Because villains are never conquered by violence.
Again the strange sense of foreboding crept up his spine. Every instinct pushed him to turn and run. Ruthlessly, he shoved the feeling aside. This was ridiculous. It didn't matter whether she tried to block his passage with four acres of barbed wire and a missile assault or put the welcome mat out for him. He would still win this. He would still come out on top. He would be the one to survive this, not her. This was no different from any other Boss battle. How much of a battle could it be, really? Stepping over the threshold and into the narrow hall he was greeted only by the dim light of display cases, each highlighting an ancient piece of pottery- mostly Greek or Asian urns by the look of them. He shook himself. This was no time to admire antiquities. Water lapped softly with the weight of his steps against the walkway, the shallow pools reflecting the soft blue light of the display lamps. It was beautiful and made him feel as if he were wandering underwater. Again he had to shake himself. Perhaps this was the danger of this place, not physical but visual booby traps: the temptation of beauty, of peace, the queer sensation of calm and security even though his purpose in coming was anything but peaceful. He couldn't let it get to him. He had a job to do.
The soft blue dimness of the hall gave way to a sharper but equally dark ambience of a much larger room. The expanse was huge and square, a massive cube of glass leaving the room open to the night and allowing the cold light of the November stars to shine through. A fountain, indistinct and angular in the shadows, flowed silently at the opposite end of the room, the pool surrounding it dimly illuminated by the same silent blue light as the urns in the hall. It reflected faintly off the dark, polished surface of cubist chairs and a ring-like coffee table. A set of stairs seemed to hang in midair in one corner, leading up through the darkness to an unseen second floor. There was, as far as he could see, nothing else in the room. No one was home. He had come here for nothing.
Until she lifted her head, the sudden gleam of light on glass catching him by surprise. Almost completely hidden in the shadowed seat of one of the chairs, she sat and looked at him, the moonlight giving a silvered, owlish stare to the wide lenses of her glasses. Those two empty circles of light staring at him in the darkness chilled his insides. He shouldn't be afraid. She was only an old woman sitting in the darkness of her parlor much like a black cat hiding in a jungle of furniture legs. She was not dangerous. There was no way that she could be. Yet the sense that something was out of place would not leave him. What was wrong with this picture? For the third time he shook himself. Enough. He had a job to do. Raising one hand, he fired.
The blank and silver lenses did not move, did not blink. The beam of blue energy shot towards her only to stop short, the light splashing slightly as if water before becoming absorbed into her opened hand. She held it up as if in blessing, palm towards him, arm slightly bent, the gesture seeming to take no effort at all. He gawked stupidly, still holding the beam. How could she deflect Zero Point like that? By all accounts she wasn't Super, only an eccentric, crotchety old lady. She only made outfits for supers; she wasn't supposed to be Super herself. A scratching, graveled voice spoke, scattering his startled thoughts.
"You won't get anywhere that way, dahling."
Abruptly, he dropped the beam. Her hand, white and tiny in the moonlight, slowly fell and retreated back into shadow. The walls were glass, the door at the end of the hallway behind him thin and unlocked, there were any number of escape routes he could employ and yet he had the constricting feeling that he was trapped. There was no escape- not from the room itself- but from the tiny woman sitting hidden in the shadows. The whole situation had an unpleasant cat-and-mouse feeling.
No. He gave himself yet another mental shake. No, he was not going to be the victim here. He had come to put an end to her black market dealings with the remaining Supers, with setting up deluded children hoping to be something more than they had a right to be. He had come to cripple her, to see that she stuck to the realm of Vogue and Red Book where she belonged. But now that she'd proven herself Super, she would have to die as well. To think he'd missed her all these years, all those times and places. He'd never imagined she was anything other than what she'd appeared to be: a harmless, powerless fashion designer. Apparently that was not the case. The old cat curled mutely in the shadows still had her claws, but if she thought she was going to trap him she was mistaken. She'd find she'd lured not a mouse but a Pitbull into her den and he'd tear her limb from limb if he had to.
Even if he didn't want to.
And he didn't want to.
