Chapter 5 – Heroes?

Several Hours Later

“…and that’s why you have shit taste.”

“What?! Bullshit! Sword Kings was a perfectly good show, you just went into it expectin’ bad stuff!”

“And ‘bad stuff’ is what I got. The writing was shit, and the characters were flatter than compressed paper, not to mention half of what they did didn’t make any god damn sense at all!”

“Well duh. No one watches Sword Kings for the writing. You watch it for the action! It’s all in the name!”

“Action and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive. And besides, I see better action every week at the dojo.”

“Hmph.” Austin scowled and turned away from Spike in irritation. “Well, I liked it.”

“Cool. So long as you realize you have shit taste,” Spike retorted.

“I do not—!”

“Sorry, Austin, but I have to agree with Spike here,” Twy interjected. “If you can watch the second half of that show and still defend it, I really have to wonder about the quality of your judgment.”

Austin simply made a face in response before turning to stare out a nearby window. Outside it was dark and cloudy, just as it had been since the four left the pool. They all returned to the Chao twins’ apartment with the intention of riding out the storm, but the clouds had yet to open and instead continued to gather. What once looked like it would be a minor shower now looked to be a super-cell thunderstorm.

“Still cloudy?” Sky questioned from the couch across the room.

“Ayup.” Austin sighed. “Still cloudy…”

“I’m honestly a little worried now…” Twy commented as she rounded the table to look out the window next to Austin. “The Western Forest isn’t far from here, and it’s super dry, thanks to the drought.”

“Looks like the drought won’t last much longer, huh?” Sky replied.

“I wish, but it’ll take more than one thunderstorm to make up for well over a year of drought conditions.” Twy sighed wearily. “A thunderstorm is a terrible start, anyways…”

“Yeah.” Spike nodded knowingly. “One lightning strike in the right place, and everythin’ goes up in flames.”

“I’m more concerned about flooding,” Twy countered, “with all this compacted dry ground — the water has no where to go. All the water will just wash away and create floods; meanwhile the plants that actually need water won’t get it, because the soil is too tough.”

“Spoken like a true water user!” Sky grinned cheekily.

“Don’t get carried away,” Spike quickly responded, “you’ve only had your powers for less than a week.”

“I know, I know.” Sky rolled her eyes. “But c’mon, we only have so much freedom. Give us a break! Plus, classes start on Monday, so that’s even less free time than we have now!” She crossed her arms and sunk into the couch, a sullen expression on her face. “And here we are, wasting it all just sitting around and talking!”

“Well what else should we do?” Austin shrugged. “Ain’t much to do out, it’s late. And soon to be rainin’. Probably.”

“Are you kidding?! Late on a Friday night is when everything happens!”

“If you’re so scared of missin’ out, then why’re you still here?” Spike questioned.

Sky passed him an irritated glance before huffing crossly. “…Hmph. This is what happens when you’re friends with a bunch of introverts…”

“Austin’s right, though, it is rather late.” Twy glanced toward Austin, and then back at Spike. “Are the two of you going home soon?”

Austin smirked. “I feel like you’re tryin’ to tell us to leave.”

“Well, kind of, but not really.” Twy frowned as she cast a glance at her sister. “I was wondering if at least Spike might be sticking around…”

Sky’s eyes immediately lit up. “Really? That’s fine with you, sis?”

Twy sighed. “Only if I don’t… hear anything, okay?”

Austin snorted. “Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s got a problem with that.”

“You two just don’t understand.” Sky stuck her tongue out at them before turning toward Spike expectantly. “You’ll stay over, right?”

“Might as well.” He shrugged as he stood up and stretched. After yawning he added, “now that we’re talkin’ about it, man, I’m really tired…”

“Suppose I’ll go home alone then.” Austin got up himself, but Twy quickly cut him off.

“It’s fine,” she declared as she moved toward a small closet, “I’ll get the extra blankets out and you can sleep on the couch.”

“…Oh. Okay, then. I guess?” Austin glanced toward Spike, who simply shrugged again before following Sky into her room. Austin sighed and sat back down, returning his gaze to the dark skies outside.

