B011.9 Monkey Family

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“This explains so much.” Camille was the first one to speak up, her voice much calmer than I would’ve expected. Her eyes were fixed on my father, and she looked ready to jump into action (not that I thought she’d stand a chance – he would have something lined up to defend against her power), but she was remarkably restrained. “I was wondering what kind of screw-up raised you.” Insulting the Dark to his face? I’d underestimated this girl’s guts… or perhaps overestimated her smarts. Fortunately, dad was too busy looking from Hennessy to Elouise and back again. Camille didn’t continue once she realised that no one else was taking her up on it.

Hennessy herself seemed completely lost, radiating a sense of such perfect, total confusion that she was giving me vertigo. Her facial expression was unchanged, but that didn’t matter right now at all.

Elouise looked from her sister to her grandfather, then to me. Unlike everyone else in the room, she looked ecstatic. Her eyes were shining brightly, and she was still holding Hennessy’s hands in hers, almost vibrating on the spot. I was pretty sure that the only reason she wasn’t grinning ear-to-ear was because, well, she was in front of the Dark and her mother had probably drilled her on proper etiquette.

Tamara, conversely, had turned very, very calm. Her face held no expression as she rose up. “Kevin, a word please?” she asked, nodding towards a nearby privacy screen. I stepped away from the table (it didn’t seem like anyone was going to say or do anything, anyway) and followed her behind the screen. In better times, my eyes would probably have been glued to her backside, but I barely spared that a glance (though it did look fine) and what the hell is wrong with you, Aaron? Focus!

When she turned around, her face was still carefully controlled, though I could easily see the tension in her facial muscles and her posture. She put her fists on her hips, and looked at me with an almost playful look. “Alright, let’s skip the part where I am outraged over you having a child with another woman – you said it happened before we got together, and I believe you – and besides, we were never exclusive, you and I – and let’s also skip the part where I profess disbelief over you being related to the Dark, or outrage over you never telling me when we were still together – it wasn’t my business.” She gave me a sweet smile, and I started to sweat. “Instead, let’s focus on the point where you didn’t tell me, as soon as you got back, that my daughter is related to the Dark.” Her smile dropped away, and her gaze turned into a glare that made me sweat more. “Or how about you explain to me why you thought it a good idea to introduce my child to the King of Supervillains!?” Her glare turned positively murderous, even though her voice was still sweet and quiet.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and put my hands behind my back, so she wouldn’t see how I was wringing them. Alright, Aaron, don’t fuck this one up. Dad’s training had never really helped me with Tamara, at least not where it mattered. “To be honest, I would’ve been perfectly happy if I’d never had to involve him in any aspect of my life again, ever,” I said quietly, in as measured a voice as I could squeeze out. She only frowned at me, but didn’t interrupt. “Today’s the first time we’ve so much as exchanged a single word in twenty-two years. And I would’ve been fine to let things continue like that, except that the situation here has-“

“Is this about the promise you gave me?” she asked, and her eyes turned sad, and a little ashamed. “Kevin, really, you don’t have to keep it,” she said, her mouth twisting into an ashamed pout. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do that in the first place. I’m sure the heroes will be able to capture that madman this time, and then the girls will be safe, anyway.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that simple, Tamara.” I sighed, rubbing the back of my head with one hand (I was glad for the screen, because dad would probably never let me hear the end of it for being so uncontrolled). “First, I would be going after him anyway, regardless of any promise I made you. And second… it might not be so simple to protect them from him.” Now she was looking really worried. “He’s got… backing. Big backing. The only reason I’ve contacted my father is because I need his help to protect them.” I sighed, and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Honestly, I… I probably still wouldn’t have done it, except… this is bigger than I thought. Way bigger.”

Her face went from worried to honestly scared. “What is it? What kind of backing does he have, who’s coming after my daughter?

I wasn’t sure whether I should tell her. There wasn’t anything she could do, even if she decided to go back into costume (which I highly doubted), and knowing would only scare her. And I so desperately wanted to keep her and her family safe…

You’re doing what your father would do, Aaron, I heard a treacherous little voice from far back in my head. Controlling the flow of information. Deciding who gets to know what. You set up this meeting specifically so as not to do that. To share all the crucial information with everyone in your family. And now I was considering keeping one of the big ones from her, to keep her safe. Be honest. You want to keep her ignorant. Because she is no more safe this way than she would be with the knowledge.

I sighed. There really was no arguing with myself. “Alright. I’ll tell you. Let’s go back to the table.” I turned to go back, but she grabbed me by the shoulder and flipped me around.

“We’re not done here,” she said, her eyes hard. “There are some things I need to know before I agree not to grab my girls and get the hell out of here!” She was looking ready to beat anything I wasn’t willing to tell her out of me. I could just nod, really. “First of all, can you promise me that they’re safe from him? Think very carefully before you answer, because if you can’t reply with a simple, straightforward ‘yes’, I swear I will grab them and get them out of here!”

I stopped for a moment, making sure to consider the question thoroughly. Obviously, I wouldn’t have brought them here in the first place had I believed him to be an immediate danger… but there was no denying that he could (and most likely would) be an incredibly bad influence, even if he didn’t take any direct hand in her life once we’d dealt with the Ascendant. To be perfectly honest, I would’ve done everything in my power to keep their lineage a secret from him, if at all possible. Even Elouise’s, because she really didn’t need the kind of attention she’d get for being his granddaughter.

On the other hand, I didn’t believe that he’d ever harm them on purpose. For all his faults and vices, his demented lessons and his twisted perspective on life, he had never actually hurt me on purpose. And I’d already gotten him to promise that he would always come to me first, if anything related to them came up, so… I could be reasonably certain that they were safe.

“Yes,” I said, making sure I was looking her in the eyes. “I have already gotten a promise out of him never to interfere with them in any way without consulting me first, and I intend to impose more rules on any interactions now that he knows they are related to him. And I wouldn’t have initiated this meeting – or him learning of their relation to me, and thus him, in the first place – if I didn’t think it was necessary to protect them from the Ascendant and his group.”

She searched my face for any signs of dishonesty, pressing her fists against her hips as she looked up at me (even in heels, she wasn’t close to my height). Then she relaxed, if only a little bit. “Alright. I’ll accept that. Next question – what is up with her?”

I didn’t have to ask who she was talking about. “Creepy story, best if I only tell it once. I don’t think she’ll be a threat to Hennessy anymore, if her current behaviour is any indication.” We both threw a look around the privacy screen. The girls had sat down again. Father was still just staring blankly at Hennessy and Elouise, Camille was getting more and more freaked out, Hennessy was… Hennessy and Elouise was absolutely bubbling over with excitement, vibrating on her seat and trying to jiggle closer to her half-sister with a manic grin on her face, but kept getting pushed back by an invisible force – not that it seemed to discourage her in the slightest.

“She looks like Charity on Christmas morning,” Tamara said. “Is that really the same girl who’s been ruling the local crime scene since she was barely a teen?” There was an odd look in her eyes that I couldn’t place.

“She’s the Matriarch’s daughter, alright. I don’t think she’s ever had a family that cared about her,” I replied. “I’m not even sure if she has friends.” Another sin to make up for.

“I’m… not sure how to feel about this,” she admitted as we turned from the adorably heartbreaking scene. “But I’m afraid that she’d be a horrible influence on Hennessy, if they do get… closer.”

“Or maybe Hennessy will be a wonderful influence on her,” I said. “I’m noticing that you’re not reaming me a new one for introducing the two of them without warning.”

She shrugged. “Children need their families,” she said, giving me a very pointed look. Ouch. “I would’ve preferred to have talked about this beforehand, but… I probably would’ve agreed anyway. Which you obviously didn’t expect, which is why you forced this whole scene.” Ouch to the power of two. Truth hurts.

I looked away in shame. “I was just… I was thinking this whole situation over,” I told her. “And I saw where it all might go, where it could go… and I decided to just screw it all and just put the cards on the table.”

Her sigh made me look at her again. “You’re probably right,” she said. “But this ain’t over, Kevin,” she jabbed her finger into my chest. “Not by a long shot. And I don’t think you’re quite aware of how much trouble is coming your way, just with those two girls.”

