloon. He got the message, and found another desk to lean his ass on.
"D-did you hear about that shooting that happened earlier today? The news has been all over it."
Misty did not look up, "Shootings happen all the time here, nothin' new about that."
"Yeah, but reports say it was some eighteen year old kid named Justin. He tried to pull a weapon on an officer, and shit went down."
"And lemme guess, the victim was black, right?" Misty asked. She didn't even need an answer for that one. The damn police force couldn't go five minutes without shooting a black person. Misty bet this guy...Justin...wasn't even armed. It was funny, when it came to white guys in Norse helmets raining alien shit upon everything, cops couldn't get a clean shot, but a black dude walking down the street, and suddenly cops had deadly accuracy.
She remembered her first time on the force. She had graduated the academy, top of her class, and was transferred to Harlem PD. She was a rookie, full of ideals that meant jack shit in the real world.
Her first time out on the field, she and her partner were on a drug raid in west Harlem, apparently certain drug lords were making a move. Her partner, Officer Cole, was a man with discretion, he believed that a gun should only be used when necessary. He liked to negotiate, talk things out, see if there wasn't something more behind bravado and chains. They both came across a perp, a young man, black, 5 ft. 6, with tattoos all over his left arm. He was escaping, about to jump a wooden fence and flee down the street.
And Cole shot him. Point blank, no warning, just the smell of gunpowder and the sound of an unforgiving bullet. "Let's get the perp and go," he said.
One less thug on the streets.
There wasn't even an investigation. To the police, that perp, whoever he was, was better to the community dead. She had seen white men murder store clerks, and yet they were taken in with nary a gun drawn. She had seen white men threaten elementary schools with shit from Hammer Industries, only to be cuffed taken to jail, and given a defense lawyer who got them off on pleas of insanity. And it was funny…and by funny, she meant fucking terrifying, was that this shit only happened with black folk. A white man raping a child was grounds for peaceful negotiating, but a black guy walking down the street was a terror alert. Fucking police force, New York's finest, right?
"It's all good though, right?" Barrowman asked, "There's one less thug on the streets."
Misty slapped her hands onto her desk, and the Carl Lucas papers went flying into the air, "Ge the fuck out," she screamed.
"W-what? Knight I-"
"I. Said. Leave." And her voice was tepid but strong. Fearful but too powerful to be silenced. "Now."
Barrowman opened his mouth, as if to challenge her…but he knew it was a fight he wouldn't win. He left without a word. And Misty Knight was alone once more.
One less thug off the streets.
"One less thug off the streets…" she whispered as she gathered her fallen papers. She shook her head. She might not be able to save Justin, or other convicts shot down by a trigger happy white guy trying to be Captain America, but she wasn't about to let Carl Lucas down. If there was something she could do to save Carl Lucas, she'd fucking do it. Not matter the cost.
One less thug off the streets?
"Not while I'm around."
Chapter 9: Baron Mordo
Karl Mordo was a man of few words. In his youth he had been chosen to train in the art of magic by the Ancient One, and as time went on, he eventually forgot the name of his own country. Flashes of beaten towns, and empty faces would parade through his dreams, but he paid them no mind. Through his years of study, he had realized that his home was wherever he felt most comfortable. And that was anywhere he could practice magic.
And what a wondrous thing magic was. With one flick of his wrist, entire dimensions were open to him. World's that none could ever fathom. Creatures with faces of gold, and silver. Monsters who roamed through nightmares as if they were open hallways. Demons who seared flesh and carved weaponry from bone. Centuries of forgotten tales and myths flowing through his mind like a stream. Pain. Anguish. Joy. Victory. Loneliness. Fear. Dimensions of splendor and wonder. What more could anyone ask for? Mordo was no bound by the flesh of his dark skin, brown eyes, and cold hands. He was more. So much more.
But even the greatest of sorcerers must return to their human forms, and it is in those moments that Mordo remembered his own limitations. He found himself cross-legged in the grand halls of the Ancient One's abode. Old books stacked upon bookshelves that looked like they would collapse at the slightest touch. He had returned. He was human after all.
His hands were large and powerful, and his skin a deep warm brown that seemed to melt in the afternoon sun. Subtle stubble inched over his chin and cheeks, and his eyes, a honey brown, seemed to captivate even the Ancient One.
"You're quite handsome," the Ancient One said one day in passing, "Well, for a black man," she quickly added, almost as if it were a reflex, or a guard against some deeper shame.
