B011.15 Monkey Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it was monkey fun time.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tackle me.

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, moving fast is part of my power description.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Drinks are on me.”

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

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

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

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

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

We drank in silence.

Really good stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Relax!” they both said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions on top of questions.

We all fell silent for a while.

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

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

“Of course. They ought to know anyway.”

More minutes passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time passed.

“Aaron?” he said, softly.

“Yes?

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

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

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

***

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

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

He nodded quietly. Then he pulled the door open.

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

“Irene,” he said gently.

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

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

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see.

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

“That’s… good, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You too. Sleep tight… dad.”

He left.

***

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

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

“What a day,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised his glass. “Cheers, mate.”

***

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

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

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

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

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B011.7 Monkey Family

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

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

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

Never mind her not being capable of normal conversation anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Papa.”

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It burned pleasantly all the way back home.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now that I started thinking in that direction…

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

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

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

“Fuck you!”

“What did you say to me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Boy, if you weren’t my son, I’d-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just think of the power!”

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

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

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

“…”

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

“What do you want, then?”

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

“…”

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

“So be it.”

“What did you say?”

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

“You promise that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

For you, and for your sister, baby girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 3)

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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.

Previous | Next

Interlude 5 – Monkey Come Home (Part 2)

Eighteen years, and this hadn’t changed: Supervillains still didn’t like being smashed into (and/or through) a wall by way of a civillian’s car. Or by any other means, really.

Necrophobe stabbed at me with those wicked claws, like I’d mortally offended him.

Fortunately, I’d not lost my instincts since my last battle – I dropped to the side while kicking down the gas pedal, keeping him pinned while I broke the shifter off. A few quick (well-practiced) moves (thank you, Cartastrophy!) allowed me to jam the pedal while pulling my foot off.

I kicked the door open and flung myself out just in time for another strike of his to miss me, then I ran not towards the hole in the wall, but the actual door out of the supermarket.

Aaaand I ran into two of Necrophobe’s minions – taking a close look at them, they had a skull-and-bones motif going for their clothes – right outside. The guy of the pair aimed a sawed-off shotgun at me, the woman an uzi.

Why did I get into this again? And what happened to the good old non-lethal raygun?

The monkey almost drooled with excitement, clamoring to be cut loose on them, while the two ordered me to surrender.

Not really, no. Never knew when to give up.

I dove forward – few people expected someone held at gunpoint to do that – into a roll, their first shots went wide over me, and then I was between the two of them.

They went down in seconds.

Nice to know that minion quality hasn’t gone up.

I took their weapons just as I heard a tearing sound and then the last sounds of my car’s motor, then a triumphant, croaking scream from Necrophobe’s half-rotten throat.

As I turned around, I saw him shoving the car off of himself, slower than one would expect from something of his size – probably little in the way of enhanced strength – after having killed the motor with his claws.

I was actually starting to like that car. Sure hope Cartastrophy’s still around to fix it.

I ran up to the monstrous supervillain, staying just out of range of his claws, and shot at his arms, destroying one clawed hand (again, no reaction that even hinted at pain) and then another.

Not going for the vitals – dunno how undead he really is, and he doesn’t seem that tough to begin with, anyway.

The villain looked at me with a hateful look. “I’m going to get you, asshole. Bury you alive, bury your whole family alive!”

“Alright, pal, two things. One, I’d really, really like to see you try and go after my family. Two, what the fuck is wrong with you – rule number two of the whole game, you do not involve family!”

I shot his left arm completely off at the shoulder, making the bony limb drop down, a few strands of a horrible smelling slime still connecting it to the ruined shoulder.

“Now be a good boy and stay put,” I said with a sneer, ignoring his curses as I turned to leave the supermarket.

Just then, Chayot flew in through the hole I’d made in the wall – Wrong, wrong, wrong, you don’t fly in the same way the enemy was smacked through unless you know you can take anything they can dish out or that they’re disabled for sure – ready for a fight, then stopped, hovering in place.

