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The Villain

"So. . . how about that weather?" Amber hesitantly tried to make conversation.


"Don't make me put the gag back on," Delirium snarled at her.


Instinctively, Amber snapped her mouth shut. Her eyes wandered the cavern Delirium had taken her to after kidnapping her on the street corner. Who knew Lucky Street could be so ironic? The walls dripped with stalactites that shimmered a sickly green when the small specks of sun shone through chinks in the walls. Despite the technology of the twenty-first century, Delirium opted for the Dark Age aesthetic. The cozy blaze of the hellish fire reached the back of Amber's neck, shooting an uncomfortable warmth through her nervous system. She prayed Shawn would soon rescue her from this medieval prison. The ropes cut into her flesh as she struggled to loosen them.


"Two days!" Delirium finally snapped. "Two days we've been waiting for your brainless boyfriend to rescue you! Let's try it again." He walked toward his rotary phone for the tenth time in the past forty-eight hours. "Are you sure you left him a message?"


Rolling her eyes, Amber bitterly replied, "Yes! I've left him a message every single time!" But how long did it take to at least answer a call? Couldn't he have sent a sign? Or something?


"This is ridiculous!" Delirium untied the ropes securing Amber’s ankles to the chair. However, he left the ones binding her hands untouched. He hoisted her over his left shoulder as he trudged through the gloomy cavern.


Amber raised her arms as high as she could muster before letting them pound Delirium's backside. "Let me go! He'll be here any minute!"


"Sure he will. Does he even love you?"


Amber ceased her thrashing as Delirium heaved her onto a rickety bed, meeting the most minimal requirements to be called such – four legs, mattress, and pillow. She pulled herself up, sitting cross-legged and inspecting the room. It couldn't have been bigger than a small bathroom, containing the bed and an almost unrecognizable chest with two drawers. At least she had packed light. Only a potential blood streak across the wall closest to the door decorated the room. A rich, plum hue stained the four walls of her new cell.


Watching her brows furrow, Delirium commented, "Sorry it's not the penthouse you're used to. Men of my fortune can't afford the luxuries your boyfriend can."


"And what fortune is that? An insignificant villain with a god-complex who has yet to have a single victory over the Steel Guardian." Amber raised her brow in satisfaction.


"An arrogant, rich boy who has everything handed to him." Delirium exited the room, crashing the door behind him.


Amber shrank into herself. Shawn had been lucky with his family tree. They'd made big money with oiling companies generations ago. From there, his family invested wisely in major companies. Shawn never worked a day in his life before accepting the responsibility of the world's protector. He'd been blessed with the superhuman abilities of flight and strength that no man could surpass. Bullets couldn't penetrate his metal-like skin, hence his alter ego the Steel Guardian. In contrast, rumor said that Delirium concocted his own abilities some years ago in a laboratory condemned for malpractice and questionable morals.


Her head ached from pressing it so hard into her knees. She released her arms so they were no longer tightly hugging her knees. She relaxed her legs, which hung partly off the absurdly small bed. The pillow nearly gave her a concussion as she set her head on it. Perhaps, the floor would have been softer. Amber stared at the ceiling. How had the last couple days gone so poorly? Closing her eyes, she drifted into her memories.


Amber rubbed her eyes as she gently stretched her arms. The clock displayed the early time – 5:30 AM. Her muscle memory proved impeccable, meaning she didn't need to set the alarm anymore. She carefully removed the covers, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed before her feet met the cool, wooden floorboards. She planted a soft kiss on Shawn's cheek before heading to the bathroom to begin her morning routine. Shawn had returned home late last night after thwarting a conspiracy to steal nuclear launch codes. As Amber opened her drawer to find her work uniform, she eyed the savings jar that sat on top, mocking her at how empty it was. Unfortunately, saving the world came with very little perks. Evil truly never sleeps, especially when only one superhero exists to combat every villain. Shawn rarely ate a meal at the apartment or attended family gatherings, let alone maintain a job.


Accordingly, Amber worked two part-time jobs to pay the rent while accepting a few side hustles to fill the fridge. Shawn stirred as the bathroom light flickered on. Amber sighed to herself. She didn't mind working, but it would be nice if Shawn could accompany her to a family dinner once in a while or spend Christmas with her.

"Morning, sweetheart," Amber cooed as she quickly folded the laundry from last night.


Shawn rolled out of bed. Groggily, he made his way to the makeshift kitchen, opening the fridge. "Hey." He grabbed the milk by its handle and twisted the cap off. He chugged the gallon until it was almost gone. Next, he pulled the box of cornflakes from the shelf and shook some into his mouth. Shawn barely used any utensils or bowls unless Amber explicitly asked him to.


