IMAGE Pitch: Hopeless writer seeks crazy artist

Hello, folks. If you've read this far, then I've piqued your interest. That's good. Stay piqued. It's the only way you'll hear me out. As an aspiring comic book writer, I've grown restless and decided to drop the "aspiring" part from that title as soon as possible. The big bullseye on this target of success is Image Comics.

For those who aren't all that familiar with them, Image Comics is one of the largest comic book companies in the world, but functions more as a publishing house than a straightforward Marvel/DC company. They focus on creator-owned titles, simply covering printing and distribution, and allowing all the rights over the property to remain with the creators. They're also one of the best shots at up-and-comers getting their work published and getting real, professional exposure. Their submission guidelines are here: www.imagecomics.com/about/subm…

As you can see, they don't accept writing or art samples separately. They want to publish wholly assembled books with established creative teams. Therein lies my problem... I am not a very good artist. Sure, I post some decent sketches on deviantART, but nothing resembling the quality expected of a legitimate comic book, and after trying to draw comics on an amateur level, I can tell you that I'm not fast enough either. Therefore, I ask you, my talented, brilliant friends... is any among you brave enough to join me? I already have an idea and a script ready to go. If we put together one full issue and pour everything we have into it, we stand a chance, however slim, of breaking in to the very top of the comic book food chain. Of course, there's the risk of rejection. There always is. If Image turns us down, we can either continue pitching our work elsewhere or simply cut our losses and move on with our individual lives, no problem, and we'll still always have that one thing we created, even if it's just between us. But good god, on the off chance that it does work? Where would we be then?

So, are you a talented artist? Do you like comics? Do you want to make comics? Are you waiting for your chance to break in and make a name for yourself? Well, I'm right there with you on all of those except for the first one. If you're even remotely interested, and willing to stick with this in the event of it actually taking off, then let me know.

Let's go someplace awesome.

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The Final Hunt, Part I

His feet pounded the rooftop. There was no time for grace, and he had no energy left to control himself, only enough to move. The pounding of his feet was muffled by the roar of helicopters overhead, blades slicing the wind. Spotlights whirled around him, but he himself remained a shadow, leaping effortlessly from one rooftop to the next despite being at the edge of exhaustion.

"GIVE IT UP, LONGSHOT!"the loudspeaker boomed from the lead helicopter, "SURRENDER NOW AND THIS WON'T HAVE TO GO ON ANY MORE! KEEP RUNNING, AND WE'LL HAVE TO USE FORCE!"

He kept running. The officer inside the helicopter grimaced and looked back to the gunner. "Bring him down." he ordered reluctantly. It left a bad taste in his mouth. Longshot wasn't the biggest name, but he was a hero, and he had done a lot for the world, and being such a secretive guy, he'd probably done even more than they knew.

The gunner lined up the sight and started firing. Rooftop gravel popped all around the fleeing archer's feet. A bullet struck his quiver and he staggered forward, but he kept moving, unharmed. Bullets whizzed by his head. There was a gap coming, the current building and the next separated by four busy lanes, and he was separated from that street by a hundred feet. If he slowed down enough to turn, he would be shot. If he was shot, it was over. It couldn't be over. Not yet. His foot struck the ledge. No turning back. This was the point where all he could do was commit all the power he had left. He took off. Arms and legs flailing, helicopters baring down on him, he soared above the crowded streets toward the towering glass wall of the office building. He watched one floor after another pass him by as he fell. One. Two. Three. Not good, but he was almost there.

Four.

Five.

Glass rained through the empty conference room as Longshot tumbled and rolled, coming to a stop beneath the conference table. The searchlights flooded in and the tired, wounded archer scurried into a corner the light missed, catching his breath. Eventually, the light drifted elsewhere. He could hear the helicopters peel off and begin circling the area. He didn't have long, but he needed so desperately to rest, if only for a moment. No sleep in days. That wasn't out of the ordinary for him, but there had been a new series of burdens weighing down his mind, wearing him down more than usual. The archer braced his head in his hands, whispering under his breath, "You screwed up, Paxton... you screwed up... what are you gonna do? What the hell are you going to do?"

FIVE DAYS AGO

There was a riot on the streets of New York. Not a crowd of civilians revolting against some injustice, but a rumbling outburst of costumed criminals, unrepentant repeat-offenders striking out together in a sparsely organized spree of crime and chaos, a mad dash to claim the city and hold it for as long as they could. Broken glass littered the streets. Cars burned and the piles of rubble only grew higher. It had started with the hardened criminals, but now, civilians were getting swept up in the panic. Those who weren't killed or cast aside by the costumed marauders joined in on the smash-and-grab pandemonium. Only so many were wise enough to flee for their lives, and even fewer were capable of doing so.

There were those fighting to restore order, the police, and the only costumed crime-fighter who had yet to make it onto the scene, Longshot. He was making trips beyond the police line, into the fray to retrieve wounded and carry them back across the line to safety. The police weren't bulletproof. Neither was he, but they had procedure to follow. They had families. He could afford to take the risks they couldn't. With each trip, he stopped a few more of the assailants, but the streets were flooded. It was a losing battle. He carried one more bystander back behind the line and then dove right into the chaos. He disarmed and incapacitated each threat he came across. He recognized certain faces and costumes in the free-for-all, some that he had seen in the news or in his database of potential threats, and some that he himself had put away. They all knew him, and needless to say, they didn't like him. His quiver was half-empty within minutes. He decided to climb to a better vantage point. From the rooftops, he had greater understanding of the battlefield, greater control. There were still people hiding in the buildings, smart people who didn't want to get swept up in the madness below. Nevertheless, they were watching to see how the war outside their window unfolded.

An armored car was plowing through the streets, demolishing any cars, debris, and people in its way. The drivers were on the right path to a clean getaway. They would bypass the half-formed police line and slip away undetected. They would, if he hadn't been their. An arrow with an explosive charge attached pierced their front tire and the tire burst open, causing them to swerve out of control. They scrambled out of the car, reaching for their guns. One of them dragged a handcuffed, hooded woman out the back along with bags of money. He passed out the bags to his accomplices and kept his gun pressed to the woman's temple as they all headed for cover. Longshot waited for his opportunity, an exposed shoulder, the correct tendon, and fired. The arrow hit its mark and the man dropped his gun, crying out in pain. The archer started picking away at the others when something went wrong. There was a sudden, visceral pulse in the air, a crack of thunder, a smell of burning hair, and when he looked back, the man was gone, only broken and burnt fragments of an arrow shaft scattered around a bloody stain on the street.

Longshot was never one to let shock get the best of him, but this time, he had completely lost focus. It was as if the world stopped moving and his blood had started moving in the opposite direction. There was a burning in his stomach and a pounding in his skull. It couldn't be. It was just a regular arrow. No attachments. He had done it countless times and always been in control, yet somehow, without even knowing it, he had lost control. Somehow, he had killed again.

It wasn't over. As if his mind hadn't already been thrown into a torrent of confusion, guilt, and despair, his victim's compatriots went off in the same fashion one by one. Blood and fire filled the streets. The hostage he had tried to save was killed in one of the explosions, along with four other bystanders.

It was all wrong. It couldn't be right. Someone was arranging these deaths. That had to be it. It had to be. He broke into a run. He had to get back to the police line and sort this out. He had to get out of the fight or this would continue to happen. There was a clamoring beneath his feet, all around him. The people in the buildings were talking. Longshot had killed. That was what they saw. That was what they believed, and he wasn't entirely certain whether or not he believed it. Nevertheless, he had to get to the bottom of it.

Something hit him in the back like a wrecking ball and picked him up off the ground. His ears were ringing. His focus was gone. He never heard her coming, but now, with her smell filling his nostrils, a familiar heartbeat resonating, and an electric crackling in the air, he knew who it was. His elbow found its way into her cheek and he spun around in her grip as they soared over the city.

"This isn't your typical game, Capacitor!" he called over the wind.

"Doesn't matter!" she shouted back. Her black hair trailed in the wind. It was a wig. Her face was covered, part of the suit that gave her her powers. The only expression to be made out on her face was what could be seen through the goggles. Longshot had faced Capacitor before, but never brought her in. She was a bank robber, a thief, straightforward with no pretense or delusions of grandeur. "If there's money to be made," she said, putting her hand on his chest, "Everything else is secondary. However..." A current ran through him that even his insulated jacket could withstand, "Sometimes, I can indulge in a little revenge!"

The archer clawed and fought for his freedom, even though they were at least sixty feet off the ground and she was the only one who could fly. He paused when he saw something strike her in the back, which she apparently didn't notice. It was an arrow, one of his. He reached for the arrow and screamed, "NO!" just before Capacitor began to thrash and convulse in unnatural ways. The armor was responding to a short circuit caused by the electrical attachment on the arrow delivered straight to the primary circuitry, twisting her body inside and breaking her bones. The electricity coursed through her unprotected body. He could smell the burns. She dropped him, and soon plummeted herself.

He fired a grapple line and did his best to stop his descent, but the line snapped. A rare occurrence, and the circumstances didn't seem right, but he had too many questions on his mind already to worry about that. He crashed through a window, rolling through a crowded office. Capacitor had flown them well over the police line and back into peaceful territory. Hopefully, this would be the most eventful part of these people's day. He patted himself off and limped back to the window, all their eyes on him. He could hear squad cars pulling up outside. They should have been at the line, although it was possible they were on their way and just saw him crash through the window. He made his way out to meet them.

"They need every available car down on 34th and 8th! We need to--"

"Hands in the air!" one of the officers interrupted as they all drew their guns.

Longshot slowly raised his hands. "There's been a mistake..."

"We heard about what you did, Longshot."

"It's not like that. Somebody's setting me up."

"I wanna believe that, man, but we still need to take you in for questioning."

"I'm afraid that's not an option."

The officer looked at the others, then back to Longshot. "Is that a threat?" he asked.

"No, I just--"

"BE QUIET!" the officer shouted, "Get down on the ground and keep your hands behind your head. Don't try anything. If you're innocent, you can prove it down at the station." The officer stopped as the building exploded before them. Longshot screamed as glass and embers showered down around them and stood back up to run in after anyone still alive. One of the officers shot and tagged him in the left arm. Another lunged and wrapped his arms around Longshot's neck, pulling him back for the others to pile on. The bowman fought them off, doing as little damage as possible. As he prepared to flee, one of the officers made a second attempt at a tackle and the archer flipped him onto the hood of his own car, which immediately burst into flames, shrapnel spraying across the street. The other car went up immediately after. All four officers were dead, a building full of people was destroyed, and the world had seen Longshot do it all. There were smartphones and cameras recording all of it. Word of mouth was already moving. By now, the whole world had seen what it was meant to see. There were sirens in the distance. Longshot immediately ran into the shadows, scaling a fire escape and vanishing from sight.

Over the next two days, everything began to unravel. Longshot's name jumped to the top of the FBI most-wanted list, the families of the deceased held a candlelight vigil and cursed his name, and a five-million dollar bounty was placed on his head.

In the three days since then, he hadn't stopped running. Nowhere was safe, not even the Beacon. There were those who knew its location and would still believe the information they had been presented with. Hopefully, there were those out there working to prove his innocence. Hopefully, he really was innocent. Hopefully, this would all end peacefully.

All he could do was hope.

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Superman's Trigger Finger: The No-kill policy and the unfair treatment of the Man of Steel

For a guy who places tons of strict moral and ethical restraints on himself, Superman has killed a lot of people. Whether it be non-canon (which, for obvious reasons, doesn't count) or official parts of the character's canon storyline, such as John Byrne's controversial Superman #22 or in the more recent Justice League #22... weird. Anyway, it seems many creators are very interested in the idea of Superman compromising his moral code, but why? Seriously, why are so many people intent on making Superman kill someone? Do they all work for Manchester Black? What's the deal? Is it simply because morality and integrity are boring and grimdark bloodvengeance is cool? I certainly hope not. But Superman carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, a burden which even he barely seems strong enough for. Billions of lives are in his hands, and every day, he has to keep them safe while simultaneously setting an example for everyone. Never mind the super, that's one hell of a burden for a man. Surely, with all that responsibility on his mind, he could sometimes be forced into a corner, with the whole world in the balance, and have no choice but to end the threat permanently, right? It's certainly possible. Man of Steel was able to sell me on the idea of a young, inexperienced Superman who hasn't yet become an example for the world seeing no other option than to kill a genocidal maniac who was probably going to take his own life after he killed all seven billion of us. Sure, I saw it as something of a contradiction to his character arc in the movie, and I wish they hadn't done it, but it was a pill I could swallow, unlike other circumstances. But I'm not asking if it's possible. I'm asking why some of us NEED it to be possible. For answers (potentially biased and fanboy-centric answers, mind you) let's look at the greatest hypocrisy employed by the real-life Superman Revenge Squad: Batman.

Everybody loves Batman. Some people hate Superman. Why not just make Superman more like Batman? Because, strawman, they're complete opposites, and making one into the other because of his popularity is stupid. People are so intent on making Superman into Batman that this is a thing: [link]

But let's take a serious, objective look at the one true parallel between Superman and Batman, which leads me to seeing such hypocrisy: they don't kill. For different reasons, born from different circumstances, they have both sworn never to take a life. If you were to put a Batman fan and a Superman fan in the same room and ask them if their respective heroes would ever kill someone, you would get about the same answer from both of them: "Hell no!"

