“Right Hand Man” in Men of Steel (ed. Julianne Bentley)
‘Right Hand Man’ by Elinor Gray in Men of Steel
Simon McFarlane is Sparks, the heat-impervious and super-fast sidekick to local superhero Aero. Together they fight crime and save lives, but their arch rival is a villain they call Blackout, who shrouds the scenes of his crimes in impenetrable darkness. Simon’s been enamored of Aero since he was a teenager, so keeping his crush in check while they work together is extra difficult now that he knows the man behind the mask. Simon’s attempt to get Aero to see him as an equal backfires when he’s kidnapped and wakes up in Blackout’s lair. Like so many other sidekicks, Sparks is being used as the bait to get Aero where Blackout wants him. Will Aero finally be able to see what’s right in front of him?
* * *
If anyone had actually come out and told him that being a superhero’s sidekick was going to be difficult, Simon would have punched them in the face for being so obtuse. Of course being a sidekick was going to be difficult; it was more or less in the job description. When Aero had hired him, he’d said outright, “Listen, kid, you might get killed.” Simon had wanted to be a Super ever since his abilities had manifested at the age of ten, and with Aero he had managed to realize that dream.
But for fuck’s sake, this was the third four-alarm fire in two weeks, and at five in the morning. Couldn’t people have the decency to set their houses alight during the daytime?
Simon rolled out of bed and opened his closet, glad at least that he’d taken the time to hang up his suit the night before. He wiggled into the red, form-fitting, flame-retardant pants and yanked on the orange shirt that went with them, smoothing the flame decals that ran up his ribs. He shoved his feet into his calf-high boots, buckled on his belt, and pulled on his gloves. His goggles were by the bedside table, and he jammed them on his head. His fair hair was a mess, the product of almost a full night’s sleep, but there was nothing to be done about it. People needed rescuing.
Simon McFarlane, known to the greater Lawrenceville metropolitan area as Sparks, lived on the third floor of a five-story apartment building just outside of busy downtown. His neighbors had almost certainly figured out his identity by now. When he’d moved in he’d been nothing more than an unassuming graduate school dropout making cappuccinos at the coffeehouse on the corner, but he’d gotten the job with Aero a couple of months after that. His face wasn’t exactly hidden by his costume, but no one in the building had actually come looking for a confirmation or an autograph. Everyone kept up a veneer of normalcy that just barely covered for the fact that Simon had to climb down the fire escape wearing spandex on a fairly regular basis.
He dropped to the pavement and looked both ways, and then took off running down the street. He turned left at Freedmont, dashed alongside morning rush-hour traffic, and took a right onto Clark Avenue. Clark was already busy, but Simon darted between cars and kept pace with a red Jeep in the other lane. Sparks could hit eighty miles an hour on foot. Early-morning commuters were nothing compared to the car chases he’d won, or that one time he’d heard a call come in on the police radio Aero made him keep in his kitchen and beat the cruisers to a 415, (a disturbance; Simon loved knowing the codes).
But speed on foot wasn’t everything. Aero was probably already on the scene, having stepped out his twelfth-story window and flown straight there. Simon insisted Aero’s costume would look better with a cape, but every time he mentioned it he earned himself a punch in the arm that hurt for two weeks. Aero’s other power was super-strength.
Simon took another left onto Warrick Street, where the houses were sweet little split-levels with front yards and invisible dog fences, leftover Halloween decorations and rusty porch swings. He could see the lights flashing from three blocks away, and the air started to fill with the smell of smoke. A couple of neighbors had come out in bathrobes and bare feet to stare down the street at the blaze, but Sparks barely had time to catch sight of them before he was past, his heavy, protective boots pounding the pavement. The house in question was a roaring blaze, flames licking the tops of the second-floor window frames and smoke gushing out of the chimney, front door, and all of the seams. The firemen were spraying water into the windows and door, as well as all over the two adjacent houses to keep them from going up.
Simon slowed to a jog and found Aero and the Fire Chief with their heads together, shouting over the rush of the fire hoses and the calls of the firemen. Aero looked up as Simon approached, and he smiled widely beneath his blue mask. That smile had sent shivers down Simon’s spine ever since he was sixteen, when Aero made his debut by saving a toddler who had done her best to walk off a bridge. Aero later admitted to Simon that he’d been in college at the time, moonlighting with campus security, and the toddler thing had been a total accident. Still, his bright, handsome grin had won him the hearts of a couple thousand citizens that night, and Simon’s had been one of them.
“Hey kid,” Aero said, grinning at him now, “You ready to save some lives?”