In truth, Mordo never quite understood what she meant. She was the one who had taught him that appearances meant little in the grand scheme of the universe. And he never understood why her words stung his chest.
For a black man…
Mordo gathered his sword and sheath, and moved out. He had spent enough time meditating, he needed to continue his mission. The Ancient has sensed that the Mindless Ones—foot soldiers for a grand evil—were making their move all across Asia. His mission was to hunt them down, and hopefully find what they were after in the human dimension. Their last sighting was in Beijing, in which Mordo had no problem getting to. The Ancient One's magic was strong, and teleportation was mere child's play.
Beijing was a grand city. Older than fireworks, older than tradition. Mordo could sense the magic flowing through the bustling streets, and busy sidewalks. Yet, as much as he loved to travel, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was out of place. When he walked through the streets, people stopped and stared. They took out their phones, and snapped pictures of his face. Some of them even reached out to touch his hair and neck…did they think he didn't notice this?
Mordo shook his head, he didn't have time for this. He needed to concentrate. He closed his eyes, and dove into his own inner workings. Magic was simple if you know the right connection. Everything was connected, like the braches of a tree, all you needed to do was follow it to its source. The Mindless Ones focus on fear, anger, rage, and other human emotions that breed nightmares. The Ancient One had taught him that much. So, that was what he needed to reach out for.
"I call upon the depths of knowledge…guide me to those whom I seek…"
And the world of Beijing faded into darkness, and Mordo stood alone in his own thoughts. No photos. No stares. No lingering sensations of invasive fingers. Just him.
What're you doin' here?
But something wasn't right…
I-I'm just tryin' ta' get home. I don't wan-
Lemme see some ID.
Darkness gave way to another connection, another city half the world away.
Officer, m-my name's Justin Williams. I'm just tryin' ta' get home.
And Mordo could hear it. He could feel the dark alley ways of the New York streets. And he could feel the quickened pulses, and the cold steel of a pistol, aimed squarely at a face as black as his own.
I said show me your identification.
Mordo had made the wrong connection, his magic had honed in on the wrong frequency. But there was fear. And there was anger. And there was distrust. And there was a storm unleashed in Mordo's chest. A fear that had followed Mordo his whole life.
"I…just want to go home."
There were memories. Old houses that Mordo had never seen. Hip-Hop albums that Mordo had never listened to. A warm kiss from a mother Mordo had never known.
"Be careful," she said. "I want you to come home safe, you hear me?"
And he saw images. Christmases spent with rowdy cousins, and birthday cakes that smelled of sacrifice.
Make a wish Justin.
And now…all Mordo could feel was fear, dread, the light of a police badge, and the scowl of a pistol that knew no leniency.
He's going to kill me…
And in one sharp second, a bullet was fired and the connection broken. Mordo found himself back in Beijing, surrounded by onlookers speaking in a language he couldn't comprehend. He was shaking. Holy shit, he was shaking.
Mordo wiped his hands on his robe, and tried to shake the image from his mind. He felt hollow, as if someone had scooped his insides out and thrown them into the sun.
"Get a hold of yourself Mordo." He needed to calm down, find solace in himself and carry on. He had seen dimensions face harsher punishments, but he still could not get the feelings out of his heart. "I'm just tryin' ta' get home."
He tried to find another connection, but whenever he placed his hands together to chant, all he heard was the loud bang of a gun unloading. He couldn't focus…not now.
"Mordo?" Inside of his head, Mordo could hear the Ancient One's voice. "Are you well? Have you made any progress?"
He shook his head, "No Ancient One." He tried to keep his heart from shooting out of his chest. He just couldn't calm down, he silently prayed that the Ancient One, for once, would not notice. "I have found nothing."
She said nothing. Even from this distance Mordo could sense her confusion, he could see her jaw line tightening, not sure whether to be displeased or concerned.
"Very well," she said. "Come back and we shall search another location."
Mordo bowed slightly, "Yes, Ancient One, it shall be as you say." Mordo skulked through the streets of Beijing. The sound of a bullet still echoing through his bones and, secretly, Mordo prayed he made it home alive.
Chapter 10: Heimdall
Heimdall was guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, the only means of gaining access to Asgard. Heimdall was known for his vigil all throughout the Nine Realms. There were songs dedicated to him, rituals performed in his name in hopes his favor could be won. Of course, he paid no attention to such frivolities. Nay, let the Odinson bask in the praise of mortals, Heimdall had more pressing matters to turn his mind towards.