But he had to. It had to be done. Just as it'd had to be done all those other times. Supers had no place in this world, in any world. Not even ninety-year-old grandmother ones. It had to stop. And it would stop here.
He made to advance down the flight of stairs to the main level of the foyer, but the metal caps of his rockets slipped on the narrow slice of marble. He tried to catch himself but gravity had already grabbed and flung him downward. It was not a long fall, but contained many bumps against the cold, hard edges of the stairs and had him rolled in his cape till he reached the bottom. Hissing curses to himself, he threw back his cape and picked himself up.
"Are you all right?"
He blinked. Strangely, the question had not been intended to mock. She honestly wanted to know if he had been injured. Aside from a bruised ego and a wide rip in the left knee of his costume, he was unhurt.
"Fine," he answered curtly.
The glimmer of her glasses vanished briefly as she nodded. He could feel her empty stare on his bared knee and struggled to keep the color from rising in his cheeks, to keep his hand from twitching his cape forward to cover the rent in the fabric and the artificial leg beneath. Instead he forced himself to stand before her unruffled, brazen, daring her to comment. She said nothing, her unseen eyes turning to his face.
"Well?" she prompted.
He glowered, suddenly angry. Raising his hand he fired a second time, only to have that beam deflected the same as the first.
"I told you that won't work, dahling. You can't kill me that way."
He could only guess if she was telling the truth or not. Something inside told him it would be unwise to test her words. If she had been able to catch his Zero Point ray, then she had a fairly significant amount of power, probably not unlike his own. That might make things difficult. She was right. Zero Point seemed useless against her. That was all right. He'd killed with his hands before. He could do it again. It would probably be easy. She was old and frail. He'd make it quick. He wouldn't make her suffer. He had no reason to draw it out.
The faint rustle of fabric interrupted his thoughts. The mirror of her glasses vanished momentarily as she leaned forward and slid from her seat. The sound of tiny, slippered feet and the sharper clack of a third object against the marble floor met his ears. The clack accompanied the softer tap and shuffle of her steps. With a vague start he realized she must be leaning on a cane. Why this should come as a surprise, he had no idea. It only made sense that a woman so old would need a third leg to help her stay on her feet. Lots of elderly people needed a cane to walk. As she finally crossed from the safety of the shadows into the stark whiteness of the moonlight, his eyes grew wide. He had not expected this.
She was tiny, almost ridiculously so, the top of her head only barely reaching above his waistline. That head bore not silver, but pearl white hair, hanging smooth and perfectly straight to her jaw. Her eyes, once hidden behind the reflection of lenses huge and thick, now peered up at him, dark and sharp. Her face was creased more than wrinkled. The lines on her taut features showed that life had not been kind to her either, and yet there was a strange almost macabre beauty about it. Despite her legendary genius in clothing for others, her own gown was rather plain by comparison. She wore a smock-like dress of simple black, with blousy sleeves and a skirt that fell just below her knees. She had no hunch to her shoulders, did not stoop over her cane- though to call the short stick of dark and polished wood with a silver knob for a handle a cane seemed an insult- but stood as straight as she could, drawing herself up to the full measure of the scant inches she possessed. Her stance was somewhat crooked, however. Walking stick braced in her left hand, she stood with all her weight on her right leg. The left, he noticed, was turned inward at an odd angle and bent at the knee. It would neither straighten nor hold her weight to let her stand.
How strange that she should be crippled too...
He gave himself another mental slap.
He couldn't afford to feel sympathy for her. It wasn't his fault she had a broken leg and couldn't do anything with it. Looking down at her- for there was no other way to look from his vantage of almost six feet- it seemed excessive for him to have to kill a creature so small, so fragile. He was twice her size, double her weight, and half her age. Scarcely the height of a seven-year-old, unable to run, and with bones likely as brittle as spun glass, what chance did she have against him? She would probably be gone in another year or two on her own anyway. But he couldn't afford to let her die of natural causes. The damage she could do, the trouble she would cause in the handful of years she had left was incalculable. No. It would have to be done.
