Chapter XCII: The Glory of Love
Natalie couldn’t stop grinning. She sat in the cushy arm chair with her knees hugged into her chest, her chin resting softly atop them. Across the table she took in every bit of him: the long brown hair tinged just slightly with grey, tied in back by a leather chord. His jagged face that never seemed to cease to show worry and weariness—a child of the early eighties, the man had borrowed a term from Jim Henson’s body of work and dubbed it ‘wembling’. He was a grim companion and yet… the very essence of Michuru Bradshaw was an intoxicating thing to Doctor Natalie Styles. “Check,” he said, luring her from her daydreams and back to the chess board.
“Where?” she asked, her eyes fumbling across the board.
“Knight.” He barely even gestured to the board; his hands were folded, hiding the lower half of his face as he leaned forward. She assumed he had entered into such a state to engineer the perfect strategy against her. The truth was he simply gazed over the tops of his hands and wondered why a girl as intelligent and funny and beautiful and alluring as she was would ever want to spend a fraction of a moment with him.
She had come to know the way he thought from playing these games with him. In Chess, he valued the knights above all other pieces. She had always relied heavily on the queen—being able to move any which way seemed an asset few could overlook. Still, he had shown her the value in the horses. “A knight may not be able to move anyway they want or go as far as they want… but they can move in such a way that you confuse and beguile; you hide your true intent behind a veil and strike without warning.” He put so much thought into every game he played. Above all else, he was a brilliant Go player; he had tried to teach her but even though the game seemed so simple the reality of it was that it was so complicated; she had a hard time wrapping her mind around the subtle intricacies of the ancient game.
“Tell me about her,” she said, shattering the silence suddenly as she continued to search the chess board for a way out of her boyfriend’s trap.
“Excuse me?” Michuru asked.
“Bridget… you—you mentioned once that she played these games. Did she play Go?”
“She picked it up fairly quickly but… she always fell for my corner eyes. Every time she’d realize my agenda too late and would move to disrupt the line and… every time she would only end up losing more stones. She knew that I loved to play the Tengen as my opening move and she would start right there—just to infuriate me.”
Natalie smiled sincerely as she imagined those times: the man who dwelt in her head playing archaic board games with the woman he couldn’t forget. She had never met Bridget Hart but when she started to have feelings for her fellow educator so many months ago, she had pulled up whatever files the Vindicators had kept on the young woman. There was only so much you could learn from a file though. “Why the interest?” he asked.
“I just… I dunno. I guess I just want to know about her.”
“You could read her file-”
“I know. I have. It’s just…” Natalie sighed and took a deep breath as she stepped to the edge. She was willing to take the chance and plunge in head-first. “I love you.” It felt so weird to tell him that, considering how she felt about those words. It had only been a week since he had said those three small words to her and she had argued them before recanting. She grinned as she thought back on the memory of that night and blushed as she recalled where that night had taken them… “I love you and… and you loved—you love her and… and I know that she made you happy when she was- I—I love her too. I love her for… for being there for you and for being your friend and for… for treating those feelings you gave her so well and sharing some of hers with you and… and… I just… I just want to know her the way you do, I suppose.”
Michuru said nothing and the logs in the fireplace broke the awkward silence with their crackling. “I swear to God, if you don’t say something, I just may actually explode and ruin this carpet.”
“I’d been thinking about tearing it up anyway… maybe try hard-wood flooring.”
“I—what, Natalie? What do you want me to say? I—I really… I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“You could try, oh, I don’t know… at the beginning?”
“I never ask you about Alex Higgins.”
Natalie imagined herself overturning the chess board, knocking all the pieces to his feet as she cracked his skull open with the door. She managed to compose herself though. “There was nothing between Alex and me.”
“Rosa told me about how the team before ours disbanded. She said that Alex was the first to leave… that he couldn’t handle being around you.”
