Chapter 11 - A Hero’s Sendoff
It was all over the news the next morning. Paladin’s real name was Brian Hickman. He was a doctor in his residency at the Vinton Memorial Hospital. How he balanced it with super-heroics and training Jet, they would never truly know. His cause of death was ruled as a murder, with an investigation underway to find the perpetrator. But they would never find Marath, Jet knew. Because they all already knew who had done it, but no one would lift a finger in the face of the powerful gangs and their assassin.
Jet had. And he had paid for it.
The next several days passed as a blur to Jet. Uncle Quinn had given Jet a strange tonic the next morning, and while Jet thought he should maybe check himself into a hospital to be looked at, it was only a day or two of rest until he felt healed. It was as if Quinn’s tonic had accelerated his likely already expedited healing factor. Jet wasn’t sure if he did have quicker healing, but he guessed. At the time, Jet didn’t think too much about being a superhero.
It was just short of a week that they held Paladin’s funeral. In a cemetery located just south of downtown where they buried old war heroes, hundreds of people from throughout the city assembled to pay their respects to Paladin. There were several rows of chairs to sit roughly sixty to eighty people, but then behind them people stood and watched from afar, lining the hills of the cemetery. Jet, dressed in a suit that Quinn had to quickly buy, sat with his uncle only a few rows from the front. In those front rows that were saved for the family, Jet saw several people who were approximately Paladin’s age, siblings, or cousins, Jet reasoned, as well as a few people older than Quinn, likely Aunts and Uncles, and his parents.
Jet had no idea Paladin had such a big family. But he realized that he didn’t know Brian Hickman, the doctor with family members and friends. He knew Paladin the hero. And he was probably one of the few people who did.
“Brian believed in putting others before himself, always,” said a minister who stood by Paladin’s casket. It was left open, and he lay there dressed in a nice suit with his hands folded over his chest. His smile remained.
“Whether if it was as a doctor, a superhero, or as a son and brother, Brian put others’ needs before his own with such abandon, all who knew him always worried for his wellbeing,” the minister continued. “But he was known for smiling or waving it off. For dismissing it, not out of carelessness, but because the ideas of others being worried about him cut against the core of who he was.”
“Brian Hickman was clearly talented, clearly gifted. So much so that he took the whole city under his watchful eye. But those that knew him, who truly knew him, knew he never did it to prove anything to anyone. You see, Brian wasn’t a superhero.”
Jet raised an eyebrow and stared at the minister incredulously for a moment. He was ready to be angry at the nerve of the minister to say something like that, but then the minister continued.
“Those who knew him would tell you he was always a hero. To everyone around him. And today, that’s how we’ll all remember him,” the minister finished.
Jet looked downwards and reflected. Paladin didn’t need to take Jet under his wing and train him. He didn’t need to protect him and his uncle from the Constructs. And he didn’t need to continue Jet’s education even. But he did because the minister was right. Paladin, Brian, was a hero.
The casket was shut as the minister continued to speak. They lowered Paladin’s body slowly into his grave, and the sounds of crying and sobbing could be heard among the crowd. Some remained stoic and were the rocks for others, but others gave in and let themselves feel the weight of the moment. A life lost, a hero’s life in the line of duty would never be easy to accept.
Jet shut his eyes so tightly, hoping that when he opened them it would all have been a bad dream. But as he opened them, he knew it wasn’t possible. He couldn’t change what happened. Nothing could. As Jet watched Paladin’s casket descend into the ground, he felt the sensation again of his heart shrinking in his chest.
“In you...in your heart...I see the strength...the love...the hope that you need to save Vinton,” Paladin’s words echoed in Jet’s head.
But how? How could his heart carry all those things when it was shriveled beyond sight? Those questions pounded in Jet’s head.
Once the ceremony was over, most of the assembled crowd left, but many stayed to pay their last respects to the family. Quinn had tried to get Jet to leave, thinking this would be too hard on the youth. But Jet had insisted he talk to Paladin’s family. He had something he needed to tell them.
As Jet waited his turn to shake hands with Paladin’s family, he took note of who they were. Standing in a row, clad in their black formal attire, were Paladin’s brother, sister, and mother. His brother had blonde hair and stood probably half a foot taller than Paladin, who was already very tall. His face was less regal looking than Paladin’s, but he still had a strong chin line and soft eyes. Paladin’s sister had brown hair like Paladin’s, and she was closer to Paladin’s height, likely a little shorter. Her face was skinny as well like her siblings, but she had round cheeks unlike her brothers.
Last in the line was their mother. Edith, Jet recalled from the ceremony. She was considerably shorter than her children, her hair silver. She wore thick-framed glasses and a black beret on her head. Her whole body seemed frail like she was going to fall apart at any moment. However, her face carried that same warmness that Paladin’s always did.
