Chapter 36

              Though Titan’s high-flying exit did mark a high point in the rescue efforts, it by no means signaled the end of them. Before the work was considered complete, several more buildings were evacuated, dozens of cars pulled open or moved, and two more unstable structures had to be collapsed. Clean-up would be a whole other ordeal, one that the city’s services would have to handle. PEERS and Heroes were willing to pitch-in on small scale things like downtown, but one glance at the ravaged section of cityscape made it clear that this was work for professionals.

                Despite the many hours it took, Titan was feeling fairly upbeat as they arrived back at the penthouse. They’d managed to save nearly everyone still alive in the rubble, and he’d personally only encountered one person that was already gone. Since Titan had done his best to get put on the jobs with a high likelihood of encountering a dead body, that was a surprisingly decent number. He didn’t by any stretch of the imagination enjoy discovering corpses, but he’d been a Hero for a long time. Better he did it than someone who’d never experienced a thing like that. The first time could be traumatic, and was best handled in private, surrounded by teammates and friends. After all his years, Titan could hide the way seeing the bodies affected him; he just couldn’t stop their faces from haunting his most terrible dreams.

                His team stepped into the penthouse, everyone too worn out, physically and mentally, to bother talking. Instead of finding an empty place to relax in, however, they found Mr. Greene waiting with his arms crossed. Galvanize immediately pulled himself up straight and stepped toward their boss.

                “Evening, sir. What can we do for you?”

                “Most of you can go take the night to unwind; you did exemplary work this afternoon. Titan, however, needs to have a discussion with me.”

                “She called, huh?” Owen said. Deep down he’d been hoping Gale’s last outburst had been nothing but bluster, even after hearing Granite’s reasons for her concerns.

                “If by ‘she’ you mean Gale, the leader of Elemental Fury, then yes ‘she’ most certainly did. Why, exactly, would you think to agree to a publicized power assessment without taking it through us first?”

                “I knew it! I fucking knew it!” Zone whirled around, all exhaustion suddenly absent from his face. He thrust a long finger mere inches from Owen’s eyeball. “You were just using us to get your profile up, log a little good will, and now you’re trying to jump ship to the most popular team in Brewster. I told Galvanize you’d pull this shit!”

                “Calm down there, you can walk to conclusions instead of jumping at them.” Owen greatly disliked having Zone’s finger so close to his face, but if he knocked it away then it would seem like a sign of aggression, and right now he needed to seem as peaceful as possible. “Gale insisted on doing a power assessment on me, I never once asked to join her team, nor did she offer. The woman is almost as suspicious of me as you, thinks I’m here to grand-stand at the expense of doing the job right.”

                “So she indicated on the call,” Mr. Greene confirmed. “But that doesn’t explain why you agreed to it without proper clearance, let alone upped the ante to a public event.”

                “The event part was my agent trying to call her bluff and get her to call the whole thing off,” Owen said. “I’ll be the first admit, that one sort of backfired on us. As for why I didn’t get clearance… why don’t we go to your office for that discussion?”

                It was a simple request, one that Owen tried as hard as he could to phrase as a mere bit of propriety. Unfortunately, as he watched Greene’s face and the looks of his team, Owen knew they’d all read it as a power play. They thought he was trying to force Greene off balance and shift the field of battle to his own terms. Of course, this left Greene only one response, which was a damned shame. Owen really hadn’t meant it as some sort of verbal dick-joust, but no one would believe that once he actually answered Greene’s question.

                “Right here is fine, Titan, or do you not feel like your team deserves to hear your reasoning?”

                Owen shook his head. Damned fool had held his ground and brought team loyalty into this. Greene left his caged Hero only way out, and it was not a pretty one.

                “No, I just thought it would be more respectful to bring this up in private,” Owen replied, keeping his voice as even as he could. “But since you want to go there, right here and now, I’ll tell you why I didn’t get clearance from you: because I don’t need any. I don’t work for you.”

                “The pay and accommodations we’re providing tell a very different story.”

                “Recheck your contracts. You’re providing all that as part of compensation for the time I spend working with you. Heroes aren’t for sale; we’re for rent at best. An active Hero, in fulfillment of his duties, is only beholden to one entity: the American people he protects. The Department of Variant Human Affairs is the proxy representative of that group, and they’re the only ones we have to get clearance or permission from to do our jobs. Jobs that, sometimes, include working with other Heroes or teams and doing things like power assessments. You may have sway over how things are handled on a PEERS operation, but I’ll say it again: I don’t need your clearance for anything Hero related.”

                Mr. Greene’s normally composed face was flushed red. Whatever he’d been expecting Owen to offer up, it had not been an open challenge to his authority. He stayed silent for a moment, glaring at the mountain of a man and undoubtedly wishing their physical capacities were reversed.

                “I could terminate your contract and have you kicked out of this building faster than you could pack your masks in a makeshift sack.”

                Owen was tempted, for the slimmest of moments, to back down and let Greene save some face. Unfortunately, that time had already passed. He’d tried to give Greene an out where they could talk this through peacefully and the manager had rejected it. Owen was a fan of peaceful resolution whenever possible, but if someone was going to push him into a fight, then they were going to get everything he had to throw. And Owen Daniels, much like Titan, could throw damn heavy.

                “That’s your right as overseer of this team, but what you can’t do is tell me how to do my job. If you can’t square with that, then go sign whatever you have to sign to end this deal. I’ll tell you right now though; the next Hero you bring on payroll is going to draw the same line that I just did. We fight goddamned monsters and keep innocent people safe, there is no time in our world for anyone to try and impose bureaucratic bullshit on that process. I’ll try to keep you in the loop on things, as a courtesy, but if you expect me to run and ask permission for what I have to do to fill my role as Hero, then we’re going to have a problem. So, Mr. Greene, do we? Do we have a problem?”

                The entire room seemed to hold its breathe as Owen and Mr. Greene stared at one another. Either this would end, right here and now, or it would be allowed to fester in the weeks to come. One thing was certain though: the relationship between these two men had been fundamentally altered in a way that could never be undone.

                “Everyone go to bed and rest,” Mr. Greene said at last. “It was a long, very disturbing day for all of you, and I’m sure we can have cooler discussions once your emotions have calmed down.”

                Placating as his words were, the ferocity in his eyes as he glared at Owen was unmistakable. He’d been called out in front of his team, and he’d backed down. Mr. Greene might be willing to let that slide for now, but it was only a matter of time until he made a play to turn the tables.

                Owen shook his head and he headed to his room. He seemed to be pissing off everyone he met lately. If he had the self-control, he’d have resolved to just stop talking. Instead, he took a very long shower and tried not to think about all the pitfalls he’d already manage to surround himself with.