Her arms dropped down to hang limply next to her body. If she wasn’t wearing a full-face, rigid mask, I’d probably be seeing her mouth hanging open.

This also served to tell me that the winged crystal behind her was at least partially autonomous, as its wings bent around her body to shield her from an attack by me.

Probably a Tiamat, then. Or a very sophisticated Generator.

I dropped my weapons and raised my hands, entwining my fingers behind my head.

“I surrender!” I said with what I hoped was a roguish (kind of inevitable, with my face and my three-day beard) but non-threatening (I’d never been good at those) smile.

She looked at me like I’d gone crazy, or at least that’s the impression I got from her.

I probably had.

Then I noticed something.

The monkey hasn’t suggested attacking, killing or raping her even once. What the hell?

* * *

The police were very interested in talking with me, since I’d basically acted in the most stupid way possible there (though my medal and my new ID took care of that – people still revered war heroes around here, even if I didn’t feel like one), and then the only adult superhero I’d seen today (whom, by the way, I had not seen at the battle) – a rather intimidating woman with the legs and head of a goat and eight snakes instead of arms, dressed in a skintight emerald green bodysuit – who went by the name of Vek wanted to talk to me as well.

After fixing up my car by biting it, of all things. Well, one of her snake-arms did, and then it actually looked like time was reversed for the car, and suddenly it was ship-shape again.

I opened my mouth to thank her profusely, but she waved me off.

“You saved my girl, and probably my other kids, too. They couldn’t have fought Necrophobe and Patchwork on top of the others. Once you distracted Necrophobe, Chayot managed to take Patchwork down, then turned to the rest, and those surrendered once it became clear that Necrophobe wasn’t coming anytime soon.”

She stopped, taking a breath, and I heard a ‘but’ coming fast, probably along with a massive lecture.

But, Mr. Paterson, that was the stupidest-“

“Ma’am, please, don’t bother. I know it was stupid, though I feel it necessary to mention that there are mitigating circumstances,” I threw in, to cut the lecture off. I’d always hated those.

“And what might those be?” asked a melodic voice.

Chayot approached me – I was sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance, having just fought off the EMTs – flanked by four other teenagers in costumes of varying styles, suggesting that she was the leader of her team. The winged crystal at her back was gone and she walked with her feet on the ground. I idly noticed that the one other girl of her group (who was standing to her right) was the same size as she was, but only due to wearing substantial heels, while Chayot went without. Even though she could fly, and thus negate most disadvantages of wearing heels.

Practical. I like that. Even if I’d probably have preferred the flashy style back then.

I pulled out my medal and ID – they hadn’t seen them yet – and showed them.

“I’ve seen a lot of action. This was really rather relaxing, all things considered.”

“Who are you?” asked the girl next to her, her melodic voice contrasting with her rather harsh attitude. Her costume was far less practical than Chayot’s, a black-and-pink reinforced bodysuit with a heart-shaped window over her heart, exposing quite a bit of her chest. No, wait, there’s no hole there. Only see-through material. Her mask only covered her face from her forehead to her nose, fanning out into a pink heart-shape, matching her bubblegum-pink hair, which she wore open and straight, reaching down to her shoulders.

“Dearheart, please, show some respect. He’s a vet from the Califate War,” explained Vek, apparently recognizing the medal. “I didn’t see you on the TV, I think. When they gave out those medals, I mean.”

I shrugged. “I got mine second-to-last, and I did my best to be inconspicious. Prefer my anonymity, you know?”

She shrugged. “Well, these seem to be in order. Still, this was mightly reckless. Do you even have any powers?”

I nodded. “Don’t like to use them, though. Let’s not focus on that,” I replied, uneasy. The last thing I needed was to have to demonstrate my powers.

“What, you think they’d scare us or something?” asked Dearheart with bravado in her voice.

Damn, girl’s got an attitude. And a voice I’d like to listen to for hours.

And my monkey was still not making any suggestion in regards to abusing Chayot. It wasn’t as nice regarding Vek and this Dearheart, though, especially after the latter’s insolent behaviour.

