B13.c On Wings of Lead

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Malphas never set himself an alarm clock – he didn’t even own one, there was no need. As the day began, he felt his people wake and go about their morning routines, the vibrations of their increased movements propagating through the material he’d filled with his power, reaching him, the contrast to the relative calm of the night enough to wake him from his restless slumber.

He turned onto his side with a groan, the ground he lay on molding itself flawlessly, instinctually, to his body, far more comfortable than any bed could possibly be; people often thought that his room spartan, with no luxuries other than his ever-growing collection of comic books and a single poster, but the truth was, furniture, even a bed, was superfluous – not when he could control the tenements at will, thanks to all the power he’d channeled into the material over the last two years, ever since he created their first incarnation. Even now, as he woke, the ground rose up, pushing him into an upright sitting position, then extended into a chair that was sitting on – once he wanted to rise, it’d be easier to do so from this position than from the ground.

Next, he reached out with his right arm, as a tendril of semi-liquid metal extended, handing him a cup of steaming hot coffee it’d brought from the communal kitchen, in his private metal cup-

The cup slipped through his non-existant fingers as a horrible, stinging pain shot through them, through his arms and into his shoulder.

He screamed, doubling over and off his chair, hitting the ground face-first as the pain – and the knowledge – of his missing limb took over his mind, not even noticing it as the ground melted to receive him, making it look like he’d dove into jelly, sinking in before he rose back up, curled up around the stump of his right arm.

For several minutes, he lay there in just a pair of ratty grey sweatpants, his slender, dark-skinned chest heaving, trying very hard not to hyperventilate – he’d done that a few times, the first few nights after Blauschwinge’s attack, passing out from the strain and the shock.

Fuck. Fucking fucking fucker, fuck you! he thought, as the memory of the arrogant, mad-eyed villain rose up. The contemptuous snarl on his face as he grabbed Volca using his power to simply chop through her body, from shoulder to hip, with one hand, ripping her in two. Lag’s anguished cry, as she ran to her dying cousin, touching her, taking her wounds onto herself.

Taking her death unto herself.

Then, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, he’d flown out, dodging several spikes Malphas had shot his way, those he didn’t simply allow to splash harmlessly off his body, and then smashed his tenements with a single blast, warping and twisting them so violently, even his power hadn’t been able to counteract its brutal deformation, hadn’t been able to evacuate everyone in time before they were crushed, killed.

Never, not once, since he’d gained his power had he failed so thoroughly. It hurt more than losing his arm, in its own way, to have failed the people he’d sworn to protect.

Another lance of pain shot through the space where his arm should be, into the useless stump sticking out from his shoulder, making him bite down on another scream, silently thanking his foresight in sealing up his room, save for a pipe leading outside for air, before he went to sleep, so no one would hear his initial screams.

It took him almost ten minutes to recover enough that he could gather his wits about himself and rise up on shaky feet, using his power to wrap several tendrils around his waist and left shoulder, to steady himself. Another tendril had caught his falling cup earlier and now passed it to him.

Strange, I didn’t think of that, he noticed, his mind still numb from all the pain, almost moaning as the hot black liquid – he hated sweets, never developed a taste for them, and always took his coffee black – ran down his throat and soothed him, while also helping him wake up.

Gulping it down in one go, using his power to make the cup so smooth every last drop would run out, he dropped it, letting it melt back into the rest of the tenements.

Only after taking a few more breaths did he finally look at the stump. It’d been tied off, bandaged expertly, first by Aap Oordra, then later by the staff of the hospital which he and Volca had forced him to go to.

Not that he’d protested much, once the adrenaline had started to fade and the full magnitude of the pain made itself known.

Speaking of which, it was coming back again, so he popped some painkillers from a small can that rose out of the floor, then retreated back into it.

They wouldn’t kick in for a while, but just knowing that they would was already helping, putting his mind a little more at ease.

Taking some deep breaths, he slowly counted down from ten, took a look at his poster – it always lifted his spirits, ever since he’d hit puberty – then simply walked through the wall leading to the hallway outside his bedroom, stepping out fully armoured with metal drawn from it, making his way to the shower room on the top level, where he resided.

Behind him, the floor of his room overturned itself, drawing in the sweat and tears in, channeling them out of the tenements and into the drain, leaving no trace behind.

***

One thorough shower later, the eleven-year-old was clean and relatively fit again, as the painkillers slowly kicked in and he’d removed the last traces of his troubled sleep.

Not that he had long to enjoy it, thanks to his stomach immediately deciding to rumble loudly, announcing its need for food.

I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, he realised, startled, even as he felt relieved that he had the top level for himself and no one was around to hear it.

Seeing no pressing business to take care of, he dove through the floor, using his ability to feel all throughout the structure to avoid hitting any of the tenants that moved through the intervening levels. All of them were already quite used to him diving through the tenements in such a fashion, and no one even flinched.

Malphas tried very hard not to dwell on how much emptier the tenements were, compared to before the attack. Not only had he been unable to save eleven of his people, but several more had chosen to move out, scared off by the brutal attack, even though the attacker had been brought down almost immediately afterwards (though Malphas wasn’t sure whether he’d survived or not – that mercenary working for Aap Oordra had taken his body with him, saying he’d take care of everything). He’d told them that they were welcome to return at any time, and he hoped that they’d remember that the tenements were still the safest place to be in in the Undercity, but for now, he felt the absence of twenty-three of his own.

There were few things Malphas hated as much as losing his own.

Fortunately, just as his thoughts were about to turn to all the others he’d lost over the years, he reached the communal kitchen and mess hall that he’d built into this newest iteration of the tenements, while fixing the damage from Blauschwinge’s attack. It was bigger, now, extending all the way up to the roof of the plant above, and broader, the outer walls multi-layered, disconnected from each other while still being reinforced, hopefully making it more resistant against any similar attacks.

He’d taken the chance to add several upgrades that people had been asking for for a while now, including expanding the shared kitchenspace into a proper mess hall, with enough room to provide seats for as many people as could possibly fit into the tenements.

When he got there, he was instantly distracted from his gloomy thoughts as he saw an increasingly rare sight at the tenements, though this one was one he was unambigiously feeling good about.

Volca sat at a table near the actual kitchen, sipping coffee from a huge mug. She was wearing sweatpants and a blue sweater, and her hair was still wet and clinging to her head and neck.

The other tenants kept their distance, mostly moving around her table to get to the coffee machine behind the kitchen counter, and in general doing what they could not to offend her in any way. Ever since Lag’s death, she’d become increasingly irritable and violent, to the point where, during the first days, Malphas – himself still recovering from having lost his arm – had been forced to put her down a few times to prevent her from hurting others.

He’d just about started to consider locking her away for a while, or splitting a part of the tenements off to give her a space of her own, when Aap Oordra had shown up, out of the blue, and offered her and Malphas a job. It hadn’t taken much prodding for her to accept it, though Malphas himself had declined – he didn’t like the thought of being away from his tenements for too long.

She’d calmed down since then, with no more incidents that’d required his intervention, though that was at least partly because she spent less and less time down here, and partly because she was always so tired when she did.

Still, he worried, and he was also curious about things were going, so he decided to join her after getting his own meal.

When he walked to the counter, the cook, Marley, saw him and picked up the pot of coffee from the machine, letting it flow down onto the bare metal counter. A cup formed out of it, catching the glorious java, and a bowl as he simply dumped some stew onto it, already used to the routine.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice much deeper-sounding thanks to his helmet. The short, wiry man behind the counter just nodded (he was mute, as far as Malphas new), picking them up and walking over to Volca. “Mind if I join you?”

The young blonde looked up at him, taking a moment before she responded – not because she had to think it over much, he was sure, but simply because her brain was not quite as awake as the rest of her body, just yet – and nodded. “Sure thing. Your place anyway.”

He nodded back and sat down, his armour immediately fusing with the bench. He picked up the cup of coffee, the lower portion of his helmet folding open (he’d styled it to open kind of like that alien from that old Schwarzenegger movie) to let him drink.

Ah, coffee.

He noticed Volca staring rather intently at him, as he drank, and gave her a questioning look.

“Ah, sorry,” she said, averting her eyes and raising her mug to take a sip. “Just… I can still barely believe that you’re a freaking preteen. Never would’ve guessed.”

He felt his face heat up a bit. “Um, yeah. That’s why I always go around in full armour, you know? I need people to take me seriously, not see me as just a kid, so I can take care of everything.”

She snorted, almost laughing, putting her mug down and looking incredulously at him.

“What?” he asked, defensively. His helmet snapped shut again.

“Malphas, dude, you’re so far beyond being ‘just a kid’ it ain’t even funny anymore,” she replied, grinning at him over her steaming hot mug. “If there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about, it’s anyone ’round here not taking you seriously.” She looked him straight in the eyes, her gaze as intent as her words.

He looked down at his food, looking at his food rather than at her, feeling embarrased. “You think so?” he asked her, not really taking it all that seriously. He knew how adults were about that, treating children like they weren’t able to think properly or something. Like they couldn’t be trusted with anything.

It always annoyed him, seeing how the adults themselves couldn’t really be trusted with anything, ever. One look at the state of the world showed that.

Except for guys like Aap Oordra, he’d rarely met any adults who seemed all that better than kids at being smart. A lot were worse, in his experience, like Volca used to be.

“Yeah, I mean, dude, look around you,” she replied, seeming to wake up fully for the first time and leaning forward over the table even as she gestured at everything around them. “You built this. All of this. On your own. You’re taking care of dozens of people, all alone. You were, what, nine when you started it?”

“Ten,” he grumbled, annoyed. “I started this two years ago. Am almost twelve, now.”

“Yeah, I betya even Double-L and the Dark weren’t this badass at your age! And, and, I mean, dude, you lost an arm defending this place!” She almost shouted that last sentence, then suddenly became a lot calmer, sitting back again and averting her eyes. “The people here love you, Malphas. You don’t need to hide a thing from us, you know? No one who matters is gonna think less of you for being young.”

He had trouble believing that. Especially since it came from Volca, the same woman who thought it was a good idea to put chili powder into coffee and hot chocolate.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll think about that,” he replied. “So, uh, how’s work, anyway? I barely see you around here anymore.” She’d barely spent three nights in the tenements, since the night Lag died. Not that he couldn’t understand that, even disregarding her new job.

She groaned, slamming her head onto the table. “Don’t remind me. Aap’s a fucking slavedriver,” she said, muffled. “I don’t just have to work full-time, I also have to train. ‘Until you’re up to my minimum standards’ he says. ‘So I don’t have to worry you’ll get yourself killed by some random crook’ he says.”

“Uh, training? What kind of training?” he asked, surprised. He hadn’t heard about that.

“What kind of training? Easier to say what kind of training he’s not giving me!” she complained loudly, making several heads turn their way, though the other tenants still kept their distance, giving the two metahumans their room. “He’s having me study to get my GED, and to get a proper, legal license both for the job and as a cape. A cape, me! Plus combat training, and investigative training, and negotiation practice and it ain’t the normal stuff either, you know? I looked it up, the kinda stuff he makes me learn, even the cops’ special forces don’t do that much! I dunno who trained him, but it must’ve been a complete sadist! Today’s my day off from training – not work, just training – otherwise I’d be out jogging with a backpack full of rocks while getting quizzed on crime scene procedure. And his pop quizzes! Any time we’re not on the clock, he might attack me, out of the blue! To test whether I’ve been practicing all the reversals and tricks he’s teaching me! And he says we’re just getting started!”

Malphas couldn’t help but gulp, feeling glad that he’d dodged a bullet by refusing Aap’s job offer. Even though he’d been really, really eager to accept, if only to spend more time with him. Aap was freaking awesome. The coolest adult he’d ever met, ever.

Still, what Volca was telling him sounded like the proverbial training from hell.

“That… sounds a little extreme, yeah,” he agreed with her. “Does he, uh, what does he do, while you train?”