“As always,” Simon said, pushing his goggles up to rub at the pressure lines they left and then dropping them back into place. They were as good for smoke as they were for flying debris and bugs. “What’s the situation?”
“Four residents of this house, only three of them came out,” the Fire Chief said. “We’ve got mom over here saying her twelve-year-old son is still in the back bedroom on the second floor.”
Simon looked at the house in all its fiery glory and winced. “Okay,” he says, “guess I’m going in.”
“It’s a big one,” the Fire Chief said, holding out a huge gloved hand. “We sent two guys in a minute ago, but they couldn’t get past the front hallway.”
“Too hot I can do,” Simon said. He rubbed his hands together, tugged his gloves a little tighter, and glanced at Aero.
“Go get ’em,” Aero said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll be out back if you need me.”
“If there’s a window, I’ll be looking to hand the kid out,” Simon said. “Okay, see you in a minute.”
The fire was deafening, and Simon could feel the power that got him his nickname swelling inside him as he approached the house. His skin heated as the air did, and he could feel his core cooling down. The smoke smell got stronger, thicker, but his lungs filtered the air without protest. The front door had been left hanging open, and Simon mounted the stairs and entered.
Inside, the air was so hot that the smoke cleared away, and Simon glanced around the brightly lit front hall. The living room was ablaze, the sofa and chairs nothing more than scorched frames. Down the hallway Simon could see the kitchen, or what was left of it, the edges of the cupboards ringed with fire. The staircase was to the left, and Simon stepped carefully on the first stair before putting his full weight on it. He was impervious to flame, but he was not immune to falling through a weak stair and injuring himself.
The stairs held, and Simon took them two at a time. The air was even hotter up here and the smoke was thicker. Two of the doors along the hall were open, and Simon went immediately to the third one. The doorknob was hot under his hand, hot enough to burn, but Simon only registered the heat with mild interest. He could create fire from his own fingertips: heated metal was barely a concern to him.
Once the door was open, the smoke outside the room began to rush in, and Simon only had a couple of seconds to find the kid. It wasn’t hard. The window on the other side of the room had been opened an inch or so, and beneath it lay a small form, its head wrapped in a blanket. At least the kid had listened to some of his fire safety lessons. Simon hurried across and rolled the child over onto his back, untangling the blanket. He was limp, but Simon found a thready pulse in his throat. He straightened up, rapped sharply on the window glass, and bent again to lift the child.
Twelve years old wasn’t small anymore, and Simon had to resort to the fireman’s carry to dead-lift a hundred pounds of limp pre-adolescent. He wrapped his arms around the child’s chest and pulled him into a sitting position, settled the child’s chest over his shoulder, and lifted. Above him, the window frame cracked and groaned and Simon could hear the glass falling and shattering as Aero pulled the window out of the wall. The kid flopped, breath rasping, and Simon stood up.
Aero hovered there, just outside the wall of heat that emanated from the house. He had one knee half-drawn up and the toe of the other foot pointed toward the ground, as though he was half-way through a leap, but he was motionless in the air, hands raised to chest height, waiting for Simon’s signal.
“I’ve got him,” Simon called, letting go of the kid with one hand to prop himself on what was left of the windowsill.
Aero darted forward, and Simon poured the kid into his arms. Aero gave him a nod, rather than risk breathing in the hot, toxic air that Simon alone could tolerate, and vanished around the side of the house.
Turning to look into the bedroom again, Simon contemplated heading back through the house versus waiting for Aero to come back. He was probably just going to drop the kid off with the paramedics and come back, but it wasn’t necessarily a given that he’d be as interested in rescuing Simon from a second-story window as Simon was interested in being rescued. He couldn’t take advantage of Aero’s strength too often.
The hallway was white with smoke, and Simon could feel the air cooling. The firemen must have made it in downstairs and begun to put the fire out. It would take them another half hour to drown the rest of the flames, and more than a day for the house to stop smoldering entirely. This place was a goner.
Down the stairs and past a fireman in full gear, and he was out the front door to cheers from the people standing on the sidewalk. The child looked impossibly tiny on the ambulance gurney with his mother standing over him, but Simon only spared him a glance. They couldn’t get attached to folks they saved, not every time.
Still, the neighbors were pretty happy to see him, and Simon pushed up his goggles and gave them a sheepish wave. Aero rounded the house again as he did it and landed smoothly beside him on the sidewalk. A fireman shooed them out of the way, and they went to stand beside a fire truck. There was a TV van pulling up, and Aero turned Simon toward the cameras and made him wave again.
“Thought you’d wait for me,” he said quietly after they’d done a little publicity and warned people about fire safety and smoke detectors and having an escape plan.