*     *     *

“…”

“…ak… …u…”

“…”

“…tin… …et…”

“…”

“—Austin!

“Guh!” Austin jolted awake, blinking several times and furrowing his brow. Despite being sure that his eyes were open, everything looked dark, save for a distant red glow. A moment later, he realized that he was looking out a window — and a moment after that he noticed that a blanket was draped over his shoulders. Must’ve fallen asleep at the table… he thought groggily, and then sniffed once. Wait… is that… smoke?

“Austin!”

“What—?” Austin was finally shaken out of his stupor as a large hand grasped him roughly by the shoulder. He glanced to the side, where he met eyes with Spike.

“Get your ass in gear,” Spike growled. “Looks like your disaster hit after all.”

“Huh?” Austin stared at his friend for a moment before snapping his attention back to the window. Now that he looked closer, the distant red glow was accompanied by a large billowing cloud that rose up into the sky and meshed with the storm clouds. Occasionally, the clouds would light up for a split second, a sign of internal lightning strikes — and evidence enough of what had happened.

“Is Austin—? Oh good, you’re awake!” Twy rushed into the living room and approached Spike and Austin as she rubbed her eyes. “We need to get out of here.”

“Wh-where’s the fire?” Austin’s eyes widened in alarm, barely paying Spike any heed as he returned to Sky’s room. “How close is it?”

“Western Forest. Central part, or so the alerts say,” Twy answered. “…But there are smaller fires around the outskirts. There’s one immediately north of our complex, in fact…”

“Fuck. Well where the hell do we go?”

“We can go back to our place,” Spike replied as he ushered a groggy Sky into the living room. “We’re far enough from the forest to be safe.”

“But how do we get there?” Austin frowned. “Everyone and their mom will be tryin’ to get a car out of here. Can the system handle it?”

“We won’t know if we just stand around here.” Spike scowled as he strode toward the front door and threw it open. “Can we at least get outta the building before we talk about this?”

“He’s right.” Twy glanced back at Austin before hastily slipping into her flip flops and following Spike out the door. Sky quickly followed suit, apparently now wide-awake enough to grasp the situation; Austin then stepped out last. Twy closed the door behind him and held up her wrist to the handle to activate the lock before rushing down the nearby flight of stairs to ground level.

“Aw, it’s raining…” Sky shivered reflexively, grasping her bare arms as she plodded after Spike.

“Don’t complain,” Twy countered, taking the lead as she led the group to the designated fire evacuation zone. There weren’t many people there yet, but it was clear that people all over the apartment complex were waking up and realizing the situation.

“Yeah…” Spike nodded slowly. “At least if it’s rainin’, it should help keep the fire contained. Last thing we need is a real wildfire to burn down the city.”

“This is what we get for not modernizin’ infrastructure.” Austin sighed impatiently. “Apartment buildings nearly a hundred years old, ‘course they’re gonna burn down.”

“That’s absurd,” Twy refuted, “just what would ‘modernizing’ do? Modern small-scale buildings are still primarily wood. It’s not like we can afford to make everything out of metal. Nor should we.”

“Mm…” Austin simply grunted in response.

“…You know…” Sky spoke up after a short period of silence, “if the problem is a fire…”

“No,” Spike cut her off. “You can’t. Not an option.”

“This is hardly the time to be worried about being discovered!” Sky insisted, “people will get hurt!”

“Exactly. Wildfires are dangerous, and underestimatin’ them leads to death. Which is what you’re doin’ right now!”

“But I can control fire! How is it a threat to me if I can control it?!”

“We don’t know how well you can control it! We don’t know on what magnitude, or what strength, or with how much finesse. For all you know, you could just end up gettin’ yourself killed without actually havin’ any effect!”

“I can’t know until I try!”

“No. Let the professionals take care of this. They actually know what they’re doin’.”

“Spike…!” Sky whined, and then turned toward her sister. “C’mon, Twy! We can do this, right? Between me and you, it should be easy!”

