"I'LL HAVE TO PAY YOU IN CASH. I'D LIKE TO USE MY CREDIT CARD, BUT IT WOULD GIVE AWAY MY SECRET IDENTITY."
Steel Armstrong's voice reverberated through the grocery store; some people took photos with their phones of the titanic being in line at the checkout, cape flowing behind him.
His enormous fingers encased in gleaming gauntlets expertly picked their way into a small brown wallet, clamping onto a ten-dollar bill and holding it out to the cashier, who accepted it after a moment of brief hesitation. His items - various small foodstuffs, a set of batteries, some hand soap, and a can of Coke - fit snugly within a single plastic bag, which he happily hefted along with the receipt provided by the clerk. If any tried to glimpse his ID, searching desperately for his real name - they would see what appeared to be a perfect replica of a driver's license with a photo of his helmeted head. Name: Steel Armstrong. Address: Wherever he's needed.
With the unrest in the city following the convention attack and rumors of predatory violence at night, it was understandable that some had their reservations about his presence here in the Safeway. Was this a stunt, or was he actually a meta-human? Nothing about his behavior seemed unusual other than his manner of dress...as for his immense size, he was naturally intimidating. The explosive way that he said "HELLO!" to any who met his gaze, along with a small wave, felt unnatural, like an actor playing a character - but at no point did the persona fade. The featureless helmet never came off, and its bearer never stopped to wink at a camera, to do anything to suggest that going shopping in a 7' tall suit of armor was anything other than routine.
Armstrong hadn't fought much crime lately. He had lifted a person's car out of a spot along the side of the road after another Pittsburgh local had double parked over it - carefully lifted, so as not to leave any grooves in the metal where his hands held it. The owner of the automobile had seemed to suggest that the titanic muscleman move it as a joke - only to be surprised when his car was casually deposited in the middle of the tarmac. The superhero had barely broken a sweat. In return, he received a selfie with the incredulous driver. All in a day's work.
He was strong - prodigiously so - but until today, he had seemed mostly harmless.
When exiting the grocery store, he proceeded to walk down the sidewalk outside - it was true that he could leap from place to place, but that was a lot of effort, and his aim was to be among people, rather than over them. He'd pet dogs and wait for the lights to change at crosswalks like anyone else, occasionally interjecting with small talk - "YES, THE COLDER WEATHER IS NICE" - and for the most part, despite what seemed to be ample potential, he never did anything that could be remotely categorized as violent.
On this particular afternoon, as the 'walk' sign changed from a disapproving red hand to an eager green stick figure, the squeal of tires from up the road tore through the city air, along with the piercing wail of police sirens.
A gray semi truck roared down South 21st with no sign of stopping, full of bullet holes and with sign of forced entry - in its tow, a small fleet of squad cars gave chase. The occupants of the stolen truck let loose with a hail of gunfire, the brazen daytime theft sending them barreling into the path of the cluster of pedestrians -
- until -
A swift axe kick into the grill of the truck brought it to a sudden, devastating halt. The driver of the truck - seatbelt neglected in his haste - was propelled through the front windshield, only to be caught in an instant by the gargantuan silver mitt of Steel Armstrong, who held him aloft by the scruff of his shirt like a pet owner held a kitten after it made a mess.
"WELL, WELL, WELL. BAD LUCK FOR YOU. CAN'T STEAL AT NIGHTTIME BECAUSE OF ALL THE VIGILANTES ABOUT - CAN'T STEAL IN THE DAY BECAUSE OF ME. HO-HO. DON'T YOU FEEL FOOLISH, MY FRIEND?"
The helmed titan threw his head back and chuckled. In response, the beleaguered bandit turned his submachine gun on his captor, spraying him across the chest with gunfire to no avail. The spent slugs trickled to their feet like birds bouncing off a very clean window, but the thunder of the gun going off had panicked the gathered crowd. In response, Armstrong simply shook his head and crushed the barrel of the weapon in his grip.
Then, as what could be seen as a hail mary move, the robber's eyes flashed red, and he unleashed a pair of twin beams from his eyes.
These, too, were resisted, but not without difficulty. As the parallel lines scorched burn marks into his chest, Armstrong shook the man like a can of soda. The lines fizzled.
"A META, LIKE ME. NOW THAT IS INTERESTING. DID SOMEONE ASK YOU TO DO THIS, EH?"
He'd heard the rumors, of course. Organized supervillain gangs. Was this one such member, or merely a lone wolf, as it were?
It would be of paramount importance to find out. Perhaps the danger had not yet passed. As law enforcement began to encircle them, and smoke rose from the busted-up car, he kept his eyes and ears open. Whatever came next in this thrilling saga, he had a deadly feeling of foreboding danger that lurked just out of sight. He would need to meet it head-on, and at some point, get new groceries to replace the ones he'd dropped to get in front of the truck.
