The Burning Crown

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The Ember Kid breathed a sigh of relief as bits of debris rained down around them.

“That went pretty well, I think,” he said. “I mean, it’s a shame the building blew up, but these things happen, and we stopped Doctor Destruction, right?” He nudged the unconscious supervillain with his foot. “Police’ll be here any minute to take him away.”

The Phoenix Queen didn’t respond. She knelt in the rubble, breathing heavily.

“I was worried for a while, there,” the Ember Kid went on, his cadence speeding up in worry. He wanted to ask her if she was okay, but she always got angry if he did. “When he hit you with that ion charge gun of his.” He was rambling, and he new it, but he couldn’t stop himself. “I thought you were out for the fight. And if you couldn’t beat him, what chance did I have on my own? But I couldn’t just run away and leave you there. I’d never be able to live with myself if I abandoned you, and who knows what Doctor D could do if he got his hands on the burning crown. I should have realized that you were just playing possum, waiting for the right-.”

“Jeremy,” the Phoenix Queen said, between labored breaths. Goosebumps ran down his arms at the sound of his civilian name. The Phoenix Queen had never called him Jeremy, not while she was on duty. She kept the barriers between their superhero and regular lives as solid as a steel wall.

She pulled the red mask off of her face. “I’m not okay.”

Her words sank into the Ember Kid’s stomach like lead weights. “What?” he said, barely more than a whisper. She couldn’t have said that. It couldn’t mean what it sounded like. There had to be something he didn’t understand.

She looked up at him, blood and sweat on her face. He had known her for six years, but he had never seen her look like this. She looked tired. Not just worn down by a long battle, but with a bone-deep weariness.

He had never thought of her as old. He knew that she wasn’t young – they had celebrated her fifty-third birthday a few months ago – but whether she was the Phoenix Queen, or Lucinda Everston, she had always been too full of life to be old.

She looked old, now.

Reaching out, she took his hand and squeezed. “I wasn’t playing possum, Jeremy,” she said. There was anger and frustration in her voice, but it was almost lost underneath the sheer exhaustion. “I was out. I’d never leave you to fight on without me like that. I didn’t blast Doctor Destruction because it was the right moment. I did it because I had regained consciousness, and I knew if he realized I wasn’t completely out of the fight, he’d make sure I didn’t wake up next time.”

Something wet and warm ran down Jeremy’s cheeks, and he told himself it was just sweat.

“I don’t understand.”

She smiled wanly at him. “Yes, you do. I remember when we first met. You were just this stupid kid, full of grief and rage. So much hurt it threatened to burn you up. I didn’t want a sidekick. Didn’t need one. Or that’s what I thought, at any rate. You saved my life that day.”

She place her hands to her temples, where a ring of what looked like molten iron lay on her head. With a grunt of effort, she lifted it off.

“How many times have you saved my life since then?” Lucinda asked, looking at the burning crown, rather than him.

“Less than half as many times as you saved mine,” Jeremy insisted.

“But I had never needed your help before,” she said. “I should have seen it for what it was at the time, but I was too proud. Age catches up with all of us, eventually. You helped me keep going for another six years, but I’ve reached my limit.”

She struggled to her feet. Part of him thought he should offer his hand to her, but he shoved those thoughts back and looked away. She wasn’t allowed to be weak, he thought bitterly.

The air around him grew warmer, and when he looked back, Lucinda was holding the burning crown out to him.

“I… I can’t,” he said.

“We both knew you’d inherit the crown from me one day. It’s always liked you.”

“I can’t do this on my own.”

She laughed. A pure, honest laugh completely at odds with how tired she looked.

“Did you think I’d just give you the crown and cut you loose? I love you like you were my own son, Jeremy. I’ll always be here for you. But you’re all grown-up now, and it’s time for you to take the center stage.”

Wordlessly, he took the crown from her. The warm metal was surprisingly heavy.

“I suppose I couldn’t keep going by ‘the Ember Kid’, much longer anyway. I’m eighteen now. It’d start to get kind of creepy soon, wouldn’t it?”

“A little bit,” she said. “Might I suggest ‘the Ember King’? It keeps up the whole royalty thing.”

He stared at the crown for a long moment, then at the woman who had taken him in when he had lost everything. He tucked the ring of metal into his belt.

“I think I’d like to be the Ember Kid for one more day.”

Lucinda put an arm around his shoulders, and they departed.

Prompt: A Superhero’s Retirement

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I’ve done prompts on a Hero receiving the call, and joining a team. This week’s prompt will deal with the end of their journey.

Good luck and good writing!