Or a punch. They could also punch you.

So, that is something they both share, a fundamental moral pledge to never kill another person. The difference? People never mess with Batman for it. Oh, sure, there's plenty of non-canon Elseworlds stories that delve into it, but no writer would ever dream of compromising something so fundamental and essential to Batman's character! That would be violating everything he stands for! Batman says he doesn't kill and he means it! That's final!

So... the violent, dark vigilante is allowed to keep his one rule, but the beacon of hope, truth, and morality needs to break it every couple years or we'll all stop reading his comics?

Listen up, writers, editors, and haters of all kinds! Listen to an entitled nerd with a deviantART journal and a handful of followers who might skim it! Making a character darker doesn't always make them more interesting! Brad Meltzer tried it with Doctor Light by making him a sadistic rapist, and fans started to hate him so much that they, well, had Superman kill him. Superman draws his powers from the sun. If you make him dark, you take away his strength (that's like, a metaphor, or something). I'm fine with Superman going up against dark circumstances, even being pushed to the edge and seeing something dark inside himself that he can never let out, but when you do let it out, you're telling every Superman fan that he is nothing special and they're stupid to look up to him or admire him in any way. And I'm not just talking about killing anymore, I'm taking on the whole cynical, angsty, whiny, modern, streamlined, dark, gritty, edgy, in-your-face, coattails-of-the-Dark-Knight Superman so many creators have tried to push on us and appease the Superman haters by waving him around and screaming, "SEE?! WE GOT RID OF ALL THAT STUPID, JUVENILE STUFF THAT MADE HIS FANS LIKE HIM! DO YOU LIKE HIM NOW?!" I don't need to see Superman lose control any more than I need to see Batman lose control. I don't need him to be darker, I don't need him to kill. Just because dark sells Batman comics doesn't mean it sells Superman comics. Just honor the fundamental core of a character. Batman would never kill, he doesn't. Superman would never kill, eeeeeh, we can let one or two slide. Batman is dark, he's dark. Superman is a light in the darkness, blow that sh!t out before we lose any more readers!

If killing people makes him dark and dark is interesting to everyone, then fine, I'm wrong and I'll go back to my corner without any more resistance. Obviously, dark works for Batman, so I guess, by making Superman kill, you're just trying to make him more like... Batman? Okay, now I'm really confused.

(This blog post originally appeared on my deviantART account: http://dalekrider123.deviantart.com/ )

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The Survivors

Thumping.

Scratching.

Starched sheets. A heartbeat. Proof of life. All that he needed, for now.

Or not.

"Doctor!" the nurse cried, running down the hall as he began ripping out the IV and the electrodes and, unfortunately, the catheter. "Doctor, he's awake!"

The door locked automatically. Whether it was for his protection or his imprisonment, he didn't know, and he didn't particularly care. Either way, he was of some importance to them, and worth either containing or protecting. No doubt, the glass was bulletproof. No matter. A few well-placed punches and kicks to soften it up and a barrage of strikes with the metal chair nearby to bring it down.

CRUNCH!

He cradled his fist. That wasn't right. It was supposed to hurt, but not like this, and the energy lingered in his metacarpals when it should have passed straight on into the glass. He rolled up the sleeve of his gown and felt his arm. He had assumed his trouble standing was the result of whatever drugs they had him on, but that was hardly the case. His muscles had withered. A layer of flab and loose skin, a meek excuse for a bicep, and then bone. He felt panic coming on. He wasn't in the right state of mind. Drugs in his system, a sudden, jarring burst of consciousness, confusing surroundings. He couldn't process it all, and he was having considerable trouble focusing his senses. Everything in the hospital sounded as if it was happening right there in the room with him. Where was his mask? Where was his bow? Where had the time gone?

A group of doctors and orderlies came rushing to his door and the presumed leader waited for him to stop savagely pounding the glass before he spoke, "Take it easy. I'm sure you're very confused."

"Where am I?!" the patient hissed, "Who are you people?!"

"You have many questions. I believe most of the answers lie with your friend."

"My... friend? I... I don't have any friends."

"Quite the opposite, actually. You were brought in as a John Doe, but whoever you are, my friend, you are will connected."

"What... what do you mean?"

"Well, why do you think you're receiving the best medical care in all of Bandari?"

The patient froze, processing. It had been a long time since he thought, it would seem. At least he had one answer covered.

The patient waited for hours before the 'friend' the doctor had spoken of arrived, and when he did, there was no more resentment or confusion or frustration left in him. It all fell away as a familiar, kind face walked through the door.

"Akube?"

"Yes, Paxton," he replied with a polite nod, removing his hat as he sat down, ever the diplomat. "When they called and told me you had woken up, I dropped everything. I had almost lost hope."

"Almost."

"Yes. But in the darkest hour, someone has to hold the torch."

"Is that from your next book?"

"I might squeeze it into one of my essays. But never mind that. The world has been asking questions about you for a long time. I'm sure you have some of your own."

"I... what... how long was I gone?"

Akube leaned forward in his chair, covering his mouth in his hands before he answered, "Three months."

"WHAT?!"

"It's okay... stay calm. I did my best to hold the world together while you were gone. I've been somewhat entwined in my country's affairs as of late, but your friends did not hesitate to step up and do their best to compensate for your absence."

"I don't have any friends."

"You continue to say that, yet you know it isn't so."

Paxton rubbed his bare, scarred scalp and let out a whisper like breaking glass, "Sam..."

"Ah..." Akube sighed, "She was not so easy to track down. And neither were you, which is the only reason she wasn't by your side every day."

"She must think I'm dead."

"Indeed, much of the world does. Do you remember anything of what happened?"

"I... I remember... the battle with Horizon and... the Facility. Chicago."

"That was some time earlier. Do you remember the plane crash, or the days leading up to it?"

"No... I... I don't remember any of that."

"I pray you never do."

Paxton's eyes narrowed, but he didn't want to delve into that. Not yet. He simply raised his arm and prodded the soft, quivering flesh. "I'm... weak."

"Only in body. If you wish to hang up your bow and simply work behind the scenes..." he trailed off as he caught an all too familiar glare, one of anger and passion, determination beyond mortality. "Right..." he sighed, "Worth a shot."

Akube helped Paxton out of the hospital and into his car. He refused the wheelchair. If he was going to reclaim his strength, he had to begin right out the door. They were taken to Akube's apartment, one of the cornerstones of his 'man of the people' image. Akube lead him into the guest room. "You can stay here until you're ready," he said, "It will take time."

"I've wasted enough time," Paxton said, standing straight despite the quivering in his knees, "Time to get to work."

He spent every day in the small weight room in the apartment. All day, every day, and still, despite his improvement, he felt as weak as the day that he had first woken up, as weak as the day he was born. One night, he walked out onto the balcony and climbed up on the railing. His chest and arms had regained some of their power, but nothing like they used to be. His legs were sturdy enough to hold perfect balance on the narrow, curved rail. The cold of the metal seared his feet. Sensation. It had been a long time. Below him, the world rushed by, a blur of business and pleasure and crime. It all rushed up towards him at once. He tried to focus, tried to find one sound in the swarm. A man and woman laughing. They were watching television. They had a dog. Focus. Finally, he could focus. Now, anything was possible.

He jumped down and went back inside, into his room. It was an interesting prospect to sleep regularly, but in recent weeks, he had slept more than enough. He grabbed his bow, examining it in the thin light of the moon. Still in perfect condition, despite some dust. He held it outstretched in his left hand, two fingers held gently against the string. He pulled, and... nothing. The string barely budged. He pulled harder, a little more give, but there was no point in trying. Long... no. He wasn't ready to call himself that. Not yet.

The next day, Akube came in, watching silently in the doorway of the weight room. He watched him struggle, sweat streaking his face, panting and fighting to keep going. He fell on his face and tried to push himself off the mat with his trembling, spindly arms. "I know you're there," he said, propping himself up on his elbows, "I don't want to be seen like this. I'm not ready."

"No, but I have something that can help." Akube held up a black harness that appeared to go around the chest and back with some sort of battery pack, and electrodes on various lengths of wire dangling down from it. "This device sends electrical impulses to important muscle groups throughout the body," he explained, "I use it when I'm recuperating. You can regain strength as you sleep, even wear it during your workout. It won't take care of everything, but it will expedite the process."

He wanted to refuse. He wanted to insist on doing it without assistance from machines, the right way. But then, he remembered how long he had been gone, how many people he hadn't been around to save, and he knew that there were more important things than his pride. He took it graciously and continued to wear it morning, noon, and night for the next two weeks.

Akube walked down the hall towards his apartment, his tie halfway undone. He hated wearing suits, but on major business that required him to make an impression, he submitted to the necessary evil of restricting clothes and ties that gave anyone who reached for it a handle wrapped around his neck. Perhaps he had grown too paranoid in recent years, or perhaps he was right on the mark. He unlocked the door, opened it, and found that he was, in fact, right on the mark. The arrow came flying directly for his face. He threw aside the keys and snatched the arrow out of the air, inches from his eye. He looked across the apartment at the shooter. Paxton lowered the bow and gave the rarest of expressions, a smile. "I'm ready."

Not Paxton. Longshot.

The costume fit just as it always had. Everything molded to him as if he had worn it yesterday. The quiver rested on his once again powerful shoulders. He felt as if he had just now stepped into his own skin. He turned and looked at Akube in the doorway. "How do I look?" he asked.

Akube smiled, "Like your old self." There was pride in his voice, but also a hint of sadness, something which it seemed was not meant to be heard.

The archer walked out into the living room, towards the wall of windows at the far end of the apartment.

"Where will you go?" Akube asked.

"I abandoned the entire world for three months. Wherever I go, I'll be put to use."

"After all this time... I don't know if they will accept you again."

"They never did. Besides, the whole world thinks I'm dead."

"What are you going to do?"

He turned and kept walking straight out the window. "Prove them wrong."

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Out There

Paxton stared up at the blinding white light. He had no choice but to stare at it. His eyelids had been pried open, and drips of saline fell into his aching eyes at a mercilessly slow rate. His entire body was surrounded by a framework of steel bars close enough that he could feel their cold bite against his skin, but they left just enough room for him to breathe. He was submerged halfway in shallow, murky water, even colder than the steel cage that encased him. He could hear feet sloshing through the shallow water in the darkness, coming toward him, and stopping just short of the light. Suddenly, their feet struck a dry, hard surface as the stepped atop one of the square concrete pillars that rose up in a perimeter around the cage. At the snap of calloused fingers, a current ran through the bars of the cage, the water coming alive with electricity. He convulsed and screamed and did everything he could not to bite off his tongue. The shock was cut off and his body went slack. He would twitch and whimper slightly, but he was simply grateful that it was over.

This cage had been the boy's entire world for the last twelve hours. His blonde hair was matted to his scalp by algae-thick water. His eyes had gone red. Weather it was from infection or barely restrained tears, he couldn't say. Leave it to the people who trained him to overcome pain to cut right through all of it to make him suffer. It was times like these when he wondered what regular fourteen year-old kids were up to. He had heard about school, but he had no idea what it was like. The thought of going home to a family every day, of leaving the place that trained you to live and go to a place filled with warmth and affection, was completely alien to him. He was one of the few Horizon assassins so fortunate as to know his own name. Not the title the Horizon handlers called him by from infancy, or the code name bestowed upon him when he completed his training, his name, his true, birth given name. It always made him think of the man he could have been, of what his parents might be like, of the life he could have had.

Instead, he was here, trained to kill on command from the only people in his life that he could call his family, a family that tortured him in the water for days over even the slightest transgression. A primary effect of this agonizing process was forcing the victim to reflect on how they got here, to poison their mind and associate any act of rebellion with this chamber of nightmares. And it worked.

Paxton wore the red jacket of his uniform. He had always considered it a bit reckless to wear an outfit featuring red and gold. It made him feel like a moving target, which simply reminded him how the emphasis fell on 'moving'. He wore a pair of black jeans and walked quietly along the cold tile floors barefoot. He kept his hands in his pockets, his eyes scanning the darkness. He passed through a narrow threshold into the western atrium, a massive stone chamber culminating in a glass dome. Water trickled from a fountainhead protruding from the wall on the opposite end of the room, running down a sloped path to a wading pool in the center of the atrium. He looked up at the night sky, stars shimmering up above in a magnificent spectacle. Obviously, he wasn't the only one who enjoyed the view.

A girl his age, short cropped black hair, dressed in her tight black, orange and dark purple uniform and a black sweatshirt thrown over it, sat at the edge of the pool with her legs folded, staring up at the stars. "So you made it back alright, Nikuya?" he called out. Somehow, the heightened senses they shared didn't pull her back down to Earth the very moment he entered the atrium. She simply gazed in wonder at the pristine night sky, finally turning and answering, "Oh, hey Paxton." She almost smiled, but neither of them had much practice with those muscles, "Yeah, I made it out, barely. Forty-seven guards in full body armor. Can you imagine? My swords are so dull, I had to hack through the target's spinal column." She paused and they both cringed. They should have been jaded by now, made callous by the blood they'd been forced to spill since their youth, but somehow, they both held on to a shred of sympathy while the others surrendered to ruthlessness all around them.

