B012.b Matriarchy

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Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Elouise was thinking about high heels as she walked down the hallway towards her ‘throne’ room. She considered how impractical it was to wear seven-inch heels in costume – even with her physical enhancements, she still had to rest every now and then to avoid getting cramps! The least said about wearing high heels in combat, the better.

On the other hand, they made her legs and her butt look awesome – well, even more awesome than usual – and they made up for her rather lackluster height. It was alright for the Matriarch to be shorter than her male enforcers, but to be shorter than her accountant? Unacceptable, even if it was just an inch.

Presentation is key. Always be aware of the effect your appearance has on people.

Her mother had pounded the lesson into her from an early age, along with many others. Elouise was to be her perfect heir, a daughter who would never bring shame to her mother’s name once she took it on; and despite some rather persistent rumors in the underworld, her taking over as the Matriarch had always been the plan, from the very beginning, her mother’s (apparent) unending youth notwithstanding. Her untimely death had merely accelerated Elouise’s inheritance.

She still didn’t know whether to thank her mother’s killer or strangle him to death.

Such were her thoughts as she entered her hideout’s main hall, built on the top floor of the Seventh Cloud Casino.

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Maybe she should have her costume adjusted, shorten the heels a bit. Losing an inch shouldn’t be too bad. Maria would jump at the chance to do it, and the girl was good at these things, in spite of her atrocious fashion sense.

Every little advantage matters. Even after all these years, her mother’s voice would still whisper into her ear, advising her, reminding her of the lessons… and of the punishments that came with disregarding them.

Being spanked had only been but one of her many, many painful humiliations.

Perhaps she would not shorten her heels after all.

She shook her head, lightly, not to look ridiculous by throwing her long, pure white waves of hair around. Her people were watching, after all.

Walking up to and lying down on her divan, she surveyed her gathered people. The first one, immediately to her right, was Kakitsune – Maria, the closest she had to an actual friend – in her customary, ridiculous outfit (not that she hadn’t earned the right to look as ridiculous as she liked to). Elouise gave her a small smile, which was returned with quite a bit less refined restraint.

Her gaze moved on, tracking over her twelve costumed lieutenants, the second-largest single group of metahumans in the entire Great Lakes region. Some of them were carryovers from her mother’s time, but most were her own recruits, drawn to her for various reasons.

Among the twelve were four she was particularly close to, and whom she trusted above the others, her four chief enforcers – Kakitsune, Holdout, Ducktail and Horrendous. They stood closest to her, flanking her divan to the left and right, each of them one of her own recruits, and close enough to nearly be friends.

Attachments are a liability. Use them, but don’t let them bog you down.

Of course, there was also one more person present, a new addition to her staff, and one she wasn’t quite sure how to feel about.

It had been as great a shock to her as to her half-sister, she was sure, to find out that her grandfather, her grandfather, was none other than the Dark himself. Inbetween the barely restrained glee at finally, finally having a family, however messed up it might be, a family that didn’t spank her for having her make-up out of place or starve her for not walking right at an official function, she’d been quietly terrified at the thought. He was the Dark, she was his granddaughter and yet, her success as a supervillain was questionable at best; even having the largerst local group of supervillains, enough people to take on any two other teams and not be at a numeric disadvantage, she was really only holding onto the title of Queen Bee of Chicago’s underworld by dint of there not being any suitable challenger to the title; none of the other villains were interested in ruling as the Matriarch had since the inception of capes and cowls.

What if her grandfather considered her a failure?

Of course, there had also been another thing that had hit her back then, and which she’d been thinking about ever since.

Finding out about her grandfather had put pretty much everything about her mother’s behaviour into a new light. Elouise could see, now, how she had been groomed to be his granddaughter, to please his way of doing things; perhaps, even, to become his heir in the absence of anyone else to do so. The Dark was a known family man, a traditionalist in many ways, who valued loyalty and blood; and so Elouise had been raised to both give and demand loyalty, to value her family above all, to be an intelligent, successful villain without being a brutish monster.

Her mother had never joined the Syndicate proper, though they’d cooperated a lot. She’d never aspired to join the Dark Five, even though she had the skills and the power to do so. Because she could never have expected being a mere underling of the Dark. The Matriarch had to rule, she had to stand at the top.

But there was nothing objectionable to the Matriarch serving under the Dark as his heir presumptive, as a beloved family member taken into the family business.

In the end, her mother had been willing to pass on her beloved name for the chance, however slim, that the Matriarch may one day stand at the top of the Syndicate.

Now she’d met the Dark and he’d… been way less intimidating than she’d expected, and way more personable; though, she was his granddaughter, and unlike all other descendants of his that she knew of, she was actually ‘in the business’. So maybe her mother’s plan would pay off after all.

It usually did.

After the whole mess with the Ascendant had been over and done with, he’d sought her out and they’d spent a whole night talking and getting to know each other… or at least, he’d been getting to know her. He’d been quite sparse with information about himself, and he’d been so smooth about it that she hadn’t noticed, that even her shadow hadn’t noticed.

But it had been nice, nonetheless. And helpful. Once she’d described all the problems she found herself faced with, he’d offered his advice, and then, to send a trusted lieutenant of his to provide her with advice and support, as her subordinate, of course, until such a time as she no longer required his help or decided to recruit him permanently.

She’d agreed, happily, after only briefly thinking it over, and the man had appeared on her doorstep on the very next day.

She still didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted. She had certainly never expected that a man like this was so high up in her grandfather’s trust; especially as he had basically no history to speak of. He simply went by the name ‘Leopold’, and the most she’d been able to find out about him was that he was some kind of background character in the Syndicate, perhaps a secret enforcer of some sort, though mostly he seemed to just be an observer.

He was, however, undoubtedly skilled. From accounting and administration to planning capers, strategic decisions and tactical expertise, the man seemed to be able to do anything he wanted, and he was good at it. He’d almost singlehandedly increased her Casino’s revenue by a hundred and thirty percent within two weeks of arriving there, among other things. And he’d rooted out no less than a dozen plants in her organisation, both by law enforcement and by other villain groups; he now assured her that there were none left, and she was inclined to trust him.

To a point.

Right now, he stood a little apart from her people, close enough to make it clear she trusted him, not so close as to be thought of as one of her full lieutenants. He also stood apart in how he dressed, wearing a dark brown three-piece suit, with a black shirt and gold tie, and a golden pocketwatch in his vest pocket, tailored to fit flawlessly onto his rail-thin body. His hair was slicked back, shining almost like more gold, and his dark blonde mustache and goatee where so sharply styled she suspected that they might serve as bladed instruments. The former was also ridiculously twirled, each twist easily the size of the man’s eyes. Brown-golden eyes which were currently looking at her, twinkling with amusement like he was privy to some private joke. A very common expression on him, and one she’d grown accustomated to.

She finished surveying them all, and went on with her ritual.

“Good evening, my dear companions,” she spoke, carefully intoning every single word. “I’m glad to see you all gathered here. Let’s get down to business.”

Which one to call up first? The order in which they spoke was set by me, and I usually picked whichever one I favoured most first, and so on.

My shadow came to me, from where it had been drawing lazy circles over the walls, whispering. Leopold has good news, but it will offend one of your chief lieutenants. Kakitsune has nothing out of the ordinary to say, but she’s feeling left out since Leopold joined. Horrendous is looking forward to his turn. Ducktail has a problem and is hoping for help. Ducktail is nervous. Silverback is feeling guilty over something. The others have nothing out of the ordinary to say, it spoke to her, using her own voice, but with a different inflection, just enough to make it sound noticably different.

She thought it over, briefly, processing the information, as she mentally decided on the order. Maria had to be first, to soothe her ego; Leopold was going to offend someone, so she shouldn’t pick him last, or else the meeting would end on a sour note.

Only she didn’t know whom he would offend.

She took a glass of sparkling water off the small table next to her divan, drinking from it to buy herself a few more moments to consider it.

In the end, she decided to pick Horrendous last – he was the one least likely to get offended by anything, or hold a grudge if it did happen.

Yes, that will do. First Kakitsune, then Silverback, Leopold, Ducktail and finally, Horrendous.

