“Oh no no nononono- ”
The biggest mystery, really, is how has this never happened before.
It was supposed to be a simple grocery run. Jimi honestly had no ill intentions on entering the store. He just wanted to grab a few cheap staples that’d replenish his cupboards, maybe some spices to make said staples more palpable, and actually pay for his groceries since he had the money for it. Mostly, he just wanted to keep a low profile, get in and get out without risking arrest. Maybe he should’ve paid more attention to that woman who did a double-take when he grabbed the peanut butter; he’d honestly assumed she was looking at the prices, which had made him grimace as he realized how much they’d increased. For the moment, he’d forgotten he was a wanted criminal, and he hadn’t remembered this fact until he’d gotten in line for the cashier, and the woman followed him a bit too closely. He’d tried to back up, he really had, but she just peered more suspiciously at him.
She knows you’re bad, the demon in his head had remarked, and she won’t leave you alone. Bash her skull in. It was a testament to either Jimi’s inner strength or inner resignation that he didn’t visibly react to such a suggestion. Instead, he had, somewhat annoyedly, said, “Can I help you?”
Maybe it was the hint of irritation in his voice, or maybe something in his expression clicked for her, because she had finally drawn back with a look of horror. “You’re him. The scout.” It took a moment to digest that non sequitur before he realized where he had heard it before: police chatter whenever he was on the scene. He’d apparently picked up something of a reputation, a sign that some crime was about to unfold.
“Um,” was his incredibly intelligent response.
“Someone call Security!” And he had flinched as she yelled in his ear. “There’s going to be a robbery!” That had gotten some attention - a lot of confusion, and, to his dismay, a look of dawning recognition from the cashier as she picked up the phone. He had pushed his way forward, nearly dropping his basket of rice, peanut butter, beans, oatmeal, and seasonings as he did.
“There’s no robbery - I’m just buying groceries!” And it had to be something in his tone or the way he carried himself with something akin to frustration and desperation that one of the people he pushed aside had his cell phone out, and Jimi vaguely caught the standard spiel for 911. “There’s no robbery!” he repeated, heart sinking. “No crime’s being committed!” Besides your very presence. A crime against society and nature. He turned back to the cashier and pulled out the wad of cash. “Look, let me just pay and go.” The cashier had backed up as far as she was able without abandoning her post. Movement past her caught his eye - a pair of gentlemen in dark clothing and sunglasses.
“Oh no no nononono-”
The biggest mystery, really, is how has this never happened before.
Jimi swallowed, unlimbering his metal pipe and charging it instantly. He felt a chill sweep through him as he used his own body heat to gain a charge. He could hear the shoppers jump back now that his identity was confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt. He probably couldn’t afford more than three charges without putting himself out, but the thought of getting captured-
The thought of what the demon might do to escape-
Look, he just wanted to buy the stuff and go home, okay?!
”Now just what in the world is all this?” Said a mechanized voice from right behind the boy. When the hell did he get there
A 6 foot tall titan made of steel loomed over Jimi and the security guards, plates of gray and black armor slid over each other seamlessly, in a very rectangular fashion. A helmet the same way with red eyes looked at the growing crowd expectantly. The veritable statue leaned on what seemed to be a hammer, whose head was glowing red and resting on the floor.
Everyone in New Haven recognized that armor. It was Vanguard.
”I couldn’t help but overhear the commotion. Is everything alright?”
Jimi startled as the mechanized voice spoke, dropping his basket, fumbling with his pipe, and whirling around. Vanguard. Vanguard was here without any warning. How did a giant-ass robot man manage to sneak up on him? He gripped the pipe like a baseball bat as he held it closer to himself, not even sure if it’d do any good. Somehow, it seemed unlikely the man with the power armor had not already taken into account and nullified the effects of electricity on his power suit. And without being able to touch the man himself, he could only try chilling or overheating the armor, both of which he doubted he had the capacity to do effectively. Why’d it have to be Vanguard?
“Vanguard! Good to see you,” one of the security guards said as way of greeting. The other only offered a nod of acknowledgement, clearly less starstruck. He was the one to speak next.
“Got a call that the Scout’s here.” He gestured to Jimi. “You know his type - where he goes, crime’s quick to follow.”
“I just came here to shop! There’s no crime going on!” Jimi protested, resisting the urge to swing the pipe when the man he interrupted offered a severe gaze.
