At The Seams

            “You’ve been hitting the bottle pretty hard, Brian,” Thauma Guard said, sitting on the bench next to her companion.  The heat from the sun in early June filled the air, the park bench on which they two sat nearly hot to the touch.  Thauma had mentored Brian from his beginning a little over three years ago, teaching him to use the magic he had learned and inherited.  Starting out a quick riser, with a wealth of potential, he had slid from grace on several occasions, losing himself in drinking.
            Time had gone by, and Brian Sutter had gained notoriety in his media work, often getting behind the scenes photos of crime scenes and members of Paragon City’s Hero Corps.  Sutter was most known for his many pictures of members of the Onami Strike Force, with whom he was secretly a member known as News Flash. 
           
The past years had seen less and less activity organized by the Onami, yet they still acted in groups, mostly made up of tightly knit friends.  Brian Sutter was known by most of the group to slip past police lines using his Hero Corps i.d. to gain scoops for the Tattler.
            It was after any larger gathering of the Onami that Sutter often fell off the bandwagon, going on days worth of drinking binges.  During these gatherings the air always seemed thick with unspoken feelings, as though the members of the SuperGroup had things they felt or needed to say, but lacked the words.
If any had paid attention to other details, they would have noticed that early to mid-May often saw Brian Sutter in the bottle over his head.
            It was just after one o’clock, and Brian Sutter looked as though he could still feel the throbbing in his head to which he had awakened.  Not having shaven that morning, his scruffy appearance reflected in the wrinkled brown suit and unlit, but well chewed, cigar in his mouth.  He turned his red-rimmed eyes skyward, and rubbed his fingers through the days worth of beard.
            “I….,” he stopped speaking.  Looking at his former mentor next to him, his eyes reddened further, barely contained tears threatening to spill out.
            “We all miss him,” Thauma said.  She closed her eyes and forced a barrier around her feelings, the rush that threatened to pour out of her mirroring his emotions.
            “It’s been three years since he died,” Sutter said.  “I can’t get it out of my head.”
            Thauma, who stood well over six feet tall and towered over most people, leaned over and hugged her friend, teammate, and former pupil.  “PhoenixHawk would not have wanted you to drink your life away.”
            Brian sat stiffly, almost as though afraid to move, and nodded slightly.
            “It’s hard, every time we get together as a group,” he said.  “I see him in every one of us.”
            Thauma nodded.  “I know.  So do I.  I see him in the apartment we shared, in the symbol we wear.  I’ve tried to find strength in everything he gave us, but all I seem to find is how lonely I am.  I have so many friends, but I still feel empty.”
            Brian leaned forward, resting his forearms on wrinkled pants.  A single tear ran down his cheek and dropped to the pavement, evaporating in only a few seconds.
            “I should have done something,” he whispered.
            “What?” Thauma asked him.
            “I should have done something.  I could have stopped him from being killed.”
            Thauma’s brow furrowed.
            “What could you have done?  You weren’t even there.”
            Sutter reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a slightly torn, wrinkled, incredibly worn photograph.  It had obviously been taken from a distance, and looked as though it had weathered many times being crushed in someone’s grip.
            The years before had seen a series of times of dark power.  The Circle of Thorns had succeeded in their third attempt to bring a demi-god to the earth, but had lost control of the Beast, losing many members to its hands.  Only when Tropic had sacrificed himself had the Beast been slain.
            A year before that the Circle had tried to bring their Demon through by sacrificing three individual whose makeup in the cosmos brought the power into alignment that was needed for the ritual.  Statesman and the Freedom Phalanx had thwarted them, but one of the three, Cyrus Thompson, a former Hero who had gone by the name Breakneck, had given his life in the process.
            The faded colors showed an island slightly off the coast of Paragon City.  In the background a group of Heroes gathered on the island, two smallish women helping a larger man wreathed in flame, and another woman with a Katana from the ground.  Thauma stood among the group along with another woman with red hair and hands wreathed in fire.  The foreground of the picture showed PhoenixHawk pinned beneath the huge foot of a monstrous Demon, talons descending, almost touching the chest armor the Hero wore.  The green fire in PhoenixHawk’s eyes blazed so brightly the color washed out of the photograph showing the snarl on his face.
            Three years had passed since the photograph had been taken. 
            The Circle had made their first attempt that year to bring the Demon through.  They had summoned an Envoy to negotiate its coming, but the negotiations had been interrupted by members of the Onami Strike Force and Archangels of the Apocalypse. 
PhoenixHawk had died milliseconds after the photograph had been taken, giving more of his essence that his life could do without to bring the Envoy down.  Even had the huge talons that impaled him not taken his life, the blast he unleashed would have.
            Thauma Guard’s voice was barely audible.  “Where did you get this?”
            “I took it,” Sutter said.  “I used my Hero Corp credentials to get into the area the police had barricaded, and a hover unit that I borrowed from Lady Emily.  I was there, I saw him die, and I didn’t even do anything about it.”
            He reached his hands under the fedora he wore, wrapping his fingers tightly in his hair, holding onto handfuls of it as though perhaps he could pull the memories through his head and discard them once and for all.
            Thauma’s hand rested on his shoulder.
            “You couldn’t have done anything.  You were just starting out, nowhere near powerful enough to stand up to the Envoy.  He’d have killed you too, had you gotten involved.”
            “I should have tried.”
            Thauma shook her head.  “No.  You were right to stay away.”
            “I wasn’t right,” he said sitting up and looking into her eyes.  “I was just scared.”
            “We all were.  That thing was incredibly powerful.  We have our limitations, and you knew yours, even if you didn’t realize it.  That fear kept you alive.”
            “And let Aaron die.”
            Thauma blinked through the tears that ran down her cheeks.  “None of us let Aaron die.  He gave himself for us, on his own.”
            Brian’s cell phone rang loudly on his hip.  It was so unexpected that both Heroes nearly jumped out of their skin.  Sutter stood up and sighed.
            “Damn it,” he said, before answering the phone.
            He spoke for only a few moments before hanging up and wiping his eyes with the back of his ruffled sleeve.
            “Looks like we have some work to do.  It sounds like we’ll need a bunch of us, too.”

