His boots clomped loudly against the cracked sidewalk, lending a kind of authority to his steps, echoed by the thump of his partner's. Their dark blue uniforms blended into the darkness, except when the occasional unbroken streetlight caught the badges on their chests.

He'd the badge for two weeks, and was still amazed at how shiny it was, how important he felt wearing it. Enforcing The Law, upholding Truth and Justice -- what a rush! His steps took on a kind of swagger he didn't even notice.

His partner did. "Knock it off, kid, you look like you're wearing a sign saying 'Shoot me, I 'm an asshole'."

"Sorry, sir," he apologized reflexively, trying to calm his feet down. "Forgot."

"And don't call me sir." His partner rolled his eyes to the heavens. "I swear, kid, if I'd been as dumb as you when I started patrolling, I wouldn't have made it through my first day."

"Sorry, Rich," he apologized again, trying to hide his grin. According to his partner, he was the dumbest, greenest rookie that ever hit the streets of New York in uniform; he'd learned from his fellow cops that Rich said that to every kid he had been assigned to nursemaid through the first months on patrol. He didn't take it personally anymore. "Pretty quiet tonight."

"Let's just hope it stays that way," his partner said, shrugging deeper into his heavy coat as the wind picked up. "The quieter the night, the less paperwork we wind up doing."

"I hear that," he agreed wholeheartedly. He'd never learned to type and had no intention of ever learning; paperwork made him crazy.

He shot to attention as the first grunts and moans came drifting out of the alley at the end of the block. Reflexively, he reached for his holster, and started forward. His partner's arm across his chest stopped him.

"Slow it down, kid. Let's go slow and easy until we know what's happening."

He gritted his teeth but took his partner's advice, following him quietly and carefully to the mouth of the alley. The streetlights on both corners were out, but he could still see the small group clustered a feet feet into the alley, five bending over a sixth sprawled on the ground. As he watched, one of the five slammed a kick into the ribs of the one on the ground.

"Hold it!" he yelled automatically, going for his gun again and flicking his flashlight on. Everyone blinked in the sudden illumination, freezing. Next to him, he heard his partner mutter something that sounded like swearing, but moved a little further into the alley anyway. "What's going on here?"

He took in the scene at a glance as they'd taught him at the academy, noticing the familar, colored patches on the attackers' clothes and the blood on the face of the young man who sprawled at their feet, too badly hurt to do anything more than groan. Brown hair, tan skin, nothing special. No indication of why he'd been so brutally beaten.

"Damn mutie attacked us," the biggest member of the gang blustered, obviously feeling invulnerable in the middle of his friends. "We were teaching him a lesson about going after decent, normal humans."

"Bullshit," he started to say, starting to go into the alley to check on the boy. But his partner's arm stopped him once again.

"You say he's a mutie?" He swung to look at his partner, who was relaxed and open, as if he believed every word the thugs were saying.

"Yeah," the leader said, looking at his partner through narrow eyes. "Came at us shooting flames from his hands or something. We didn't do a thing to him, he just went crazy."

His partner nodded sagely, understandingly. "He just attacked you. Well," he studied the walls around them, looked up at the sky, "guess it was self-defense, then."

The thugs blinked, and a smug grin slowly spread over the leader's face. "Yeah, right. Self-defense."

He swung on his partner with disbelieving eyes, looking from him to the viciously beaten boy and back. Six men against one boy, and his partner called it self-defense? "Rich..." he started.

His partner still didn't look at him, or at the boy, who groaned and tried to move. One of the men gave him a careless, sideways kick and the boy fell back to the ground. "Why don't all of you head on home, now," his partner suggested. "Seems you've taken care of this situation just fine."

The thugs grinned, two in back shoving each other like schoolyard bullies who'd just put one over on the gym teacher. "We'll do that, officer," the leader said, walked past them without even a glance back at the boy. "Glad to know we've got good people like you patrolling our streets."

"Right," his partner said without a hint of expression, standing aside to watch them go.

He stood next to his partner, watching, too stunned to even move. "What the hell are you doing?" he finally managed to demand. "There was no way in hell six guys beating up on one kid is self-defense!"

He started to move towards the boy; once again, his partner stopped him. "Use your head, kid," his partner said calmly. "That's a mutant. Who knows what the hell weird powers he has, or how he used them on those people. Whatever they did to him, he probably had it coming. Trust me."

He stared at his partner, trying to believe his words. His partner had been around for years, he knew everything; he had to be right. Didn't he? "We at least need to get the vic--, um, the kid to a hospital."

His partner shook his head again. "No, kid, we're not going near him. He's hurt; he'd probably turn his powers on anyone who came near him. We'll radio for an ambulance and let them deal with him. Come on."

He knew they shouldn't leave him. Deep within his chest was the utter certainty that this was wrong. But his partner's voice was stronger, louder. "Come on."

He hesitated, looking back over his shoulder at the boy. The boy's eyes opened in a pleading look from eyes. One bloody arm twitched, moved, extended a hand.