”Alright, everyone relax. Take it down a notch, now.” The giant metal behemoth said, in a tone entirely unbothered by everything happening right now. ”That’s no way to talk about a kid. Look at him. You have weapons, and he has a metal stick. He doesn’t seem so dangerous” That meant a lot coming from the man with the biggest weaponized stick in the city. He then asked patiently, ”Son, do you want to step away from this and leave with me? You aren’t in trouble, but you don’t seem welcome here.”
“I’m 18,” Jimi tried to protest. “I’m not a kid.” God, it sounded whiny and childish. He almost wished he could somehow take it back. But at the same time, he knew he wasn’t some harmless child. There was a reason he wasn’t living with the couple he considered his parents, after all.
Stop talking, the demon in his head hissed, and learn to take a lifeline when it’s offered. Do you want to start a fight? It seemed like rare good advice, or at least harmless. Jimi looked to the crowd of concerned and frightened people - none concerned for him, he was certain - then to the cashier and guards, then back to Vanguard. He set down his basket, slipped the pipe back into its belt loop, and mutely nodded yes.
The machine that resembled a man just nodded, and picked up his hammer to sling it over his shoulder. ”Right, then. This one is off the hook for now, officers.” With that said, Vanguard walked away, slowly enough that Jimi could follow. ”Walk with me.”
Shortly after, Vanguard led Jimi to a nice part of town, to a small restaurant with tables set outside under umbrellas. He parked his metal coffin with legs beside a table, and climbed out of its back like it was a sewer manhole. The entire city knew Vanguard’s face, as he had been seen both in and out of his Orion-5 armor multiple times. By the look of his face, he hadn’t seen a razor in the last ten years. He was an absolute bear of a man clocking in at exactly six feet tall without the armor.
”Let’s eat, and you can tell me what the deal was over there.”
Jimi of course followed after Vanguard, though not before shooting his grocery basket one last mournful look. He’d really been looking forward to those. Seemed like he’d be visiting the shitty convenience store back near his home after all. That reputation wasn’t unearned either.
Stand up straight. You’re walking with a damn Noble, and the only thing standing between you and that bludgeon of his is whatever he wants from you. So when you finally say yes like the coward you are, the least you could do is feign some dignity.
Jimi winced but did stand a little straighter as they walked, hoping Vanguard didn’t notice the change. The demon wasn’t exactly wrong - since running away from home, people didn’t exactly hang out with Jimi for his company. And those who did wanted a kind of company that had made Jimi rather miserable. Most likely, Vanguard had saved him for his own purpose, even if that purpose was information.
As they walked, though, their surroundings got nicer. Businesses and townhouses seemed cleaner, far fewer windows were barred, and even the bars that were present were as decorative as they were functional. They finally reached a restaurant where, to Jimi’s surprise, Vanguard exited his armor.
Stop staring and behave goddammit. What in the world does he see in you?
Jimi rapidly averted his gaze - though he sneaked a peek or two as he sat down. He’d never seen Vanguard in person and somehow, he was surprised he didn’t look older. It made sense, he was born after Variance was discovered, but he had just seemed like a long-standing fixture of New Haven.
Then Vanguard asked his question. Jimi swallowed. How to answer?
“...you know I’m wanted, right? Mostly for aiding and abetting.” Several times over. He resisted the urge to rest his arms on the table so he could faceplant comfortably. “I guess I got recognized. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong this time, I swear!” To keep from fidgeting, he grasped the edge of the table in front of him. “I just wanted to shop somewhere different. The convenience store a few blocks from home isn’t stocked half the time and the other half, it’s getting shoplifted. It’s not like anyone can call to get it stopped, most everyone who shops there has done something to earn a warrant for arrest, and besides, it’s snitching,” he finished half-heartedly. Yeah, the schoolyard chant was right: snitches ended up in ditches, but again, he wished it didn’t sound so childish.
”Hmm.” Vanguard locked eyes with Jimi during his explanation. There was no trace the usual attitudes authority figures had when hearing a story like his. He just passively listened. ”Tell me something, then. What’s a boy your age doing helping others commit crimes? Does your family know you’re wanted for such a thing?” He leaned in and asked that question quietly, to ensure no one overheard their conversation.
There was no disbelief. That was nice. The eye contact made Jimi instinctively avert his gaze, though - it had been a long-standing habit since he’d woken up that day eight years ago. “With any luck, my parents don’t know. They’d probably blame themselves, and- and that’s not true.” His shoulders dropped a bit. “I’m hoping I’ve never made state or national news. They’d come to New Haven for me.” And they couldn’t. It just wouldn’t be safe for them.