 
            Less than two hours later, the majority of the Onami Strike Force had gathered in the Tattler’s office, using a conference room.  As always when they gathered in numbers, there were expressions of uncertainty, as though they were all afraid to say something that might bring back all of the grief each of the members knew the others felt.
            Thauma stood at the head of the table and thanked everyone for coming, then stepped aside for Harvey Maylor.
            “Thank you for getting here so fast.  As happens this time of year, we’re in for a special treat.”
            An almost collective sigh went through the room. 
            Harvey nodded.  “Yes, the Carnival of Shadows is back in town.  Many of us have seen this before, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been spotted in several zones across the City.  Their main tent is in Picadilly, but they have street shows going on from here in Peregrine to King’s Row.  They’ll be picking pockets, robbing stores, and worst of all, those they will simply spirit away, drinking their souls and discarding their bodies.  Aside from those that are around all of the time, Vanessa DeVore’s minions will be everywhere for the next week.”
            While Harvey had been speaking, Thauma Guard had been staring out the open window, distracted, paying little attention.  When he stepped aside, she barely noticed until Voltech reached over and touched her arm lightly.
            All eyes turned to her, awaiting their Leader to organize and hand out assignments.
            Thauma’s eyes scanned the group, many of whom were in the signature red and white, with lightning bolts emblazoned down their arms and legs, the Cresting Wave upon their chests.  She started to speak, but her voice caught in her throat.  Looking down she drew the wrinkled photograph from her pocket.  Her head spun with the image, bringing back the day it had happened in a rush.  She squeezed her eyes tightly against the emotions that flooded through her, took in a deep breath, and looked into the faces of her Group.
            “I’m sorry,” she said, then ducked out the window and leapt off.
            A murmur went through the members at the table, each looking at each other to confirm what had just happened.
            Shadow Pain stood and got everyone’s attention.
            “Ok, people, you’ve all been around long enough to hit the streets and sweep for the Carnies.  Watch their activity.  Every year they have something new and more diabolical in store.  Find out what you can and get back to me with it.  We’ll see if we can stop it before whatever they decide to do blows up in our faces.”
            The Group stood and began to move towards the exit.  Ginger Blaze took Shadow Pain aside, saying she would go looking for Thauma.
            “We’re going to need everyone on the streets,” Shadow Pain said.
            “I’m out of the fight for a while,” Ginger said.  Shadow Pain looked a question at her, to which she replied, “I’m pregnant.”
            Shadow Pain smiled and hugged her friend.  “Congratulations.  Ok, I’ll let you go see what’s up with T.  Let me know what you find out.  And you may want to let Khazm know about the Carnies, get him to pass word to the Archangels.”
 