He sat down beside her, laying his palms flat on the floor behind him as he gazed up through the glass dome. She cocked her head in his direction, her eyes still fixed skyward as she whispered, "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

"It's not real." he replied in the same intimate tone. He didn't know why they leaned in towards each other when they spoke. They could each hear a whisper from a block away.

"What?" she asked.

"Don't you hear it? The low electrical hum?" he said, gesturing up to the glass ceiling, "Those are LED screens." That was the Horizon way. They weren't allowed the slightest glimpse of the world beyond the compound walls. Even when they were delivered to carry out an assignment, they were blindfolded until reaching the drop-off point. This was a level of deception that defied explanation.

"I know." she replied casually, "It just gives me something to hold on to. Something to believe in. Something that's real, even if it's only real to me."

Paxton felt her hand settle gently over his, or maybe it was the other way around. He couldn't really tell.

"I wonder what it's like out there." he murmured.

"What do you mean?"

"Ya know, what it's like to go to bed when you want, to step outside your house without a blindfold, to look up at real stars at night."

"It's not our place to think like that, Paxton." Nikuya sighed.

"I know..." he sighed, "But sometimes, wondering is all that keeps me sane."

"In that case, could... could you tell me something?"

Paxton stirred in his place slightly, furrowing his brow as he looked at her. "What do you wanna know, Nikuya?" he asked.

"Well... tell me what it's like to know your real name." she said nervously.

He glared down at the water for a moment, deep in contemplation as his heel lingered on the edge of the pool. "I don't really know..." he replied, "It doesn't have any meaning, at least, not anymore. All it really does is remind me that there's someone out there who misses me. It doesn't define me any more than 'Longshot', it just reminds me that in some small way, I might be... human."

"Someone who misses you..." Nikuya sighed,"I wish I knew what that felt like."

"Hey," Longshot whispered, resting his hand on her shoulder and forcing her to look into his eyes, "If you didn't come back from a job, I'd miss you." He knew from the second that the words left his mouth that he'd gone over the line. Brixby no doubt had the entire building bugged. Everything they had said already, about the outside world, families, it was all damning for them, but nothing was worse than forming an honest, sympathetic connection with a fellow assassin. They had been forced together into Brixby's twisted idea of a family, a brotherhood in every sense, but if an assassin confessed concern or care or love for one of their comrades outside of Brixby's strict standards for togetherness, it warranted excruciating torture. He could see in her eyes that she had already come to the same realization. She also knew, as he did, that they were already in the deep. No reason to stop now.

They drew closer to one another, eyes quavering shut. One final breath escaped their nostrils as their lips touched. Time passed without their knowing. They drifted apart again and fell flat with their backs against the floor. They lay together and watched the artificial sky until the ten minute warning for lights out rang in the air. It was all they had to look at together. It was all they had to share.

He woke up with the cold water ripping along his sides, splashing his face. The stench filled his nose. He had been in the cage for twelve hours, and from the number of offenses he and Nikuya had committed the night before, he knew it was only the beginning.

Paxton could hear them coming, he could smell them, but nothing could prepare him as a tube in the ceiling beyond the light flooded with rats, and they cascaded over him, tumbling through the cage bars and crawling all over him. Whiskered snouts probed his face, and the first adventurous rat took a bite of flesh from the underside of his chin. One by one, they began to nibble on him. As they flooded down the narrow corridors that encased his arms, he squeezed the life out of every vermin who dared crawl near his hands. Finally, as an act of both mercy and cruelty, another shock ran through the cage. His violent thrashing only gave the rats another reason to flee, those who hadn't been killed on contact with the metal framework.

"I expected better from you, Paxton." rang the familiar voice in the darkness, the man who made all of this possible. Brixby.

"Please..." the boy begged, voice quivering from exhaustion, starvation, hypothermia, and simple, visceral pain, "D-Don't hurt... Nikuya."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of it, Paxton." his feet moved gracefully from one concrete pillar to the next as he paced around Longshot. He had been standing near the archer's feet, but came to a stop at his side, looming over him with judgmental eyes that pierced the darkness. "She'll learn her lesson soon enough." There was a sound of rustling papers and suddenly, two photographs landed on the cage just above his face. They were a man and woman, each in their early forties, by the archer's estimate. The pictures had been taken in the street, and the signs in the background were written in Japanese. "I've been holding onto this contract for some time now," Brixby explained, almost savoring the words in his detached, sadistic way, "Her birth parents."

Longshot's eyes went bloodshot as he realized what Brixby was planning. "Yes, Paxton. The order was placed. I had to go out of my way to make sure they hired us, but it's always good to have something like this in your back pocket. She won't know who they are until after the job is done. Would you like to know who ordered the kill? His sister. Yes, it seems that there was quite a lot of inheritance after their mother's death, and it all went to him and his wife. That's the kind of family Nikuya would have grown up in had I not come along. We are a family, and not a family that betrays one another." Longshot could tell that Brixby leaned in over him as he whispered, "Know that what happens to her is because you decided to put our family at risk. Everything that happens to you is to remind you what will happen if you do it again."

Gears clashed and chains rattled as the cage was slowly pulled upright, coming to rest at an angle that left him leaning just slightly backward. He could hear a door open in the distance behind him as two handlers waded through the water, stepping up on pillars behind him. He heard Brixby walking away, and suddenly, a sharp fang bit into either side of his lower back. Polished metal needles ran through him. He gritted his teeth as they emerged through his abdomen. The handlers kept feeding the long needles through him, slowly. Blood pooled at the points and slowly dripped into the water at his feet. They pushed the needles to the very end, then pulled them the rest of the way through, streams of blood running from the exit wounds in his abdomen. They knew exactly where to place the needles so as to work around anything vital, and still achieve the most agonizing results.

Paxton was left in the cage for another three hours. All manner of horrors descended upon him in that time, each more grueling than the last. As he endured the torture, he thought of Nikuya, of what she was now destined to do, the atrocity she was doomed to carry out. His mind drifted back to the previous night, as they lay together on the cold floor of the atrium, hands locked together in an embrace they both knew was a death sentence.

"Nikuya..." he whispered, "If you knew that you could find your family, would you leave? I mean, knowing that the rest of us would hunt you down, if it just meant that you could find your real family, would you do it?"

Nikuya thought in silence, eyes tracing the constellations. "I don't know..." she replied, "This is all I know, Paxton. These people are the closest thing we have to a family. If the time comes when you decide you can't do this anymore, what will you do?"

Paxton crossed his hands and placed them under his head as he answered, with no lack of conviction or determination, "I'll run." He knew it would never happen, but it felt somehow liberating to say it, "I'll run, and never look back."

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Wake Up

Dull gray light spilled in through the window, landing on every surface. As the day grew brighter, the shadows grew darker. Longshot lay motionless in his bed, wrapped in twisted sheets. His mask was clenched tightly in his fist, despite the fact that he was fast asleep. This was the longest he'd slept in years, perhaps in his entire life. Obligation kept him out of bed, and nightmares chased him out of sleep. Today, however, he slept peacefully, without stirring or waking. This was a rest he did not deserve.

Finally, the archer's eyes drifted open, met with the red glare of his own eye, the pale gray of his true face. For a moment, he simply lay there, the cold Alaskan air penetrating the stone walls of the Beacon and embracing his skin, his scars, old and new. His chest and arms were wrapped in bandages, as were his face, legs, and fingers. A bitter, coppery stench filled the air. He must have rolled over in the night. His shoulder was bleeding again.

He forced himself up and put his feet to the cold floor. The second he put any weight on his right leg, he stumbled forward and had to steady himself on the dresser. He drew in slow, labored breaths and rose up, stepping lightly to the door, and into the hallway. He went up to the lounge and fell into one of the soft chairs beneath the glass pyramid. It had become too hard to stand. Recovery was slow. It was the only time in his life where he could ever allow himself to truly rest. He ignored the aches and the pains and the rumbling in his stomach and simply glared up at the cold, gray sky, becoming lost in its tranquil solemnity.

The peaceful silence came crashing down at the toll of his communicator. He answered and was met with the voice of one of his few confidants, one of his only friends. "Hey, Longshot." said Melissa over the line. Her voice had lost its usual levity in recent days. She couldn't joke or call him nicknames. Not now. Not after what happened in Boston. "Just calling to see how you're holding up."

"I'm doing fine, Melissa." he sighed.

"You said that at the funeral. You're not fine. Talk to me, please."

"There's nothing to talk about." Longshot replied, "I have the deaths of a hundred and forty-six people on my conscience. I know how to deal with grief. I can cope."

"I don't want you to cope, Paxton!" Melissa exclaimed, authority building in her voice, "I don't want you to deal, I don't want you to get by. I want... I want you to be okay. You've given too much to the world to fall apart like this because you're too proud to ask for a hand. Please... let me help you."

"I couldn't save Olivia..." Longshot whispered, sinking deeper into his chair, deeper into shadow, "I'm just as responsible as Cain."

"No!" Melissa cut in, "The second you start blaming yourself, there's no coming back from it."

"I know." the archer whispered. He could hear her announce that she was coming to the Beacon just as he switched off his communicator and typed a code into his teleporter console that blocked her from using the teleportation network. He rose up and limped to the elevator.

The door at the base of the Beacon opened slowly and Longshot staggered out into the deep snow, zipping up his red jacket and clipping the straps of his quiver across his chest. He took up his bow and aimed for a tree standing a few rows back in the forest. There was a scar in the bark in the shape of a target. He let slip his arrow and it struck right on the bullseye, wedging into a notch carved by dozens of arrows before it. Easy. He could do it with his eyes closed. Still, he kept shooting. He didn't know why, he couldn't even count the shots, but the world seemed to blur as he emptied his quiver. Memories fell away and the pain began to dull. Suddenly, an arrow flew past its target, missing the tree by a wide margin, and Longshot froze in his place. He drew another arrow and shot. It hit the tree, eleven inches outside the target. He put another arrow to the string and pulled back with the same mechanical process he had gone through a million times before. His eye narrowed as he stared down the length of the shaft, zeroing in on his target. It had to fly true. This was the only thing left in the world that he could be certain of, that he never missed. It had to fly true. It just had to. He held his breath and... the arrow flew deep into the forest, missing the tree entirely.

A cold plume of mist billowed from Longshot's lips as he lowered his bow, holding it down at his side. He covered his face in his hand, clearing his head before he trudged forward to retrieve his arrows. As he lowered his hand, he caught a glimpse of something in his peripheral vision. He looked and saw a girl standing in the white of winter, eyes as black as coal. Her clothes were a grim shade, a hood casting treacherous shadows across her face. Still, the archer could make out strands of black hair swaying in the frozen wind. He couldn't smell her. He couldn't hear her, not her heartbeat, not the wind breaking around her, not even the blinking of her eyes. A question formed on his lips just as the girl broke into a run, vanishing into the forest. Not even her footfalls made a sound in the fresh snow.

"Wait!" he cried out, racing after her. There was no way he could keep up with her in his condition, even if the path was clear of snow. Still, he managed to stay on her trail until he reached a clearing, surrounded on all sides by proud evergreens frosted by unending winter. There she stood, on the very edge of the clearing., silent as before. "Who... who are you?" he dared.

Slowly, the girl reached up and pulled the hood down around her shoulders. Longshot could feel icy fingers squeeze around his heart at the sight of her. He struggled through the almost knee deep snow towards her, reaching out as if to catch smoke. He fell at her feet, begging at a whisper as he choked back tears, "Please... please, don't leave me." He reached out desperately to touch her, to feel something real, but his hand passed only through cold, empty air. "DON'T LEAVE ME!" he cried into the desolate woods. He looked up to see that no one was there.

Longshot closed his eyes.

He could feel the searing heat slithering in through the window, all the smells and sounds of New York in the summer accompanying it. He opened his eyes to find himself sitting on the couch of the old apartment, the place where he had raised Olivia for nearly three years. He heard tiny little pellets rattling inside a bowl, he smelled processed sugar and milk. Over the cereal, he heard something else, something that had brought a steadiness and peace to his world, something he had been without for a long time. A heartbeat. A strong heartbeat. Olivia's heartbeat. The archer glared over his shoulder to see if it was true. There she was, twelve years old, shoulder-length raven hair tangled and askew, dark rings around her eyes, wreaking of starched bed sheets and cheap toothpaste. He practically leaped over the couch to get to her. "Olivia?" he whispered in astonishment.

"Yeah?" she replied awkwardly, shoving a spoonful of cereal in her mouth.

"Is it... is it really you?" he asked.

"Who else could it be?" she shrugged, "Besides, I thought you could identify smells and heartbeats like a fingerprint. You shouldn't need to ask."

"No..." he sighed in bewilderment, leaning against the refrigerator, "No, I guess I shouldn't."

The archer drew in a long, slow breath and walked up behind Olivia. "Hey." he whispered. She spun around on the stool and looked up at him with a quizzical look. He simply put his arms around her and murmurred, "I love you, Olivia. And I missed you... so much."

"Um... are you okay?" she asked, obviously uncomfortable.

