B011.4 Monkey Family

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Shortly after the two would-be assassins (it kind of weirded me out that I’d had to deal with two groups to whom that applied to in one night) left, I caught two familiar smells from upwind.

Should I leave? No, she’ll probably cooperate with them, if only to keep up appearances and they’ll recognise me instantly. I sighed and leaped up into the bedroom – only to stare down the barrel of a shotgun. My eyes moved up to Sara Jane Saltston’s face. She looked half scared and half mad.

“You didn’t run away,” I said wryly, getting my first good look at her in the moonlight. My first thought was ‘stern librarian from hell’. She wasn’t anything like beautiful, or even pretty, but… attractive. Her face was sharp, with high cheekbones and very slim, pale lips. Her grey eyes were sharp and alert, with a carefully restrained touch of fear and uncertainty in them. Her long hair was open and unkempt right now, and she was wearing a dark green, ankle-length silk nightgown and fluffy slippers. At an inch or two below six feet, she was taller than average, though still quite a bit shorter than me.

“Who are you? Why’re you here?” she asked, her hands very still.

She might have military experience. Or perhaps she used to be a supervillain herself, and those weapons are her own work, I guessed, though that was admittedly a big leap.

I opened my mouth to reply, and she flinched back – almost pulling the trigger. I froze, before I realised that I still had the monkey up.

Smart move, stupid. Of course she’s going to be nervous and jumpy with that mug in front of her. I closed my mouth again and pulled the monkey back in, hoping she wasn’t going to shoot me in the head while I was actually vulnerable to it.

“Good evening, Ma’am. My name’s Kevin. I’d taken a stroll through the night,” I said in as soothing a voice as I could without seeming to be patronising her. “And I noticed those two assailants breaking into your house.   I decided to investigate – and I am sorry for trespassing in your home – and then engage them when it seemed like they were going to cause you harm.”

Father would probably be proud – nothing I’d said was untrue, there were no gaps or leaps in logic (by cape standards) and it completely omitted mention of everything I didn’t want mentioned.

The maybe-metahuman woman relaxed, lowering her gun (but still holding it so she could easily snap it back up and shoot) as she took a deep, calming breath. “I… Well, I guess that makes sense. Thank you. Really, thank you very much, Kevin,” she replied. “You don’t happen to know who those t-“

She was cut off when a clear, strong voice called out for me to stand down. I recognised Camille’s voice, and decided to comply for now. No use antagonising my daughter’s beau.

***

A few minutes later, I was sitting on an arm chair in the living room, with the lawyer and the two heroes interviewing us on what had happened.

I was rather concerned, really, that only Vek and Dearheart were present, but I doubted that me asking them about their lack of numbers in front of what they probably considered a simple civilian victim, so I kept my mouth shut with the intention of confronting them later on. I still couldn’t help but be concerned. Hennessy was most likely still off the roster, recuperating (I felt a weird, cold tightness in my chest, when I thought about how tired she’d looked after our confrontation), but the others should have been available.

My experience gave me a sneaking suspicion, but I refrained from voicing it, instead focusing on answering Vek’s questions without giving away what I’d really been up to.

“So you were just… taking a stroll, in a three-piece suit… and you just happened to come across two unknown supervillains breaking into a house?” she asked, her face as expressive as… well, a goat’s. Her voice was disbelieving, though.

I shrugged. “My power protects my clothing and compensates for restrictions in my natural movement, so I can fight as well in a suit as I can in spandex. And I was on my way to meet a lady, besides.” I winked at her, though that mostly just made Camille snort derisively.

“You’re in the city for less than two days and you already have a date?” Vek asked in surprise. She almost bleated the sentence.

My mouth quirked up in a smile. “No, not a date. At least, not that kind of date. I happen to have quite a few old friends in the city.”

She nodded. “Alright, what can you tell me about the two villains?” she asked.

I cleared my throat and started to explain. “I identified them mostly by smell. One, I dubbed Brimstone. Her arms are apparently made of volcanic rock. She can generate very powerful fire blasts. My paranoid nature suggests that she may be capable of generating lava in some form. And she is definitely tougher than would be natural for a woman of her build, perhaps up to paragon levels, considering how easily she shrugged off my restrained blow. She seemed calm, in control of herself and was reasonable enough to abandon her goal when confronted by me.”

Vek nodded, then motioned for me to continue with one snake; most of her snakes were playing with the little boy, who seemed largely unconcerned about the situation and more interested in trying to tie the snakes into knots, while his mother looked worriedly at him.

“I call the other one ‘Smelly’, mostly because her smell was quite weird and unfamiliar to me – definitely unnatural. The way they moved, she was the brute of the pair, and she took a surprise shot from Mrs Saltston’s weapon,” I threw a questioning look at her gadget. “About which I am quite curious, actually.”

The woman, who’d put on a rather more concealing robe over her nightie, gave me an amicable look. She’d warmed up considerably, as soon as the heroes arrived and the danger was over. “I specialise in superhuman law, specifically in working in providing legal defense for various cowls,” she explained. Camille gave her a dirty look, which was oddly comforting. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who got those from her. But she did restrain herself from commenting, so I guess I still rated special treatment, all things considered. “A few years ago, I represented Gunnery and helped her work out a very favourable deal. Part of her payment to me was a set of advanced weaponry for the purpose of self-defense.” She turned to look at Vek. “All registered and properly secured, of course.”

Vek nodded, but I had another question.

“Don’t gadgets like that usually require constant care by their makers?” Which was the reason why Cartastrophy had to keep going to Elouise’s garage and perform the upkeep for her cars.

“Gunnery specialised in reliable personal weaponry, which was one of the main reasons why the judges were willing to strike a deal with her despite her crimes. She’s creating advanced weaponry for the military and several other agencies now.” There was a note of pride in her voice.

“Quite so,” Vek said with what might have been a frown – it was quite annoying, father’s lessons on how to read animal-like metahumans were not quite as vivid in my mind as the normal ones – and they hadn’t been as extensive, either. “Move on, please.” She didn’t seem to like the subject very much – perhaps she’d been involved in capturing Gunnery, only to see her get out of the punishment she deserved in exchange for services rendered.

