Liz gasped and drew on the spark inside her to defend herself. Nothing. The tiny, flickering flame had been extinguished and she couldn’t even feel the embers.
“I can do that,” said the man looming over her. Her cheek stung from the backhand he’d used. “What I gave you can be taken away.”
Fear. Bright, blooming fear. It had been so long since she’d felt it and even longer since she’d felt it this intensely. She sat, silently, desperately searching inside herself for the spark of power that would give access to her flames.
When she’d first been gifted, there had been classes to help her draw out her power and control it. She had, in the beginning, veered wildly between being unable to summon the smallest flame on an upturned palm to unconstrained destruction as the flames engulfed her. There had been exercises in focus and precision and though she hadn’t needed them for years, she ran through them again in her head.
The man watched, with a small smile and an air of smugness.
“It’s pointless,” he said. “The sharp prick you felt?” He was referring to the jab that had made her jump when she’d leant back in the chair. Something sharp in her shoulder but when she’d looked, there had been nothing there. “Hidden hypodermic needle containing the antidote to the formula I gave you.”
His smile widened as her eyes turned round with horror.
“I warned you and you didn’t listen. So confident that you were untouchable.” He stepped close and ran a finger down the side of her face. “But not so much anymore.”
He was right: she had thought she was invincible. As leader of the American Heroes, the public loved her and, of course, her ability to cover her body with flames meant she was literally untouchable unless she chose not to be. She’d been so cocky about that.
“No more Solar Flare,” he said, leaning so their faces were level. “I can even take away Liz, too, if you push back with this.” He huffed a soft laugh at the small sound of terror that escaped her. “Oh I can reverse any surgeries, withdraw access to any hormones. I can take away any aspect of your life. I built it; I can bulldoze it.”
Years of fear and struggle and hope. Years of proving her moral fibre, her bravery, her empathy. Years of applications and interviews and tests.
The American Hero Association had made her work for it but they’d fulfilled every dream. She had been crafted into the person she’d always wanted to be and, best of all, she’d been able to make a difference. People listened when she spoke and donations to domestic abuse shelters and LGBTQ+ charities had doubled in the two years she’d been at the helm. She had stopped an asteroid from hitting Earth last year and had helped save an entire city from a volcanic eruption only last month.
People trusted her. Enough to tell her personal stories about Jim Darcy, head scientist. Stories that led to them crying on her shoulder using phrases like ‘forced me to’ and words like ‘dirty’ and ‘ashamed’.
So she had investigated and had been repulsed by what she’d found. She’d uncovered evidence of crimes leading back to the programme’s origins over thirty years ago. Careers that had flourished or floundered depending on the responses of the young hero. Most of the heroes who could boast two powers had spent time in his quarters as well as his lab.
She had her own story, too, but she’d assumed that her experience was an isolated one. The statistics were so much worse for people like her anyway.
He leant forward and pressed his nose to her hair. Bile rose in her stomach.
“Those files will be deleted as soon as we are done here. I will tell the directors that a virus has interfered with your abilities and if - if - you can show me that you’re a good girl and can follow instructions, maybe I will let you have the formula again.” He inhaled slowly and she felt his grin stretch across the side of her cheek. “This is my kingdom, you little bitch. You take the scraps I throw you and be grateful. I’ll be having the same conversation with all of the interviews on that tape, too.”
The fear, the horror, the revulsion. They melted away and Liz saw what was left behind. She would not let him touch another vulnerable person, no matter the consequences to herself.
In all his arrogance, he’d forgotten that she’d grown up in a bigoted neighbourhood, fighting for the right to be counted as a person.
She didn’t need her flames.
He lifted his hand to her shoulder and she exploded into action. The heel of her hand rammed into his nose to disorient him, surprising them both with the speed and strength of it. It had been so long since she’d had to use physical violence and she had a momentary pang for the loss of her fire.
Blood flowed freely from his broken nose. She took advantage of the distraction and spun out of the chair. Two steps put her behind him.
Sharp kicks to the back of his knees drove him down and she aimed the same part of her hand at the base of his neck, putting in as much force as she could muster.
It seemed, though, that he’d given himself the same shot that she’d had all those years ago: his recovery was too quick to be anything else. The results of the formula manifested differently in everyone, activating deeply buried genetic code. Some activations were more impressive than others and though his superpowered agility would not put him on the cover of magazines, it was certainly enough for him to evade her hand and throw her off balance.
Snarling and flicking specks of blood with every quick twist, his retaliating blows came ferociously fast and it was all she could do to block. The impact of a shoulder hit sent spasms down her left side. An open-palmed blow to her chest sent her staggering back.
Suddenly she was 19 again, afraid and pulling on all the self defence and martial arts that she’d gleaned from movies and through dojo windows. Dodge, parry, duck.
She relied purely on instinct and slowly, slowly, she began to gain ground. He was a scientist who barely left his lab and no amount of agility could hide the fact that he was not a seasoned fighter.
She sidestepped a vicious jab to her kidneys, feeling the air rushing past her side, and slammed her open hand sideways into his throat. His attacks stopped abruptly as he fought to breathe instead.
An elbow to the head followed and he slumped to the floor, still struggling for air. She rubbed it, regretting her choice of attack. At least he was down.
Liz looked around, heart beating too quickly at the base of her throat. He should be out for a bit but she needed to make sure he was secured before he woke up. She yanked computer cables from the walls and began looping them around his wrists and ankles.
When she was finished, she looked at the unconscious man who had ruined so many people’s lives. It would be so easy to end his but that would be a hollow victory. She wanted to see his life torn apart, as he’d promised to do to her. His career, his relationships - all in tatters because of her.
She looked down at him, scorn curling her lip. He stirred and, realising he was bound, struggled against the ties. She watched for a moment to make sure the ties held. After a moment, he gave up and looked at her with a mixture of despair and terror.
Liz smiled and leaned so that she was looking directly into his eyes. Her voice rang out clearly through the room.
“With or without my flames, you are going to burn.”