Chapter 50

                When Owen finally got home that night, he was worn out. Not physically, of course, even as respectable as a fight as Elemental Fury had put up wasn’t enough to drain his body’s reserves. No, this was a mental weariness that came from shaking hands, smiling for cameras, and just generally schmoozing. He’d have skipped all the post-assessment junk if it was at all viable, but even ignoring the fact that there might be people looking up to him, it was necessary damage control.

                Seeing their Heroes fight against one another could be rough on those who looked to them as a united front, especially children. The interviews and smiles between Titan and people who’d just been trying to bring him down showed everyone that it was all good-natured, nothing more than a game people with super powers played against one another. The truth of what motivated the match in the first place was irrelevant; all that mattered was making sure everyone outside the combatants thought it had been their version of a hard-fought baseball game.

                Once he was finally safe inside his sparse bedroom, Owen peeled away the layers of Titan, thankful to be simple himself again, if only for a short while. Lenny was already talking about a few new meetings and perhaps a sponsorship deal, ones that had come in so fast there was no way the small agent hadn’t already been working on them long before the bout. Lenny was the best, but that also meant being his client could get a bit tiring from time to time.

                A long, hot shower washed away enough of Owen’s fugue that when he stepped into his room he noticed a small light blinking on his bedside table. It was his Hero earpiece, letting him know that he had messages. They were non-vital, otherwise Dispatch would have found a way to contact him. No, the light only came on when one Hero wanted to relay something to another who was considered offline. They’d probably been sent when Owen was doing all his interviews; he’d made sure to let Dispatch know he didn’t want any non-emergency interruptions.

                With a weary sigh, Owen picked up the communicator and slid it into his ear. “Titan, checking in for message relay.”

                “Dispatch recognizes Titan, and congratulates him on his showing today.”

                Neutral and flat though her words were, Owen felt a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He remembered her encouragement from earlier in the day with a fond glow. Dispatch tried to keep herself permanently neutral, but every now and then a touch of her true self shined through.

                “Thank you for the congratulations, and the encouragement,” Owen replied.

                “No thanks required. Are you ready for your messages?”

                “I am.” There was a slight click on the other side of the line as a recording started up. A few seconds of silence rolled, then a familiar voice began speaking in Owen’s ear.

                “Titan, this is Topsy. Wanted to say I caught the show today, and you did us old-timers proud. Way to remind them what the Gentle Hammers were all about. Anyway, we’ve known each other too long for me to beat around the bush: I’m sure you know what happened with my team a few days back. I could use your help, if you don’t mind coming on to do a little freelance consulting. Every member of the Wild Bucks saw what you did today, and I think they’d listen to whatever advice you offered. I understand if your plate is too full, just let me know.”

                Silence returned as Topsy’s message ended. Owen would no doubt accept his friend’s request; that much was a mere trifle of what was owed between them. However, he had no intention of saying anything inspiring to these young Heroes. Instead, he was going to lay down the kind of law that was etched into stone by prophets.

                “Titan, this is Zero.” A new voice was speaking on the communicator, and Owen realized that the next message had begun to play. “We’ve met once or twice, though I’ve never had the pleasure of working with you. You may or may not be aware, but I am no longer working active Hero duty; I have retired to be the dean of one of the Hero Certification Programs. There is a small matter I’d like to discuss with you, should you have the time. Feel free to call through Dispatch, she can plug you into my usual line of communication. Thank you.”

                Well, that couldn’t be good. Owen knew very well who Zero was: the Hero who had retired to run the Lander University HCP. The same HCP that had accepted five former-Powereds into its ranks, one of them with the same last name as Owen himself. He was all too familiar with the Lander HCP, and whatever reason Zero had for calling him, it almost certainly had to be a bad one.

                “Salutations and congratulations, my good oaf.” It took Owen a minute to place this voice, it was familiar, but not excessively so. He realized who it was only a second before they gave their name anyway. “This is Jeremiah, in case you’ve already forgotten my voice after our long discussion on theoretical robotics. I’m calling because while you were knocking the stuffing out of the biggest team on the block, I may have found a bit more interesting information. There’s no need to try and return my call, in fact you won’t be able to if you try, not for a few days. Instead, you can meet me tomorrow night at The Sleek Minx around seven. Have your costume ready, but come in wearing civvies. Or don’t, if you aren’t all that curious. Up to you, though I will say this much: I do not expect tomorrow night to be boring.”

                “That concludes your messages,” Dispatch said. “Would you like me to patch you through to anyone?”

                Owen considered his options. The one he most wanted to talk with was Jeremiah, but Subtlety Heroes rarely joked about being unreachable. It was the smart move, too, luring Owen in with the subject that interested him in order to have extra muscle on hand. Jeremiah was good at what he did, which made the prospect of seeing what lead he’d caught all the more tempting. Still, he’d said he’d be unreachable, so there was no point in trying to call.

                Topsy was the more obvious choice, but Owen wanted to mull things over a bit before he called his old friend. They needed to be clear on what Owen would be doing if he went over to talk to the Wild Bucks, and there was no way for Owen to do that until he’d actually figured out what he wanted to do with them. Details would change as he learned the situation, but he still needed to go in with limits and an outline.

                That left Zero, the one Owen was dreading the most. If the Lander HCP Dean was calling him, then it had to be something bad. Save for one week together last spring, Owen hadn’t seen his sons since he left his family, and even their reunion hadn’t exactly been heartwarming. No, the only reason the dean would call him instead of their mother was if it was something to do with their powers. Owen was the closest match to Hershel and Roy’s abilities that he knew of, so if an issue came up then he was likely the best resource for fixing it.

                At least, that was what he hoped. There was also the possibility, no matter how small, that something really bad had happened. The sort of bad that requires parental notification. The boys had been doing better and the HCP ran a tight ship… but accidents did happen. Owen’s voice was heavy as he gave Dispatch her orders.

                “Please connect me with Zero.”