“I’ll be honest, that’s a little less optimistic than we were hoping for,” Deadlift said, filling the silence that had descended after Titan’s declaration. “Don’t get me wrong, we all know we’ve screwed up, but the team members deemed responsible for that were handled by the DVA. We just want to make a fresh start and put that behind us.”
“There is no such place as behind you, no such thing as a fresh start.” As he spoke, Titan felt old, his years weighing down those massive shoulders in a way that not even hundreds of pounds could. “Even if you could purge the record, change your mask, begin with an all new identity, the mistakes you’ve made will still carry with you. No one else might know they’re there, but you will. And the more that get heaped on, the heavier each one becomes. Your team’s mistake caused hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in property damage, and that’s something the DVA won’t likely ever let you forget. But more importantly, it cost nine people their lives, and that’s something you should never let yourselves forget.”
Juiced began to speak hurriedly, words tumbling over themselves to get free of her mouth. “We were cleared-”
“Maybe you didn’t make the big mistakes, but those two who got held accountable were your teammates, people you put your trust in,” Titan said, interrupting her for both of their sakes. If she got the chance to dig into a position, it would make her more stubborn and unlikely to listen, and they had to listen if they ever wanted to rise above this. “Sometimes innocent people get hurt in what we do. It’s inevitable, because if we don’t step in then a lot more would be affected, but it doesn’t change the responsibility we bear for those actions.”
“I… I thought it was eight.” Kaiju was staring at the ground, and Titan could make out the slight glisten of tears from the sides of the eyeholes in his mask. His voice, only moments ago full of life and humor, sounded beaten.
“Eight at the scene,” Titan said, lowering his own voice by several degrees. “A ninth killed himself when he heard what happened to his wife. The DVA didn’t tell you about it because it wasn’t directly linked to your actions, though I think we all know better than that.”
“Titan…” Topsy was staring hard at his friend. He was invested in these kids, didn’t want to see them get broken by one bad call. At the same time, he had to know that what Titan was doing was necessary. Casualties were part of the job for any Hero. If one didn’t find a way to deal with it, they’d be buried under the guilt, but if they never acknowledged it… well that was how the true monsters were made.
“There is no fresh start,” Titan repeated. “Not in that perfect world where no one knew about your mistakes and especially not in this one where your entire team’s reputation has been run through the shitter. The other Heroes don’t trust you; they think you’re all half-cocked liabilities, and not without good reason. That’s not even mentioning the DVA, who are probably only looking for one screw up to pull the rest of your certifications.”
“So… that’s it? Topsy brought you all the way over here to tell us that no matter what we do, we’re fucked?” Deadlift asked.
“No. Topsy brought me over to lay down the harsh truth in a way that no one who was close to you ever could. You want to keep going in the Hero world, want to work with people who don’t trust you and a public that hates you? Then you need to go in with your eyes wide open. Don’t waste time thinking about forgiveness or redemption; those are fairy tales we use to make the world more palatable for children. What you’re walking back into is going to be shit. Shit so deep you’ll have to fight to keep from choking on it. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; there is no undoing what’s been done. If you hope for something other than the shit, then the shit becomes unbearable.”
“Then why would we go back in?” Juiced asked. Of the three, only her tone remained unchanged. Titan had a feeling she was more personally vested in what had gone down than the others, at least in her innocence at the scene. He prepared to tell her just what that was, but of all people it was Kaiju who beat him to the punch.
“Because we can still help people.” Kaiju raised his head, making the guilty tears in his eyes all the more apparent. There was nothing wrong with crying over lives lost, heaven only knew how many times Titan had broken down in his early years when he heard how many people he’d been too late to protect. Titan didn’t judge Kaiju for crying, but he decided he liked the kid based on the fact that he lifted his head. Of them all, Kaiju seemed to feel the guilt the strongest, and he wasn’t letting it stop him.
“We can still do what we spent our lives training to do,” he continued. “Even if no one trusts or likes us, we can still make a difference. And we should, because even if Titan is right about there being no such thing as redemption, I still want to end my life saving more lives than I cost. Maybe that’s selfish or stupid, but right now it’s not something that I can say I’ve done and I hate myself for that.”
Another fog of silence fell upon them as Kaiju’s words faded, and once again it was Deadlift who ultimately broke it. “So if we press on, we do it knowing that things will be awful, and that we’ll be a single fuck-up away from being out on our asses. But we can press on. Is that what you wanted us to understand?”
“It’s a start,” Titan replied. “Logistically, you lot need to work like hell on your training to make sure you minimize casualties and damages, but getting rid of your problematic members will likely go a long way toward making that better. Training is important, it’s vital, but all the effort in the world wouldn’t make a difference if you didn’t have a firm grasp on what was waiting for you outside these walls.”
“Thank you,” Kaiju said, a bit of the former life returning to his voice as he unashamedly wiped his eyes. Titan couldn’t be sure, but he suspected that whatever link Topsy had to this team was through Kaiju. The kid had the sort of aura that made people want to help him.
“I have a question,” Juiced said. For the first time, she seemed quieter, less certain in her words. “And, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. I’m not trying to turn the tables or invalidate what you told us, I just want to understand a bit better.”
Titan nodded, and Juiced continued. “Have you ever… made a mistake? Maybe not as big as ours was, but… you know.”
“Three hundred and forty seven people.” Titan said. His voice didn’t waver, or soften, because this wasn’t a thought that suddenly sprang to mind at her question. That number was with him every day, in everything he did. There was no change as Titan talked about his number, because the usual Titan was always thinking about it, in some form or another.
“That’s how many people I wasn’t strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or sometimes even ruthless enough, to save. I have a list with all their names on it. Some of those were from dumb mistakes I made; some I still look back and can’t think of any way that I could have saved. It doesn’t matter why it happened though, at the end of the day I fell short and people died. That’s why you train, that’s why you push forward, that’s why you always have to be better. So that the next time you go out, just maybe you can come home without having to write another name on that god damned list.”