Now I grinned at her. “I’m still looking forward to it.”

“Good. Because I can tell you, having one teenage daughter can be a nightmare – two are a rubber room and a straight jacket waiting for you.” For a moment, I thought I saw the corners of her lips quirk up.

I gave her my best sheepish grin. “At least I’ll be comfortable.”

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The turtle moves on…

Once, a little boy was given a book by a friend of his father’s, who thought it was cute that a ten-year-old liked big books without pictures in them.

The boy had ready many books until then, but this one was special. It had a serious story, but it was funny, too. It had footnotes, which the boy had never seen before in a fun book, only in his father’s boring textbooks. And the story was weird, too. Familiar, but making fun of it. As if the person telling the story was talking about the story, as well. Making fun of it, but also telling the boy why it was good, and why it was important.

As he read it, the boy started to think about stories. He had always liked telling stories, lots of them. Since kindergarden, really. But he’d never really paid much attention to them, as stories. Just tales to be made up and told, or retold after he heard or read them.

That boy began to write, and think about the writing, and the stories he told. And now he’s become man who writes novels, and does what he can to help others think about stories and write them, too.

All that, because of a book called Mort.

B011.8 Monkey Family

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Ten minutes. Ten minutes. That was faster than I’d like. I’d hoped for a little time to gather my wits, prepare, be ready to meet the old man for the first time in… damn, for the first time in twenty-two years now.

Ten minutes. He had a lot of failings and bad traits, but he was always punctual. If he said ten minutes, he meant ten minutes, on the second. So I had to hurry.

Five seconds after he hung up, I was racing up to my room, phone still in hand, already stripping out of my clothes. I got a second suit out of the wardrobe – Memo to self, do something really nice for Elouise – and put it on. A more casual, dark green one, with a matching tie and a maroon shirt.

I was just buttoning up my shirt when my gaze fell on the pictures of my mother. I wish you were here, I thought, for the millionth billionth time since that day. But more than ever, now. You always wanted grandchildren. I wonder what you’d have thought of Hennessy and Elouise? If you’d been alive, you’d have known about Tamara. You could’ve helped her, when she gave birth to Hennessy. Taken them both in.

Sitting on the bed, I put on fresh socks and clean black shoes, while I reminisced a bit. It was painful, as always, to think about my mother. But some – most – of my fondest memories were tied to her, too. And as much as it hurt, it did serve to shut the monkey up, at least so long as I stayed away from… that day.

Don’t go there, Aaron, I thought, promptly giving myself a start. Using the old name again, huh? I guess today’s a day for returning to old stuff.

I put on the tie, quickly but without hurry. I still had five minutes. “I have to wonder, what would you’ve said about all of this? This entire mess I’m in – the mess I’m partly responsible for myself?” I said out loud to the central picture, looking her straight in the eyes. “You’d probably be scolding me, wouldn’t you? For leaving, for not coming back earlier. For all the pain I caused.” My vision turned misty. “I wonder if you could help Hennessy and Elouise. You always had a hand with damaged people.” I used a tissue to clean my nose and my face, then finished the tie and put on the jacket. “I wonder if you could help me.” My feet took me closer to the pictures without a conscious decision on my part. “What would you tell me to d-“

I stopped, staring at her twinkling eyes. Well, use your brain, stupid! She might have been long dead, but I knew her. We’d talked a lot, even though I’d been too young to understand most of what she’d said. But she’d known I’d someday grow up and be able to use it, so she’d told me anyway. I knew her better than anyone else in my life, really.

And as soon as I realised that, I realised what she’d be telling me to do. Cut the knot. Like Megas Alexandros. Do the smart, obvious thing.

Sitting there, I calmed myself and took a step aside, to look at the situation once more. Think, Aaron. Ask yourself – what would a calm, reasonable person do? What is the most obvious, simple solution to your conundrum that you can think of, regardless of how awkward or uncomfortable it might be?

Asking the question like that really only left one answer. It would most likely hurt (me), and it might be hurtful for Hennessy, less so for Elouise, but…

It’s the best chance we have to make it through all this in one piece. And that had to be the first thing on my mind, now that I was a father. It’s decided, then.

I made two quick phone calls, finishing only moments before I heard a car pull up outside.

***

After the doorbell rang, I counted to ten before approaching and opening it. My father stood on the other side, and for a few moments – which felt like years, really – my brain locked up. Then I blinked, and it started working again… barely.

Neither of us spoke for a while, neither of us breathed, really, for at least a minute. Just watching each other.

He was tall, as usual – the man wore faces, identities, the way other people wore hats, but he always preferred being tall – and he actually looked like, well, my father. Older than I’d ever seen him before, too. Thin, wiry with a gaunt, sharp-featured face. His skin was slightly darker than average, ruddy like that of someone who was no stranger to outdoor work. A hawk-like nose gave him a predatory look, and he had a bushy moustache that merged with his sideburns. His head was topped by long, straight hair that fell down to his shoulders. All of it, hair, moustache and sideburns, was as black as mine, with a few strands of silver threaded through, giving him a distinguished appearance. His eyes were purple, like mine, but much sharper in expression than mine ever got. Much like me, he was wearing formal clothing – in his case, black pants, a white shirt, maroon vest over a black tie and a black coat over that. White gloves, black shoes and an expensive-looking black lacquered cane with a golden crook completed the look.

He always preferred the old-fashioned look, I though absent-mindedly, while I simultaneously flashed back to many an evening playing with one of his canes while he and mother were talking about something I wasn’t interested in, and at the same time I was trying to keep the monkey down before it made me attack him.

Fortunately, he made no move to talk or do anything, giving me the time I needed to subdue the monkey and regain my composure. He knew, after all, what happened when I lost control, and neither of us had any interest in that happening.

“Hello, father,” I finally greeted him, barely hiding a tremble in my voice.

“Hello, Aaron, my son,” he replied, and his voice let loose another cascade of half-buried memories… good and bad ones, and I wasn’t in any state to tell which ones outweighed the others. “It has been a while.” I couldn’t read his expression, nor his voice. Or perhaps I could, but I didn’t let myself. I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” I replied lamely.

We kept looking at each other, standing on both sides of the door. Both of us knew how to converse, of course. We could both, at any time, put on a mask, become people who’d be able to carry on any kind of conversation with each other.

But the moment either of us did that, we wouldn’t stop. It was too comfortable, too safe. We had to keep this as honest as we could, or we’d never get anywhere.

That, of course, meant that instead of two suave, well-trained orators, there were two introverted, socially withdrawn men with enough issues and neuroses between them to supply ten seasons of a nineties sitcom. Before factoring in all our baggage.

Oh, joy.

After a few minutes, his lips quirked, and he gave me a familiar half-smile. “We’re still no good at this, the two of us,” he said. “I dare even say we still fail catastrophically.”

“I would have been surprised had that changed, to be honest,” I replied, and I felt the ice break at least a little bit. “I… can’t say that I am glad to see you, father. But…”

He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “I understand, Aaron. But I am very, very pleased to see you again, son. I have been waiting for your call since the day you stormed out of the door,” he explained smoothly, with just a hint of sadness in his voice.

I just nodded in acceptance. There wasn’t really anything to say to that, at least not yet. You’re on a deadline, Aaron. Get your ass in gear. “I…” I started, but had to cut myself off and clear my throat. “I didn’t… call you just for a reunion. I need your help.”

“And you shall have it,” he said, without hesitation. My heart skipped a bit, and I felt myself choke up a bit. Twenty-two years, and he gave a promise like that so easily. I had no doubt he was willing to follow through on it, either.

Then again, he hadn’t specified what kind of help he was willing to render, or whether it would be the kind of help I actually wanted, or that which he considered…

No, don’t go down that road, I scolded myself. Don’t ruin this. Give him a chance, the same way Hennessy gave you one. He deserves it no more than you deserved it, but you should still offer it.

“Let’s go out. There’s a great restaurant near the beach,” I said. “There is a lot to talk about, and this isn’t the place for it.”