Twy frowned uneasily, unsure of how to respond. Just as she opened her mouth to reply, though, a cry rose from a group several meters away.

“Building 9 caught fire!!”

“What—?!” Sky and Twy exclaimed in unison and snapped their attention to the north. Austin and Spike followed suit — they couldn’t see the building that was on fire since another one stood in its way, but the nearby billows of smoke coupled with the sudden ear-piercing ringing of the complex’s fire alarms were evidence enough of the truth of the matter.

“Shit.” Spike scowled. “…We need to get out of here, now— hey! Wait! SKY!”

“Sorry!” Sky shouted back as she dashed in the direction of the fire, “get out of here while you can! I’ll be fine!”

“She— damn it!” Twy sighed, and then broke into a sprint after her sister.

“The hell…?” Austin muttered, watching as the twins ran off. “Do they really think they can handle this?”

“Argh… damn it all!” Spike growled — and bolted after Twy. Austin’s eyes widened in surprise before he took off after Spike himself.

“Spike!” Austin managed to shout between breaths as he neared the northern building, “Spike, c’mon man… this is… suicide…!”

“Then why’re you followin’ me?” Spike shouted back, showing no signs of slowing down himself.

Austin merely grunted in irritation as he continued on running around the northern building. As soon as he rounded the next corner and entered the parking lot, he stopped in his tracks to take in the sight before him: an entire three-story apartment building, in flames from bottom to top.

“Holy shit…” he muttered, half in awe, half in horror. Most of the inhabitants seemed to have fled — many people were certainly running past Austin, away from the burning building. He could feel a part of himself urging him to do the same; after all, there wasn’t much he could do. Twy and Sky were the ones with supernatural powers — not him. But as he heard the screams of those still trapped in the building, he couldn’t bring himself to turn away. His friends were risking their lives to help, however foolish that may be. And indeed, Austin thought it incredibly foolish — suicidal, even.

After a moment of thought, he sighed in apprehension and began again to approach the building. Attempting to help may have been foolish, but he wasn’t about to let his friends risk it all without him being there to watch out for their own safety.

“Hopefully I won’t get the chance to say ‘I told you so’…” he muttered as he ran up to the front of the building. He could feel the heat against his face, but as close as he was to the fire, he had expected it to feel much hotter. Must be Sky’s doing, he thought to himself, and then raised his voice. “Spike! Twy! Where are you?!”

“Second floor!” he heard Spike shout from above. Austin quickly rushed to the nearest set of stairs and nearly flew up them before stopping as Spike burst out of a nearby door, followed closely by two unknown adults. They offered him a brief thanks before fleeing to safety, with Sky and Twy rushing out after them and to the next door apartment. As they went, the flames around them seemed to lean away, as though repulsed by some kind of invisible force — yet none of them were outright extinguished.

“Hello?!” Spike shouted as he banged on the door. “Anyone in there?!”

A muffled “help” drifted through the door. Sky immediately stepped forward and held her hands toward the doorknob, rapidly heating it to melting point. As the lock melted and the door drifted open, Twy managed to pull what little moisture there was out of the air and into a small floating bubble that she used to cool the malformed metal and prevent it from igniting more fires.

As soon as she was done, Spike charged forward, knocking in the door and glancing about frantically in search of the inhabitant.

“Over… *cough* …here…”

Sky stepped forward, coughing into her elbow as she swept away the flames along the apartment interior. In so doing, she exposed a collapsed segment of the ceiling — and a man trapped underneath the debris.

“Shit,” Spike swore under his breath and quickly approached. He immediately squatted down and grabbed the largest piece of debris, which seemed to be a part of the crossbeams in the ceiling. “Austin!” he managed to grunt, “little help!”

“Right…” Austin rushed up and grabbed the other end of the collapsed beam. Together, he and Spike managed to lift it up and toss it aside, at which point clearing the rest of the debris was a simple task. Spike knelt down next to the man and hoisted him onto his back as Austin cleared away the final bits of debris. Sky moved to clear the path to the door — but just as she did so, a deafening snapping noise sounded from above.