She smiled. That would do. She put the glass down and turned to look at Maria, smiling.

“Maria, please start,” she said, smiling at her… friend.

The girl brightened up considerably at being picked first, standing up straighter… which wasn’t necessarily a good thing, considering her outfit. How she managed to get around without flashing her breasts every time she moved, Elouise would never understand. It certainly wasn’t her power’s effect, that was for sure. Nor did she use double-sided tape.

“Nothing’s changed since the last briefing, boss,” she said in her usual, chipper voice. “Really, the Ascendant kinda did us a favour; all the chaos and damage he caused has got the other gangs running ragged trying to re-establish themselves. We and the Misfits are the only ones who didn’t lose any cowls, and that’s mostly because their cowls were all in lock-up at the time, thanks in no small part to, well to your dad.”

Elouise smiled, nodding. “So your part of the business is running smoothly,” she followed, referring to Maria’s protection business.

Maria nodded, and then beamed when Elouise smiled at her. “Well done,” she said warmly, and she beamed even brighter.

Kakitsune’s worries have been soothed for now. She won’t be an issue for at least another two weeks.

Elouise frowned, briefly, masking it by coughing and taking another drink. Maria’s not just an ‘issue’. She is my friend.

There was no answer, and so she moved on, looking at Silverback, a man who certainly looked the part of his namesake, being a huge man, as huge as one could be as a normal person, with shoulders almost as broad as her legs were tall. He was wearing an impeccable, if very old-fashioned gray suit that made him look like a mobster from the prohibition era. Appropriate, seeing how his family had been part of the mob (and then of her mother’s organisation, and now her own) for a good five generations now.

“Silverback, how’s the gambling ring coming along?”

He cleared his throat, then ran a huge hand through his squarish, black beard. “Not as well as we’d hoped – the recent crisis has had people stay home more, though we’re seeing an upward trend again – but we’re making steady profits, and most of them are even legal, especially thanks to Leopold here,” he inclined his head towards the smiling man, who acknowledged it with a deferential nod of his, “Putting us in contact with that corrupt official at the mayor’s office.” He coughed again, uncomfortable.

“That’s good to hear,” she replied with a smile, then turned it towards Leopold. “Your support is really extraordinary, Leopold.”

“Think nothing of it, my lady,” he told her with a fancy bow. “I am merely fulfilling my duties.”

Leopold means what he says.

She nodded instead of continuing, and turned back to Silverback. Even without her shadow’s whispers, she could tell that he was rather uncomfortable. “There’s more, isn’t there, Silverback?”

He coughed again. “Well… there was a bit of an incident, last night.” The huge man shuffled his feet. “I… lost my temper with one of our patrons, and offended him rather heavily. We may lose him.”

Her eye twitched, annoyed. Silverback was everything one could wish for in a lieutenant, ambitious without being treacherous, steadfast, loyal, determined, powerful… but he was not calm. His temper was his greatest weakness, and perhaps the only reason why she hadn’t elevated him to be her right-hand man. “Which one?” she asked, her voice gone colder.

“Judge Martherson,” he replied, his head lowered in shame.

Elouise had to really fight with herself to avoid giving a biting retort to that. Martherson was a snake, but he was her snake, god damn it! Even disregarding the fact that he brought old Chicago money to the table, and was all too ready to gamble it away, he was a Judge. Always useful to keep around.

“That is… disappointing,” she forced out between clenched teeth, trying to catch herself. “I will have to… talk to Martherson, and convince him to… accept an apology. My apology, to be precise.”

Silverback flinched, opening his mouth again, but she cut him off.

“What is done, is done. I’m not going to hold this one slip-up against you, Silverback, but please do try to reign in your temper in the future.”

He nodded, biting his own lip.

This will do.

Leopold took a step forward, without saying anything, causing her to look at him. He clearly looked like he had something to say – and well, she’d planned to pick him next, anyway.

“If you have something to say, Leopold, please feel free to do so,” she drawled.

He bowed again, smiling. “Mmm, well, I just wanted to say, dear lady, that I already had a little… talk, with our judge, after I became aware of the incident last night,” he said, making Silverback stare at him in surprise – and Elouise, too, for that matter. “He has magnanimously agreed to accept an apology… from Silverback, here.”

“You… you just went and…” Silverback clenched his fists, snarling, as he looked at the far shorter, slender man. She could see the red creep into his eyes, towards his pupils, and decided to intervene.

So this is the subject that would offend another. He went and resolved Silverback’s problem without consulting with him, promising that the man give an apology without consulting him. She was relieved, really, that it was something so minor, in the grand scheme of things. Though she still had to do something, to save Silverback some pride. She didn’t need her power to figure that out, either.

Thus, she smiled at Leopold, though she made it a little sharper an expression than was strictly friendly. “Leopold, as usual, you amaze me with how… swift and efficient you are, resolving this little dispute,” she drawled, sipping from her glass. Be grateful, Elouise. He saved you the need to demean yourself to make an apology. “Thank you for that; however, I can not simply tolerate it that you intervene in Silverback’s business without even consulting him – much less allow that his apology be promised to another, like that. This will not happen again, understood? She underlined the last few words with a sharp glare at the man.

Leopold sighed, though he didn’t seem intimidated at all. However, he did make an apologetic face, and bowed at Silverback. “I am sorry, my friend, that I acted in so rushed a manner – I was only thinking of mollifying the judge, and did not stop to consider the insult it would bring to you.”

He is sincere, though still amused at the whole situation.

Annoying, but at least he was sincere enough to mollify Silverback… slightly. She would still have to deal with this in the future.

Worst of all, she was not at all able to tell whether Leopold was doing this deliberately, to test her. He was here on orders from her grandfather, after all, both to support and, perhaps, to evaluate.

The corner of her mouth ticked up as she considered just how problematic this could still become, having someone in her inner circle who didn’t answer to her, first.

She blinked, banishing those thoughts from her mind. There would still be time to pursue that line of thought later on.

Instead, she moved on with the evening’s business.

***

The rest had gone quite smoothly. Ducktail had some problem with the heroes coming after her underground fight rings, and Elouise had assigned Maria to help shore up security. Horrendous had only good things to report, as he was in charge of smuggling goods and the relatively high taxation on a lot of luxury items, due to the brewing war in Europe, was driving up their profits quite nicely.

All in all, even considering Silverback’s little blunder, and Leopold’s provocation, this had been a pleasant enough meeting.

Leopold will continue to be a problem, though he should be enough of an asset to justify keeping him around, her shadow whispered to her as she was walking towards her private suite.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Her grandfather had sent him, and she was more than willing to put up with the occasional annoyance – she trusted the Dark to have her best interests at heart.

She smiled to herself, as she opened the door to her bedroom’s antechamber, already looking forward to spending the rest of the night…

“Well, what are you smiling about like that?”

Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the man waiting for her in the room (how did he get inside? None of her security systems had noticed him!), sitting on a love seat next to the old fireplace (she rarely used it, but now there was a small fire going) with his cheek resting on a hand, his elbow on the armrest, as he smiled at her.

“Daddy!” she shouted, and leaped clear across the room, all thoughts of decorum forgotten as she wrapped her arms around his neck, nearly bowling him and the seat over.

Presentation is k-

She ignored the little voice as she hugged him tight. To her delight, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her.

She’d never known what it felt like to just be held by a father, had often imagined it, but never thought it’d feel this good.

“Hey there, baby girl,” he said as he patted her back, before he kissed the top of her head. “How was your evening so far?”

“Oh, quite alright,” she replied as she pulled herself up to sit properly – on his lap, that was. They had almost two decades of cuddling to make up for, after all. “The aide grandfather sent to work with me went a little over the line and pissed off Silverback – you remember him, right, I introduced you – and I had to tell him off, but otherwise, everything’s going more or less smoothly.”

He smiled down at her, making her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. She just couldn’t get enough looking at him. He’d grown less haggart, ever since the business with the Ascendant had been done with, and he didn’t dress quite as formally anymore – or at least, not quite as often. Just jeans and a shirt with a rockband’s name printed on it, though she’d never heard of this particular one. He still kept his beard, though, which she liked – it made him look nicely mature and father-ly.