A loud clack resounded off the empty walls of the room. He realized she'd dropped her walking stick. She stood balanced on one leg, the other doing little to steady her. What was she doing? He stopped short in the act of stooping to hand it back to her when she spoke:
"Why did you come here?"
"To kill you."
Indeed. So why was he attempting to return a possible weapon to her, no matter how laughable? He straightened. Very well. But this would be a fair fight, so to speak. Zero Point was useless against her anyway. Unlocking his gauntlets, he shuffed them off and let them clatter to the floor. He felt strangely naked without them, but they served no purpose now. He wouldn't need them for this. They stood silently, each defenseless before the other, and stared.
"Is that what you really want?"
"Of course. I can't let you keep outfitting Supers."
"I thought you killed them all."
She'd caught him in a loop. He was indeed waging a one-man war against an enemy that could never truly be vanquished. For every Super he'd put to death, two more had been born. There was no way to end it, and yet he had to try.
"Only I am left."
"Tell, me what will you do with yourself after this?"
"I'll sell my-"
She cut him off.
"Mantra," she spat and gave a small snort. "Don't parrot your own propaganda. Do you really think there will be anything left? AnyONE left to sell your genius to? Even with all the other Supers gone, there will still be one standing."
He couldn't help flinching, stung by her words, by the truth in them. The world would be a better place without Supers, without vigilantes pretending to be better than everyone else. There was no room for a race that viewed themselves as superior. And yet...she was holding the glass up to him and showing him guilty of the very mindset he had sought to destroy. His own reflection- masked and caped- stared back at him from the wide lenses of her glasses, the image of the hero he had been forbidden to be.
"No!" he shouted. "No I'm not like them!"
His expression was one of both cold fury and panic; she met it evenly.
"I never said you were."
"Damn it!" he snapped. "Stop with the Jedi mind tricks!"
She smiled a little at this, amused.
"I never use power when words will do."
Silence. He felt his hands curling into tight fists at his sides and wondered that he hadn't attacked her yet. What the hell was he waiting for? Why couldn't he make himself lay a hand on her? Thirty seconds and it would be over. She'd be finished. All he had to do was knock her down. That alone might be enough to kill or at least KO her long enough for him to snap her neck. He swallowed hard at the bitter taste that had suddenly risen in his mouth as his stomach surged into this throat. He'd killed before, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Why did he quail, what made him weak and nauseous at the thought of twisting her little white head until her neck cracked in two? It was a struggle to force his stomach back into place, but he managed it. Why? Why was this happening? This should have been easy. What was he doing wrong?
"What is it you really want?"
He opened his mouth to reply and then shut it again. She wasn't going to accept any of the empty promises and falsely noble ideals he'd fed himself over the years. He had wanted to believe that things would be better without Supers, that equality across the board was best, that he could solve all the worlds' problems by getting rid of people he had perceived as tyrannical and self-righteous. He had wanted to be right, had wanted to be the one to make things better, to save them all. He had wanted to be a Hero. And now...
"I want it to stop..." Head down, knees shaking, it took a hearty sniff before he realized he was crying.
"Robert..." her voice was gentle and soft. He looked up, blue eyes wide with disbelief.
"How did you know my name?"
Her smile was kind and gentle as her voice had been. She did not answer, but the nameless expression on her creased face told him she had always known. He didn't even bother to ask her how.
"It's all right," she told him, one hand held out to him. "I'm not going to hurt you."
He hadn't thought she would, that she was capable of doing him any damage. All the fight gone out of him, he sank to his knees and sat on the floor before her. He kept his head down, unwilling to look into those piercing brown eyes. A light touch on his shoulder made him flinch and jerk away out of instinct.
"It's all right," she assured him. "It's only me. I won't hurt you."
He let her lay one tiny hand on his shoulder, lean against him slightly to steady herself. With her other hand she cupped the side of his face, gently tilting his jaw upward.
"Look at me."
"No..." he squinted his eyes closed and turned his head to one side, unwilling to wrench completely out of her grasp. "I can't..."
"Yes you can."
"Please...please don't make me..." he whimpered, choking hard on tears that threatened to overwhelm him.