She shrugged, while remaining bent over, her head on the table. “Most of the time, he trains with me. Does all the stuff he makes me do. ‘cept when he takes on some extra work and is busy. Then he has Wa- I mean, Cartastrophy watch over it instead.”

“Well, at least je doesn’t make you do anything he ain’t willing to do himself, right?” he pressed.

She looked up, finally, looking annoyed, and waved it off. “Nah, he’s pretty cool ’bout that. He’s done it all when he was little, already, and he does it again with me. And he even pays me for the hours I spend training. Well, will pay me. Haven’t got my first paycheck yet, just a signing bonus.”

He tilted his head to the side. “A signing bonus? How much did he pay you?” he asked, curiously. If he’d understood it correctly, Aap had just returned from being some kind of prisoner of war – how much money could he already have, really?

“Ten k,” she said, grinning. “First time I made this much money the honest way and all at once. Or any way, really.”

His eyes nearly bugged out. “T-ten thou? Seriously? Where’s he get all that money!?” That may not have been all that much up top, but ten thousand dollar were one hell of a fortune down here.

She waved an arm. “Savings from before he went to war. Plus, he got money from the government. Basically, they paid him his salary as a non-com for every single day he spent as a PoW. And on top of that, bounty for turning the Ascendant in. Guy’s a freaking millionaire, not that he seems to care about it, ‘cept how it lets him set up his new business.”

Malphas jaw was hanging open in shock as he processed that. He knew Volca was gonna be making money now, real money, not the occasional take from some crime, but if that was just her signing bonus

“Ah, this reminds me,” she continued, laying her arm on the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking straight at him again. “You’re gettin’ some of that, too.”

“W-what?”

“The bounty, silly,” she grinned at him. “Aap’s insisting that everyone who helped with the fight at the water works gets a cut, ‘cept for that stoic mercenary he’d hired – he got paid already, or sumthin’.”

“Seriously? I, uh, I dunno what to say. How much am I gettin’?” he asked dumbly, not sure what else to say.

“Bounty was a few million. Got paid out to him and he’s giving us all an equal share, after taxes and all. That’s you, me, Cartastrophy and himself, so about, a little less than a mill each, once the money comes in.”

He felt the people move about in the tenements, going about their business, some leaving to get to whatever small jobs they had, or just to scavenge or do other stuff. Time passed.

Volca got up and went to get herself some beef barley soup, then came back, sitting down to eat. Time passed.

“You know, I’d say it’s funny seein’ ya look like a statue, but then I realised you always look like that, anyway,” she commented, when he’d still not said anything halfway into her meal.

“Uhhh…” He shook his head, trying to recover his wits again, then groaned when the jerky motion made pain shoot through his stump.

It wasn’t important, though, because, damn it, he’d never even seen that much money, nevermind had been told it would be his. And now Aap Oordra wanted to give him nearly a million dollars, when he’d basically taken down the Ascendant and his cronies all on his own?

“I, um, I really don’t know what to say,” he replied. “What, uh, what do I have to do to get the money?” he asked the only thing that came to mind, or at least the only one that wasn’t him just babbling incoherently.

“Just come with me to the office,” she replied between two spoonfuls of soup. “You can talk to Aap and get all the info.”

“Leave the tenements? But, I need to-” he began to protest, but she cut him off.

“Dude, it’s gonna be alright if you’re gone for just a morning or something,” she said, annoyed. “Besides, what do you think is gonna help this place more? You being here this mornin’, or you havin’ nine-hundred kay to throw around?”

He looked away, embarrassed. She was right, of course, but… leaving the tenements, his place of power behind… it wasn’t just that something might happen to people around here, it was, it wasn’t something he really felt comfortable doing. Ever. Even leaving them to go after the Ascendant, it had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

Volca finished her soup and got up. “So, you comin’? I got a schedule to keep, so I can’t hang around and wait, big guy.”

He looked at her, then he looked around at the other people in the mess hall. Most of them were focused on their food or their conversations, but a few noticed him looking at them and looked back, smiling and waving.

Everyone here was ragged, their clothes old, some of them handed down half a dozen or more times, within the tenements. Food was just a thin beef barley soup, water and coffee from a scavenged coffee machine they’d somehow fixed up, but which kept breaking, over and over again.

Forget nine hundred thousand, I could do so much for people around here with just nine hundred dollars, period.

That thought was what decided him, finally, and he stood up, nodding to her. “Alright, let’s go.”

***

“You know, I haven’t seen the sun in months?” he asked Volca, as they left the Undercity through an old, abandoned subway station, stepping out onto the open street and drawing no few looks. He’d left his armour behind, putting on some real clothes – well, more than just underpants and sweatpants – for the first time in a long time, and that alone was making him incredibly nervous, but even so, at his age, and with just one arm, he was drawing stares.

At least his sweater hid the bandages around the stump, so it wasn’t evident that it was a recent injury, and not just something he’d been born with or whatever.

He didn’t like it, feeling both pitied and exposed, two things he really did not want to feel.

“You should get out more,” she replied, walking ahead confidently, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. New jeans, not brand-name stuff, but still, new and well-fitting, and a stylish black sweater, her hair up in a messy ponytail, and just a touch of actual make-up on her face.

Maybe it wasn’t just him who was drawing stares. He’d never really thought about it, but walking with her now, out of costume and all, he couldn’t help but notice that she was really quite… attractive.

It was quite annoying really, ever since about two months ago, he’d been noticing girls more and more. The poster on the wall of his bedroom being Exhibit A of his newly awakened interest in the formerly icky half of the population.

At least most of the women living in the tenements – ‘cept for Lag and Volca, and now just Volca – weren’t all that pretty, so he hadn’t gotten tongue-tied or anything in front of people yet.

At least Volca was someone he’d known since before he’d started noticing girls, so he could talk to her normally.

“Maybe I should,” he told her, as they walked down the street. “The breeze feels nice.” It was a windy day in the Windy City, and it was really refreshing. It even made his stump throb less painfully.

All the noise around them wasn’t nearly so nice, though. The Undercity wasn’t exactly tranquil, but up here, it was a cacophony. Cars driving around, people walking, talking, shouting. Electronics, everywhere, beeping and screeching and more.

He focused on the way ahead, trying to shut the worst of it now, but it did distract him briefly, so he missed the first part of Volca’s next sentence.

“- sometime after the next months starts,” she said.

“Huh? Sorry, I got distracted, what’d you say?” he asked her, wishing he could look up at her face as they talked, but he didn’t have the tenements around him to feel where he was going, and know when he was about to walk into someone, so he was focusing on where he was going, moving much slower than usual and not just because his legs were shorter without his armour.

“I said I’ll probably be moving out once I get my cut of the bounty and my first paycheck,” Volca repeated.

He stopped dead, looking at her in shock. She moved on a few more steps, before she noticed that he’d stopped and turned around to look at him, looking confused, first, then sympathetic as she seemed to pick up on his mood.

“Y-you’re leaving?” he asked, dismayed. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand… the tenements were a place for people to hide out and rest, until they got their life back on track, and it was also the place where her cousin had died, and she was making money now, too, but…

But… he hated it when people left. No matter how good the reason.

She smiled sadly at him, moving closer and bending over as one of her hands slid to the back of his head, pulling him forward to touch her forehead to his.

“Hey, don’t be sad big guy,” she spoke softly. “I won’t disappear. I’ll still visit, and I’ll be helping out – you and the others down there, you did so much for me and Nina, there’s no way I could just abandon ya all. But I gotta find a place for myself, now that I can.”

He averted his eyes, even as he leaned against her, enjoying the gentle touch – a rarity, even when one discounted the fact that he was wrapped in several inches of steel most of the time. “I know. I’m sorry for being silly, it’s just…”

“You’re not being silly, big guy. Just… being you. And I freaking love you for that, you know?” She pulled back, then leaned in again, giving him a warm kiss on the forehead.

When she pulled back, the warmth stayed, spreading from his forehead through his head, and down towards his chest as he looked up at her. They were both a little teary-eyed.

“Thanks, Volca. And… congratulations, I guess. I should’ve said so sooner, but… I’m really glad you’ve found something like this.”

She laughed quietly. “Thank you, big guy, but really, that’s just thanks to Aap. I still dunno why he insisted on hirin’ me, it’s not like he can’t do everything I can do, just better, anyway. But I sure am grateful that he’s such a weirdo. Anyway, speaking of said weirdo, he’s gonna put me through hell if I’m late, so let’s get a move on!” She ran her hand through his close-cropped hair, then turned around and walked on.

He stared after her for a few moments, then he gave a start, and followed her.

***

They reached her new jobplace soon. It stood near the Downtown area of Chicago, though Malphas didn’t know enough about the upper city to identify the precise location. There were a lot of shops around, but also a few apartment buildings, plus a homely little park with a playground.

The building Aap’s business was in must have once been a bar or something. Only two storeys tall, it was made of red bricks, with a solid wooden double-door that a short flight of stairs led up to and stained-glass windows.

What stood out the most, though, was the sign above it. A circular carving of a monkey wearing one of those Sherlock-Holmes hats, holding a magnifying glass and a baton, and next to it, in bright golden letters, the words ‘Blue Monkey Investigative and Protective Services’.

He was just about to ask Volca what those weird hats were called, when the door opened and the absolutely prettiest girl he’d ever seen walked out.

She was tall, taller than Volca even though she was clearly at least a year or two younger, with chocolate-coloured, unblemished skin that didn’t match her more white-ish facial features, but strangely complemented them, and bright, gorgeous purple eyes, as well as rich brown-black hair currently up in a braided bun. Wearing black tights, calf-high boots, a skirt and a pink keyhole sweater, she drew the attention of every guy on the street with a line of sight towards her.

“Oh, Hennessy,” Volca greeted her with a chargrined smirk. “Looking good as ever, but shouldn’t you be in school?”

The gorgeous girl rolled her eyes at Volca, but didn’t reply, instead looking at Malphas and giving him a gentle smile that made his knees weak.

Holy shit… How the fuck could girls be so distracting without even talking?

Then another person stepped out of the door, turning around with the same motion as she seemed to be talking to someone inside.

“-dare forget it, or I’ll make your life hell!” she shouted, sounding angry in a cheery kind of way, before she turned around.

She was a freaking goddess. Even prettier than the purple-eyed girl, and that was saying a lot, her skin was as pale as her friend’s – at least, they seemed to be friends, as she stepped forward and took the other girl’s hand with hers – was dark, her hair a rich golden colour and her eyes a mesmerising green-blue, like liquid jewels. She was wearing jeans so tight they seemed painted on, high-heeled boots that made her as tall as the other girl and a complementary blue sweater with a keyhole cut out and she was even more stacked than her friend.

Some part of Malphas mind was realising that he was staring at her with his mouth hanging open, but most of it was just endlessly repeating blue screen.

“Oh, hello Evelyn,” the blonde goddess – or was angel more appropriate? – greeted Volca, before she focused on him. “Oh, and who’s this cutie?” She grinned, walking down the steps, her friend following after her as she came to a halt in front of him and bending over to put herself at eye-level with him. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

He tried very, very, very hard not to stare at her breasts, which weren’t really hidden all that much from view in this position. He really, really tried.

“Uhh… ahhh…” he replied dumbly, really wishing he had his armour – then at least he could seal his helmet and not seem like a complete idiot. “Um, my name, uh, it’s, uh…” What was his name again?

“God, Camille, lay it off with the charm,” Volca complained.

The angel rolled her eyes, laughing before she focused on him again. “I’m not doing anything to him, silly. Just being friendly.”

He finally tore his eyes off her, her cleavage, and looked up at her face, gathering his wits for his reply. “Um, I, my name, my name’s Adrian, m-m-miss.” He gulped, trying to somehow wet his dry throat.