Natalie threw back her head and sank into the chair. “God… you know… you can’t know what it’s like to be responsible for something that you never did. I—I was a kid, all right. I was younger than most of the students at the academy are and… You want to know what happened between me and Alex Higgins? Here it is: I was a kid who couldn’t mesh with any of the adults on the team. Stephen and Scarlet were married and had Atlanta. Jacob was married and raising Magnus. Rosa was dating that news reporter and Alex was a nation apart from his girlfriend. He felt as cast aside as I did in our downtime and Alex started… he started to fantasize about having a relationship with me. He didn’t like thinking that way about a thirteen-year-old girl and he quit, went home, and married his girlfriend. We never spoke again. We didn’t have a relationship but… there you go. Satisfied?”
He was not—not with himself at least. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be.”
“So is Bridget.”
Natalie placed her finger on the top of her queen’s rook and idly began to spin it, tipped on the side of its base. “I’m sorry… I guess… I dunno. I wish I could just take it all back. I mean…” She sighed. “I’m not sure what I mean, Mich.”
Michuru leaned back and sighed as his eyes began counting the boards in the rafters. His mind surged to his youth and Sunday mornings spent at a small church in the country. At five-years-old, the preacher’s sermons were wasted on him. Instead he had lain between his grandmother and mother, counting the boards in the rafters. “The Harts were very well-known in Phoenix. Bartholomew was the most sought after attorney in Arizona and his wife, Bethany was a cardiologist who people said worked miracles. They were more than rich and famous socialites though… they—they were philanthropists.
“To most philanthropists, it’s enough to just throw money around. Donate this or buy that… The Harts weren’t like that though. They were very involved in their community. Mister Hart would volunteer in hospitals and Missus Hart played the piano in a retirement home every Saturday afternoon. The two had spent every Thanksgiving together serving diner at the rescue mission. They took hot meals to shut-ins. They—they were a huge part of Habitat for Humanity. They even have Jimmy Carter’s home number. It’s staggering...
“Still, before the Harts had become the civil champions of mankind they were, they had been proud parents…
It was the summer of 1979 when the Harts gave birth to a set of twins. Brian was the first born; he would forever assert that the reason big brothers are born first was to protect the younger children. For the Harts, that meant Bridget.
For twins, they were as different as night and day. Brian’s hair was dark and wavy while Bridget’s hair was long and straight—a shimmering blonde halo that framed her soft features. Like all parents, the Harts were proud of their children. Perhaps on some level they had more reason that most though. Bridget, who hated being messy, potty trained herself before her first birthday. Brian was able to walk—however unsteadily—while most children were learning to crawl. As the twins reached three years old, they were able to read and write, not merely recite the alphabet. It was then that their parents realized they had given birth to two very gifted children…
They never knew how gifted.
Society feared and hated Neo-Sapiens and the Harts knew what they were and dreaded the day one of the twins manifested either of their abilities. They had done their best to hide their talents; they had done everything they could to discourage them. Their father was able to siphon energy from those around him: a trick he often used in court to subtly drain the prosecutor’s intellect or a judge’s wisdom and add it to his own. His wife had used her powers in her career as well: Bethany Hart was blessed with the Neo-Sapien ability to heal any injury she touched and this talent she applied on the operating table, buying her patients years more with their loved ones. “What happens if they inherit your other ability?”
Bartholomew had asked his wife one night as he turned down the covers for bed. “Your regeneration, I mean? If Brian scrapes his knee or Bridget cuts herself… it might trigger their latent ability and expose them for what they are?”
It was to put such fears to bed that the twins had been home schooled. Still, there was always the concern that either might manifest their father’s talents and siphon off their parents’ mental faculties. They could forget themselves and reveal the Hart’s dirty little secret.
It was for that reason that the Harts withdrew from their children emotionally… hiring a caretaker to govern over their wellbeing, their development and their education. The Harts hired Linda Lawlins… and would forever come to regret having done such a thing…
Bridget fell backwards and landed down on the cushion right beside where her twin brother had been sitting. His eyes lifted from the medical journal he was reading to fix the young woman with an agitated look. “Do you mind? I’m trying to read.”