“Well, knowing my father, he’s likely sent someone who’s certain to be annoying and testing, just to see how you’ll deal with him,” he told her, confirming her own suspicion. He didn’t really seem happy about it, though. “I wish you hadn’t taken him up on his offer, though. It’s not healthy to get drawn into the Syndicate’s business, even for an established supervillain.”

“We’ve been over this, daddy,” she replied, pouting at him as she took her mask off. “I’m not going to give up being the Matriarch. Not even for you, or Henny.”

He sighed. “I know… just like you know that I won’t stop trying to talk you out of it.” He smirked, winking at her. “And I’m doing that just for you, not for Hennessy’s sake. Though that’s a welcome bonus, too.”

She giggled, glad that he was being light-hearted about it. “How’s Henny doing, anyway? She hasn’t really been replying to my e-mails much.” Finding out that her arch-enemy was actually her half-sister, and one with such a horrible trauma in her past, had been more than a small shock. Fortunately, though, they hadn’t clashed since finding out, in large part due to her being too busy with keeping her organisation low-key and out of the heroes’ eyes, so they’d focus on the other gangs instead.

Come to think of it, it’d been her dad who’d convinced her to pursue that course of action…

He doesn’t want his daughters to clash in battle, or otherwise, came the unbidden whisper, not that it told her anything new. It was almost annoying how good her dad was at confounding her shadow – he was just too controlled to be read, even with its power, perhaps even more so than her grandfather.

“Hennessy has recovered well,” he explained, looking away – focusing into the distance. “Now that the Ascendant is behind bars, she and her friends have… relaxed a lot. Hell, Dearheart has even forgotten to glare at me, a few times!” he laughed, and she couldn’t help but join in. “So, who’s this guy the old man sent to you? Maybe I remember him,” he continued.

“Oh, he’s a weird one, so you’d remember him for sure!” she replied. “He doesn’t use a codename, he just calls himself Leop-“

“Leopold!?! He sent you Leopold!?” he shouted, making her flinch. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.”

“So, uh, I guess you know him?” she asked, leaning against his chest as she threw her legs over the armrest. They’re the same age, likely to have interacted in their youth if he has such a strong reaction to him.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, he’s my age. Did a few jobs with him, back in the day. He is… an unending source of frustration.”

“He seems quite alright to me. Really competent. And almost as hard to read as you.”

“He would be. Guy’s an a- a jerk, but he’s competent, I’ll give him that,” he replied, editing his own swear-word out – like that’d bother her. It was really kinda cute.

“Yeah, that he is. But enough of that! Tell me what you’ve been up to – I was really surprised you and Henny didn’t go to help with this Crocell incident in Esperanza City!” she moved the conversation along, not wanting to dwell on her business for too long when he was around.

“There’s no way the authorities would allow Hennessy to participiate in an S-Class situation, unless it actually came here – and maybe not even then,” he explained, looking troubled. “She’s much too unstable.” He sighed, and she could tell that he still blamed himself for his other daughter’s state. It hurt her to see, but there was nothing she could do about it -she’d already told him that she, at least, did not blame him at all for being absent from her life until recently, and she was pretty sure he still beat himself up about that, even though she hadn’t gone through half as much horror as her little sister.

“And what about you?” she tried to move on, away from the subject of Henny. “What were you up to?”

“Oh, I was out of the country for a few days, down in South America to visit a few old friends who’d moved there. Came running as soon as I heard about the attack, but by the time I reached Esperanza, I could only help with the rescue efforts.”

He frowned, tapping his chin. “Gotta wonder about this gadgeteer boy everyone’s gushing about. He killed that thing in one shot – while dad failed to put the one he fought in Tokyo down at all.”

She shivered at the reminder of what had happened in Tokyo – that was… bad business. Far beyond any limits she was willing to come even close to.

“Brennus. I’ve heard, yeah. New Lennston never disappoints in producing some amazing capes and cowls,” she said, more subdued now. “He’s independent, isn’t he? I wonder how he’s managed to resist being recruited by either side.”

“I don’t know about the heroes,” her father said slowly, “but I was talking to my father, and well, he didn’t say anything straight out, but I get the feeling that he considers Brennus to be off-limits for some reason.”

Possible that he’s related to a Syndicate member, or else a high-enough ranked hero to not be worth the trouble.

“Curious…” she rubbed her chin, considering it. Maybe he was off-limits to the Syndicate, but she wasn’t quite a member yet, and who knew, maybe she could recruit herself an up-and-coming gadgeteer…

“Elouise, stop it,” her father chided her. “No scheming right now, alright? I didn’t come here for that.”

She pouted at him. “But I’m supposed to be a mastermind, scheming is what I do.”

He smirked. “Oh yes? Even if the alternative is going out for a late dinner with me?”

She leapt off his lap. “I’ll go get changed!” she chirped happily, making him chuckle as she all but ran into her bedroom. Spending time with her daddy was way more important than some new scheme, anyway!

Her heels clicked on the expensively wood-tiled floor, making her stop just beyond her bedroom door, looking down at them.

Hm, they really are too high, aren’t they? I’ll ask Maria to shorten them tomorrow.

She smirked, ignoring her mother’s angry rebuttal, and walked into her wardrobe to pick out something for her impromptu dinner-date.

The night could only get sweeter.

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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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B011.6 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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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 4)

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I stood there, my… daughter hugging me hard enough to crack a tree (she was strong) and I was just slackjawed.

My life has officially passed from straaaaaange to… I don’t even know to what.

Still, despite the… sensation of mentally running into a wall, over and over, this girl here was my daughter, I was sure of it. That the monkey did not urge me with dark suggestions was proof enough, as were her eyes. And she had obviously been looking forward to this reunion for quite some time. No reason to make her feel unwanted.

So I put my arms around her, slowly. She only hugged me harder in response.

“I’ve dreamed of this day, you know?” she whispered.

“I see.” What was I supposed to say? I’d already been completely out of my depth with Hennessy. The situation may have been different now (I wasn’t getting smacked around, for one – though that could still happen) but… I had nothing. I had no idea what to say or do.

Less than four hours ago, I’d been out to find my ex-girlfriend, maybe hoping to get a second chance with her… now I had two teenage, almost grown-up daughters, one a severely damaged superheroine, the other an active supervillain with a lot of clout and they were supposedly archenemies.

Fun times. Stars above…

I pushed her back a bit so I could look down (even with her substantial heels, she was still way shorter than me) at her face.

She was biting her lower lip, looking insecure.

God, she looked like a child, all of a sudden.

“Don’t take this the wrong way – I know you’re my daughter – but how? I know I used protection the one time I slept with your mother.” Please don’t take this as a rejection.

She bit her lip harder, for a moment, looking away as if ashamed.

I saw her shadow – it looked like it had been circling us – rise from the ground, filling out into a three-dimensional, solid black copy of her. A perfect reflection, but there was no distinction between her clothes and her body, and her face, though perfectly detailed, was empty, emotionless, her eyes as dark as the rest of her.

Something about that shadow just creeped me out.

“Um,” the Matriarch – I so needed to know her name, no way I was calling my own daughter ‘Matriarch’ all the time – tried to speak up, commanding my attention again. “We shouldn’t… shouldn’t discuss this here. Come, let’s go somewhere more private, alright?”

Taking a step back, her hands grabbed my own and tugged, gently. Still insecure.

I nodded and followed her, nodding towards Cartastrophy, who managed to look depressed despite his costume. I gave him a look, and he nodded slightly. He knew not to talk about Chayot. That was not for him to share. I wasn’t even sure if I had the right to share it.

Followed by her now very physical shadow, my daughter pulled me past her divan and through a barely visible door in the wall behind it, then through the hallway beyond the door.

The room at the end of the hallway was far less… ostentatious than the hall. It was circular, with a large circular table, big enough for a group to have dinner together, small enough to still feel private and homely.

It was pretty much the only piece of furniture left in the room from the time I’d last been here. There were new, more modern cupboards along the walls, a large flat screen television and a lot of other stuff. Last time I’d been free and in America, we’d just gotten the first three dimensional screens for home use (they’d sucked). I idly wondered if the technology had taken off or just faded away again.

