They broke all speed limits trying to get to the beach in the nick of time.
"There's King's bike!" Lioness said, and they hit the brakes, stopping their engines next to it. "I just hope we aren't too late."
The wall of the wooden house was broken as if something had crashed through it, and some distance away from it was…
"NO!" Axel rushed forward with the speed they didn't know he possessed, Lioness and Hawk struggling to keep up with him.
The dark figure anticipated his approach and rose to block his punch, taking his hands off the smaller figure's throat and leaving it to lie in the sand like a discarded toy. His arm was bent at an unnatural angle at the elbow and he didn't seem to be breathing.
"King! Stop!" Axel's voice sounded pleading. "I know you don't want to do this!"
Hawk's shaking fingers reached down to Shark's neck, attempting to feel for a pulse, and his heart dropped into his stomach.
On autopilot he fell into the rhythmic pattern of breathing out and compressing the unmoving chest. Lioness was there with him at first, but disappeared soon after. Dimly he was aware of the sounds of fighting nearby, but they didn't matter enough.
"Please, please, please…"
Strong arms grabbed him and pulled him back, pushed him into the sand as an unmoving weight settled across his back. He screamed and fought, trying to throw it off, and someone laughed.
Stingfly (when did he get there?) approached Shark at a casual pace and nudged him with his toe, getting no reaction. "Looks like one of you isn't getting up."
"Make that two of them," a voice off to his side said, and roaring laughter exploded in response.
Clawed fingers made it into his line of vision, dangerously close to his face. Firekat was crouching next to his head, her tail swinging back and forth. He stilled, waiting for her move.
She watched him, cat-like, then suddenly grinned. "Let's make it a little more interesting."
Fluidly, she rose to her feet, heading for the unresponsive body of his friend lying helpless just in front of him.
Cold terror settled in his stomach. "No, no, don't touch him! Don't you dare touch him!"
He struggled with all he had, clawing at the sand, thrashing, bucking his legs, trying to twist, to punch, to do anything. It was like trying to push against a solid stone wall, or a rhino sitting on him. It was getting hard to breathe, or was it simply the weight pressing down on his lungs?
This wasn't going to work. He needed something, something… "You know what, I'm not even surprised. You are all so weak you didn't manage to beat us in a fair fight even once. The only way you can do that is to gang up on someone who's unconscious. How about threatening to cut up someone who can scratch you back, huh, you scaredy cat?"
Firekat crouched next to Shark, placing a single claw right over his carotid artery. She twisted a bit to look at Hawk, as if to make sure he had the full view.
Despair welled up, drowning out all reason. He knew that he was giving them exactly the reaction they wanted, but couldn’t help it. "Please… don't…"
He was laughing. The bastard sitting on his back was laughing.
"Shall we see if one can bleed if his heart has stopped?"
He wasn't entirely sure what happened after that. Firekat and the weight from his back were gone, and there was a commotion nearby. Breathless, he was kneeling next to the body of his best friend, and there was a faint flutter against his fingertips pressed to Shark's (not bleeding, not bleeding) neck.
He wanted to cry. Maybe he was crying.
Lioness was there, asking him questions, then pulling him back and helping Axel fix the mangled arm the best they could.
Axel was there, shouting out orders in a sharper tone than usual, then rushing Shark's limp form into the car and driving off, Lioness jumping into the cabin with them.
King was there, grey and shaken. There was a reason for it, he remembered.
Hawk tugged at his arm, making the blue eyes snap to him, and nodded at King's bike and the car. "We have to go, or we will lose them."
King looked at his hands as if they were the scariest thing he saw in his life. Then he broke free from Hawk's grasp, stumbled a few steps to the side and fell to his knees, retching violently.
The pen glinted innocently from a few steps away. Hawk briefly considered picking it up to get it to Garret somehow, but thought better and crushed it under his boot instead. It was a small satisfaction to feel the plastic crack.
Unfortunately, there wasn't nearly enough leverage on the friable surface to destroy it completely. Hawk glared. With a few well-placed kicks he rolled the offender to the road, where he stomped on it viciously to his heart's content until what was left of it became unrecognizable.
He returned to King, whose retches dissolved into what sounded like quiet sobs, and put a hand on his shaking shoulder. The man jumped at the contact, his face snapping up.
"I took care of the pen," Hawk said just to have something to say. "It's not going to cause harm to anyone again." Then something else occurred to him, and he chuckled almost hysterically. "You know what, I don't remember a single thing Axel said to us before he drove away."