“WATCH OUT!” Spike boomed, lunging forward and twisting himself so that the man he was carrying was below him. He then thrust his arms upward just in time to catch a collapsing crossbeam, managing to hold it in place with great effort. But before he could attempt to respond further, another cracking noise echoed through the apartment… and then, the floor gave way.

Spike!!” Sky shouted after him as he and the man he was holding fell through the floor, the crossbeam above them following suit. Twy immediately launched her small water bubble at the beam and managed to catch one end of it, but she was only able to hold it in the air for a few moments as the water rapidly evaporated. However, those few moments were all that was needed, as the crossbeam’s downward momentum had been significantly slowed — enough for Spike to reach up and bat it away such that it fell to the side of him.

“Shit.” Austin scowled, and then called down after his friend. “Hey! Are you okay?!”

“I’m… fine,” Spike grunted. “…The dude is, too, I think. But he’s unconscious! We need to get the hell out!”

“Don’t have to say that again,” Austin muttered, his heart racing as he scrambled around the hole in the floor and toward the exit. He barely paid Sky any heed as she jumped down after Spike, choosing instead to follow Twy as she worked her way to the door while fending off flames with her own sweat and the dismal amount of moisture still left in the air. Before long they reached the door, stumbling out in a fit of coughing as they both gasped for breath. It was only at this point that Austin realized just how smoke-filled the building was; the mere realization that he could have well and truly died released enough adrenaline into his system to rush down the stairs and into the parking lot.

“Holy fuck…” Austin gulped for air as he collapsed onto the pavement and rolled over onto his back. He glanced over at Spike and Sky, who had escaped the apartment they fell into by busting down the door. “That… was way… too close…”

“…He’s still alive,” Spike declared as he kneeled over the man he rescued from the burning apartment. “…Alive, but he needs medical attention.” He wiped his brow of sweat and then looked up as the sound of approaching sirens filled the air. “…About damn time.”

“If… the firefighters… are here…” Austin managed to speak between breaths, “…should really… …leave rest… to them…”

Spike glanced back at Twy and Sky. Both of them were panting heavily, apparently too breathless to speak, or even make eye-contact with Austin or Spike. He shook his head wearily before picking the man back up. “Twy! Sky!”

They both reflexively looked to him. He jerked his head in the direction of the sirens, just as two firetrucks entered the parking lot. A number of water-pumping robots immediately unloaded and approached the burning building as two individuals leaped from the truck and rushed up to the group.

“Hey!” one of them called out, “what are you doing? You need to get out of here!”

“We have injured,” Spike responded, stepping up to one of the firefighters and glancing down at the man in his arms. The firefighter who hadn’t yet spoken stepped up, removed his glove, and pressed two of his fingers to the man’s neck. After a moment he nodded toward the other firefighter and then turned back to Spike.

“We’ll take it from here,” he declared, carefully taking hold of the man as Spike handed him over.

“Do you know him?” the other firefighter questioned.

“No,” Spike replied. “He was trapped in the building. We barely managed to save him.”

“You entered a burning building?” The firefighter’s brow furrowed. “You’re lucky to still be alive. You know that?”

“Oh, believe me…” Spike glanced back at Sky, who pretended not to notice. “…We know.”

“Well it’s a good thing that it worked out in the end, but don’t be careless next time!” The firefighter then waved them off. “Now get out of here! It’s dangerous!”

“Don’t need to tell us twice,” Austin responded as he ushered the twins away.

“It’s about to get real hectic around here.” Spike sighed. “…Sky, Twy, do you want to stay the night at our place?”

The sisters glanced at each other. They seemed to have caught their breath, and were now silent mostly out of shock. After a moment, Twy nodded once.

“Thought so,” Spike replied, taking the lead as the group rounded a corner and approached a crowd of people.

“Hey…” Sky spoke up quietly, “…sorry.”

Spike glanced back at her before looking forward again and exhaling deeply. “…It all worked out in the end, and that’s what matters. We can talk about the rest later. For now… let’s get outta here.”

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