“Call it an old man’s folly. So, what’s gonna happen to me, now?” Please no investigation, please no investigation. I scratched my chin.

Vek thought it over. “Well… I guess we can overlook this… once. Please don’t repeat something like this, unless you officially join the United Heroes. Speaking of which…”

“You want to recruit me?!” I asked with some surprise.

She nodded. “We’re short on manpower. No matter what your powers are, your experience alone would be invaluable to us. After all, you survived the war.”

I shook my head sadly. I’d already picked up on the problems the United Heroes, especially the American divisions, were having due to the threat of a war with the Sovjet Union. But… no. Not again, I don’t think.

“I’m really sorry, but… no. I just… just got back, I really don’t need another war now,” I replied. It surprised me that I felt honestly sad about not being able to help.

For God’s sake, I already did my part for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Dearheart snorted dismissively, though Chayot put a hand to her shoulder to calm her.

The monkey was getting the weirdest vibes from these two. Chayot more than the other, but the other girl had to have some weird power, as well.

Strange that I didn’t notice her earlier.

Maybe it was a power the monkey only smelled while it was being used, and she’d just used it on Chayot. No, wait, Chayot had calmed her down, using some kind of power, but it had somehow allowed the monkey to smell her power, too.

Strange and stranger.

“What?”, asked Dearheart with an annoyed tone.

I shook myself. Great, stare at the teenage girls dressed in skintight costumes. That’s gonna put them at ease.

“Sorry, just an old man getting lost in his thoughts. Nothing bad, I promise.” Unless it’s supposed to be a secret that your friend over there just used her power on you.

“You don’t look that old,” replied Dearheart with a snort.

“Really? Thank you,” I replied.

“Dearheart, enough. If you’re not going to thank Mr. Paterson for his help earlier, then at least don’t pester him,” said Vek.

Dearheart snorted, but Chayot turned to me. A wave of gratitude and a little apologetic feeling (for her friend’s behaviour, it seemed) washed over me. Neatly bypassing my immunity to mental powers.

Strange and stranger and even stranger.

“You’re welcome, Miss. Now, unless there is something else, there’s someplace I need to be real fast.”

Vek shook her head. I rose, shook her… snakes… and nodded towards the teenage heroes.

Then I turned to go. I had just taken two steps when Vek stopped me again.

“If you would excuse me… my uncle fought in the Califate War, and he was supposed to have died during the Great Clusterfuck, but they never found a body, and you were there, going by your medal.”

I turned back to her. “Wait, they made a medal just for the poor asses that were in that mess?” I asked, looking at the platinum star ringed by a golden sunburst in my hand.

“The star is for participants of the Califate War, the sunburst for those who were present during the Great Clusterfuck.”

“I see,” I said, chuckling a bit. “Great Clusterfuck… that really fits. What was your uncle’s name?”

“His name was Greenblock, he-“

“Ah, old Greenface! Now I remember, he used to brag about you all the damn time, saying you’d someday be a superhero for sure!” Damn, I miss that guy.

Her face brightened – at least I think it did, I wasn’t exactly an expert in reading goat faces – and she responded: “You knew him well?! Do you know what happened to him?”

I nodded. “Me, him and a few others were all in the same unit, and we used to get drunk a whole lot. I remember, that madman took down two of the Califate’s bodies, and then the other ones all ganged up on him at the same time. Killed three more of them before they killed him. I saw his body disintegrate when DiL hit us with a blast from outside the atmosphere.”

“Oh. Well… at least he went out fighting,” she said.

“He sure did. You can be proud of him…” I thought it over, then pulled out a post-it note (always keep a pack of those handy, you’ll find a million uses for them) and a pen, writing down my cellphone number (I’d bought one back in Esperanza – they’d gotten way small). Then I handed her the note. “If you call me a day or two from now, we can meet up and talk a bit more. But I’m really pressed for time right now.”

She thanked me profusely, this time with me waving her off, and finally let me go.

I took the car and drove off.

* * *

The apartment had changed owners. Not that surprising.