He nodded and stepped aside, gesturing towards the limousine he’d come in. “Of course, let’s go.”

***

No matter what else I might hold against him, my father knew how to travel in style. His limousine was almost as exquisite as his chauffeur, and said chauffeur looked like she belonged on the cover of the Meta Journal. Blonde, curvaceous without being ostentatious and wearing a dark grey pant suit very well, despite looking like she hadn’t hit drinking age yet. The only flaws were her cold, grey eyes – the eyes of a killer. She reeked of danger, and the monkey, already irritable, was quite eager to fight her – and then have its way with her, until there was little and less left.

I squashed its demands and got in through the door she held open for me and my father. He came in after me, and we sat opposite of each other, with him looking much more natural and relaxed than I felt. I gave the woman the address and the car took off so smoothly I wouldn’t have noticed if not for the changing scenery beyond the tinted windows. A partition rose up to give us some privacy. She never said a word.

“That’s quite the looker you have carting you around,” I said after a few more awkward moments. How very suave, Aaron.

He clucked his tongue against his teeth. “Faith is one of my more recent acquisitions. An exceptional lass, despite her youth. Very skilled, very loyal. Quite professional for a metahuman of her age.”

I nodded. “What are her powers?”

“She’s a wayfinder – her power provides her the most efficient route to her goal, considering whatever conditions she sets, then helps her get through it. Obviously, this is a very useful ability for a chauffeur. And it has quite a few combat applications as well, in case that becomes necessary,” he explained openly. “She also has some minor, if broad, physical enhancements, and exceptional reaction speed, even by our standards – though not nearly to your level, of course.”

Or to yours, I thought, though I only nodded in response. Then we fell silent again, with him giving me time to sort out my thoughts. I decided to feel out the waters. “How much do you know, about what is going on in the city right now?”

“Very much, though less so than usual,” he said. “Though I’ve been keeping tabs on a certain young heroine in the city, I mostly ceased to do so since you returned, as per our standing agreement that I do not meddle in your affairs, directly or indirectly.”

Keeping tabs on Hennessy, I presume. I believed him when he said that he hadn’t kept tabs on me, so he most likely didn’t know she was his granddaughter, which meant his reasons for keeping an eye on her were probably less than good. Far less. “Keeping tabs on her because of her power?” I have to be sure.

He nodded. “Quite so. I see that you have some idea of what that girl can do – I’m sure you agree that such power should not be left unobserved, if not… controlled. In fact, I have been considering some intervention for a while now,” he explained, and I barely held the monkey back from lashing out on the spot. I don’t think he noticed. “Frankly, if it wasn’t for her rather high moral standards, I would be warning you to stay far away from her – or take her out of the picture.”

My lips jerked, showing my teeth for a moment, making him frown. “I knew she was troublesome, but I didn’t think she rated that much worry. She’s a power shifter, sure, but…”

“A power shifter?” he asked, surprised. “You mean Chayot?” I nodded, and he broke into laughter.

I sat there, looking at him with a stunned expression as he held his stomach with one hand, laughing. “Ah, Aaron, it’s not Chayot that I am worried about!” he explained. “Honestly, that girl is not nearly as troublesome as one might think!”

What the hell? “Please explain. I fail to see how a power shifter could be less troublesome than is obvious,” I said with a carefully restrained voice.

He subsided, leaning back again and straightening out his shirt. “She is a power shifter, yes. But her selection is rather limited – you know she draws on a reserve of energy tinted by the emotions she absorbs, I assume?” I nodded. “Well, those emotions don’t just fuel her power – they also determine it. If she uses anger, she gets an ‘angry’ power, something befitting it. If she uses sadness, she gains a sad power, and so on. Her actual control over what power results is limited to choosing the emotions she draws on, and even that is not completely under her control, as she might be overwhelmed by emotion. Furthermore, the emotions she uses to form powers also become predominant in her mind, meaning…”

“That she has less control the more power she uses,” I finished the sentence. Now her rampage made even more, horrifying sense. Oh, Hennessy. “I assume that more violent emotions are necessary for combat-appropriate powers… which in turn makes her more violent herself.”

He nodded. “And the more extreme the emotion, the stronger the power. The purer the emotion, the stronger the power. She might have more control if she mixes several different emotions, but to really use all her potential, she needs to completely drown herself in a single, extreme emotion – which rarely does, for fear of losing control.”

“I… understand why you consider her less troublesome than might be obvious,” I said after a minute or so of considering his words. “But who were you talking about, then, if not her?”

“Well, Dearheart of course,” he replied with a surprised expression. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what that girl is capable of!”

I shrugged. “I know she can fly and that she can somehow mess with people’s’ powers – countering their effects, and affecting them in other, weird ways.”

He waved that off, to my surprise. “Insignificant. She has four separate powers, each of them enough for any metahuman – she manifested alongside three other children, and they were all linked, leading to a synchronised manifestation…”

“Chayot, Slough, Dearheart and the Jabberwocky,” I breathed. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of them being one of the rare synchronised manifestations, but it made sense considering all the circumstances… “What can she do?”

“The children manifested in rather interesting ways,” he explained. “In Chayot’s and Slough’s case, the synchronisation led to a single, multifaceted power – but Dearheart and the poor boy who people call the Jabberwocky instead ended up with several separate ones.” He took a breath, letting me absorb that. “Dearheart has a personal force-field that grants her protection, some enhanced strength and flight, and which can be stretched to protect others, as well. She has a rather powerful regenerative ability and an invisible attack that can disrupt powers, though it becomes weaker if used directly on a metahuman.”

“That already sounds like a troublesome combination, though I assume that her fourth power is the most dangerous one,” I concluded.

He nodded in confirmation. “Yes. She is one of the most powerful mind controllers alive, though the UH are rather determined to keep that a secret – and the girl fortunately has strong enough morals to resist the temptation of using her power excessively.”

Oh crap. True mind controllers were… an issue. And my daughter was in love with one. “What are the specifics? Why does it worry you so?”

“It worries me because of how it works,” he replied. “She doesn’t simply enslave a mind – she inserts herself into. Not insofar as she overrides their personality – no, she inserts herself into their memories. Her name is quite indicative of how it works – her power creates fake memories, and alters existing ones, to feature her as the single most important, beloved and desired individual in the life of her victim, to the point where they are willing to lay down their lives for her. It is as efficient against metahumans as it is against baselines, there appears to be no limit to the number of people she can affect at a time, nor to the duration for which she can keep it up, and unless one is outright immune to such effects, there appears to be no means by which to resist or escape it without her cancelling the effect.”

I was pretty sure my mouth was hanging open, though I couldn’t really tell – I’d gone numb all over. Oh, joy oh joy. You sure know how to pick them, Hennessy, I thought quietly.

He gave me a few moments to digest that, then continued, “Fortunately, the girl has a rather strong set of morals, and refuses to use her power in any but the most dire of circumstances, and only for as long as absolutely necessary.” The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Really, I am grateful that such a power is in the hands of a true hero – it would be catastrophic in the hands of anyone with less conviction to be… good.” He switched to a frown then. “Though considering that the Ascendant is now coming for her – whether or not he already knows, I cannot risk the Gefährten getting their hands on her. I might have to kill her after all, for all our sakes.”

I barely restrained myself from lashing out, right then and there. I didn’t even need the monkey for that, it was all me. Hennessy loved that girl, and I’d be damned if I…

“You object, I can tell,” he spoke as calm as ever. “My gut tells me it’s not just simple moral quandaries which are responsible for you nearly striking at me just now.”

“I… They are off limits, understand?” I said between clenched teeth. “Chayot, Dearheart, Slough and the Matriarch – you keep your hands off of them, and if there’s anything concerning them, you come to me, first, understood? I am dead serious here.” My eyes fixed his, and I saw them widen for just a moment as he absorbed how serious I was.

“That is acceptable,” he said after a moment. “Though I would like to know the reason why, especially regarding the young Matriarch.”