“Hello Adrian. My name’s Camille,” she replied, her voice as melodic as her body was gorgeous, and stood up – mercifully – offering him her left hand to shake.

He took it, shaking it. “A, a, a pleasure to meet you, miss,” he said.

“Likewise. And this is Hennessy,” she introduced her gorgeous friend. They shook hands, too, as he felt a wave of calmness come over him, helping him relax and gather his wits again.

“Nice to meet you too, miss,” he said, though she didn’t reply. Not that he cared, he was still mostly focused on the other girl.

Suddenly, Volca spoke up. “Hey, do you two have some time free?”

The girls looked at her, then at each other, then at her again. “Sure we do, why?” Camille asked curiously.

“Well, I got work to get to, and I thought, maybe you’d like to show Adrian around the place a bit, and stuff?” Volca suggested.

He whirled his head, staring at her in surprise, but she ignored him entirely, focusing on the two younger girls instead.

Camille grinned, looking at him again, and he felt his face flush with heat. Even more when her eyes briefly dipped to the stump of his arm, then up to his face again, with just a hint of pity in them – though it didn’t bother him at all right now. “Sure! We can hang out a bit, maybe grab a bite to eat?”

“Sounds great,” Volca said. “Ok, Adrian, you have a fun time and we can take care of business later, you ok with that?”

“Uh, ah, um, ahhhh.”

She nodded sagely. “I knew you’d agree. Have fun you three!” She waved at him, and walked past the girls into the building.

He stared after her, for a moment, feeling both bewildered and a little bit betrayed, before he turned his eyes back to the an- Camille.

She grinned at him, like… he didn’t know what to compare it to, it was too dazzling.

Instead of pressing the point, she held out her free hand for him. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s go have some fun!”

He took her hand, unable to form words, and let her pull him along, he on one side and Hennessy on another.

He didn’t even notice that his arm wasn’t hurting at all anymore.

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B011.15 Monkey Family

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I bolted off at my top speed, leaving everyone else behind. For once, the monkey was being cooperative, and fully so, pouring on the speed; one step carried me across the old sewage plant, to a tunnel that led towards Old Downtown. Another step and I crashed through a wall at the end of the tunnel without slowing down by a noticeable amount.

When I made my fourth step, sounds vanished as I shattered through the sound barrier.

I hadn’t reached speeds like these with such ease since I’d fought my demented half-sister during the war; even before that, I’d only managed them less than a dozen times, tops. I was soaring, I was roaring as a primal joy filled me, howling right along with the monkey as our thoughts lined up and we tapped reserves of power I’d forgotten I’d had.

We broke through more walls than I could be bothered to count, all but disintegrated a rusty old school bus when we went through it, gave a rather diverse-looking gang gathered around a portable television a nasty case of burst eardrums (and a shattered television); I focused ahead, I sped up and we. Went. On.

I felt the monkey’s skin attach directly to mine, mingling, melding, the separation vanishing for the first time in nearly two decades; my senses were escalating even faster than my speed did, the world around me slowing to an almost still image I was soaring through, every step taking me several hundred feet ahead. I could see every speck of dust in the air, I could feel the ground crack and liquefy with every step I took, I could feel the air slam into me over and over and over, trying to skin me alive, to shatter my bones, yet unable to do more than stir my fur and draw my lips back further widen the manic grin I felt stretch across my face, two rows of teeth revealed in all their sharp deadliness. I felt more than fast, more than powerful. This, this was what my power, what I was made for, just utter abandon and speed; In that moment, I felt more than human, more than metahuman – I felt like a god, utterly free and untouchable!

This, I could do forever. But alas, the downside of being as fast as me was that, even with my rapidly accelerated perception, the journey was not all that long. Eight steps, in total, until I burst through a wall thicker than many a skyscraper – or perhaps it hadn’t been a wall at all, it might just have been undeveloped earth and rock between the last tunnel I’d been in (less than a tenth of a step long) and the water distribution centre.

I don’t know what the Ascendant and his people had expected to see coming, if they’d expected anything at all, but I was entirely sure they hadn’t expected a furry blue monkey to burst through the wall and scream bloody murder.

To be perfectly honest, I liked what I saw. There were thirty-three people in the room (super-fast perception plus infravision equals lots of battlefield awareness) and all but three had an abnormally high body temperature, practically glowing to my vision.

Two of the three people without the spiking body temperature were in the back of the installation, out of sight of my normal vision – even their heat signatures were hard to pick out through all the intervening material.

The third person was much colder than a person should be, and a look through normal sight revealed a literally white-skinned woman with blue lips, wearing winter clothing; she was standing atop a railway that overlooked several water-purifying tanks, the metal around her iced over; looked like a pretty classic ice cowl, really.

The thirty burning people – all of them also enlarged to ridiculous degrees – were spread all around the place. Those I could see looked like the thugs I’d seen in Chayot’s memory, wearing dark clothing and masks – only the Ascendant must’ve shot them up with something, because they’d all grown to over ten feet of height, ripping through most of their clothing – the only things that still fit them were their masks, which still sat on their now ridiculously small heads, in between shoulders that big enough for someone like Volca or Tamara to fit into without trouble.

I could have – and probably should have stopped, looked around and made a plan on how to proceed, but I hadn’t reached this kind of level in a long time, and if I was honest with myself, I just wanted to cut loose.

Never mind that I was still angry as all hell and wanted to take vengeance on these people. I hadn’t forgotten the burning rage that had driven me earlier, and now was my chance to teach these clowns that you don’t mess with my family.

All these thoughts and observations went through my head in the time between bursting through the wall and landing on the ground, almost exactly beneath the cold woman.

And then it was monkey fun time.

***

My first move was as simple as it proved to be effective – I kicked off the ground, going straight up towards the cold woman. I didn’t know how exactly her power worked, but given the choice between taking out two of thirty juiced up normies (there were two that I could hit at once, just a few feet ahead of me) and one unknown metahuman… Well, I picked the popsicle.

I’d slowed down a lot, and no longer moved at super-sonic speeds; thus I could hear her try to shout something – or perhaps scream in horror – before I hit the railway from below. I reached out with my hands, grabbing the metal and tearing it in half right beneath her feet. Then I used both my momentum and my hands on the two halves of the railway to soar higher, tackling her.

Bones broke audibly, specifically those of her legs and she got all of a second of screaming in before my tail whipped up and wrapped around her throat, cutting it off. What most people don’t realise is that, if you do it right, choking someone out is a matter of a few seconds, tops.

I landed on the left side of the railway, letting her dangle off my tail, legs shattered, until she passed out – in plain sight of the mooks.

They didn’t take it well, at all. No less than eight of them leaped at me from below, but I’d been counting on that. I tossed the woman aside, to the far end of the railway, and went to work.

Reaching around me with both arms, one leg and my tail, I ripped huge chunks of the railway off and threw them at the four closest mooks. Before the projectiles were even halfway to their targets, I leapt off the railway, over the vats. I’d seen three enemies close together, and I flew straight at them. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could see their eyes through their masks – they widened in surprise at my high-velocity assault on them before they’d even gotten close.

Tough luck. You shouldn’t have taken this job, I thought as I gut-kicked the one in the middle with both feet. As he folded over, the air knocked out of him, the other two tried to grab me as they flew past – but I was faster; I grabbed each of them by their normal-sized heads, wrapping my hands around them, and pulled them down after me.

The one I’d kicked hit the ground with an impact that created an actual crater around him. Coming to a dead stop, I swung the other two head-first into the ground to his left and right.

All three went limp, but I didn’t waste any time – before their bodies had even fully touched the ground, I’d already kicked off towards five charging brutes.

I slammed into their leader just as the chunks of rock and concrete from the hole I’d blown coming in hit the ground and I did not rip off his head, as quick a solution as that might’ve been.

I did, however, see my father come through a wall (without blowing it up. Negative points for the weak entrance) dragging Warren, Malphas and Volca through (he was stretching his role there, I was sure; still, such an ability could easily be explained as a capability kept secret for emergencies, so…) and I decided to let them in on the fun, so I slammed my forehead into the centre of the guy’s face, grabbed the mooks to his left and right and threw them right at the group.

Then I went to town on the two still standing and trying to tackle me.

Tackle me.

The result was as hilariously one-sided as one could expect.

I don’t think that I broke their spines, but at the very least, they’d be in a lot of pain, for a long time, unless whatever they’d taken came with a lot of regeneration.

Warren, Malphas and Volca were getting ready to intercept the two I’d thrown at them and my father was running towards one of the metal vats. Seven enemies were down, two more about to get the shit kicked out of them. Leaving twenty-four targets.

I shouldn’t give the Ascendant too much time to do whatever it is that he’s doing, I reminded myself between seconds.

Twenty-two thugs left. They were gathering in one spot and seemed to be hefting weapons – I had to move fast.

Fortunately, moving fast is part of my power description.

There were twelve huge vats for water purification before it was fed into the city’s pipes. They were organised in four rows of three vats each, with the control room and the central access pipe on one side of the huge installation and my entry point pretty much on the opposite side. I was right in the middle of the vats, and the thugs were gathering behind the next row.

I don’t have much time – but I only need to scatter them, I realised and ran towards the gap between two vats. The sound of the rocks I’d blown into the facility impacting the floor reached me just as I reached twenty of the remaining thugs, who were busy picking up what seemed to be heavily customised rocket launchers.

Those were most likely no threat to me, or to Dad, but they could very well kill any of the others. Not that I would’ve let them pull off whatever they were aiming for anyway.

The juiced-up thugs didn’t even know I was there until I slammed into their midst at two hundred miles an hour, clotheslining no less than five of them as an opening move, two on the left and three on the right; I’d always rather enjoyed mixing wrestling moves into my fighting style – they were surprisingly effective and watching professional wrestling matches on television used to be something me and dad used to bond over, before things went bad.

The five unlucky assholes I hit first were down and out instantly, save for the third one on my right side (I hadn’t managed a full hit), and now I was in the middle of the group, which meant they’d have to be utterly insane to use their weapons on me.

Fortunately for everyone involved, these weren’t the kind of weapons you just had to aim and pull the trigger to use – never mind that they were still in the process of assembling half of the human-sized things, anyway. Unfortunately for them, I was also too fast to give them the chance to put up an effective defence, anyway.

I roared at the top of my lungs, not long but short, explosively – I’d shattered glass and burst eardrums with my roar before – to stun them, and then I went apeshit on them (heh).

My fists flew, breaking bones left and right – though I limited myself to striking at extremities, to reduce the chance of lethal blows; Hennessy’s and Camille’s request sat oddly with me, as did Journeyman’s words. I’d never really lost sleep over killing. Not during my stint as a villain, certainly not during the war, nor during the years after. But now…

I’d been told, from two sources that had a great deal of weight with me, that I shouldn’t kill. Journeyman, who’d so often given me good advice (and was the closest thing to a true friend I’d ever had, aside from Warren), and my own daughter and her girlfriend. I wondered whether Journeyman had known that they’d ask me that… no, stupid question; of course he’d known. There was no way this was a coincidence, not when he was involved.

But why had he preempted the girls’ request? Because, now that I thought about it, it had been more than just a plea to spare the Ascendant. They’d pretty much told me that they didn’t want me to kill, period. Not just in this one case.

Because, one way or another, it’d be on them for not stopping me. At least, in their heads, it would be, as unreasonable as that was.

And I couldn’t do that to them, not to Hennessy and, yes, not to Camille, either. She might have rubbed me the wrong way, but she was good to Hennessy, and that was more than I could say about myself.

All I could do, in the end, was to sigh. Which brought me back to the here and now – among the broken – but still alive – bodies of twenty enhanced thugs. Two of them hadn’t even hit the ground yet, still falling down in slow motion as I refocused on the present.

Two thugs left. As well as the Ascendant and whoever the other one with him is. I looked around, with both my normal and infravision, only to find that my team had taken care of the rest. Malphas, Volca and Warren had downed the two whom I’d thrown at them, my father had taken out (non-lethally, which was pretty surprising to me) the other two and was waiting near the place where the last two active heat signatures were.