Jet shook hands with Paladin’s siblings, and Uncle Quinn spoke for both of them, telling them how sorry they were. But when Jet reached Edith and shook her hand, he inhaled sharply, making Edith tilt her head in concern.
“Ms, I have something I need to tell you,” Jet said.
Quinn and Paladin’s siblings looked to Jet in confusion. Edith stared at Jet, and Jet swallowed hard before continuing.
“Paladin, Brian, was training me to be his sidekick. He’s been training me for five years,” Jet explained.
Edith’s face lit up a little bit upon Jet saying that.
“So that’s what he’s been doing those nights he wasn’t patrolling,” Edith said, her voice warm, but tired. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Jet nodded and wanted to break down into tears then and there, but he forced himself to push through.
“But you see, those last few nights Paladin had asked me not to be a superhero, and I ignored him. I ignored him and because of that the gangs decided to punish me...and he stopped them,” Jet said through choked back tears. One tear breached through, and Jet quickly wiped it away while he continued to talk.
“He stopped them from punishing me and they killed him,” Jet said, his voice quivering. “I’m the reason your son is dead and I am so, so sorry.”
Jet could no longer stop the tears. They poured from his eyes. He wished he could vanish, just disappear from the world. Nothing could have made him feel worse than in that moment.
Quinn put a hand on his nephew’s shoulder, and the siblings exchanged quick glances before the sister covered her mouth in awe, not sure what to say. Edith’s warm expression faded, and she watched Jet for what felt like an eternity.
“Oh, you poor thing,” Edith said.
Jet’s eyes opened and he looked at Edith.
“Come here,” Edith motioned with her arms, and she brought Jet in for a hug.
Her arms were skinny and weak, but they felt like a heavy warm blanket during a cold night. Jet managed to bring his arms up and return the hug.
“I’m sorry...I’m so sorry,” Jet cried into her shoulder.
She brought Jet back to a shoulder’s reach, and the warmness had returned.
“I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you,” Edith said. “You must feel so lost.”
Jet knew she was the one who this should have been hard for her, that she was the one who was suffering more than him. She just buried her son. But despite himself, he couldn’t help but nod his head.
“Listen to me, my son was an amazing hero. But he wouldn’t have picked to train you unless he saw something amazing in you too,” Edith said. “You might feel lost now, but you need to follow your heart to wherever that leads you.”
“That is what my son would have wanted you to do,” Edith continued, and then she paused for a moment. “Its what he knew you would have done. Don’t continue onward for him, he’s at rest now.”
The idea of that struck Jet’s core, how could his mother be so at peace with her son’s death?
“Continue onward for yourself. Be who you’re meant to be. That was what he wanted,” Edith said.
Jet left that conversation in a haze, he hugged Edith again and apologized to Paladin’s siblings one more time before moving on. He put his hands in his pockets, wiping away what was left of his tears. Quinn followed behind Jet, giving his nephew some space.
After a few moments, Quinn told Jet he’d wait in the car, seeing Jet needed a little more time. Jet found a tree, a short distance away from the funeral, and leaned against it. He let himself have a small cry there, as his head swam. How could he just be ‘who he was meant to be?’ All that time, fighting alongside the other teens, being in school, that felt like who he was meant to be. But that had resulted in Paladin’s death. His actions, being that person, was the reason for one of the worst things to ever happen to him. How could he keep doing that when that happens?
“Hey, Jet,” a voice called from the side.
Jet wiped away a tear and looked. Standing in a row were three teens his age, two boys and a girl. Even if Siege hadn’t shown them his face before, Jet could have discerned it was the three heroes he had been fighting with. Siege seemed to almost be popping out of his suit he was wearing, Hunter looked very similar in a plain dark suit, but without the hat and mask on Jet could see his curly black hair and softer features. The girl was a bit jarring to see, as Jet could finally see Sting’s lean facial features. She was pretty skinny underneath all the armor, and her brown eyes shone brightly. She was wearing a black bandana over the top of her head, and her long black hair was braided into a ponytail.
For a moment, Jet was confused about how they knew it was him. Or how they knew his name. But then he remembered Paladin had outed his secret identity to them, likely accidentally in his anger, and Jet nodded. He walked over from the tree towards the group, not really sure what to say.
“Hey guys,” Jet said awkwardly. “Thanks, for...thanks for coming.”
“Of course,” Sting said. It was one of the few times her voice didn’t drip with the sarcasm Jet came to expect. “We’re so sorry.”
Jet looked up at her, and she looked sadly back at him.
“Thanks...Sting,” Jet said.
“It’s Jazleen,” she said, her eyes closed.
The other two boys regarded her curiously for a moment. She opened one eye and looked at them, and then sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Oh whatever, I’m Sting the butt-kicking superhero when my suit is on, and I’m Jazleen the butt-kicking Sikh girl when my suit is off, alright? Don’t make a big deal out of it,” she commented. Her tone was still sad, but a pit of the glibness in her voice returned as she addressed the two.