My attention was pulled back to more immediate, more important matters when my daughter turned around and hugged me again. Hard.

Is this normal? Or is there a special reason for why she seems so… desperate?

I hugged her back, still not sure how to react. Waiting for her to let go once she felt ready.

After a while, she relaxed and stepped back. “Thank you,” she said with a soft voice.

Now I was really confused. “What for?”

That got a weak giggle out of her. “You didn’t push me away. I mean, I’m just a stranger to you, and I just told you I’m your daughter – no proof, nothing – and you still let me hug you. That was nice.”

Well, I had the advantage of the monkey at least considering her a non-target, so I knew there was something special about her.

“To be honest, I just know that there is some connection between us. Can you answer my question now?”

Suddenly, she was all nervous again and walked over to the table, sitting down on a chair her shadow pulled out for her.

I sat down on the opposite side of the table, trying to look more confident than I was (no idea if it worked).

“You… remember that night? With my mother?” she asked, avoiding my gaze.

“Yes… she’d hired me for a caper – needed some muscle in case the heroes showed up, which they did – and after we got away… barely, and all the others got caught… we kind of… ended up back here. We were both euphoric, half-dead from the beating we’d both taken and really… in the mood,” I said, quite uncomfortable with discussing this with my daughter. “We both celebrated a little… right here… with some drinks and then…”

I looked over to the door opposite the one we entered. “Yeah, we went in there. But… I know I used protection, I remember making sure of it.”

She looked down, fidgeting on her seat. Opening her mouth, she almost started to speak, then went quiet again – and then her shadow poked her shoulder… and everything poured out of her.

“It was a setup,” she began. “All of it, the job, you two being the only ones to get away, the drinks, everything. She even… well she sabotaged the… the protection.”

Oh ewww…

“She even made sure it all happened while she was… ovulating. And she took some kind of contriver stuff to make herself extra… extra fertile,” she finished, looking ashamed.

Double eww.

“Why?” Did she know about…

Her shadow put a hand onto her shoulder, making her look at it. I heard something, a whisper I couldn’t understand.

The girl looked back at me. “She… she never did tell me. All I ever heard was that blood was thicker than water, which is just amazingly unhelpful.” She rolled her eyes, or at least I thought she did.

She knew, dammit. No oth-

My eyes fell on her shadow. Standing behind her, its shoulders were shaking… it was laughing, silently and, somehow, smugly.

It knows, I’m sure of it.

I looked back at the girl. She was still avoiding eye contact, but I could also tell, from her face and her eyes, that she was annoyed at the lack of an answer she got from her mother.

Throwing the shadow a suspicious glare – it had stopped moving and was just… well, I was pretty sure it was looking at me, but it was hard to tell… anyway, I was pretty sure that it knew, but she didn’t.

And it knew that I knew that it knew. Because it put a finger to its lips, as if to hush me.

The bottom fell off my stomach, and I felt my heart – and other assorted organs – drop down into my shoes.

She was in the same boat as Hennessy, if in a different way. Her power had a mind of its own, and it could keep secrets from her.

And now I knew, beyond any doubt, that she was my daughter. Even without the eyes, and her mother’s manipulative nature (she’d been famous for it, even without factoring in her power), which when coupled with her legendary lust for power certainly made such a plot probable, I’d always known that having children might be a bad idea. One of the few advises my father gave me, which I actually was thankful for (most of them were just… creepy to give to your child) was that I should be extremely careful about having children… that I should be absolutely sure that I wanted a child, and that I should make sure to be present for it… because they were likely to have issues with their powers.

Though, as usual, he hadn’t explained why any of my children would have issues with their powers. He was an asshole about that.

And now both my daughters… I remembered the figure I’d seen inside Hennessy’s head (or wherever the hell we’d been), and that thing had certainly been alive, though it had not been as overtly distinct from her as this girl’s shadow was.

“… papa?”

“Huh?” I looked up. She was staring at me, worried.

I noticed that I’d been brooding. “Sorry, I spaced out, didn’t I?”

“Uhh, yeah, you could call it that…” she replied, sounding shaken.

Strange.

“I know this is a lot to drop onto your lap all at once, and I know you don’t owe me anything, but…” She stopped, staring to the side. Her shadow whispered something, again, but she waved it off.

I waited for her to continue, folding my hands in front of my face and looking at her over them. I wasn’t the most… savvy person, especially regarding the feelings of others, but I could tell that she was, for some reason, close to a breakdown.

And I had no idea how to deal with it.

Wrapping her arms around herself, she gave me a longing look. “I… If you want, we could… I mean, you probably want to reestablish yourself here, and if you want, you can work with me… or I can work for you, I mean, you’re way more experienced… and it would be really useful for both of us, if…”

Her shadow put a hand to its forehead, shaking its head while she continued babbling.

I just rose from my seat and walked around the table. She only sped up, trying to throw more good arguments at me for why I should join her, or she join me, or… well, she certainly was no smarter than I was, it seemed.

Stopping next to her, I grabbed her by her shoulders and pulled her up into a hug, lifting her off her chair and off the ground, her feet dangling in the air as I buried my face in her rich hair.

“What’s your name?”

She choked, then answered: “Elouise. Elouise Luviere.”

“I’m Kevin Paterson. Call me Kevin, or papa if you insist.” I hugged her close, but not hard enough to risk hurting her.

“Are you… do you mean it? I mean, you never wanted me, and my organization isn’t that great an-“

“Oh, shut up.” I hugged her harder. “I don’t give two shits about any organization or power or money or political advantage. Don’t need any of that, as far as I’m concerned, anyway.” I tried to put as much… how to even call it… you know, that fuzzy tone fathers can put into their voice when they want to reassure their children? I hadn’t exactly gotten much of that, in my time (though I’ll admit that my father tried to be like that), so I didn’t exactly know how to call it. But I tried a fatherly voice, going by what I’d heard from others over the years. “I don’t know you… but I’d like to change that. Try to be a family.”

And I wish I could have just said that to Hennessy. Why didn’t I get my act together back there?

She shuddered, then hugged me back. I thought I heard her crying, but I don’t think she’d have appreciated me commenting on it.

I held her. Don’t ask me how I felt for the year or so we spent like that, because I honestly can’t tell you. It was intense, but that’s all I can put into words.

* * *

After some time – don’t ask me how long – I felt her grip relax. Slowly, more reluctant than I’d thought I’d be, I let go, lowering her onto the floor.

She took a step back, turning in the same motion, right into the handkerchief her shadow was holding, and which it used to clean up her face before I could see it.

I resisted the urge to spout some pun and just waited for her to feel up to talking again.

Maybe I’ll be up to it by the time she is.

Once her shadow was done, she turned around. Her eyes were a little red, and her nose too, but otherwise she looked fine.

“Thank you,” she said, again.

I smirked. Then I reached out with both hands for her mask. She tensed up for a moment, but didn’t resist when I pulled it off.

Underneath she was… surprisingly cute. I mean, she was as beautiful as her mother had ever been, even more so. But where her mother had been gaunt and sharp-featured, she was just… soft. She looked younger than her eighteen-odd years, and I realized that her mask was designed specifically to make her look older. Pair that with her dress and she could pull off twenty-one years, I guess.

“Elouise… do you have a nickname you prefer?” I asked while putting the mask aside on the table.

“Uhh, Lise is fine, I guess,” she said. “Never had a real nickname, to be honest.”

“Really? With a name like Elouise, I’d have thought your friends-“

She laughed out loud – but it wasn’t a happy laugh.

“Friends? You really didn’t know my mother,” she said. “I had peers, rivals, sure. People I could measure myself against. But friends? They would have been a weakness. So she made damn sure I never made any.”

And I thought my dad’s an asshole…

“No friends at all? Even after… when did she die, anyway? How?”

Her face fell, again.

“Oh, uh… did you hear about the whole incident with the Ascendant, five years ago?”

I had to restrain myself not to show the sudden surge of rage I felt at being reminded of him. Her shadow seemed to notice, taking a step closer to her. Ready to protect her.

