Sketch

A Rising Stars fic

by 'rith



Archive: Ask first, please.
Fandom: Rising Stars, early in the first arc. Many spoilers ahoy.
Disclaimer: All characters property of JMS/Image. What I have done with them is mine.
Thanks to: Nika for ongoing commentary and the nudge to read the damn things in the first place. ;)




John Simon doesn't have the luxury of regret.

It's a comfort that's eluded him ever since Doctor Welles took him aside when he was twelve years old and told John he was different even among the Specials. That he channeled the force that powered them all, could manipulate it directly rather than simply manifest a single or even multiple abilities. It mostly expresses in his knack for controlling electronics and electrical signals of all kinds, but in theory there's no limit to his potential. That's what sets him apart from the others. He's the failsafe in this whole...cosmic accident? alien experiment? act of God?...that created them to begin with.

Or to put it more bluntly, he's the triggerman, if one's ever needed. If any of the others lost control of their powers, or worse, used them for evil....

Now he sounds like Randy, with his superhero costume and accompanying drama. And it's not like he's ever been called on to actually carry out his theoretical role. Most of the Specials lead ordinary, law-abiding lives. A handful (Matthew and Randy and even Jason) publicly use their abilities for the common good, a few more (Chandra and Paula and Joshua) use them for entertainment and profit. Those whose character might have led them down darker paths were too small-time to bother with, like Patrick Ferry, nasty little shadow-walking voyeur that he is. Lee Jackson hadn't deserved to be tracked down like a criminal, given what he'd been through, and when events spun out of control he'd taken care of himself. Morbid, but true. Jerry has Jason to chase him down whenever he surfaces, and besides, Jerry's biggest crime has always been a willingness to be used. Every once in awhile John wonders if the rumors about Laurel are accurate, but all of his investigations have met dead ends. If she really is a government op, she's under deep cover, and presumably she has her own watchdogs.

But there's a bigger question of why *he* should have been the one chosen to bear the responsibility for the others. Was it only that he was the last of the Specials, conceived right at the moment of the Big Flash rather than being changed in utero like the others? Could it be nothing more than coincidence?

No matter the reason, he's always been set apart from the others because of it. Even as a kid, before he knew, he always tended to keep to himself. After the talk with Doc Welles he only had an excuse for it. Still, somehow, he came to be regarded as something as a big brother to the rest of the Specials, for all that he's the youngest of them. Randy says it's because John treated them all equally, rather than joining any of the social cliques or factions. He wasn't a jock or a nerd or a brain or a freak. The only thing that distinguished him was his writing, the constant presence of a notebook that had earned him the nickname Poet. He's still a poet, even if the literary societies think his work has dubious merit.

Secretly, John knows that the concepts and metaphors he tries for never quite translate from the imagery in his head to the words on the page. It's endlessly frustrating, but he can't stop trying. It's important, even if he doesn't know why.

Maybe he's still waiting for the right story to tell.

***

She's the most beautiful woman in the world.

*Everyone* says so.

It's her power and her gift. It's what makes her Special. No matter what color, gender, race, belief, or orientation, they look at Chandra and see an image of perfection. Men worship her. Women hate her, of course, until they realize that envying Chandra is like being jealous of a star. She's the ideal no other can match.

None of them see *her.* She's asked; she knows. To them, she's blonde or brunette or redhead, slender or buxom, Caucasian or Asian or African, tall or short or in-between with green eyes blue eyes Elizabeth Taylor violet eyes. She could, she sometimes thinks bitterly, be a four-hundred-pound acne-covered wreck, and she'd still be the ultimate object of desire.

But she's not--ugly, that is. She spends hours each day exercising, keeping in shape, and it's for no one but herself. Vanity, or an attempt to see what everyone else does. She's immune to her own power, and her mirror shows only an attractive blonde woman, toned and slender, pretty enough but certainly not the image a supermodel idol of millions ought to project. But then, she's not what she projects. She's only what others see.

"Poor me," Chandra mutters, and her mouth twists into a shape that isn't pretty at all.

Paula's power, at least, ends where technology begins. When Paula Ramirez sings her listeners are enraptured, transported by the beauty of it, but her voice can't be recorded or even captured by microphones. Paula can talk to people without entrancing them. Chandra isn't so lucky. All media captures her power along with her image so that every magazine picture, every TV interview and film role projects that perfect, perfect beauty.

No one has seen her true face since she was fifteen years old.

Certainly not the men who live in her home, *her* men, her own private harem. All those gorgeous bodies with their masked faces, her single rule. None of them see *her* when they make love, so it's only fair that they wear the masks. That way she can imagine the only man she wishes were there, the only one who never seemed bedazzled by her power.

The one man who doesn't seem interested in her at all.