The man's head went down again at this.
Maybe he should have been angrier at King. Strangely, he wasn't angry with him at all. But then again, King was an unwilling puppet in all of it, so maybe it wasn't that strange. It could have been any of them.
From his position he could clearly see the hole in the wall of Shark's wooden house.
One thing was clear. King was in no state to drive. He probably needed a once-over by a doctor as well.
Hooking his arm under King's elbow, Hawk tried to pull him to his feet with a murmured "Come on, man, we have to go".
King didn't move. "I… I can't."
"Sure you can." Hawk crouched, readjusting himself into a proper supporting position. "Hawkster's here to help you up."
"No!" King pushed away from him, getting to his feet and taking a few steps back. "No… I mean…" He kept looking around wildly like a caged animal until his gaze fell on the gaping hole. "You go ahead. I'll stay around and fix this. Some of Shark's favorite boards are in there."
He wanted to go. He could live with Shark being upset about his boards if Shark lived to be upset about them.
King probably couldn't. He was going to feel guilty enough about what happened without adding insult to injury. Literally.
And could Hawk live with leaving King alone in this state?
Hawk sighed, resigning himself to his fate. Two could play that game.
"Okay. We'll stay and fix this, and then we are going to the hospital." King didn't look to happy about it. "It'll be quicker that way."
Apparently King found nothing he could reasonably object to. Silently, they went about fixing what was broken. Or rather, King was doing most of the fixing and Hawk was responsible for the hovering.
There were some instruments in the house, along with some spare materials they could use. It didn't take long for the hole to be covered, but it would always be obvious that it had been there.
Valiantly, Hawk tried not to think about it as a metaphor.
They finished their job, got to their vehicles and left.
I shouldn't be here.
The thought pulsed in King's mind as he stopped his bike on the parking lot near the hospital.
I shouldn't be here.
Hawk got out of his car, locked the door and walked over to him.
What am I doing? None of them want to see me after this.
"Come on, big guy, let's go." Hawk tugged at his elbow.
I shouldn't be here.
He followed Hawk mechanically, trying his best not to think about what awaited him inside. But that only brought back…
Surprise and pain on Shark's face, a sickening crunch and an agonized scream, an arm straining feebly to push him away, then falling limply as his eyes finally closed…
The urge to throw up returned. Hawk pulled him insistently forwards.
King broke free, taking a step back.
"I'm sorry," he managed to choke out. "I can't."
He turned, got on his bike and fled.
Lioness leapt out of her waiting seat as Hawk appeared on the floor, shaking his head as he saw them. A brief sweep revealed no hulking figure following him, and she dropped back down in disappointment.
Foreboding snaked around her, fueled by a terrifying possibility that they could very easily lose not one, but two members of their team. She was jittery, wanting to go chase down King and drag him here, to be reassured by his presence and by the knowledge that he wasn't somewhere out there alone, killing himself with his thoughts in a self-induced isolation. Not to mention the Mu-Team were still on the loose.
But Shark had looked dead as they wheeled him away, shooting out directions and medical jargon. Shark had been dead on the beach, and they had no way to know for how long.
Shark could be dying right now, fading away from the injuries they had seen and some that they hadn't noticed.
The harder she struggled, the more the thought engulfed her like quicksand. When they were allowed, if they were allowed to see him, these minutes, moments could very well be Shark's last.
She couldn't leave. She couldn't.
Lioness clasped her fingers into a lock, pressing them against her mouth. Axel's arm returned to wrap around her shoulders, a warm weight grounding her. It was less reassuring than she had hoped, but it was still a comfort.
"Still no news," Axel said, addressing Hawk. "It's been a little more than an hour."
Hawk slid to a seat on her left, and she realized she came to stare at a blank faintly green wall across her at some point. She didn't feel like turning to look at anything else. When she watched the clock, it was as if she slowed the hands down by just looking at them.
They waited in silence.
There was a moment a group of children went by and laughed, pointing at Hawk's hair, before a woman shooed them away, apologizing. Hawk brought his hand up to touch his head, looking genuinely surprised, and to her own surprise she realized that he had forgotten.
She exchanged equally flabbergasted glances with Axel, who cleared his throat. "I'll go get us some coffee," he muttered, heading in the direction of the cafeteria.
Lioness looked at the clock. Five minutes had passed.
Then, for the first time, she actually took a good look at Hawk.
He was pale, tired and there was a dull, haunted look in his eyes that she didn't remember seeing there before.