He almost took it, was almost close enough to touch it, when he saw the sparks leaping out of the hand onto the ground. Instinctively, he jumped back, and saw the hope in the boy's eyes turn to resignation, before his head dropped back to the ground.

He backed away, never taking his eyes off of those hands. His partner was putting his radio away when he emerged from the alley; the ambulance would be on its way. The boy would be fine.

Of course he'd be fine. They were cops, they'd take care of him.

After several days, he was even able to stop thinking about it. The boy was probably in the hospital or at home, he told himself over and over, with a few bruises and a lot more respect for the streets at night. Like his partner had said, it was nothing to worry about.

Nothing at all.

He turned his face under the tepid water from the locker room shower and let it wash down his body, scrubbing at his eyes until spots danced before them, obscuring the image of the boy's pleading eyes.

He emerged when the showerhead next to him came on, stealing a little more precious warm water from his own. He turned it off and reached for his towel.

The two men next to him didn't pay any attention to him; they were detectives, it was beneath them to notice one rookie patrolman. Instead, they continued whatever conversation they'd begun. He dried his short hair roughly.

".... found it in an alley off of Second, must have been there for a few days."

"And no one reported it? Great neighborhood."

"Probably thought it was a drunk out cold. Kid had really been worked over, probably didn't move an inch after he was dumped there. Probably wasn't much more than seventeen. No drugs in the autopsy, no alcohol, nothing. Can't figure out what the kid was doing in that area."

His lungs were complaining; he realized it was because he had stopped breathing. They'd been patrolling Second St., that night....

A few minutes later, he was dry and back in uniform, and paging frantically through the watchlog. He found the terse notation about the body, 'male, caucasian, brown hair, brown eyes', took the case number and tracked down the file, snagging it directly from a detective's desk. His hands were shaking too hard to hold the folder; it fell open, showing the morgue picture of a bruised, battered boy. His eyes were closed in death, but he knew if they were open, they'd be the same gaze that haunted him.

They'd found the body right where he'd last seen it, still in the alley. No ambulance had come for the boy, no help, even though....

A hand fell on his shoulder, firm and brotherly. He looked up into his partner's eyes, still calm and friendly. "He died," he says quietly, disbelievingly. "No one came."

His partner just looked at him. "Yeah."

"He was a kid. He died. And we didn't help him."

His partner shrugged. "No one cares, kid. No one's going to care." Was there a warning there, behind the friendly look? "He was just another mutie."

"He was a kid," he repeated helplessly.

Another shrug. "That's the way it is sometimes. Nothing you can do about it."

He swallowed, tried to find a response, but couldn't. His partner reached past him to close the folder. "You can get in big trouble messing with a detective's desk," he offered helpfully, steering him in the general direction of the door. "Your shift's over, kid, same as mine. Let's head on home."

He went. There was nothing he could do now, no way to change it. And it *was* just another mutie, wasn't it?

Wasn't it?

Detective O'Brien looked down at the open folder on his desk, staring one more time at the face of a boy who'd never had a chance. He sighed, knowing the boy probably still didn't have a chance -- his case would be filed with the hundreds of other that would never be solved, because there were no witnesses, no clues and no one who cared.

O'Brien was too tired to care. He closed the folder and started to toss it deep into the pile on his desk. The sound of a throat being cleared stopped him; he looked irritably up, recognizing the painfully young rookie who'd been showering next to him an hour ago. "Yeah?"

The kid looked ready to turn tail and run. "I'm... um..."

O'Brien sighed as the kid stuttered. "Say it or get out of my light, kid. It's been a long night and don't have time for this."

The kid flinched, then his face set, expressionless. "Sorry... sorry to disturb you." He turned away, but O'Brien had seen something in his eyes....

"Kid. What've you got to tell me?"

For a second, he thought the kid was going to keep walking. Then he stopped; his shoulders slumped, before going back into something close to attention, the posture of a man about to face a firing squad. O'Brien saw the kid take a deep breath before he turned back around. "It's... about your case. About the boy you found...."



The Common People started out as a story challenge issued by David J. Warner, if I recall correctly. It was to tell stories set in the Marvel Universe, but which did not involve superheros, megavillains or Spandex in any way, shape or form. Just the ordinary lives of people who live in an extraordinary world. I contributed three stories to this challange, one of which is not longer up because I intend to try to sell the sucker!< g >

Blue Starfish was my second contribution, and the title comes from an old story, told to me by an HIV-positive woman when I was in college. It's about a man walking along a beach covered with starfish, who were left there to die when the tide receded. Every time he comes to a starfish, he picks it up and throws it back into the water, then goes onto the next one. He does this, patiently, until someone else comes along and asks him why he's bothering, since he can't save even a fraction of the starfish; what he'd doing can't possibly make a difference. The man looks at him, then looks back down at the beach and throws another starfish back into the tide. "Well," he says, "it made a difference to that one."