It doesn't take a shrink to tell Chandra that her desire is rooted in self-loathing. What little remains of her sense of worth has been spent in keeping her from picking up the phone at any given time during the past few years. She has no idea what John really thinks about her, and doesn't want to know.

Like all of her fans, Chandra knows that sometimes the illusion is better than life.

***

"And this is the Shadowcave."

Always a beat, and the inevitable: "You don't really *call* it that, do you?"

Of course he does. It's part of the illusion, a piece of the symbol, and Randy understands the power of symbols. His art, his crime-fighting work, it's all the same: an attempt to make order out of chaos.

That's not an original observation, but still true. He'd recognized that from the very beginning, reading superhero comics as a kid and *understanding* the fundamental truth of the images they displayed. It wasn't about the bright shiny colors and flashy powers. It was about seeing what had to be done and having the ability to do it.

But the symbols were powerful. Apprehending a criminal while dressed as Randy Fisk, civilian, has none of the impact of swooping out of the darkness, clad in leather and wearing Ravenshadow's distinctive mask. Ravenshadow is sexy, powerful, *dangerous.* The power of the image captures the senses, inspires fear, and gets results. That's all that matters.

It's no surprise to anyone, much less Randy himself, that he loves the melodrama of codename and costume. It's an easily understood language of purely defined good versus evil and Randy's firmly declared himself, by dress and by deed, as one of the Good Guys.

But sometimes he wonders--and this really *is* comic-book philosophy, but that's part of the life he's created--if somehow he hasn't sown the seed of his own ruin. Because what's a hero without a villain? Not the everyday bad guys that he confronts on the street corners, but a true nemesis.

It's probably an absurd theory. And yet...

Something's coming. It began with Lee Jackson's death, poor, tortured Lee, who'd once dreamed of being a star and got his wish in a final, fiery explosion. Right now Randy thinks he's the only one who's noticed the slight power increase that followed Lee's death, but inevitably others will discover it too. He'd felt the same thing again when Joey Drake died. Two deaths, 2/113th of the power redistributed.

Everyone knows what happened to Lee. His death had been a public spectacle. Joey, though...there weren't any answers about how Joey died. It might have been an accident, but the police were treating it like a homicide. Which *still* didn't mean someone was targeting Specials, random murders happened all the time. And yet....

Something twinges vaguely at the edges of Randy's perception. There's a pattern forming, but he can't quite sense the shape of it.

He can wait. Sooner or later, the pattern always resolves.

***

Joshua floats high above the altar as his father preaches, glowing with the holy light of God. At least, his father says that Joshua's power is a holy gift, while the powers of the other Specials are mere trickery. Only *he* is blessed among them; the others are accidents or worse, touched by a darker source of power.

The congregation below sings in a single voice, led by his father, under the holy light. In moments like this he feels the rightness of his father's conviction, feels the power of their voices flow through him, feels the exultation of being touched by God. In moments like this, Joshua is at peace.

After the service ends, Joshua drifts down to touch ground and feels dull acceptance wrap around him again like an enshrouding blanket. He smiles and nods at the congregants as they file past, telling him what a miracle he is, how his light has blessed their lives, and he's honestly glad for the joy his gift--*God's* gift--has brought them.

The other Specials don't understand. They accuse him of being a fanatic, a fool, a dupe of his father. They've never felt *this,* the pure sacred touch of God's gift to humanity. This blessed grace.

It's not until after the petitioners have left that Joshua can seek the sanctuary of his own room. He pleads exhaustion, and his father dismisses him, grimacing at his son's weakness. He *is* tired; channeling the holy light is a drain on both body and spirit. But he also slightly exaggerates his fragility to escape the constant scrutiny of those never-satisfied eyes. Joshua gives all his father demands of him, and gladly, but a few hours' respite restores his strength to minister to others.

Once in his room, instead of sleeping he finds himself sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing his own reflection. Joshua stares at his face in the mirror and if he lets his eyes drift out of focus the lines blur, become softer, and he almost looks...pretty.

It's a sin, he knows it's a sin in the eyes of God and his father but there's something in the mirror that hints of his true self and he's only *pretending,* after all. It's not like when he was younger, when he had the secret box he hid under the bed. That would be unthinkable here, with his father so close. *And* a much greater sin.

Still, he can't help but remember the few times he'd been alone with the box, and he'd pulled it out and opened it and touched the fabric inside gently, reverently, darting glances at the door. And the bare handful of times, carefully locked behind a door in a place with no windows, when he'd actually stripped down naked and taken what was in the box and put it on his body, transforming himself into someone who wasn't Joshua. A...person...much more delicate, gentler, softer, *prettier*....

He trembles with the memory, that transcendent (orgasmic) state. His father says that the only true bliss is in the touch of God, in the holy ecstasy of prayer. Joshua tries to block out the memory, knowing that it stands in the way of his salvation. But God surely understands mortal frailty, even if his father would not, and Joshua knows he is not damned because the holy light still radiates from him when he calls it. God's light, proving that even a sinner can be God's instrument if He wills.