“Well, she took the shot, and later got up after I threw her around a bit. She didn’t display any powers beyond her enhanced toughness, but that may well be simply because she didn’t get the chance to. She didn’t talk at all. After I removed them from the bedroom, I told them to end the fight and leave instead of fighting me, and they complied, leaving.”

“You simply convinced them to leave? You didn’t offer them anything?”

“I ‘offered’ not to beat them up. There is no doubt in my mind that I could’ve taken them down, I just couldn’t be sure that I would also be able to prevent collateral damage, or defend Mrs Saltston and her son.” That got me a smile from the lawyer.

Stars above, I was just recently planning to interrogate woman, now she’s looking at me like I’m a hero. It made me feel quite uncomfortable, to be quite honest.

It didn’t help that, the whole time, Camille had been looking at me with a contemplative look. Contemplative. Not hostile, or murderous. Why? What changed? It couldn’t just be me having saved this family – she was already like this when she arrived, and she didn’t even make any accusations. It was even weirder than the situation with Saltston.

Vek nodded. “Well, I am quite grateful you happened to stumble across this, Mr Paterson,” she said in a calmer tone of voice. She then looked at Saltston. “Madam, the police will be here in a minute. They’ll provide protection and investigate this matter.”

Saltston nodded, though she seemed dissatisfied. I would be too, if I was a Syndicate agent who was about to get a police investigation to deal with. That couldn’t be good for business.

“Thank you for your help, Vek,” she said, then she got up and turned to me. “And you as well, Aap Oordra,” she continued, holding out a slender, perfectly manicured hand.

I raised an eyebrow as I took her hand, gently squeezing it as we shook. “You recognised me?”

She smirked. “I was a fan, back in the day. You may not remember me, but I attended some of your shows, as well.”

Now a grin spread on my face. “Really? Well, that’s just perfect. Gotta protect my fans.”

Camille snorted and whispered, “Yeah, what few there are.” So, not entirely out of the doghouse then.

But Saltston wasn’t done yet. She reached to a small stack of cards on the living room table, picking one up along with a pen. Then she wrote something on the back, handing me the card.

I took it, looking closer. It was a business card with her phone number and e-mail. And she’d written another phone number on the back in neat, precise writing.

“My business and private number. In case you need some legal representation, or just someone to reminisce about the good old times,” she said with a smile that I was all too familiar with.

She… she’s hitting on me!? I’d come here to interrogate her, which would’ve included applying a lot of psychological pressure, if needed. And now I had not only saved her life – making me the hero of the evening, it seemed – but I was basically getting asked out on a date!?

My face must’ve been a sight to see (though the women probably thought I was dumbfounded for other reasons than the ones I was  concerned with), because Saltston and Camille started to giggle, and Vek gave her own, bleating rendition of the same.

I felt a slight blush begin to creep into my cheeks, which I immediately crushed to retain some dignity. Then I put the card into my breast pocket. “I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am,” I said, keeping my voice and face level. Then I looked at Vek. “A word, please?”

She nodded, retrieving her snakes (the boy had fallen asleep… I’d paid him little attention, but it was strange that he’d been so quiet and disinterested the whole time) and wishing Saltston a good night. I followed suit, earning another rather familiar smile. I did my best to be charming without seeming too inviting (I wasn’t sure I was ready for dating again).

***

Vek, Camille and I waited outside as we heard the sirens approach. I took the chance to look them up and down, while Vek talked to someone on her smartphone.

Their costumes looked as pristine as ever, though that didn’t say much when one considered Vek’s power. But there were signs of wear and tear – Camille’s hair was dishevelled, her make-up smudged and she was slightly favouring her left leg. Vek was sporting a few patches of singed fur, and her stance wasn’t quite as self-confident as usual.

“What has been going on today? This should’ve drawn a far bigger response,” I said, making sure that I didn’t sound accusatory, only curious. “Not just the two of you. No offense.”

Camille shot me a quick dirty look, but then she went back to being pensive. So weird.

Vek seemed… chagrined (I was definitely putting goat faces far up on my list of annoying mutations). “This night has been insane. Seven different events that required our deployment, not counting this one and the one the rest of our team had to address while this here went on. Three of those seven involved metahumans in some way, one a group of mercenaries equipped by a Gadgeteer and two more with normal criminals wielding heavy ordnance.”

I whistled. “Wow, that’s… unusual, unless things changed far, far more than I thought. Add to that that big brawl I drove into yesterday…”

She nodded. “Something is up. It might be… well, him returning.” Camille flinched, her body tensing up. I saw a trickle of blood run down from her lip, where she bit too strongly into it.

I nodded right back, making sure to keep my face neutral. It would not be favourable to tip the Good Guys off to my plans, and I couldn’t be sure that Vek or Camille didn’t have some means to analyse tells beyond the usual (their specific power sets were not public).

Vek stomped in place with one hoof, giving me an insecure look. I raised an eyebrow in a questioning gesture. She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped for a moment, but I just waited.

“We’re short our heavy hitter, with Chayot out of commission,” she said, making both Camille and me flinch. I still remembered just how tired Hennessy had looked after the brawl. “And we’re looking at some massive threat sources, if our reports of the Ascendant’s allies are correct. Nevermind that we’ve been tipped off that the Matriarch seems to be making some inquiries in his direction.”

Oh no, I hope they’re not going to preemptively attack Elouise because she’s been trying to fulfill my request. I’d rather not have to break up a fight between at least one of my daughters and the heroes… or worse, my two daughters who didn’t know about each other yet.

Another thing to worry about.

“I can guess where this is going. You need another heavy hitter. And with Chayot on leave, I am most likely the most powerful combat meta in the entire state,” I said calmly.

She nodded. “I am sorry that we have to ask this of you, after all you’ve gone through,” she said, her snake-arms jerking nervously (I was studying her closely, in order to figure out her tells).

But her words made me stop for a moment. If they’ve been briefed on the last few years… that might explain Camille’s change in behaviour. And who knew how it might influence Tamara or Hennessy?

I sighed. I really didn’t want to play hero any more than I had to, but… It’s my fault Hennessy is in that state. Nevermind that she might feel obligated to return to the field if things get too bad.

No matter what else was going on, I wanted to keep her safe. That meant picking up the slack. So I sighed, and I nodded. “Alright. You have my phone number. Call me in case of an emergency – but only an emergency, please. I have some time critical business to take care of, as well.”