The word was so gentle it hurt to hear it. Cringing as if struck, he raised his head a fraction.
He could not have disobeyed if he wanted to. A command so soft, so utterly without demand could not be ignored. Reluctantly, he lifted his head and gazed into her eyes. He had been afraid there would be judgment there, but instead he found himself reflected a second time in the twin mirrors of her spectacles. Only it was not the masked and jaded anti-hero that stared back at him this time. Perhaps it was the angle, or a trick of the ghostly light for a much younger boy, not an adult, gaped wide-eyed from the colorless world reflected in the glass. A young man, a teenager, the years seemed to melt away from the phantom of himself until a child of no more than eight remained.
"There is still good in you, Robert Pine. The beautiful child you once were isn't dead, only hidden, locked away. Don't be afraid to let him out again..."
The light must have shifted for the boy was gone, replaced by dark eyes full of a soft expression he could not name. Mirage had looked at him in a way similar to this, but not quite the same. There was a subtle but important distinction.
"What do you want from me?" he sniffed miserably, for the phantasm and gentle look had left him unhinged.
"I want to help."
He couldn't help flinching as she drew close and touched her lips to his forehead. Whatever fragile control he had left of himself crumbled. Fists clenched in his lap, he finally broke down, choked sobs fighting to escape his constricted throat. Grief, guilt and bitterness roiled inside him, fueling his tears and making him dizzy with emotion. He felt sure he was going to be sick if only he could focus long enough.
"Shh..." she had leaned and put her arms around his neck in a light embrace. Without thinking, he drew his arms around her and pulled her close. Even kneeling on the floor he was taller than she was; only the tips of her shoes brushed the cold marble as he held her. Dangling in his grasp, she smoothed his shaking shoulders with one hand.
"Cry if it helps. Cry all you want. It's all right."
He could not have stopped even if he wanted to. Tears dammed literally for decades, now free, were pouring from his eyes and were not likely to stop. She hadn't much of a shoulder to cry on, but he did his best to hide his face in the soft black fabric of her gown.
"It isn't fair..." he sniffed, the words muffled in her shoulder.
"No...it wasn't..." she agreed, stroking his hair. "But it's over now. Let go. It will be all right."
The injustice done to a child of eight and harbored for over fifty years was not an easy thing to release. It had been his one excuse, his reason, his proof that what he had done was both right and justified. The bitterness had been savored so long that it had become sweet and he had lost his taste for everything else. He knew he would be trading a mouthful of castor oil for strawberry icecream and yet he couldn't bring himself to spit it out.
"Please dahling..." she whispered in his ear. "Let it go..."
One hand still petting his hair, he felt her withdraw the other. Perhaps he was gripping her too tightly and something had pained her. It seemed she was adjusting a piece of her clothing from the way the back of her knuckles pressed into his chest and her sudden intake of breath. Turning her palm towards him, he felt one delicate finger tracing an "x" directly over his heart. He inhaled sharply as she drew a third line up between the legs of the "x". It was as if she'd slit him with a knife. He could feel himself bleeding though his costume did not grow wet. She had shifted in his arms, her breast pressed against his.
"Please...you don't have to do this alone...let go..."
With a shuddering breath, all the pain, the bitterness, the guilt, the anguish, was released. It gushed from the wound she'd carved in him like water from a dike. Only instead of spilling down his chest and over his knees, it was caught and held by a waiting vessel. He felt her cringe briefly and then latch her arms around him and pull, but not with her hands. Instead she caught the tide of emotions, seeming to drink it down, sucking the poison from his wound. The release of so much that had been held back for so long left him breathless and lightheaded. Instinctively he clung to her, hugging her close as a child would clutch a stuffed toy.
