Haze’s head connected sharply to the glass of the car beneath him. He felt the wind rush out of him, and his vision tunnel for a brief moment. Waves of vertigo followed, then gripping panic. The panic made his temperature rise, made his veins burn like molten lava, and his mind explode with self preservation that wrapped the man on top of him in a vortex of blue-orange flames. The man hollered in agony, thrashing around as he was blasted back onto the concrete – and then stood back up.
“Whoa!” ‘Vic’ cried, barely dodging the flying fire-ball of anger that flew past him.
Raging fire took over Haze’s psyche, bringing out his alter-ego in full force. Hellfire sat up, breathing heavily with death in his orange-colored eyes, watching his attacker howl like a rabid animal even as he burned. The man’s skin turned to char, peeling off in sickening black flakes. In one fit of rage, the man howled again, sending a concussive wave that not only extinguished the flames on his body, but knocked Hellfire and Crush back a good ten feet from where they’d been standing.
“This is gonna require some overtime,” the giant behemoth of a man known as Crush said as he got to his feet. Hellfire followed, narrowing his eyes in a vain attempt to clear his tunneling vision. He was unsteady on his feet, but forced himself upright all the same. “What the hell did you do to piss this guy off, anyway?”
“I beat him at darts,” Hellfire growled. His arms moved in an ‘X’ pattern, igniting the cement in front of them with a cross-hatch of flames that raced towards the howling Evolved at the other end of the alley. The man managed to dodge the flames, but not the car that Crush dropped on top of him. This time, Hellfire made sure the man stayed down, targeting the vehicle’s gas tank with one well-placed ball of flame that created a rather impressive explosion behind Kahuna’s Bar and Lounge.
“A little overkill, even for me, but well played,” Crush admired. He clapped Hellfire on the shoulder, already dragging the young Evolved out of the alley. They could hear the sirens and mutters of onlookers trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on with their camera-phones. What started as a bar fight turned into an all out battle. Neither Crush nor Hellfire could afford to be caught in the middle of it, not with their histories or the A.E.C. now hunting down every born-Evolved across the country. The flames from the explosion licked the sides of the building, creating a barrier between first-responders and the two retreating Evolved. They jogged almost three miles before collapsing on the shore line near the La Jolla Sea Caves. What little energy Hellfire still had flooded right out of him, making him flop to the damp sand like a wet noodle.
“Really? Darts?” Crush panted, squatting down beside Haze. Hellfire was gone, stuffed back inside where he belonged. Crush managed to maintain a decent balance between himself and his alter-ego; Haze had yet to find that balance. Virgil Krisken – now known as Victor Nesk – was the size of a mountain with a temper to match his girth, when that temper was warranted. Otherwise, the giant man had a heart of gold and a disturbing appetite for fried foods. He was one of Haze’s best friends as well as being his partner in psuedo-crime. To call them thieves was too simple. They stole things, sure, but it was not always a bad thing to steal from the people that pinged on their radar. Crush likened them to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. MJ, their focal point, equated them to Han Solo and Chewie with a few extra hands when the job required it. All in all, Han and Chewie was a better analogy. They took jobs from shady folks, or the folks that needed things done on the down low. It wasn’t the best way to do things. Lately they were taking a lot of jobs to hide people, get them out of the country or erase them from the Evolved registry. Anything involving Evolved garnered far too much attention so, for the most part, the Han and Chewie group maintained their distance from each other, only gathering for a few hit-and-run jobs here or there or to check in when an A.E.C. raid was announced.
“You ok?” Virgil continued. No one called him Virgil or Vic, much like no one actually used Haze’s real name. Neither was fitting so neither was used. Everyone just called the giant wrecking ball ‘V’ and Haze was just ‘Haze’ despite his driver’s license saying something else entirely. Even that was not his real name, but only a handful of people were privy to that knowledge.
“I think that maybe I’m done with darts for a while,” Haze sighed feeling the cool night air bringing his core temp back to a level that was not so volatile as it was before. His skin still glowed an eerie ember, his heart beating so fast inside his rib cage that breathing was a difficult task. The waves of vertigo had not stopped. In fact, they were getting worse.
“You don’t look OK,” V continued. Haze eyed him askance.
