“Dr. Daniels, I was wondering if you had a moment?”
Mary glanced up from her desk to find the wide smile of her father-in-law staring back from the doorway. “There are no students around, Owen, I think we can drop the formalities.”
Her office was tucked away in a more private area of Sizemore’s HCP, placed where students could come without being seen by their peers in case they wanted to have a session in secret. It was a convenience largely for the younger students, generally around the time they made it to junior year, most of them realized that there was no shame in needing mental help with the burdens they were facing. She worked hard to instill that in them, ensuring that those who made it to graduation would be comfortable seeking help when they needed it.
“You’re probably right, I’m just still getting used to going by Professor Daniels,” he admitted. “It’s been three years, you’d think I’d adjust.”
“If it’s any consolation, virtually all of the students still call you Titan behind your back. The downside of being an active Hero as well as an HCP teacher.”
“Only in dire emergencies,” Owen reminded her. “Thankfully, those aren’t coming much these days. Ettin has become the strongman people call first when shit goes sideways, and it’s rare he can’t get the job done.”
Mary glanced over to the framed photo on her desk, showing she and Hershel dressed up nicely at one of Alice’s charity fundraisers. “Those two have turned into quite the team. Brute force and a cunning tactical mind. It certainly didn’t hurt that they learned under an excellent mentor, either.”
With a wave, Owen dismissed the idea. “Let’s not put undeserved credit on me. They were always going to be great, at most I sped things up a little. But I actually came to see you about teaching, or teachers, really. You know Jeanine is retiring next year, so we’ve been looking for a new Control professor. Well, the DVA sent us someone qualified, however he comes with extra conditions. There would need to be security and safety protocols, seeing as he is technically a criminal serving time through community service.”
The pencil in her hands nearly snapped. “No way. Pitching in on clean-up and helping with really tough fights is one thing, but teaching? You actually got them to sign off on it?”
“There’s precedent. Sean Pendleton proved to be an excellent instructor when serving his sentence teaching students at Lander, and he stayed on even after he was free. The big condition was having a dean willing to take on that responsibility, and Dean Jackson agreed after we had a long conversation.”
Understanding set in at the last bit of information. “He finally made you do it, huh?”
“Not for a couple more years, I still need lots of training, but yes, I agreed to take over for him. It was going to happen anyway, he’s steadfastly refused any more anti-aging sessions with Hallow, just getting him to go down a few years was enough of a fight. This way, at least I got something out of the bargain.”
“You may have to give up being Titan for good when that day finally comes.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think I have it in me to turn down the world if it needs me. Spent too long doing that, and I didn’t care for it.” Owen paused, his eyes going distant for a brief moment before snapping back to reality. “Anyway, I was thinking since they’re already prepping for his campus tour tomorrow that means there are teleporters on hand, so we could head out together. No sense in getting two teleporters for a one-person job.”
Checking the clock, Mary realized the time was indeed drawing near. “Good thinking. Come get me when you’re both ready, I have a little more work I’d like to do before we go.”
“Same work ethic as always, I see. Wrap things up, we won’t be too long.”
Owen’s sizable shadow vanished from the doorway, leaving Mary alone once again. Part of her was still reeling from the news. Mary had supported the proposal, but not even she’d expected it to really go through. It was crazy to think that next year’s freshman would not only be learning from Titan, but also the man once known as Globe. Sizemore was already becoming a powerhouse, and this would only throw fuel on the fire.
As a Lander alumni, albeit not an HCP graduate, Mary hoped they were keeping up their standards as well. Otherwise, the next few Intramurals might turn out to be extremely one-sided.
* * *
The Heroes were coming, trying to stop her. All the better. They could burn with the rest of the lot, these evil humans who expected her to abide by their rules even as they did whatever they pleased. How dare they try to cage her, as if they had the right. As though it were just to punish her for the sin of simply existing.
Overhead, barely contained in the palm of her hand, the massive ball of crackling explosive energy swelled, desperately wishing to be freed. She would let it, soon. Once it reached critical mass, she would let go and destroy an entire section of the city. From this height, with no building to support her, she would die too. That was fine. Better to die like this than keep living like she had.
“It’s Doreen, isn’t it?” The voice came from the other side of the roof, and as Doreen whipped around she found herself staring at a Hero in a blue and silver costume. The mask covered the majority of his head, concealing his face and hair, allowing only those bright blue eyes and some of his mouth to be seen. “That’s your name?”
