During his time in the dark, Leopard’s despairing question for his former friend and leader deepened into one of anger.
You betrayed me, Monkey. Why?
There was no answer, of course. And as much as he wanted to shouted it, to scream it, to find some way of venting the volcanic tension inside of him, he sat and remained as still as possible. It wasn’t just to avoid revealing his emotional state to his captors, but that he had to avoid expending any energy.
He was starving.
True to Aegis’ word, no one had given him any food. Only water and, even then, it seemed to be perfectly calculated to be just enough to survive on. Not live. No one could live with the constant, dull headache he felt.
The headache was his only constant past the first day. By the second the day (or was it the third? Leopard didn’t know for sure) he’d lost count of what day it was. Aegis had said he would be in there for a week, and he had very quickly lost track of just how much time there was in a single week.
The only solace he had was that it would be a week, and he knew that the human body could go for three weeks without food. But facts didn’t fill the hollow.
The only company was his own thoughts, and Leopard didn’t like his own thoughts.
Because when he thought about the circumstances that had led him to be in this cell – when he really, truly, honestly thought about it – he knew that this betrayal wasn’t that shocking.
Ever since they had met, Leopard had known that Monkey’s brand was that of mischievous impulse over reason. Hell, it was where he had pulled his namesake from (and, unlike anyone else, Leopard knew what the namesake truly referred to). And that was fine because, for years, Leopard had thought they existed in symbiosis. Where Monkey was impulsive, Leopard was introverted. Where Monkey saw revelry, Leopard saw reason.
But all he had ever done was make excuses.
And he had always known it. In the back of his mind, he’d had some dim awareness of it, even before Tiger had called him out on it. Now, alone in the dark, Leopard could see that she had been frantically flashing him some warning signal, hoping he’d have been smart enough to see it.
He had seen it. He’d just ignored it.
He’d ignored a lot of things. For years, ever since he had met Monkey at the age of sixteen, he had made excuses – excuses that allowed him to ignore the warning signs. For years, Leopard had figured that perhaps only he could see that Monkey was not the chaotic, selfish monster his actions painted him as. For years, he had assumed that Monkey wasn’t hurting the people who had the temerity to try and care about him. For years, he had argued that it was all just an act, just a mask like the empowered heroes wore.
For years, he realized, he had never had a single sincere conversation with the man he considered his best friend.
Inevitably, all of his words came back to haunt him.
You betrayed me, Monkey. Why?
The betrayal was not shocking. In the end, the betrayal was shocking only because Monkey had betrayed him.
Leopard had thought himself beyond reproach. And why? No one else had been. Not Monkey’s parents, not his lovers (as varied and heady as that number was), not his business partners, not his friends, not Snake, not Tiger. The only person who Monkey would never betray was himself.
He had accepted it, in his own way. Perhaps not completely, but enough to entertain the thought. Monkey betrayed me.
He wasn’t sure when he accepted it. Time swam in strange motions. And, during one of those strange motions, Cometary sat down next to him and said something about how leopards cannot change their spots and comets always come back and that was when Leopard realized he was hallucinating.
Of course, that gave him no more control over anything than he had before. But at least now he didn’t feel so alone.
Sometimes Cometary sat with him, blood streaming from the hole in his face, a knowing smile on his lips. The blood pooled on the floor, but no one seemed to notice. Sometimes it was the other people he had killed, and he wanted to say he was sorry to their formless, indistinct shapes but he wasn’t sure if he was. Sometimes it was Tiger, that charred hollow in her side, and when she took a drag on her cigarette, she exhaled through her ribs.
And sometimes it was Monkey, sitting there with a forlorn smile. Like it was all a big misunderstanding.
There, Leopard fixed his eyes on the hallucination and thought, as if he could reach the other man across time and space: You betrayed me, Monkey. Why?
Years ago, someone Leopard had cared for – or thought he had cared for – had told him something in regards to Monkey: I hope you see what he’s doing to you.
When Anima opened the door and came for him on the sixth day of his imprisonment, Leopard suddenly began to see it.
This time, Anima led him somewhere different. It hurt to walk. Time passed in a floaty blur, first in flashes and then in long drags. Suddenly, Leopard was just in an interrogation room, and Aegis was there, standing on the other side of a bare metal table, arms crossed. The man – Blue-something – stood by the door. God, it hurt to think.
Anima pressed Leopard into the chair. Every part of him wanted to curl down around his belly, rest against the top of the cold metal table, to find some measure of relief from the imploded feeling of his stomach.
But he refused.
As much as it hurt, he wouldn’t give SOLAR the satisfaction of knowing his pain. He’d sit up straight and fight.
Aegis threw something down on to the top of the table. “Look at it,” she said.
Leopard did so. It took him a moment to focus on it. It was a small, flat piece of paper, maybe the size of his palm. He flipped it over, saw a face of a man he didn’t recognize. Dark-skinned, smiling.
“Dead,” said Aegis.
She threw down another piece of paper, another photo. This time it was a woman. Leopard still didn’t recognize her, but he knew of her, knew why he was being shown her image. He knew what was happening.
“Dead,” said Aegis, again.
She began to throw more photos. One, two, three, and they kept coming. They began to pile up on top of the table, scattered in front of Leopard like a gallery of missing persons – or lost souls.
“Dead,” said Aegis, her voice rising in intensity with each photo that landed in front of him. “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!”