“We’re fourteen, Brian. We’re not supposed to be reading. We’re supposed to be enjoying life and all that it has to offer.”
Brian raised an eyebrow at his twin’s behavior and instinctively he knew. “Oh, God,” he said, rolling his eyes and tossing the journal into the air. “God…”
Bridget bit her bottom lip and turned to face him. She sat on her legs and was anxiously rocking back and forth, dying to tell someone what had happened. The reclusive tendencies of their parents had stripped them of a normal childhood. Their only friends were the children of those in their parent’s circles. At times like this, Brian and Bridget relied on each other. “He kissed me!”
“It’s so creepy, Bridge… I mean, Kyle is four years older than you are! He—he’s in college! We should only just be starting high school.”
Bridget punched the youth in the shoulder; her small frame didn’t deliver much of a hit but he rubbed the offended appendage for her sake. It was all a part of Brian Hart’s upstanding character: he always put his sister first. He did anything to make sure she was happy. He may not have liked that she was dating a college freshman, but he wouldn’t stand in her way.
“I thought he never would!” she groaned. “We’ve been going out for five months now. Five months! I get that the age difference probably made him nervous but… Oh, you have to check this out!” Bridget produced a thin, silver chain from under her shirt. Suspended from those intricately woven bands was a single ring. It caught the light as it rocked back and forth, spinning side to side. At the sight of it, Bridget was enchanted. Her eyes sparkled and her lips parsed as she watched it sway between them.
“Don’t tell me he proposed?”
“Of course not!” Bridget thundered. “It—it’s a promise ring. Kyle said he—he didn’t want me to feel pressured or anything by his age. I’ve got to admit, I’d been thinking about it… I mean, he’s in college and… I guess—I guess I was just worried that he’d drop me for a college girl if it meant she’d jump into bed with him. He—he said he’ll wait for me. For us to get married one day… after we both graduate from law school, I mean.”
Brian rolled his eyes. He had never understood what she found so alluring about their father’s career. Sure, Bartholomew Hart was in a place where he could proclaim that he only defended the innocent but Bridget and Kyle would have to work their way up. Sure, it was likely the two would be taken on by their fathers’ firm but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t have to defend the guilty. Brian wasn’t sure he could live with himself knowing he had helped a murderer or rapist walk free.
Then again, Bridget wasn’t suited for medicine. It was Brian’s intention to follow in their mother’s footsteps. He had sat in on some of her surgeries and observed from the deck overlooking the room. Bridget had tried to watch one once, but she had fled for the halls in terror. Bridget was hemophobic—she was terrified of the sight of blood.
Perhaps, he realized then, that they weren’t meant for some things. He knew he couldn’t have lived with his conscience as an attorney and Bridget would never have lasted an hour in medicine.
The twins spun at the sound of Linda Lawlins, the educator and caretaker. It was a rare occasion to see their father and, no matter for how fleeting, they savored the moment. “I can’t defend him!” Bartholomew exclaimed. “Linda… he—your brother told me that those—those things… he did those things. He really did kidnap, molest, and murder five little boys and… and I’m sorry but I can’t help him to avoid paying for those crimes.”
“You have to!” Linda proclaimed. “My brothers—they—my family is poor, Mister Hart! We can’t afford an attorney.”
“The State of Arizona will provide-”
“They will provide some green eared child and trust him to save my brother’s life!”
“Linda… I—I’m sorry. I truly am… but you have to understand… this—all of this—Lyle brought it all on himself.”