He backed away. "I'm fine." he answered, "Go get ready for school." She hopped down, put her bowl in the sink, and went into her bed room. Longshot leaned against the island counter. There was a splash of milk on the counter. She always did spill a little bit. He heard the door open around the corner. A heavy boot struck the hardwood floor. There was a hiss of tired old hinges and the door clicked shut in tandem with another thundering step. A dark figure passed into his field of vision, a large man clad in body armor, strapped from head to toe in weapons, with a black mask drawn across his face, a white skull printed over the front. He needed no introduction. Longshot already knew who it was. "What are you doing here?!" the archer bellowed, but the intruder paid no attention to him, as if he weren't even there. He simply kept walking at an even pace, eyes locked on his destination, Olivia's bedroom. Longshot jumped over the kitchen counter and snatched his bow before his feet hit the floor on the other side. He swung the bow, aimed straight for the intruder's jaw, but it passed right through.

Longshot paused for a moment, dumbstruck, and attacked again with the same effect. Finally, the man in black simply passed through him and took hold of the doorknob, flinging open the door and walking inside. Before Longshot could follow after him, the door slammed shut of its own will. He hardly noticed, but the light of the room had faded from a morning glow to a chilling aura of red. His eyes went bloodshot as he heard her scream, "PAXTON!"

Before she could even finish calling his name, he was at the door. Locked. Without thinking, he punched through the door and opened it from the inside. "Get away from her!" he cried, but it was too late. The man in black climbed out the window, and he dragged Olivia by the ankle behind him. Something was different about her. She looked to be about fifteen years old, and she was no longer dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt. She wore a gray hoodie, jeans, fingerless gloves, and black work boots. She screamed as the hand around her ankle dragged her further out of her room. Her body now dangled halfway out the window. Longshot wanted to spring forward and save her, but when he looked down, he saw that his feet were stapled to the floor. He could hear her screams. She was all the way out the window, only hanging on by a tenuous grip on the windowsill. With a wince of pain, he ripped his feet up around the nails and dove for the window, taking her by the hand just before she fell. By now, the whole world was bathed in ominous red.

Olivia stared up at him, face frozen in fear and desperation. She had never needed him before, or at least, never admitted to it or asked for his help, but the dread in her eyes said it all, and Longshot knew that he couldn't fail.

The girl grew heavier in his hand. He couldn't reach down with his other hand, or they would both fall. He kept pulling, and her fingers dug into his arm so hard that blood flowed down the length of her hand. Finally, there was one last, harsh tug and she slipped. He cried out, but she was already falling. The ground was not made of unforgiving asphalt and concrete. Instead, the building grew tremendously higher and the ground far, far below consisted of crowds of people, faces stained in blood, reaching up and clambering for their newest sacrifice. He could recognize every one of them. These were the faces he saw every time he closed his eyes. These hordes were the people he murdered.

Now, Olivia fell down, into their bloody masses, and all he could do was watch from his high perch, helpless, as they looked up at him, as they begged and screamed. One last time, he cried, "OLIVIA!"

The archer shot up in bed, beads of sweat slithering down his face. He panted and stared into the darkness until he could bring himself to fall back in bed, only to toss and turn and hear the echoes of the nightmare in his mind. He couldn't save them. He couldn't save her.

"Paxton..." whispered a voice in his ear. He knew the voice. It had once been a comfort in his life, but now, it was only the sign of a nightmare. "It's time to wake up."

The bowman dared open his eyes and saw Olivia sitting across from him in the living room of the apartment, snow building up around the skylight. "What do you mean?" he asked, scratching the back of his neck.

"You need to wake up and move on." Olivia answered.

"What?" the archer got up from his seat and knelt beside her, resting his hands on her shoulders, "What do I have to wake up to? You're here."

"No, Paxton." she said sternly, "I'm gone."

"That... no, that... it was just a nightmare."

"Life can be a nightmare sometimes, Paxton. But you have to wake up and face it. If you get knocked down, you dust yourself off and get back up. If you get scared, you put on a brave face and get through it." She smiled faintly, "A great man taught me that."

Longshot held Olivia close and whispered to her, "I can't lose you again."

She answered in kind, "You won't." He could feel her fading away, the world growing darker around him, but just before she went, she left him with these words, "Thanks for saving me."

"Time to wake up."

"Just wake up."

His eyes opened and a blur above his head slowly sharpened into the face of Melissa Hannigan. "You thought I couldn't figure out the override code on the teleporter?" she posed, "I'm gonna pull you out of this, whether you want my help or not. Now, are you ready to get up?"

Paxton wiped his tired eyes as he answered, "Yeah... I think I am." He threw off the covers and slowly eased himself out of bed. Melissa put his arm over her shoulder to help him walk to the elevator. It was bound to be a beautiful day.

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The Lost One, Part V

Longshot sat in a place devoid of light. The only sounds were the rustling of loose papers, the wind coming in through the window, and his own heart beat. He sat with his hands folded, his heel pounding restlessly against the floor. He stared across the room at the picture of Cain, stuck to the wall by a pin through his forehead. Every time that he hunted down a murderer, he had the urge to fall into old habits, the simple instinct begging him to take a life, but his better judgement had always guided him, his sense of right and wrong told him that he didn't really want to do it, but this was the first time where even his judgement was consumed by hate. This was the first time he truly, truly, wanted blood.

His thoughts were plagued by the image of a bloodied corpse, maimed in the same way Olivia had been. Every fiber of his being desired to crucify Cain and feed him to the dogs. And yet, as much as rage filled him, as much as bloodlust poisoned his heart, he felt weak. Every memory of Olivia weakened him more, until he couldn't even muster the strength to rise from his seat. This was it. Cain had succeeded in his task. Olivia's blood had done what no bullet or knife or bomb ever had in their two man war. Cain had finally beaten him.

TWO YEARS AGO

Olivia was reading on the couch in the late afternoon. Her relationship had been strained the last couple months, since she tried to run away. The time he spent in New York had become less and less frequent. Most times, she would only see him one day out of the week, and whenever she did, he had an air of disappointment. He seemed tired, tired of trying to help her, tired of being responsible for someone so keen on self destruction. He was tired of her.

She turned as she heard something fall in the other room. She could hear the wind coming in through the window, and something writhing on the hardwood floor, dragging itself towards the door. The knob rattled and slowly turned, and Olivia watched in horror as the door opened, and Paxton was left standing on trembling legs, blood staining his gold and black crest. It ran down his arm, trickling from his fingertips onto the floor. His right shoulder had been torn open. The protective fabric of his jacket was frayed and ripped, the carbon fiber plating beneath pierced and dismantled. There was a long gash in his left leg and there was a bullet hole in his stomach. His eyepiece was cracked, and the red light was flickering out. He raised a trembling hand and pulled the mask from his face. Blood was trickling down his lip. He spit a tooth into his hand and slapped it down on the kitchen counter just before toppling to the floor.

"Paxton!" Olivia screamed, jumping over the couch and running to his side. He sat with his back against the counter, drawing in heavy, labored breaths as he bled out on the floor. She knelt beside him and asked, still in shock, "What happened? Who did this?"

"H-Horizon assassins... Ace and Kroll. Couldn't... AGH! KAFF! KAFF! Couldn't fight them. Didn't stand a chance. Had to get the fight away from civilians. Lucky to get away." He opened a pouch on his belt and pulled out a rectangular yellow box labeled FIRST-AID. It fell from his shaking fingers before he could open it. Olivia picked up the box and opened it, frantically pouring out the contents on Longshot's lap. He undid his quiver with his left arm and she helped him ease of his jacket. She took a pair of scissors from the kitchen counter and cut open the blood sucked black t-shirt. She had stitched her own wounds when she was little, she knew how, but she had never gotten a wound like the one on his shoulder before. Kroll used a set of steel claws to rend the flesh into ribbons. She clamped her hand down on the bullet wound and slapped a temporary bandage over it to stop the bleeding while she dealt with the more severe injury. Her hands were starting to shake. Her eyes turned red and teared up as she began her panicked attempt at stitching the wound.

He screamed, but she kept working. She dabbed the torn skin and cleaned it out, then continued. When she was done, she started on his leg. His skin had gone pale. He was loosing blood, and she simply wasn't fast enough. Her hand slipped as she was working and Paxton took hold of it, holding it tight despite the trembling of oncoming shock. "Olivia..." he began, "Look at me. Come on, look at me!" he forced her to look him in the eye as he continued, "I'm not... not gonna make it. I need you to--"

"No, you'll be fine! You're gonna!"

"Olivia, listen to me! For once in your life, listen!" he drew in a deep breath, the words to come just as painful as his broken body, "I've watched you... for two years... and I know that you hate me for forcing you to live a life you don't want, but the only reason I did it was to protect you. I care about you, Olivia. I love you."

"I love you too, Paxton..." she whispered wiping her eyes. She held him close and whispered tearfully to him, "Please don't go. Please.... don't leave me alone again. I don't wanna go back. I don't wanna go. I'll never fight again, I promise, just please... don't go."

"I have to go..." Paxton sighed, his breath running thin, "But I'm so proud of you, Olivia." He wiped the tear from her cheek, "Don't cry. I've had this coming for a long time. I'm just... I'm just glad that I found someone who'll miss me... someone who cared enough to try and save me, like I tried to save them." his eyes fluttered and closed. His breathing slowed. His muscles went lax.

"You didn't try to save me, Paxton." Olivia replied, "You saved me. No matter how much I pushed you away, you didn't give up on me... so I won't give up on you. I'm not going to let you die. You've never given up, now fight! FIGHT!" she kept stitching his wounds. She dug out the bullet and bandaged him up.

Olivia rose to her feet, hands still dripping with blood as she called out to him. "Get up..." she begged, "Get up and FIGHT!"

The archer's eyes shot open, breaking his dream like solemnity. He stared straight across at the image of Cain. He rose to his feet, shouldered his quiver, pulled on his mask, and ripped the picture from the wall before jumping out the window. The hunt was on, and he knew exactly where to look.

Only a short time later, the bowman's shadow descended upon the old meat packing plant. The air was still filled with blood and bad omens. The door groaned on rusty old hinges and Longshot stood there, shoulders bathed in the cold gray light of the evening, the same light that fell through the cracked, dusty old skylights and landed on Cain. He stood in the center of the wide open factory floor, all of the abandoned old machines pushed off to the walls. He was armed to the teeth, and knew exactly what he had brought down upon himself. "Right on time." he said. Longshot was still. His fists tightened and he simply stared into his foe.

"Ya know, archer..." said Cain, drawing a flask and unscrewing the lid, "Where I'm standing, EXACTLY where my feet are planted, is the spot where yer darlin' Olivia died." Longshot's teeth grated together and his eyes narrowed as Cain put the flask to his lips. He wiped his mouth and said with a wicked grin, raising the metal flask high, "Cheers." He poured out the rest of the contents on the cold concrete around his feet, tossing the empty container aside. He never broke eye contact. He simply returned Longshot's infernal gaze until the archer ran straight at him. He had no concern for his safety, no thought of a plan. He simply jumped into the air and kicked Cain in the ribs. The murderer rolled with the attack and landed at a crouched position. "So it's like that, then." he growled, reaching for his weapon with a smile, "Fine by me."

The Malicious Marksman drew his signature dual CZ75 pistols and took aim, unleashing fully automatic hell upon him. The archer skillfully weaved around his opponent's aim, dodging behind the control box of an old machine that rattled as its hollow frame was filled with bullets. As Cain's ammunition was exhausted, he jumped into the air, firing two arrows into the barrels of the guns. He landed atop the rusty old machine and drew another arrow. The twang of his taught bowstring echoed through the still, empty air of this decrepit place. The arrow sailed on its course, flying without fail towards Cain's right shoulder. Cain quickly tossed aside his uselss CZ75's and grabbed his backup, an M9 handgun. He did a quick barrel roll behind a crate of preservatives, the arrow passing just out of reach of his face and striking the protective barrier of the wooden box. The firm grip of his M9 practically fused to his hand as he shot off a few rounds at a rafter board above Longshot. The bullets splintered the old, termite ridden wood and a large section of it fell straight down at Longshot.

The archer dove down onto the conveyor belt, rolling down the line as the wooden beam crashed into where he was standing. Before the archer could even jump to his feet, he attached an explosive cartridge to an arrowhead and fired it into the wooden box, obliterating it on contact. Preservatives spewed out and rained down onto the floor. Longshot rose to his feet and waited, his keen eyes searching for Cain in the wreck.

There was nothing. He listened for Cain's heartbeat. He was moving. The smells, the dim lighting, and the awkward acoustics of the structure could be blamed for his inability to pinpoint the murderer, but it would be a lie. His rage overpowered him. His resolve was shattered by his hatred. His heartbeat pounded in his head, boiling blood pumping through him. Suddenly, Cain sprung out of the shadows, giving Longshot only enough warning to turn and face him. He hadn't even the time to evade or counter his attacker, and was tackled off the conveyor belt, landing hard on the floor. The glimmer of a knife caught his eye and the archer rose his right arm, stopping Cain just before he plunged the knife into him with lethal intent.

The two struggled back and forth seemingly without end. A vein bulged from the Irishman's neck as he forced the blade down. Longshot was only able to slow him as he forced the knife into him. It pressed painfully into him. It hadn't yet pierced his durable jacket, but he could feel the sharp point digging in already. Taking a roll of the dice, Longshot pulled his left hand away from the struggle and swung with a swift, precise, and devastating jab at Cain's ribs.

