Avalanche – Snippet 55

He milked that for all it was worth, of course.  For now, Red was playing with them.  When one did brace himself to attack, the others would circle about, hoping to spot an opening, waiting for a chance to dart in unexpectedly.  This was the Djinni though.  Trying to take him by surprise was a futile effort.  He still wore his scarf, wrapped so tightly around his head that it was hard to imagine how he managed to breathe, let alone perform extended feats of Parkour or combat training.  These days, he favored the standard ECHO-issue leggings, high-tech nanoweave that did a fine job protecting the wearer from high-velocity projectiles and energy damage, yet still allowed for unrestricted movement.  His arms and torso he left uncovered.  With the changing of the seasons, Atlanta would soon be sweltering in the heat, but Mel knew that wasn’t the reason for Red’s topless fashion-sense.  He seemed nervous of late, constantly scanning his surroundings and taking note of whoever was around.  It was as if he expected an attack at any moment.  It was understandable, she supposed, given the current state of things.  With that much skin exposed, he was one with his environment, gifted with an innate radar that fed off all the heightened senses in his epidermis.  He saw every attack coming.  He let them come, and Mel chuckled as she recognized the grace in his subterfuge.  He never let on that they simply had no chance.  His feints were accompanied by dramatic grunts of surprise.  He didn’t telegraph his movements and he let them in close, but they never hit him, though some of their attacks seemed awfully close.  Of course, that’s what he wanted them to believe.  They thought they were just a lucky strike away from gaining the upper hand.  It was just enough encouragement to drive them forward, and the Djinni played with their false hopes with nerve and skill.  And when they finally closed the distance, were even remotely a threat to him, he lashed out, driving their attacks into one another, adding a few explosive elbows and knee strikes of his own and knocked them down, gasping, to regroup and try again.

Mel had seen this dance many times, and as she watched the Djinni step, pivot and fly about his would-be assailants, she was drawn back to the same unhappy conclusion each time.  Red’s entire life was a dance, this dance.  No one came close, he would never allow it.  Oh, she could study his moves, his patterns, file them away for future reference, but it wouldn’t matter.  Not to the big picture.  The Djinni recognized his own flaws, perhaps.  He realized his vulnerabilities and his solution had been simple – keep the distance.  Every time someone seemed to pass a certain boundary, he would recoil.  Nothing obvious, of course, but it was always something.  He had to maintain the dance.  She would step forward, he would lean back.  Something would be offered, and he might graciously accept, but that was all.  They had spent all this time together, and while much had been shared, she realized that he was still holding back.  In retrospect, most of what he had told her she realized could have been learned through other channels.  He liked to think his history was some remarkably kept secret, but if one was determined enough, most of his secrets could be unearthed without him ever knowing.  But even those were superficial.  After all they had been through, he was still a mystery to her.  This was a problem, a truth she had been avoiding, from her own confusion over what she had felt for this man.  It was a problem, because…

Mel exhaled and grimaced, and let harsh reality wash over her.

She was in love with him.  She would do anything for him.  He just didn’t know the power he held over her now.  A simple touch, a knowing glance, that was all it took.  It startled her the first time it happened, a sudden jolt of fear that made her question what she doing.  No one had ever gotten to her like this, and it really wasn’t something she could afford.  She had fought it, of course, but it wasn’t a battle she could win.  She was failing with each passing day, to the point where she wondered if she even cared anymore.  Her intentions, the best laid plans, did they matter anymore?  There was a time when the idea of surrendering to another had been laughable.  And now?  She cared for this man, yes, but it went deeper.  He was an extension of her now.  Soon, they could be as one, she was certain of it.  But something wasn’t right, she might be willing to give him everything, but he… he had never surrendered to her.  It was all in the kiss, she realized.  You could always tell from the kiss, and he had never surrendered to it.

She had never mistaken sex for love.  Even as a young girl, she had known the difference.  Her first time had been something of a relief.  It had been awkward and strange and over far too quickly, but at least it was no longer a mystery.  And there was power in the act.  When the passion was real, even the most guarded of men could become as transparent as glass.  Honeyed words, once dripping with sincere flattery, could turn vile and bestial.  The witty and urbane often were exposed as mere schoolboys, their charm fading away with a few hopeless grunts.  Alternatively, the meek could rise above themselves, finding a deep well of courage and leap into the fray with a ferocity that would have astonished them, had they not been so lost in the moment.  And so it would go, on and on, people going to great lengths to hide their true nature, even from themselves.  But no one could hide forever.  All it took was that moment of surrender, and she could catch a glimpse of the true man behind the mask.