Joshua tries to be a good servant of God in all things, and obey his father likewise. Only his one small secret, his one single sin, is his own.

***

Some people live their whole lives never knowing who or what they want to be. For Matthew Bright, there's never been any doubt at all. It's taken longer than he expected, but Matthew finally has everything he's ever wanted.

He didn't understand, still doesn't, really, why they wouldn't let him join the police academy in the first place. He'd *wanted* to use his powers to serve and protect, and no one has ever given him a good explanation for why he hadn't been allowed to. Hadn't every cop at some point wished to be stronger or faster or nearly impervious to harm? To be able to fly faster than a car full of fleeing criminals? He was *made* to be a cop. But for some reason he'd been barred from service, simply because he's Special.

But his father's legacy had been more important than using his powers, and since they wouldn't let a Special join the police force...he'd simply stopped being Special. Gotten a new name and new identity and joined up that way.

Matthew knows there's something deeply ironic in the fact that he'd had to act illegally to become a guardian of the law, but the restriction had simply been *wrong.* It wasn't his place to question the rules, just uphold them, but he couldn't have done that as a civilian.

Well. Technically he *could* have--Jason and Randy manage it. He wasn't sure how NexusCorp got away with having a superpowered...enforcer on their payroll, but the media loves Patriot and all his exploits. Randy was technically a vigilante, which shouldn't have been allowed either, but somehow 'Ravenshadow' had won the approval of both civilians and law enforcement. As long as they were both doing good work, Matthew supposed it didn't matter.

But for him, there's never been any alternative. He *had* to follow in his father's footsteps, no matter what. And ever since he'd been forced to reveal his powers in the meth lab explosion, it'd all been in the open anyway. Matthew had expected to be expelled from the police force; instead, the mayor and his fellow cops presented him with a special uniform and let him stay.

He'd been so overwhelmed that day, he'd gone home and wept for sheer joy.

It's so much better this way. To be able to use his abilities openly, exercising them in pursuit of justice...his father, Matthew thinks, would be proud.

That's all he's ever wanted.

***

He's not Lee.

Jerry Montrose has to keep reminding himself and everyone around him of that little fact. Lee Jackson and he shared the same power, but that doesn't mean that *he's* going to go on a fiery rampage. Sure, he's made dubious decisions in his life, but he's not a *bad guy.*

Oh, he's done some shady things, Jerry doesn't deny that. He doesn't even blame Jason for all the times they've fought. Media loves a hero and a villain, and if that's the part he's gotta play by the nature of his powers, so be it. He's a firestarter, fires burn, people fear them and they fear him. He gets it.

But he's not Lee, and he's never *killed* anyone. Though he can't really blame the guy. Once everyone found out what that pervert of a camp counselor had done to the poor kid, most of the other Specials agreed they'd have done the same. Hell, most of the normals did too, but that didn't end the manhunt. Lee had burned the creep to a cinder with a look and that made him a danger to himself and others. Sure seemed like they were right a couple of years later, when Lee's parents had died in a motel fire. His folks had taken Lee after the counselor's death and run, keeping ahead of the cops until the accident. *All* of the Specials agreed it had to have been an accident, and so did Doc Welles, who'd said that powers like Lee's had to be trained or they'd run out of control. Jerry was very very good at keeping his powers under control.

He's on the run now, like Lee was, which is funny only not in that ha-ha kind of way. Keeping his head down, hiding from the cops and Jason 'Patriot' Miller, who'd just *love* to collar Jerry for the glory of his corporate masters. "Fetch, Jason, good dog!" Jerry cackles to himself, and the guy next to him on the bus bench glances at him nervously and shifts a couple of inches farther away. Yeah, buddy, you wanna see something *really* scary? That'd be something for the six o'clock news: "Pyre lights up bus depot, witnesses flee in terror!" Along with the accompanying soundbite from Jason, looking oh-so-heroic in his red-white-and-blue spandex, solemnly promising to bring the villain to justice.

He's tired of running. It's gotten old, the same repeating routine. Jerry wonders if this is how Lee felt, and shudders slightly. He's *not* Lee.

He won't end up like Lee.

***

There's a voice whispering in Jason's brain as he drapes the plastic bag over Peter Dawson's head. He watches his own hands draw it tight, and it's like a dream except that Peter's sudden gasps make it all too clear this is happening, right now, Jason is killing one of his brother Specials.

He's a puppet in his own body, and the voice won't even let him scream. It mocks him, teasing in a voice he can't quite recognize. He knows the voices of all one hundred and thirteen Specials and this isn't one of them...but it couldn't be anyone else.

The only other alternative is that he's gone insane, and even Jason knows he doesn't have the imagination for that.