“I’m fine,” he lied. He felt awful and knew that he looked it, but worrying V did little good. Virgil was a man of good character and a decent heart. He lived life the best he could with few regrets and took Haze under his wing as a kid brother more often than not, mothering him with canned soup or several shots of tequila and French fries. Haze wanted neither soup nor tequila and fries so he maintained his lie.
“You sure?” V pressed.
“Shut up, V,” Haze muttered. The giant Evolved man complied, enjoying the sound of the waves as they rolled up around their feet.
Haze had no memory of anything after the beach, waking the following morning in his apartment with a can of Campbell’s soup and a handwritten note on his bed-side table. His head hurt, and he felt the throb of aching muscles across his back and shoulders. He peered at the note, chuckling when he read its contents:
All they had was tomato. Eat it. It’ll help. Take 2 aspirins too. MJ’s taking care of the issue at Kahuna’s. Tell Dani I said hi. Let’s try billiards instead of darts tomorrow. – V
Just then, Haze heard the front door open and shut, heard the familiar clatter of keys hitting the bowl on the table beside the door and the following dump of belongings onto the floor. He forced himself to roll onto his back, half-lidded eyes fixed on the doorway to the bedroom. He managed to crack a smile when he saw his Hawaiian beauty slip through the door in Mickey Mouse scrubs, her hair in a tousled bun on top of her head. She removed her top, bra and all, slithering out of her pants so that the matching cotton uniform left a trail from doorway to bed before she threw herself onto the soft comforter beside him.
“Hi babe,” she said into the pillows. Haze grinned, rolling over enough to drape his arm across her bare back.
“Work suck?” he asked, tracing the intricate tattoo on her back, tickling her side in the process. She squirmed, then pulled him close for a sound, passionate kiss. Work sucked a lot, apparently. She ran her fingers along his jaw line and through his hair, making him wince and pull back. “Ow.”
“What happened?” she asked, sitting up with concern in her big brown eyes. Trying to hide the giant goose egg on the back of his head would do no good. She took his head in her hands and carefully parted his wild frock of loose brown curls. “Babe!”
“Just a bar fight,” Haze shrugged. “I don’t do too good at them I guess.”
“Nadir Rene,” she scolded, using both of the names he’d been given upon his arrival to San Diego. He could no longer be who he was, fleeing Chicago in a haze that did not lift until several months after reaching San Diego. A year later, the name still sounded odd to his ears, worse when it was used as a proverbial lashing for something stupid.
“I didn’t start it!” he pleaded, pulling away from her searching fingers. It did no good. Dani had gone into full nurse mode, pulling him back to her to inspect the damage. “V was with me, ask him. All we was doing was playing darts.”
“Were,” she corrected adding to the scolding by pointing out his slightly flawed English. Despite living in the States for almost seven years, English was still not his strongest language. Dani liked to point it out whenever the opportunity presented itself; like now. “Were you betting too?”
He remained silent, making a sheepish face instead. “Seriously? Haze, you said you were going to stop betting on bar games.”
“But I’m good at it!” he argued feebly, finally freeing himself of her grasp. “It’s not my fault the weirdo got all pissed off at me for it. I didn’t even beat him by a lot.”
Dani fixed him with a piercing, soul-searching glare. Some day, she would make an amazing mother, for no child would dare to lie when she made the face she gave to Haze. “The explosion at Kahuna’s?”
He opted to remain quiet which was as damming as confessing his sin. She hit him in the arm for it, creating an explosion of words that ranged from using his power in front of people to causing damage to the potential for death or, worse, incarceration which seemed higher on her list of worries than ‘death’. Haze just listened to the tirade with his head hanging between his shoulders. She was not wrong in berating him. He did know better; it was dangerous for people like him to reveal what they were. So many were incarcerated, lynched, or worse. The heroes that once walked openly among the public now hid themselves away like common criminals. Not even they were immune to the hateful vitriol that took hold of the country.
“Sorry,” Haze finally said when Dani was done hollering and on to glaring. The glare lingered for a few more minutes before she sighed and dropped her arms. She scooted over to him, pressing herself against his back while carefully looking at the giant knot on his head with gentle fingers.
“Stop being so reckless,” she said. “I don’t want you in those prisons. I want you naked in my bed when I get home. I can’t have that if they cart you away.”
Haze smiled, closing his eyes while Dani massaged his neck putting him in a haze of bliss.