At least it keeps her safe, huh?

Somehow, that movement calmed me down. Reminded me that I needed to be on my best behaviour.

“I’ve heard of it. What exactly happened to her? She was not a frontline fighter, so…”

She looked away, again. “The boy… they call him Jabberwocky… he had some kind of danger sense and tracking, or maybe a strange kind of precognition. Could tell where the biggest threat to himself was, went right after it. So, the first thing he did was attack the base where the hero and villain superminds were. The precogs, the super-strategists, the data-analysts. It faked out the fighters, faked out even the superminds, came up in the middle of them… and started killing. They didn’t stand a chance. Mom was there because of… well, she had a slew of perception powers, as you probably know. Some low-level precognition, some enhanced awareness, empathy, and so on. A little bit of most. But… Jabberwocky could somehow resist perception powers, if he was close enough to their users, and he took almost all of them down.”

She said all this in a strangely calm voice. I couldn’t tell how she felt about it.

So I decided to just ask.

“How do you feel about that?”

Her mouth clenched up, as did her fists, and it took her a while to respond.

“I hated her, you know? I mean, I loved her, still do, but I also hated her. Still do. I’m just…”

Again, her shadow reached out, pulling her around to face it. It spoke in that incomprehensible whisper again, and she relaxed.

Turning around again, she faced me as her shadow put its arms over her shoulders, letting them dangle limply as it put its head next to hers.

“Sorry, I’m a little… emotional today,” she said.

God, she takes way too much after me. “I can tell.” I took her hand and sat down, pulling her down onto my lap. Thankfully, her shadow melted away, sinking back into the floor.

Maybe it doesn’t see me as a threat anymore?

“Look, Lise, there is a lot I want to talk to you about, but I think we both need some time to really let this sink in, alright?” I certainly do. “Also, I did come here for some business that is quite… pressing. Sorry for bringing it up.”

She shook her head, snuggling against my chest. Damn, she was young, younger than I’d been at her age. “It’s alright. I guess reestablishing yourself after eighteen years – by the way, you really need to tell me what you’ve been doing – is quite a chore.”

She thinks I want to be a supervillain again. I didn’t think that I wanted that. To be honest, my plans consisted of three points. Find the Ascendant. Kill him slowly and painfully. Take care of your daughters, moron!

Three simple points, no overarching plot or anything. Not that I’d ever been prone to those.

“Look, I heard the Ascendant is back in town. I need to find him. Preferably before he pulls any large or small operation.” I managed to restrain the hatred in my voice, and I prayed to God her shadow wouldn’t pick up on it and tell her. It seemed to be… sensitive.

“What for? Do you want an in with him? You’d have all the heroes around after you, if you did. Especially that bitch Chayot and her pals.”

Now I felt like slapping her for using that kind of word in regards to her sister. But she didn’t know. And I wasn’t comfortable with complicating things even more right now.

“Let’s just say there is some old, unfinished business between us. And it’s really urgent. If there is any way for you to get me an in? Just an audience?” Her organization may be diminished, but she is the heir of one of the old guard.

She nodded, never parting from my embrace. “I’ll see what I can do.” Her shadow slithered out of the room. “But it’ll probably take a while.”

“Sure thing, sweetie.”

She giggled and snuggled closer.

This is actually nice. And the monkey hadn’t even tried pissing me off for a while.

* * *

After a while, Elouise had to take care of some business. She put on her mask, aging by at least three years with it, kissed me on the cheek (I kissed her on both, and on the top of her head, which for some reason made her giggle) and went off to work, inviting me to make myself at home.

I told her I wanted to visit my old house and gave her my address and my phone number, both of which she took gleefully in exchange for her own (she lived at the casino, but she had a private cellphone number).

Then, me and Cartastrophy left, taking his car back home.

“Damn, now I’ll lose the other poster, too,” he grumbled.

Thinking about it, I actually said: “Dude, she gave you that one herself. It’s alright, keep it.”

He shook his head. “No way pal. You know why I like those posters. No way I’ll have my friend’s daughter on one of those posters.”

I grunted in affirmation.

We reached the block next to the one I lived at, and I got out of the car to walk the rest of the way.

Merlin Street hadn’t changed at all in the last eighteen years. The houses still looked like they came out of a cheap horror novel, all faux-victorian stonework and stuff. Really gloomy, but with way too much colour in the flowerbeds and on the roofs to feel depressing.

My house was unchanged, too. Someone (probably Dad) had been taking care of it.

I stepped into the old, almost fortress-like building, and was immediately assaulted by the smell of old books, musty wood and carpet.

And there was someone there. The monkey wasn’t smelling anyone, but I could hear someone riffling through my bar. The bottles were clinking against each other.

Without hesitation, I stormed into the living room, half-ready to manifest my monkey hand-

A man stood behind the bar, clad in a dark blue robe with a hood and wide sleeves. As I entered, he turned around, unconcerned, with two glasses and a bottle of seventy-year-old scotch in hand.

“Want a drink?” the most powerful man in the world asked in a thousand and no voices. I could barely see his mirror-like, featureless facemask. It was more of a helmet, really, but almost skintight and shaped so at least a nose and some basic facial lines were suggested by the mirror.

Not that anyone ever paid attention to the mirror itself, because the images it showed usually commanded all of your attention.

Though, seeing how they never made any fucking sense, I’d just gotten used to not paying them attention.

“Hello Journeyman. What have you been up to?” I sat down on a stool in front of the bar counter.

He filled the two glasses, then held out one for me. I took it, we knocked glasses and drank. His glass moved through his mask like it wasn’t even there.

Ah, life gets immediately better once you drink a scotch that’s twice as old as you are.

“Journeying around the world, of course. And then some,” he answered in his freakass voices, his mask showing… images of countless people. Some of them looked like heroes, or villains, or people out of a fantasy novel.

“Anything in particular?”

“Spaceworms,” he said. “Godlike spaceworms, and dancing. But in the end it came down to a little girl with serious control issues.”

“You still don’t make any sense.”

He chuckled, which was really creepy, because it was like a whole opera house was chuckling all at once.

“I pride myself on that. I hear you’ve had some… interesting experiences?”

I took another swig. “Did you know about my daughters?” No use trying to keep a secret from this guy.

He shook his head, his mask flashing through images of Hennessy and Elouise, from childhood to now. Some of them scared me, a lot.

“Had I known, I would have brought you back here immediately. Alas, even my knowledge is limited.”

I snorted and took another drink (Journeyman always knew when to fill up and when to stop).

“I need a break. Got any funny stories to tell?”

“Well, there’s this one about magical lost romans who fight naked elves on giant sloths.”

“Sounds like my kind of story. Shoot.”

Previous | Next

Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 3)

Previous | Next

Promising your ex to murder your daughter’s tormentor must be a great way to fix up a relationship, because five minutes later, we were sitting on the same couch (though we did keep a certain distance) and chatting.

She was avoiding the question I knew she wanted to ask, perhaps even more than the question for me to kill someone. I wasn’t sure I could have answered her, anyway. It wouldn’t have been fair.

“So, you and Phil? How did that happen?” I asked, maybe a bit too curious. He wasn’t anything like the kind of guy I’d have thought she’d ever fall for.

She looked down at her feet (wearing plush pink slippers that looked like cats – something told me Charity had chosen them), half sad and half smiling.

“Uh, well, after… after you left, and after Henny was born, I kind of lost interest in… in bad boys. And the life, as a whole. I just wanted something stable, for myself, but even more for Henny,” she half-whispered.

Punch. Gut. Hurts. Deserve it.

“I’m glad you found him. That you found what you looked for, without me,” I said with total (fake) honesty. My dad was an asshole, but at least his lessons in proper lying turned out useful. “You deserve this and more.” That, at least, was no lie.

She looked up with slightly wet eyes, nodding. “Thank you, for… for understanding it.”

I snorted. “You talk as if I had cause to hold it against you. I screwed up, not you, so don’t you think you need to thank me for anything,”

Suddenly, I clapped my hands, loudly. She jumped in her seat.

Then she looked at me, and giggled. “Oh God, you still do that?” she asked in between trying to take a breath.