Camille looked honestly surprised when I agreed, and I gave her a quick smile that caused her to frown at me, her eyes half angry and half confused.

Vek was less ambivalent. She simply grinned from ear to ear, her teeth huge and yellow. “Thank you very much, Aap Oordra. It is appreciated.” She held out one snake-arm, and I shook hands with her.

Five minutes later, the police had arrived and I left them to take care of business. It was time to hunt down Brimstone and Smelly.

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B011.1 Monkey Family

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Three hours, two bottles of scotch, a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of that yellow French stuff whose name I always forgot later, I actually felt better about myself, and my life as of late. Not good, but better.

Also, some of Journeyman’s stories were just hilarious. And some just depressing, but in a good way. Distracting. But we were rapidly approaching the point where I might actually get drunk, and though I didn’t doubt that Journeyman could subdue me if I lost control, it would still be rude to go to that point.

Even if drowning my sorrows really sounded pretty attractive, after the day I’d had.

“You’re doing it again, Kevin,” Journeyman chorused. I looked up at him. “You’re doing the introspective self-pity routine. Don’t, it doesn’t suit you.”

I sighed, putting my glass aside (it was empty, anyway). “Yeah, I think I should go to sleep. Maybe some Z’s will help me work this out.”

“You do that. But put up an alarm for two forty,” he said as he cleaned the glasses and put them away upside down. “A kill team will attack you around three o’clock. It should give you enough time to wake up properly.”

Ah, one of his… prophecies. There were a lot of precogs out there, but what was creepy about Journeyman’s predictions was that, as far as I knew, he was always right. “Would I have died if you hadn’t told me?” I asked wryly. That was another thing about his prophecies. They rarely changed anything in a big way.

He chuckled, which was just weird with his many voices (though I’d noticed long ago that there seemed to be less and less voices the more relaxed he got – it was probably a deliberate effect). “No no, not at all. But you would have gotten hurt, a bit, and wrecked the house. This way, you should be able to control the situation. Just leave the house before two fifty-five, and they should attack you outside.”

“Good. Thanks,” I replied, relaxing a bit. I rather liked this place. “Actually, I’m reminded of a question I had. When I got off the plane, I saw a shadow watching me, during the ceremony.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my fingers on the counter, drumming a little rhythm. “Was that Elouise? I suspected my father’s work, but it isn’t exactly his style, unless he changed even more than you told me.”

“Wait, let me take a look,” he replied, leaning back against the shelf behind him, lowering his head. After a moment, he looked up again. “Yeah, it was Elouise. I’m not sure your father even knows you’re back. He takes his promises rather seriously. Though he’ll probably find out soon enough, either way. You’ve caused quite a stir around this place.”

I nodded, relaxing a bit. “And the house? If he kept his promise, it wouldn’t have been him who kept it,” I continued.

He shook his head. “No. The Matriarch, I suspect. If only to get in your good graces, when you returned. Anyway, I should get going. Try and catch some sleep, before the action starts,” he continued.

“Wait,” I said, perking up. I’d just remembered something. “There was one thing I wanted to ask. Something weird happened to me on the way here.”

He leaned closer. “Oh? Do tell.” The shifting images on his mask – which, I was sure, were as deliberate as his voice – seemed to focus, without actually becoming distinct enough to make sense.

“I was driving when, out of nowhere, I was in this… fairy tale forest. Rolling hills, huge trees, vibrant colours, the whole spiel. And when I got out of it, I’d pretty much arrived in Chicago, after just a few hours, total, of driving.”

I think that actually rattled him – I say this because his mirror-mask went blank. Utterly blank, not even reflecting me. There was no other sign of surprise, yet it was the strongest reaction I’d ever seen him have to anything.

“I see… that is rather weird,” he spoke slowly, with less than ten voices – making whatever his actually voice was almost recognisable. Almost. “It ought not to be appearing yet… I wonder why it’s reaching that far…” His voices vanished into an incomprehensible, rapid whisper for a few moments.

I just sat there, watching his still-blank mask as he seemed lost in thought… or perhaps some kind of discussion. To be honest, I was just confused by the whole deal.

Without any other cue, the visions on his mask reappeared, and I was pretty sure he was focusing on me again. “This is a rather worrisome development… for me, Kevin. It ought not to concern you,” he said with his usual chorus of voices. There was something oddly… intense about him. Way more intense than I’d ever seen him. A lot of firsts today.

I shivered at the foreboding nature of the comment. “Are you sure? I’m not easily scared, but you’re creeping me out right now.”

He tilted his head as he leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. “I’m serious. It’s neither threat nor concern to you, I promise. At least not in any important timeframe. You should worry about your own problems right now – if this becomes a concern for you, I will tell you. Alright?”

When I nodded, he gave me a small nod – and then he was simply gone. No fancy effects, no strange sensation or anything. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. I didn’t even have to blink.

“Sure is nice, being able to disappear like that,” I thought before I got up, putting my concerns regarding the strange forest out of my mind. I really wanted to look around the place, after all these years, but there was a kill team on its way… though Journeyman had, as always, only given me the minimal possible amount of information… I didn’t even know who sent them or why… well, either way, I should sleep for as long as I could, so I went up to my bedroom, without even bothering to turn on the lights. I simply took off my shoes, jacket and tie, and dropped onto my bed (it felt just like how I remembered it) and was asleep seconds after I set the alarm.

* * *

The alarm worked flawlessly, just like I remembered it – and just like way back then, I had to use truly saintly amounts of discipline so as not to crush it.

Buddha-like self-discipline won out over primal rage, and I shuffled out of my bed. I didn’t have much time, so I stumbled into the bathroom – going by memory, so as not to turn on any lights and betray myself to the assassins – and washed my face with cold water. I still had some time after that, so I brushed my teeth – stupid as it was, I had missed being able to regularly brush my teeth – and went to check on my wardrobe. My bedroom had no windows, so I turned on the light.

It took me a few moments to blink the tears out of my eyes (due to the light, of course. Not because I was seeing my bedroom for the first time in almost two decades), and then I went to the old hardwood wardrobe and opened it.

Someone – I had a pretty good idea who – had set me up, clothing-wise. And very recently, too, I was sure.