Cain fell to the floor in shock, but quickly recovered, rising to one knee. He drew a mini-uzi from his coat, one of the only weapons he had left, and sprayed hot lead wildly at Longshot. Bullets peppered the walls, boxes and machines behind and around their intended target. The archer rolled out of his path and snatched the knife left on the concrete floor. Two bullets hit his quiver as he rolled across the floor, shielding him from a much worse fate, but two more hit his left arm. The first struck the carbon fiber plate in his upper arm, piercing it and digging into his flesh. The second shot found hardly any opposition as it grazed his forearm, taking a fair piece of him with it. As the archer reached a safe place beneath the conveyor belt, he sprung up on the other side and cast the knife with absolute precision at Cain. Before the knife even completed its flight, Longshot jumped up onto a box, leaping to the top of a higher stack and finally, vaulted to the top of a wooden beam. Looking down on the factory floor, he raised his right arm, preparing to fire his grapple line at Cain to pull him into the air.

The Irishman's laughter was interrupted as he ducked the knife just barely. Cain looked around, searching for his hidden foe. "C'mon, Robin Hood!" he cackled devilishly into the shadows, "Are ya just afraid of some f**kin' mick with a gun?!" He was cut short as the hook caught itself under his clothes. Within an instant, the line went taught and he was pulled off of the ground. His feet kicked wildly in an attempt to find solid ground, but he found nothing, and instead, unleashed the hidden blades under his wrists, slicing the line that held him. He was sent plummeting back to the ground. Thankfully he landed in a pile of rotting debris, completely unharmed. He laughed with joy as he patted himself off, "Ohhhh Longshot...when will you learn? I don't think you understand, you motherf**ker."

Cain's eye caught the whiskey lying on the floor. He grabbed a zippo lighter and some of the smoldering pieces of wood from the crushed boxes. He quickly lit the whiskey he had poured out aflame and piled on the scraps of wood, starting a small bonfire. "Longshot..." he said, peering up into the dark rafters where his enemy lurked, "This's yer last chance to come down and let me put you out of yer mise-" he fell silent as a tiny steel disk flew down, grazing his cheek. He wiped the small amount of blood on the back of his hand and looked at it in disbelief. "No deal, then?" he asked rhetorically, looking up as he bellowed, "Okay! BURN MOTHERF**KER! BURN!" The Irishman laughed as he took a piece of flaming wood and brandished it as a makeshift torch, whipping it into the rafters. I

A hand shot out of the darkness and caught the torch. It was flung to the ground, cracking in half and fading into embers. Longshot jumped down from the rafters, landing straight down in the fire. He rose up, still standing in the midst of the flames. His red eyepiece reflected the flickering heat as he stared down his enemy with an unblinking, vengeful gaze. He reached out and took Cain by the collar, pulling him in towards the hungry fire. The Irishman struggled to get free as the flames licked at his legs. His boots held out the fire, but they wouldn't for long, and his pants would catch if he didn't hurry. He took the archer by the collar of his jacket and rammed his head into his nose. Longshot let go of Cain, falling back against a machine. A lever on the side of the old relic was caught in one of the straps of his quiver and the conveyor belt started up, old components whirring to life and shaking off years of dormancy. The machine sputtered and groaned, but it did its job still.

Longshot felt his airways clog with blood and his cheeks begin to swell. His nose was broken. Still, he sensed Cain coming and dodged just as a fist slammed into the side of the machine, denting the metal paneling.

The bowman took Olivia's murderer by the throat and slammed him down on the now moving conveyor belt. He jumped up and knelt over his enemy, his hands tightening around Cain's throat. As Cain gasped for air, trying to pry the archer's hands from around his throat, he couldn't help but wonder if he had broken his enemy, driven him over the edge. He had, and it was time to pay the price. Were he not blinded by rage, Longshot would have seen the dust coated old counter between the wall and the conveyor belt that they were fast approaching, and the haphazard cluttering of assorted cutlery which rested on top of it.

Cain, however, did see the old cutting tools. In his time with the I.R.A., he had learned to always keep an eye on his surroundings, and unlike Longshot, he had no distractions, just a clear, simple urge to kill. His hand shot out, snatching a butcher's knife. He made a quick stab for Longshot's head, but the archer deflected the attack, the knife rattling to the floor as his clamp around Cain's windpipe grew tighter.

Suddenly, his eyes went wide. His jaw dropped. His hands loosened from around Cain's throat and ventured to his lower back, feeling the cold steel of a meat hook buried deep inside him. There was a harsh twist of the hook and the archer couldn't conceal his pain anymore. He howled to the rafters and Cain smiled, drawing in long, labored breaths. "Feelin' alright, Olivia?" he jested in a dry, raspy tone, "Oh, I'm sorry... I meant Longshot. Ya scream just like her... like a stuck whore." Cain's manipulation was brought to an abrupt end as Longshot's fist crashed into his cheek. Despite the agonizing wound in his back, the hook still in him, Longshot raised his fist again. This time, it pounded into the conveyor belt as Cain jerked his head to the side.

The dark haired madman took hold of Longshot's arm before he could pull it back with his rough, calloused hand, and, just before the table was completely out of reach, he grabbed a small filleting knife and drove it into the archer's abdomen. Blood erupted from his mouth, seeping through the fabric of his mask. The knife was stalled by his durable jacket, but another thrust forced it in all the way to the hilt. Longshot let out a string of empty exclamations and toppled from the conveyor belt, landing hard on the floor.

With only a moment's preparation, he ripped the knife from his stomach, crying out in pain as he slid the blade across the room. Blood seeped between his fingers, pouring from the wound. There was also the whole in his lower back due to the hook. His head was spinning. He looked across the room from his position curled up on the floor, lip trembling as he reached out, clawing at the concrete and dragging his limp body across the floor. A trail of blood was smeared all along his path. He finally came to rest, gasping for air, and took hold of his bow once again. He rolled over on his back and shot across the factory, aiming to skewer Cain's hand.

Cain jumped down off the conveyor belt and was surprised by the arrow coming at him. Still, he utilized his impeccable reflexes and accuracy to take up the butcher knife again, using it in an attempt to chop the arrow in half. He failed and faltered into the path of the arrow, turning the target from his hand to his torso. The arrowhead sliced through his body armor with ease. He let out another sadistic laugh as he glared down at the shaft protruding from his gut. "C'mon..." he was interrupted as vomit burst from his mouth and splattered on the floor. Blood and vomit spilled out in a revolting mess.

"Hey... archer... guess what?" Cain wiped the blood from his lip as he spoke, "I knew you'd come lookin' for me here...so I prepared ahead 'a time..." Cain chuckled painfully, stumbling over to a wooden crate. He smashed it open with his fist and pulled out a USP.45 pistol with one magazine. "Say cheese Longsh*t!" Without any further delay Cain unleashed a hail of hot lead with the USP, hoping to get a hit on Longshot. A bullet struck the gold and black crest joining the leather straps that crossed Longshot's chest, cracking it. As the archer rolled along the floor, his quiver stayed behind. He ducked under the conveyor belt and waited out his enemy. After Cain emptied his clip, he fell to the ground, writhing in pain.

The archer's hand reached out of the shadows and he clawed his way back out onto the factory floor. He rose up on a weak and beaten frame, a rusty crowbar in his hand. He limped across the plant and his shadow came to rest over the tired, bleeding body of Cain O'Panell.

"Get up." the archer commanded. He got no response from the Irishman. "I SAID GET UP!" He bellowed, raising the crowbar and swinging it hard into Cain's rib cage. He let out a painful, bloody cough and curled up like a wounded dog. The crowbar touched the floor, Longshot's weak hand no longer able to hold it up. He took hold of Cain by his shirt and lifted him to his knees. The murderer's eyes were closed, his head hanging limp on his shoulders. His hair was matted to his scalp by blood. "On your goddamn feet." Longshot snarled, "I'm not finished with you yet."

Cain was silent.

Longshot shook his enemy to force him to respond.

"Sorry, archer..." Cain replied with a faint grin, cracking one eye as he pulled a Smith and Wesson .35 pistol from the cuff of his boot and pressed it to the archer's shoulder, "One more." He squeezed and the bullet burst through Longshot's shoulder. He screamed and pushed Cain back, staggering across the room and rolling onto the conveyor belt. He slowly rose to his feet and turned to see Cain climbing up on the conveyor belt behind him, the gun in one hand, the crowbar in the other. He limped along the moving conveyor belt, his enemy coming up behind him. "Don't you walk away from me!" Cain howled, hooking the crowbar around his ankle and pulling it from under him. Longshot toppled down and rolled onto his back to see the Irishman, eyes burning, lungs flaring as he raised the crowbar high above his head. "Nobody walks away from Cain O'Panell! You hear me?!" Before he could swing, he was struck in the chin by the heel of Longshot's boot.

Despite the unavoidable pain he was in, Longshot rose to his feet and punched the sore spot on Cain's ribs where the crowbar had hit. "I'm not walking away, Cain." the archer answered coldly, "And neither are you." He delivered a sharp kick to the side of Cain's leg, almost breaking his knee, but he was too weak to follow through. Cain swung his arm wide, aimed at Longshot's temple, but the hunter ducked and sprung back up, punching the Irishman in the cheek. The two struggled for the upper hand as the conveyor belt carried them around the plant, but neither could. They fought a seemingly endless stalemate. Longshot had his hands around Cain's throat, and the Irishman clawed frantically at the archer's face. He ripped off a piece of Longshot's mask, revealing his teeth, clenched tight in a perpetual scowl.

He stomped down on Longshot's foot, grinding his heel in deep, and punched low, right under the bowman's rib cage. Longshot staggered back and reached up, taking hold of the bottom rung of a shaky old ladder. He began to climb up and heard Cain laughing at him from below. "What do ya think yer doin'?" he chuckled, letting the conveyor belt take him to the ladder and climbing up after Longshot, "You're not the man ya once were, archer! I made you hurt, and now, yer broken. Ya can't fight. Ya got no reason to. Ya got no reason to fight, 'cause I took her from ya! There's nowhere left to run. Just accept the end with dignity. Make yer girl proud for once."

Longshot rolled up onto the catwalk, blood trickling down through the metal grate that supported him. The rhythmic rattling of the entire catwalk told him that Cain was fast approaching the top. "Come on. Now, yer just pissin' on my fun." Cain groaned, "It's over. Ya got no more tricks up yer sleeve."

"Actually, Cain... I have one more trick." said Longshot. As Cain reached the top of the catwalk, he wound up staring into the barell of his own .35, and Longshot's unwavering anger as he placed his finger on the trigger, "It's called sleight of hand."

The Irishman stared in disbelief, his eyes moving back and forth between the gun and the man who, despite every moral opposition, aimed it at his forehead. "That... is... adorable!" Cain laughed, "Archer, I live in a world of depravity, betrayal and violence. As such, I've prepared for any eventuality that could result in my demise. In other words, I never discard a loaded weapon. I needed one shot to put you in the red, and that's all I put in the gun. Nice try." Longshot tossed the gun down to the factory floor and lifted Cain by his throat, shattering the window behind him and holding the Irishman over the edge.

Cain looked down at the harsh asphalt far below and forced a grin. "You're really gonna do it, aren't ya?" he asked, "She really dug that deep into ya? Why? What did she ever do to earn any love from ya? There's a reason she couldn't stay away from a fight, archer, an' it's the same reason you shouldn't be so torn up about her death. In the end, she was just... like... me."

Longshot could feel his grip loosen as Cain's words reached his ears. He and his foe stared into each other. His fingers were frozen in place, but every thought he had was to let go, let go and deliver Cain to the fate he had made for himself. Cain kept his cracked, bloody lips contorted into a smile, daring Longshot to grant him death. To prove him right.

Just as he was about to drop his enemy, Longshot was bombarded by memories of the girl he once knew, the girl Cain had taken from him. If he gave in, if he killed Cain, he would mutate every lesson he had passed on to Olivia into a lie. Against the insurmountable tides of primal anger, Longshot threw Cain to the catwalk. He screamed and pounded the concrete wall with his fists, drowning out the sound of Cain's insults.

Police cruisers pulled in around the building and officers flooded in. They found Cain laying face down on the catwalk. Longshot sat on the rafters, watching in silence as they handcuffed Cain and dragged him outside. His mask was crumpled in his hand, his eyes glazed, his expression empty and cold. As the officers left, Detective Rafferty walked in, standing amidst blood and arrows and empty shells. He looked around at the evidence of chaos past, and turned as Longshot climbed down from the catwalk to meet him.

"Which one 'a you guys picked the venue?" Rafferty asked, taking the cigarette from his mouth.

"Cain's the one who killed Olivia Markopolos." Longshot replied, limping towards the detective, "You won't have any luck interrogating him, but he may be willing to betray the people who organize the tournament."

"Nah," Rafferty shrugged, "We're gettin' a lot outta that bookie you handed over to us. If we're lucky, we'll have the case wrapped up by next week."

"Good..." Longshot looked out the front door as they forced Cain's head down and pushed him into the back of a cruiser, "And what about him?"

