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4
Relations

Indy,” Extinguisher shouted as he slid into the room on a sheet of ice. “Are you okay? We—”

He was one of the least outwardly altered Pushed I knew, his rugged features and dark skin only highlighted by a perpetual layer of frost. Still feeling a kinship to his roots, Ex wore his fireman’s jacket over his new uniform, an ice-blue jumpsuit with reinforced boots and black trim.

Said jacket flared dramatically as he interrupted himself with a shout of “Crusader!” and raised a hand, glowing with blue energy, at Archer.

Three things happened in rapid succession.

First, I realized the uncomfortable irony that we all called Extinguisher “Ex” for short and he was also, at this point, my ex. My ex-what? I was still trying to decide the best spin on it.

More importantly, Archer reacted in the way that Pushed tend to react to anything even remotely hostile, by aggressively raising his massive crossbow. The beastly thing whirred and clunked into arming position. It was the classic comic book conceit of heroes having to battle the instant they meet for the edification of their readers. In our twisted reality, it was just stupid and led to horrible injuries and multiple fatalities.

This led, of course, to action number three as I stepped between the two of them. Archer was closer, so I shoved his bow away with my shoulder before raising my arms to my sides, legs set apart and braced. I gave Ex a hard look. He didn’t deserve it; the Whiteout was to blame, not him, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Hold it,” I yelled before quieting myself, “Both of you! No more fighting.” Despite the pain I was in and the hunger my trance had already induced, I forced myself to look as vital as ever. “I’d really hate to beat you gentlemen up.”

“Are you sure?” the ice-powered firefighter asked. His fingers flexed nervously; I could see the struggle against the influence of the Whiteout in his eyes.

Archer felt obliged to add to the conversation. “Dost thou know this brute, Indomitable? If the knave doesn’t lower his hands, I will be forced to thrash him.” I did not hear the sounds of his bow unloading. That would have been nice and I was certain that I would forever be denied nice things.

“Let’s try this again. Both of you are going to put it back in your respective pants, lower your personal implement of destruction, shut up, and listen to me.” I eyed both of them, doing nothing to mask my frustration with the ongoing nonsense. “Don’t even speak, just nod if you understand me.”

A small part of me wanted to chalk this up to typical male posturing, but I knew it was reality itself twisting normally rational minds. I looked back and forth for a tense moment before Extinguisher, followed by Archer, nodded and lowered his guard. Letting out a sigh, I stepped out from between the two Push Heroes.

“First, Extinguisher.” I was trying to be careful not to use the nickname, stepping on raw wounds and such. “My com got knocked out when I got jumped by that thing.” I pointed at the Hog’s corpse, still staked into the ground, partially freed from the net-arrow. “The Argent Archer here got sent to Atlanta to find a cell of Hogs. I know he’s a Crusader but we’ve already had a long chat about that.” I thumbed at his mangled shoulder plate.

I glanced at the armored bowman. “Archer, this is Extinguisher, who you may already know from your divine muckity-muck’s stories.” Archer nodded slowly but wisely kept silent. “He’s the leader of the Atlanta Five and a good friend. Considering who you are, his concern was pretty justified, so stow the ‘brute’ and ‘knave’ crap. You’re in our city, so be respectful to its defenders.” I folded my arms over my stomach, keeping my mangled forearm out of sight. “Now, questions. Extinguisher?”

“Right, going to stick to the important stuff,” Ex said, scratching at his short afro. I tried not to be amused at his twitching nose as he talked; he had just taken to the Push fashion trend of masks and I could tell it was itching his nose something fierce. “I see two dead people with wooden stakes in them, so … vampires are a real thing?”

“Yes.”

“Right. So our Downtown kidnapping case …?”

“Exactly.”

“What about the Hogs?”

“Well, my good man, ’twould seem that these nasty lads brought a cache of weapons down here with a hidden creature inside,” Archer answered for me. Ex seemed to bristle a little at the Crusader’s interruption.