No time to waste. I went and joined my father, after telling Warren to stand watch with the others.

I didn’t want them involved in the finale. However it turned out, they’d sleep better if they remained ignorant.

***

We didn’t bother with big entrances, not at this point. Father and I just walked, without a word, down a short hallway made of concrete and lined, left and right, in pipes of various sizes and colours. It ended in a reinforced steel door with the words ‘Central Pipe Access’ written on it.

Father and I raised a foot each and kicked the door out of its frame, sending it flying across the room beyond.

There was a yelp, and the sound of a gun being drawn and cocked.

Father let me take the lead, and I simply walked in in full monkey form, stooped over to fit through the door, with my hands entwined behind my back.

Within, I found two men standing over a contraption they were about to lower into a hatch in a big red pipe. The machine looked like some kind of tubular nightmare made of brass, gold and plastic, and did not inspire confidence at all. Of the two men, one was reasonably tall, thin, and wearing a pure white priest’s robe, with a mask depicting an angelic face; the other one looked like the thugs outside, only he was still normal-sized and fully clothed; he was holding a pretty heavy-looking handgun and put five bullets into my chest, and three more into my head, before I’d even fully entered.

I barely felt them, but still. I had to set the tone of this meeting, not them. To that end, I took a single step towards them, ignoring the burning desire for bloody murder at the sight of the Ascendant, and backhanded the last of his thugs, throwing him across the room. The man slammed into the wall and slid down with a sigh, the breath knocked out of him. Father walked over there to stand watch over him, while I approached the other one.

“The Ascendant, I presume?” I asked, without bothering to mask the pure hatred I felt for the man, the desire to kill him; nor did I hold back the monkey’s growl. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you for a while now,” I continued, while I reached out with one hand and pulled the contraption off the hatch.

“N-no, put that back!” he shouted in a shrill voice, all but leaping for the contraption – though there was no way this scrawny guy could lift it, not unless he shot himself up with his own drugs – it was almost as big as he was, and probably quite a bit heavier. “I need the dispenser, I need it!” he shouted as he tried to reach it, with me holding it out of his reach like a school bully denying a smaller boy his action figure or something.

Good God, this is the monster that hurt my girl so much? THIS? I thought furiously as I brushed him back. He fell on his ass like a freaking pushover, and started sobbing. Sobbing. For crying out loud, he was… he was acting like…

“I need that! If I don’t do this, they’ll take my name away!” he cried. “I need it, I n-“

“Oh, shut the hell up,” I said as I lashed out with my tail, hitting him in the gut. He slid back against the wall, the air – and fight – knocked out of him. Then I looked at the contraption. “This. It’s supposed to poison the water supply, right?” I asked the Ascendant, though it was my father who answered.

“Yes. He’s used a similar contraption before,” he said from where his hulking grey form stood over the downed minion.

I nodded to myself – and then I squeezed, crushing it. The Ascendant made a desperate, weak scream as I snapped it in two, watching various fluids spill over my hand and onto the ground, as the pieces tumbled down and hit with a metallic crunching sound.

“He’s not going to use this one, though,” I said with a satisfied growl in my voice.

The… little man in front of me was just sobbing now.

“I can’t believe it. This man, he created all this misery? I expected more from the Gefährten,” I almost-whispered.

“I guess we know now why they wanted to purge him. Can’t have been hard to find someone more appropriate to the job,” he replied casually. “Though my reports suggest he used to be much more… together. Perhaps his power has degraded his mind. Or perhaps just the threat of disappointing the Gefährten was enough to make him crack.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, though I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to. This was… not what I’d expected. “We’re done here, let’s go,” I said, turning around – though I didn’t leave him behind. I picked him up with my tail instead.

“Why not just kill him here?” Father asked. “We have time. We can enjoy it.”

“No,” I said firmly. “He’s going to the authorities, and he’s going to stand trial and be judged fairly.”

Father tilted his head, clearly confused – or at least surprised. “Seriously? Why the sudden about-face?” His voice almost slipped into his natural tone, for just a moment. I enjoyed that way more than I should.

“H- Chayot and Dearheart contacted me, asked me to spare him. To have him stand trial, as he should,” I said. Then I had a thought, and I reached around myself with my tail, so I could look straight at him. Snot was running down from beneath his mask, and his eyes were bloodshot and wet.

So pathetic. “Did you hear that, you piece of trash? The only reason you’re living through this is because the girls you hurt, the children you tortured, they want you to be treated fairly. No, not fairly – better than you could ever deserve. Do you get that!?” I screamed the last sentence into his face, revealing rows of teeth and covering him in spittle.

He nodded frantically in between sobs, but then he shook his head. “It don’t matterrrrrr,” he whined. “Th-they’re… they’re going to kill me, anyway. Just for failing. And so I don’t t-t-talk.”

“He’s right,” my father agreed. “He’s dead already. And we do need some intel, to be perfectly honest.”

I turned to look at him. He approached me in turn, leaving the thug behind. “I’m not going to kill him. Not going to leave any evidence. But it would be irresponsible not to extract as much information as we can from him, before he vanishes either into prison or is killed by his own people,” he stated firmly.

Why does he have to constantly make sense? I asked myself, but there wasn’t really any argument to be made. Really, I had no reason to even think it over – the Gefährten were major trouble, way worse than the Syndicate, and any edge against them was worth this.

“Alright. But be quick about it,” I said, dropping the Ascendant.

While my father went to work on him – I doubted there’d be much of a challenge, not with a man this broken – I went to take a look at the thug I’d downed earlier.

There, I met my next big temptation. His mask had fallen off, revealing features I’d seen before.

It was the same man I’d seen in the visions Hennessy had shown me. The one who’d taken her.

The one who’d kicked Tamara’s head when she’d already been on the floor, paralysed by poison and half-mad from fear for her child.

Boots, all around us. Boots, kicking. Boots, falling.

I blinked, looking down at his bloody face – I’d broken his nose. He wasn’t unconscious, though. But he wasn’t all there, either.

A black boot, dropping down. I remember the sound, the crack. The spray of warm blood, its taste when some droplets flew into my screaming mouth.

I shook my head, realising that I was bent over the man, ready to tear into him, to rip his fucking head off with my bare teeth!

I remembered the light dying in those big, warm brown eyes, I r-

I pushed myself away from him, growling under my breath.

This isn’t the way, I thought to myself. Not anymore. Really, it never was. They were never worth it to begin with. And there… I felt a kind of peace. I still hated them, but… no, it was done.

Once more, I looked down at the thug. He wasn’t anything else, after all. Just a thug. He’d hurt those I loved… but that was over. He was over, as surely as if I’d bitten his head off.

There was no need to literally do it, not anymore.

I waited for my father to finish extracting as much as he could out of the former Ascendant, then we left together, taking two criminals with us.

I did make sure to have him tell me what he found out, though. Just in case.

***

The next three hours passed in a blur. I mostly let my father do the talking. Warren snuck off with Volca and Malphas, after they made me promise to meet them all later on.

We called down the authorities, and the actual adult superheroes of Chicago showed up to pick up the trash. I hadn’t seen or heard from any of them, aside from Vek (who was just staring at me, as I stood in my pristine suit and tie in front of the piled up thugs – who were slowly reverting to normal size – and the tied up (and unconscious) Ascendant.

I smirked at her, while my father introduced himself as my hireling and handled the nuts and bolts.

Honestly, I couldn’t care enough to participate. I smiled at the cameras as journalists had gathered near the entrance to the water works, reporting as the police carted the goons out, and two men dragged the Ascendant to the paddy wagon. People cheered when they did that.

I just felt… pleasantly numb. It was only thanks to my father’s ingrained lessons that I bothered to smile and do some pleasant chit chat with a few reporters, giving them some nice soundbites.

***

Before I knew it, we were standing in front of Tamara’s house, just as the sun was setting. Father was back in his Dark form, though I doubted anyone but me could see him.

“Will you be alright from here on out?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I want to do this on my own,” I said. “Afterwards, though… I’d like to talk to you. At my place.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and I heard something almost like… hopefulness in his voice(s). I couldn’t be sure, but… it was a nice thought.

“Yeah. Drinks are on me.”

“I’ll be there,” he said, before he sank into his own shadow and vanished.

I smiled to myself – though I couldn’t tell why, things were just… just a blur right now. I looked at the house – nice and sturdy, picturesque really – and I tried to put my current state into words.

The closest I could come up with was a feeling like… like something had been knocked loose. Something old and scabbed over, broken and yet so persistent. I wasn’t miraculously healed of all my issues or anything, but…

But for the first time since mother died, I felt like I could finally start to heal.

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

***

Little feet pounded the stairs and then the little princess opened the door. She was now wearing a bright yellow dress and a matching tiara, with diaphanous golden butterfly wings and a golden wand in her hand.

She grinned up at me. “Hello, Mister Henny’s-other-Dad!” she chirped, and I couldn’t help but grin right back.

“And a hello to you, too, dear Fairy Princess,” I said, just as Tamara rounded the corner into the hallway.

She was dressed in casual stay-at-home clothes, and looked like she’d been crying – she didn’t look sad though. When she saw me, she smiled brilliantly, and even more so when the little princess turned to her and asked, “Mommy, how’d he know I’m a Fairy Princess!? I’m supposed to be in disguise!”

Tamara laughed and picked the little girl up, then she looked at me, looking radiant herself.

God, I could just look at her all day. As inappropriate as that would be now. And as if to underline that fact, Phil joined us, putting a long, thin arm around her shoulders.

“Hello, Kevin. Or Aaron, I guess,” he said, and he looked like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown at me. “They’re in the living room. Take your time.”

Tamara mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before she leaned closer to give me a kiss on the cheek (causing the little princess to giggle, and give me a mirroring one on the other one). Then she went up the stairs.

I looked at Phil, again. He looked back. I grunted. He grunted. I entered, taking off my shoes, and went to the living room.

When I entered, I saw Hennessy (in sweatpants and a pink baby tee) and Camille (in a matching outfit, only with a green top instead of a pink one) sitting on the couch, their eyes wet as they watched the television, holding hands.

Well, Camille was watching television. Hennessy was looking at me, and I got the feeling that she’d been tracking my movements as soon as I’d entered the range of her ability.

Camille turned, as well, and I got another memory for the records; I had made a lot, in my life, but this one, this one was unquestionably beautiful: Both girls broke into relieved, radiant grins, and then Hennessy literally leaped across the room and into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist for some extra hold.

And when I wrapped my arms around her, I felt like I’d finally done something good.

***

It was nearly midnight before I got back home, but father was still there, despite my tardiness – and he wasn’t alone.

He was sitting at my bar, the living room lit brightly by numerous indirect lamps, without any wraith to obscure him, in his black robe and skin-tight suit; and on the other side of the bar, currently mixing some manner of cocktail, was Journeyman in his dark blue robe.

Just like the last time (many years ago) I’d seen them both together, I was struck by how similar their costumes were, save for the colour of their robes and Journeyman’s mirror mask.

Neither of them had ever told me what was up with that. Or rather, Journeyman hadn’t. Father claimed he didn’t know why Journeyman dressed the way he did.

But that wasn’t important right now. Instead of pursuing the thought, I took off my jacket and tie, opened a few buttons on my shirt and sat down next to my father.

“Gimme something good, barkeep,” I said in the worst Chicago accent I could think of. “I got a lot to  celebrate.”

“Most certainly,” he said, as he filled a big glass with whatever he’d been mixing – obviously, Journeyman had known just when I’d show up, and what to prepare for me.

“I gather that the girls were pleased,” father said as he raised his own drink, the tip of the glass vanishing in the shadows of his hood. He sounded… quite pleased himself.

“Very much. I’m now invited to their bi-monthly Saturday barbecue; they want to introduce me to the rest of their team,” I said happily.