“Not dramatic enough,” Simon said, winking at him.
Aero rolled his eyes. “Okay, show-off, mission accomplished. Looks like the kid’s gonna live.”
“Good,” Simon said, looking back, although the fire truck blocked their view of the ambulance. Any minute now they would hear the siren start up as the paramedics took the kid to the hospital.
“I’m starving,” Aero said, jostling Simon’s elbow. “You wanna go grab something to eat?”
“I didn’t bring anything to change into,” Simon said, looking down at his garish suit.
Aero laughed. “Come on, kid, you know if we go into any diner looking like this, the meal’s gonna be free.”
Simon shrugged his shoulders. “I know,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I feel the need to take advantage of every diner in town.”
“But pancakes,” Aero said, drawing it out. “Okay, fine, breakfast is on you, then.” He pushed off the ball of his foot and leaped into the air. “Double T Diner, ten minutes.”
“You’re an asshole!” Simon yelled after him as he sped away, first straight up until he was a dot in the sky, and then away across the city. Simon shook his head, torn between amused and embarrassed, and then took off down the street at a run.
The Double T was a hole-in-the-wall that Aero was known to frequent, and there was a table reserved for him at all times. Aero was already sitting in his booth when Simon skidded to a stop outside, one arm slung on the back of the seat as he flirted with the waitress. He never took his mask off in public, hiding the upper half of his face, but it wasn’t difficult to tell from the rest of him how handsome he was. Simon pushed down a surge of envy and opened the diner’s glass door. The bell over his head jingled out of key, and Aero looked up.
“There he is!” he called, pointing at Simon. “Sparks himself, ladies and gentlemen: walks through fire and runs like the wind. Catch him on the morning news.”
Simon rolled his eyes and sank down into the seat across from him, pushing his goggles up again and putting his elbows on the table. The waitress, Ann, who knew them pretty well, wasn’t so star-struck anymore when they came in, and she pointed at him with the business end of her pen.
“What can I get’cha, hon?”
“Two eggs scrambled, side of bacon, wheat toast, please.”
“Milk and sugar.”
“And a short stack for the man of mystery,” Ann said, scribbling it down. She snapped her gum, winked at Simon, and then headed for the kitchen.
Aero bumped his knee into Simon’s. “How late were you out last night?”
“I was just having dinner with Viz,” Simon protested. “Why, was I late to the scene?”
“No,” Aero said, “just lookin’ a little ragged around the edges.”
“Well, it is 6:00 a.m.,” Simon said. “No one’s pretty at 6:00 a.m.”
Aero’s mask shifted, and Simon knew he was raising an eyebrow.
“Besides you,” he said, not all that grudgingly.
Aero snorted and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. Then he pulled his arm down from the back of the seat and leaned on his elbows. “So are you and Viz, like, a thing now?”
Viz, known to her closer friends and parents as Kate Monroe, was the other Super in town. She could walk through walls and phase in and out of sight, and she dealt mostly with bank robberies, break-ins, and hostage situations. She was a little older than Simon, had a master’s degree in French Literature, and her sense of humor was based almost entirely on dry sarcasm. Simon liked her a lot, but she had too many X chromosomes for his more romantic tastes.
“No,” he said quickly, “no, dude, she’s dating that guy who teaches at Carter, the art and design place? Jeff. They’ve been together for like, a million years.”
“You’ve met him.”
“Just checking,” Aero said.
Simon frowned at him suspiciously, but his coffee arrived right then so he didn’t press the issue. Sure, it wasn’t exactly ideal for a Super to date an average Joe, but it was easier than trying to find someone whose powers complemented your own. It was just one more identity to protect. Jeff knew Kate was a Super (it was hard not to notice that she disappeared into thin air when she got stressed) and he knew she was a heroine, but his fellow teachers and drinking buddies sure didn’t.
The coffee was hot, fogging up his goggles and warming his face, and he breathed the steam in deeply before taking a sip. Aero watched him with a faint smile on his face, and when Simon finally caught his eye, Aero cleared his throat and looked away.
Their breakfast came, and Aero dug into his pancakes with visible relish. Simon piled the eggs and bacon onto the toast and maneuvered it carefully into his mouth, and for a little while they were silent, devouring. The clock wandered its way to six thirty, and Aero finally put down his fork and sighed.
“So, we’ve got some things to do today,” he said, wiping up leftover syrup with his index finger. He’d taken his gloves off to eat, and Simon got a little distracted staring at his hands. Then he put that finger into his mouth, and it was even worse. Simon looked back down at his plate, fighting a blush.
“Yeah?” he said. “Any movement from Blackout?”
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