I gave them both a look before continuing myself. “Yes, though we don’t know if they had any idea what they were carrying. It could have been a set-up of some kind.” I shook my head at the thought. “Either way, the only real leads we have are related to the dead Hog’s personal effects. Considering there had to be more than one of those jerks and we have only one accounted for—”

“—there’s at least one more vampire terrorist, and at least one vampire who started it all?” It had only been two months we were … whatever you want to call it … but damn, he had picked up the knack for reading what I was saying.

“Right,” I nodded, looking at Archer. “Questions?”

“Wouldst mi … er …thou wish me to explain in depth the scientific evidence to date?”

“Later,” I said, glancing at the tunnel leading to the surface. “Like I said, first priority is to get out of here and get medical attention.”

Ex perked up at that, returning the hard look I had shot at him several times already. “Indy, for Christ’s sake, why didn’t you say so when I first got down here?” he said as he approached my side. From the way he flinched, I could tell he now saw the hole in my jacket and the blood dripping down, not to mention the funny way I was holding my forearm. “We’re getting you back to the Foundation, double-time.”

“Why the concern, my good man?” Argent asked. He sounded genuinely puzzled. “Is this not the woman who faced down not only my Lord Epic but the most foul, odious, and powerful villain on the planet? In comparison, these must simply be flea bites—”

The interruption came from a hard shove as Extinguisher lost his cool. Unfazed by the shove, the Crusader puffed up from what must have been an insult to his sensibilities.

“Look, Mr. Hood,” Ex said, “you have no idea what you’re talking about. You weren’t there in Washington and you haven’t been here. She’s hurt so we’re going, pronto.”

“Sir, if not for the lady being present, I would—”

“Would what? I’m real damn curious to find—”

“Can it!” The two men ceased their arguing to look at me. “Can we go? Seriously?” Injured or not, I was at the end of my patience with both of them. “Archer, get the evidence. Extinguisher is going to be sliding us so he needs both hands and I’ll be busy holding on.”

My shout followed by the clear and concise orders seemed to snap them both back to reality, such as it was. As the Crusader gathered what small amount of evidence we had, I put my good arm around Ex’s waist, trying not to enjoy the strange, icy tingle that permeated even my Push resistance. I was fortunate that the ice he created was real. His Push powers created the cold and condensed the moisture in the atmosphere as opposed to creating phantom ice out of nothing. “Okay, I’m ready when you are.”

“Okay, Robin.” The frozen fireman glanced behind him at Archer. “I hope that tin suit of yours can keep up.”

“Undoubtedly, my frost-laden friend,” Archer replied. “Undoubtedly.” Flaunting itself in the face of conventional physics, what I assumed had just been the ammo and power pack for the crossbow unfolded itself into some kind of jet-propulsion system.

“All right, let’s go!” Ex gestured in front of him, creating a solid ice platform along the ground. We picked up speed rapidly, Archer keeping up alongside, suspended by his jet thrusters. As we began to slide impossibly up the sloping tunnel, I had a pang of remorse.

Our final fight had started when I remarked just how insane it was that he slid on ice in complete defiance of physics, without causing one iota of property damage. Was it my fault our, well, fling had ended so venomously? We burst into Underground, causing heads to turn and people to point and gape. I couldn’t help myself as I began to think about how exactly I wound up at this point in our relationship.

* * *

“Are you sure about this?” Ex asked, obviously nervous. “I mean, not that I don’t find you beautiful and … intense, but …”

He was obviously torn so I let him spell out his confusion. It was only fair, really, considering we were both slightly tipsy. Hell, maybe I was moving a bit fast. What was the harm in it though?

We were sitting on a perch near Centennial Olympic Park, watching the Fourth of July fireworks from a place no ordinary person could go. The team party over at Foundation headquarters had broken up so people could be with their families. Family was something Ex and I didn’t seem to have, so we wound up sitting on that perch together.

“Look, Ex, take your time and, you know, talk it out.” I smiled broadly. Maybe I had a bit more to drink than I thought I had but I was sure of what I was doing. We both had needs, after all, and we got along great. Maybe I wasn’t angling towards something as committed as my time with Eric had been, but who would have expected that, considering how it ended? Surely Ex would realize that without me spelling it out.

“Well, okay,” he said, returning my smile. “Look, I’ve just seen this thing go bad, real bad, at the station. You have a tight knit crew and then two of them get involved, it gets real passionate, then—bang—it explodes like a fire at a chemical plant.”