Could Elouise have done all this between seeing me at the ceremony and me coming here? Most definitely, if she has even a fraction of the Matriarch’s resources. I picked out a pair of jeans, some fresh underwear and a black shirt with a white peace sign on it, putting them on. Then I took my socks off, and threw them into the laundry basket with the rest, before I made my way down to the first floor, and out the door.

Then I simply took a stroll down the street, with ten minutes until the projected attack left – I didn’t want to fight here, so close to my home. Too much of a chance of collateral damage, never mind the attention it would draw to me. If these killers were even remotely competent, they’d jump on the chance to attack me during an evening stroll in some remote location, so I gave them just that, making my way towards the old mills near the lake – they were pretty close to my place, at least by my standards (I didn’t get tired easily, and even my normal walk was pretty fast) and I’d bet my house that they were still abandoned and rundown. Tearing what was left of the old steel mills down had been talked about for a long time, but even back then, they didn’t get anything done – I doubted they had, in the intervening time.

The city was as quiet during the night as I remembered it – meaning, anything but. Though Merlin Street was as quiet as ever, by itself, the surrounding city really left no illusions as to this being a metropolis. Cars, horns, more electronic sounds than I remembered, people shouting in the distance… Strange smells that reached even this far, across several streets. Smells that made you question their origins, imagining some pretty awful things. A strong wind that seemed to always blow from the front, pushing you back, or directly from behind, pushing you ahead.

Then, as I left Merlin Street, other people. A few doxies who gave me appraising looks, but whom I honestly ignored – I’d never had to resort to paying for a woman’s attention, not with my looks (and, I had to admit, the skills my father had instilled in me). I just focused on the feeling of pavement beneath my feet, and on spotting my shadows (another skill dad had had me practice relentlessly).

It didn’t take long for me to spot my pursuers. I counted no less than four, and there were probably more that stayed back, following their scouts. Professionals, definitely, but not good enough to hide from me. Though they probably wouldn’t expect me to have black ops training. Few people did, and even fewer metahumans.

Nothing I can’t deal with, I thought as I kept on strolling towards the mills. If they were powerful enough to simply overpower me, they’d have already attacked and then fled before the heroes could interfere. If they’re instead following me, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, then because they feel the need to do so.

Which meant I would have a major advantage, since I knew they were coming and could control the battlefield. Also, the fact that Journeyman had been sure that I’d beat them with just minor injuries even if they surprised me in my sleep spoke volumes all on its own.

Just a few minutes later, I’d reached the mills. The whole area hadn’t changed much since I’d last come here – ruined factory buildings, even more overgrown and broken now. Scars from super-powered battles littered the entire field, testaments to its popularity for grudge matches apart from immediate interference by the authorities.

Arid earth, sparse, coarse grass and dry twigs cracked underneath the soles of my feet as I made my feet towards the waterfront. A cool wind blew from the direction of the lake, making my hair whip around my face (I really ought to get it cut). The attack should come any time now, and I prepared myself, sharpening my senses.

* * *

They did not disappoint. I barely had time to react before the ground beneath me shook, two broad, shovel-like hands in thick brown gloves emerging to grab me by the ankles.

At the same time, five figures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all around me. Three in a half-circle in front of me, two more behind that I could only hear. The three I could see were male and wore a skintight black suit that covered them from head to toe, revealing rather impressively muscled bodies, with equally black vests and belts containing God-knows-what additional equipment, and wearing pure white Skull masks with high-tech goggles built in that glowed a menacing red.

Gee, original much?

Despite their rather boring attire (they looked to me like cheap knock-offs of the Corpse Corps), I could tell that these people were trained. And trained well. Something about their stance just screamed ‘experienced killers’.

Which, of course, meant that they weren’t the best. The most deadly people I knew did not radiate such an aura of menace. They didn’t need to.

“Good evening, strangers,” I greeted them casually, smiling at the man at the center of their formation. “Why didn’t you show yourselves earlier? I wouldn’t have minded chatting on the way here, before we fight.”

He tilted his head as I saw the other two tense up. “You knew we were coming?” he asked, his voice made unrecognisable by way of mechanical distortion, reducing it to a monotone.

“I had your team made moments after I stepped out of my house. And I’d known you were coming since the early evening,” I spoke, turning my head left and right to take a look at the other two out of the corner of my eyes – a man and a woman, in the same outfits as the others, though the woman also held a huge rifle of futuristic design in her hands in a way that suggested that she was either very strong or the weapon far lighter than it looked. Their earthworker was still holding onto my ankles. “So, what’s the reason behind this? It’s rather rude to interrupt a guy’s sleep.”

Their leader shrugged. “We’re here to kill you. Nothing personal, just business,” he spoke, his voice even, his stance (apparently) unconcerned.

I sighed, lowering my head for a moment as I took my hands out of my pockets. Then I thought this all over. These people… were not my daughter, nor anyone I cared about, really. And it wasn’t a public fight, either.

No reason to hold back. And besides, the world got a little brighter every time mercenaries like these died, so…

I should let the monkey blow off some steam anyway, I thought as I felt the beast within stir in excitement.

My knockles popped as I stretched my fingers, then curled them up before looking down at the two hands holding onto my ankles.

“You know, my feet are perfectly comfortable in this weather. No need to warm them.”

Then I let the monkey out. Just a little bit.

* * *

Several hours earlier

Nine people were sitting at a round table in a well-lit room, Camille one of them. She was not happy about that. There was one person missing – the most important one, as far as she was concerned.

But Hennessy had been too weak to join them, her mother insisting (rightly) that she stay in bed to rest, surrounded by positive emotions (meaning, her half-sister was spending the night cuddling up to her). The fact that Camille herself had insisted that Henny take a break didn’t make her any more happy to be here without her. Her left hand was hanging limply down the side of her seat, randomly clenching and relaxing as it longed for Henny’s hand to hold.

I should just track the bastard down and kill him, she thought for the millionth time. It was a pointless thought, she knew she wouldn’t do it – she’d never killed, nor did she intend to. Nevermind the fact that she’d probably lose – anyone who could handle Henny on a rage the way he had was way out of her league.

It didn’t make the thought any less tempting.

And so Camille missed Vek’s speech, lost in thoughts of how to get some payback against Henny’s so-called ‘father’. More like sperm donor.

She rose out of her homicidal thoughts when someone shouted her name.