“Later. There is much to talk about, and not all of it concerns the Ascendant and the madness going on in this city,” I explained. “Just… remember that. Those four, and anyone connected to them, are under my protection. Anything regarding them goes through me.”

He nodded. “Very well. I trust that you have good reasons for that.”

We fell silent again, for half a minute or so.

“So, how did that business with the new faction go?” I asked. “Did you find anyone to oppose the Dark?”

He shrugged. “Yes, though the boy was a disappointment in the end. I never expected him to actually win, but he folded rather quickly, in the end, and his supporters – those who survived – were scattered. Though easy enough to gather again around me.”

“Business as usual, then?” He nodded. “I heard there were some new recruits to the Five. What happened to the last ones? Opacity in particular, I rather liked the guy.”

That drew a weary sigh from him. “Sanya committed suicide and was replaced by Maverick, who died in a fight against Quetzalcoatl, then replaced by Dajisi, Naraku was murdered by his daughter and his seat given to Lamarr, and Opacity died in a lab experiment gone wrong – Mindstar replaced him.”

I nodded, not really sad. Opacity had been a rather pleasant fellow, but not to the point where I’d mourn his passing. There was something rather strange, though. “Why Mindstar, though? She’s supposed to be highly unstable.”

He shrugged. “True, but our research indicates that both she and her brother are true second-generation metahumans. That alone would justify taking her in, even into a group such as the Five, but she also got an incredibly versatile and powerful set of powers.”

I felt my eyebrows rise up. “Second-gen? I thought those were just a rumor.”

“No, they are quite real, though the conditions required for them to come to be are so rare, and the differences to first-generation metahumans are so subtle to the untrained eye, that few exist and fewer still know of them. But that is a subject for another day – I believe that is our destination,” he concluded just as the restaurant came into view.

***

The Lakeside View restaurant was one of the older establishments of Chicago, and had stood where it was now since long before I had been born. The building it was in had once been a hotel, though it had gone bankrupt after the second great depression and been later turned into a five-star restaurant with several high-price apartments above it. I’d chosen it because it stood a good bit apart from the other nearby buildings, it was unlikely to be too full at this time on a weekday and it had incredibly good food – and I could use some of that, if only to calm my nerves.

Faith stopped in front of the entrance, positioning our door perfectly in front of the red carpet that led to the entrance, and then opened it swiftly. The two of us walked into the tastefully colourful art deco building, while she drove away to wait for us, doing… whatever she did when she had to wait. I neither knew nor cared.

Inside, we found about half the tables occupied – which spoke of the quality and reputation of the restaurant, to have such a turnout at this time – and a waiter who was all too eager to seat the two expensively dressed, well-groomed men that had just come out of a limousine worth more than any three or four cars standing outside.

After a brief greeting, and another waiter taking my father’s coat and cane, he seated us near the windows overseeing Lake Michigan and gave us our menus. Father ordered a glass of wine, while I got a lemon-iced cocktail. We both ordered some of their Italian appetisers for starters.

Once a rather cute waitress brought our drinks and snacks (and got a rather generous tip from my father), we spent a minute or so sampling the selection, and our drinks.

Father was the first one to break the silence. “Did you know that I once took your mother to this place for a date?” he said in a nostalgic tone of voice, throwing a contemplative glance around the comfortable building.

I felt my heart lurch as I heard him mention her, and took a sip from my drink (extra strong, so I’d actually notice at least a little of the alcohol) to give me some time. “No, I didn’t. When was that?”

“Oh, before you were even born, though she was already pregnant at the time,” he replied, his eyes returning to my faces, though he didn’t quite stare me in the eyes.

“So that was before you got bored with her and went back to your real wife.” There it was, said before I’d even considered it, from my memories to my lips without taking a detour through my brain.

Unlike the last time I’d accused him of this, many years ago, he didn’t become angry. Instead, he became… sad. Sympathetic. I’d rather he’d be angry again, I thought, even though that would be much less favourable for what I had planned.

“I never cheated on your mother, Aaron,” he said calmly, and I could hear a slight tremor of carefully restrained outrage in his voice – so, not entirely changed, then. “Not once.”

I almost restrained myself from pushing the issue. Almost. “Maybe not physically, but she was always just second choice to her,” I said with as much venom as I could muster. Now that I’d started, I knew that I wouldn’t stop until I had it all out of my system. “You never loved her, or me, as much as her.” His eyes flashed with something not unlike shame, or perhaps offence. I wasn’t in any state of mind to tell.

He sighed, looking away and out onto the lake. Neither of us talked for at least five minutes, and when he turned back to look at me, his eyes were calm again. “A long time ago,” he half-whispered, “Someone a whole lot smarter than both of us, and everyone else around, put together, told me ‘Love is without measure’.” Slowly, he took a sip from his wineglass, before he continued. “There is no such thing as ‘loving more’ or ‘loving less’. One does not have a finite amount of love inside that they distribute in bits and pieces to those they care about.” He spoke with the utter conviction of one who had heard truth from the lips of a wise man. “Love has no measure. I love your mother, even beyond her death. I do not love her more, nor less than I love you, or her, or the daughter she gave me,” he continued. “I love each of you, not equally, for there is no such thing as equality in love – I love each of you in your own way. I love your mother the way I love your mother, and I love her the way I love her. I love you the way I love you, and I love your half-sister – whom I really have to introduce you to, and soon, she’ll be quite ecstatic to have a big brother – the way I love her.” He stopped and emptied his glass.

I subsided, leaning back on my seat to think it over, turning his words around in my head looking for a flaw I could attack, some avenue to lash out. I didn’t find any that felt true to me. Finally, I nodded, and I felt more than saw or heard him relax, almost imperceptibly.

Several more minutes went by before either of us spoke up. The only thing that happened was that the waiter came around to refill my father’s glass.

“It is a strange thing,” I said. “If you’d said this to me back then, I wouldn’t have accepted it. If you’d said these words just a day and a half ago, I wouldn’t have accepted them. But now I can.” Because that’s how I feel about Hennessy and Elouise, even if I barely know them yet.

“What changed?” he asked. I looked up into his eyes, and found honest curiosity in them. He really didn’t know, probably wouldn’t even guess it unless I told him. It was not within his expectations for me, I knew.

“Everything,” I replied simply, before I looked around. “I am awaiting a few more guests, but this isn’t very private,” I told him. “Would you mind providing some privacy before they arrive?”

He complied without inquiring further, simply snapping his fingers. The monkey stirred as I felt his power brush over me without effect, but it was immediately obvious when it reached everyone else.

Slowly but surely, people finished their meals – most of them early – before they paid and left. Within less than ten minutes, the entire restaurant had cleared, save for the staff, all of which had adopted a rather glassy-eyed stare, oblivious to everything that was going on yet still present and able to serve if necessary.

He was thorough like that.

“Thank you.”

“It’s nothing. And now I am quite curious about these guests of yours,” he said.

“Soon,” I said. “And I’ll need you to be… you for the meeting.” He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. ‘You’ was a rather big, versatile word when used in relation to him. “I need you to put on your cowl. The big one.”

Now his eyes widened, though the rest of his face remained controlled. “Well, this should be interesting.”

“Oh, it will be. Very much so,” I promised him.

Then he changed.

***

Eight minutes later, a car pulled up outside – the first one since the enforced exodus – and I heard three sets of footsteps approach us. I’d only expected two, though I was reasonably certain about who the third pair belonged to, so I got up and approached the door. Their smells announced them long before they came into view.

Hennessy had the same expression as always, but she was dressed to go out, in a dark purple dress which made me want to wave around a huge mallet to scare off any guys who’d even look at her. It was tight, leaving her left shoulder and arm bare, while extending into a long sleeve on her right arm, and going down to her ankles. Fortunately for my sanity, she was at least wearing sensible purple shoes instead of high heels. The whole ensemble really brought out the colour of her eyes. And her hair was braided expertly, falling over her bare shoulder, giving her a very refined appearance along with the subtle make up.

When she saw me, I felt a wave of childish pleasure emanate from her, before her gaze went past me and to the man on the chair waiting. That killed any joy she might’ve felt, but it didn’t lessen the somersaults my heart was making.