I found myself uncharacteristically giggling at the passionate part. I really had drunk a bit too much, but it had helped with the pain that night. It was only a month distant from Washington, from the Whiteout, and Eric’s betrayal still burned in my heart. The physical pain, well, it was a daily recurrence. No matter how efficient or fast-healing my body had become, I was still shockingly mortal compared to my Pushed friends, but the demands I placed on myself were no less than theirs.

“C’mon, look, we’re friends, right?” I leaned on him, settling my head on his shoulder. I always enjoyed the cooling tingle of his skin, even if it was so unnatural. “Siblings-in-arms! There’s no way that would happen. Even if we, you know, don’t click or whatever, we’re mature adults. We could break it off and no one’s the wiser.”

I could feel his body relax as I leaned against him. A strong, icy arm wrapped around my shoulder. “You know, you’re right.” He chuckled. “I mean, come on, we’ve saved the world together. What’s some dinners out and some romance compared to that?” He paused before adding, “You know, though, we should probably keep it all hush-hush.” He leaned his head against mine. “Tank has those puppy-dog eyes on you, after all.”

I laughed again. “You know he’s completely devoted to Eye; I’m just the cool big sis,” I joked, “but you’re probably right. I mean, no need to rock the boat until we’ve got things going, yeah?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

We sat there, closely huddled, enjoying that closeness. The fireworks burst and lit up the night sky. At that moment, everything seemed good. Better than they had since the Whiteout. We had our first kiss then, outlined in red, white, and blue star bursts.

* * *

“Are you crazy?” I said, annoyance dripping from every syllable, as I tried to sit up in my bed.

With Eric out of the equation and every moment of my life now subsumed by Indomitable and the Foundation, I had moved from the spacious apartment I had shared with him into a Spartan set of rooms in the Foundation building itself. Choi and Brooks were kind enough not to charge for room and board, which was fortunate, as I had only my pittance of a severance package from Georgia Tech to live on. I had to daily refuse one veiled suggestion after another by Duane to be officially employed by the Foundation. As kind and appropriate an offer as it was, I just couldn’t do it. It was one last, stubborn stand of mine, as if taking the job of official superhero would be giving in to that last step to the Whiteout’s new reality.

“What do you mean, Indy?” Ex replied, one hand on my chest gently keeping me down. He was in the middle of putting stitches into a particularly nasty cut in my side which made me extra annoyed that he brought this topic up now, with me in such a position. I was also annoyed at the fact that he never ever called me by my actual name. Hell, I couldn’t get him to tell me his.

Still, I relented to his gentle pressure and lay back once more. “It’s only been a month,” I argued. “I mean, we’ve had some great times together, don’t get me wrong but—”

“—you still aren’t sure you want to make this a real relationship, right?” Damn him, he was already doing that.

“Did you just find out a month ago that the person you were in love with had betrayed you and was suddenly the most powerful superhuman on the planet? And you had to stand against him to save the world?” I let that hang for just a moment. “Oh wait, no, you didn’t. You’ve got no right to judge me on this.”

I was also increasingly annoyed at how I was always the villain in these disagreements. Was there something evil about wanting to pursue a casual but intimate relationship at this point in my life? It’s not like I ever lied about my intentions. It’s not like I said I would never entertain the idea of something more meaningful. How was I the bad guy (or girl, in this case)? There was a jerking pain in my side as Ex inadvertently pulled too hard on a suture.

He grumbled incoherently. “Is that it then? I’m just your boy toy and your shoulder to cry on and then, end of the day, bam, it’s like we’re nothing.” He wisely bandaged over the fresh stitches before he made any other slips. The bed springs creaked as Ex stood up, heavily treading into the small bathroom. “No one deserves that, Indy.”

“Really, Ex,” I shouted, “for once could you use my actual name. My name is Irene, Irene Roman, and I’m not ashamed to be normal.”

“Indy, you’re as normal as I am, as any of us are.” His aggravatingly handsome head poked out of the bathroom door as the sink’s water began to run. “The sooner you come to grips with that, the better off we all are going to be.”