When the Odinson had returned from his venture with the mortals down on Midgard, he had come back a changed man. Humble, considerate, placing mind to his words, and it was all thanks to the mortals he had met.
"They're quite valiant," Thor Odinson said upon his return. "They are quite possibly the strongest people I've ever encountered."
Heimdall took his prince's word for it. Never had the guard of the Rainbow Bridge turned his mind towards Midgard. There was never a reason to. The mortals posed no threat to the safety of Asgard, not like the dark elves or the Frost Giants. But still, the Odinson's tales of great valor from the mortals peeked Heimdall's interest, if only a small deal.
He turned his eyes towards the bustling street corners of Beijing. He mused over the ballads of rock n' roll. He wondered at the enchantment of fireworks on a warm July evening. Granted, the mortals and their ways were nothing compared to the splendor of Asgard. Their music was gratifying, yet ended too soon, nothing like the blaring trumpets of victory that played every time a warrior was welcomed to Valhalla, the head of a giant in his fist, and the admiration of his peers in his mind. Still, there were wonders to be seen on Midgard.
Heimdall was blessed with an all seeing eye that could pierce the veil of time and space. He could turn his sight to anyone, foe or friend, and see their whole existence spread out before him. All of their victories, their woes, their trickery, their valor, laid out before him like an epic tale. And as the Norns would have it, Heimdall's eyes had settled upon a man named Justin Williams. A young man, one who was hardly big enough to carry an axe into a horde of giants, yet his potential for greatness was unmeasurable. Justin was a strapping young man (well, by the standards that the mortals were accustomed to). He had a dark complexion, much like Heimdall's own, a faint glow in his eyes that Heimdall had recognized in many of Asgard's great heroes. Balder, Thor, Sif…a faint glow that could illuminate an entire kingdom.
Justin was like the other mortal boys his age. He went to school, listened to his mother's wisdom, set the table when it was time to feast, and went to bed when his body needed rest. At school, like all boys, he would do battle with those who challenged him, who showed disrespect to his family, who wished to test his mettle in battle.
"Keep talkin' shit," Justin said, "And I'll knock you out." School was always pulsed with a potential battle, yet Justin never challenged others to the field of combat, it was always brought to him like an unwanted visitor. The other boy, the one who believed himself to be Justin's better, had red hair streaming down his back, and had a face that reminded Heimdall a lot of Thor's. There was an arrogance to this young man's face that, more often than not, led to recklessness.
"You think you can take me, Justin?" said the young enemy as he shoved his way into Justin's countenance, a sheer sign of battle. "Don't talk about it punk, be about it."
And with one mighty blow, the battle began. The two shoved, and pulled, and rolled onto the floor of the school hallway. Other students cheered, and booed, and scowled until the school masters broke the battle a twain. While Justin's foe was verbally chastised, Justin himself left the school grounds in restraints.
Justin was taken to a police department, a place where the unjust were punished for their criminal actions. But Justin did not deserve to be among those scoundrels, he was merely protecting his family's honor, was he not?
His mother had to fetch him and return him home.
"Have you lost your mind?" she said, her voice loud enough to be heard in the halls of Valhalla.
"Ma', he was askin' for it."
"How many times have I told you, you can't be fighting in school?" Her voice rammed into the ears of all who could hear her, "You think people out there care? You think people are gonna treat you the same way they treat everyone else?" She stood tall and proud, but she could not fool Heimdall's eyes…she was terrified. The same terror Heimdall saw when a mother sent her son off to war. Off to face an evil that would surely claim his life.
"No," she said firmly. "No more fighting. I don't care what they do. No. More."
And Justin gave his word, and that was all there was to the matter. Back in school, Justin honored his word. Even though he wanted to fight against the others who provoked him, he did not. He stayed true to his mother's wishes, and as much as it pained Heimdall to see someone run from battle, he understood that a man's word is of greater importance than boyhood feuds.
The days turned into weeks, and soon the taste for battle left Justin's tongue. One night, as he sat at home, he realized that there was no milk for the morning feast. His mother had always been so good at keeping milk, and eggs, and whatever else stoked for the morning. Yet, she had returned home late that evening, and was too tired to away to the market. So Justin decided that we would carry out the errand in his mother's stead. He grabbed a jacket and journeyed to the local market.
There was no milk to be bought, and no eggs to be secured either. Justin had made his trip in vain.