Arm in arm with her walked Camille, wearing a dress that perfectly complemented Hennessy’s, with her right shoulder and arm bare, and in a dark blue colour that underlined her blue eyes and red lips. Her hair was braided to match Hennessy, with the braid falling over her bare shoulder, too. Unlike Hennessy, though, she was wearing high heels, diminishing their difference in height.

She seemed less pleased to see me, though I was pretty sure that was more due to stubbornness than actual distaste at this point – or at least I hoped so. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped when she saw the man on the chair.

A bit behind them, initially smiling brightly, came Tamara, and I instantly knew that she was responsible for their appearances – she must’ve heard ‘Lakeside View’ and immediately decided that such a place merited a certain amount of refinement. I wasn’t going to dispute or complain, because I was enjoying the sight of the three of them immensely. Tamara herself was dressed in a more subdued manner than the young beauties in front of her, in a dark green, less tight dress that wouldn’t be misplaced at a school event. She also wore low heels and had a purse with her, and her hair was open instead of braided.

An objective observer might have concluded that, even in her prime, she would not have matched the two visions walking arm in arm, let alone their combined splendor, but to me, she topped them both, easily.

And I realised, somehow, once and for all, that I could never have her again. I saw her beauty, and I felt the appeal, but deep inside, I knew that I’d never again be able to be as close to her as I so desperately wished in that moment.

Which was probably a good thing, because while she’d been smiling at first, once she saw the man in the chair, she turned her head back to me and gave me an utterly outraged look.

I answered with an apologetic one, then spoke to all three of them – though only Tamara seemed to pay me any attention. “My dear ladies, I am so glad you could join me on such short notice,” I greeted them. Finally, the other two also looked at me, and I smiled soothingly. “And might I say that you make life worth living just for this sight right now?” A little bloated, as far as compliments went, but it had its desired effect of distracting the girls from him for a moment, and slightly mollifying Tamara. “Please, join us. I’ll explain everything presently.”

They sat down at the table, opposite of him, with Tamara and Camille keeping Hennessy between them. They sat as close together as possible.

Fortunately, he knew to stay quiet, simply giving them a little time to relax and absorb the situation.

And then another car pulled up, followed by a single set of footsteps approaching with the telltale click-click sound of stiletto heels. Hennessy’s head whipped around to stare towards the new arrival, and I tried to project as much calm as I could, hoping that she wouldn’t lash out now.

Elouise entered the room, in a tight, shoulder-free black dress and matching heels, her lush white hair open and falling down to her waist, having come without a mask as I’d requested when I called her to set the meeting. She smiled warmly at me, for just a moment, before she noticed Hennessy – and from the way her eyes widened, I could tell that she recognised her, somehow – and then they went on to see the man in the chair, though only for a moment, before they snapped back to Hennessy.

I could almost see the pieces falling into place in her head, the facts and questions lining up to come to the one, inescapable conclusion. She stared at me in shock, then at Hennessy, then back at me, and for a moment I was afraid that she’d faint.

But she caught herself, straightened her back and nodded at me before approaching the table to sit halfway between Camille and him. Her shadow was literally on her heels, flat on the ground, radiating a sense of tension not unlike an animal ready to fight or flee.

I went to stand opposite of Elouise, between Tamara and him.

“Welcome, everyone, and I am sorry for calling you all on such short notice,” I said, as I watched Hennessy’s eyes dart between Elouise and him, unsure who was the greater threat, or how to react. Camille had gone white as a sheet, Tamara looked confused and yet ready to either murder me, or grab her girls and run – or both – while Elouise looked like she was caught between ecstasy and mortification. He, on the other hand, was just staring blankly from Elouise, to me, to Hennessy, to me and to Elouise again, round and round and round, probably more shocked than anyone else in the room. “As you can tell, this is more than just a simple social call – but most definitely much simpler than some of you might expect.”

I looked around the table, and somewhere beneath the nervousness and the fear, I knew that, whatever else happened, the memory of my father being utterly, completely dumbfounded would keep me warm for many, many a future night. Provided I lived long enough to even experience the next one.

Showtime. I walked to Hennessy, and calmly pulled her up off her seat. “Come here,” I told her, gently pulling her to Elouise. My other daughter rose of her own accord, and I took her right arm by the wrist, guiding it up to meet Hennessy’s left arm, which I was also holding gently by the wrist.

Even if I’d been an empath myself, there was no way I could’ve made out all the emotions on Elouise’s face, or those being projected by the slack-jawed Hennessy.

“Elouise,” I said, looking at her. “Hennessy,” I continued, looking from one to the other. “It is long overdue that you two learn that you’re sisters, or half-sisters at least.” I looked at Tamara, talking before she could feel hurt. “It happened before the two of us got together for the first time – the first Matriarch tricked me into spending one night with her, having planned to get pregnant by me. The reasons ought to be obvious soon enough.” She just stared from me to her daughter, and to her daughter’s half-sister. Camille looked ready to commit murder – though I wasn’t sure just whom she wanted to murder.

The girls were just looking each other in the eyes, their hands holding each other loosely. But I wasn’t done yet, and I left them to walk behind him and them, putting him between us. He was still staring blankly, quietly, at both of them, and now the two of them were looking at us with equal looks of a lack of comprehension.

“Elouise, Hennessy,” I said gently, as I put a hand on his shoulder, making it sink through the shadows to touch the actual shoulder beneath, as six unblinking red eyes stared at two scared, confused, ecstatic, gleeful, mortified children. “Meet your grandfather.”

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B011.7 Monkey Family

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It took me a moment to regain control of my thoughts, nevermind my body. Once I did, I closed the door and turned around to see Hennessy taking off her jacket (I took it, mechanically, and hung it on the coat hanger) and then her boots, stashing them beneath her jacket. She was wearing a light blue sweater underneath, and pink socks.

She didn’t even spare me a glance and instead went from the hallway into the kitchen, looking around with the same serene, slightly slack-jawed expression she’d shown nearly all the time I’d seen her until now.

Much like before, it was impossible to make out her emotions from her facial expression or her posture, as she looked around the kitchen. Which was quite infuriating, because I didn’t dare spoil the moment by trying to communicate directly.

Never mind her not being capable of normal conversation anyway.

So I just… kind of hung around in the doorway, leaning against the frame as I watched her walk around. She didn’t seem to pay me a lick of attention. I counted the seconds while I watched her. She had a… peculiar way of moving. Normally, you can tell a lot about a person, just by watching them move around. Forceful, careful, bold, shy. Open minded or suspicious. Flirty or cold. And so much more. All things I’d learned to tell, just by watching the way a person moved, or stood, or went about menial acts.

Despite her lack of expression, Hennessy did have tells, and it was perhaps the first real clue I got as to her personality. She moved gracefully, deliberately. It wasn’t like her every step and motion was measured, like she’d trained herself to convey only what she wanted to convey through her movements – but there was a kind of natural deliberation to the way she put one foot in front of the other, the way she reached out to open a cupboard and look inside, or how she rose up on her tiptoes to check out another. Like she was very, very aware of her body, and what it was doing, even when she wasn’t really paying attention.

She got that from me, I thought, and a thrumming pang went through my chest. God, if only I’d been here for here. I could have protected her… taught her. Better than my dad ever did – gently. Only the things she wanted to learn, to excel at her normal life.

All possibilities that were gone. I hadn’t been there for her. She’d lost even the slightest possibility for a normal life, because I hadn’t been there to protect her.

And Elouise… my other daughter – the child I’d never have wanted even if given a choice. Not that she was ever going to hear that from me. But if I’d been here… would I have found out? Probably, I thought. I had no illusions about the Matriarch’s motivations. I didn’t believe for a second that she’d cared for her daughter in any way beyond the use she could be to her. She’d have used her to control me, I dare say. Used her to get an in with my father, most likely. If she’d actually known who he was.

And even if she didn’t, from what I knew of the woman, I wouldn’t put it past her to have a child with me, simply for the sake of getting the world’s third-most powerful speedster under her control.

