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The Conceited Crusader

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When the first couple of hymnals start flying around, Stephen exclaims, "My notorious sensitive stomach is acting up once more!" and bolts for the doors at the back of the sanctuary.

They won't open.

In spite of himself, Jon almost feels relieved. Church reporting isn't his beat; this was supposed to be Stephen's story, and the only reason Jon came along is because Stephen can only stay on task if there's somebody around to babysit him. A metahuman attack that will probably require the Eagle to show up and defend, on the other hand...that's a story Jon can sink his teeth into.

"This way!" rings out the pastor's voice from the front. Turns out there's a door behind the pulpit, and she's holding it open, though it's rattling and shaking in a fierce effort to close on her. "Families with small children first. Two at a time, please! Walk, don't run!"

A couple of children have started wailing in fear and confusion, but the rest of the congregation is downright organized as everyone files toward the exit, parting to let families through. Stephen's the only person who doesn't listen, trying to jog to the front of the line.

Jon grabs him by the shirt as he jogs past. "Weren't you listening?" he demands, yanking Stephen back, then ducking before a flying Bible can clip him across the head. "Let the kids go! And don't panic!"

"I am not panicking!" yells Stephen. "This is a perfectly rational response! It's a poltergeist; it could be anywhere! And it's a poltergeist who clearly hates religion, so as the most devout person here, I'm going to be its primary target!"

Communion trays go whizzing over the crowd, spinning as they go, pelting everyone with bread and grape juice and tiny plastic cups. Someone starts yelling at their invisible antagonist to be gone, demon! It doesn't stop one of the carved wooden crosses on the walls from shaking itself out of its fastenings and floating across the rows of pews...

...to clock Stephen across the back of the skull.

He hits the carpet, and Jon grabs the cross and wrestles it back before it can strike again. What if Stephen was on to something with this "primary target" business? He's been right about this city's supernatural events before, after all. "Stephen! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, thank you, Susan," says Stephen woozily.

The congregation is almost all out ahead of them, but a man at the back of the line turns and calls, "You boys need some help back there?"

"Yes, please!" calls Jon. The sooner he can get out of here, the sooner he can find a phone and call the Eagle...but no, he can't just leave Stephen. "Get him out of here, will you?"

The cross in his hands goes limp, and a second one rips itself off the wall...not to hit Stephen, but to get in front of their would-be rescuer and swat at him before he can get halfway down the aisle.

"Okay, never mind!" exclaims Jon, flinging his own no-longer-mobile cross aside and kneeling to help Stephen up. "I've got him!"

They stagger together toward the exit, Stephen's breath quick and shallow, Jon stumbling under the weight.

When the second cross has batted the last of the congregants as far as the door, it drops to the ground, and there's a long moment when nothing is moving that shouldn't be. Is the poltergeist bored? Tired? Gone? "Come on," urges Jon, "we're almost there, just gotta keep going before it comes—"

An eerie creaking sound fills the air.

At first, Jon can't place it. It's not a sound that was ever meant to be heard. Because these pews are huge, old-fashioned boxy things, and they were bolted to the floor with the design that they would never come up again.

The slab of wood tips and wobbles unsteadily while it's in the air, as if whatever's holding it is having some trouble balancing this kind of weight. Cushions topple from the seats when it rocks forward. A handful of programs from the day's service fall out of the slots on the back and scatter like leaves in the wind.

Then it starts moving.

The pastor's still holding the door open, her efforts now aided by the man who tried to come back and help Jon and Stephen. But standing their ground to let a solid, heavy piece of wood crash into them isn't brave, it's suicidal, and they fall back into a passage too narrow for the pew to follow. At last the door can slam shut behind them.

"Stephen, listen to me," says Jon, praying Stephen's lucid enough to take this in. "I know you're dizzy, but we have to run, okay?" He can't see any shelter. Not from this. Just have to keep ahead of the pew rocking through the air towards them. "We have to—"

"Get down!" yells Stephen, and with one hard yank drags them both to the floor, Jon on top.

The last thought Jon ever has is going to be cursing Stephen for using him as a human shield, in spite of everything.

A slow, splintering crash fills his ears...

...but there's no pain, and he's pretty sure he isn't dead.

Jon looks to one side. Half a carved and heavy pew is lying at an angle over him, one end thudded against the carpet, the other snapped and splintered overhead. Its matching half is on the other side. Fragments of wood skitter down the familiar soap-bubble dome of a forcefield holding it up.