“Some things never change. And it got me a smile and a giggle,” I replied, winking. “Now, I’d like to talk to Hennessy before I go. Do you know how long she’ll sleep?”

Tamara shrugged, looking so helpless I wanted to hug her. I didn’t. I didn’t have that right anymore.

“I… I don’t know. She’s only lost control a few times like that. Once, it only took three hours for her to wake up. Another time, nearly a week.”

Reaching out, I took her hand, holding it with a light grip. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have just turned up like that.”

“No, no, you couldn’t have known. I just… I wish you’d shown up earlier. The day after you left, with that surprise you promised me,” she said, half-choked.

Stab. Twist.

“Do… do you want to know? What I wanted to do?” Please say no.

She shook her head. “I… I think it would be better if I didn’t… didn’t know. For now. Maybe… maybe once I’ve worked this out.”

Same for me, I think.

“Tamara… I’m sorry. I just need to say it again. I’m sorry I wasn’t here, and I… I hope to make it up to you. And I don’t mean killing that piece of scat.”

She looked choked, then insecure, then… I couldn’t tell.

“Don’t. Don’t make it up to me, you didn’t wrong me,” she said. Her eyes were wet again. “It was Hennessy who suffered. Even before… even before he took her. She always yearned to know her father, but I couldn’t even tell her your name. She didn’t know whether to hate you for leaving, or to long to see you again, and it’s torn her up inside.”

That… hurt worse than getting pounded by Desolation-in-Light. Way worse.

“I will do whatever I have to to make amends. I swear it,” I said, as fervently as I could.

“Do so. It won’t be easy. She hates you… and she loves you. Even if she doesn’t know you at all.”

Suddenly, she gripped my hand like a steel vise, and her eyes transfixed me, as if she was looking right down into my soul. Hopefully not. She’s never seen the monkey.

“You won’t disappear again, understand?” Her voice was steel and her nails were digging into my arm, cutting into the fabric of my suit. “If you vanish again, I’ll come after you, and I‘ll kill you. got it? You will not abandon your daughter, is that clear?”

She’s never looked so beautiful. “Crystal. I’m here to stay.” There was nothing else to say.

As if on cue, Dearheart – Camille Schmitz, as I’d learned earlier – came down the stairs, dressed in sweatpants and a shirt. “Henny has woken up.”

* * *

Hennessy was lying on her bed, dressed in a pink silken pajama covered in hopping bunnies. Something told me that the princess ruled this house.

She looked at us, her purple eyes tired, but awake. She looked at me, paused… and looked away and at her mother.

Of course. I’m still the badguy.

“Oh Henny!” Tamara knelt down next to her daughter’s bed and took her hand in both of her own, squeezing it hard.

I expected them to talk, but they didn’t. Instead, they just looked each other in the eyes, and seemed to be communicating that way.

Leaning over to Camille, I asked: “How… how does her power mess up her speech?”

She gave me a scorching gaze that, by all means, should leave only a blast shadow of me on the wall, but answered, “She can’t speak. She can’t read or write, and she has no unconscious body language. She has trouble understanding body language, and she needs to really, really strain herself to understand spoken language.”

I’m almost tempted to ask dad for help with the Ascendant. Almost.

“So we can only really communicate through mental contact?”

This is going to be bad. Real bad. Fucking monkey.

“Right. I so look forward to having her brainblast you to next month.”

I didn’t reply.

A minute or so later, Tamara rose from her position and came over to us.

“She’ll speak to you – alone,” she said, looking years younger, now that her daughter was well again. Or as well as she could be. “Camille, come on, let’s leave them.”

Camille looked ready to object, but then she turned to face Hennessy… and walked out with another word, closely followed by Tamara.

Leaving me alone with my daughter.

We looked each other in the eyes, and I could feel her power reach into my mind, slipping right past the monkey. If I was right about my suspicions, this was not a quirk of her power, but due to the… contact we’d made all those years past. Somehow, the monkey didn’t really recognize her power as foreign, and thus did not defend against it all that well.

Also, if what I’d learned so far was right, then even this power, elementary though it was, drained her already limited reserves. Even her sole, reliable means of both interpreting others and expressing herself were limited.

Least I could do was make it easy for her, so I suppressed the monkey as far as I could, and opened myself up as far as I could.

Yeah, I wasn’t really good at either.

“Hennessy, may I come closer to you?” I said, speaking loudly and clearly, even though I felt like whispering.

It visibly took her a second or two to understand the sentence, then she answered.

Acceptance.

Whoa, I thought, but then I tried to answer in kind as I approached. Gratitude. It wasn’t pure, I could tell, not as simple as hers – there was also relief, and hesitation, and a host of other emotions mixed in.

But she nodded, so she’d gotten the message. Probably had learned to seperate the important parts from the chaos of human emotions.

I knelt down in front of her. That was a gesture she should be able to easily interpret, regardless of all issues. I didn’t touch her though, didn’t take her hands into mine, even if I ached to get closer to her.

To tell her that everything would be alright. That I was sorry. So incredibly, incredibly sorry.

She laid her head to the side, as if looking at something strange, unfamiliar. I couldn’t read her, at all. Her face was calm, solemn, emotionless.

All the markers, all the usual hints we humans used to understand each other, even if it was subconscious… they weren’t there.

She smells good, at least. Like flowers, though I’ll be damned if I could tell which ones.

And I was getting sidetracked at least. A lifetime of not taking things too serious, catching up now.

Soft, smooth fingertips touched my cheek. Warm, they were so incredibly warm.

I looked up again, not having noticed how I’d been looking at the ground. She was as solemn as ever, but her eyes were pained, though I couldn’t tell by what.

Clarity. Sadness, Emptiness.

“I’m so sorry, Hennessy. I should have been here, with you.” I always promised myself I’d be a better father than my own had been.

Her eyes half-closed, and she raised my chin.

Lack.

It wasn’t enough. My remorse, it wasn’t enough for her.

“What can I do? Tell me, I’ll do it!”

Clarity.

“About what? Clarity about what?” I focused on the confusion, trying to get it through to her.

Clarity. Sadness. Pain. Loneliness. Anger, rage, hatred.

She was all but pounding my head, trying to get through my thick skull.

She wants me to feel all that she felt.

“Do it. Show me.” Acceptance. Gratitude.

She reached out with her hands, cupping my face. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to my forehead.

Any other moment, I would have loved it, but she didn’t let me enjoy it even for a second.

Instead, once again, she let the world break.

* * *

I was drawn into a maelstrom of emotions and memories, drowned in it.

A memory, her mother putting her to bed in that dingy old apartment of hers. She was barely five, and a happy child, though she always got sad when her mother cried.

And her mother cried a lot, but never in front of her. She put her to bed, then she went into the living room – the apartment only had a bedroom and a living room – turned on the TV so Hennessy wouldn’t be able to hear (but she still did) and just cried.

Deeper, deeper…

The other children always made fun of her, because her clothes were old and she had no daddy. At the school, on the playground, most of them were so mean, and she couldn’t really get why.

I saw the garden again, limbs and bodies and more still, but less than before, pieces burning away as she used her power to show me.

Age nine, close to christmas. Her mother had lost another job. They barely had enough money to eat, no money to keep the heating up. They’d huddled together under all of their blankets for the night, and her mother was reading her a book.

It was too cold for her mother to go cry in the living room at night. She wouldn’t let her daughter freeze. So she waited until she thought her asleep, and cried then. Not as often as earlier, when she’d been younger, but she still did it every now and then. Santa Clause wasn’t coming this year. Again.

Her twelveth birthday and mommy was taking her and Marge to the movies! Tickets had become really cheap, because of Screensaver, who was now her super-favourite hero, even if he couldn’t fly! She could finally go to the movies with her pocket money, not just when a friend took her on a birthday or something!

The movie had barely started when she suddenly started getting drowsy, dizzy. It wasn’t boring, so why was she falling asleep? She turned her head to look at her mother, to ask what was wrong with her, but that movement was enough to make her fall off her seat.

The world got blurry as she saw her mother slide down onto the floor, trying to pull her into an embrace. She could taste the buttery popcorn they had bought on her tongue, but also something bitter.