I always hated Dad for how he screwed me up… how he tried to turn me into his perfect supervillain… but in the end, I screwed up way, way harder than he ever did.

I had to blink as my vision grew cloudy for a moment, and when I opened my eyes again, Hennessy was standing in front of me, just barely an arm’s reach away. Her eyes were fixed to my face, and I realised that a few tears had escaped. I wiped them away quickly. “Sorry,” I said, uselessly. “I’m just glad to see you.” That wasn’t even a lie. It just so happened that I was also many other things at the same time.

She tilted her head, slightly – the closest thing to an expression I’d ever seen on her. Then she simply stepped past me and back into the hallway, and from there to the living room. I followed her like a (too tall, gangly, nervous) lost puppy, never letting her out of my sight.

Despite all the dark emotions that my mind was dredging up, I was actually taking a strange kind of pleasure from seeing her here. Watching her move about, in my house. Do all fathers feel like this? Her presence also shut up the monkey. Blessed silence.

My eyes followed her as she moved about the living room, poking the cushions here and there, checking the television (a really outdated model, I should ask Cartastrophy for a recommendation on what to replace it with) and my liquor cabinet.

She lingered there for a moment, standing right behind the seat I’d been on when Journeyman had visited me. Then she turned and went by me again, up the stairs.

The same scene repeated itself over the next twenty minutes (my house wasn’t that big, but she took her time). She’d walk around, going through room after room, with me watching her and trying not to focus too much on all the guilt and self-loathing I was feeling. Instead, I simply enjoyed watching her. I could quite honestly say that I had never felt this way before.

Finally, she came to my bedroom. She checked the bed out first, lying down across it for several seconds before something caught her eye and she sat up again.

I knew what she’d seen, and didn’t bother following her gaze. I’d quite deliberately not taken a look at it myself since I’d come back.

She got up and walked slowly towards the wall, as I approached her, closing the distance for the first time. I stopped three steps behind her, and looked at it.

A small table stood there, with a (badly) knit red scarf laid across it like a tablecloth. Three picture frames hung on the wall over the scarf. My most prized possessions.

The left one showed a thin, tired and sweaty woman in a hospital bed, her mousey brown hair plastered to her head and face as she held a newborn in her arms, smiling the most gentle smile possible while she nursed it. She looked horrible, really, like she was trying to put women off of having children for good, just with that one picture.

The right one showed the woman, again, wearing a blue bikini as she sat at the beach, her back to the photographer, the setting sun in front of her. A small boy with wild black hair was sneaking up on her from behind, holding a small bucket up over his head – I remembered how I’d run halfway across the beach to get the ice cubes I’d put into it from a beverage stand.

The center one provided the best view of her. A mousey woman, short, petite, with a heart-shaped face and gorgeous brown hair in cascading curls that reached her waist as she sat on an armchair, looking at the camera with an amused smile that lit up the entire picture. She had warm, dark brown eyes behind rimless spectacles, a small nose and fine-fingered, delicate hands, which she’d folded on her lap. She was wearing a simple medium-length blue skirt and a white shirt with long sleeves, as well as brown stockings.

Hennessy took some time looking at her, then turned halfway around to look at me.

I carefully schooled my expression, and tried to curtail the emotions those pictures evoked, as I felt an inquisitive sensation wash over me.

“That’s my mother,” I told her. “Her name was Wanda.”

Once more, she tilted her head. It took me a moment to figure out the emotions she sent my way, but then I was pretty sure she wanted to know what happened to her.

It was pretty obvious I was torn up about her, I was sure. Especially with her power.

“She was murdered when I was nine,” I explained, speaking slowly both for my benefit as well as hers.

I guess the slow speech along with the emotions beneath the surface were enough to convey my meaning, because her eyes widened a fraction, and I felt a wave of… it was hard to describe. Pain, sadness, grief… but somehow remote. A step removed…

Oh. Sympathy.

“Thank you,” I said. “But it’s alright. It’s been a long, long time.” Not long enough.

She got my meaning, because she didn’t press the point. I don’t think I could’ve kept up my manly-man-act if she’d actually hugged me.

Instead of delivering such a crushing blow to my masculinity, she turned back to the pictures and reached out, tapping the wall to the left of the central frame with a delicate finger. At the same time, she looked at me again, questioning me with her power.

I was still a little (alright, a lot) off-kilter, which might explain why it took me a minute and then some to figure out what she wanted to know. Fortunately, she was quite patient. Probably used to it.

“Ah, that,” I said. “I don’t have any pictures of him. We’re… our relationship… it’s complicated. We have a lot of bad blood between us.”

I felt a strange, twisted sense of amusement radiate from her as she lowered her arm again. It was easy to imagine what she was thinking – It seems to be in the blood.

A dark, self-depreciating chuckle escaped my throat. “Peas in a pod, Hennessy. Peas in a pod,” I said, though I could almost immediately tell that she didn’t get it.

Before I could try to come up with a way to explain it by way of emotions, she left the room without waiting for me. Not that that was necessary, because it seemed that I was glued to her, following her without conscious thought.

She returned to the living room and sat down on the couch, pulling her legs up with her arms wrapped around them. After a moment of just enjoying the cute, homely picture, I joined her on the couch, sitting down at arm’s reach.

Everything went quiet, save for the sound of our breathing. She was staring straight ahead, her eyes half-closed, while I still couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She looked so… so perfect. Flawless in a way that went beyond what a mere superpower could achieve. Her face, seen in profile, seemed to belong onto an ancient Greek statue, a panorama worked into the walls of the Parthenon or a painting drawn by one of the great masters. I could write a book about her features and still not do them justice.

So I just watched, quietly, as I slowly relaxed – I hadn’t even noticed how tense I’d been – and as she seemed to relax as well. Her arms relaxed, her legs slipping off the couch as she leaned further back into the dark red cushions, her arms loose at her sides. Only her chest moved, slowly, up and down, as she breathed. Her long, dark hair fanned out around and over her shoulders.

After what felt like an eternity, but was most likely closer to five minutes, we’d remained the same, just enjoying the company. Or at least I did. I couldn’t tell how she was feeling.

On a hunch, I rose up and went to the kitchen, taking a glass out of the cupboard and filling it with some cool water. Then I went back to Hennessy and offered her the glass. She took it, sipping from the water. I got a wave of gratitude from her, and mixed in, an odd bit of… amusement?

That confused me for a moment, as I tried to figure out what she was amused about. Then it clicked.

“Oh, you crafty little minx,” I breathed, smiling at her in sudden comprehension. She looked stoically at me, though I felt a dash of embarrassment radiate from her. And a little pride. And more than a little bit of concern. Oh, no reason for that, my dear. “I didn’t even notice you pushing me around,” I told her, trying to convey my pride.

She seemed to pick it up, because she relaxed almost imperceptibly as I sat down next to her again, this time a bit closer than before. She emptied her glass and put it down on the table.

Now that I was alert, I started to notice her power much better. It was always on, to some degree, I had to guess. Softly feeling me out – literally – and pushing and pulling with equal softness on my emotions. It turned into a game of sorts, me trying to figure out what she was doing, her trying to mask it from me.

We spent nearly half an hour on it, until light dawned. “Oh. Oh. You really are crafty, aren’t you? I wonder if you taught yourself, or if someone coached you?” She probably only got the first half of that, but that didn’t bother me.

She’d have had to learn, I would bet. It’s her sole reliable means of communication, isn’t it? And she’s been like this for years now – she’d have learned out of sheer necessity.

All this time – probably since the moment she’d arrived – she’d been manipulating me. Trying to make me relax. To make me open up. To draw my attention to her.

“But why?” I asked, after I explained my conclusions to her as well as she could understand. It seemed to embarrass her a great deal.

“Why would you do that… Helping me relax is one thing, but why make me open up, why draw my attention…” Then it clicked, and I suddenly felt like crying again (not very manly, I know).

I saw her shift around uncomfortably, the biggest physical tell she’d given so far, even as she seemed both embarrassed and mortified.