“The thing was,” Michuru explained, regaling his current girlfriend with the harrowing tale of his last, “Linda was the eldest of six children. Their parents had died when the boys were young still and Linda did her best to raise them. The trouble was, the Lawlins brothers had a habit for getting into trouble. Generally, it was minor offenses. Shoplifting, for instance. The young brother, Lester, had just been paroled. He had been arrested for grand theft auto and… as he was coming out, his brother Leonard was going in for drug trafficking. Lyle was in the most serious trouble though and Linda had hoped that her employer could be of some help. Still, Mister Hart’s Ben Matlock-syndrome kept him from taking the case.
“Three months later, Lyle’s trial came to a close and he was found guilty on all counts… He was looking at the death penalty.
“No matter how protective of the twins the Harts had been, they had let Linda Lawlins get close to them. Brian and Bridget didn’t go to school. They didn’t have many friends. They rarely left the house. Still, they hadn’t been able to rationalize forbidding their daughter to date. Kyle Jennings had to clear everything with the Harts. To take Bridget out, he had to go through Linda. She knew right where they would be… and she told her brothers were to find her.
“Desperate, Linda had concocted a plan. The trouble was, she had trusted her brothers to carry out that plan. She had trusted them to abduct Kyle Jennings and Bridget with the intent to ransom them for Lyle’s safety…”
The four men jumped the couple as they sat at a fountain nestled deep in Tobias Kline Park.
Lester Lawlins hammered a heavy fist into the back of Kyle’s skull. His strong hands pushed Kyle’s face into the pavement. Through the sea of pain, Kyle looked for Bridget, praying she had escaped the attack—praying she had gotten away.
The ringing in his ears left him and he immediately wished for it back. Without the ringing, Bridget’s screams and sobs were all but apparent. He strained to see her—to see what was happening. He wrestled to turn his head and immediately Luke Lawlins cracked the barrel of his pistol across the young collegian’s face. His vision blurred in and out, slowly revealing the sight of two of his teeth lying in a spattering of his blood on the pavement. The cool steel pressed against the base of his skull and was drug around his head and forced into his mouth.
Guided by the pistol, Kyle Jennings turned his head slowly and found Bridget easily pinned beneath Leonard. Her clothes were torn and his hands were violating her every curve.
His scream for them to stop was muffled by the steel pressed into his maw. The threat of death was hardly enough to keep him from attempting to wriggle free of their grapple. The fourth of the Lawlins boys, Lawrence, joined his brothers in holding the young man down. It had taken all three to hold him back as Leonard forced Bridget onto her back and guided a switchblade up her stomach, sundering blouse and flesh alike.
Try as he did, Kyle was helpless as he watched them each take turns beating, cutting and raping Bridget.
Relying on a gag reflex he had outgrown as a child, he vomited and forced the barrel out. Lawrence was sitting on Bridget’s chest and slapping her hard to force her to regain consciousness. He had insisted she be awake through it all—the Lawlins brothers had decided this would teach Bartholomew Hart a lesson. He would forever regret not saving their brother from the legal repercussions of his crimes.
Kyle screamed and begged and bargained; he did everything he could think of to get them to stop. Larry took his turn victimizing the young woman and moved to trade off with Luke. As the man let up to switch places, Kyle had his chance. He threw the other two off of him and tackled Luke to the earth. Hammering him with punch after punch, Kyle Jennings had become a wild beast from an age lost to man’s knowledge. He didn’t stop when he had dislocated Luke’s jaw. He didn’t stop when Luke’s screams were cut off as he gargled on his own blood. He didn’t stop when he broke the man’s nose or when he couldn’t even recognize the man as a human being anymore.
He didn’t stop even after Luke Lawlins’ heart had given.
Behind him, the remaining trio fumbled in the folds of shadows for the gun; it had been lost to the darkness when Kyle had thrown them off him. Lester’s hand felt the cold steel of the pistol. Kyle lunged from Luke’s lifeless form and threw himself for Leonard.
Lester opened fire.