”I’m getting the impression you ran from home. I’m not going to ask why you did, after all, we just met. Surely you have your reasons. But is this really what you want out of life? No place to go home to, having to run for your life every time someone recognizes your face? Listen…”
Vanguard looked around to make sure that no one was actively paying attention to them. ”I am a Noble, but I also know many people in the Underground. I can put you in contact with them, or I can find other ways to help you. Either way, I can’t very well just let you stay like this, now that I know. I’m not throwing you in prison, either.”
Jimi looked up. “I know people in the Underground. Mostly Scourge members.” He chuckled weakly at that. “I know it’s not much of a life, but it’s the one I gotta lead, you know?” He didn’t sound proud of that fact, more resigned. “It’s better for everyone this way.”
This one can’t be saved. Might as well put him out of his misery, and the city’s as well. The thought seemed to come out of nowhere in Vanguard’s mind, and was accompanied by a rather vivid and gruesome image of how he might accomplish that deed. Making it worse was that even in the visualization, the boy wasn’t fighting back - just cringing and accepting the fate sentenced to him.
The thoughts were jarring to Vanguard, he never thought such a thing about anyone, let alone a kid like him. He had to mentally take a deep breath and think about how to approach that. ”That’s an intimidating power you have. You’re a mentalist. There’s no need to be defensive. I only want to help you somehow.” Despite having something that vivid go through his head, Vanguard didn’t even seem slightly bothered by the boy.
Jimi paused and slowly shook his head. “The doctor called me a distortionist. Hot, cold, and electricity.” He hesitated, looked around, and leaned in. “Did... did you hear it? The... the demon?”
He’s crazy. Demons aren’t real.
”The demon? That wasn’t you in my mind just now? Or is that just one power you have?” There were some odd cases where variants developed powers that were entirely unrelated. Being a mentalist and a distortionist in that category sounded dangerous, in Vanguard’s eyes.
“I swear it wasn’t me.” Jimi seemed to be having trouble keeping his voice down - perhaps it reminded him of an old argument? He took a few seconds to breathe.
The voice in Vanguard’s head remained suspiciously silent.
“It wasn’t me. There’s a demon - I don’t know where it came from, it’s been with me as long as I can remember. It used to talk just to me, but in the past few years, it’s been reaching out to others.” He looked back down. “It’s why I left home. It was threatening Mom and Dad, and giving them nightmares about what it wanted me to do to them.” Even if the story sounded genuine, there was just the fact that it was far more likely he had developed uncontrolled powers that reflected his negative mental attitude than it was that he managed to defy science and become possessed. Nothing in his story proved otherwise.
”And this… demon says things like that to you constantly? I’m no doctor, but you need help. That might be the life you live, but it shouldn’t have to be. I can pull strings, in more than one place, and figure something out for you that gets you help. Preferably, something that doesn’t involve you having to steal food just to not starve.” From the tone of his voice, Vanguard sounded well and truly genuine about helping this kid he just met.
“I was gonna pay,” Jimi protested, hoping Vanguard wouldn’t ask where he got the money to pay. Both sources of his recent windfall might not be received well. “And...” Here, he hesitated again. He wanted to say no, that he was better off alone and isolated where the damage he could do was limited. What if the demon hurt whatever good person Vanguard put him in contact with? It was, as his mother used to put it, a non-zero chance (not that she ever referred to him when using such a phrase. She’d never known about the demon, just this homeless Variant kid who appreciated it a lot when given a little). But Vanguard’s patience probably had limits. He didn’t want Vanguard to decide he was hopeless and have him arrested. “Well... that is... I’ll give whatever a try, I guess?” It seemed like the right answer.
”That’s what I was hoping you would say. I know a handful of heroes in the Underground that would be happy to support you, and I don’t just mean the kind that wear masks. You already said you’re familiar with the Underground, so it might be easier to get you in contact with them. As for what comes after that, you could have a real shot at being one of the heroes in the masks yourself. Like me. But I’ll warn you that it isn’t easy, for a lot of reasons. Nobles will want to take the credit for anything you accomplish whenever they can, the police won’t do you any favors, and you’re largely on your own if something happens to you. I try my best to use my Noble status to keep N.O.V.A. looking in the wrong direction whenever the Underground or the Scourge do something that could draw attention. It’s not easy, but you’d have a chance at a better life. And you could have access to help with that demon of yours.”
That wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but he’d already said he’d give whatever a try, right? So it was a little late to protest. And yet... “But - what if someone good gets hurt because of me?” The rest, while it sounded frustrating, wasn’t quite as big a concern for him. What schooling he’d engaged in had taught him some of those lessons already. “Because of the demon, I mean.” There was admittedly less moral concern about a regular criminal or a Scourge member getting hurt by the demon. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but society had already made clear its indifference to people who were deemed ‘bad’.
”If people are hurt by your actions, then you should try to set things right as much as possible . The role of a hero is difficult, but it’s not something you have to do alone. You can have other people looking out for you if you earn their trust. There’s a lot of variants who choose to put their powers to good use despite their powers having some ugly parts. I knew someone once who had a power that caused other people to feel badly nauseous just by looking at her. She had to keep her skin covered completely from head to toe, but she was one of the best heroes I’ve seen in years.” Vanguard explained, ”If all else fails, turn to the Underground for help, or turn to me for help. There are ways of getting yourself help, you just have to take the jump and look.”
Oh boy. This one really believes in you. Well, someone besides you has to be pulling down the average IQ score.
And wasn’t that a scary thing in its own right? Being believed in by someone else. Every instinct told Jimi to chase Vanguard off. And he had a pretty good idea how. His grip on the table tightened - not enough to cause damage, he didn’t have superstrength, but enough to be noticeable.
“I can’t just ‘get help’.” He let go of the table to make the air quotes. “It’s not that easy. The Underground knows I’m the bad guy. Because I’m a bad person.” He began to count off on his fingers as he spoke: “I want to hurt people, and people get hurt because of me. I don’t care where money comes from as long as I get some. I don’t listen to other people and don’t respect them.” His tone had flattened some, but Jimi considered that better next to the alternative of crying as he laid down his flaws. “I’m ungrateful, disruptive, and nothing but trouble. That’s why I commit crimes - I’m a bad person, and I can’t change that.”
”And who did you hear that from? Scout, you’re a kid. I know you said you’re 18, but you’re a kid. You’re not evil, and you’re not a hardened criminal. We live in a world that hates people like us for several reasons, and you having to resort to crimes just to eat? That is the least of those worries. I’ve been labeled a terrorist more times than I can count, even by the people I work alongside, because I’m a Variant. You aren’t a bad person, you’re a victim. I’m not about to act like I know your entire life story, but I have a feeling you only do the things you do because you don’t have any other choices.” Vanguard remained astonishingly patient throughout his response, ”You’re not able to change that on your own, but it’s still possible. And I’m able to help you with that. All I need from you is for you to give it a chance, and I can take care of the rest.”
You’re falling for this, aren’t you- yes, yes you are. Christ almighty.
Jimi would’ve wondered how a demon could invoke a holy name, if he wasn’t trying to keep emotionally stable. For a man who said he didn’t know Jimi’s life story, he made a lot of accurate guesses, and he was still willing to stick around and help the poor bastard who called himself Jimi and occasionally argued with a voice inside his head. He took a few deep breaths to try to steady himself.
“Thanks.” His voice cracked on the word, and it was about all he could manage, looking anywhere but at Vanguard as he tried to steady his breathing.
Agree and I will personally see to it that it shatters around your ears. It’ll go horribly and you’ll have every bridge burned that you could’ve used before. If you think now’s bad, wait until no one wants anything to do with you.
“I’ll... I’ll try?” It came out a lot more questioningly than Jimi intended, though he could not deny that threat had rattled him. God, when was the last time the demon threatened him specifically? It usually stuck to threatening everyone else. Still... it’d been a long time since he’d been promised something better. Something kind, even if it’d require hard work on his part. The offer itself was a warm comfort, and the idea of things getting better was, well, even better.
Listen, he’s a liar and a fraud. You know this. Kid’s gotten himself a record as long as a football field. He’s not going to be able to change into what you think he can be. The thoughts crept into Vanguard’s mind, not quite as pushy or extreme but with a touch of the alien, of not quite belonging.
”That’s all I’m asking for. You just let me worry about the rest. I know a couple of people that can get you a place to stay if they know I’m the one who sent you.”
Jimi nodded. “Thanks.” He tried to put the grumblings of the demon out of his mind, with limited success. He’d angered it, he knew that. This was something he was going to pay for later.
But, maybe for now, he could live with it.