The small man on the other end of the table sighed as if he'd heard the punchline too many times already. "Sir, I understand that you're unhappy about recent events, but this is a necessity. I don't want to keep you here longer than necessary, but I can throw you in jail for a night for obstructing this audit. I'm not asking for your moniker; I'm asking for your name, and it's only out of politeness." He tapped the side of his laptop for emphasis. "Now before I have to look it up -- your name."
It was a little thing, really. But it felt huge. "Orson Herschel Siegal," Swift replied, purposely looking away from the auditor and searching for something in the stark white room to pull his attention away.
"Thank you, Mr. Siegal." The auditor peered down his nose at the computer screen, eyes never quite meeting Swift's despite the starkness of the room. "I know this is difficult for you. It says here you're... a cognitive tactile..." He trailed off, mouthing an unfamiliar word.
"It means I get stronger as I get dumber." Swift scratched at his shoulder and offered a sheepish grin. "Came up with the term in grad school. I can grow to about 10 feet and hurl a bus, but by that point I'm at about a four-year-old's level of --"
"Yes, yes. Grad school... employment won't be a problem with your doctorate... you already have a residence... no need for therapy..."
It wasn't the first time the auditor had spoken to himself during the course of the interview, but it certainly wasn't helping. "Look, I know you're going to get to the part about taking away my powers. Let's just do that and then I can go home."
For the first time, the auditor looked genuinely hurt. "Mr. Siegal, do you think I enjoy doing this?"
"You tell me." Swift shrugged, leaning back in his chair and feeling anger flood his system. "You're here because one day someone decided that Paragon City was dangerous to its citizens, so now we all have to just stop being heroes because you were concerned about how much money it would cost to repair the damage to a street if --"
"Mr. Siegal, I am not here to argue the government's decision with you. I am here to ensure that the shutdown of the superheroic branch of Paragon City's government proceeds smoothly." The little man with the computer was actually trying to meet Swift's gaze, and he instinctively turned away. He didn't really want to think of this trollish little man as a person, not in light of the horrible thing that was being done to the city.
It was the truth, of course -- the agents that had come in to shut everything down hadn't borne the heroes any malice. Near as anyone could tell, they had barely even noticed the people there. But they were still shutting things down just the same, forcing the Longbow to hang up their tights, stripping inventors of their powered armor, leaving metahumans like Swift to be carefully regulated and controlled. They were killing the city.
"I'm aware," Swift said at length in a small voice. "I don't have to like it."
"No, you don't." The auditor turned back to his laptop and hit a few keys. "Now, you're classified as high enough on our threat index that we could strip you of your powers, but I think you'll work with our rehabilitation program. You'll need to stay within the city, and you'll be fitted with a tracking brace..."
Swift nodded, listening without hearing. All he could think of was how hard he had fought to keep the city safe, how much time he had devoted to fighting back crime. And it was all coming to an end to balance a budget somewhere far from his home.
He'd spent the rest of the day in a haze. They'd fitted him for an ankle bracelet, worked out new job leads for him, patted him on the back and sent him away. Mr. Swift was gone, and he could look forward to the rest of his life explaining to people that he was wearing this tracker because he had superhuman abilities he was no longer allowed to use.
Clearly, the healthy way to cope was to sit on the couch of his apartment and kill a six-pack while watching old action films. He was halfway through doing that when he heard a knock at his window.
His first instinct was to reach for his costume, but he stopped himself before trying to grab it from its usual hiding place under a throw pillow. Sighing at himself as much as anything, he walked over to the window, unsurprised by the sight of his two partners on the fire escape. They were dressed like normal people, of course, but Seagull and Sipahi were pretty hard to mistake.
"Hey," he muttered, opening the window and shivering a bit at the cold outside. "You could use the front door."
"We wanted to talk." Seagull was wearing enough layers that the cold didn't seem to bother her, but she still hurried in through the open window. "Like, in person."
"Well, you're here." Swift sighed, walking over to his couch and collapsing on it once again as Sipahi stepped in and shut the window. "So talk."
Both of the women stared at him for a moment, but it was Sipahi who spoke first, rubbing her arms to get the chill out. "You're just going to sit there? Getting drunk?"
"Not much else I can do. They're tracking me and treating us like criminals." He shrugged. "Any better ideas?"
"Yeah, actually. We break the rules."
Swift raised an eyebrow. "I'm the one drinking; that should be my stupid idea."
"It's not a stupid idea! It's more... like... a stupid awesome idea. Because it's so --"
"It's stupid. We lost, OK?" He frowned for a moment, trying to remember Seagull's actual name. "Monet, you're only in temporary housing because the government helped you out. And Reyhana here --"
"Reyhana." He looked at the dusky-skinned woman in exasperation. "Back me up here. We have to be responsible about this, right?"
"Oh, most certainly. But responsible is... a loaded word. The people shutting us down aren't being very responsible about it, are they?" She reached out and grabbed the remote, shutting off the movie before sitting next to Swift on the couch.
He was going to protest before he saw Seagull reach over to pull the beer out of his hand. "We were talking about it after we had our meeting with the agency. And... it's just not right. They can't just kick us out when we're trying to do good."
"Yeah, they can."
"All right, whatever; they can, but they shouldn't." She rubbed the back of her neck, visibly searching for words. "I'm not about to just roll over and let go because Paragon City isn't our home any more."
Swift sighed. "We can't leave the city. The rules are --"
"Swift, you know I don't say this sort of thing often, but forget the rules." Sipahi sprang out of her seat now, gesturing for emphasis as she spoke. "We can leave. Yes, we'll be fugitives, and they'll call us criminals, but do you want to stop helping people? Can you honestly tell me that you want to live your life like this?"
"Of course I don't. But..." He frowned. It seemed as if there should be some way to refute what she was saying, but nothing lept to mind.
"Come on, big guy. We'll go out there, we'll fight crime across the country, we'll do... you know, the whole wandering justice thing. Cowboys. But, like, cowboys with super powers." Now Seagull was on her feet as well. "It'll be an adventure. Even if no one else gets to see it, it'll be an adventure."
"We're supposed to be the people who uphold the rules, though. We're..."
"Heroes." Sipahi finished the sentence. "We are heroes. And this is what we do."
Swift looked at her. There was no way he would ever be a hero in Paragon City any longer. But that didn't mean that he couldn't still be a hero, that he couldn't make use of the lessons he'd learned over the years. Even if the city was gone, he didn't have to stop being himself.
He stood. "You're right. We're heroes. No matter when, no matter where... no matter what."
And even if it didn't make everything all right, even the thought helped.
To my readers over the past several years of covering City of Heroes, to the spectacular staff of Paragon Studios, to the many fans I've been fortunate enough to meet at several conventions, and to everyone who has ever been touched by the game, I give my thanks.
Whatever happens next, we are heroes.
Feedback is welcome, as always, in the comments down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And next week... we move forward.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.