For a split second, Kyle froze and his fingers groped at his left shoulder and the sticky sensation of his crimson essence spilling out. Two more slugs were unloaded into his chest, the force causing him to stagger backwards. His foot caught on Luke’s corpse and Kyle fell backwards, cracking his skull on the pavement just inches from Bridget’s still shape.
She had been paralyzed by all she had seen—by her rape and Kyle’s assault. His blood forming a pool under his skull was the final push. She thawed out and split the night with a scream.
In his panic Lester turned and fired three rounds into Bridget’s stomach. As her body doubled over around the wounds he emptied the remainder of the clip into her back. Leonard and Lawrence looked to each other, sharing a terrified look between them. Neither of them had ever been involved in anything as serious as murder and they had surely just seen two innocent people killed. The pair wasted no time in hurrying from the scene, abandoning Lester there to act as he wanted.
Left alone with the ramifications of his actions, Lester dropped the pistol by their bodies and he fled into the night.
The regenerative powers Bridget had inherited from her mother manifested then and there. Her wounds began to knit together and her eyes snapped open as she regained consciousness. She gagged and was shocked to find her mouth full of the metal slugs from the bullets she had taken. One-by-one she spat them out… down beside Kyle…
Her eyes snapped open wide at the sight of him and the rust-red pool he laid in. The blood glistened in the starlight and she felt as if she were about to be sick. She didn’t know it yet, but all it would have taken was a touch—a single touch from her fingertips would bestow on Kyle the same miraculous healing she possessed…
The same abilities her mother used to extend lives.
Bridget crawled forward, inching her way towards the love of her life, little by little. A breeze rippled through the night and chilled her exposed flesh. Shivers ran up her spine as she reached for his skill form.
Kyle’s chest heaved suddenly as he fought for his right to live and Bridget screamed. Her heart raced out of control and her hands trembled. She had withdrawn but she pushed on- reaching for him once more and finding herself incapable of doing anything more than reaching… She froze then… and Kyle breathed his last.
When the police arrived they found Kyle Jenning’s dead body beside the corpse that dental records revealed as Luke Lawlins.
Bridget Hart was nearby and deep into a catatonic state.
A month after Mister and Missus Jennings buried their son, Mister and Missus Hart had their daughter committed…
“It was three years later when Bridget was released from Sacred Heart Mental Hospital. The sixth incarnation of the Vindicators had disbanded. The Aurelius and his wife Phenomena wanted to focus their attention on the family they had begun and Lodestone wanted to do the same. Nock left… and…”
“And my parents brought me home,” Doctor Natalie Styles said. “I’d served for two years as a Vindicator and I was only fifteen. It was around the time Nathan began to get worse and mom was beginning to break. Dad brought me home… for her.”
Michuru nodded and continued his exposition. “The only member of that team who remained active was Onyx. No one knew where the other team was… it was like they had disappeared off the face of the earth. It was a year before Crusader’s team returned from that alternate dimension—telling tales of an earth that were Neo-Sapiens had instead appeared during the Civil War. Rosa Freeman was left alone against the coming storm…
“The Order of Chaos had attacked New York City and Onyx was alone against them.
“The United States government had… a weapon in the reserves. They had taken in a Neo-Sapien youth—a child by all accounts, and had placed him in the care of seasoned heroes to attempt to help him reign in his wild, uncontrollable powers.
“They had found me at my junior high in Chicago. My powers had manifested, fighting a kid intent to pick a fight over my ethnicity. I—I’m not sure what my father was but my mother was the daughter of Japanese immigrants. Her father had been born in a concentration camp here in the states. Sure, state-side we didn’t call them concentration camps… but that’s what they were. I- I’m not sure what our family’s real name is. My great-grandmother died giving birth and the father was nowhere to be found. An American soldier adopted my grandfather—gave him his name. ‘Bradshaw’.