{tighter, tighter} the voice whispers and Jason effortlessly holds the bag in place even as Peter's hands strain at the ropes where his hands are taped to the chair. It's easy to hold him there, since Peter's gift is only invulnerability, not strength, and Jason was always one of the strongest among them. He and Matthew, extraordinary even among their own. Only Matthew is the golden boy, the hero, because he's a shiny symbol of order and law in his unique cop's uniform. Jason's got his fans, but because he works for NexusCorp he's been branded a corporate shill, a sell-out. But a guy's got to pay the bills, and besides, he does *good* things. Even if he's well paid for it, hell, cops get paid, and no one accuses *Matthew* of using his powers for a paycheck.

Deep down Jason knows that's because Matthew really is as good as everyone thinks he is, and that maybe he's not...but he's not *this* bad, he's not the one killing Peter. Even though it's his hands that hold the bag fast as Peter shakes and spasms and finally goes limp, sagging in the chair. He waits (is made to wait) another few minutes, just to be sure.

He knows why this is happening. It's that secret, that damned trick of the force that powers them all. It's energy, the corporate doctors said, and energy never goes away. So when Lee died--killed himself--his power flowed into the others. All of them got the tiniest bit stronger, or could fly faster, or whatever. Someone else figured that out. Someone, one of them, *has* to be, wants to kill the others to make himself, herself, more powerful. And is using Jason to do it.

Peter's not the first to die at his hands. Jason knows he won't be the last.

***

*Stay quiet, stay good, and he won't hurt you.* It's the mantra Stephanie lives by. Except it was never true, because no matter how good or how quiet she was, her father still--

{weak weakling you let him *do* it you let him hurt you and you never said a word}

But she was *free* of him now, free of that house, and he couldn't touch her anymore. She had made her own life, buried the past, learned to *forget.*

{never forget never never and he'll pay they'll all pay}

She wonders, sometimes, how things might have have been different if she'd ever manifested a power. She was conceived at the right time and in the right place, in Pederson, Illinois at the time of the Big Flash. But Stephanie never showed any kind of Special ability. Doctor Welles hypothesized that those who hadn't expressed a power simply hadn't been "triggered" by the right circumstance or stressor

{you were you did and you shoved it down because you didn't want to know}

but that was okay with Steph. She could fade into the background, become normal, and never have to think about being different again. She *loves* the fact that she can live an ordinary life, untroubled by the doctors and the government watchdogs who have written her off as a washout.

{under their noses under your nose here's the me no one can see}

Even if she had a power, chances were it would have been something useless like Carel's immunity to cold. What good was that? You couldn't make a living with it. Not like Jason and Matthew with all of their physical power, or Randy with his weird perception--some people paid a lot of money for experimental art--or glamorous Chandra with her beauty. She was a lot better off being normal.

{wasted it you wasted your chance your power and now it's mine}

But for all that, there's still a certain thrill in knowing she's *part* of something different, even if she wasn't Special herself. That was why she hadn't moved away from Pederson. Here at the heart of where it all began, where *they* all began, Stephanie could enjoy her small celebrity. People knew who she was, they waved to her on the street, they asked her about what the others were doing. She was comfortable here. Connected.

{spider spider in the web hiding at the center in the open in the heart}

And when the others came back, she could catch up with them, too. Like the encounter with Jason Miller, just last month. It'd been sort of strange, because she'd never been overly close with him when they were kids, despite her schoolgirl crush. She'd always figured he was out of her league. But he'd been interested in getting a lot closer to her when he'd come back to Pederson for a family visit. It'd been a wonderful coincidence, running into him so casually like that. And unexpectedly thrilling, the way he'd eagerly accepted her stuttering invitation to meet for a drink later.

{so easy so smooth a tiny push and things people fall into place fall over like dominoes}

It had been an exciting, exotic break in a life firmly fixed in the mundane. They'd sat together, comfortably chatting like the old friends they weren't, and then....

{talk is cheap *control* is sweeter a wink and a nod and oh *yes*}

Stephanie blushes, remembering. She should feel guiltier about it than she does, that sordid one-night stand in a cheap rented room, given that Jason was *married.* But what his wife didn't know wouldn't hurt them, and besides, she and Jason shared a past that made them more than passing acquaintances. It'd been...a moment, that's all, not likely to be repeated.

{mmmm touch that deep deep touch and he's mine now his mind mine and he's going to kill them all I'll eat their power eat them up yum}

In a way it reminds her that time is passing, even for the Specials. Lee had died, and Joey...for all of their power, none of them were immortal.

{poor stupid Lee opened the door showed the way every little death makes a little more me}

Depressing thought. But really, it only meant that the Specials were exactly like everyone else. Despite their abilities they still had the same fears, the same hopes, the same dreams....

{just a few more and their power can free me forever free of weak little Stephanie}

Not so different after all.

{soon very soon now}




{end}

***


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