Camille!” Vek’s bleating voice might be an easy target for ridicule, but it was very good at catching your attention. Camille snapped to attention, looking straight at her leader. “Pay attention. The higher ups sent me the dossier on Aap Oordra. I’d like to brief you on him, seeing how we’re likely to have to deal with him in the future.”

Now she really had Camille’s full attention. “What’d we know about that fucker?”

“Language, please,” Director Queensfield said in her throaty voice. The stocky woman in the severe power suit always reminded her of her mother, especially when she reprimanded her. “Miss Petson, please proceed,” she added with a nod towards Vek.

The goat woman nodded and tapped a key that was being projected on the flat table in front of her. A high-quality shot of Aap Oordra’s face appeared on the table, leaving only a thin ring of blackness around it. His face was neutral on it, his hair combed back, his beard neatly trimmed. He looked… gaunt. His eyes were haunted and ringed in black… and yet, Camille couldn’t deny that he looked damn attractive, even like that.

Well, not like someone related to Henny could look bad, she told herself.

“This is what we know of Aap Oordra’s history after he left the USA – he joined the army to fight in the Afghanistan War, but was pronounced missing in action after the Great Clusterfuck – a three-way battle between the forces of the PATO, the SU and the newly-formed Caliphate, interrupted partway through by an attack from Desolation-in-Light. What we know after that is rather more… sketchy. It seems that he was taken by the Sovjet forces after the battle and put in one of their re-education camps in Siberia.”

Camille bit her lip. He’d been a prisoner all this time? That… that was actually a damn good excuse for not being, well, there. No, don’t think like that! Asshole left to join the army, he shouldn’t have done that in the first place!

“What we know since is rather sketchy, and relies on second-hand reports and some files we could get out of the Sovjet Superhuman Committee. He apparently broke out within five days of being incarcerated – just an hour or two after recovering fully from the wounds he sustained during the fight – but was recaptured three days later, before managing to leave the SU territory. Re-education proved unsuccessful, the files noting that he seemed to have gotten extensive anti-brainwashing training, to the point where they suspected a background in metahuman black ops – though his young age at the time makes that highly unlikely. Over the last seventeen years, he broke out of twenty-seven different re-education and containment facilities, and is credited with enabling the escape of more than three-hundred war prisoners, as well as more than six hundred Sovjet citizens who had been kept in these facilities, as well as the killings of no less than three whole teams of the Sovjet’s metahuman capture forces – as well as participating in the subduing of an S-Class threat that ravaged the Mongolian lands. He was recaptured, one way or another, each time, but they paid for it dearly. And this is just the information that our office of intelligence considers reliable. “

The room was filled with stunned silence. That wasn’t the background of a downbeat ex-thrill-villain who’d left his family behind to chase some war glory. Even Camille had to admit that that was freaking badass.

“Aap Oordra – or Kevin Paterson, though we have no way to make sure that that is actually his real name, as he doesn’t seem to have a past before he showed up here in Chicago at the age of sixteen – was liberated by members of the Sovjet rebellion just a short time ago. They found him in the Sovjet’s supermax prison, Koschei’s Chest. He was being held in their maximum security wing, their equivalent of our Tartarus Star Super-Max Section.”

The Junior Heroes around the table visibly shivered at the mention of the name. Koschei’s Chest was not known for its humane treatment of its inmates.

“In keeping with the Ondero Act, he has been pardoned of all his crimes – which is kind of superfluous, as the statute of limitations has expired on most of them, as well as given a veteran’s pension and several cash boni for everything he went through – as well as several medals for his recorded achievements.”

Camille frowned, but didn’t comment. She didn’t like hearing that ass described like a badass war hero.

“More important for us, though, is his relationship to Chayot – you all know of it by now – and his, ah, performance during the Great Clusterfuck,” Vek continued, and changed the image on the table.

Now it showed… a young and very hot guy with wild black hair, tan skin and bright eyes, the air throwing his hair around as he laughed wildly.

It took Camille a moment to connect him to Aap. His features matched, but… he seemed far, far younger, not just physically.

“A quick primer on his powerset and past – Aap Oordra used to be a rather popular thrill-villain and prankster in the nineties, terrorising Chicago’s metahuman community and several political, financial and criminal power figures. No deaths, no serious bodily harm, but a lot of collateral damage, mainly due to the nature of his powerset. He is, to this day, one of only ten recorded true speedsters.”

“True… speedster?” Camille asked, not familiar with the term. She knew several speedsters, but she’d never heard about some kind of true speedsters, whatever that meant.

The senior members of the UH seemed to recognise the term, though, their eyes widening.

“Most speedsters accelerate by somehow cheating physics – they twist time, or partially move into another dimension, or transfer the strain that speeding puts on their body and their environment to some other body or dimension. Usually, this goes hand in hand with a reduction in their ability to affect their surroundings, which limits their combat utility.” She stopped the exposition, taking a deep breath.

The director leaned forward, picking up where Vek had left off. “A true speedster, conversely, is someone who actually speeds up to superhuman speeds, retaining and even increasing their ability to affect the world around them. They combine the strength, toughness, sensory speed, processing speed and coordination necessary to actually move at superhuman speeds – in some cases even supersonic speeds – and not cripple or kill themselves.”

Oh shit, I can guess where this is going.

Vek continued, “Aap Oordra is number five on a list of ten known true speedsters above Paragon tier – he usually limits himself to short bursts of speed, but he has been clocked it at Mach one speeds when given enough space to run in a straight line – and his peak may be even higher. His strength and toughness can match those speeds, and though he doesn’t seem to have perfect control over it – he can’t ignore inertia, for one – he is still considered an A-Class combatant all on his own.”

“No wonder he managed to handle Chayot mostly on his own,” Slough said. He was sitting next to Camille, in a rather normal-looking form (the only thing strange about it were the pink tentacles that replaced his hair). “So, what do we do about him? And what’s so special about his role in that big battle?”

Vek looked intently around the room. “What is special is that he took three direct hits from DiL, and only went down after the third one – and then recovered from the damage he took in less than a week. That speaks of a level of toughness and recovery that is, frankly, up there with Quetzalcoatl and Kraquok.”

I think going after him to kick his ass is now officially out of the question.