“Pop loved his adopted parents but… he was always uneasy. He always said there was no feeling worse than loneliness—no matter how many people were around. When he was old enough, he went to Japan and met Kondou Hatchimaru. To have the name Kondou meant mastery in Tennin Rishin-ryu, the school of martial arts elevated by the members of the Shinsengumi. Pop stayed to learn about his heritage but he took so much more… he left Japan with the teachings of Tennin Rishin-ryu and Hatchimaru’s daughter’s hand in marriage. When they came back to America, she was two months pregnant with my mom.
“Pop had taught me Tennin Rishin-ryu… but he never taught me to fight. He taught me to defend. Patrick Sipka was… was a bully of the worst kind. He antagonized those weaker than him and… I got tired of sitting by, doing nothing but watch him pick on the defenseless. We started to fight and… and my powers manifested.
“My mother? Her parents? None of them were Neo-Sapiens. We can only assume I inherited my powers from my father. My mother was only sixteen-years-old, dating a senior… Gary Logan. My mom was on wrestling auxiliary and Gary was their star grappler. She had stolen a couple bottles of sake from Pop’s study and snuck them over to Gary’s. His parents were out of town and she thought to take advantage of it. So did Gary though. Mom showed up and… there’s Gary making out on the couch with some other girl. Mom ended up in the parking lot of a church and thought to just drink the pain away. That was when she met my dad. They—they made me together that night and never saw each other again. I don’t have his name—I don’t even know it—but I guess I got his powers.
“I burned him pretty bad. Part of my sentence was that I not have any contact with Patrick. I—I’ve never even been able to say I’m sorry.
“The government intervened and I didn’t go to juvie. Instead, I was sent to train under each respective member of the Vindicators IV. That’s—that’s why I’m so close to Cloud and Cassandra. They were seven when I was sent to stay with the Goodman’s to learn what I could about my ability to manipulate earth and air.
“I didn’t get very far… when the Order of Chaos attacked, I was activated. It was me—a fifteen-year-old kid—and Onyx, alone against a team of super villains. It goes without saying that we had our backsides handed to us. Thankfully, we had some help. Brian Hart was close to graduating high school and looking to attend medical school as far from Bridget as he could… he was trying so hard to get away from her and yet… we took him right back to what he was running from. Brian had… had inherited his father’s powers. He was able to siphon more than just… just a person’s inherent abilities. He could transfer a fraction of their Neo-Sapien abilities as well. In fact, Brian was about the only thing that kept us alive.
“Brian siphoned off my abilities and was able to control them much better than I could have ever hoped to. He told us about his sister… the Harts had laid everything on the table after—after what happened. They told him about their abilities and… and what they assumed she was capable of. The powers that be thought that Bridget’s powers would be useful… even if she was in no condition to use them. Brian had to be close enough for Brian to be able to use her powers and… she was made a Vindicator.
“As time went on, our little group expanded. We met Richard and Silvia, their son Quinton too. Chimera and Xianbei were a huge help early on—they were both experts in covert tactics and decent combatants to boot. The biggest boost they gave us was… well, Brian and Bridget were only seventeen when we came together. I was fifteen and Breanne? Breanne was only eleven. The Jorgensons spared Rosa from leading a team of high school kids. The Vindicators VII came together and… I felt so stupid. Bridget and I were brought along on missions purely to fuel Brian’s abilities. My job was simple: Bridget was in a stupor so I was to help her along and keep us close enough to Brian. Even with my powers transferred to him, I had my martial arts to rely on if the fight came to us.
“I was young and… and pretty naïve. I constantly talked to Bridget. She never showed any signs of response but that didn’t stop me. I told her about my life and… well, I told her everything. Sometimes I would just ramble on. I dunno… Brian told me what had happened to his sister and I—well, I hated what the Lawlins brothers had done to her—I really did—but the thing I thought saddest about her story was that the person she loved more than anything in this world was taken away from her, when she had the power to keep them here. I knew what it was like to be failed by your emotions—be it your anger destroying everything or your fears holding you back. I told her how I had begun to cope with my abilities and… for months I whispered to her, confiding in her and imbuing her with words of confidence. Breanne’s words were always chiding, often scathing and Brian… Brian just didn’t believe his sister would ever come back to him. It was almost like he had convinced himself she had died.