He nodded.

Journeyman filled a third glass with a sparkling blue concoction for himself.

We drank in silence.

Really good stuff.

After a while, father broke the quiet. “I have a confession to make,” he said, his voice even.

I looked at him with suspicion. How foreboding, coming from you of all people, I thought but didn’t say. Instead, I let silence speak for me.

“While you were busy with the girls, I snuck into the house,” he said. When I opened my mouth, he raised his hands to forestall an angry comment. “I had good reason to do so. Let me explain.”

I closed my mouth again and nodded. It couldn’t hurt to hear him out, and he usually did have a good reason for anything he did… unless that reason was ‘to annoy someone’.

“These last few years, I have been paying a lot of attention to the rising number of second-generation metahumans,” he started.

I blinked. I had not expected that. “Second-gens? What’s so special about them? I’m second-gen,” I said. “We’ve been around for ages, there are even third- and fourth and fifth-gen, probably even more, out there.”

He and Journeyman both shook their heads. “No, you’re not a second-gen metahuman, Aaron,” father replied, taking another sip from his drink. “Your power is… connected to mine. Your… power certainly took some inspiration from mine, thus explaining the visual similarities,” he explained. “But you’re still a first-generation metahuman. It takes more than simply being connected to another metahuman to become a second-gen. And the differences between first- and second-generation powers are… profound.”

“How so? And what does this have to do with you sneaking into Tamara’s house?” I asked with a frown. I was getting pretty worried there – he wasn’t usually this talkative when it came to powers.

“I’ll get to that. Anyway, second-generation metahumans are a result of multiple very precise circumstances,” he continued, his drink now put aside to let him gesture with his hands. He’d turned to face me, and was getting quite animated, as he usually did when it came to subjects he was really interested in. “Keep in mind, though, that a lot of this is just conjecture – there haven’t been enough cases I could study to draw definite conclusions yet – and whatever Gwen may have found out, she does not share with me.” He sounded quite annoyed by that, but continued in the same tone of voice as before. “It takes two metahumans to produce a second-generation metahuman. They have to both be close enough to heterodyne, and be doing so frequently. They have to both be emotionally and physically close to the recipient – like, for example, living in the same house, or working at the same place – and they have to repeatedly heterodyne their powers over a period of at least a year, it seems. In this case, it just so happens that…”

“That Hennessy and Camille did just that… and with no less than two normies around who spend a lot of time with them;” I concluded, thinking of Phil and the little princess.

He nodded. “Yes. The girl, Charity – she’s a second-generation metahuman, though she hasn’t manifested yet.”

I… didn’t know how to take that. That could be a bad thing… or a good thing. Or neither. But there was one thing… “Wait, what do you mean, she’s a metahuman, but she hasn’t manifested yet?”

“I told you. Profound differences,” he replied casually. “A second-generation metahuman is already connected to their…” He searched for a word. “How to call them…”

“Tenants,” Journeyman suggested. “I call them the Tenants.”

Father shrugged. “As good as any. Yes, such a person – like Charity – is already connected to her tenant. With her, it’s not a question of if she’ll manifest – just when.”

Tenants, huh? This was so much new information. Focus on Charity first.

“And anything could set her off,” Journeyman continued. “The… threshold is far lower. Something as simple as being shoved during a game or losing a toy might be enough to make her manifest.”

“Oh no… I have to warn them!” I said, my head filling with horrific visions of Charity randomly getting powers and hurting the others, ready to jump up and-

“Relax!” they both said in unison.

I didn’t relax, but I stayed in my seat.

“First of all,” father said, “I’ve already taken precautions. The girl is being watched, and I have a wraith ready to intervene, if worst comes to worst. Second, second-generation metahumans – those I know about, at least – are amazingly stable. Not a single one of them that I know about – save for two extreme examples – gained powers beyond their control; and the likelihood of derangements is so low it’s almost non-existent, compared to first-generation metahumans.”

Taking a deep breath, I drank from my glass again. “Alright. Alright. But…” I frowned. “Didn’t you say Mindstar’s a second-generation meta? From what little I’ve heard of her, she’s anything but stable.”

“Mindstar was broken long before she gained her powers,” he replied casually.

I frowned some more. There was another question… the answer to which might clear up a lot. “The two extreme cases you mentioned… Desolation-in-Light and Gloom Glimmer, right?”

He sighed, slumping a little over the bar. “Yes. Let’s not go into that.”

I let it drop, though I was a good deal wiser on the subject now. If the threshold that has to be reached for manifestation is lowered, then that could explain how DiL manifested so early.

Though that didn’t explain how that same thing could happen to their next baby, and even give it such similar abilities.

Questions on top of questions.

We all fell silent for a while.

Journeyman refilled all our glasses with different concoctions. We drank. They were good.

“I’ll still tell them… tomorrow. Since there’s no need to rush it.”

“Of course. They ought to know anyway.”

More minutes passed.

“What will you do now?” Journeyman asked, looking at me. Father also turned to look at me again, clearly curious.

“I… have the beginnings of a plan forming in my head,” I said, surprised to find that, yes, I was working out a plan. “A plan that’ll involve Warren, Volca and Malphas, especially. And the entire rest of the city, too.”

“Care to share it?” father asked with some amusement.

“And ruin the surprise? Hell no!” I grinned at him. I couldn’t see his face, but I was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes. “But it won’t be anything you’d expect, I promise.”

He sighed. “Alright. I’ll look forward to it, I guess.” He emptied his glass, then rose up. “I have got to go. There’s lots of work to do… and no small bit of paperwork, either.”

I chuckled to myself. “You sound like a paper pusher from a bank or something.”

“Yeah, sometimes, it feels that way,” he said as he walked towards the door.

He stopped in front of it, his hand on the door knob.

I suddenly realised that Journeyman was gone. Just vanished. I looked at my father. His head was slightly lowered, enough so to be visible even from behind, despite his robe.

Time passed.

“Aaron?” he said, softly.

“Yes?

“I was afraid,” he admitted, though I had no idea of what. Not that it mattered. I’d never heard my father say anything like that. “I was so afraid, after your mother died,” he continued. Then he shook his head. “No, even before that. But then, I always had her to reign me in. After she died… I was so afraid, that this world would swallow you up as well. That you wouldn’t be ready to face it.” He took a deep breath, before the words continued to explode out of him. “I’m not trying to excuse how I treated you. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just… I ask you to understand – I was scared, and I just wanted you to be safe. To be strong and cunning and ready, so you would be safe, and able to keep those you love safe, too.”

I stared at him, my mouth wide open, and I was infinitely grateful that he stood with his back to me, so he couldn’t see the tears running down my face.

“I just… I’m sorry. That’s all,” he finished.

***

An infinite amount of time passed, before I found my voice again. Time during which I relieved all the memories I had of our time together – both the good and the bad – and my limited interactions with my own children.

I thought about it. I reviewed it. And I concluded… “I can’t forgive you, dad,” I said, my own voice choked up for more than one reason. “But… I’ve got children of my own now… and I… I understand.”

He nodded quietly. Then he pulled the door open.

“One more thing,” I threw in. “You… you had another child. Gloom Glimmer.”

“Irene,” he said gently.

“Yes. Um… I just hope you…” I didn’t know how to say this without being hurtful.

Fortunately, he said it for me. “You hope I won’t screw up the way I did before.”

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see.

He continued nonetheless. “I’m still hopeless, I’m afraid,” he said, his voice dripping with… some emotion I couldn’t parse right now. “Fortunately, I have Gwen to reign me in. Irene has grown up to be a fine young hero, despite my worst efforts, and she’s got a stronger moral  compass than either me or her mother.”

“That’s… good, I guess.”

“Yeah. Though…” He chuckled. “She asked me for dating advice. Me.” He sounded self-recrimating when he said that, weirdly enough.

I tilted my head. “Why’s that so funny? You know a lot about dating. And seduction. And all things interpersonal.”

He laughed quietly, this time. The first genuine laugh I’d heard from him in a long time. “Oh, I know all the ways the game is played, but… I’ve only ever been in love four times, I’ve dated three women, and I only got serious with two, in the end. And one of them, I was born and grew up with.”

“Oh. Yeah. Funny that she should ask you.”

“Yeah. Well. Have a good night, Aaron.”

“You too. Sleep tight… dad.”

He left.

***

I turned around, and there he was again. Journeyman.

He put a glass filled with something fizzy and pink in front of me, and I took it. He was holding one that was as yellow as a canary.

“What a day,” I said.

“There are days like these,” he agreed, putting his elbows on the bar and leaning on them. He had a question. Unspoken, but there. I could tell, just by glancing at the images in his mirror, by reading the atmosphere.

I looked down at my drink. It wasn’t pink, really. Darker, more purple. Like Hennessy’s eyes. I thought about all that had happened. All I’d seen, and heard, and felt, and done, and not done, and thought about, and not thought about. Along the way, I also decided there was one more stop I had to make, before I could turn in for the night. But that was for later.

Now, I had to answer the question. The same question he’d asked me after I’d run away from my father. The same one he’d asked me before I left for the war. The one he was asking now.

I thought of Hennessy’s smile, and Elouise’s smile, and how it felt to hold them in my arms. I thought of father’s apology and Tamara and so much more.

There were still dark spots. I still didn’t know who’d paid those assassins to come after me – I’d have to follow up on that, perhaps arrange a meeting with Sara. I still had to find my place here in this city. See if my plan was viable, what could be done. My future was still unsure. Heh, I thought to myself. Why should I be any different?

Then I smiled, looking at him again. “Yeah. I think I’m going to be alright.”

He raised his glass. “Cheers, mate.”

***

I’d breezed past the guards and security measures, making sure not to alert anyone. I’d snuck through the building, until I found the door.

It was perhaps not entirely appropriate, especially at this time, but… I didn’t want to miss one more second.

I knocked on the door with one hand, the other holding a big bottle of chocolate milk and a movie disc.

The door opened after a minute, and Elouise looked at me in surprise. Her white hair was a mess, she was wearing a crooked green nightrobe and her face looked a little pale without her make up – but when she saw my smile and the bottle and the disc, and she smiled back, it lit up the world.

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B011.10 Monkey Family

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Light yellow/green-dark red-… Hennessy blinked, trying to focus. Her mother was talking to dark dark blue-darkest purple/dark blue-light orange… to her father. She couldn’t hear them, but it was easier to keep track of their conversation by way of their emotions than their words, anyway – a physical screen meant nothing to her. She was…

Her attention was drawn away by the constant pressure of darkest yellow-darkest light blue…

She shook her head, trying to push away the intense emotions that her en- her ri- her sister was radiating. She moved her eyes away from dark blue… the D- her father’s… her grandfather, and looked at her, her…

All she saw was a tangle of colours, an impossibly complicated effigy woven out of pure light in more colours than could be counted. There was a blinding yellow tinged with light green and a blazing blue. There was a very light red tinged with a brighter blue. None of the shades of purple, though, that she was used to seeing from her whenever they fought, or the dark red and occasional darkest red, or…

She blinked, and she saw a white-haired girl with eyes like hers, wearing a pretty dress and trying to jiggle closer to her without sitting up, making small hops with her chair. Again and again, Camille reached out to push her away, connecting to her with light dark green-dark red-dark light blue strands.

Hennessy could feel Camille’s emotions like a warm blanket and cool armor, wrapping around her. She knew how hard a situation like this was to her, and she was trying to drown out the storm of emotions from her sister and her parents… but she was only partially succeeding. Too much, it was too much, her sister was like a furnace of emotions that were pushing against Hennessy’s consciousness, strands of brilliant colour wrapping around her as if for an embrace – or to choke. She was having a hard time telling them apart from what she herself was feeling, which was why she wasn’t reacting to anything… she didn’t know whether the joy and the surprise and the fear and the remorse she was feeling were her own, or whether everyone around her was influencing them, and she had to disentangle her own emotions from theirs.