His tears came easier now, his sobs less pained. The bitterness draining from his heart, he was left with a queer, shivery sensation of blessed emptiness. Like the time he'd had food poisoning, the purge had been hellish but he felt so much better now that it was over. The last venomous drops trickling away, he took what felt like his first real breath in ages. The air felt cool and sharp in his lungs, but he gulped it hungrily. Vaguely he realized he'd fallen forward to lie on the floor, the marble, while hard, pleasantly cool against his cheek. He wasn't lying flat, however. Edna still lay in his arms, pinned beneath him, only her head visible above his shoulder. He hurried to pick himself up but found his strength almost entirely gone. With painstaking effort he hauled himself back up to sit on his knees, Edna cradled in his arms.
"E...?" he whispered hesitantly. She gave no answer. Eyes closed and lips parted slightly her face seemed pale and ghostly in the moonlight. She lay absolutely still and limp in his arms. Leaning his ear close to her lips he placed two fingers beneath her jaw. No warmth or moisture brushed his skin and her pulse was growing sluggish.
"Edna?" he shook her gently. "Edna Mode?"
Panic began to chill his insides. He couldn't let her die like this. He could not be responsible for her death. Not hers. It had been ages since second grade and Boy Scouts and CPR but the memory was dragged to the surface with all possible speed. She was small enough that he held her as he pinched her nose closed and covered her mouth with his own.
"C'mon, E, breathe," he pleaded between breaths. "Don't do this to me."
"I know you're in there..."
"Please wake up..."
"E... Don't leave me...please..."
He lowered his head one more time but straightened as E suddenly gagged. She jerked in his arms, coughing and choking, fighting for breath. Robert let out a ragged breath of his own as Edna coughed herself back into consciousness. He held her quietly while her breathing settled. After a moment she calmed and looked up at him with bleary eyes and a tired smile. Lifting one trembling hand she drew her fingers down over the metaphysical cut she had made in his chest.
"You'll be all right now..." she smiled. Robert returned it as best he could.
Following the path of her hand he could almost see the edges sealing closed beneath her fingers. Blinking, he realized he wasn't imagining things. Like watching a 3D movie without the glasses he could see the visible and invisible super-imposed overtop one another. On one level E lay tired but unhurt in his arms, above and slightly to the left she lay smiling but horribly battered, her hair astray and her skin and clothing black with what looked like tar. A gaping hole in her own heart slowly oozed more of the thick, oily gunk onto her already filthy gown. The exhaustion radiating from her would have forced him to his knees if he hadn't already been sitting on the floor. Arms suddenly weak, he realized just how tired he was himself. Mustering what strength he had left, he pulled her close in a hug. A stifled cry from E made him loosen his grip and draw back. She rubbed gingerly at her middle with one hand, her breathing thick and cautious. Somewhere in all the angst, she'd either cracked or broken a rib. It occurred to him that he'd been laying on top of her for an undetermined length of time. The dead weight of an unconscious, full-grown man could not have been good for her already fragile bones.
"Did I hurt you...?"
E waved the question away.
"I'll be all right."
"I...I'm sorry..." he faltered.
"You didn't do it on purpose. And it's not important."
"Shhh..." she laid a trembling finger on his lips, silencing any further protests.
"I love you," her voice was soft and weak, but carried strength in conviction. "I hope you know that..."
Swallowing hard, he nodded mutely. She cringed and coughed hard, seeming to choke on something. When she had recovered, she spoke again. Robert had to lean close to catch her fading words.
"I have always loved you...every time...every place..."
He closed his eyes tightly on fresh tears, her words sharp and sweet as a knife in his heart. She reached and took his cheek once more into her tiny, trembling hand.
"You are the son...I could not have..."
He didn't even try to stop the tears pouring down his cheeks. Her strength fading, she stretched and kissed him, not on the cheek but on the lips. Robert didn't have time to be surprised. Instead he watched, confused, as her lips fell away from his, her eyelids drifting closed. He saw his own eyelids fall, his limbs become limp, his body slowly crumble to the floor with his adopted mother still held tenderly in his arms. They lay side by side on the floor, arms around one another protectively. She didn't have to tell him, he knew, but he asked anyway.
Are we dead, mom?
Er...why did you kiss me like that?
It was the only way I could make sure you'd come with me.
So...you /killed /me?
Not quite. We were both dying anyway. I just wanted to make sure you wouldn't be alone.
He nodded quietly.