Hands in black gloves grabbed her mother, pulling her away. Other hands in black gloves, strong and ungentle, grabbed her, lifting her like a wet sack. She saw men in black costumes, with angel’s faces on their masks, grabbing Marge and other children. Her whole body was so numb, so weak, she couldn’t even try to push the bad man with the angel face away.

The man stepped over her prone mother, but she tried to grab him, even though she looked so weak. He kicked her in the face, and the last thing Hennessy saw before she blacked out was blood gushing from her mother’s shattered nose.

She woke up again to see the man who’d taken her, who’d kicked her mother, take his helmet off as she lay on a cold table. Another man in a priest’s robe with a white angelmask walked into her field of vision, holding a syringe.

Her tongue was still numb, her whole body was, and she could only watch as he moved the syringe towards her right eye… she couldn’t even move her eye around, she felt so heavy. And then the needle went into her eye, there was pain and then pure bliss…

* * *

My eyes flew open after what felt like hours and hours and days of torture that made my last eighteen years seem like a holiday vacation.

Even if it hadn’t been my daughter who went through it, it would be crushing. But it was her, and I felt like exploding, going on a rampage, killing and killing everyone even tangentially responsible.

I looked up at her from the ground. She was so beautiful. So solemn. A serene judge (in pink bunny pajamas), sitting on the edge of her bed, looking down on me with those purple eyes. My eyes. Exactly mine.

She went through it with me. Crazy girl, you shouldn’t have.

I threw myself at her, wrapping my arms around her waist. She didn’t flinch, probably saw it coming, or maybe her body really was that devoid of unconscious reaction.

“Oh Hennessy, I…” I choked, unable to form words, but she could probably feel what I was feeling, right now.

I don’t know how long I cried into her lap like a baby, but I finally regained my composure and pulled back, looking up at her empty face.

There were no tears in her eyes. But the emotions she was projecting… so much pain, so much hatred. Not just in regards to me but…

She suffered so much, and I became the target of all her hatred and frustration, I realized. Every time she was hurt, every time her mother was hurt… I was the only one she could really blame for it all.

And she was right to, as far as I was concerned.

I opened my mouth to say something, but she put a finger on my lips.

Refusal. Betrayal. Pain. Rejection.

Understanding, I took her hand with my own. It was so slender, so warm… so soft. Not like my hands.

Before she could react, I kissed the palm of her hand, then its back. Then I rose up, bowing.

“I’m here to stay, Hennessy,” Reassurance, Sincerity, “If you want anything… need anything, no matter what, just call this number,” I wrote it down on a post-it note, folding the paper so the sticky side was covered up, and put it into her hand, “Or just come to four-one Merlin street. The house with the red door.” I’d checked by phone, my old place still stood, and it was still mine. Something to thank Dad for, probably.

She didn’t respond, didn’t give any response, but she didn’t discard the paper, either.

I left her room.

* * *

Camille, Tamara, Phil and Charity were all waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.

Camille looked like she was just waiting for an excuse to tear me to shreds (I was sure she was sincere), Phil looked sympathetic (the guy was way too nice), Tamara looked hopeful for a moment – until she saw my facial expression – and Charity looked confused at the whole scene.

“I’ll be going now,” I said to Tamara. Then I turned to Phil, saying, “Thank you for being so… nice about this. I probably would have reacted worse in your place.” He just shrugged.

I knelt in front of the little princess. “I’m sorry for scaring you, my dear. Please, don’t be angry at or afraid of your sister. She deserves neither.”

Nodding at Camille as I rose (she didn’t nod back and kept staring daggers) I opened the door. Then I turned around just in time for Tamara to hug me as hard as she could.

Old memories reared up, of tender nights and- No, that way lies madness.

For just a moment, I rested my chin on top of her head (being six foot ten made that easy), hugged her back, and then I left without a word.

That part of my life was over. Of our life. I knew I had no chance to ever get back with her again the moment she asked me to commit murder, no matter how justified it might be.

And Hennessy was unlikely to ever forgive me, regardless of what I did.

I got into the car and drove away.

* * *

I drove to Cartastrophy’s workshop over near the industrial district (well, what little of that remained). It was just as well-hidden as ever, basically an oversized garage-slash-basement-lair underneath (fittingly, or perhaps ironically) a car repair shop operated by his sister and her boyfriend.

Husband, actually. They’d actually gotten married, she told me after a series of hugs and kisses (she’d first gone after me, but I’d never shown any more than polite interest, and she’d only later fallen for Warren’s older brother). And they’d had six children (which showed, if barely, on her hips and chest), one of which was a Gadgeteer like his uncle and had joined the Junior Heroes, while one of their daughters had turned into a flying brick and was working for the Matriarch now (of course, she was still around. She’d been one of the first supervillains, back in the day, and she’d probably be around long after I bit the dust), which made family gatherings awkward, even if her hero brother didn’t know about it…

And she kept on chattering until we reached the secret entrance to Warren’s underground workshop, where she just let me enter and went back up.

“Aap? Is that you, buddy?!” shouted a high, agitated voice from a mound of half-assembled car parts.

“Who else could it be?” I asked jokingly, buffing my suit (Vek had fixed it after the fight – that woman’s power was way useful for this kind of lifestyle).

He leapt out of the pile of scrap and tackled me into a hug – ruining my suit, because he was, as always, covered in grease – though I barely moved. Even if I didn’t have the monkey’s passive enhancements, Warren barely cracked five feet, was underweight even for his height and had even lost what little hair he’d had back in the day (curse of genetics – his whole family had to deal with early loss of hair). Dressed in a dirty white undershirt and greasy overalls of indeterminate original colour, he was the very image of the underground, low-level techno-villain.

I hugged the little man right back, laughing. “God above, how I missed you! How’s it going, Cartastrophy?”

He chuckled, pulling back to look up (and up, and up), “Awesome! I got nephews and nieces crawling up my butt, I got a few patents going through my nephew over at the Juniors and I won the lottery a few years back, so I’m set for life!”

Chuckling, I patted his back as he took me towards the living area of his workshop. Which was also his home, all in all. He rarely left.

Then I saw the poster over his workbench, and froze.

“… and little Quentin is al- Aap? What’s going on, budd- oh, you’ve seen it? Hot, eh? Cost me a mint to get it.”

He had a life-sized, full-colour poster of Chayot and Dearheart on his wall. The background looked like a blasted battlefield, the two of them were barely decent, their costumes torn, and they were wrapped around each other, kissing passionately. And not in the “we’re really good friends” way, more like “we’re way past the fourth date and home base” way.

“Guy who managed to get the shot was auctioning it. Cost me ten grand to get it, and I was lucky,” he explained with utter pride. “Keeps me warm at night, you know. I mean, I know they’re underage, but they’ve got to be the second and third-hottest girls in the state, and Chayot could probably tie with number one if she wasn’t always dressed like that.”

He pointed at another poster next to it. It showed a stunning young woman – a girl, really, probably around Hennessy’s age – with long, lustrous white hair, purple eyes and full, pouty lips. She was dressed in a black costume somewhere between a skintight suit and an evening dress, skintight above the waist, less tight below, with deep red stockings beneath, very elegant while still showing off that she was very obviously a high-level adonis and proud of it. And yes, her costume incorporated high heels. Very pointy ones, in fact. Finally, she also wore an elegant golden half-mask, covering her eyes, nose and part of her forehead, finely wrought to suggest some manner of bird, or something similar, perhaps.

She was also, quite clearly, posing for the shot. No way it was accidental, with the way she was sitting, one leg pulled up so her cheek was resting on her knee.

“Matriarch the second, that is,” explained Warren.

“Seriously? Did number one finally bite it?” I was surprised. The first matriarch had possibly been the first female supervillain, ever. She’d been around since the early twenties, and she’d never been caught. She’d also been a really good lay, even if I’d only had the pleasure once before I got together with Tamara.