"Damn it," he said as he made his way back home. The night had grown long and dark on his way home. There was no light to be had on the streets that night, even the streetlamps had forsaken their duties, and Justin walked under the cover of darkness.
And Justin stopped, and turned his eyes towards a police officer whose gun was already drawn.
"E-excuse me?" Justin asked.
"I asked you a question. What're you doing out here so late?"
Justin looked around, and there was no one else to be found. The streets were empty. "I-I just went to the store to buy milk for-"
"Milk?" the officer asked. "I don't see any milk?" He took a step forward. "You out sellin' drugs, ain't that right?"
Heimdall could see the fear spread across Justin's face, "N-no…" Justine said, and then quickly added, "…sir. I was just trying to get home."
"We've had a huge drug ring going on around here, and you fit the description of one of the drug runners to a fuckin' T." The officer grinned, as if he were some kind of valiant hero…holding a gun against an unarmed man.
"Sir, I-I'm just trying to get home. I don't wan-"
"Get your fuckin' hands up."
And Justin obeyed, his hands reached so high he could almost scrap the bottom of Heimdall's boots. Justin shook, "I just want to get home."
And the gun pointed squarely at his face. The officer's hand shook, he was fearful. The police man was fearful of the unarmed school boy he had cornered in a dark alley. How could that be? How could the man with the weaponry be intimidated by the one who had nothing but his clothing?
"Lemme see your ID…slowly." The officer breathed heavy, and the finger on the gun's trigger shook with every noise that bumped in the night. Justin moved slowly, gently placing his hand behind his back to fetch his wallet. He was terrified. And Heimdall knew that ilk. A warrior with a fearful hand is prone to quick temperament and foolish actions.
"Just let me-"
"I said slowly!" The officer screamed, and in one quick twitch, the bullet was fired…and Justin fell to the cold ground.
Heimdall blinked, and felt a cold shiver run up his back.
"Ho, Heimdall!" Prince Thor Odinson had arrived home from a long day of battle. "What see you this day, old friend?" Thor asked, his voice hearty.
"This day, young Prince I have turned my eyes to Midgard." Heimdall's voice was slow and even…he tried not to allow his mind to be clouded by what he had just witnessed. A young man cut down for a crime he was innocent of. Fear, and anger, and an insatiable sadness mulled over the guardian's chest.
Thor smiled, "In truth old friend? What say you of the mortals? Are they not every bit as valiant as I have proclaimed?"
And Heimdall shook his head, "One, my prince, that I have seen showcases all you have told us and more."
There was valor in Midgard. There was courage amongst grand injustices. There was warmth and honor in the hearts of mortal mothers, and their sons. Valor that would be welcomed at the gates of Valhalla.
And Heimdall waited…on baited breath…to hear the horns of Asgard blare, to welcome its new hero.
Chapter 11: T'challa
Being a prince always came with its own set of challenges, and that was the life T'challa was trained to deal with. Being a Wakandan meant that tradition went hand in hand with futurism. A ruler needed to have the vision to create the coming innovations, while honoring all that came before. T'challa knew this, his father had instructed his son, as all fathers must, in the ways of the outside world.
When Prince T'challa touched down upon American soil, he knew the challenges that awaited him. Even though he was a visiting diplomat, representative of Wakanda, he was still a black man in a world not his own. The New York airport smelled of manufactured dust, and corn syrup. Not even the soil felt authentic to T'challa's senses. Everything from the rickety support beams to the warm soft drinks looked false.
"New York," T'challa whispered. Against the wishes of his father, T'challa had left behind the Dora Milaje, his personal body guards. They were a team of beautiful women, each trained in so many different forms of combat and espionage. His father, T'chaka insisted that his son bring them as well.
"You're going to America, my son," T'chaka said, "You know how the Westerners feel about black men, and women."
"I can handle the Westerners father," T'challa assured him. "There is no need to bring half the Wakandan army to America's shores for one diplomatic visit."
It's not that his father was worried that his son would not return home alive, and well. It was more the disrespect he knew T'challa would face when confronted by someone so full of his own power and importance. To a Westerner, there was nothing so terrifying as a black man who was proud of his own heritage. Still, King T'chaka made sure that every police officer, security agent, and whoever else knew of his son's arrival, that Prince T'challa was a representative of Wakanda, and was not to be trifled with in any manner.