The Heroes hit the streets, sweeping in teams, stopping the Carnies wherever they could.  Jewelry stores, banks, restaurants, were all hit by the Carnival of Shadows.  Patrons were grabbed, but Heroes from all over Paragon fell upon them with fervor.
            Tragic Johnson, Thundering Takai, and Brain Fried patrolled their normal haunts in King’s Row.  The Skulls and Carnies clashed several times in the streets before the Heroes could stop them.  Nightbringer, an old friend of Tragic Johnson’s, led a group into one of the gang clashes at the same time as Johnson and the Onami members.  When the villains had been taken into custody, Nightbringer asked how thing had been with the group.
            “We’re falling apart,” was the only answer he received.
 

The week ended and the Heroes of Paragon had shut down the majority of the dread Carnival’s operation, but there was still a death toll, more than any would have liked.  DeVore had sent her underlings to bring her new subjects and souls and when they were gone, they had done just that.
            The Onami members gathered at the end of the week again in the offices of the Tattler.  Thauma Guard was conspicuously missing.
            The official banner of the Group hung on the wall of the room.   The white Cresting Wave centered on a red background, the words, “Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, Indomitable Spirit,” stenciled underneath.  Shadow Pain stood underneath of it as the members got settled in.
            “It’s been a tough week for all of us,” she said.  “But I think things will not get better soon.  The Carnival has moved on, but there is damage to clean up.”
            There was little movement among the members, each looking to Shadow Pain with an unanswered question.
            “Nobody has heard from Thauma since she left,” Pain said.   She turned and removed the banner from the wall, wrapping it around the pole upon which it was mounted, then slid it into a protective case.  “Always remember you are members of the Onami, and we will always be here for one another.  Hold on to that truth, and the values that brought us together, because I believe that we are all on our own for a while.”
            As the team filed out, the last remaining was News Flash.  The air in the room remained filled with the resonant traces of his teammates.  He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples, then pulled a flask from inside of his coat pocket.
             

Ginger Blaze had spent the week searching for Thauma Guard.  Her apartment had not been entered during the time, and nobody had seen or heard from her.  Three days after the Onami had left the offices of the Tattler, Skida Marink called Ginger’s husband, Khazm, on the phone.
            “She says she knows where Thauma is,” Khazm said after hanging up the phone.  “She wants us to meet her near the green line station in Talos Island.”
            Skida was dressed in black, waiting near the base of the ramp that lead up to the train when Ginger and Khazm arrived.  It was after one o’clock in the morning, the sky clear and a nearly full moon brightened the sky.
            The three Heroes leapt off towards the coast, moving along a series of small islands until they came to a plateau several hundred yards from shore.  Around a large rock outcropping, Thauma Guard stood overlooking a plaque set upon a pedestal.
            “This is where…” Ginger whispered.
            Skida nodded.
            Thauma didn’t turn as the Heroes approached her from behind.  Before her a crater sprawled across the top of the plateau.  At the edge of it was the plague she had been reading, a likeness of PhoenixHawk’s face set in the bronze.
            “I was wondering how long it would take you to get here,” she said.
            “We’ve been pretty worried about you,” Ginger told her.
            “I can’t lead them anymore,” Thauma said.  She looked out into the center of the crater.  “He held us together, and I’ve let us fall apart.  I can’t do it anymore.”
            Ginger moved forward and put her hand on her friend’s back.
            “We’re strong, we can get through this, together.”
            Thauma shook her head.  “I need to be apart from it.  It’s tearing me up inside.  I almost can’t breathe.”
            “Well, I’m taking a break, too,” Ginger said.  “You can take one with me.”
            Thauma turned and looked at her friends.  “They’ll need you to stay in the fight.”
            “She can’t,” Khazm said, his eerie voice like a howled whisper.
            “Why not?”
            “I’m pregnant,” Ginger said.
            Thauma’s face split in a smile through the tears she had shed.  She picked her friend up in a hug and kissed her on the cheek, then hugged Khazm as well.
            “I’m so happy for you two.”
            Ginger smiled in return.  “I’m glad.  You needed some good news.  So I have to take some time off, and you can help me get ready for the baby.”
            “We get to paint the nursery,” Skida said.  “Because she’s not allowed near the fumes.”
            Thauma almost laughed.
            She looked out over the crater where PhoenixHawk, the man she had pledged her heart to for eternity, had died.
            “I lost my heart here, but you’ve brought something of life back to this place.  Thank you.  I think I needed it.”
            The Heroes made their way back to their respective homes, leaving the bronze plaque shimmering in the night, a wrinkled and torn photograph stuck into the lip of the frame at one corner.    

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