“You weren’t sure I’d want you around? Really?” I asked, my face carefully empathetic – not sad or angry. “You weren’t sure I’d give you all my attention? Oh, Hennessy…” I seriously deserve this, don’t I?

I scooted over, closer, and for a moment, she panicked. I didn’t know why, didn’t even bother to guess at the source of her panic – I just scooped her up, pulling her onto my lap so her butt was on my lap and her right shoulder on my chest. Then I squeezed my daughter for the first time in our lives, holding her tight.

Maybe someone more skilled in the use of words could adequately describe how right it felt to hold her in my arms like that, but that had never been one of my strengths, so suffice it to say that I wouldn’t mind holding onto her for the rest of my life – and then some.

She didn’t move. No resistance, no acceptance. Only a quiet, throbbing panic that was slowly but surely swept away by a warm feeling that I remembered all too well – I’d felt the same way, once upon a time, when the world had still been right. When my father had held me in his arms while he and mother sat in front of the fireplace, her demonstrating that, for all her talents, she would never be even passable at knitting, while father just told some story to entertain us. As much as our relationship had been twisted and poisoned after my mother’s death, there were some things no corruption in the world could touch. This feeling was one of them. Safe. Warm. Content.

I just held on tight, hoping against all hope that this might be enough to fix a relationship that had never had a chance to even get started until today. I couldn’t give anyone an accurate recounting of my emotions during our first hug, or her precise reactions, or how long it went on.

All I know is that, when she finally relaxed again and wrapped her arms around my neck, I’d never felt half as content before.

***

Whether it was any leftover strain from her rampage, or just the load that my return had to be on her, or a result of her interacting so much with me, for whatever reason, Hennessy didn’t last too long. It was barely noon – the hug had gone on for a long time, and then we’d somehow passed right into awkwardly holding each other, neither wanting to let go, I think, nor wanting to seem too clingy, perhaps – when she began to droop.

“I should get you home, shouldn’t I?” If only so your girlfriend doesn’t kill me. Camille’s opinion seemed to have improved, judging by our run-in last night, but I didn’t want to stretch my luck with her – especially if the two of them turned out to be into it for the long run.

She agreed, if barely, and gently disentangled myself from her. “I’ll be ready in a moment, just wait,” I told her as I laid her down on the couch. She didn’t even bother to reply in any way, so I just hurried to the hallway and put my bare feet into my shoes. A quick check in the mirror showed that I was presentable enough by my standards. My father would have considered a slight case of bed hair, a slight beard shadow and rumpled clothes unacceptable, unless the image was deliberately constructed, but… well, his advice hadn’t exactly served me well in my life, so why care?

I picked up her boots and her jacket and walked back to her. She’d fallen asleep, one arm hanging off the couch, her face half-hidden behind her hair. It was… utterly adorable and I took a picture of it, with my phone, without even thinking. Then I took a minute to gently put her boots (fortunately, they opened all the way down to her ankles, making it much easier) and her jacket back onto her. She offered all the resistance of a rag doll.

Don’t ask me how I felt while this went on. Never. I’d just embarrass myself by babbling incoherently, because my emotions had moved into utter, perfect terra incognita by that point.

Then I picked her up, carefully, cradling her to my chest, and turned towards the door.

She mumbled something incomprehensible and shifted a bit in my arms. I was halfway to the door when a single understandable word escaped her lips, so quiet I barely understood it.

“Papa.”

***

I hadn’t even been able to put to words how I’d felt hugging her for the first time. Hearing that word, like that, just slipping out unexpected?

Saying it blew my world was too weak a phrase. I might’ve dropped her out of sheer shock, except I’m pretty sure I was physically incapable of letting her go in that moment.

***

After what must’ve been a geological age or two, I squeezed her for a moment, then went to my car, putting her carefully into the passenger seat, buckling her in. She roused for a moment, but subsided again once she saw me.

That made me feel… warm. Warmer. Made me wish I could keep her with me forever.

Not an option though. If Camille doesn’t kill me, Tamara certainly will. So I buckled myself in and drove off.

***

The gatekeeper waved me through as soon as he saw Hennessy in the passenger seat, and I drove straight to her house.

I’d barely pulled up before the door was pulled open and the little princess came shooting out, a pink-and-blue blur that almost slammed into my door before I opened it.

“Hello!” Princess Charity squealed as I ruffled her hair.

“Hello, your majesty,” I greeted her with a smile as I got out of the car. “I brought your sister back,” I said as I walked around the car to pick Hennessy up.

“That’s great! She just left! That was mean!” she said, turning it from a squeal to a whisper as soon as she saw that her sister was asleep.

Though that didn’t stop her from climbing onto her lap – and thus into my arms – while I was still bent over and getting her out of the car. I gave her a queer look, but she just smiled adorably and let me carry her along with her sister into the house.

Tamara was already waiting, and she seemed on the verge of tears – happy ones, too. I smiled at her, and mouthed, “She spent the entire morning with me.” She nodded and accompanied me up to Hennessy’s room.

Together, we put her into her bed and took her jacket and boots off again. It was… strangely painful. We’d been meant to do this, together, over the last eighteen years.

And for just a moment, I could see it all in front of my eyes. Me, returned from the war after the clusterfuck, to find her waiting with our newborn daughter. Pardoned, able to be openly with her, going down on one knee to ask for her hand in marriage (I’d bought the ring before shipping out, and she was never, ever going to learn that). Her moving into my house at Merlin Street, as we raised Hennessy together. We’d have more children, of course. Many more, if only because we wouldn’t be able to keep our hands off of each other. I’d get a job, perhaps something to put all those stupid lessons my father had given me on social interactions and negotiations to good work for once. I’d come home ever afternoon to-

Stop. Just stop. You’re just torturing yourself for no reason, I reprimanded myself as I picked Charity off her sister and put the little slip of a girl onto the floor.

Tamara gave Hennessy a kiss on the cheek, then turned to a stereo beneath a poster of a seriously stacked teenage girl with multi-coloured hair, playing a huge keyboard. She pushed a button and a soft, ethereal melody began to play. Then we left, with the little princess shooting off into her own room as soon as we closed the door to Hennessy’s.

The two of us walked down the stairs without talking. I guess it was just awkward.

“How’d it… go?” she asked, finally, as I was already opening the door.

I turned around to smile at her. “Good. Great even. I mean, it was weird at first, but… then we hugged and-“

“She let you hug her?” she asked with clear shock. “She hasn’t let a man hug her since… you know, since…”

I shivered – more in anger than anything – and nodded, suddenly understanding where that panic had come from. Oh wow, I almost ruined it there, didn’t I?

But I didn’t let my mortification show. Instead, I shrugged. “Well, she certainly seemed to enjoy it. And later, she… um, she actually said a word, later. When she was asleep,” I said. “I didn’t know she could.”

“She does that, sometimes,” she replied, exhaling a breath I hadn’t noticed she’d held. She looked… happy. “What did she say?”

I will forever and always deny that it ever happened, but I did blush there. “She, ah, called me… Papa…” I gave her a sheepish grin.

She rewarded me with one of the dazzling, wide-mouthed grins that I’d originally fallen in love with, back when she used to mess up my stunts and make fun of me and my whole act, then followed it up with a hug that might’ve dislocated some bones if I’d been a normal human.

I didn’t dare hug her back, though. No sense in risking that.

“That’s… that’s wonderful,” she sobbed, and I felt my t-shirt get wet. “I… it’s more than I could’ve hoped for. Even after… Camille told us what… what happened to you, during the w-“

“Shshshhh,” I hushed her, gently extricating from her hug and holding her at arm’s length to look her in the eyes. “That’s all in the past. Let’s not waste time on it – just look forward to a better future, alright?” I wiped some sparkling tears off her cheeks.

She nodded.

“I have to go now,” I said. “Got some things to work out. You be safe, alright? And if there’s anything – I gave Hennessy my number. Don’t hesitate to call, no matter what it is. Alright?”

“Alright. Thank you, Aap… I mean, Kevin,” she replied. “That’s weird. I never would’ve taken you for a Kevin.”

I chuckled. “Well, I was quite surprised when you told me your real name, back then. I would’ve expected something like Felicia or Felicity, to be honest.”