Hunter managed a small smile and nodded in understanding.
“Jet, we just want you to know, this is just as much our fault as much as you might be blaming yourself,” Hunter said. “If we hadn’t acted like a wrecking ball, with or without you, then Marath wouldn’t have come after any of us.”
Jet appreciated the sentiment, but a thought nagged its way to the surface.
“Yeah, but if I hadn’t gotten involved then Paladin would still be alive,” Jet argued.
“Then it would have been one of us,” Siege countered. “Or all of us.”
Siege sighed, and as Jet looked to him, he noticed the large man hadn’t been able to make eye contact with Jet. Then he finally turned to look Jet in the eyes.
“This was because of the evil people in Vinton, and no one else,” Siege finished.
Jet scratched the back of his head for a moment and gave it some thought. Why couldn’t he just blame Marath for Paladin’s death? Marath was the one who did it. Why couldn’t he just blame the gangs or Xanor for Paladin’s death? Did they order it? Why, couldn’t he blame anyone but himself for it?
Then, Jet saw just past Siege’s shoulder, standing a decent distance away from the funeral up on a hill, was a man wearing a long black trenchcoat. He had only seen that man once before, but the haircut, his figure, but more than anything his sheer presence, informed Jet of who that was.
“Hey, give me a second,” Jet commented, and then he pushed past Siege.
He didn’t see the three teens turn and watch him leave, nor did he see their confused expressions. His walk was determined and may have even been a run for Jet knew. It felt like an eternity to reach the man, but also it felt like no time had passed when he was suddenly standing in front of the most hated man in Vinton.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Jet demanded.
The man looked curiously at Jet, inspecting him for a moment. But then as he realized who was standing before him, he nodded in understanding.
“You must be his sidekick,” Xanor said.
“How dare you come here today?” Jet hissed. Every impulse wanted to scream at the supervillain in front of him. But every instinct also thought to stay quiet, not wanting to make this day any more dramatic for Paladin’s poor mother.
“Brian was a good friend,” Xanor said, looking past Jet to where the funeral was wrapping up. “He deserved better.”
“Then why would you order his death, you sick freak!” Jet insulted.
“I didn’t,” Xanor curtly replied.
The response caught Jet off guard.
“You and your friends angered the Brigand and the Wintu. They asked for my permission to kill you,” Xanor explained. “I asked Paladin not to interfere and let it happen. Clearly he ignored me.”
“You can’t blame us for what happened to him. If you were once a superhero, then why didn’t you just stop the gangs once and for all? Then Paladin would be alive, and Vinton would be a better place!”
“Heh, a better place,” Xanor chuckled. “Just because I can stop the gangs from killing superheroes, doesn’t mean I can stop them outright. All I truly do is keep their assassin off your backs.”
“Except when you don’t.”
Xanor stiffened at that and then continued.
“Nor should I shut down these gangs. The power vacuum that would open would far more endanger this city then it is in right now.”
“What are you all so afraid of?” Jet asked. “You and Paladin, my Uncle, you’re all so afraid of something that none of you want to change the way this city works. You’re all so afraid that you’d let everyone else suffer!”
Xanor nodded towards the funeral. Jet looked back at it and saw the grieving people. Paladin’s mother. His tombstone.
“Life is fleeting,” Xanor said. “We want to protect everyone, we want the best for everyone. But not everyone gets that. In the end, we can only protect what our power lets us protect. One of the wisest things you can do is learn and accept your own limits. I have, and Paladin did until you pushed him.”
“But we should want to be better, we should do better,” Jet argued.
“As much as at one time I would have agreed with you, I’ve learned one very important thing. All things exist in a balance,” Xanor said pointedly to Jet. “Just because you have good intentions, just because you think you’re right, it is not a reason to disrupt that balance, or you risk making everything worse for everyone.”
“Now because of this, I’m forced to do something dramatic,” Xanor continued. “If the city starts rallying around superheroes again because of Paladin’s death, the gangs will push back harder and I won’t be able to stop them. I need to maintain this balance, and if you’re smart you and your friends will stay away.”
“Yeah? Well what about those people who things already suck for? Do we just leave them behind?” Jet shot back.
“All things exist in a balance,” Xanor finished, and then he walked away.
How could that be a justification? How? Things had to be bad for some people so that they could be good for others? How could that be the way the world worked?
A hand gripped Jet’s shoulder, and JEt turned to see Quinn had returned to him. Standing a short distance behind Quinn were his friends, all looking on at him with concern. Jet didn’t realize he was trembling, he didn’t realize his eyes were red.
Almost involuntarily, he hugged his Uncle Quinn tightly. For just a moment, he needed to escape from this world he didn’t understand anymore. This world was determined to batter his beliefs and throw them in his face.
But Jet knew it would only be for a moment, and then he’d have to face reality again. He’d have to figure out his place in this confusing world.