She didn't know why it hadn't occurred to her that Hawk would be affected by the recent events as well. He and Shark were best friends, were they not? And the desperation with which he had fought for his life should have been indication enough.
Her heart reaching out to him, she touched his shoulder with her right hand, leaning forwards to try and catch his gaze. His eyes snapped to meet hers, and apparently he saw something there, because it was as if a dam had broken. Abruptly, he turned away, dropping his face into his palms.
She left her hand where it was until Axel returned, and when he did, she only switched her position to take the coffee with an arm that wasn't sandwiched between her and Hawk. Hawk didn't react, so Axel tapped his shoulder to get his attention and pass him the plastic cup. Hawk accepted it without looking, but didn't drink, only held it in both hands and stared at in detachedly. Axel patted his shoulder, then returned to his seat on Lioness's right.
Coffee in her right hand, the left one rubbing absent circles on Hawk's bicep and Axel's arm back around her, Lioness looked at the clock again.
Ten more minutes had passed.
It would be two more hours before the doctor returned, her face grim.
Lioness was gone, attempting to track down King. Hawk was asleep in a waiting chair, looking utterly spent and exhausted. It didn't look like he meant to do that, more like his body had shut down on him the moment the caffeine wore off and he allowed himself to relax even slightly.
Axel stood in front of the glass.
Shark looked terrible, more dead than alive, the only giveaway being the steady pulsation on the heart monitor. Axel stared at it for a while, following each inclination of the line, his mind empty.
But as he took in the body in front of him, it spun into a whirlwind.
Shark's right arm was misshapen and bloated, elevated in an attempt to reduce the swelling so that surgery could put the bones back in their proper places to be held there by staples. Just looking at it made Axel's stomach churn. He had seen the X-rays and the extent of the damage and knew Shark might never regain full mobility in that arm again. If he did, rehabilitation could take months.
Along with cords, there were bandages on Shark's chest, hidden by the gown. Cracked and bruised ribs, one broken, amazingly not more, considering that Hawk had to perform CPR. Thankfully, miraculously, no pierced lung.
Head bandaged, minor concussion and swelling. One cheek blown out of proportion, colored an ugly shade of purple.
But worst of all, a tube shoved down his throat to assist the breathing. Axel couldn't stop staring at it.
He touched the glass, taking in the full evidence of his failure.
Hawk had been with Lioness. If only he had come to check on Shark himself and sent King to Hawk's place, maybe it wouldn't have ended in such a disaster. Sure it might have been pure chance, but the responsibility for the decision lay fully on him.
If only he had been a little smarter, maybe he would have seen the decoy for what it had been sooner. Maybe he wouldn't have called King at all, gathering Shark and Hawk so that they could figure everything out as a united force, then checked both Lioness and King for mind control chips together. None of them would have been singled out or gotten hurt.
Ironically, the person who was a better strategist than Axel himself, if he put his mind to it, was lying right in front of him behind the glass. Maybe Axel should have consulted Shark instead of King in the first place and the situation would have been avoided entirely.
Decisions were so obvious and easy in retrospect.
The doctor was vague in her estimations of the time it would take Shark to come to. Axel tried very hard not to think about the possibility that he may never wake up at all. He might not have been a medic, but even he knew about potential implications of brain swelling and prolonged clinical death.
It was too bad none of them could say exactly how prolonged it had been, and the person who had the best idea would likely not be inclined to talk about it any time soon, if they even found him to begin with.
King was somewhere out there, alone, blaming himself for what had been Axel's miscalculation.
Axel's palm that wasn't pressed against the glass clenched into a fist. His reflection frowned at him, and he focused his gaze on the beeping monitor again.
There was a weight pressing down on him. Firekat was leaning over a lifeless figure, her claw against the figure's neck.
"Shall we see if one can bleed if his heart has stopped?"
She raised her hand and brought it down. Blood splashed against his face.
Hawk jerked awake. He pushed back his panic, dragging his palm across his face with a sigh. He couldn't help glancing at it.
Of course, there was no blood, because it had been just a dream. It wasn't what had actually happened. Stupid.
King had been released from under the mind control just in time, and he had taken care of both Wrecka and Firekat. Shark hadn't been torn to shreds. He was lying in the hospital room just down the hall, still alive and breathing.
Well, as well as one could breathe with a tube shoved down his throat. He had yet to wake up.
Hawk stretched, trying and failing to work the kink out of his neck. It never got any more comfortable to fall asleep in waiting chairs.