“Why that?” she asked, a small laugh escaping her.

“Just my imagination, I guess.” I grinned at her. “Be safe, Tam. See you soon.”

“You too, Kevin.” She leaned up on her tip-toes and kissed my cheek before I left.

It burned pleasantly all the way back home.

***

Of course, once I was back home, my good mood didn’t survive for long. Whether Hennessy had actually intended it or not, her subtle (and not so subtle) use of her power, as well as her simple presence, had quite managed to take my mind entirely off of the troubles I was facing, and focused me completely on her – not that I regretted that.

Still, I did have some rather pressing matters to deal with. Chief among them being the Ascendant and the Gefährten.

I didn’t have any delusions about my chances against them, if they moved in strength. Though they’d never been a very… obvious part of the metahuman world, the Gefährten had been there since the beginning, even before the Syndicate had been formed, acting in the shadows. Amassing power, knowledge and a reputation that rivaled Weisswald’s own in terms of terror elicited, even if far fewer people really know enough about them to be properly terrified.

I might stand a chance, if only the Ascendant isn’t acting with the full backing of the Gefährten behind him. This might be a personal matter, with him only getting rudimentary support from them.

In fact, it was far more likely that he was mostly on his own than that he was acting under direct orders of their leadership – the way he’d acted so far was simply not their style, openly attacking an established villain – a legacy, even – and sending hitmen after a simple Syndicate agent…

Memo to self, take Sara up on that meeting and find out why they were after her… and who sicced those assassins on you.

So, there was a good chance that he was acting on his own. But still…

I don’t have the resources to deal with even a small fellowship, even if it’s not an officially sanctioned one. Or at least, I am unlikely to deal safely with it.

More to the point… I might not be able to protect Elouise and Hennessy. They were both so powerful, confident in their own way, surrounded by allies… so, so vulnerable.

It’s a big risk, either way. I had to get rid of the Ascendant. Even beyond the revenge factor – and oh boy, was I looking forward to some slow, drawn-out, delicious vengeance – he had to die, if only so he couldn’t threaten my girls, or anyone they cared about, ever again.

I can’t guarantee their safety, I thought, and immediately, the monkey was back, howling and clamouring for ultra-violence. It didn’t want me to think. It just wanted me to go out and start killing people. Just start killing, and keep killing until no one was left to threaten those I cared about…

I shook my head, banishing the visions of violence its howls called up. I was smarter than that. The monkey, for all its power, couldn’t plan, couldn’t see the future coming. I couldn’t rely on it for this, at least not until the very end, when it came down to only fighting.

My hand slipped into my jeans pocket, and I pulled my cellphone.

Then I almost crushed it, when the monkey followed my train of thoughts and went crazy. I doubled over, my hands to my head as it threatened to split in twain.

“Stop!” I roared, forcing it back down. “Not your decision! No decision at all! I’m just thinking!”

But now that I started thinking in that direction…

I called up the picture I’d taken of Hennessy on the couch, standing in the middle of my living room, my eyes glued to the too-small screen. I need a picture of Elouise as well, came a random thought to my mind, but I shook my head and focused on Hennessy again.

I had to protect them. I had to act. But I couldn’t do this on my own. I couldn’t rely on the heroes, not with all the chaos that was currently tying up their resources. I couldn’t rely on Elouise’s organisation – she had tried to sugarcoat it, but just two of the Ascendant’s people had almost been too much for her people to take, and she’d lost far more than they’d had.

I stared at the phone for what seemed like an eternity, burning the image of Hennessy even deeper into my brain than it already was. An indeterminable amount of time passed.

“Fuck you!”

“What did you say to me?”

I shook my head, sitting on the couch, in the same spot Hennessy had sat in.

“You heard me, you asshole. Fuck you! Fuck you! I’m not going to do it!”

“Son, watch your tongue. This is a great opportunity and you would be a fool to ignore it.”

I groaned, leaning back as that particular memory fought its way into the forefront of my mind.

“No! No, I won’t do it! I’m sick of this! I’m fucking sick of your fucking games, you fucking asshole!”

“Boy, if you weren’t my son, I’d-“

“You’d what? Kill me? Torture me? Try and break me? Like you’ve been teaching me how to do?”

The last time I’d seen or heard my father.

“Son, this is your chance. You could join the Syndicate, not as my protege, but on your own terms. You could be-“

“What, a new figurehead for you to use? A new patsy to rally the Syndicate members who oppose the Dark behind? For what!? Another doomed attempt to oust him!?”

“It’s important work, son, the opposition is growing since DiL’s origin was revealed, the Dark’s position has never been weaker…”

“Oh, fuck you! Fuck you, and fuck the Dark, and fuck the Five and fuck the Syndicate! Fuck your sick little games, all of you! We both know it’s not going to work, whether you lead them or not – the Dark is the Syndicate, so why bother!? He’s unassailable!”

“Even the Greatest may fall. No one’s invincible, I taught you that. This game we all play is one were even a god may stumble over an ant, to tumble down below – and the Dark is not nearly a god. He, too, can fall. You could be a part of this game, more than a figurehead, a symbol of power, of independence. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Like that? Like that? Why the fuck would I like that!?”

“Just think of the power!”

Power!? You dare say that? What the fuck is that power good for? What the fuck is your power good for, eh? All your mind games, your allies, your great powers and your great plans – and you couldn’t even protect the woman you professed to love! What do I want this power for, when it couldn’t even protect Mom!?”

“Son…” I remembered, that had been the first time since mother’s death that he’d shown any weakness, a hint of grief and guilt. Not that I’d been in any mood to appreciate that.

“No! No, I’m done! I’m done with this! I want out!”

“…”

“Well, what is it? Don’t try to play for time! I told you, I don’t want this, so give the fuck up!”

“What do you want, then?”

“What do I want? I can tell you what I don’t want! I don’t want your lessons! I don’t want the Syndicate, I don’t want the power! I don’t want the games and I don’t want the intrigue! I don’t want to kill people, or learn how to torture them or how to brainwash them! I don’t want your Nepotism, I don’t want your Experience, I don’t want your good intentions! I. Don’t. Want. You!

“…”

“Oh, that hurts, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not done! I want out! I want away from this, from you! I want my own life! I want to be free, to fucking live again! I. Want. You. Gone!

“So be it.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, so be it. If that is what you wish, then so shall it be. Go. Take whatever you need, whatever you want. Go and make your way. I won’t interfere. I won’t even watch. I won’t check up on you. I won’t be there. I’ll be well and truly, out of your life.”

“You promise that?”

“I do. I swear, by everything I hold dear, past, present and future, that I shall, from now on, neither interfere in your life, nor inform myself of it, aside from knowledge gained indirectly, due to my duties. I shall, simply put, stay out of your life entirely.”

“Al… Alright. That’s good. Thank you.”

“Fare well. May you find what you seek… somewhere.”

I’d left our house a mere half hour later, with only two changes of clothes, the pictures of Mom (those without Dad in them), a little cash and a few books; and we’d neither met nor spoken again since. I’d been fourteen at the time. More than two decades had passed since then.

I sighed, as the monkey continued to rage behind my eyes, the mere memory of my father’s voice, so vivid, enough to drive it into near-berserker rage.

My eyes remained on my phone, and I zoomed the image in on Hennessy’s sleeping face. Then, at that point, I knew that I’d do anything to protect her and Elouise.

For you, and for your sister, baby girl.

I dialed a number I’d memorised a long, long time ago.

The phone didn’t have a chance to ring even once.

“Aaron,” spoke his voice – strong, and smooth, like steel wrapped in silk and drenched in honey. The first voice I’d ever heard. And the name I hadn’t heard since I’d left that day. I couldn’t even begin to make out the tangle of emotions that I heard behind his words, carefully though he tried to conceal it.

“Father,” I replied, my voice less stable, my emotions less curtailed. Part of me wanted to hang up on him, right now, just to spite him. “I know… how I left things. I know what I said. But I think I need your h-“

“I’ll be at your current location in ten minutes.”

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