Amber hurried to clean up the dribbles of milk on the counter and sweep up the discarded cereal bits. The room suddenly felt hotter. She almost touched the back of her hand to her forehead, but she preferred to ignore her high temperature. She couldn't afford to be sick or even consider the idea of such nonsense. Shawn absentmindedly flicked his phone open and pressed on his voicemail icon.


"You have 49 unread messages," the robotic voice told Shawn.


Instantly, he clapped the device shut. Amber knew better than to chide him about answering those calls. Most were probably from family, who would call Amber after not reaching Shawn. He really only paid attention to the rotary phone in the middle of the living room. Only the city's police chief and "need-to-know" personnel had the number for that phone. Foreign embassies would call at the crack of dawn or stroke of midnight. How could Shawn deny them? Amber dusted around the phone. What if it just fell off the table? What if, for one night, no one could call?


"I'm off to work now," Amber said. Shawn simply nodded his head as he sunk into his chair. He should enjoy the few moments he has before the phone starts ringing off the hook. She jingled the keys while opening the door. "Love you!" She waited a couple moments. No reply came.


Amber scrambled down three flights of stairs in order to reach the bus stop in time. Her watch ticked away every precious second wasted on exchanging pleasantries with nosy neighbors always giving their opinions on Shawn and his work. The government had sworn the entire building to secrecy about the Steel Guardian living there, but that didn't mean they couldn't gossip amongst themselves. The cool breeze of Lucky Street hit her without warning. Amber hugged herself as protection from the chilly weather. Glancing up, she realized that she would be late if she tried to go back for a jacket. She could call Shawn's cell, hoping he'd answer. Maybe I could call the rotary? Her brows furrowed. Except, he's never given me the number to the rotary phone.


Amber turned the corner in a hurry. A muscular hand reached out, clasping over her mouth as the other hand yanked her left arm. The figure pulled her into the alley between her apartment complex and the abandoned pizzeria. She stomped on the man's foot, which did little to even annoy the man. A subtle scent wafted into her nostrils. Her assailant slowly released Amber as her vision blurred. Her knees buckled as numbness overwhelmed her nervous system. She had no final cry for salvation as her consciousness faded as the man caught Amber before she hit the ground.


Amber’s eyelids fluttered open. Had that all really been just two days ago? Shawn still hadn’t come to save her from this archaic dungeon. She didn’t bother inspecting the room since her stay would, hopefully, be short-lived. Instead, she fiddled with the ring on her pointer finger that once belonged to her mother. In her mind’s eye, Amber could almost see the small house that she lived in as a child. The shutters hung crookedly from neighborhood pranks gone wrong on Halloween while the doorknob refused to stay in its place. Every day Amber jimmied the piece of metal until it slid into its designated spot. One day a neighbor had called the police on her because he thought she was breaking into the home. When her father returned home from his second job, anger lit his eyes. She had received a spanking as well as no dinner for the incident, but still, the doorknob was not fixed. Her mother, pregnant with twins, snuck her a few spoonfuls of chili after her father went outside to work on his truck. Her chest tightened as her thoughts drifted back to that black, beat-up car. Her father labored day and night on that stupid truck, only to have it break down every week. If only he’d seen how much effort Amber had invested into painting. Maybe then he would have attended one of her art shows.


The door swung open. Delirium’s ominous figure appeared, but his cape no longer draped on the sides of his shoulders. In his right hand, he held a bucket sloshing with water while the other grasped a mop. Amber raised an eyebrow, curious.


Delirium straightened his back. “If you’re going to stay here, you’ll need to earn your keep.”

“Is a maid not in the supervillain budget these days?” Amber scoffed.


“She’s on vacation.”


Amber’s eyes widened. Maybe I should get one she laughed to herself. If I ever get out of here.


Delirium handed her the cleaning supplies and stalked down the gloomy hallway. The cavern’s walls seemed to cave on Amber as she hurried after the villain. Her body shivered, especially when the water splashed onto her bare skin. Curse restaurants for their skimpy waitress outfits. How was a girl to be properly kidnapped if she couldn’t withstand the harsh environment of a lair? Delirium suddenly stopped. Unable to curb her momentum, Amber stumbled straight into his backside, sending the lukewarm water all over Delirium’s shoes. He let out a low growl from the back of his throat but spoke no actual words. He merely opened his arms to reveal the grimy space Amber could only guess was a makeshift bathroom. Shawshank Redemption had failed to prepare Amber for the horrors her eyes beheld. Delirium left without a single word.


