A/N: I decided that at this point, Eli would definitely know Atlas' fate by now. So I'll just out and say it: Atlas is in critical condition at a local hospital. No visitors allowed. Eli has called the hospital, the police department, and the Program many times, but hasn't gotten much information. I will add these details into the next draft, as I have no idea what I'm doing most of the time. :P
Eli froze. He stared wide-eyed at Sebastián for a moment, then recovered, his instincts kicking in.
"What?" he scoffed. "I don't know what you mean. It's me, dude."
Seb raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'll try not to feel too insulted. You really think I'm that dumb?"
Panic shot through Eli's head. How much did he know? "I... don't know what you're talking about." Damn it. Normally he was good at lying, but this had him blindsided.
Seb's expression didn't change, and he fumbled in his pocket before pulling out his phone. He tapped at the screen before holding it in front of Eli's face.
It was a news article. The headline read: SUPERVILLAIN PYRO IN CRITICAL CONDITION AFTER POWERS BETRAY HIM
Eli scanned the article, which was mostly just a biased version of what he already knew. He looked up, swallowed. "What are you trying to say, man?"
Sebastián cocked his head, waited.
Eli raised his hands. "I get it. The news about Atlas is awful, and I wish that I knew what happened, and all we can do is pray at this point--"
"--and god, to think that he's been Pyro all this time is just wild--"
Seb's tone turned sharp. "Eli."
Eli flinched, the lies freezing in his mouth, bitter and insincere. Sarcasm had started to seep through in his defensive position, and suddenly he felt like absolute garbage.
Seb's eyes were hard and unwavering, and he set his mouth in a thin line before speaking again.
"I know that you're a part-time villain, Eli. Just like him." He sighed, fiddling with his bracelet. "I've suspected for a long time now. All the late nights, the burns, the bruises, the secrecy... and news stories that matched your timing. But I just thought I should mind my own business."
He clenched his jaw, guilt flashed over his face.
"But Atlas almost died last night, and he may die anyway, and maybe if I'd said something..."
Seb struggled to keep his emotions under control, clenching his jaw.
Finally, he put a bony hand on Eli's shoulder. Eli squinted at him, unsure of where this was going.
"I need to know what you're doing now, dude. I can't--" A ragged breath. "I can't lose both of you. You're my best friend, man."
His hand weighed heavy on Eli's shoulder, and Eli stared at the ground, thoughts moving as if through molasses.
Seb knew. He knew.
But he wasn't angry, and maybe he didn't know Eli's full identity, not yet. He was just worried. Maybe there was hope that Seb wouldn't expose him.
The silence stretched between them, and soon, Sebastián let his hand drop to his side. A familiar sense of shame opened up in Eli's gut, gaping and rotten as an infected wound. He picked at his cuticles.
"Will you call the police?" His voice was small, and he grimaced at the weakness in it.
Sebastián was silent for a moment, and when Eli glanced up, his eyes were filled with hurt.
"Of... course not. I'm not-- That's not what I meant." Seb rubbed a hand over his face and let out an exasperated breath. "I'm not trying to out you. I'm worried. I just wish that I knew what you and Atlas were... had been up to so that I could have helped keep you safe."
Eli coughed. "What could you do? You're not part of it. Your knowing this doesn't help. If anything, it makes both of our lives harder." He immediately regretted the bitterness in his tone.
Seb tilted his head, as if this thought hadn't occurred to him. "Does it?"
"I mean. Yeah." Eli took a shuddering breath and readjusted his hoodie, trying to control the adrenaline pumping through his veins. "Look. I'm not supposed to tell you, or anyone...anything. The options right now are pretty much that a) you either call the police, or b) I have to move away to protect my identity and you, from anyone who might want to kill me." He gave a weak smile. "This is all hypothetical, of course."
"Well," Sebastián said, after a moment's pause. A breeze ruffled his dark hair. "Let's say you didn't tell me anything. Let's say I just figured it out on my own, which I did, and, hypothetically, I decide to help you anyway."
Eli leaned back against the tree trunk, tried to ground himself in the sensation of bark pressed against his skin. "You'd do that?" He ran a hand through his hair. "You don't even know what I can do. What I have to do."
"Right, all hypothetical."
Sebastián shifted his weight for a moment, then sat down in the grass. He gazed up at Eli, who was grateful that he could stop craning his neck to maintain the conversation.
"I think that you're Rift. Whenever you head out and come back with bruises, there's usually a story on Zenith and how she's fighting a guy in the black and white suit. Is that you?"
Eli hesitated, then gave the barest nod. If he didn't actually say anything, it didn't count as telling him, right?
"So, if you're Rift, then that means that you have superpowers. Like Atlas has..." Seb's mouth quirked, but he didn't correct himself. "...Pyrokinetics."
Eli nodded again, discomfort writhing in his chest. He'd wondered for a long time if it would be a relief for someone to find out, to discuss his lifestyle with him, but now all he could do was worry about if West found out that Seb knew, and that Eli had allowed it.
Seb shifted uncomfortably, like he was about to ask something very personal. Odd, Eli thought, considering this whole conversation had been about exposing personal information.
"I'm sorry that I don't know this, but. What can Rift do?"
Eli tried not to feel indignant at this blow to his ego. Rift wasn't very well known, and hardly successful. The Zenith persona was pretty famous, but they fought better villains than him on a regular basis. If anything, they were doing him a favor.
It was too late now, he decided. Might as well jump into the deep end.
"Intangibility. Phasing. Invisibility." He listed them in a flat voice, resentment seeping into every word. "It takes a lot of energy and it hurts a lot."
Seb blinked. He tore grass from the earth and shredded it in his hands. "Oh. I didn't realize it would hurt. Were you born with it?"
Eli sighed, and sank to the ground, his eyes fluttering closed. He was so tired.
Eli hesitated, unwilling to elaborate further. "Nope."
Sebastián tilted his head. "Huh. And did you pick to be a villain? Did Zenith choose to be a hero?"
Eli laughed bitterly. "No. The Program chooses." He counted on his fingers. "You do the training, you fill out the info sheets, you endure the evaluations. They assign you a position, a power, a suit, and a name. But none of it belongs to you."
Seb blinked, then scattered the shredded grass into the wind. "That sucks."
"Yeah. But it pays well."
Seb flashed a dark smile. "That's all that matters in this world."
Eli was about to make a retort when his Program watch emitted a sharp beep. He glanced at it. A short message from West scrolled across the screen.
Where are you? Your tracker is off campus.
Shit. Lay low, West had said. And where was he? Exposing his secrets in a public park.
Panic lanced through him.
"I have to go."
Subscribe to Hero for Hire for weekly updates!