Sadly enough, the one revelation that should’ve shook her the most – being the granddaughter of the Dark – was the easiest to deal with right now. When they’d arrived, she’d felt her father inside, and the strangely muted employees of the restaurant – she could tell that someone was dampening their minds – and she’d been able to tell that someone was there with him, because of the way his emotions were focused on a present person… but she hadn’t been able to tell who it was, because everyone else was so muted.

Then they’d come in, and she’d seen him. Really seen him, without the tangle of emotions blinding her to his appearance. Usually, she had to take a few seconds to focus her sight on the real world, as opposed to the sight her tenant had gifted her with, but he was so muted, his effigy barely visible, a tightly controlled dark light blue of surprise, a little light dark blue of pensiveness, a light orange of interest, the telltale mixture of dark light blue and light dark green, that being awe… but so little of it, the strands so fine she could see through them to the matter beneath.

Right now, as things were, he was the least troublesome person in the room to her, and so she focused her gaze on him, focusing on his emotions. Normally, she used Camille or her mother as an anchoring point, because she knew perfectly well how they felt about her, and how she herself felt about them. Extrapolating from there to untangle her own emotions from those of her surroundings had become almost an instinct to her, one of the few ways she had to preserve her sanity. But her mother was a tangle of colours and emotions right now, and Camille was too angry and surprised and terrified to help. So instead she focused on the Dark, on his muted emotions, and on what she felt about him. She focused on the tangles of light yellow and light dark blue and darkest light blue and dark dark green that connected from her to him, compared them to the strands which emerged from him towards her, and worked from there to untangle all the colours that were choking her.

Of course, that was all grossly simplified. She saw so many more colours than the human language had words for, not just shades of colours that humans knew, but whole new colours that she’d never seen before or since, except when viewing people’s emotions… and sometimes those of their tenants. It was there that she usually found these eldritch colours that made no sense to anyone else.

Still, during therapy, her counselor had suggested that she simplify the process, using clear colours to break down what she saw and classify it. Amazingly, it had helped get a measure of control over her tenant and lately, she’d actually been able to walk through a mall with Camille and see the world, not just the tangles of colours from everyone around them.

Her parents were still talking to each other, their emotions straightening themselves out. That made it a little easier to distinguish what she felt and what they imposed on her through simple proximity; it helped that her father’s (it still felt unfamiliar, applying that term to a real person she wasn’t fantasising about) emotions were always threaded through by those strange other colours that she’d come to associate with a particularly strong influence of a person’s tenant on their emotions – she knew it from her own, but from few others, though no metahuman was completely free of it. Soon, she’d cut them out as well, much like her grandfather before. Next, she untangled Camille’s emotions – which were ever so familiar and dear to her, but nonetheless, she needed some space in her head right now – from her own (there’d be time to drown in each other later, when they were alone and safe). Finally, she slowly separated herself from the wellspring of emotions that was still trying to come closer to her, though it took her two whole minutes to do so and actually look at her newfound sister… half sister. She looked so… stunningly normal. So unlike any other time they’d met (which had almost always been in battle). She was a tangle of emotions, of course, but somehow… simpler than most metahumans.

Usually, she had to disentangle a metahuman’s from those weird ones that came from their tenants, but the Mat- Elouise’s effigy (a word suggested by her counselor) was two-fold, half around her, half within her shadow – and the eldritch parts were mostly limited to the shadow, which she could ignore completely. She was almost as easy to read as Camille was, to her, despite the lack of familiarity.

She looked at her new family member and thought about how weird it felt that, after spending her whole life dreaming of having a father, and a sibling her own age, she’d get both in the span of just two days, and a grandfather as well… only two of them were villains and her father was… almost as twisted inside as she was

Her eyes moved from her sister to her grandfather and then to the screen that her parents were talking behind, and back to her grandfather.

She probably shouldn’t be surprised that they were all messed up, seeing how his blood ran through their veins.

Hennessy released a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding, just as her parents came back. Her head was starting to hurt, as it always did when she tried to focus on words and faces. She blinked, having long since figured out that her tenant didn’t like it when she relied on normal human communication. It punished her, usually starting with migraines, whenever she spent too much time blocking out peoples’ emotions.

But she needed to hear this. To see their faces, to be human just for a little while.

Just give me a few minutes, she thought, not sure whether her tenant could even understand her. I just need a little time.

***

Tamara sat down to join Hennessy, taking a chair between her and Elouise – which put a hold to Elouise’s attempts to get closer to Hennessy (though by the look on her face, she was already plotting how to close the distance regardless of the new obstacle).

I, on the other hand, sat down on the empty side of the table opposite of Elouise, with my father to my right. “Alright,” I said, drawing the attention of everyone other than Camille, who was watching my father like a hawk… a very obviously scared hawk.

Please, God, don’t let her try and use her power on him. If she did… I didn’t believe for a moment that he didn’t have something lined up in case she tried, or else he wouldn’t be here anymore. But if she lashed out, it might provoke a reaction from Elouise, which would provoke a reaction from Hennessy…

No, best to keep everyone focused on me and busy. “I apologise for springing this on everyone so suddenly,” I said once I was sure that everyone was focused on me.

“No shit,” Camille helpfully threw in. “What’s next, is Di-fucking-L gonna walk in and join us?”

“Language, young lady,” Tamara reprimanded her.

I ignored the little exchange. “So, obviously, you’ll all have some questions. How about we get them out of the way? Ask, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. No lies, I promise.” I looked around the table, to see who’d speak up first.

To my surprise, Hennessy was the first one to move – literally, she raised her hand onto the table and tapped a finger on the polished wood covered by white cloth. There was no projection of emotions, though, for whatever reason.

Instead, she looked at me, then pointed at Elouise. Then she spread both of her hands in a questioning gesture.

It was the single most normal way she’d expressed herself to me, so far (while awake, at least), but I shelved my curiosity for now. “You want to know how I happened to have a daughter with the Matriarch,” I translated her question. She nodded, and so I regaled to them the (really uncomfortable) tale of how Elouise came to be.

Afterwards, everyone just stared at me; or at least Hennessy, Tamara and Camille did. Elouise seemed embarrassed by the tale, but mostly she was still focusing on Hennessy, while my father was… being very quiet. He was just looking at Elouise and Hennessy (or so I guessed – hard to tell, since he might not even be facing in the direction his wraith was looking) and not doing anything.

“So… the Matriarch basically tricked you into putting a baby into her in order to… control you?” Camille asked slowly, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Isn’t that a tad extreme? Even if you’re a real speedster, having a baby with you just to get her claws into you seems… way over the top.”

“Not at all,” Elouise countered. “To my mother, that was just a ‘strategic initiative’. Truth is, she’d done it before, over the decades.” She looked at my father, then at me. “To be honest though, seeing who my grandfather is, makes me believe that she probably knew about your connection to him – she was always a little too insistent in using him as an example for my training; she was probably hoping that he’d feel flattered by me and thus support her endeavours more openly.”

So, you don’t have any illusions about her feelings for you, either? I thought to myself, trying to swallow the bile that I felt creeping up my throat.

Hennessy was giving Elouise a look that told me she probably felt the same.

“Wait wait wait wait,” Camille spoke up again. “Your mom had you just to impress that guy!?” She pointed at my father (I was starting to doubt that the girl could feel real fear). “And you knew it?” She was looking horrified.

Elouise shrugged. “I love my mother, but I’ve known since I was eight that the feeling was never mutual.” She turned to me. “Who’s your mother? She must’ve been quite the character to… um… draw your attention, Sir,” she finished in a more respectful tone directed towards my father.

I felt one side of my mouth quirk up. “She sure was. Her name was Wanda Alexandrou. She was an immigrant from Greece, by way of Britain. You may have heard the story of a psychologist trying to ‘cure’ him,” I replied, nodding towards my father. “And falling in love with him in the process. That was… well her.”

Camille gave me a weird look and opened her mouth. “Wait, weren’t that woman and her child l-“

Hennessy either picked up on my emotions or simply remembered how I’d reacted back when we’d looked at the photographs, because she put her hand on Camille’s shoulder, silencing her.

My father was still not reacting. At all. I was starting to get worried.

“Any other questions?”

“Is this connected to the Ascendant’s return, and do you know why he’s attacking me, as well?” Elouise asked.

“Wait, he attacked you? Why would he?” Camille exclaimed, and Hennessy’s body language revealed similar shock to what I heard in her girlfriend’s voice.

“I just asked him that, so I obviously don’t know,” Elouise replied with a rather annoyed look on her face.

I decided to interject before Camille could reply, because I was pretty sure the two of them couldn’t stand each other. “I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing – what I’ve been able to find out about him only makes his behaviour more baffling,” I said urgently, now focusing on Elouise. “I gathered you all here because… well, because I saw where this was all heading. The secrets, the unknown factors. I decided to cut the Gordian Knot, so to speak, and just put all the cards on the table. And I was hoping to enlist your help in taking the Ascendant down for good,” I finished with a look towards my father.

He still didn’t react.

“Is something… wrong with him?” Camille asked carefully, as if she was afraid of insulting him (she did have some common sense, then). “He’s being so… quiet.”

What’s wrong with him? Where to begin? Still, it was a valid question, and so I turned to him. “Father. Father! Dad!” I shouted, and he flinched.

He flinched. In front of others. Not a good sign. Then he looked at me. “Yes, Aaron?Using my real name when there is someone other than me present.

Tamara mouthed the words ‘Your name is Aaron?’, but I ignored them and focused on him again.

“Is something wrong? You are being… uncharacteristically quiet in the face of this scene,” I asked as diplomatically as I could.

He looked at me, then at the girls. Then at Tamara, and back at me. “You’ve… had children,” he said, his choral voice at odds with the flat intonation of his words.

“Yes, that is rather the point,” I replied. What is going on here?

You had children,” he said again. “You. Not just one, but two. I am man enough to admit that I never truly considered the possibility.

Ah. That explains it, I thought, even as I felt a (hopefully) faint blush creep up on my cheeks. “Well, it happened. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.” For all his brilliance, he’d never been that good at accepting things he’d not seen coming at all. Not that I knew what was so unexpected about this.

He tilted his head to the side. “I remember a certain someone swearing, with the help of various invectives which I shall not repeat in this company, that he would never, ever, under any circumstances, even if he was the last man on Earth, have children.

I sighed. “I was thirteen. It’s been more than two decades since then.”

It’s been twenty-two years, three months, a week and a day since the last time we spoke,” he said. “You will excuse me if it takes me a little while to update my mental image of you.

He rose up from his seat – and everyone except for me tensed up. I saw Elouise’s shadow partially rise from where it’d been clinging to her chair, and I thought I saw a glimmer flash in Hennessy’s eyes, for just a moment. My father, however, ignored that, and then…

And then his wraith faded away. I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone expected that.

I hadn’t seen this form since I’d been twelve years old. A tall, slender figure wearing a jet black, featureless bodysuit that extended seamlessly into a pair of equally black, featureless boots and gloves. Over that, an equally black coat not unlike Journeyman’s – it was, in fact, identical down to the wide sleeves. The face beneath the hood was hidden in shadows, though I knew that the bodysuit he wore extended to a completely featureless, skintight mask. All in all, his costume and Journeyman’s were identical, save for the colour of their light robes.

He ignored the stares he was getting (or perhaps he enjoyed them) to walk around the table and put a hand onto Elouise’s shoulder. She shivered as he continued to walk, his gloved fingers sliding over her bare shoulders, and rose from her seat when his hand wrapped gently around her biceps, pulling her along. He took her past Tamara – who looked more tense than I’d ever seen her, turning on her chair to watch them intently – and reached with his other hand for Hennessy.

Camille didn’t give him the chance. “Keep your hands off of her!” she shouted as she rose to interpose herself between my daughter and my father, and something struck him, knocking him off his feet and at least ten feet away!

