Burned Out Heroes
“Karen! Plug yer ears and hit the deck!!”
Though 01’s intention was not clear to Karen, she knew what she should do.
Clasping both hands to her ears, she dove to the floor face first. Her nose hit the concrete in her haste, but the resulting pain was the least of her worries.
A shrill explosion and a flash of light that penetrated her eyelids like tissue paper were followed by an anamnesis scrambling electric pulse through her entire body.
The only reason Karen remained conscious was because she had experienced this before. Had what she went through yesterday never happened, the young arbiter would have surely fainted.
Still in a dazz, Karen felt herself being lifted. Wind brushed against her cheeks as her feet fluttered against open air.
Her addled brain pieced together that she was being carried, and rather roughly at that. Karen had experienced this sensation many times and none of them had ended well.
“L-LET ME GO!!”
“Q-Quit squirmin’! I got enough trouble bein’ gentle as it is! Relax, will ya?!”
She flung her arms and legs about in a vain attempt to resist. While most likely pointless, Karen felt it better than simply accepting her fate. The daughter of 01 refused to give up until the bitter end.
“Oh, uh, ya all right?”
The hands disappeared, suddenly replaced by the feeling of cold, hard concrete on her backside.
Karen’s head was still in a fog, but her gradually returning senses etched out a vague idea of her surroundings. She was sitting in a tunnel-like passage that was dangerously close to collapse. Strange. This passage was on the opposite side of the park from the VIP and where 01 had dove in from the sky.
An attempt to stand ended as abruptly as it began. Her trembling legs refused to listen. Though her mind had a moment to brace for what was to come, her body had not had that luxury.
“Follow this path outta here an’ get the Feds to protect ya. I’ll head over there myself when things are done. If they ask ya any questions, just... Hey, can ya hear me?”
Karen finally recognized the voice as her pupils brought him into focus. Even if the words were not making sense to her, there was no mistaking the warmth behind them.
The fog lifted the moment her father’s voice registered. Even her cluttered anamnesis came back into proper alignment.
“Ya couldn’ tell? I came all this way to get ya outta here... They didn’ hurt ya, did they?! If they did anythin’, I’ll k-”
“N-No, I’m not hurt. But, how did-”
“An EMP flash. That chick can only absorb heat she’s actually touched, so it was more than enough to stop her cold. All I had to do after that was charge in, snag ya, and book it outta there. Simple.”
With that, 01 shrugged like he always did.
The metallic combat mode did not prevent the father she knew from coming through in subtle gestures. That one shrug gave Karen an intense swelling of relief.
“...I... I’m sorry...”
“‘Thank ya,’ comes first, yeah? Act like a kid yer age an’ forget ’bout screwin’ up.”
“But, this attack, your injuries, they’re all my fa-”
At the same time, the soul-crushing guilt in her heart had not gone anywhere.
The tough face she had put on at the stadium crumbled the instant relief flooded her veins, unveiling the panic beneath.
“-Yeah, they’re all kinda on ya.”
Surprisingly, 01 affirmed it without any sugar coating. No amount of words would convince his daughter that she was innocent in all this.
“But, ya know? I’ve got my share of the blame, too. I sent ya off on yer own and ’at left ya open to get kidnapped. Ya ain’t the one that let all this happen, ‘we’ did.”
However, he offered a shoulder so Karen did not bear the burden alone. 01 may be awkward and extremely rough around the edges, but that is exactly what Karen needed.
“Gettin’ played by some terrorist organization without realizin’ it ain’t nothin’ special in today’s world. How many times have I told ya to make up for mistakes when they happen? This mess is our fault, so we gotta clean it up.”
01 simply smiled at his daughter while she desperately fought to keep the tears back. He was not condemning her, nor was he acting as a shield. 01 was genuinely saying this level of involvement was not a big deal.
“Still, ya’ll feel a lot better if ya take some time to reflect.”
The solid hand patting her head turned the relief into conviction.
That hand had given her everything. 01’s simple kindness is what had saved her in the first place.
“No ‘but’s, got it? I need ya to do exactly what I tell ya. Go out through here an-”
“-I’m going help you.”
Which was why she refused to leave now. Karen could not abandon him in the middle of battle, else she would falsify that warmth and betray her true identity.
“The hell are ya-”
“You said this is our responsibility. That means I have to fulfil my duty as well. I’m going to help you.”
Karen locked eyes with 01 and enunciated every word. Her fingers may still be trembling, but her will was rock-solid.
She knew what must be done, and she was determined to see it through. Not even her father could convince her otherwise, for it had been 01 himself who taught her to stand her ground no matter who stood in her path.
“...I ain’t got a chance in hell’a winning this argument, do I?”
“Your odds are exactly 0%, Dad. What’s more, you’ll need assistance to activate the ‘spear’ in your current condition. Please, allow me.”
01 folded with a long sigh. Not only did he say it was their responsibility, 01 was incapable of forcing his daughter to leave against her will.
“...Fine. But, if we’re doin’ this together, we stay linked, got it?”
Karen responded to her father’s words with a strong nod. She was still a child, but that did not mean she was powerless.
The stadium shook as the second wave of combat commenced. The passageway that served as their temporary reprieve would not last long. Faint traces of gunpowder and blood danced on the breeze that ruffled their hair.
Though this area was designed to withstand a great deal of punishment, it would not hold out forever. Those taking shelter below ground would not survive if Memorial Park caved in over their heads.
The weight of many lives stood squarely on their shoulders.