His watch told him he has slept for less than an hour and a half. He didn't feel rested, but hopefully he was a little more coherent at least.
Lethargically he dragged his feet to Axel, standing motionless in front of the glass.
"Any news from Lioness?" Hawk asked.
Axel shook his head, eyes still focused in front of him. "May be better that King isn't here for now."
Hawk followed his gaze and cringed, having to agree.
"I called Garrett," Axel said. "Told him not to count on us for anything in for few days."
"The police can handle him," Axel cut in sharply, then added in a quieter tone. "It should have been their job in the first place."
Hawk couldn't argue with that. Except wasn't Lee the one who held all the answers about Axel's father, that being the major reason why they were so involved with him to begin with?
…Oh. Hawk looked at Axel in a new light. Oh.
Well, there was nothing he could say to that, being completely handicapped at not putting his foot into his mouth where delicate matters were concerned. Best to ignore it entirely and leave Lioness to deal with it.
"Maybe you should head home in case King decides to return there," Hawk said awkwardly. "I've rested a bit, so I can stay."
It was doubtful Shark was going to wake up anytime soon, but leaving him here alone with the Mu-team still running rampant pricked at him in all the wrong places.
"What about you audition?"
"My?.. ah, ah yes." And his hair was still a mess, most likely. Hawk ran a hand through it, and immediately his fingers became tangled. He grimaced, trying to work them out of the knots without tearing off the entire patch. They did come loose eventually, with a ripping sound and a distinct feeling of hair pulled out of his scalp. He stared mournfully at the tresses stuck between his fingers. "Guess this means I'm not going."
Axel looked at him with an unusually soft expression that contrasted sharply with his previous demeanor and that Hawk was not normally on the receiving end of. It was gone so quickly it was easy to believe that he'd imagined it.
Turning back to the room, Axel touched the glass in what seemed to be a farewell gesture, then squeezed Hawk's shoulder on his way past, leaving him completely baffled.
What was that about?
Dismissing it and sighing as the passing nurse gave his hair a strange look, Hawk walked back to the seats and settled himself in for a long wait.
King couldn't tell where he was going, except that he couldn't stand to be around people.
The base and Lee Industries were out of question. He sped out of the city, leaving its lights behind, and found himself on the road to Lee's mansion. At the back entrance of the park he got off his bike and headed inside with no particular destination in mind.
Unlike the previous time, there were campers in the area, and he shuffled into the trees to avoid the tents he encountered, directing the light of his torch downwards so that it wouldn't give away his presence.
He didn't have any particular purpose, but his feet led him to the same spot they did the last time, except instead of the sunset there was a vast ocean of stars above him. They shone so much brighter here, not dimmed by the smoke or the street lights.
At a different time he would have been awed, but the sight brought him no comfort now.
He was tainted. He had been used, made to do things that made bile rise to his throat, things that he'd never be able to take back or undo. It had been his hands that did it. He remembered what it felt like, to feel his hands doing these things while his eyes watched, unable to turn away.
He remembered ramming against nothing, not even having enough control to blink when he felt like it. First replacing items, then messing with the engines, then with the fire sprinklers. Knocking on Shark's door on the beach in the middle of nowhere, where no one would see him or be able to interfere. Desperately trying to regain control as Shark opened it, looking up at him in a relaxed manner, then turning his back in a casual display of trust.
It was so odd to realize that apart from King himself, Shark had been the only one not to spy on the other members of the team. That in spite of everything that had been happening he had been the one to ultimately trust them where it mattered.
He hadn't expected the first blow. King's hand moved on its own, sending the surfer flying cleanly through the wooden wall. Even as King walked to Shark struggling to his knees and looking up at his approaching figure, the expression on his face was more confusion than apprehension.
"Dude… I don't get it… What are you?.."
Inwardly King was panicking and yelling at him to get up and run right the devil right now, but his heartbeat was as calm as ever as his body moved on its own accord.
A sharp kick to the ribs sent Shark onto his back, struggling for breath. There was something else in his eyes as he looked at King now, a hint of betrayal with a mixture of fear. He tried to roll over on his side, tried to say something, but with the wind knocked out of him only managed a choked cough.
King's hands arranged themselves into a specific hold. He recognized the move for what it was and inwardly screamed, moments before it was completed. Bones snapped under his fingers. The sound of pure agony that erupted from Shark's throat chilled him to his very core.