“I was actually right in the middle of yelling at them—arguing that she could hear me and that she would come out of it one day… when she opened her mouth and…
she whispered, ‘I think I can hear him.’
“I hadn’t been surprised to hear her speak but… for Brian it was a momentous occasion. ‘Bridge?’
he asked, stunned and struggling to formulate words. ‘Mich, did—did she just-’
“Silvia smiled as us all as the Vendetta flew onward. ‘It’s never too late,’
she whispered. I stopped and I looked up and… I remember wondering if she was talking about Bridget… or talking to her husband. Richard didn’t take his eyes off the skies as he steered our vessel through the heavens. ‘Never,’
“Little by little, Bridget opened up to me. She told me about Kyle and… and about how she had heard my voice calling to her—guiding to her and she… she had sworn it was him. It was so strange; since coming out of her shell she didn’t recognize her brother. Brian had called their parents the second we landed and they rushed to see her. She couldn’t recognize them either. Her family… they were strangers to her but me? Me she claimed to have known since forever. I’m not sure she mistook me for Kyle though—she seemed able to separate me from him. She told me everything about Kyle and she told me how they had parted. The story Brian had told me had so much more gravity, coming from her mouth. After our little field trip in Chicago, we had gone to Phoenix… so that she could visit his grave…
“It was about three years later that she surprised me by—by just grabbing my hand. We were out for a walk… I love the sound of dried leaves crunching under your feet in the fall. We were walking through a leaf-littered park and Bridget grabbed my hand and… I turned and looked at her, unsure what she was doing and that’s when she gave me my first kiss. She—she started laughing. Here we are, in the middle of Central Park, hand-in-hand, lips-to-lips and she starts laughing. I thought I had done something wrong and she—I dunno, it was like she read my mind. She shook her head and told me, ‘It’s not you. It—that was good. I just… I just got so tired of waiting for you to make the move.’
“When Brian found out about it he was furious and… I left the team for a while. I came back and… and Bridget and I started officially dating. It wasn’t long after that she—she-” Michuru reached under his shirt, pulling at the thin, silver chain he wore and Natalie’s eyes were caught on the ring suspended from his neck. “She slipped this around my neck and told me she-” He began to blush. “Well, she—it was… She and Kyle made a promise and then… so did she and I.” Natalie smiled sweetly and Michuru pretended to scratch his nose—so that she might not see him begin to cry. “It wasn’t long after… that she died.”
Most people can testify where they were when man touched down on the moon or when Kennedy was assassinated. Natalie Styles had not been born for either event… but she could clearly remember where she was during the Ragnarok—during that week that the earth literally stood still in September of 2001. Natalie herself was twenty-years-old and was attending medical school, working her way to becoming a veterinarian. For days she had done her best to avoid the chaos erupting in the streets. Most were convinced that Atlas was bringing about the end of the world. She had been one of the few to try and keep her normal life on track- sure that the Vindicators VII would find him soon enough and put an end to this threat. She had half-way considered joining them herself—several other heroes had returned to contribute something. It felt odd having her powers and her experience… and yet doing nothing.
Natalie knew what the official report was on the incident known as the Ragnarok. Atlas had held the earth in its rotation—creating perpetual night and day and announcing his intent to bring about a new ice age. He had claimed the idea was whispered to him by a woman in a long, green dress. It only helped to validate his insanity to the world.
According to the dossiers on the event, John Sidell had phoned Michuru Bradshaw. At the time, the Vindicator was twenty-years-old; the Harts were two years his senior and Breanne Jordan, the young hero codenamed Rift was only sixteen-years-old.