"Well, there's not really much we can pin him with. There's no hard evidence that he killed anybody in the tournament, and I'm not sayin' he didn't, but there's just no case against him. We could probably get him for possession of unlicensed firearms, but there's really no conviction we can make that'll stick. I think he's gonna walk."

"He'll always walk." Longshot whispered resentfully as the cruisers pulled out and drove off. "I'll see you around detective."

"Hey, I don't like it either, red!" the detective called out as Longshot walked for the door, "But that's the way it has to be. No matter what he did to your girl, he'll be back out on the street in forty-eight hours."

Longshot paused. He glanced over his shoulder at Detective Rafferty. "I know." he answered, continuing through the door, "And I'll be waiting."

THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, U.N. METAHUMAN AFFAIRS HEADQUARTERS

Rows of chairs were set up on the deck of the ship, a decorated coffin resting at the bow. Melissa had been kind enough to claim the body. She delivered the eulogy, despite never having met or even heard of Olivia until four days ago. They were inspiring words, poetic words, and she began to tear up near the end, not for the loss, but for the man who felt it more than any of them. Members of the Champions and the Knights of Dawn were in attendance, along with others whom the archer had met over the years. Longshot sat near the back, looking blankly to the front. They each turned in their chairs to face him, to give him a pat on the back or an sympathetic gaze. None of them had anything to say. Akube sat in the front row, his hat in his hands and his head bowed in reverence.

"And now, we'll hear some closing words from the man who knew Olivia best." Melissa said, removing her beret and placing it over her heart as she stepped aside. Longshot rose from his seat. He didn't wear his costume, his quiver, or his mask. Instead, he wore a black suit with soft leather gloves and a plain black mask. He moved at a slow pace down the aisle, every eye on him. He kept his gaze locked on the front, on the polished mahogany box that held the body of Olivia. He reached the front and turned to face the crowd.

The archer cleared his throat and pulled a folded paper from his pocket. Trembling fingers tried to open the paper. He didn't have the will to memorize his speech. He looked down at the wrinkled paper in his hands, at the words which would summarize everything Olivia was, everything she would never have the chance to be. He paused. In his silence, only the rhythmic breathing of the ocean could be heard.

Finally, with another clearing of his throat, Longshot began, "Olivia was..." he stopped.

The man in black turned from the crowd and leaned against the coffin, the paper crumpling in his hand. "I'm sorry, I can't." he sobbed. The masked man stumbled away, finally falling to his knees off and away from the coffin and the prying eyes. Akube, Melissa, and a few others ran to his aide. They kept their distance, not wanting to upset him. He cried quietly and turned as one of them reached out to comfort him. "She was my daughter." he whispered. They closed their eyes and backed away. They simply let him cry.

ONE YEAR, TEN MONTHS AGO

Longshot sat on the couch of the New York apartment, his arm in a sling. He saw Olivia open the door and step out of her bedroom. She held a suitcase in her hand. "What are you doing?" Longshot asked innocently.

"I'm leaving, Paxton." she replied.

Longshot jumped up and walked into her path as she walked for the door. "What do you mean you're leaving?" Longshot asked.

"I can't stay here anymore." the girl answered, "I'm leaving to live with a family in Philidelphia."

"Why?"

"I can't keep being your responsibility, Paxton. You already saved me. It's time to go rescue someone else. Besides, this city has too many memories. I need to get away from here."

"Alright..." Longshot whispered. He was taken by surprise as Olivia dropped her case and wrapped her arms around him.

"I'll never forget what you taught me." Olivia said, "I'll never forget you. And... I'm not gonna disappoint you. I promise."

Longshot hugged her back and rolled up his mask, kissing her on the forehead. "Goodbye, Olivia." he whispered lovingly.

She closed her eyes and nuzzled into his shoulder as she whispered, "Goodbye... dad."

THE END

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The Lost One, Part IV

THREE YEARS, FOUR MONTHS AGO

Once again, Olivia entered what was slowly becoming her home and, as if the action was engraved in her mind, dropped her backpack at the door, slumping her shoulders and sighing to signify another day done. The monotony of this life was maddening. All that she wanted was to return to her old life, to fight like she used to, but she knew that she couldn't. So, she carried on through the pain of normality. She glanced up and saw Paxton sitting in a chair, looking at her with a quaint smile. On the coffee table in front of him, there were two forks, two plates, and a cake.

"What--?" she began, but was too flustered to continue.

"You turned twelve today." Longshot pointed out.

"But... how did you know?"

"I just did a little research." Longshot explained, "Besides, it's my job to know. Now, sit down! It took me three tries to make a cake that didn't catch on fire, so I'm very proud of this." Olivia sat down and Paxton served her a piece. She ate in silence, keeping her eyes down. "Hey," Paxton said, kissing her on the forehead, "Happy birthday, Olivia."

He got up and walked over to the kitchen. Olivia looked down at his mask resting idly on the table in front of her. She held it in her hand, wiping the glass of the red eyepiece. She buried her face in the mask and used it to wipe her tears.

The slow rattling of chains played in the man's ears as he slowly drifted back into consciousness. His arms were chained together and hoisted above his head. His feet dangled just above the ground. The world around him was dark, too dark to make anything out, but he could tell by the heavy echo that he was surrounded on all sides by thick concrete. "W-where... where..." he stammered, blowing a strand of hair from in front of his eyes.

"You're in hell." called a voice from the darkness, "And there's only one way out."

"Who's there?" the man called out, voice quivering as he hung helpless in the cold. He heard no answer. With a fretful whimper, he finally shouted, "WHO ARE YOU?!"

Suddenly, a sound cracked the silence and the rapid hiss of a propane torch followed. The flame spewed out and in the small light of it was the face of Longshot. The man's heart began beating faster at the sight of the flame. "What... whattayou want from me?"

"The truth." Longshot replied, drawing an arrow from his back. He began slowly moving the flame of the torch up and down the length of the arrowhead. "Rodney Drake. You're the bookie who took bets on the tournament held last week in the old meat packing plant. You held bets on the opening bracket the night before at Sal's. I paid the good folks there a visit the other day, and they pointed me to you." As Longshot was speaking, the Rodney's eyes traced the path of the flame along the arrowhead, sweat running down his face despite the cold atmosphere of the room. "But for the second round of the tournament, and every match after that, you had to be there. So... you're the one I want to talk to." he paused for a moment before saying her name, "Olivia Markopolos."

"Wh-who?" the bookie stammered.

The archer set aside the torch and walked up to his captive, talking a clump of greasy hair in his hand. "Olivia. Markopolos." he snarled, "Fifteen years old. Black hair. Brown eyes. I want to know who she went up against when she died. I want you to tell me who killed her." he let go of Rodney's hair and the bookie's head dropped as he struggled to breathe normally and repress the urge to scream.

"She... she signed up." he said, "She knew what she was getting into. If she died, it's not my fault... not anybody's fault... but her's."

"Wrong answer." Longshot replied.

He screamed as a red hot arrowhead was placed flat against his underarm. Hair coiled up and burned, sweat boiled, and flesh was left charred in the triangular shape that had branded him. He writhed like a dish on the deck of a boat, crying out in pain. "Now, then..." said Longshot, "If you don't give me the information I'm looking for..." he held the glowing red arrowhead up to Rodney's face, "Then this arrow goes into your right leg. Oh, don't worry, it'll cauterize the wound. The problem comes when blood stops flowing through you're femoral artery. That's the main route for blood into your leg, by the way. So, I'll just leave you here to watch your leg whither and die. Don't worry, though. The paramedics will find you. Eventually."

"AAAAH! OKAY!" Rodney howled, "I'll tell you! I'll tell you whatever you want! Just, please! Please, don't! PLEASE!"

Longshot lowered the arrow and peered straight into the man's glassy, panicked eyes. Once again, he asked, "Who?"

"I don't know!" Rodney shrieked, "Some guy, wore a mask! A black mask! With a skull on it!"

Longshot's expression eased. "That's all I needed to hear." He reached up with the arrow and pressed the tip to Drake's chest. The man screamed in uncontrollable agony, uselessly flailing his legs and begging for help even though he knew no one could hear him. Longshot stepped back and observed what he had made, a large dollar sign engraved into the man's chest, burned forever in his flesh. "There." he said, "Now everyone will know the reason why you lead a little girl to her death." With that, he turned and walked of, away from his victim. "I'll call the cops and tell them you're here in a few hours." He opened the door and without turning to face the man, he said, "Sit tight, Rodney."

TWO YEARS, SIX MONTHS AGO

Olivia sat slumped over the kitchen counter, doing her homework. She still had a stack of textbooks waiting to be reviewed. She glanced over at the clock. It was past midnight. She wiped her eyes and kept working. Some time later, Longshot walked in. "Late night, huh?" he asked. There was a slight limp in his stride. Somebody had managed to hit him.

"Yeah." Olivia groaned.

"Hey..." he said, leaning over the counter across from her and peeling off his mask to look upon her with sincerity, "You've come a long way this last year. I know it was hard for you. When I tried to change, it was like cutting off my own arm, so to see you take it in stride, well... I just wanted to say that I'm proud of you."

"Thanks, Paxton." she replied softly.

"I'm gonna get my two hours before I hit the streets again." Longshot yawned, wandering into the small room set aside for him on the rare occasion when he slept.

"Paxton..." Olivia called out at a whisper, knowing that he could hear her no matter how softly she spoke.

"Yeah?" he asked, turning to face her again as he stood in the doorway.

"Can you... can you teach me to fight?"

"What?" Longshot snapped, "Why would you want me to teach you how to fight?"

"No reason..." she answered sheepishly, "Just in case I needed it. Will you?"

"No!" Paxton replied forcefully, walking across the room towards her.

"Why not?"

"Because, Olivia, every move I know is designed to kill. It took months of training and focus to change them, and it takes extreme restraint and discipline to use them without killing somebody, restraint and discipline you don't have!"

"So I'm not good enough? Is that it?! I'm not good enough to learn from the all-knowing Longshot?!"

"I've tried to teach you why you don't need to fight! I don't want you to learn that, because I know how you'll end up!"

"And how will I end up if you teach me to fight?"

"Dead, Olivia!" Longshot's words were followed by Olivia's silence. He continued, "If you live a life of violence, you will die! And I'm not gonna have any part of that."

"Fine." Olivia sighed. It was at that moment that Paxton realized she had her hands tucked neatly into the pockets of her sweatshirt the entire time they were arguing. "Let me see your hands." he said.

"What?"

"Olivia, let me see your hands." he repeated, voice booming with authority.

Reluctantly, the girl pulled her hands from her pockets and lay them out on the white tile counter for him to see. The knuckles had been scraped raw. The skin surrounding them was red and puffy. There was a cut on one of her fingers, the width of a human tooth. "You've been fighting again!" he growled.

"It wasn't my fault!" Olivia pleaded, "This eighth grader was picking on Ryan in my class! I ambushed him in the alley on his way home! You should be proud of me!"

"No, Olivia! When you see something like that, you tell a teacher!"

"Why? Is that what you do? When you see somebody hurting people, you fight him!"

"It doesn't matter what I do, Olivia!" the archer bellowed, "You can't just fight people! Don't undermine me, just listen and do as I say!"

"I can't!"

"WHY NOT?!"

Olivia stalled. She bit her lip and held her head in her hands. Finally, she looked up at him, eyes glassy and red as she said, "I can't do this, Paxton!" She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, "I can't... I can't be ordinary." She sobbed quietly, and the anger slowly dissolved from Longshot's face, giving way to sympathy.

"It's okay..." he cooed, placing his hand on hers. "Tell ya what, if, when you turn eighteen, you still can't deal with normal life, I'll train you and you can fight the bad guys with me."

"You mean it?"

"Yeah. I mean it. It sure beats being ordinary. But no fighting until then, promise?" Olivia nodded. "Good." He turned and walked back into his room. "Good night, Olivia." he said. She said nothing, simply sitting in the light of the kitchen and staring off into nothingness.

The next morning, Paxton returned through the window of Olivia's bedroom to wake her up for school. He looked down at her bed and all he saw was a chaotic bundle of sheets. She must have already gotten up. He stepped silently down on the hardwood floor and walked into the living room. She wasn't anywhere to be seen. He walked over to the kitchen counter and saw a piece of paper folded up there. He opened it and mouthed the words as he read,

"Paxton,

Thanks for trying to save me.

-Olivia"

He threw down the letter and ran for the window. She was out there, alone, and he had to find her before anyone else did.

Olivia walked the streets of Manhattan, looking every which way, especially up, to make sure that Paxton wasn't following her. She entered an alleyway and found as she heard footsteps behind her that someone had taken the bait. She kept walking for a few extra feet, then turned. Before her eyes were three men, each bigger then the last, and everything about them made it apparent that they weren't good samaritans.

"You lost, sweetheart?" one of them said in a mocking tone.

"Come on, Leo..." said another, "We shouldn't be messin' with no kids, man!"

"Shut the f**k up, man!" Leo snapped, smacking the man in the chest, "Pretty white girl like this, think 'a the ransom we'll get!"

"Both 'a you shut up and quit usin' ya damn names." said the largest of the three, "Let's just do this."