She was still waiting for that moment with Red.  There had been plenty of opportunities.  She had considered the possibility that perhaps there was truly nothing more to the man than a simple mercenary with extraordinary talents, rather pedestrian if vigorous tendencies in bed, and a relatively quick wit for sarcastic retorts.  Each time the thought bubbled up in her mind, she immediately squashed the notion with a determined scoff of impatience.  He couldn’t be that simple.  There was something more, there had to be.  On the surface, he didn’t seem that complicated, and she had met more than her share of uncomplicated men.  None of them interested her.  This one was profoundly different, and she was willing to admit that the enigma of how was slowly, surely, driving her mad.  Once again, she pondered the kiss.  Each time he seemed eager and passionate but there was always a moment of hesitation, of apprehension, barely noticeable but there nevertheless.  He had never yielded to her, not entirely.  There was always something holding him back, maintaining that carefully constructed wall that refused to let anyone in.  It loomed over her, impenetrable, and her desire to peer past it was growing to a fevered pitch.

Which made it all the more shocking when finally, she saw something new.

It didn’t register at first.  Red continued his dance, and had by now dispatched most of his class, leaving them strewn about the field in various states in injury.  Had he actually needed to hurt them?  Not from a learning standpoint–was there something festering in him that hurt him so much he needed to transfer that injury to someone else?  His remaining student, a lithe, sandy-haired girl with pock-marked skin, backed away from him with small, timid steps.  He decelerated into a mocking strut, stepping lightly around her with dramatic hops and feints.  While the scarf obscured his features, Mel could still make out his broad smile, pushing his cheekbones tight against the fabric.

“Just you and me now, Delia,” the Djinni said.  “This won’t end well.  It never does, does it?  You still haven’t picked up even the rudimentary skills to defend yourself without powers.  I think maybe I’ve been taking it too easy on you.”

Red threw a clumsy punch near Delia’s head, and she screamed as she flinched back.

“Damn, girl,” Red sighed.  “You could have blocked that easily.  Close up your stance!  Maintain your footing!  You’re the gun in this group!  You need to be up and mobile and always vigilant, ready to call the shot!”

Red sagged in defeat as Delia continued to cower.

“Or, y’know…” the Djinni said, shaking his head.  “Just fall down and die.”

He swooped down, driving his legs around in an explosive sweep that knocked Delia on her back.  She fell with a scream, her legs flung forward, landing on an elbow with a terrific crack.  She gasped in pain and sobbed as she glared at the Djinni with what could best be described as a mix of terror and hate.

“So much for the lesson,” the Djinni said, rising to his feet.  He turned his back to her, to all of them, and began to stroll away.  “I’m not seeing it, in any of you.  Not a bit of improvement.  What’s it going to take to see a little fire from this lot…?”

Mel watched as Delia attempted to prop herself up on her good arm, and fall back down with a whimper.  The kid was scared, in pain, and Mel could understand Red’s arrogance in simply walking away.  It had only been a few weeks since he had taken up their training, but his frustration with this group was that of a long-suffering father, burdened with the perpetual mishaps of wayward children.  Today’s exercise hadn’t been one of instruction.  If his nightly tirades were any indication, he was nearing the end.  He had all but given up on them, and with the growing certainty of his failure, he was growing irritable.  Perhaps he thought them weak, too undisciplined for this line of work, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from trying to light the spark, to get them moving.  He had taken it too far today, certainly, but it spoke more of his own shortcomings than theirs.  That he would punish them for it said much of his current state of mind.  The Djinni felt lost, lost enough to pummel his charges to near unconsciousness, enough to shamble off in defeat, and enough to forget that foes are never more dangerous than when you’ve beaten them into the ground.

Mel watched, frozen and fascinated, as Delia propped herself up again with a snarl.  One of the Djinni’s original recruits, she had failed almost every level of combat training ECHO offered.  Physically frail with an awkward gait, Delia seemed perpetually hunched over with her hair covering most of her face.  She refused to make eye contact and rarely spoke, and when she did the sounds she made approximated the hoarse whispers of a lethargic housecat with laryngitis.  The only reason she hadn’t been sent packing was her metahuman ability, one that ECHO still hoped to harness for fieldwork.  Mel had never seen her use it, so she was completely taken aback as Delia “The Spitter” Schumer roared in anger and fired a colossal stream of projectile vomit at Red Djinni.