Oh, she did not just do that! I thought to myself, half-poised to leap across the table and interject myself, but to my eternal relief, father just got up with a chuckle, dusting himself off while Elouise just stared at him, mouth open, and Tamara and Hennessy stared at Camille.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice normal for once. Still finely honed steel wrapped in silk, as I so often pictured it, but now recognisably human. He approached again. “I mean none of you any harm,” he said calmly, as if she hadn’t just knocked the King of Supervillains around. “Camille, would you please allow me to properly greet my granddaughter?” he asked her in a soothing, polite tone of voice.

She looked at him, then looked over her shoulder at Hennessy, then back at him. She chewed on her lip for a moment. “Alright. But do anything weird and I won’t hold back next time!”

He nodded, as if there was any possible way for her to actually harm him. But it seemed to be enough for her – barely – and she stepped aside.

Hennessy rose up and approached him, together with Elouise. He looked them both up and down, and Elouise at least seemed pretty embarrassed – like she was afraid he’d disapprove of her appearance in some fashion.

Is that just how a normal child would react when first meeting her grandfather, or is that her mother’s education, her desire to please the Dark? I couldn’t be sure, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be sure.

“I’ve never had grandchildren before,” he said quietly. “If I’d known, I would’ve brought presents.” He looked at me, as if telling me that we had to go shopping for several year’s worth of presents.

I was seriously getting creeped out by his casual attitude right now.

“Nevertheless, let me just say this – I’m perhaps not the ideal grandfather you could wish for, but I do intend to be there for you from now on… provided that you want me to.”

And then the jerk hugged them both, if briefly. I haven’t even gotten to do that yet.

Hennessy gave no indication at all as to what she was feeling, but Elouise looked ready to burst with joy.

Before she could blow up and make a mess, though, he let go, and Hennessy was pulled back by an invisible force, straight into Camille’s arms. The young blonde hugged my daughter close, throwing murderous looks at father and me.

Elouise looked at her, as if she couldn’t believe how she was acting.

“Now, I believe there are some urgent matters to discuss,” father continued, and he turned to look at me. “I presume that you are worried about the Ascendant?”

Thanks for steering the conversation back on track, I thought. Not that I was sure we’d ever been on track before, but still. “Yes. I’ve found out some troubling news – namely, that he’s a member of the Gefährten.”

“Ah,” he replied simply. “That makes sense. You need my help to deal with them.” It wasn’t a question.

I didn’t even bother to nod.

“Who’re the Gefährten?” Tamara asked. “Their name is German – that can’t be a good sign.” She was focusing on me, not my father, and I was pretty sure she was feeling way out of her depth.

I’m sorry for putting you through this. “They’re an old villain organisation. Older than the Syndicate. They’re the kind of people that made monsters like Weisswald possible.” There was no use in sugarcoating things – they had to know, so they’d be careful.

Elouise and Tamara both paled, while Camille and Hennessy hugged each other tight. Way to scare the most important people in your life, Aaron.

“You needn’t be afraid,” father interjected in his smoothest voice. “I shall take care of this. Aaron,” He turned to me, then hesitated, then looked at the girls, then back at me. “I shall wait outside. Join me when you’re ready.” His wraith rose up again, wrapping around him, and he left the restaurant.

I exhaled, relaxing a bit. That went better than I expected.

“I think… that’s more than I can take for a day,” Tamara said, leaning back on her seat. “Kev- Aaron, what were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I need the biggest guns I can get in order to keep my family safe,” I said as I went around the table and to Elouise, who was standing there alone. I put my arm around her shoulders and walked towards Hennessy and Camille.

My daughter disentangled herself from her girlfriend and met us halfway, and I pulled her in for that long overdue group hug.

“No matter what else happens, or what you may think of me, or each other,” I whispered to them, “I’ll keep you two safe, by any means necessary.”

They both shivered and hugged me back.

***

I left the restaurant a few minutes later, after organising a family get-together of sorts (I was exploiting their stunned state of mind for all it was worth, trying to set things up as favourably as I could while I still had the momentum on my side), to find my father waiting there in plain sight, in his wraith form, leaning against a lamppost.

That was expertly played,” he said when I approached him, while I sent a message with my phone.

“I wasn’t playing, Dad,” I replied, annoyed. Of course he’d think that. “I wasn’t intending to manipulate you, or them. I simply want to keep them safe, and to stop with the lies.”

He looked at me for a moment. “I believe you,” he said simply and turned to look down the street just as Cartastrophy’s heavily modified vehicle raced around the corner. “What’s your plan?

“Take down the Ascendant and his people with extreme prejudice,” I replied. “If possible, take slow, long, delicious vengeance on him for what he put my child and her loved ones through.”

That is acceptable. Let’s turn it into a father-son outing,” he said as Cartastrophy pulled up next to us, retracting the roof of his patchwork car to goggle at the two of us. “I know you dislike my ways, but they are more appropriate for this than yours.

“I wouldn’t be asking you for help if I wasn’t ready to work with you,” I replied, opening the back door of the car for him. He got in while Cartastrophy was staring at me (I didn’t need x-ray vision to picture his facial expression behind that face-concealing helmet). Then I got in on the passenger’s side. “Cartastrophy, take us to the nearest entry into the Undercity, please.”

“Seriously?” he asked, even as he took off. “You called him in? It’s gotten that bad?”

I give him an ‘isn’t that obvious’ look.

He knows?” Father asked with some surprise in his voice.

“Of course he knows,” I answered him without bothering to look at him. “He’s my friend. You do know what that is, right?” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

He gave me one of his patented maddening chuckles. “I am aware of the concept, though I’ve never bothered with any myself.

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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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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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B011.6 Monkey Family

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We went up a spiral staircase (the steps were actually straight and not warped – nor were they smooth, providing a lot of traction) that apparently led to every level of the structure. I noticed, idly, that none of his steps made a sound, even though he was walking on metal surfaces with metal boots. Nifty trick.

He took me to the third floor, and down a hallway with walls covered in amateurish graffiti and then stopped in front of a doorway that had been covered in a thick green blanket. I could smell the two in the room beyond, as well as sweat and blood, and I heard a soft voice talking. I tensed up, ready to act – I smelled quite some blood.

Malphas reached out and knocked on the door frame, producing a clear, bell-like sound. “Are you two decent?” he asked. “You have a visitor, and I’m afraid it’s urgent!”

The two voices whispered furiously, just barely low enough for me not to be able to make out their exact words without calling up the monkey – and it was already hard enough to resist it as it was, right now. It was spoiling to end the fight I’d cut short earlier in the night.

Save it for the real target, I thought, even though I doubted it could even understand me. It never did respond to verbal cues.

“Come in, I guess!” Brimstone replied – her voice was quite recognisable, now that I thought about it. It made me think of smoke, in a pleasant way.

Malphas pulled the curtain aside, entered, and I followed him.

The room beyond opened into a section of the sewer plant that I hadn’t been able to see before, with the colourful, patchwork-curtain that usually provided some privacy drawn aside. The room itself contained two mattresses next to each other, with blankets and pillows. A small, old drawer stood at the foot end of the mattresses. Other than that, there was just a small, round table with two chairs and a cooking corner that held a pot hung over a simple fireplace made of stone.

Smelly lay on one mattress, her costume off down to her waist, exposing her upper half – which wasn’t nearly as tantalising as one might expect, since it was basically just one giant bruise with a side order of bloody gashes that were spread liberally across her torso, though focusing mostly on her left side – the direction from which Sara had shot her, in fact. If it wasn’t for a plastic tarp beneath, she’d have already ruined the mattress. Her skin was pale, bloodless, her short dirty blonde hair plastered to her head by sweat. Under normal circumstances, she’d probably be considered exceptionally beautiful, but right now, just looking at her hurt. She looked to be barely out of her teens.

Brimstone was kneeling next to her, her own mask taken off to reveal a face with similar enough features that I was pretty sure they were closely related – perhaps sisters, perhaps cousins. Her hair was longer, but of the same shade, her face a little younger and softer.

The wounded woman was in no shape to react to anything, but her relative was. Her eyes widened at the sight of him, even as her bare arms began to crack and blacken, until they were made of volcanic rock once more, the embers of great heat glowing from within the cracks. “You!” she shouted, her voice almost cracking in her fury.

I’d expected a violent reaction to my appearance, and thus I was ready to evade an attack – in this case by simply stepping back out the door, simultaneously turning around towards the left, to get out of sight.

However, it seemed that Malphas had also expected it – or he had some pretty impressive reflexes, because the ground rose up almost as soon as Brimstone’s arms changed, surging up like a living thing to block the blast of super-heated air that she let loose – No lava, at least.

Malphas didn’t say anything. He just stared at Brimstone as the barrier he just made sank back into the floor, smoothing itself out even as it spread the heated portion around.

Brimstone looked from me to him, then back. Then she looked at Malphas again, who simply stood where he had, not having moved an inch. I didn’t pick up any hostility in his stance, he didn’t even square his shoulders or shift his stance – but she subsided, her arms going back to normal.

I was very, very impressed.

The young woman took a deep breath, then looked at me with a murderous gaze. “What do you want, asshole?” she asked. Her smoky voice was dripping venom.

I looked at Smelly, then at her. “First, it appears I’ll help,” I said, taking my jacket off as I approached them and knelt next to Smelly, opposite from Brimstone. Before either of the three could react – Brimstone seemed to be just dumbfounded – I’d already done a quick check of the woman.

It didn’t look too good. “The gashes are from the shotgun,” I said firmly. “And these bruises are from me throwing her against the tree,” I pointed at several bruises along her back. “And these from me throwing you at her.” I pointed at several others. “But how’d she get the others?,” I asked, as I saw quite a few more bruises than I could possibly have caused in our battle. “And how come the shotgun tore her open like this, when she wasn’t even scratched back then?” I was sure she hadn’t taken this kind of damage from the shot.

“Who the fuck do y-” she began, but I cut her off with a level gaze.

“I’m a trained paramedic,” I told her. A statement that was not quite true, but not quite false, either – I wasn’t anything like a trained and certified paramedic, but both my father’s and my military training had given me a wide range of experience with wounds like these. Nevermind my field experience. “I can help her better than you can, so tell me what I’m missing.”

I could feel Malphas’ gaze on me and I saw Brimstone throwing a look at him. Though I couldn’t tell what she saw, it apparently convinced her to be more cooperative.

“Her power delays harm,” she explained. “Not all of it, but most of it is staggered. Inflicted bit by bit. And she can absorb harm done to others, staggering it.” I heard her grit her teeth. “When you threw me at her… I’m not nearly as tough as she is. It probably would’ve crippled me, and she absorbed that herself.”

Well, damn, I thought. “Does she have enhanced toughness or regenerative abilities?”

“Yes to both. Not very much of either, but combined with the delay, it’s usually enough.” Again, she grit her teeth.

“Hmhmm.” I took off my vest and rolled up my sleeves. “Do you have any alcohol or another disinfectant? If we disinfect these properly, there’ll be less strain on her regeneration.”

“Don’t have anything here,” she said, surly. “We’re not exactly swimming in cash, y’know?”

But you can afford really nice quality on your costumes, I thought, though I didn’t say it. Nice priorities.

“I have a first aid kit,” Malphas threw in. “I’ll get it immediately. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone,” he added before he left.

Brimstone grit her teeth again, but she very obviously respected Malphas enough to behave.

The young man – it was hard to think of him as the boy he was beneath that armor – returned quickly and handed me a military first aid kit.

I went to work, disinfecting her wounds before properly binding them. It only took me about fifteen minutes, all in all, to treat her properly while the other two watched.

By the end, I could already see her wounds starting to close as her regeneration picked up speed. Good, she’ll make it, I thought as I rose up.

“Is there somewhere I can clean up a bit?” I asked. My hands were pretty bloody.