“Yeah, she did. Three years ago. But her daughter had already been her sidekick, and she took up the name and what she could salvage from her old organization. Seeing how it was basically a family business, most of her mom’s people stuck with her, and she’s already the local Queen of the Underworld,” he said. “Also, quite hot, just like the other two. And Chayot’s archenemy, they got a real classic rivalry going. Man, some of the stories that go around ab-“

“Warren, before you put your foot into your mouth any further, I should tell you that Chayot happens to be my daughter,” I said quickly, before the urge to break his legs (and other parts) became too strong.

He turned as pale as a corpse. “Oh shit!”

Running forward, he tore the poster of my daughter and her lover (this actually explained a lot about Camille’s behaviour, I thought) off the wall, feeding it immediately into a nearby furnace.

“Sorry man, I didn’t kn- shit man, your daughter!?” He turned to look at me. “Wait… Meow-meow’s and yours!?”

I nodded, relaxing. “Yeah man. Found out just a few hours ago,” I replied.

He walked up to me, taking my hand in his, squeezing it as hard as he could.

“Man, I don’t know what… I mean, you had… I’m so sorry man, had I known, I’d have been keeping an eye on her, you know? But… shit man… What about Meow-meow, is she taking you back?”

I shook my head. “Married, got another kid by the new guy. She’s happy there.”

“Shit man.”

“Yeah, shit man,” was all I could say. I sat down on a stool, and he pulled another one over to sit opposite of me.

“Have you heard about…?”

I nodded. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m here. He’s back, and I want his head,” I explained.

He nodded. “There isn’t much I can tell you, I’m afraid. The Ascendant is way, way above my weightclass. But I know he’s a major member of a bigger group, calling itself ‘The Companions of the Future’. Real crazy old-school supervillain group, trying to turn everyone into metahumans and kill all those who can’t manifest.”

“Sounds a lot like Weisswald’s ideology,” I said. I’d heard rumors about the Companions before, but never anything concrete.

He nodded, his face serious. “They’re way old, some say they go back to the late twenties. There are even rumors that Weisswald used to be a member, or at least had some ties to them.”

“I see. Do you have any idea how to find the Ascendant? I really want to get my hands on him.” Some of the monkey must have shown through my eyes, because he flinched, growing nervous. He’d seen me let the monkey out, once.

“No, buddy, sorry. But,” he replied, looking at the poster of the Matriarch. “If anyone knows, she does. And I’m sure I can get you a meeting.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked bemused, “Oh? The basement dweller knows the queen bee of Chicago’s underworld? How come?”

He snickered. “Hey, I didn’t buy that poster at the shop, you know? I do jobs for her, fixing her cars or motorcycles and all. Plus, she really likes stories of our old pranking days.”

“Well, maybe she’ll even like me then.”

He snorted. “Oh, shut up. You’ll probably have her swooning.” He’d always been jealous of my looks, even if I’d never lorded them over him.

“Now, let me make a few calls,” he said as he walked towards a wall-mounted telephone.

* * *

Warren changed into his Cartastrophy costume – basically armoured overalls with lots of tools and special parts in pouches and on several belts, and a helmet that looked like a motorcycle helmet with a car’s grille on the front, all in chrome and black. If he wasn’t, well, barely five feet tall, he’d probably strike an imposing figure in it.

We took his current favourite car – he was always overhauling them, to the point where no single car really lasted more than a few months at a time, even if it wasn’t destroyed – outside and made our way to the Matriarch’s base – the Seventh Cloud Casino. It stood right in the middle of the entertainment district of Chicago and was incredibly garish. Always had been.

“What can you tell me about the new Matriarch? Same powers as her mother?” Things might get difficult if she had her mother’s mental abilities. I’d have a hard time convincing her to help me piss off the Companions.

“Not quite. She’s only really got one power, apart from her physique six rating,” he explained.

“Physique?” That was a new one.

Slapping his forehead (fortunately, he’d taken off his helmet, or he might have hurt himself) he replied: “Ah, you don’t know it yet. We got a new rating system for powers. Way less confusing than the old one. I’ll explain it later, when we got more time.”

I nodded and urged him on to tell me about the Matriarch.

“Well, she’s a spawner – formerly Tiamat – and an Apex Tier to boot. Her shadow’s alive, and it’ll strangle you to death if she wants it to. Also, it has some weird precognition, or maybe just a really good danger sense going, plus a host of other minor powers,” he explained. “Defends her, keeps her out of danger and all. Also, knocking her out or mind controlling her – someone tried, once – ain’t smart, cause her shadow is always active and it’ll tear you to pieces for even trying.”

“Damn, the kids keep getting stronger nowadays,” I sighed, rubbing my forehead.

“They do. Reason why I’m not out there any more, not actively. Though even if not, I’d have probably hung up the helmet anyway when the Speedfreakz disbanded.”

I choked, hard. Even though I hadn’t been drinking. “The Speedfreakz disbanded? Why?” They’d been some of my favourite adversaries.

His shoulders slumped a little. “Savage Six attacked Austin about a year after you went off to war. The Speedfreakz happened to be there. Twinkletoe and Celeritas died. Afterwards, Hotrod went into support, he’s just building vehicles for other heroes now, and Ignipes just vanished. Rumor has it that he adopted Twinkletoe’s and Celeritas’ child. They’d just had one.”

“Fuckin’ damn.”

“Amen, brother.”

I pulled myself back out of the memories that were welling up – I’d have to visit their graves as soon as I worked things out here – and continued: “Back to the matter at hand. Anything else I need to be aware of for this?”

“Yeah, my oldest niece is working for her. Girl got a screw loose, but she’s still family, so no fighting, alright?”

“Of course. Though it does worry me that you consider her to have a screw loose.”

“You’ll see what I mean.”

* * *

We reached the Seventh Cloud Casino and he drove into a back entrance that led us into an underground garage. A valet took the car – Cartastrophy already knew him – and we took the elevator up.

When the doors opened, we were greeted by the most ridiculously dressed teenager I had ever seen. She could not be more than sixteen years old, had a body like a pornstar, peroxide blonde straight hair in lots of braids, and was wearing the upper half of… a blue japanese school uniform? It barely covered her breasts, revealing the lower half, and were connected to a barely existent skirt by a set of pink suspenders. She was also wearing thigh high white socks and high-heeled boots. Really high heeled boots. Also, a traditional japanese fox mask.

Cartastrophy took a step forward and embraced her in a tight hug, which she returned.

Well, now I know.

“Aap Oordra, may I introduce, my niece Kakitsune,” I almost slapped my forehead, “Who is one of the Matriarch’s chief enforcers.” Either this girl was more powerful – and competent – than she looked, or the new Matriarch was really starved for metahuman muscle.

“A pleasure to meet you, my dear,” I said, focusing my eyes solely on her mask.

“The same, man. I’ve heard a gazillion stories about you, you know?” she replied with a drawl in her voice I couldn’t quite place. Maybe a badly affected accent?

“Ka-chan,” Slapping my forehead was getting more and more seductive, “My dear, we can chat later, can you take us to your boss quickly? I’m afraid our business is urgent,” he said. She nodded, fortunately, and took us through the hallway to a grand double door.

Through it, we entered a hall covered in heavy carpet, with a ceiling so high it could have been a cathedral, and pillars covered in mythological imagery. The original Matriarch had been grand on showmanship, and her daughter had obviously kept the decorations.

I also noticed a human-shaped shadow gliding over the floor, walls and ceiling, all around the grand room. A shadow no one was throwing. So, a living shadow, huh?

Said daughter was reclining on a divan, looking quite restless despite the relaxed setting. She was ringed by eleven minions – twelve, counting Kakitsune – who were very obviously metahumans (four of them didn’t look human, and the rest were way too beautiful to be normal).

We approached, and I realized that she was even more beautiful in the flesh than on the poster. A match for Hennessy, dark where she was light. They make good archenemies, I’m sure.

She rose from her divan as we approached, seeming… nervous.

Could I have a groupie here? It would make things considerably easier. Man, I hoped it was that.

“Greetings, Ma-” Cartastrophy began, but she just barreled past him and threw her arms around my neck.

What?

“Finally, you’ve come,” she said, looking up at me with misty, purple eyes. My eyes. “I’ve been waiting for you, papa.”

What.

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