That’s how Amber carried on - cleaning whatever room Delirium guided her to in the morning. She’d spend her entire day scrubbing rust off water pipes or chasing down dust bunnies. He’d allowed her to clean his office once, with his supervision of course. She dusted his empty bookshelves, polished the rustic candelabra, wiped the dated computer screen, and organized his evil plans in alphabetical order. She normally snacked on the meager food he supplied his fridge with. Half bottles of mayonnaise and mustard sat in the side shelf while a pickle jar was lodged between several Tupperware of pre-made meals. Perhaps, Delirium’s mother packed him lunches as well. Shawn hadn’t been to a grocery store in years, though. Amber had become too familiar to cooking her own meals and eating alone, every single night.


Amber often found herself wandering into Delirium’s laboratory when he fell asleep, slumping over his keyboard. She examined his hundreds of vials. Each felt cool in the palm of her hand due to their refrigeration containers. She could just make out the faintest scribbles of a supposed madman - Man of War extract, nitric acid, moondust from Charon, platypus saliva, and so on. Amber’s finger lingered on the single, room-temperature vial tinted maroon. Floorboards creaked from somewhere down the hall, sending Amber into a flurry as she scurried out of the room.


One day, Delirium ate with her, sitting on one of the rickety chairs. Amber stared at the chair, which looked as though it might collapse at any moment. Even more surprisingly Delirium actually made Amber a sandwich. He must’ve gone grocery shopping. The next day he laid on the couch, reading a book as Amber swept.



“Sit down,” he eventually told her.


She thought she imagined his invitation so she kept on whisking the broom back and forth on the floor.


“Amber.”


The hairs on the back of her neck pricked up.


“Please, sit?”


Cautiously, she propped the broom against the door frame. She chose the loveseat next to the couch Delirium was reclined on. She crossed her ankles and folded her hands on top of her lap. Delirium simply closed his book and placed it on the coffee table in front of him. He opened his mouth to speak but then pursed his lips when no sound came out. Amber bit her lip. How do you make small talk with your captor?


Delirium coughed. “So, how about that weather?”


Amber couldn’t help but let out a small giggle. Was he making a joke? More importantly, how long had it been since she let out so much as a sound? She must’ve been there for about a month and a half, if not two months. Where is Shawn? Delirium’s eyes scanned the shift in Amber’s body language as she slumped further into the loveseat.


“How’d you two meet?” he asked.


Again, another laugh escaped Amber. “You really want to know how I met the Steel Guardian?”


Delirium mulled over the question. “No.” Silence reigned once more. “I’d rather hear about you.”


Amber’s back stiffened. “Why?”


“Why not?”


“You kidnapped me!”


“It’s nothing personal.”


“Well, it sure feels pretty personal,” she scoffed while crossing her arms.


Delirium sat up and scooched closer to the side of the couch next to the loveseat. “I was only trying to trap the Guardian, not disrupt your life.”


“Oh, I see. I’m just collateral.” Amber threw her hands up in the air. “Some bait I turned out to be, huh?” She cupped her face with her hands as a sob crept to her throat. You can’t cry in front of him.


He covered the distance between them in seconds. However, he only set a handkerchief on her lap before returning back to his spot on the couch. “I’m. . . I’m sorry, Amber.”

Amber picked up the cloth, blowing her nose into it. She handed the handkerchief back to him. “It’s okay, Delirium. I’m not sure what I expected.”


He tentatively accepted the dirty tissue. “It’s, well, it’s Kevin.”


“Kevin? Hmph. . . I guess it’s the same as Shawn,” Amber’s hand flew to cover her own mouth. Never had she let Shawn’s identity slip. He’d trusted her with that secret since they were seventeen, and now she’d told his archnemesis. Yet Shawn never trusted her with the number to his rotary phone. “Doesn’t quite matter does it? If you knew my name, I’m sure you either knew his name or it would only be a matter of time until you did.” Her gaze met Kevin’s. Amber witnessed them melt from the cold pools of grey mist to a softer hue.

Kevin clasped the back of his neck with his left hand. “You should expect more - from him, I mean.”


Amber hardly heard the kind words Kevin said. She sat, mesmerized by his movement. “My father used to do that,” she blurted. “Rub his neck when he wasn’t sure what to do.”


Kevin raised his eyebrows in confusion.


“That’s, that’s what he did before he kicked me out of the house.”


Another quizzical expression lined Kevin’s face.


“He, um, told me that he couldn’t afford to support my mother, twin brothers, and I. So, uh, it just made sense, I guess, for me to move out. That’s how I met Shawn, or at least got to know him. We’d gone to school together for years, but when I turned sixteen, something changed. He started partnering up with me for projects and walking me home. He was the first one there when I got kicked out, and he’s been the only one I’ve ever gone to since.”