Her words brought with them memories – faces, feelings. A long trail of dead and dying that lashed halfway around the world, terminating on this island, perhaps even just outside this very room.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Leopard said. His voice sounded hoarse. Even he knew he was lying.
Aegis voice had risen into a roar, that one word over and over again. Dead, dead, dead, dead!
Leopard screamed, the sound rising from his belly, “It wasn’t my fault!”
“All of these people,” Aegis snapped, “All of them dead, because of you. Because of your little gang.”
The room was spinning – from hunger or from shock or from despair, Leopard couldn’t tell which. The vertigo swallowed him up and became everything. It took Leopard a second to realize she’d stopped her mantra.
He gripped the edge of the metal table, used it to center himself. The room began to waver back to how it had been.
“All of these people were far more valuable than you,” Aegis continued, leaning in close. “All of them were better people. All of them had families and friends, people who cared about them, people who are now being given the call that their mother, brother, sister, father, son, daughter is dead. All of them gave their lives defending this fucked-up island.”
Aegis nodded, head bobbing. “And you – you killed them. You murdered them.”
“I didn’t–” The thought made him feel sick. “It was self-defense.”
“How? By what logic? God, why’d I think that starving you would somehow make you smarter…”
“Because?” Aegis looked over his shoulder, sparing a glance with Blue-whoever by the door, like this was some joke he’d want to get in on. “Because? Because what?”
“Because I l–” No, wrong word. “Because I was loyal.”
She moved away, back to her side of the table. “And look where that loyalty got you, you unbelievably dense motherfucker.”
Anger ignited that imploded space in his gut, filled it. Adrenal fire ripped through his body, empowering him, making him strong.
Leopard leaped over the table, roaring.
It was stupid. He knew it was stupid. Maybe he might’ve taken her on a full belly, with real rest, with muscles that weren’t wracked by a lack of both…
But that was just it – he lacked both.
Aegis grabbed him, all wiry muscle under that uniform, and twisted his mad leap. She slammed him face down against the table, cheek on metal. Leopard struggled, tried to kick out at her knee, felt his blow connect. Aegis slammed him against the table again, harder this time, fought to pin him.
Leopard thrashed like a wild beast as the cape yanked his arms behind his back, put him in a tight hold. She was breathing heavily, through her teeth, in a way that always made him think of a rope about to fray free. He was starving but she was old, limited by age.
“Stop,” she hissed. “Just stop! I don’t want to hurt you but you’re making that really fucking difficult for me.”
He didn’t want to stop, but the fire had already exhausted its meager fuel. He didn’t want to stop, but his limbs didn’t want to continue.
“You know what the hardest thing in the world is, kid?” Aegis said. “It’s living with what you’ve done. You know what the second is? It’s trying to change what you’ve become. Fucking easier to take the easy way out, right?”
“Fuck you.” A hoary rasp was all the defiance he could summon.
“You’re right, y’know? I could get someone to rip the information I want from your mind, but that’d just be adding another corpse to the pile. What’s more, it’d take time and paperwork. I’m giving you a chance here, not a choice. If you’d stop acting the fucking revolutionary for one goddamn second!”
She slammed him against the table, again. What little defiance he had left vanished away. All he could feel was the pressure of her elbow between his shoulders, the way his chest was crushed against the table.
“What’s your superpower, boy?” Aegis hissed into his ear. “Hmm? Bullets are a certain kind of superpower, sure. But Blueshift? He controls gravity.
“And me? Hah, my superpower is that I can tell him what to do. And do you know why that is? Because of trust and respect. I have you fucking pegged – all of your young, stupid machismo, and that makes you furious.”
Aegis relented, released her hold, stepped away. She moved into his periphery, breathing heavily, rubbing her wrists, somehow looking even older.
“See, I’ve got you solved, kid,” she began, sounding almost sad about it. “You attack me and you assume that my subordinate will burn you down. That way, we get nothing and you get to die thinking you’re a martyr. Solved. So give it a goddamn rest.”
Aegis gestured with her chin and Leopard heard Blueshift step up behind him, drag him back into his chair. Blearily, he watched Aegis pop the cap from a small bottle, down a set of pills.
“Stop fighting for someone who didn’t have trust or respect for you,” Aegis said, with Tiger’s voice on a second channel. “Try as you might, I’m not going to let you take the easy way out.”
Something rose in his chest, grew behind his ribs, pressed against his throat. His eyes were burning and he squeezed them shut. It was only the hunger, the starvation. It wasn’t anything as insipid as tears.
He was hallucinating again. He was going mad.
Aegis set her hand on his back, fingers on his neck. The touch was gentle and subtle and tender, but it ripped through him from scalp to gut. Leopard shuddered once, sucked in a breath.
It’d been so long since someone had touched him with genuine tenderness.
It hurt terribly.
Aegis left her hand there. The pressure had squeezed up and out of his eyes, to run down his cheeks in rivulets that touched his lips, fell onto the table.
“You’re not a monster, kid,” Aegis said, stepping away, “You just wish you were one.”
“Captain,” Blueshift said, like he knew it was the first word in an argument.
Over his shuddering breaths, Leopard heard Aegis walk to the door.
“Leave him, Shift,” she said, sounding tired and sad. “Give him twenty minutes and get him something to eat. We’ve split him open – there’s no need for any further humiliation.”
They left. A short time later, Blueshift returned with a coffee and a sandwich, dropped it on the table and left again. Leopard devoured both, felt his senses return. Felt himself come to a decision.
And then, when Aegis returned, sat down across from him, he agreed to talk.