"Come and get me." Olivia called out, taking a fighting stance. They laughed, but showed no hesitation in running straight for her. They were brought to a halt as a streak of red and black fell from above, landing right between them and Olivia. Longshot stood tall with a gaze that could bring down a charging bull. The three regained their composure and ran at him, dealt with in short order and left writhing on the ground in their own shame. Longshot tightened his fists, knuckles cracking as he turned to Olivia, his expression no less harsh. He picked her up off the ground and fired his cable into the air, swinging to rooftop. He acted angry to her, and he was, but he was much more relieved that he had found her in time.

The window creaked as it was opened from the outside. Longshot crawled inside, looking around in the darkness. The sound of busy Boston streets was behind him as he took another step inside. The place reeked of liquor, smoke and gunpowder, everything to be expected from the man he was after. "Cain." he called out, "No use hiding, Cain. The bookie told me everything. I know that you were there. I know that you entered the tournament. I know that you killed Olivia."

There was no answer. He let the room go dead and listened closely. He heard a number of heartbeats within range that were inside this building, but none of them were in the room, and none of them matched Cain's. The archer jumped as he heard the phone ring. He reached out and picked it up out of the charging station.

"Hello, Longshot." rang a painfully familiar Irish brogue.

"Cain..." the archer snarled.

"Spare me. I've been waitin' for you to turn up. You're nowhere near the detective yer cracked up to be, ya know that?"

"We're not playing a game, Cain." Longshot snarled, his grip tightening on the phone.

"No, we're not." the Irishman replied, "But that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun."

"Fun? You're having fun?!" the archer kicked over the table near him, sending countless files and components of a dismantled handgun to the floor. "I shouldn't be surprised. You always did love watching me suffer. You're nothing but a warmonger and a psychopath."

"Really, now? Cain said in a condescending tone, "I'M the one who likes to watch YOU suffer? You don't think yer in any way responsible for anythin' that's gone wrong between us?"

"What are you talking about?" Longshot inquire angrily.

Cain took a long, deep breath that could be heard over the line and answered, “How many times have we traded shots now, archer? Five? There was that whole mess in Guatemala, that one was my favorite. But in all that time, I’ve never been the aggressor. All the death, all the collateral damage that’s piled up, came about because you couldn’t keep your big heroic nose outta my business. I’m not your enemy, Longshot, yer mine." he stopped to take a long swig of whatever he was drinking. He wiped his lip, then continued, "And along the way, I’ve realized somethin’… you’re not an ordinary man. You can bleed like one, but you don’t fight like one. You don’t think like one. You don’t even BREATHE like one. I respect that. But right there, I learned my lesson. I couldn’t shoot you. I couldn’t burn you, I couldn’t kill you. I would have to HURT you. And that’s exactly what I did.”

“Why her, Cain? Why did it have to be her?”

“You didn’t give me much choice." he answered, "You’re such a bloody loner, it took me months just to come up with her. I’d heard about this little set up, this underground tournament, some months prior. Bought my way in and that was that. I planned on just lettin’ my opponents walk away with broken bones an’ a bruised ego, but when I found her, when I found out just how much she meant to you, I invited her, and I gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse. She was good, I’ll give her that, and I could see it in her eyes, she loved you to the end, and she knew how much she was lettin’ you down. Like I said, she was tough, but when she stepped into the ring with me… well, you saw the body.”

“She was a kid, Cain!”

“I know, and I took no joy in what I did, but I do take great joy in this. Remember the look frozen on her face, archer. Remember every last poor soul who had ta die ‘cause you just had to play hero. Maybe next time, ye’ll stay outta my way.”

“It’s too late for that, Cain. I’m coming for you. Do you hear me?!”

“Oh, yes, and let me tell you, I’ve been waitin’ ta here that for a long time. Doesn’t feel too good to bleed, does it? To have a wound ya know ya can’t close. All the money, all the time, the blood ‘a the little bitch, it was all worth it… for this.” Just as he finished, the line went dead and Longshot cried out, flinging the phone against the wall and shattering it entirely. He stood there, fists trembling, nostrils flaring, until he heard something behind him, a little high pitched sound tolling every two seconds. It was too quiet for an ordinary ear to pick up. He listened again for it and pinpointed the source to the charging station of the telephone. He picked it up and turned it over. His eyes went wide as he saw what had been placed on the underside of the phone charger. It was a tiny brick of semtex explosive, wired into the charger. The trigger was pressure sensitive. When he picked up the phone, he set off the countdown. The beeping was getting faster. He didn't have much time.

Without thinking, Longshot picked up the charger and jumped onto the fire escape. He leapt down onto the next rooftop and ran to the edge, overlooking the Boston River. The beeping was almost a single steady tone. With no time left to spare, he hurled it over the busy streets and into the depths of the river. Seconds later, the water burst up and rained back down.

The archer looked out across the Boston skyline. Somewhere out there, Cain O'Panell was laughing at him.

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The Lost One, Part III

The flickering of fluorescent lights strained his eyes as he sat by the side of a steel table amidst a sea of gray tile, the cold air of the morgue nipping at his neck. He bowed his head, not daring to glance to his left, to look at Olivia's corpse. Her eyes had been closed, her body covered by the white sheet so that only her face could be seen. She looked calm, tranquil. She looked at peace. Her expression was a facade, alluding to a much less horrific end. "Never expected to be here." he whispered, "I always knew it was a possibility, but I never expected it. I thought I was gonna be the one to turn you around, somebody who could save you from that life, give you a real chance to live. But I was young, idealistic. It was just my hope getting ahead of me. Now, you'll never grow up, never make friends, never... go to college and write bad poetry, or... or fall in love." he counted the tiles around his feet as he whispered solemnly, "Now, you're just like me. And my greatest fear... the whole time I was taking care of you, my greatest fear... was that you'd end up like me."

He bit his lip and his fists clenched. He tried crossing his arms, covering his face, but he simply put his hands over his knees as he whispered harshly, "Why couldn't you just listen to me?" His vision was blurred as water gathered beneath his mask, "Why did you have to go against everything I taught you like this?" his head fell into his hands as he asked in agony, "Why couldn't I save you?"

THREE YEARS, FOUR MONTHS AGO

The front door of the apartment creaked on its hinges as Olivia slowly entered the room, casting off her backpack before shuffling inside. She glanced to the left and saw Paxton leaning over the kitchen counter. He had his mask, jacket, quiver, and gloves all neatly stacked on the coffee table. He smiled as she entered, while she was only perplexed.

"How was your day?" he asked.

"Fine." she replied, dropping down on the couch, "I thought you were in England for another three days."

"The case was wrapped up early." a timer began to ring behind him.

"What's that?" she asked.

"Nothing!" Longshot replied, turning off the oven, "It's a surprise! No peaking!" He sat in the chair across from Olivia, where the television would be in a normal house. "How are you doing in school?" he asked.

"Fine." she shrugged.

"Come on..." he goaded. He was unusually talkative. For as distant as she was, she knew he wasn't used to talking either, and this interrogation seemed uncomfortable for both of them.

"The history teacher hates me." she answered reluctantly, averting her eyes.

"Why do you think she hates you?" asked the archer, leaning in closer.

"She gave me zero points on a question I got right, and when I pointed it out, she made me stay after. When she pointed her finger into my chest and told me I was wrong, I wanted... I just wanted to hit her! I just wanted to tackle her to the ground and clamp her windpipe shut! If somebody insulted me like that on the street, I killed them."

"But you didn't." said Longshot, "Why not?"

"I don't know." Olivia replied, tucking her legs into her chest, "I thought... I thought you'd be disappointed."

"Ah. So you DO care what I think."

"I never said that." Olivia whispered shamefully. She closed her eyes and he leaned back in his chair. "It's just that I've gotten used to you." she answered slowly, "I got used to you being here and... and I don't want another person who doesn't want me anymore."

Paxton smiled softly and put his hand on her shoulder. "That's never gonna happen." he said, "I'm not gonna give up on you, Olivia. You're an amazing kid, and anybody who can't see that is an idiot. You're doing great in school, by the way. You're brilliant."

"I hate Math, though." she added sheepishly.

His smile grew as he chuckled, "Join the club."

"Tell ya what," he said, jumping from his seat, "You've been working hard. Why don't I take you out on the town tonight?"

"You mean it?" she asked.

"Sure! You haven't even been outside this apartment except to go to school. You deserve a reward. Go get your sweatshirt. Be ready to go in five." Immediately, Olivia jumped up and ran off into her bedroom with an energy he had never seen in her. Maybe he was finally getting through to her. Perhaps she was finally starting to open up. He threw on his jacket over his black t-shirt, clipping on the belt and quiver. He put on his gloves and pulled the mask down over his head. Just then, Olivia ran back out into the living room, zipping up her gray hoody with the rarest of things, a smile, on her face. "Ready?" he asked. She nodded excitedly. "Alright, then! Climb on!" He took off his quiver and knelt down so that she could climb up on his back. He let out the straps and clipped the quiver back across his chest, her arms clamped tightly around his neck and her legs wrapped around his torso. "Hang on tight." the archer warned before running straight through her bedroom and diving straight out the window.

She howled against the win, laughing uncontrollably as they shot straight down towards the ground, concrete flying by as they fell. As if he were experiencing it for the first time, Longshot's lips came apart and he let out a raucous laugh in harmony with the girl. As they approached the lower rooftops, he fanned out his body, catching as much wind resistance as possible. He immediately spun in the air and shot his grapple back up to the top of the apartment complex. The line went taught and they swung parallel to the building. The archer ran along the wall, keeping momentum in their swing until it reached its zenith, immediately retracting the line and flipping through the air only to land safely with rooftop gravel beneath his feet. He had to adjust his movements to the extra weight, and avoid particularly complex displays for her safety, but none of that bothered her. He ran to the edge of the rooftop and vaulted effortlessly to the next, her laughter drowning out the noise of the world. It was all he needed to hear.

Some time later, the archer dropped silently onto a rooftop overlooking a parking complex not far from the United Nations building. "Now, Olivia, we're about to meet a very special friend of mine. He was the one who helped me turn my life around. I think you two'll get along." said the archer, jumping down onto the top level of the parking lot.

Upon landing, he loosened his quiver and let her drop to the ground beside him. They walked up to a small black car with four men standing around the back bumper. The three lumbering men, obviously bodyguards, glanced at them and each took on a defensive stance. "Easy, gentlemen!" said the fourth man, invisible behind the shoulder-to-shoulder wall they had created, "They are friends. Go take a smoke break, or whatever it's called in America." The three men obeyed and shuffled off, revealing the friendly face of a man in his mid-thirties, adorned in a straw hat and bifocal sunglasses, wearing fairly casual garb for a man of his stature. "Akube!" Longshot called out joyfully, opening his arms to his friend.

"Good to see you, Paxton!" Akube laughed, embracing his student. "Sorry about them." he grumbled, "They were assigned to protect me while I was here. I kept telling their people I had a perfectly good bodyguard, but they insisted."

"At any rate, it's good to see you again." he said, turning and gesturing to the girl beside him, "Akube Mahatu, meet Olivia Markopolos."

"Ah, so this is the girl you've told me so much about." said Akube with a smile, kneeling down and offering her his hand, "Hello there, Olivia. Is my student taking good care of you?"

"Student?" Olivia asked, "He's your teacher?"

"The best teacher there is." Longshot replied, "He made me everything I am."

"Now, now, I made nothing. I only summoned what was within you all along." he answered, turning back to Olivia, "About a year ago, our friend in red came to me asking for help, asking that I teach him how to be a good man. And by that simple act, he had already succeeded in becoming a good man. Change does not simply happen to you, Olivia. You have to make it happen. You have to wish to become a better person in order for your life to improve. Do you understand?"

"Yeah..." Olivia replied, "I understand."

"Good." Akube said with a grin, "I would hate to see you waste your potential, Olivia. I look at you and I see great things to come."

"You mean that?" Olivia asked.

"Trust me," said Akube, glancing up fondly at his former apprentice, "I know what great potential looks like." he turned back to Olivia and whispered with the same friendliness, yet a somehow sterner inflection, "It would be a tragedy to throw your life away in the pursuit of destruction. Nothing good can come of fighting."

The pool cue splintered upon a man's face and he went staggering back into the arms of his friends. Longshot dropped the fractured cue to the floor. Enemies surrounded him on all sides. Some wielded their pool cues, some, their empty bottles, and others simply cracked their knuckles in anticipation of the fight to come. Heavy rock music was blaring in the archer's ears as he assessed the threats. One dared approach him from behind before the others and he screamed as his knee buckled under a swift kick, the wrong way. Another was punched in the ribs and hurled out the window, another's head met unceremoniously with the glass lid of the jukebox, the music sputtering into silence, and they finally learned their lesson. The rest stood shoulder-to-shoulder in silence, still as the grave. The only sound in the bar was the writhing of their beaten friends and Longshot's erratic, enraged breaths. "Olivia Markopolos!" he bellowed, "Who's gonna talk about Olivia Markopolos?!"

The crowd was silent.

"The tournament." said the archer, scanning every guilty face who hadn't the courage to look him in the eye, "I know that bets were taken here the night before. There was a girl, THIS girl..." he said, raising a photo of Olivia for all to see., "Somebody told her to come. Somebody wanted her to enter, and die. I want to know who. WHO DID THIS?!"