“People, this is important,” the Director stated calmly. “Whatever or whoever Aap Oordra may be – wherever he came from, whatever his intentions for going to war were – we know that he is comparable to any single member of the Shining Guardians or the Dark Five. We know that, even when he was a rather irresponsible youth, he still did hold himself back enough to keep his true potential hidden and prevented any truly serious damage. And we know that he cares a great deal for one of our team members and has expressed interest in becoming a part of her life – which may mean that he might be interested in joining the United Heroes. I do not have to tell you how desperately we need people with this level of power and skill.”

Oh, you wouldn’t dare suggest that we…

“So I want everyone here – everyone,” she emphasised with a look at Camille, “To put aside personal grievances and play nice around him. I will not demand nor expect Chayot to welcome him back with open arms, or even pretend to like him any more than she does – but I do expect everyone else here to foster positive interactions with him. He is, as of now, the most powerful metahuman in the State of Illinois – and I’d rather have him on our side than on the opposing one. Clear?”

“Clear!” came a chorused answer from around the table. Even Camille took part, despite her misgivings.

Well, I guess I can try… a bit…

* * *

I washed the blood off my hands in the dark waters of the lake. There was quite a lot of it, even though I had, in the end, refrained from killing anyone. I was still not sure why – I’d never felt bad about killing people like these, not in the least. But something had held me back.

Perhaps I’m just sick of all the killing, after all this time.

The fight hadn’t lasted very long, but it sure had helped me, nonetheless. They’d been tougher than I’d expected, though not by much. I hadn’t gotten hurt at all, in the end.

“I’m very proud of you,” Journeyman’s voice spoke up from my left.

I very pointedly did not flinch, but rather finished cleaning my hands and arms, then turned to look at him while I sat on my haunches. “How so?” I asked him. He was standing with his feet in the water, his robe moving back and forth with each wave, his hand clasped behind his back. He was looking out onto the lake.

“You didn’t kill any of them – unlike in the original future,” he remarked. “That’s good. You shouldn’t kill any more than absolutely necessary.”

I gave him a long look, thinking things over. “You warned me about them… just to save their lives? Not mine, since you said that I wouldn’t have died anyway.”

He shrugged. “That, too. Mainly, though, I did it to prevent you from killing them. A fine distinction, I admit, but an important one,” he answered, pre-empting my follow-up question with that last sentence.

After a few minutes of just staring at him, with only the remote sounds of the city, the sounds of the lake and the moans of the broken bodies behind us around, I nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, my friend,” he spoke in what passed as a cheery voice for him. “Now, I really need to go – altering these events to such an extent will cause one hell of a backlash, and I’d rather not be anywhere near anything alive when it hits me, so I just wanted to give you one last, very important piece of advice – because I won’t be able to help you for quite a while, I’m afraid.”

“Shoot,” I said. He’d mentioned that before, quite a lot of times. Some kind of backlash for altering the events he saw in his visions. The big reason why he wasn’t just fixing the world, as he phrased it.

“You should talk to your father,” he said.

“No,” I shot back as firmly as I could. “No. Not happening.” I sighed. “He… doesn’t deserve it. I’m not giving him that satisfaction.”

Again, he shrugged. “It’s not about what he deserves. It’s about what you deserve. You’re hurting yourself as much, if not more, than him by keeping him away like this.”

I rose up so fast I almost jumped into the air, turning to him. Old, ugly, hot feelings reared their head in the pit of my stomach as I almost lashed out with the monkey. “NO! Not happening! You have no idea what he did to me! To my mother! How he betrayed us, how he fucked everything up, for no reason other than his fucking pride!” I shouted at him, my voice booming across the lake. At that moment, I was quite tempted to attack him, even though I didn’t stand the ghost of a chance.

He finally turned to look at me, somehow conveying… sadness, even though his posture didn’t change, and he had no expression to read. “I’m sure Hennessy says similar things about you.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, the tension and anger and hurt draining out of me, leaving behind… cold emptiness.

He bowed his head, slightly, and then simply vanished, leaving me behind on dark shores. Alone.

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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 2)

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That looks extraordinarily unhealthy – for me.

She pounced on me, wings folded back, spear thrusting at me, clearing several hundred feet in a single bound. The monkey afforded me a lot of protection, even if I only used it partially, but… I had no idea how her power actually worked, and while she seemed to be largely limited to the paragon and apex tier (those exploding spheres had gotten intense), there seemed to be no clear theme to her capabilities, nothing to catch on to; telekinetic blasts, then remote kinetic detonations, receptive and projective empathy, flight, enhanced vision (and probably other senses, as well), protective force fields, fire balls, exploding fire balls, not to mention all the limbs and now full angelic bodies she created; I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to defend myself against those burning weapons if I took a direct hit, so I evaded by burrowing.

Why did I feel as if I was over my head while fighting a seventeen year old girl? Alright, I’d fought Desolation-in-Light a few times, back in the day, when she’d still technically been a toddler, but…

Hell’s Bells, I’m comparing my daughter to Desolation in Light! Get your act together, buster, and find a way to stop her from tearing you to pieces!

All of those thoughts shot through my head in the time it took me to dig about thirty feet directly downwards, to get some space to breath – yeah, underground breathing room, but still better than staying up there with pointy fire death sticks and my estranged, probably-at-least-partially-insane and definitely-pissed-off-beyond-belief daughter.

That was not to be, however, as I suddenly felt a tug on the small of my back, and then I was torn out of the earth and right into the path of a swing of that wicked, long sword. That very long, very sharp and very hot sword.

Jesus fuck this hurts!

The blade bit into and through the partially manifested chest of the monkey, through my suit and into my skin – if it wasn’t for the monkey, it’d have bisected me for sure.

Oh nonono, no-

I cut myself off before I could flip out and hurt her. That was just the monkey, losing what little restraint it had… and this was my fault, after all, not hers. I was not going to hurt her over this.

Repeating those words in my head, over and over, I did my best to put some distance between us – her new form was not nearly as fast as before, and she seemed to have lost her ranged offense, or perhaps discarded it – so I kept retreating to the back and the side, leading her on circles as all her legs tore into the ground to catch up to me.

She’d make a great plough.

The monkey was already knitting my flesh, closing the wound she’d cut into my chest, but I was not up to going face to face with her unless I let the monkey out entirely, and that would be… unacceptable.

I need some time.

Using her powers cost her. I knew that much, from the vision earlier. She had a well, and it was finite. I didn’t know how deep it went, nor what would happen if it ran dry, but I hoped that, at some point, she’d be forced to conserve her resources, whatever they were.