“Why hasn’t he come then?” Kevin asked. He didn’t seem to understand the way his words stung like daggers in Amber’s heart.


Her mind tried to suppress those thoughts she’d hidden from for years. “My, how beautiful you’ve grown,” Amber remembered Abuela saying at her Quinceanera, despite her turning sixteen instead of the traditional fifteen. Goodness knows her family couldn’t afford such luxuries so Amber had designed her own intricate papier-mâché decorations. That was the last real celebration she had with her family before leaving. Must’ve been their version of a goodbye party, I suppose.


“He never said it back.” Tears cascaded down Amber’s rosy cheeks. “He never did anything!”


Kevin kneeled beside her and took her hands. She looked down at him. She couldn’t breathe. Or was this how it had always been? Her grasping for any small token of affection from Shawn? Looking for love in places that it wasn’t? Amber didn’t care anymore. For the first time in her life, she acted, not on reason or logic or for survival. She pushed Kevin, knocking him into the coffee table. Pulling the maroon vial from her pocket, Amber removed the cork and swallowed the liquid in one gulp.


Delirium reached out for Amber, grabbing her wrists. “What have you done?”


She gazed deep into his eyes with a sinister smile playing at her laugh. “What I want.”

Suddenly, the Steel Guardian burst from the top of the cavern, landing in his signature pose on the floor in front of Amber and Delirium. His pearly whites practically blinded them as he opened his mouth. “Amber, I’ve come to rescue you from this monster!”


Confusion littered Delirium’s expression. “Monster? You’re the one who abandoned her! We’ve been waiting for two months!”


“I was busy! I’m only one superman to save the whole world. Give me a break! Besides, Amber can handle herself, can’t you, doll?”


“Don’t you dare call her that,” Delirium growled.


“Have you - no you couldn’t have. . . No, you did!” the Guardian childishly laughed while pointing at Delirium. “You love her!”


“And you don’t! You’re not taking her!”


“Oh, yes I am. Aren’t you always tired of losing?” the Guardian sent a punch straight into Delirium’s chest, sprawling him across the room and into the wall. Guardian turned to Amber. “Let’s go.”


“How long did it take you to realize I was gone?” she spat at him.


The Guardian stopped in his tracks. “That’s not important. We just need to get you home.”

Amber grabbed his wrist with unexpected intensity. “Tell me. Now!”


“I found out yesterday, okay?”


Amber let him go, stepping back.


“Are you happy now? I looked like a fool when I went in front of all those people for my ceremony. You knew how much that meant to me to receive a key to the city. I needed that acceptance speech, and you weren’t there to write it!”


“I was kidnapped you good-for-nothing idiot! It took you two months for you to even notice I wasn’t there! Delirium isn’t the monster!”


Guardian clenched his fists. “Look, I know I made a mistake, but I need you, Amber. You’re my girl.” Amber scowled at his words. “Okay, okay. I love you. Is that what you want me to say?”


Amber chuckled in a low, raspy tone. Guardian’s eyes widened in astonishment. She stared him dead in the eyes as she said, “What a fool you are! Did you really think those three meaningless words would just roll off your lips and sweep me off my feet? Did you think I would just forget that you abandoned me like everyone else has?”


“So what, I’m the monster now?”


Another cackle left Amber’s lips as sweat dripped from her forehead despite the coolness of the cavern. Her breathing quickened as her pulse skyrocketed. Closing her eyes, Amber allowed the concoction to infiltrate her nervous system. The liquid glided up and down her bloodstream as the cells carried it to every part of her body. For a split second, her heart stopped but revived almost as quick. Amber opened her eyes, reborn. Flickering flames melted the honey brown of her eyes.


“No,” she boomed. “I am.”


Amber raise her hand, commanding the blaze from the fireplace in the room she had been held captive in. The inferno knocked the Guardian off of his perfectly balanced feet. Next, she snapped her wrist to send another blow to her so-called savior. Twirling her finger, Amber instructed the flames to bind Guardian’s wrists. Tighter and tighter she pulled until his scorched wrists oozed warm blood. Terror lit up his face, which only made her soul burn hotter. The Guardian’s screams woke Delirium from his unconsciousness. Slowly, he crawled closer to Amber’s glowing figure, crying out to her to stop before she tumbled down the path of no return.


“I don’t want your love!” She cursed. “I don’t want anything from you. You’re an egomaniac too busy putting out the world’s fires to focus on me. I want someone who will burn the world down with my name on his lips.” Amber’s face was now inches from the Guardian’s as he trembled. “This is my story now, and I’ll be the phoenix to rise from your ashes.”


With a final flick of her hand, Amber snuffed out her old flame.


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