Inwardly he wanted to cry, to be sick, to beg for forgiveness, to say that he hadn't meant to, never meant to. Outwardly he watched Shark shaking and sobbing with pain, clutching at his deformed arm. Then his hands moved to his throat and squeezed.
Shark's eyes flew open, and for the first time King saw raw uncovered panic in them. His undamaged hand struggled to unclench King's fingers, his legs bucked, trying to throw off the weight, and his face began to take on an unhealthy purplish tint. Even as King's terror and revulsion reached their absolute peak, his hands still held on. Even as Shark's struggles grew from desperate to feeble to stilling entirely his hands still held on.
It may have been cowardly, but he couldn't face what his hands had done just yet. He couldn't face Shark or the team's accusing stares. How could they forgive him if he didn't know if he could ever look at himself without shame again?
If only he could come back in time and switch places with Shark, he'd do it in an instant.
He didn't know how long he sat there until soft footsteps announced another presence and Lioness quietly sat by his side, close enough for their shoulders to touch.
He didn't ask how she got here or how she found him. He hadn't disabled the homing equipment on his bike and it wasn't like she was unfamiliar with the place.
She didn't say anything, and he was grateful for it. Too fearful to ask the question, he closed himself away behind his ignorance, at least for a little while. They sat on the cliff in silence until the first light of the morning touched the sky. By King's estimation it was about 4 a.m.
"You know it wasn't your fault, right?" Lioness finally spoke.
"Doesn't change what I did."
"It wasn't you."
Anger washed over him. "Yeah? Must have been someone else who beat Sharkman to a bloody pulp then."
Her face softened. "He's alive, King. Still unconscious, but alive."
Some of the weight lifted from his chest, but almost immediately he realized there had to be a reason she waited this long to tell him. "It's bad, isn't it."
"It's too early to tell," Lioness responded a little too quickly. She then sighed and backtracked: "Well, the arm looks bad, but it's nothing surgery can't fix. And there's no internal bleeding."
"One broken, but I think Hawk did it when he had to…" Lioness's eyes widened as she hurriedly covered her mouth.
Something cracked inside him. He couldn't trust himself to speak.
"King… King, I'm sorry."
"He'll never talk to me again." Assuming that he made it. The realization was finally hitting him full-force.
"Shark doesn't hold grudges. Give him time…"
"YOU WEREN'T THERE!" The scream scared a small flock of birds out of the bush, echoing in sudden silence. Lioness was looking at him with open worry that bordered on desperation. King was breathing like he was in a middle of a major workout.
Then he saw something else in Lioness's expression. Maybe it just appeared, or maybe it was there to begin with. Or was he just imagining it? He could no longer tell.
He staggered away from the fear in her face even as she reached out for him.
"King, wait, please!"
He turned and ran, heedless of the destination. He didn't want to hurt her too, he couldn't…
He burst out of the bushes into the clearing when she jumped right in front of him, causing him to brake abruptly to avoid a collision. She looked up at him, and there was worry in her face, but also confidence in her posture, in the way her feet position kept her rooted to the ground. She wasn't about to run. She wasn't scared of him.
He exhaled, deflating, now somewhat embarrassed about his outburst, and suddenly realized how bone-tired he was.
"King, please, let's return to the base." It was as if Lioness read his thoughts. "I know you don't want to hear it right now, I know it feels like it never be alright. I know. I'm sorry. I can't imagine what that mind control did to you, what it felt like. But you can't carry on like that. You need to rest, to sleep... Even if it's just for one day… please…"
She was rambling, and it became clear that the night took its toll on her too. A little more and driving would become dangerous. In a different situation it would be more prudent to ask Axel to pick them up, but King doubted the man had had any sleep either.
The base wasn't where King wanted to go. He felt unworthy of it and of the memories that had been originated there, as if his very presence could corrupt them and by cutting himself away he could somehow keep them pure. Which wasn't strictly true, of course. The memories were going to follow King wherever he went, the base, the park, another city or another planet. They had already been corrupted.
His exhausted mind slowly processed the fact that Lioness had stopped talking and was now looking at him hopefully. Something that he absolutely couldn't do in this situation was to allow her to carry on like that, chasing after him on highways and in the woods. She had spent the entire night with him, losing her sleep, to give him comfort that he didn't deserve. If she wanted him to come to the base so that she could finally catch a break, it was the least he could do.
He sighed and nodded and found himself enfolded in a hug. Strangely, it left him hollow, as if all emotion had been squeezed out of him. He hugged back out of habit and found himself on a long stumbling track out of the woods in the gradually brightening twilight.