Angela was expecting the knock on her door, so she pulled it open without bothering to ask who was there. Shane strode in wordlessly, marching to the center of the room just as their father did when he was about to scold them, then turning around and glaring while crossing his arms.
“I don’t know how you did it, and I’m not sure if I should be angry or impressed. You managed to make Chad, Chad fucking Taylor, get his mind off of training and onto goofing off with you.”
“Guess he really asked you for permission, huh?” She dropped gracefully onto her bed in a sitting position with her back to the wall. Carefree as she might seem, some bits of training were harder to shake than others. “What a sweetheart. Did you consent?”
“Of course I consented,” Shane snapped. “He’s my friend, and heaven knows when he’ll meet another girl willing to throw herself at him like you have.”
“It’s called playing the long-game, little brother. You should learn it. And I’m sure a man who looks like Chad and has the career of a Hero will have ample other women trying to break through that defense of his.”
“It isn’t just a game, long or otherwise,” Shane said. “I think he really likes you. God knows why, but it seems like he does. Don’t treat this like you do everything else and just play with him until you get bored.”
“You always think so little of me,” Angela said, widening her eyes to create a mock-hurt expression.
“I think so little of what you are compared to what you could be. You’re so damned strong, it boggles the mind to think of how powerful you’d be if you ever took things seriously.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe the reason I’m so strong is because I don’t take things too seriously?” Angela asked.
“No, because that’s idiotic,” Shane countered. “Honestly, I’ll never understand how the two of us got the same training yet came out so amazingly different.”
“Must be because I’m older,” she said, though this time there was a touch less laughter in her voice.
* * *
The younger of the siblings, a pale skinned boy with dark hair, was sniffling as he tried to hold back the tears. Next to him, a girl scarcely a year older, with golden blonde locks, stood stone-faced as she watched the casket lower into the grave. Beside those two were a pair of adults, clearly their parents from the facial similarities, and next to them towered an aged man with thick arms and shoulders. He refused to use a cane, even though the years and adventures had taken their toll on his back. Someday it was a fight he would lose, but that day was not today. Around them were a myriad of others, all wearing black, and most in unnaturally good shape.
Shane sniffled again, cursing his own weakness as a few tears slid down his narrow cheek. He was supposed to be stronger. Why couldn’t he be stronger? Why wasn’t he like Grandfather, or Angela? They had something he didn’t, and it wasn’t an ability. Shane definitely had one of those, and a good one too. No, this was something different. Something that made them strong in a way that didn’t involve Super status. Deep down, further than he would plunge through his mind for years to come, Shane feared it was simply the fact that they were real warriors, and he was not.
Never fear, little Shane. There is strength in you that you’ll never know until you call on it. I think one day you’ll be the most fearless of us all.
The priest was talking, not that anyone paid him much heed. He was a man of the cloth, and Sharon had wanted to be buried by one when her day came. The prayers were there out of respect for their dead friend, not to provide comfort to the living. Sharon had been unique in many ways, this was merely one of them. Few Heroes held fast to their faith after long enough on the job. They saw too much, their burdens were too heavy. There were those who buried themselves in their religion, adamant that a divine plan was the only comfort they could find, however after a time those would either break or become fanatical. Sharon held a quiet faith, pliable yet unbreakable. It was so quiet, in fact, that the world at large never even knew Diamond Glance held such leanings.
I like to think of myself as a practicing Hopeful. I do my best, and I Hope there’s something out there that will make it all make sense.
An official ceremony would be held later that day. The mayor of the city where she was stationed would make a speech. A plaque with her Hero name would be raised alongside others in a place of honor. Too many plaques. Too many names that the sniffling boy and the stoic girl knew by heart. People would mill about and listen; many of them would be people she’d saved, or their friends and loved ones. Not everyone she saved would attend, though. There was no space in any city that could house that kind of number. Besides, so many didn’t even know they owed their lives to her, and that was how she liked it.
Who keeps count of that sort of thing? I mean, who could, even if they wanted? I don’t know how many people I saved by stopping a bomb from landing on that stadium, and it doesn’t matter. If I saved one, then it was worth every bit of effort.
The people at this ceremony would not be at the other one. Though nearly all of them had a costume they could don, to show up to her ceremony would be both tacky and pointless. They didn’t want to say goodbye to Diamond Glance. They wanted to say goodbye to the woman who constantly hung ridiculous pictures on the wall of their headquarters. The woman who was known to throw a habanero pepper into one of every dozen cupcakes she baked them, just to keep things exciting. The woman who would take more time than any of them to talk with Graham’s grandchildren when they would visit, and to tell them grand adventurous stories to stoke their love of Heroes. She glossed over the scarier bits, of course. One day the grandchildren of Graham DeSoto would see terrors of their own. They didn’t need to hear about hers as well.
It’s like a giant game, one that never really ends and where the rules are always changing. It’s challenging, sure, but that’s why people like us play it. A regular game would just be too boring.
Angela had never really believed the lies. Maybe she would have, had they come years earlier. She’d already worn this dark dress, or one like it, too many times to believe Sharon’s stories of how fun and safe the Hero world was. Of course, there is a difference between not believing something and not liking it. Angela had loved those tales, nearly as much as she had loved Sharon herself. Once, when the two of them were up late because Grandpa was coaching others and Sharon was on monitor duty, Angela had gotten up the gumption to ask how Sharon stayed so chipper and so happy. Everyone else seemed ground down, the weight of their duty and actions tugging on them harder with each passing day. Only Sharon had stayed cheerful while being on the job for so long. The woman had taken some time before answering the girl, looking deep into her eyes and then making a difficult choice. When next Sharon’s voice came, it was different than the happy tones Angela expected. It was completely serious, the one and only time she ever heard the Hero speak that way.
I’ve accepted my death. The path I’ve chosen is one that goes beyond dangerous. It is closer to suicidal. I am going to die doing this work. It will happen to me as it has happened to others. We are warriors born, and we have chosen not to stray from that path. So I accept Death as my inevitable bedfellow, and by doing so I am free to live until he claims me. I never know when he’ll call my name, and therefore I live every minute I have left to the fullest. One day, Angela, if you join me on this road, you’ll have to make a choice too. Ignore the truth like most and find a modicum of peace in the illusion, or accept your own death and revel in the freedom that provides. No matter what you pick, though, know that I’ll be proud of you just for following the rest of us down this crazy path.
They began to shovel dirt on the casket, and Angela resisted the urge to comfort Shane, who was now crying readily despite all his efforts. He’d only jerk away, angry that she’d noticed and shamed about feeling weaker than her. Silly boy. Shane wasn’t weaker than her, he just hadn’t made his choice yet. Angela had. She’d chosen as soon as Grandfather delivered the news of Sharon’s death. Now, knowing her own path and the fate at the end of it, she did indeed feel free. Maybe there was a Valhalla for Heroes, and one day she would see Sharon again. Angela doubted it, but she wasn’t the type to dismiss anything out of hand.
Anything was possible. This was a wild, crazy, utterly bizarre world, and she intended to see and experience as much of it as she could; before it was her turn in the ground.