However, old Mrs Kuchen was still there, still the landlady, and still quite willing to gossip, so I got myself a new address (well, more like the general place she lived in now) and also some news.

Namely, the fact that she’d married, and even had a child.

As I drove towards the gated community outside of Chicago – it had been built down the shore of Lake Michigan, outside the city proper – I felt… glad.

Really, I’d been afraid she’d have tortured herself waiting for me all those years. I don’t think I’d have dealt well with the idea of her still holding out for me.

Though I won’t contest that it hurt. Part of me, I guess, had always hoped to return to her and… well, marry her. Make a family.

But now she was married, and had even gotten a kid out of the deal.

I hope she at least won’t hate me.

That I really couldn’t deal with.

I reached the entrance to the ritzy community – Three Heaven’s Gates – and had to laugh first. Used to be, she could barely afford to eat properly.

She made her life better. That, at least, I like unambigiously.

I doubted that she was still a superhero. One, that didn’t pay that well, two, knowing her, she’d probably dropped it the moment she realized she was pregnant.

A child would have come first, always.

Besides, considering the average powerlevel I witnessed just today, she’d probably be more of a liability than help, at least in open combat.

The guard at the gate first didn’t want to let me in without an invitation, or at least calling ahead (I wanted to surprise her, juvenile though that may be, so I protested), but again, my medal took care of that.

How useful, I thought.

* * *

I pulled in front of her house – the guard had been nice enough to provide me with the address, after warning me to be good.

The house was an expensive white-painted building, three storeys and a well-kept front yard.

And Mr Dewie, her fat old cat.

I almost wept when the little monster – he was about the size of the average dog, and probably twice as heavy – with his grey-brown fur and mottled ears charged into my legs.

“Gods, Dewie, how I missed you,” I said while scratching him behind his ears. “Nineteen years old and still growing, I see.” He had grown six extra chins, for crying out loud.

I sat up and straightened my suit, then walked up to the door, the purring cat right behind me.

Should I have brought flowers?

I fidgeted for almost five minutes before ringing the doorbell.

Even the fucking monkey was nervous.

It took a minute, but then the door opened, a cute little moppet no older than five, with black curls, amber-coloured eyes and dark, but not quite black skin, dressed in a pink princess’ dress with a sparkling tiara, looking up at me.

She married seven years ago. Just about right, I guess.

“Yes mister?” asked the little girl in a bright voice. Nothing about her bearing or speech betrayed any kind of fear, or even nervousness, at the tall stranger in a suit in front of her.

This girl’s grown up safe and sound.

“Hello princess. Say, I’m looking for Tamara Milton, do you know her?” I asked, crouching down in front of her. You have to, you’re so obviously her daughter.

“No, sir! My mama’s named Tamara, but we’re the Bennings!”, she said brightly.

“Charity! Charity, who’re you talking to, sweetie?” asked a male voice.

“Just a nice man! He even calls me princess, daddy! How did he know that?”

A middle-aged man, probably a year or so younger than me, came to the door and scooped the girl up, throwing me a suspicious glance from above (I was still crouching). The monkey wanted him dead, now. I shut it up.

“Probably because it’s just so obvious that you’re a princess, sweetie. Now, be good and go to mommy,” he said to her, putting her down behind him without taking his eyes off me, always keeping his body between me and her.

Strong protective instincts. Good.

He was tall, not as tall as me, but still above average, and dressed in jeans and a bright blue dress shirt. Brown hair, a fashionable (probably) pair of glasses and a rather non-descript, cleanly shaven face helped make him look nice, but rather plain.

“What do you want, Mr…?” he asked.

I rose up on my feet, straightening my suit and tie. “Sorry, Mr Bennings, my name is Kevin Peterson, and I’m looking for Tamara Milton, who I believe is your wife?”

He looked at me with a queer look. “You know Tamara? How, I don’t think she’s ever mentioned a Kevin among her acquaintances.”

That’s because she didn’t know me under that name. I wonder how much she ever told you.

“I guess she wouldn’t, but I assure you, we know each other. If you could just let me talk to her for a few minutes?”