"He's here," breathes Jon as he sits up, giddy with the too-familiar joy of unexpected not-dying. "He made it! I didn't even call him, and he made it. We're gonna be fine, Stephen." He'll shout at the man about the whole human-shield thing later. Right now he just wants to bask in the glory of his favorite hero's competence. "The Eagle's got our backs."

"Jon, please shut up," snaps the Eagle. "Not that I mind the praise, but I am trying to concentrate."

The voice is right next to him. And that's not possible. The feathered crimefighter has to be casting this from a distance, because Jon can't see him anywhere...

...until his eyes light on Stephen's hand. The shouty reporter is still flat on his back and keeps closing his eyes, but his hand is curled into a gesture Jon's seen dozens of times by now, though for all the others it's had a glove on.

"Stephen," breathes Jon. "You're...?"

"Concentrating!" yells Stephen, in the Eagle's voice. And now they're being pelted with another round of hymnals, so Jon swallows all his questions and lets the Eagle concentrate.

 

 

Around the time they hear the first sirens, the barrage stops.

Stephen ripples the field around them, shaking off the debris piled on top of it, and switches it off. Jon promptly takes a couple of deep breaths. Stephen had been opening holes periodically to let in fresh air, but it still got pretty stuffy in there.

"They...burn themselves out," explains Stephen in a wandering voice. "Dash themselves to pieces against the rocks of our faith...we shall not be moved, rah rah rah." He pauses. "Unless it's faking...so we take our guard down. Hope it's not faking."

Jon gets to his feet and surveys the battered sanctuary. "If anything moves, I'll let you know."

"You can't...tell anyone," adds Stephen.

"What, about the poltergeist?"

"About me," pants Stephen, short of breath. "Can't tell. Not a word. You can't."

"Wasn't going to," Jon assures him. "Nobody would believe me if I did."

A weak smile crosses the prone hero's face. "Yeah...I'm pretty good at the whole...secret-identity thing," he murmurs, closing his eyes.

Jon drops back to his knees and clasps Stephen's shoulder. "Don't fall asleep! We've gotta get you to a hospital first. The Eagle may have saved us from death-by-hymnal, but you could still have a concussion."

 

 

He works late filing the story, and gets home long past dinnertime, too late to cook. Jon's staring at the TV dinners piled in his freezer when there's a knock on his window.

The Eagle, now in full costume, is perched on the fire escape.

"You'll be happy to know that I am not concussed," he announces, when Jon opens the window. "The nurse said I still seemed mildly confused and had a short attention span, but she was sure that would wear off soon."

Jon has a feeling it won't, but he's tactful enough not to say so. "Good to hear. I got you a card anyway — do you want it?"

The hero makes gloved grabby-hands at him. "Gimme!"

It's just a cheap card he picked up at a convenience store on the way home, but it's illustrated with a cartoon version of the Eagle, declaring, "Get well soon, Hero!" The real Eagle's lip wobbles when Jon hands it over.

"In a way, this is a relief," he adds with forced pep. "You have no idea what a trial it is, hearing you praise me all the time at the office and not being able to take the credit."

"I don't praise you all the time...."

"Do so! Sometimes it gets so bad I have to double-check the police wire just to make sure Lavender Menace hasn't broken out early."

Jon's cheeks flame. He'd been staring at the man's mouth — it's the only body part the costume doesn't cover, the only thing he can compare to his mental image of Stephen and recognize how they've been the same all along — but now it just reminds him of that time he got brain-zapped into kissing that mouth, and, wow, this is awkward.

"But that is not the reason I came over here!" declares the Eagle. It occurs to Jon that he might be blushing too, and with the cowl over his face you'd never know. "The reason I came by is...to say thank you, you know, for stuff, and...and to say, do you want to come hang out at the Eagle's Nest with me?"

"Seriously?" says Jon, stunned and flattered. There are rumors all around the city that its local superhero has a secret lair, but nobody's ever seen it. He'd be getting the biggest exclusive on the cape beat this city's ever offered.

"We can order pizza!" adds the costumed crusader, apparently thinking he has to sweeten the deal. "I'll even pay for it on the Eagle's Credit Card."

For Jon, being a newspaper guy means two things: he's insatiably curious, and he's always nearly broke. Stephen really is a hero. "I'm in."

He kicks on a pair of sandals, grabs his keys, and comes out onto the landing. The Eagle loops a steadying arm around his waist, and their forcefield for the evening shimmers into being. "I should warn you, it's pretty high up."

"Not a problem," says Jon warmly. "I trust you not to drop me."

Stephen gives him a sharp, birdlike nod, and, with the hand still holding the card, makes the gesture that lifts them into the air.

Jon leans comfortably against him, and they soar.