Holding Out For A Hero, Part Nine: New Hope

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(March 7th)


February

“Cathy?” Lance tapped gently on the door before pushing it open. “There's a man here to see you.” He took a half-step into the bedroom, and sighed. “You didn't touch the sandwich,” he complained.

“Not that hungry.” Catherine sat on top of her bed, fully dressed, and looked over at her boyfriend. “What man?”

“Some guy from the S.E.A, a Mr. Henry.” Lance avoided looking towards their dresser. “I can tell him to come back…”

“No, I'll be right out.” Lance nodded and closed the door, and Catherine stood slowly, walking over to the dresser and giving her hair a few desultory brushes before abandoning the effort. It was still short enough that it didn't need much brushing, but a few stray strands of black were sticking out of the slightly-curly mess. She needed a haircut.

One hand fell down to the dresser's surface, brushing a large manilla envelope, and she glanced down. The envelope was still sealed. She hadn't needed to know what it said, had let it sit for over a week already. This document is to certify that Sergeant Katherine Becker has been honorably discharged from the United States Army by order of the Secretary of the Army… Catherine shook her head, clearing the cobwebs, and her gaze moved from the envelope to the long, thin case lying in front of the mirror, cracked brown leather and a bronzed handle. With a grimace, she turned aside, deliberately reaching out and knocking the case to the floor. Then, with a deep breath, she stepped into the other room to meet her visitor.

Mr. Henry was sitting with a glass of water when she entered, and set it aside as he rose to greet her. “Ms. Becker, thank you for seeing me,” he said with an easy smile. “Can I call you Catherine?”

“I'd rather you didn't.” Catherine took his hand, shaking it, but didn't smile. “I'd prefer to keep this formal. Lance said that you're from the S.E.A. Is this regarding my appeal?”

Mr. Henry winced. “Not precisely,” he said slowly. “Your appeal has already been turned down, Ms. Becker. Superhumans cannot serve in the armed forces. It's against international law.”

Catherine's jaw clenched. “I didn't choose…” she started.

“I know,” Mr. Henry interrupted. “But I'm afraid that doesn't change anything.” He let her consider that for a moment, then added, “I am, however, here in the most part because of the object of your dismissal. May I see it?”

“It's not here.” Catherine said viciously. She wasn't about to give this bureaucrat the satisfaction.

Mr. Henry sighed softly. “Catherine, you're holding it.”

She looked down at her clenched fist, saw the brass handle it was curled around, and froze. She barely responded as Mr. Henry gently took the case from her, opened it, and pulled out the slender pipe, carved from deep red wood and nestled in its silk casing. The instrument was old, its sheen worn and faded, but in perfect condition.Taking the instrument with a mixture of reverence and the sort of caution typically reserved for a poisonous snake, he sighed. “A rare and terrible magic, this one. I am sorry.”

Catherine let out a harsh laugh. “I can't get rid of it,” she admitted. “The first day I realized what it was, I tried to throw it off a bridge. I didn't even think about who else might find it.”

“It was on your dresser when you returned home,” Mr. Henry guessed, returning the flute to its case. Catherine nodded bitterly. “I'm afraid that in the long history of this instrument, none of its hosts have ever succeeded in ridding themselves of it.”

“Except by dying,” Catherine said. Mr. Henry's eyes rose.

“Well, yes, that would cause it to pass to your heir. I hope you aren't considering anything so drastic,” he said.

Catherine's mouth twisted. “With my luck, it would just end up with Lance, and I would ruin his life, too.”

Mr. Henry chuckled despite himself. “Very noble of you. Catherine, I'm going to be blunt with you. That pipe is, and I do not use this word lightly, evil, and you have only four options to deal with that. Suicide is one, of course, but I think we can both agree that is off the table. The second is to surrender, become the sort of person it wants you to be.” Catherine glared at him, and his lips quirked into a smile. “Which is also off the table, I assume.”

“Very.” Catherine did not smile back.

“Good.” Mr. Henry nodded briskly, his smile fading. “Your third option is to continue as you have been. Ignore the pipe's call, resist it for the rest of your life. This will not be easy. You will find that it follows you, slips into your hand in moments of weakness, and engages in a non-stop campaign for your soul.” Catherine rolled her eyes, and he frowned at her. “I may sound theatrical, but I am quite serious.”

“And the fourth option?” Catherine asked.

“Control it. It will not be easy, but the flute's power is lessened if you use it to your own ends, rather than letting it spend its energies assaulting your psyche.”

Catherine stared at him. “You think I should become some kind of superhero?”

“Not exactly. Your magic is that of control. You will control it, or be controlled by it. If you intend to use it, you need an environment that is condusive to that control.” Mr. Henry reached into his pocket again, pulling out a business card. “I'd like you to consider joining the Superhuman Enforcement Agency's Magical Affairs Division. My team is badly in need of a leader.”

Catherine took the card carefully, studying it. “That's a bit of a mouthful,” she said. “And the acronym's crap.”

“We're working on it.” Mr. Henry smiled, standing. “You don't have to decide immediately. It'll be a few weeks before we've even gotten our headquarters together.”

Catherine frowned. “Why?”

Mr. Henry paused. “Because you were decorated for valor and leadership on a dozen locations. You survived the Sayleen War and brought your unit safely home. And I truly believe that you can control that pipe in your hands.”

“No.” Catherine shook her head. “Why do you need a team for that? Isn't that what the whole S.E.A. does? Polices things that aren't normal?”

Oliver breathed out slowly, and pulled a quarter from his pocket. As he spoke, he turned it over his fingers, letting it hop from space to space. “Did you study narrative law in school, Catherine? Stories follow rules, and the world is made up of stories. For the person you were, this is rarely noticeable. Your power was not enough to bind narrative around you. But now, things have changed. You have entered a world where dramatic law is as binding as physics – and the rules of magic are not the rules that costumed adventurers play by. A cape and tights are all well and good when dealing with mad scientists or alien gemstones, but if you try to play that way with magic…” He closed his fist around the quarter, and silver confetti sparkled to the floor. When he opened his hand, it was empty. “This country doesn't have the magical defenders it once did. It needs them again.”

“I…” Catherine broke off. “I'll think about it.”

“That's all that I ask.” Mr. Henry nodded, and started for the door.

“Oh, and Mr. Henry?” Catherine asked.

He stopped, and turned around. “Yes?”

“I thought I told you to call me Ms. Becker.”

Mr. Henry turned, giving her a dazzling smile. “I prefer not to keep things formal,” he admitted.


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