I need to talk to Tam, to her teammates. They’ve got to know something that can be done.

I circled around her, hoping to fake her out or somehow trap her.

Chayot – not Hennessy, not now – pounced once more, even though she was further away from before, using her wings to carry herself over the distance she could not clear with a simple jump.

But she was still jumping, not flying, and that gave me an opening. I dove down into the soft earth she’d just torn up, tapping into the monkey’s speed and strength to tear into the soil.

For just a moment, underground, I let the monkey cover all but my face, and I moved like a fish in the water, tearing through the earth, breaking it down.

When Chayot landed, she sunk to her… gut… into the earth, howling in frustration as I pulled her lower body down deep, fixing it in place with a few boulders. Then I burst out of the earth some distance away, with the monkey once more only covering half of my body, and made a beeline for our spectators.

Something pulled on my waist, stopping me dead in the middle of the run. Looking behind, I saw a golden thread run from my back to one of her snake limbs. Probably how she’d wrenched my sorry ass out of the earth earlier on.

Ah, baby girl, you don’t wanna get into a wrestling match with me.

Not that I’d ever refuse a friendly one.

Still, I had her where I wanted her and there was no use in pulling her out of the sinkhole I’d made, so I grabbed the glowing line – damn, this burns! – and snapped it with raw strength.

She howled as if someone had cut her arm off, and for a moment I was afraid I might really have hurt her; but then I realized the howl was just one of rage, not pain, so I ran quickly over to the others. Everyone but Tam, Vek, Dearheart and a goat-like boy – Is he Vek’s child? – had fled the moment Hennessy had turned into the pseudo-cherubim. Something tells me they didn’t flee due to cowardice.

“Tam!”, I half-shouted, stopping in front of her. “What is going on, and how can I help her!?”

You, help her!?” shouted Dearheart. “It’s your fault she’s flipped out this bad in the first place, dickwad!”

What a pleasant girl.

“Dearheart, shut up,” Vek said. “Mister Paterson… Aap Oordra. Chayot has always had issues controlling her power. And I’m afraid the agitation from the battle today, plus, well, your… return, was just too much for her all at once. Her power is based completely on emotions-“

“Really? Because it seems to me like her power really is built on knocking me around and trying to roast me alive,” I couldn’t stop my mouth from rattling off. “Not to mention all that pretty angelic imagery and inappropriate groping of herself.”

Dearheart almost threw another insult at me, I was sure, but Tam put a hand on her shoulder, while her eyes remained transfixed on the thrashing monstrosity that was slowly clawing her out of the trap I’d improvised.

“She eats emotions. People give off emotional energy like body heat, and she soaks it up. All of her powers burn through her reserves, no matter what she does with them – just maintaining them costs her,” she explained in a monotonous voice. “If she absorbs too much of a single emotion, and is also provoked into indulging in that emotion herself, she might lose control and… that happens.”

Breathing deeply for a few seconds, she calmed herself. “The others left so they don’t provide her with more energy. We need to knock her out before she burns herself out – it might be lethal!” She was almost crying with fear at the end.

I had to swallow a few times to get the lump out of my throat. My life. Hate it.

“She has a weakpoint,” Vek threw in. “Trained herself to always include that crystal, in case she ever went berserk and needed to be stopped. Find it, crush it – it’s really durable – and her power will shut down.”

“Don’t tell him that!” shouted Dearheart, again. “He’s a villain, remember!? What if he uses that against her, or sells it to o-“

Tamara whirled around and slapped Dearheart, hard. She wasn’t all that strong, by Adonis standards, but it still had a lot of weight behind it.

“Young lady, my daughter needs help, now! Shut your mouth and help him, we can sort everything else out later on!” she half-screamed.

Dearheart looked stunned, and Vek took charge: “I can’t help much here, so I’ll stay with Mrs Benning. Mister Paterson, please, you have to help us here, Dearheart and Slough can’t stop her by themselves!” She gestured at the goat boy and little miss rudeness.

“I shall, but you all should lea-“

“No,” Dearheart simply replied. “I’m not leaving. My power can counter hers to a degree. And Slough here might be able to help, too.” Goatboy – Slough – nodded fervently.

There was true steel in her voice, and I suddenly liked her a little more. No matter what else, she obviously cared about Hennessy.

Speak of the devil – I heard a massive rumbling, and then the earth around Chayot burst apart.

Both Dearheart and I took off, she flying up while I circled towards Chayot, so she wouldn’t attack in the direction of her mother.

The teenage heroine approached me and said: “Her crystal core is always somewhere different, but she can’t move it once her form is set.”

Chayot leapt out of the smoke, her legs morphed to all resemble a spider’s legs with cloven hoofs, her lower body swelling in size, and threw her spear at us, the blazing projectile flying faster than any cruise missiles I’d ever seen before.

I got ready to evade, but Dearheart simply raised her right hand, pointing at the spear – it flickered, then exploded into harmless sparks, which promptly vanished into nothingness.

She raised her other hand, pointing the palm at the charging Chayot,who stumbled, then fell, as all of her limbs seized up at the same time. At the same time, a burst of scarlet fire from her lower center head (the ox) destroyed said head.

It made all of remaining her mouths scream, but at the same time, the arms of the upper body disintegrated, as did its wings, and then a halo of five floating arms, two tipped with razor sharp nails as long as I was tall.

“What exactly is her power?” I asked.

“She’s a power shifter. Takes on different powers, but just maintaining, much less using, them costs her. Luckily enough, she’s limited to apex tier powers at most.”

My mouth gaped open. Of all the fucking unfair, broken powers out there, she just has to be a power shifter. And what does that mean, limited to Apex Tier? That’s NOT a limit! You can level a city just fine by combining the right apex powers! You can fuck up anyone’s day by choosing the right ones!

The spear piercing Chayot’s chest faded away, just as three of her free-floating arms (one of them with the freaky pointy death blades) opened fire on us, unleashing lightning bolts, a stream of acid and her earlier fire spheres.

I evaded the spheres and the lightning bolt, but Dearheart charged forward and made the acid vanish simply by pointing at it.

That’s one hell of a power she’s got.

Unfortunately, Chayot could tell as much, because she let the three arms she’d used disintegrate and the other two got into position.