The news had been rife with reports that the Vindicators had been successful. Vindicators Plaza, the tower that served as both the heroes’ headquarters and their physical face, had released what they could. According to the heroes’ public relations agents, they had received a transmission from the Vendetta that Atlas had been defeated. Seeking to capitalize on their victory, the press was gathered when the plane touched down. Only Onyx and Rift stepped off the plane.
Natalie’s face had been glued to the television as the vultures known as the media began to badger the heroes. It didn’t take much for Onyx to snap at them—telling them that Chimera was on board, mourning the passing of a spouse and in critical condition from the loss of an arm. Michuru and Siphon remained on board, consoling each other over the passing of a lover and sister.
Bridget Hart, the Vindicator known as Bio, had been impaled by a stalagmite shaken loose courtesy of Atlas’ abilities. The sight of her passing had driven Michuru into a rage unlike any his teammates had ever known.
When he was happy and content, he manipulated air. If he was hurt or sad, he could shape the earth. So long as he was calm and tranquil, water moved at his whim. When he was angry he had incredible pyrokinetic abilities—so powerful he was unable to control them. They learned then that something else happened whenever Michuru felt nothing. When he became dead inside—when all emotion left him—a different power took over.
“It was then that Michuru Bradshaw hovered in the air,” Rosa Freeman had written in her official report—her last before disbanding the Vindicators VII. “His eyes glowed with a light unlike anything I have ever seen… they were more than white… they were hollow. It was almost as if they were windows into a hollow husk of a man… a man who was an endless well of this strange energy.
“This energy poured from Michuru, solidifying into an exoskeleton of heights I cannot estimate. That energy formed a monster and Michuru was like the heart, soul and mind of the beast. It reared back and howled and its head brushed the top of the cavern. As the lair began to collapse, I gave the command for my people to retreat. Brian Hart had to be physically moved; he was shocked into a stupor at his sister’s death. Breanne Jordan led us to safety, phasing the three of us through the walls and up to the surface. I regret that we failed to make our way back to Richard Jorgenson—Breanne claimed to have found him weeping in another part of the subterranean labyrinth, cradling his wife’s dead body and missing an arm.
“Despite even the distance we had traveled, the sounds of their battle reached us. Who knows how many miles under our feet Michuru and Atlas were fighting? As the sounds of battle came to a close, the mountains sank into the earth and we feared for our companion as surely as we dreaded the monster’s emergence.
“Michuru emerged from the rubble then—the strange, heatless flames were bleeding off of his body as the exoskeleton dissipated. In his arms he carried a figure we mistook for Bridget Hart. As we grew closer we realized Michuru had pulled Richard from the collapse.
“Michuru Bradshaw claims to have no recollection of his battle with Atlas, nor of his saving Richard. He insists that he blacked out when Bridget was slain before him and regained consciousness onboard the Vendetta.
“Silvia’s death has been confirmed by Breanne and Richard and all present confirm Bridget’s passing from this world. However, we have our doubts as to Atlas’ demise. Given the young man’s abilities, I strongly doubt dropping a mountain on him would kill him. However, he would have had to have survived against the white beast in order to have a prayer.”
Natalie slipped down beside Michuru—beside her boyfriend—and slipped her arms around him, hugging him gently. Try as she may to comfort the man she had fallen in love with, she had concerns of her own now. Bridget’s power to regenerate and heal the inflictions of the flesh she or others received. Was it so preposterous to believe she could have survived being impaled on a spike? In the five years since her death, had Michuru considered that? Bridget may have survived such a mortal wound… but how could she be resurrected, buried under the mountains?
Natalie looked at him sadly, terrified for him that he may have condemned the first woman he had ever loved… and wondering if out there in the infinite realm of possibilities… was there a chance she could come back? Was it possible that Bridget Hart could still breathe and remind Michuru Bradshaw of all the promises they had made?
Was it possible that Natalie might lose the man she loved more than life itself?
Michuru continued to weep for his love… and Natalie began to join him.
To Be Continued... wrote:The Beginning of the End.