T'challa walked out into the New York air. Taxi cars and busses filled the streets like beetles on a tree. Everything was so crowded here, it was a wonder so many people came to New York in the first place.
"Did you hear about Justin Williams?" A young woman from across the street whispered. T'challa halted his pace and slightly turned his head. This woman, with skin as dark and as beautiful as any Wakandan woman, sat cross legged on a bus bench. Her hair wrapped in a warm cloth, and a phone jammed against her ear. To anyone else, this woman's words would have been lost in the noise of the busy streets. But T'challa's senses were heightened beyond that of a normal man's, no secret could be kept while the future king of Wakanda was around.
"I know," she said. "Some guy…Officer Smith just shot this unarmed kid on his way home one night. And you know the fuckin' media, tryin' to spin it like Justin deserved to get shot. I mean, just this morning, there were more reports about the guy's criminal record than anything else."
T'challa had not heard of that newscast, but at the same time, it did not surprise him. He did his best to keep his eyes towards current events in the world outside of Wakanda, just in case a new threat might come towards Wakanda's shores. He kept his mind on the present, while at the same time studying the history that came before. He knew the history of Europe, and the Americas, and Asia. But most of all, he knew of the struggles of the black American.
The United States always prided itself on its ability to value freedom and fair play. Yet it buried its own history when it came to paying for its sins. It may have been Thomas Jefferson who wrote that "All men were created equal", but it was the black American who upheld that truth when the rest of the world refused to. Even now, that same struggle continues, and rounds the world over. Black men and women forcing the United States to live up to the ideals it was founded upon. Sometimes, T'challa wished he could help. Perhaps speak on this issue, but he quickly put the notion to rest. A black man he may be, he was not American, and trying to insert himself into this battle would only cause more problems. Trying to dictate how a country should deal with its own sins, a country that he was not a part of, would cause more ill.
Still, black people in this country were strong, and never allowed themselves to lay down while being slaughtered like cattle. If America was the giant of the world, then black Americans were clearly her morality. History was filled with black men and women who worked hard, harder than any, to keep this country honest, and never allowed its sins to go unnoticed. It was they who changed the world with Jazz music. It was they who revolted against unjust human labor. It was they who flew the Axis skies in World War II. It was they who were dubbed the "Men of Hell" in World War I. It was they who were beaten, broken, and raided against, and still they only came back stronger. It was they who changed the face of this world, and all who lived in it.
African Americans did not need his influence…
"All this talk about the tragedy, and no one's even mention the mother yet," the young woman said. "My god, that poor lady. I hope someone does something for her. Anything at all."
…but perhaps there was someone else who did.
Chapter 12: Lucy Williams
The worst thing a parent can ever dream of is burying their own child. They were nightmares that no one hoped to see. When a child is born, the first thing a mother thinks about is that child's death. How the world, as cruel as it can be, may steal that life away…just because it can.
Lucy Williams never believed her son would be one of those kids the world took away. No, not her son. Not Justin. Not the young man who made his bed every morning, got breakfast ready when she herself was too tired, and brushed his teeth after every meal. Not Justin. Not the boy she taught to say Yes Sir, and No Ma'am. Not the boy who fell down five times when learning to ride his bicycle, and cried for three whole days after he got the news of his father's passing. Not Justin.
And yet when she peeked inside of his clean room, all she saw was an after image of her son. There was no one to track mud into her house anymore. No one to leave hair in the bathroom sink. The house was just empty. Nothing but a bleeding wound.
Lucy stopped watching the news. She couldn't comprehend how they could report her son's death with such finality. Such cold jawlines, and stoned expressions, as if the death of her son was just an inconvenience occurrence. They never got the story right.
"Justin Williams was 18 years old," they said. No, Justin Williams was a teenager, eager to grow up, but unready for the world ahead of him. "Justin Williams appeared to be carrying a weapon." No, Justin Williams had a wallet, a pack of gum, and black skin. "Justin Williams had a criminal record," they said. No. Justin Williams was a young man who made mistakes, as all people his age did. He fought others in school, yet he worked diligently when it was time for chores. He joked with his friends during lunch, but he always came home with a backpack full of work that he completed every night. There was nothing about Justin's love of writing, his ambition to be a musician. No news report about his sixth birthday party, or how he himself made sure every guest had their own hat. No twitter hashtag about how Justin carried the groceries home in his arms when his mother was too tired to go shopping. Lucy Williams couldn't watch the news any longer, because the only stories she saw were the ones that painted her son something he never was. She wanted to be angry, and in time she would be…but for now all of her thoughts were on Justin. Her dreams were of her son's spilled blood.