"We dunno." said a stout man with thinning hair called out, "An' whatta we care somebody killed your broad in the fight? Not our problem, pal." Longshot stepped forward, glaring down at the man as he gestured towards the archer, "Go change outta that stupid-ass costume and we'll talk, howsabout that?" Without warning, Longshot took hold of the man's open palm and twisted it a few times around before picking him up by the throat and slamming him into the pool table. The man looked up to see a pair of arrowheads placed between Longshot's fingers, the cold steel aimed at his face.

"What. Do. You. Know?" Longshot asked, everything about his tone conveying it as a demand rather than a question.

"I... I ain't tellin' you... nothin'." the man replied, wheezing for air, "I got no reason to talk. You ain't the type that kills."

"Try me." Longshot said coldly.

Police sirens began to howl in the distance. He was the only one who could hear them yet, and he stabbed an arrow straight into the felt table top right alongside the man's head, immediately flinging him out the window. He then jumped out himself and fled into the night.

The man's eyes fluttered open and he began to hear the roaring of the city streets far below. He dangled vicariously be the collar of his shirt, clutched firmly in the one outstretched hand of Longshot. The icy night wind bit at his cheek, whistling in the same haunting way as the archer's voice, "Talk."

"You're... you're crazy, man! F*ckin' crazyyYYYAAAAAAGGGHH!" the man began to scream as the archer shook him around, gradually loosening his grip.

"You don't care if you live, do you?" asked Longshot.

"Please, man! I don't wanna... oh god! It was just for money, man! Somebody paid me to find her, tell her about the fight! Ya gotta understand, man, it wasn't personal! It was just money!"

"It was all personal to me. Who paid you?"

"Didn't gimme his name!" the man answered.

"What did he look like?" Longshot asked.

"I dunno, b-black hair, tall... IRISHMAN! He was an Irishman!"

"Oh my god..." Longshot whispered, eyes bloodshot at the mere thought of it. He hurled the man back against an air duct on the roof. He gasped frantically, thanking every deity he could imagine for making it out alive. He looked back up only to see that the archer was gone.

All of the pub's patrons were uncomfortably relegated to the booths at the edges of the room, making half-hearted glances at the man who had forced them there. He slammed his empty shot glass into the bar and growled to the bartender, "Another one." The man stammered, frozen in place. "I SAID ANOTHER, YA WORTHLESS DREG!" The bartender quickly grabbed the bottle and poured it out with a trembling hand. The man quickly knocked back the shot and wiped his lip and slumped over the bar. Suddenly, even the little sound that filled the bar went dead. "Why's it so bloody quiet?" he asked, glancing up. When he looked into the mirror on the back wall, Cain O'Panell not only saw his grizzled, unshaven face, but the sheer gray visage of Longshot. "Oh, sh*t!" he exclaimed, reaching into his jacket and drawing his gun. As he spun around in his seat, the archer caught his elbow and slammed his head straight into the bar.

"Ah! Oh, ho ho! I'm gonna feel that one in the mornin'!" Cain laughed, rising back up and rubbing his forehead. He turned to face Longshot. The hunter certainly didn't look happy, but then again, Cain could never recall a time when he did. "So, what might be yer grievance this time, Robin Hood? Did I run over some little girls kitty cat on the way over here? Come to rough me up and call it a day's work, eh boyscout?" Longshot lunged straight up to Cain, taking him by the lapels of his jacket and forcing his back to the bar. "So then it's personal, I take it." he groaned.

"I know what you did, Cain." Longshot snarled.

"I've got a wrap sheet longer 'n yer girlfriend's d*ck, sheriff. Ye'll have to narrow it down." the Irishman slurred.

The archer brought his face closer to Cain's and said at a raspy growl, "Olivia Markopolos." Cain was silent, simply staring into the red glass eye of his interrogator. "Heh..." he spurted out, "Ha... ha ha... ha ha HA HA HA HA HA!" he broke into an uproar, finally snapping at the archer, "Am I supposed to know who that is? Am I supposed to fall on my goddamn knees and beg for mercy 'cause you decided to accuse me?"

"I know that you did it, Cain. Why?"

"Did what?! I can't confess to somethin' 'til you tell me what the charge is."

"Olivia Markopolos. I want to know how you found out about her, how you tracked her down, and why you killed her in the tournament."

"What, you mean that fight club they were puttin' up in the old meat packin' place? I heard 'bout that through the vine, but I din't have sh*t to do with it. You wanna find yer man, look elsewhere."

"Your hired man gave me your description."

"He described half 'a Boston, moron! Do you got any proof I was there? Anything at all outside 'a heresay from some halfwit who'd tell ya whatever ya wanted to hear with an arrow in his ass?"

Longshot was silent.

"Fly away, little bird." Cain chuckled, "Ya got no business here."

Longshot flung the Irishman to the floor and left him laughing, slamming the door behind him.

The archer returned to his Boston safehouse, flinging down his quiver and stripping off his mask. He glared up at the cork board littered with papers and photographs pinned down, various pieces of red thread leading back to the center, a photo of Olivia. He glanced at the top right corner where a picture of Cain was placed. He could practically feel the lead going cold. He examined the countless pieces of information, the chaotic cloud of potential leads and false answers, the torrent of uncertainty swirling around Olivia. It was mocking him.

Longshot rubbed the bags under his eyes and fell back on a mat on the floor. He had to clear his head, he had to sleep.

"Paxton!" Olivia screamed. Before she could call his name again, Longshot came barging into her room. The light shining in from the living room revealed that her eyes were still closed. She was still asleep, even though she was sitting up in bed. He knelt down at her bedside and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Olivia! he called out, trying to calm her down, "Olivia!"

The girl's screaming stopped and her eyes began to open.

"You were having a bad dream." he explained, "It's okay... it's over now."

"It's over..." Olivia sighed, "You're here."

"That's right, Olivia." Longshot replied, "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be in the other room." He stood up and went for the door.

"Wait..." Olivia called out, almost ashamed to hear herself say it, "Don't... don't leave me alone tonight."

"Alright." Paxton replied warmly. He crawled down alongside her, staying above the covers as he put his arm around her.

At a near whisper, Paxton sang in her ear,

"Goodnight, my angel

Time to close your eyes

And save these questions for another day

I think I know what you've been asking me

I think you know what I've been trying to say."

"What is that?" Olivia asked.

"Something my mother used to sing to me." Paxton answered

"You knew your mom?"

"No... some nights, she would wander into the room that was supposed to be mine, sit by the crib I was meant to sleep in, and she would sing as if I were still there. Sometimes, I'd sit outside in the tree and listen. Did you want me to stop?"

"No..." Olivia whispered, and so, Paxton continued to sing.

"I promised I would never leave you

And you should always know

Wherever you may go

No matter where you are

I never will be far away

Goodnight, my angel

Now it's time to sleep

And still so many things I want to say

Remember all the songs you sang for me

When we went sailing on an emerald bay

And like a boat out on the ocean

I'm rocking you to sleep

The water's dark

And deep inside this ancient heart

You'll always be a part of me..."

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The Lost One, Part II

FOUR YEARS AGO

Longshot entered through the window as silently as the breeze, setting foot inside the clandestine New York apartment. He still had ash coating his clothes from his last scrape. He walked into the living room and saw Olivia sitting on the couch. Books were stacked up on the kitchen counter behind her. She glanced up at him with casual nonchalance, and he glared down at her in utter disbelief. "Why aren't you at school?" he asked.

"I didn't go." she replied.

"I gathered that, why not?" his voice grew firmer.

"I don't wanna go to school." she said, "I wanna go back to fighting."

"That's not happening, Olivia. You have to go to school."

"Markopolos is a Greek name. The Greeks were warriors."

"They were also philosophers. You're GOING to school."

"And who put you in charge?!" she snapped, jumping up to face him, "I didn't ask to come here! I didn't ask for any of this! You just decided to make me live like this! Go to hell!" She stormed off toward the door, but Longshot came after her.

"Olivia! Olivia, wait!" He knelt down to look her in the eye and rested his hands gently on her shoulders. "I'm sorry." he said, "I know it's hard for you. I know what it's like to have your life change out of nowhere. I understand, and I had no right to put any pressure on you. I'm sorry."

The archer was caught by surprise as she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him close. For a moment, he was frozen in shock. After her cold demeanor, her resenting slights, the sudden affection simply blindsided him. He finally came around and gently returned her embrace.

ONE MONTH LATER

Longshot stood on a rooftop in Paris, overlooking the city of lights with an unwavering vigilance, keen eyes piercing the darkness. He heard a ringing and reached into his belt, answering. "Hello?"

"Hi, this is the receptionist at Eagle Elementary. Is this Mr. Barton, legal guardian of Olivia Markopolos?" asked a woman on the other end.

"This is he." Paxton answered, taking on a more casual tone, "What's the problem?"

"Well, Olivia has been starting fights on the playground."

"Fights?"

"Yes, sir. She attacked two girls this afternoon. She claimed that one of them said something about her, but the other seems unprovoked. She also gave a boy a split lip when he cut in line in the cafeteria."

"I see..." Longshot groaned.

"We're very concerned about her. If she doesn't learn the error of these actions, it could have a very negative effect on her education. As it is, we can't let her back into class. She's just too dangerous. She doesn't seem to understand that what she's doing is wrong."

"Tell me about it. I'll speak with her when she gets home. Thank you for telling me."

"You're welcome, sir. Have a nice day."

"Yeah..." the archer sighed, hanging up

PRESENT DAY

Longshot answered his communicator as he ran briskly across the rooftops of Boston, his feet landing just on the ledge. "Longshot," said a voice on the other end, "Rafferty here."

"What do you have for me, Detective?" the archer asked, jumping to the next rooftop without breaking his stride.

"Well, we found a note in the pocket of her jacket," the detective explained, "It's... well, it's an invitation." The archer's feet scraped along the stone until he reached a complete halt. "The address, the time, she didn't just show up. She was invited. Somebody wanted her to be there. Somebody sought her out personally. Somebody planned this."

"Any idea who wrote it?" Longshot asked.

"No idea." the detective replied, "Not even a partial print. There's some beer soaked into the corner 'a the thing, but that's not much of a lead."

Longshot paused momentarily. He kept the communicator to his ear, scanning the distant skyline before finally saying, "I need to transport the body to my facilities. I'm conducting the autopsy myself."

"Well, now that's just not happenin'!" Rafferty affirmed, audibly puffing his cigarette, "Look, archer, I know this's personal ta you. Somebody killed your girl an' you want blood, but--"

"I don't want blood, I want justice." the archer interrupted.

"BUT, this is also a federal case. I'm riskin' my job talkin' ta you, not to mention exposing evidence. We're doin' our best to piece this together. You wanna help out by bashin' some heads for info vigilante style? Be my guest, but ya have ta recognize where the line's drawn. Ya have ta know when to back off and let us do our job."

"Alright..." Longshot whispered.

For a time after, the line was dead, then, Detective Rafferty reluctantly spoke, "There's a ventilation shaft on the roof. Second right goes straight over the morgue. It'll be open."

"Thank you, detective." Longshot replied, "I have someone on the other line. I have to go."

"Alright, tell me what you find out. See ya."

Longshot flicked a switch on the side of his comm-link and was met by the comforting voice of an old friend. "Hey, Robin Hood..." said Agent Hannigan playfully.

"Not now, Melissa." Longshot replied, diving into the street, swinging on his grapple and flinging himself up on a rooftop around the bend.

"Oh, come on," she goaded, "I got downtime once in a blue moon, and lord knows you could use a night off. The bags under your eyes could carry Lake Superior. I ordered a pizza, and if they break down my door in a month and find me with a burst gut 'cause I had to eat it all myself, it'll be YOUR fault."

"I don't have time." he replied plainly.

"Call a friend and let him do the grunt work tonight. I've always wanted to tell people I had a sleepover with a superhero. I'll even tell you a ghost story about when I got chased by a werewolf! Oh, wait... you were there."

"I SAID NO!" Longshot bellowed. The line went dead. "I'm sorry..." he said, running his hand down the back of his head, "It's just... I've got something important to do here in Boston."

"How important?" she asked, all the playfulness and humor falling away.

"Somebody I know..." the archer began, struggling to continue, "Somebody I KNEW.... is dead."

"Who was it?"

"You wouldn't know her."

"Ah. Her. Say no more."

"No, not like that, Melissa. She... she was a little girl I found on the street during my first year. I tried to help her. I sheltered her, I got her in school... I raised her."

"Oh my god..." Melissa whispered, "I... I had no idea..."

"I never told you." Longshot continued, "I was a rookie. I didn't even know what I was doing when it came to fighting crime. What the hell was I thinking looking after a kid?"

"Would she have been dead if you hadn't found her?" Melissa asked.

"What?"

"Simple question, archer, would she have died a long time ago if you hadn't taken her under your wing?"

"Yes." Longshot replied reluctantly.

"Would you have been the same man you are today if you hadn't taken care of her?"

"No..."

"Then no regrets, Longshot." she stated firmly, "No regrets. Now, go find the son of a bitch that did this to her."

"I will." he replied, putting away his comm-link and racing off into the night, "I will."

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