That was the last straw. Despite my injury, I shot up from the bed, livid, and stomped to the bathroom door.

“Out.” I pointed at the small apartment’s door. “Get out now.”

Ex looked at me with those green eyes for a long moment. There was regret there and, for a moment, I wavered, questioning myself. A little voice in my head was firm, though. If I relented now, I sent the wrong message. I would give up control and I desperately needed control in some part of my life right then.

“I’m sorry, Ex, but … I need to be alone. Please.”

“Okay,” the firefighter nodded. “Okay.” Ex walked to the door, grabbing his jacket from the hanger. “I’ll see you for the morning meeting, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.” I controlled my tears of anger and frustration until he was well out the door. The next night, all was forgiven, no matter the actual truth of the matter, and we made passionate love on that very bed.

* * *

“Have you ever thought about how insane it is that you can practically fly on that thing?”

It wasn’t until the words were out of my mouth that I realized what it would start. I could only feel, in looking back, that I had intended it, despite my thoughts to the contrary. Extinguisher and I had just gotten back from a routine Pushcrook bust and he had given me a lift back to the Foundation. I was staring out the open window as the unsuspended icy track dissipated back into water vapor in defiance of any sane rules of reality.

“We just fought a humanoid land-octopus with eight cutlasses talking like a pirate and you’re bringing up my ice slide,” Ex complained. “Seriously, Indy?” Even two months later, he still had not used my real name. In fact, it seemed as things soured, he used my alter ego’s name as a sting when he was annoyed with me.

“Look, it’s not my fault it breaks all the laws of reality.”

To Ex’s credit, he hadn’t yet given up on his efforts to take our relationship to a more serious level. There was a part of me that was sorely tempted by those efforts. He was handsome, courageous, loyal, and dedicated, all excellent traits. In the end, though, a stronger part of me rebelled. How much of what Extinguisher was came from the Whiteout? How much of that man would go away when it was undone? And more importantly, could he ever live with the woman who took something he loved so much, being a superhero, away from him?

“So says the lady who kicked a steel security door right off its hinges and not two months ago fought toe-to-toe against the world’s most powerful Pushed.” Washington always came up when we went into this argument and it always set me off. It always made me think of Eric. “Who’s breaking which laws of reality again?”

I could feel a floodgate opening in my heart. I had managed to keep the real truth of the Whiteout away from Extinguisher, away from the Atlanta Five. To show them that the only way to save the world from all this turmoil would be to stop the Whiteout entirely, that they were as much a part of the problem as the solution, would hurt my friends too much. Now, though, if Ex wanted to push that way, he would get to know the truth.

“Okay, all right.” I turned from the window and walked right up to him until we were practically nose-to-neck. “You want to know the big answer to that? I’ll tell you!”

In one fell swoop (more like one raging tirade), Extinguisher became the fifth person I knew of in the world to know the truth of the Whiteout. In the process, our roller coaster ride of a relationship ran out of track, becoming a horrible, mangled wreck. We avoided being alone with each other from that point on, though we both knew how important the Five’s and the Foundation’s work was. Our unspoken rule was to not let the hurt show and to keep those two wild, crazy, passionate months hidden from our friends and colleagues.

* * *

It was the spiraling descent that broke me out of the past. On more pleasant days, I would have my head leaned against Ex’s back, using him like a cuddly ice pack for whatever bruise or cut I had from the day’s work, and we’d always hit that particular spiral down to my apartment window. Why did he feel compelled to come this way? He had three whole axes of movement to plan his approach but instead he chose the one path that would bring these pangs of memory. I grit my teeth, not with pain, but surety. I wasn’t going to let myself fall into the trap of self-doubt and recrimination.

As we spiraled around the eight-story office building, I could see that Rachel’s call to arms had brought not only Extinguisher in from patrol, but the Human Tank as well. The eager cyborg teen had worn a groove in the loading dock entrance with his treads. I could only guess that Ex had called in during our return trip, as Tank had a cushion set on his tank-like lower body. Finally settling down, I didn’t voice a complaint and flopped down on the cushion, stomach first.

“Finally, someone I’m happy to see.”


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