Until one evening, as Lucy got ready for Justin's wake, a news report from Avengers Tower blared across Bugle News. James Rhodes, decorated military man, and hero to the world, spoke of her son.
"America is a country I am proud to serve," Rhodes said with a grim face, "But I cannot, in good conscious allow the death of Justin Williams to go unchallenged." He spoke with a deep sadness that even Lucy herself recognized. The deep emptiness of justice left undone. "Justin Williams was no thug. He was no drug dealer. He was a young man with his whole life in front of him, and his death is a gross miscarriage of American ideals. And I would hope that his name is never forgotten." Rhodes voice echoed throughout the office building, enflamed and subtle, "Justin Williams, you will be missed." The screen faded to black.
The world began to change after that.
A man named Sam Wilson began a community wide donation drive to pay for Justin's funeral expenses. The day after that, two men, one with an eyepatch over his face, and another with a crooked walk (almost as if he had metal rods where his limbs would be), volunteered to help out around the house. They chopped wood, they fix the plumbing, and they worked on the car. They did not give their names, but Lucy was grateful.
Shortly after, another man (who called himself Carl Lucas) mowed her lawn.
The next day, a young man named Malcolm brought over food, a meal he had made himself, and gave her his number. "Call me if you just want to talk, alright?" he said, his eyes honest and kind, and after that, a nurse from Hell's Kitchen, Claire Temple began a drive to pay for any and all hospital bills that may have occurred during Justin's autopsy.
In the late evening, Lucy Williams received a package, ornate and decorated in gold, with a note attached that read: "Fear not, for your son now dwells in Valhalla, amongst all the fallen heroes." She did not understand, but the box contained a more roses than she could count. "Be at ease…" she heard someone whisper.
Two weeks after that, a police officer named Misty Knight visited her, promised she would look into Officer Smith, and slipped her the card of the best lawyer she knew. "We'll get your son justice," Misty said. "I promise."
When Lucy closed her eyes at night, her dreams were of her son. But gone were the terrors of her son's bloodied corpse, replaced with gentler times. The moment she held Justin in her arms. The nights when he slept next to her breast, safe and warm. The birthday parties he danced at, and the flowers he gave her every mother's day. It was as if her nightmares had been washed clean by magic, and when she awoke, she swore she could still feel a lingering presence.
And now, as she sat on her front porch, where her son used to play, she found herself remembering the gap in Justin's teeth, and the stubble that grew from his chin. She forced herself to retrace every part of her son's face, fearing that one day, she may forget it entirely.
She turned her head to see a man standing on her front porch. He was tall and lean, with shoulders that looked like they could carry a truck. His teeth parted ways ever so slightly when he smiled…it reminded her of Justin.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I…" she tried to compose herself, "I was just thinking."
"Oh no," the stranger said, "I understand. I must apologize for my intrusion." The stranger spoke with a deep accent that sounded like an ancient psalm. "I just wanted to pay my condolences…" he froze, hoping not to sound too nonchalant about the entire affair. When Justin first died, Lucy had tried to keep her pride about her. She may have been broken on the inside, but she wanted everyone to know she was not throwing in the towel. Her son had taught her that.
"I was just reminiscing," she said. "My son used to play out here all the time. Doin' cartwheels, ridin' bikes." She felt a deep longing arise in her chest, knowing that her home would now be without the one thing that made it what it was. What good was a house if there was no family to share it with?
"I am so sorry, Mrs. Williams," the stranger said again.
She shook her head, "You think I'd be used to loss by now, right?" Her shoulders heaved, "After his father got cancer…this should be nothing new for me…"
The stranger placed a gentle hand against her shoulder. "Where I come from," he began, "We have a belief," he kneeled down and glanced into her eyes. "Stories are the one thing that can never be taken from us." He spoke in an even rhythm that made Lucy want to crawl into his arms. "In my homeland sharing the stories of our loved ones means that they live on forever."
Lucy smiled, "That's very beautiful."
"So," he said, "Would you do me the honor, or sharing your son's story? The story of who he was, as you knew him." He smiled, his teeth slightly gaped, and his eyes glistening in the sunlight, "For a mother's words are truer than any other's."
Lucy Williams patted the seat of her wooden bench, and wiped one last tear from her face. "Yes," she said, "I'd like that."