“Cute trick, but I know yours as well. Tell me, Jack of All, do you think you can absorb this before I set it off? This isn’t some bit of fire or electricity like you favor, it’s my own special energy, the sort absorbers can rarely ingest.” Despite her tough demeanor, Doreen had to resist taking an accidental step backward. Although his official name was so inoffensive it might as well have been a kitten, she knew there were other names criminals called this Hero. Nightmare Jack was a popular one, which wasn’t especially creative since he already came from the Class of Nightmares. Jack the Unstoppable came around when he strode out of the trap a gang set for him, building burning behind and with nary a wound to be seen. Some rumors, from accounts of people who’d seen him called in to deal with lethal threats, even named him the Jack of Carnage. It was hard to imagine such a reputation belonging to a man like this, though. Perhaps the rumors were just that, falsehoods spun to make a mid-level Hero seem more terrifying.
He held up his hands, palms spread wide. “I didn’t come here to make threats. Ideally, I don’t even want to fight. Why don’t we talk this over? I’ve read your file, Doreen. Or had it read to me on the way over, at least. You’re not a monster. You’re just someone who caught a few bad breaks. Yes, attacking your old boss was a bad move, but you had some grounds given what he tried to pull by framing you for that plant explosion. I believe your side of events from that, I really do. Right now, there’s still a way back from all this. Assault, destruction of property, they are crimes and you’ll have to answer for them, but juries are made of people, people who can show mercy or empathize with your plight. Even if you do a few years in jail, there is life afterward. This, on the other hand, is the sort of thing no one can come back from.”
Moving slowly, as non-threatening as possible, he pointed to the bloated energy ball, still rippling and growing in her hands. “That first one wasn’t your fault. But this? This is all on you, Doreen. Every mom down there who won’t come home, every husband who said his last goodbye, every child whose absence will leave an unhealable scar. You’re mad, and you’re scared, and you think it’s all over, but it’s not. It doesn’t have to be. You’ve still got a choice. Stop this, right now, and I’ll make sure the courts know you’re the one who decided not to hurt people today. No one stopped you except your own sense of decency.”
This… this wasn’t what she was prepared for. Fighting, dying, a last blaze of something to put a mark on the world, Doreen was ready for that. Kindness, however, was a blade she’d never thought to defend against. Where was he when she was being thrown under the bus, blamed for something she’d had no hand in just because she possessed powers? Where was he when it had counted? Doreen looked up at the trembling blast in her hand, ready to level a whole block when she dropped it from this roof. Ready to become an even worse monster than they’d accused her of being. Maybe Heroes only showed up when they were truly needed.
With a shaking breath, Doreen nodded. “I don’t… I didn’t… I was just so angry.”
“I understand. I really, truly do. Let’s sit here and talk for a while, okay? I’ve got some time to kill anyway, so why don’t we spend it looking at your options going forward.”
Doreen wanted that, more than she’d realized. She stepped forward, already beginning to dispel her orb. Unfortunately, her foot snared a loose brick that sent her tumbling to the ground. There was barely time to scream as she watched the ball of energy sail from her hand, directly toward Jack of All. He was already moving though, arms outstretched as he slammed his palms into the ball, drawing the energy into himself. It all happened in a split-second, in no time the orb had vanished like it was never even there. Pulling herself up, Doreen realized that at some point she’d started crying.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s okay, I saw you trip.” The unassuming Hero showed her his hands again, hands that were unscarred or blemished in any way despite the raw power they’d just brushed. “I know you were trying to do the right thing.”
Without meaning too, Doreen sniffed loudly. “I guess that explains why you were so calm up here. You knew you could absorb my energy the whole time as a backup plan, huh?”
“Oh definitely not, I had no idea if I’d be able to pull it off. I’ve gotten pretty good with crafted energy, but each one is unique so it’s still a gamble.” He nodded behind Doreen. “She was my backup plan. Or maybe I was hers, it tends to switch depending on the situation.”
There, climbing up from the side of the building, was the blood red costume of Adrestia. Rumor said that she could bring down anyone with a single touch, no matter how powerful. From that position, she would have been able to reach Doreen in a flash.
“I never had a chance, did I?” Doreen asked.
“I’d say you had a very real chance, a choice, and you made the most of it.” From a pouch on his belt, Jack of All produced a handkerchief and offered it to Doreen. “How about we sit for a little while before we go to the police? Adrestia will make sure no one bothers us.”
Laughing despite herself, Doreen accepted the swatch of fabric. “Keep a lot of these on you?”
“Always. If I’m called to a scene that ends in tears instead of blood, that’s a good day,” Jack of All told her. “So thanks, for making this day better than it already was.”
With a pause to wipe her face, Doreen looked up into the eyes of the unusual man. “You’re kind of strange, for a Hero, aren’t you?”
“Probably. Wish you’d gotten someone different?”
Doreen was shaking her head before she even realized it. “No. Not one bit. I think you were exactly the Hero I needed.”