He looked like he wanted to send me away, but then another voice spoke up.

“Phil, honey, what’s going on?”

Tam…

Her voice had barely changed. And then she appeared next to Phil in the door – and froze, just as I did.

She’d changed, aged, but in a good way. Adonis-types usually did. Her jeans and white shirt showed that she’d gotten a bit heavier around the waist, and her chest had expanded quite a bit, as well. Eighteen years and I still looked at her chest, damn. Her black hair was no longer in messy dreadlocks, but instead in a practical ponytail, and her black skin was still flawless, as far as I could see. And her amber-coloured eyes…

God damn, how I missed looking into those eyes.

“Aap?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper. Phil tensed, his eyes, which had moved to look at her, zeroing back on to me.

He knows.

“Meow-meow,” I whispered, fearing that my voice might break if I spoke any louder.

Phil slapped his forehead, and I think she blushed a bit. It was hard to tell.

You weren’t embarrassed about your cape back then. But I guess we both had to grow up sooner or later.

We stood there, looking at each other, until Phil pulled his wits together and – I liked him more and more – grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in, closing the door behind me.

“Living room,” he said and steered both of us there, sitting her down on the couch and me on the opposite side of the small table in a cushioned chair. He himself sat down next to her, taking her hand in his – the hand with their wedding ring.

Protective instincts and appropriately possessive. Good.

I’d probably have reacted far worse in his place, if my wife’s old lover had suddenly shown up on my doorstep.

“So, you’re back. After eighteen years,” he said, almost snarling. There was a lot of anger in his eyes.

Tamara seemed to be on the verge of crying, in contrast.

“I am. And I’m so, so sorry, Tamara,” I said to her, forcing back a few tears. I really didn’t want to cry right now. “I never wanted to just van-“

“Stop,” she said. I stopped talking. “We… we both knew it couldn’t last. Wouldn’t last, no matter what we did. Not with the kind of life we led back then. But… not even a word? A letter, anything? Why?

I looked at her, unsure of what to say. No, I knew what I wanted to say. I just didn’t know how.

“I… I was planning to…”

Just then, the door opened. Little Charity’s feet pounded the floor as she ran from wherever she’d been to the door, and I heard her greet “bigsis”, apparently by jumping into her arms. Her sister didn’t say anything in return though, it seemed.

After a few more, quieter, words – I was guessing that there was someone else there, as well – I heard steps coming towards the living room.

Tamara tensed up, a panicked look on her face, while Phil seemed just tense.

Two stunningly beautiful teenagers walked into the room, the one in the back holding the little princess’ hand.

The one in the back was almost four inches shorter than her friend, pale-skinned and blue-eyed, with long blonde hair that ran straight down to her shoulders. She was wearing tight jeans, boots with heels that raised her up to be as tall as the other one, a pink shirt and a jeans jacket over that. Her eyes widened in recognition, even as the monkey reacted to her in its usual way.

The other one was taller and built enough to pass the Adonis-test with flying colours, with a darker skin than even Tamara’s, but completely Eurasian features, and soft black hair, reaching down to her butt in natural curls, her eyes almost glowing in a deep golden amber colour, her face as a whole solemn and almost unnaturally relaxed. She was dressed in a white one-piece with long sleeves and a black pair of tights, with knee-high, soft brown boots. I felt a dizzying mix of emotions emanate from her in waves as she looked directly at me. The monkey wasn’t reacting to her in its usual way.

And a sudden wave of… not dread, it was nothing like dread, but more like… I don’t know, a wave of not-dread-but-close ran through me as the pieces fell into place.

Kuchen got the order wrong. She got the child first.

And judging by her reaction, she was putting the pieces together, as well.

Tamara rose and walked towards the stunned girl, taking her hand.

Then she pulled her closer to the center of the living room. She looked between me and her.

“Hennessy? Meet your father… Aap Oordra, or Kevin Paterson.”

One thing really hadn’t changed. Supervillains still didn’t like being slammed through a wall by any means.

Though she, at least, only blasted me through the glass door leading to the porch, not the wall.