“Down the hallway, the first room next to the stairs,” Malphas said.

***

The bathroom turned out to be quite nice. The tubing was literally a part of the room – Malphas either had phenomenal fine control, or he’d spent a lot of time working all the tubes and valves needed for a fully functional communal shower and several basins, with the mirrors literally fused into the walls – and seamlessly so.

I wonder why he lives down here – he could get damn rich with a power like this, and all legally, too. But then again, that could be said about so, so many of us. Including me.

I knew why I had gone down the criminal route, back in the day. I wondered what motivated a young boy like Malphas to be an outsider to the world above, to stay in the Undercity, creating this place for, well, lost people. Because the people I’d seen or heard so far had seemed to me like the typical Undercity inhabitants. The criminals, the mad, the broken and all the lost ones.

Who knows, maybe I’ll find out someday. Or more likely, I won’t. It’s none of my business, really.

***

I returned to the room to find Malphas sitting on a seat that he’d made out of the wall and the floor, with Brimstone fussing over Smelly, who seemed far more lucid than earlier. Still pale, and sweaty, but sitting up now with her back to the wall. She was also wearing a shirt, which provided some much-needed decency.

When I came in, everyone looked at me. Brimstone and Smelly both seemed hostile, though not as much as Brimstone had been earlier.

Still, it was obvious that neither of them was too eager to talk to me. And something told me that Malphas wouldn’t be of any help to get the conversation started, so…

Take charge of the situation.

“Let’s introduce ourselves, shall we?” I opened. “My cowl’s Aap Oordra. I already know Malphas – how should I call you two?” I looked at the two women.

Brimstone spoke first. “I’m Volca, and this is Lag,” she replied, though she didn’t seem too happy about it.

“Why are you here?” Smelly – well, Lag – asked. Her voice was quite strong, considering the pain she must’ve still been in. “You’re not a hero – you call yourself a cowl – so why’d you stop us earlier? Why’d you follow us?”

You’re a perceptive one, huh? I’d wondered whether they’d pick up on that. “I stopped you because I have issues with people attacking a mother and her son in their sleep,” I said.

What!?” Malphas snapped sharply, and I felt the entire building shake for a moment. His head wipped around to focus on the two women. “Is he saying the truth?”

The women froze, eyes wide. Volca threw up her arms, waving them in negation. “No no no, calm down, that’s no-“

“You know the rules! My rules! No drugs! No rape! No murder! Nothing that harms children!” Malphas shouted, and I swear I saw something shift beneath his armor, in places where nothing should be able to shift.

“Malphas please, we didn’t have a choice!” Lag shouted, then broke into a coughing fit. Volca picked up for her. “We couldn’t refuse the job! He’d kill us! And we were only after the mom – who’s a Syndicate agent, anyway!”

“Who put you up to that? Who!?” Malphas shouted, his voice deepening as the room began to twist, the whole structure becoming… unstable.

I instinctively took a step back from him, even as the monkey roared up, aching for a fight against the young powerhouse – and I had no doubt he was one.

“You’re losing control of the situation. If you don’t regain it, you’ll be swept away.” This was one of those cases where I fully agreed with my father.

I raised my fingers to my mouth and made whistled sharply and loudly. The metal of the building around us only served to amplify the sound. “Alright, enough!” I shouted at them.

And it worked. I’d noticed it earlier, though I hadn’t really considered it yet, but I was the oldest one in the room – almost three times the age of Malphas, if my estimation of his age was correct.

“Seniority is a universal way to assume authority.”

“Please return the room to normal, Malphas,” I said, trying to be both soothing and firm at the same time. He was breathing hard, his stance wide and rather aggressive, but he subsided quickly, his anger going from burning to shimmering. The room warped back to its previous form, leaving no traces of the sudden deformation.

Then I turned to the two women. “Alright, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “Tell me who hired you, and why. Don’t bother with lying, I can tell when you do.”

The two of them looked at each other. “Well, it’s not like we can stick around,” Lag said. “We’ll have to leave town anyway,” Volca agreed. They looked at me.

“We were talking to an independent agent we work with every now and then, when a new guy showed up,” Lag explained. “He called himself ‘Blauschwinge’. Had a German accent to match his name.”

“Name means ‘Bluewing’, in case you don’t know,” Volca added.

I considered the name for a moment. I’d never heard of a cape or cowl with that specific name before. “What’d he look like?”

“Tall. Muscly but slender. He was wearing a white bodysuit with a blue wing-like cape that was attached to his arms,” Volca described him. “He wasn’t wearing a mask and he had a really good-looking face. Square-jawed, curly brown hair and blue eyes.”

“Never heard of him,” I admitted. “What happened next?”

“He said he’d come looking for someone to do a simple job for him. When he saw us, he said we should do it,” Lag explained. “We didn’t like that, of course, but when we voiced our opinion, he… lashed out. Some kind of glowing blue-white energy. Took us out in one hit. Then told us we could either do the job or die.” She shivered at the memory. “His eyes… I’ve seen the eyes of mad people before, but this guy, he… he was demented. The way he talked, the way he looked at us…”

Volca wrapped her arms around her relative as they both shivered at the memory.

Good lord, what the hell is going on in this city? I asked myself. My daughters, the Ascendant, the hit team that came after me, these two, now a demented German supervillain who could utterly terrified two other cowls while taking them down in one attack.

I had a feeling that this whole situation was rapidly spinning out of any possibility of control.

“Why do you want to leave?” Malphas asked out of the blue.

They both looked at him without comprehension. “What do you mean? We broke your rules! And we failed, too – what if this guy comes after us?” Lag explained.

He clenched his fists, the metal scraping and screeching for the first time. “He made you do it? Well, I don’t like that. If I ever see that guy, I’m gonna mess him up but good. And if he comes after you, I’ll protect you, just like anyone else who lives here,” he explained, and all traces of the child were gone from his voice.

The two women grew a tad misty-eyed, lowering their heads. “Thank you,” Volca whispered.

I took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of my nose. What should I do? I need to start figuring out what’s going on here. “Volca. Lag. What else can you tell me about this Blauschwinge?”

They took a moment to compose themselves. “Well, he had a strong accent. He said we shouldn’t try to run, because he could find us,” Volca explained. “He spoke of his companions, and how we might be allowed to join them if we perform well. After he told us what we had to do, he just up and-“

Wait. I raised a hand, cutting her off. “His companions? Did he say anything specific about them?” Like if they’re called the Companions of the Future?

Volca shook her head. “No, nothing beyond that.”

“That’s not quite true,” Lag said. “He didn’t call them his ‘companions’, you see?” she told me me. “He used a foreign word for it. German, too, right?” She looked at her companion with a questioning look, and Volca nodded.

German word for companion… I searched through my memories, trying to remember if I’d ever learned that word. German wasn’t a language I’d spent much time on. The German word would be… oh hell. “He called them ‘Gefährten’, didn’t he?”

They both nodded.

My heart took a dive down my belly.

***

The Companions of the Future. The Ascendant is a member of them. Believe in metahuman superiority. Supposedly connected to Weisswald.

Companions is the English word for Gefährten. The Gefährten are one of the oldest groups of metahumans. Supposedly an offshot of the Thule Gesellschaft. Weisswald had strong ties to the group. Believe in metahuman superiority.

They’re the same fucking group. I’m up against the Gefährten.

***

I blinked, and looked around at my small audience. “I have to go,” I said hurriedly. “I need to make a call. Is there reception down here?”

Malphas shook his head, and I cursed under my breath. Fuck. I have to warn Elouise to stay the fuck away from the Ascendant.

“You know these guys?” Volca asked.

“Only by reputation,” I replied. “I really need to go. Don’t confront them. Run. Leave Chicago, leave your cowls, start over.” I turned to Malphas. “Don’t hold them here. You can’t protect them, not from the Gefährten. They’re major bad news. Cut all ties, so they won’t come after you. If they come, flee.”

Before either of them could say anything, I vaulted out of the window, pulling up my monkey skin. As soon as I landed, I took off as fast as I dared down here, making for the nearest exit.

***

I called Elouise as soon as I had cell reception back. It rung a few times before she picked up.

“Yes? Who is this?” she asked in a wary voice.

“It’s me, Aap,” I said, not daring to use our real names over a wireless connection.

“Oh, hi!” she said, her voice perking up noticably. Though she had the presence of mind not to mention our relationship over the phone right now. “What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I need you to abort the meeting with the Ascendant,” I said. “If you have anything planned with him, pull out of it as carefully as you can without offending him. Trust me, you d-“

“Wow, where’s that coming from?” she asked, surprised. “You know, I was going to call you and tell you that it’s a bust, anyway. I’m not making any deals with that madman.” Her voice took on a trace of venom for that last part.

But the venom didn’t mask the undercurrent of worry beneath. “What happened?” I asked as I leapt up into the air, to make my way towards my house.

“Two of his guys attacked one of my operations,” she said, spitting the words. “You can still see the flames, if you look towards the North End,” she continued, and true to her word, I could see fire in the distance. “I lost some prime real estate and seventeen of my people, among them two of my superpowered personnel. Took all I had to drive them off!”

If it wasn’t for decades’ worth of training, I probably would’ve crushed my cellphone at that point. “Are you hurt? Did they get to you!?”

“No, no, I got out of it without a scratch. But my people are really beat up – these guys don’t mess around. Especially the flying one, that dude was just demented.”

I sighed, relieved – but just for a moment. Demented… “Let me guess, he called himself Blauschwinge?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?” she asked.

“I just had a talk with two reluctant assassins whom he’d coerced into attempting to kill a Syndicate agent,” I replied.

I only got stunned silence in response.

“It gets worse,” I continued. “They have connections to the Gefährten, and may even be full members. You know what the Gefährten are?”

She took in a sharp breath. “Yeah. Fuck, of course I know! Mom briefed me on all the big ones… fuck.” She cursed, using some rather impressive French curses. “Thanks for telling me. I… oh damn, I’ll have to ask for help from the Syndicate,” she elaborated. “I don’t know why, but these guys have all but declared war on me.”

“And the heroes, too,” I said. “The Ascendant is after three of the junior heroes,” I explained. “There’s no way the UH will take that lying down.”

“This… this is madness!” she shouted, making me wince. “What the fuck are they thinking!?”

“I don’t know, but I’m afraid we’ll find out soon. Make sure you stay safe, and don’t hesitate to call me for help, alright?”

“Alright. Alright, thank you,” she said, and suddenly she was a vulnerable girl again, not an experienced crime boss. “You… you take care, too, alright? Don’t get yourself killed, please.”

I swallowed dry, and croaked, “Of course. Cross my heart.” I hung up on her and went on to my house.

The sun was already rising at this point, and I had to take care of some stuff before I threw myself back into the fray… wherever it may be.

There’s a crash coming.

***

I woke up after what felt like just minutes of sleep, pulled up from the beginnings of an all too familiar nightmare by the ringing of the doorbell.

Blinking, I rose up, trying to figure out how I’d ended up in bed. I’d just wanted to change into more comfortable clothing before I rang up any contacts that were still left in the city, but… I guess my lack of sleep had caught up to me. Even before I’d come to Chicago, I hadn’t slept properly in quite a while. I’d passed out almost as soon as I’d hit the bed.

The doorbell rang again, making me focus on the here and now again. I looked at the clock – it was nine in the morning. I hope whoever’s ringing that bell better have a good reason for waking me up. Even if I hadn’t intended to go to sleep, I sure as hell needed it.

I got up, put on a pair of jeans pants and a black shirt with the word fun. in yellow on the front and walked down to the front door.

“This damn well better be important!” I groused as I pulled open the door.

By some miracle, my chin didn’t break my arm on its way down to hit the floor.

Outside the door, wearing brown boots, a red skirt and a blue jacket, stood…

“Hennessy,” I breathed her name. She looked at me, her face as serene as ever, and simply walked into my house.

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