Just another day in the adventurous life of Steel Armstrong.
Everything about the stranger grated on Todd’s senses, but nothing actually triggered his danger instincts, so he had to endure it.
Steel Armstrong’s body language said nothing about him. He smelled sterile, metal hiding everything but the cheap, lightly-scented deodorant the man underneath wore. His voice resonated just right to leave Todd’s chest feeling tight when he was done, like someone had left the bass boosted just barely too high.
But, with everybody distracted, nobody looked twice at the man behind Armstrong at the checkout, at Todd and the five dozen eggs Sam had asked him to pick up from the Stop’n’Rob on his way home. And today, that’s what mattered. Like Armstrong, he wore a mask; not a tin-can metal suit, but a slightly slouching if gangly man with a shy, close-lipped smile and quietly friendly attitude. He, too, paid in cash, for mostly the same reason as Armstrong. Even if he wasn’t using his alias, he didn’t like leaving tracks where someone could follow him. One of the reasons he avoided social media, too.
He was out of the store a few seconds later, to a scene. A crowd was starting to collect, which was evidence toward Todd’s theory that people really hated their prey instincts because survival clearly wasn’t a concern when gunfire and a crashed semi were involved. A semi that – apparently – had crashed into the tin man from the grocery store. Todd joined the edge of the crowd just in time to see the laser eyes flare to life and do nothing to the metal man, and Todd just shook his head a little.
One of the many benefits of having a very, very secret identity, was that he couldn’t convince himself to be in the middle of shenanigans like this. But he could watch, and see if he couldn’t pick up anything interesting from the sidelines, just in case.
To say that Nat was stalking Todd wouldn’t have been entirely incorrect. It had certainly started as something along those lines, the paranoia he had felt after their first meeting prompting him to follow the man nearly four blocks before being discovered by his prey. Todd had claimed he had known immediately, and surprisingly offered to teach Nat everything he needed to know about tailing a person without being noticed.
After that it had become a game, one that Nat had lost more times than he had won but that ultimately honed his skill to a razor edge. He had gotten extremely quick at spotting Todd in a crowd, even without the silly hat. He had learned how to keep him at just the right distance that he couldn’t slip down an alley or into a store to lose him. He had learned to feign his attention elsewhere while he was truly watching the thin man in the corner of his vision.
Nat felt that he had gotten pretty good at it, and it seemed that Todd would probably agree if he had known that Nat was behind him on the streets. Evidence suggested he didn’t, and Nat waited outside the Stop’n’Rob at a crosswalk with the intention of bringing it to his mentor’s attention. There was always the possibility that Todd might lie, but he hadn’t done so with Nat since they had started their work together. Todd truly wanted to help Nat become the best vigilante he could be, and if Nat had successfully followed him without being seen it was almost certain that Todd would admit as much to him.
The anxiety was almost killer, casual sips from a large cup tinged with impatience as he watched people hustling across the street in one direction or another. Nat simply leaned against the light post, in the crowd but apart from it, as he waited for his friend. He was often amazed at how readily people dismissed what wasn’t relevant to them. Nat didn’t know anyone who passed him, and they treated him as much a part of the scenery as the light pole he leaned against. Sure a few would glance at him, a mild light of curiosity behind their gazes quickly squashed by the alert of an incoming text or the changing of the crosswalk lights.
When the gargantuan, caped man clad in steel ducked through the door of the convenience store Nat’s eyes were drawn to him like the rest of the crowd’s. Some rushed to him for autographs, others simply snapped pictures but Nat simply watched as the man took his place in the queue to cross the street. Steel Armstrong was a well known name in the city, and though he had been relatively inactive of late Nat was acutely aware that the meta who casually waited for the light to change was capable of immense violence and power.
As if to drive that knowledge to the forefront of his attention the scream of tires tore Nat’s attention from both the store and the hero. A grey semi was speeding down the road, right toward Nat, Armstrong, and the crowd of civilians around them. Nat tensed, his hand slipping into the backpack slung over his shoulder instinctively in preparation. He had been training for something like this, and he was fairly confident that he could stop the truck. The tetsu ookami mask was half slipped free when Armstrong stepped into the truck’s path.
A swift kick crashed into the truck, and the crowd screamed and scrambled to flee the destructive scene. Nat, remarkably unfazed by the chaos, caught a piece of the truck as it flew past his head, the metal flowing down his wrist as if melted at his touch. As the police cars roared into the scene to surround Armstrong and the truck lasers fired from the driver’s eyes. Nat sipped his drink casually as he watched, still leaning against the light pole. If nothing else happened he would be content to enjoy the show, and perhaps learn a thing or two.
The nagging, foreboding sensation in the back of his mind told him that he might be needed as more than audience soon enough, though.