“Dearheart, get away!” I screamed, but she didn’t.

I tapped deep into the monkey’s speed, ran up to them and jumped off, tackling Dearheart out of the way of the reaching unclawed hand trying to grab her.

“Get your hands off me!” she shouted in exasperation.

You try to be a hero, and what do you get?

“Need to g-“

Chayot slapped me down, hard, with a swing of her right snake limb, driving me into the ground.

Dearheart growled as I threw her aside at the last moment, then aimed her hand at Chayot again before she could follow up on the strike.

Pointing at the upper body – personally, I’d have gone for the lower one, bigger target, more likely to house the core – she used whatever kind of power she had. The golden woman’s flesh began to twist and boil, whole sections of it just sloughing off and disintegrating.

No wonder I had gotten odd vibes from these two earlier. Whatever the particulars of their powers were, they were not normal.

Either way, her power was useful, and Chayot seemed slow to push the advantage of her power. Or maybe she was instinctively holding back to conserve energy?

So I charged into her, slamming right into her lion-head’s mouth, letting the monkey coat the lower right half of my body too, as well as my right forearm. She probably screamed, but I couldn’t tell, because I was already tearing into her flesh, digging deeper into her body.

Find the core. Great advice.

I let the monkey’s eyes emerge so I could actually see something, then I simply tore apart her lower body, looking for anything that might constitute a core. She seemed to have most major organs covered in this form, and they even seemed functional, which implied that destroying them would disrupt her, so I did just that while working my way through to her rear end, bursting out of it in a shower of blood that turned into fading motes of light before it even touched the ground.

Behind me, her form collapsed – or, as I saw when I turned around, she’d simply dropped the lower half and was now a floating sphere formed by two rotating, eye-ringed rings topped by golden body that was twisting and boiling under the sustained effects of Dearheart’s power.

New flesh was already blooming on the lower end of the sphere.

“I can’t lock her down for long, asshole! Find the core, crush it!”

Such a charmer.

Just at that moment, Slough – whom I’d completely forgotten about – dove out of the ground, now looking more like a cross between a snake and a mole. His back arched, then turned hunchbacked, and then it split, the outer layers of his body sloughing off to let a new form emerge and dive into the mass of flesh that was forming – rather slowly, compared to earlier – underneath the sphere. He looked like a hermaphroditic marble statue now.

No matter what was going on with that power, the two of them gave me an opening – and I jumped directly onto the rotating rings, grabbing the outer one.

Unfortunately, there was no outer one – the two rings were of equal size, yet still somehow moved within each other at the same time. When they intersected, they sheared through my monkey hand’s fingers and I would have dropped had I not grabbed one of the rings and used it to propel myself upwards.

Careful to stay on the golden figure’s back – I didn’t want to get hit by whatever effect Dearheart was putting out – I started to rip into her surprisingly tough flesh, even as her burning wings struck again and again, burning into the monkey’s back – but thankfully not through it, at least not yet.

Dearheart screamed, and I felt something shatter again.

* * *

I saw the world of flesh again, though this time, a whole section of the forest of limbs had been cut away, leaving bare bleeding flesh behind to form a lake of the red liquid.

I looked up and saw a… a portal, or maybe an intersection, between this world and another. Light, flashing randomly in all colours, making my head hurt just by looking at it, was pouring into this vast world, causing pure chaos. And yet, it was not wholly unwelcome here. Part of Chayot was accepting the intrusion, I could just tell.

Must be Dearheart’s power.

I looked, and I saw – there was one figure I had not seen before. It floated above the land, a towering beauty at least twenty feet tall, her body woven of pure black light and marble white flesh. Her beauty was solemn, inhuman, utterly alien and yet incredibly alluring. She also had no eyes, only smooth flesh stretching over her eye sockets, with locks of black light almost hiding them.

Hennessy, curled up into a fetal position – and thank God for that, because she was naked here, and I did not want to piss her off more by seeing her naked – was floating inbetween the figure’s half-cupped hands.

What are you, and what are you doing to my daughter?

The figure looked at me without eyes and suddenly I knew her.

* * *

Nearly five years ago, during a particularly bad time for me, I’d found myself in a dream one night.

It had started innocently enough, mostly me, lying on an indistinct hill under the starry sky, with Tamara in my arms after we’d made love. She was asleep and I was just luxuriating in the warmth of her body, the scent of her sweat, the sound of her breathing.

Even though I had known it to be a dream, I couldn’t help but enjoy it, despite the inevitable disappointment and despair upon waking.

And then, a star had begun to flicker, then burn several times brighter.

I had reached out to that star, and somehow, we’d connected, if only for the fraction of a second.

Now I knew who that person had been.

I had met my daughter, back then.

* * *

I know you.

She unleashed a wave of raw dread on me, every single fear of my life crashing down on me at once – but the monkey was still there, even here, and took the brunt of the attack.

I know you. We met before. You know me. Please, stop this.

The dread changed into blind rage, goading me to just attack, but that was something I was intimately familiar with, and didn’t even need the monkey to block.

I could see her burning away flesh from beneath to maintain the attack.

You know me. I know you. I am no enemy. I have failed you, failed you as no father should, but I am not your enemy, nor will I ever be.

Crushing sadness, loss, a deep longing for connection.

My eyes teared up – could they even do that here, since I assumed I wasn’t in my body right now? – and I had to fight not to break down, as her attack slipped past my own defenses, and was only stopped by the monkey interposing itself to take the brunt of it.

Even then, it almost made me give up and go silent.

Please, I am sorry. Give me a chance to make it up to you, in any way possible!

She couldn’t speak, probably had trouble with normal language. I guessed, since her power was so deeply entrenched in emotions of all kinds, that she communicated primarily through them. So I poured all my regret, my desire to apologize, and what love I could muster for this half-strange girl I had only just met.

The figure – was it Hennessy, was it just a manifestation of her power, or was it something more… strange? – tilted her head to the side, and then my vision blinked out.

* * *

I was back in my body, and still clinging to the golden woman’s back.

But just as I was regaining my bearings, her body began to dissolve into motes of light that faded away, dropping me.

“Henny!” screamed three voices – Dearheart, Tamara and a distorted voice I guessed belonged to Slough.

They all – even Tam, bless her heart, who was far too far away to catch her daughter in time – dove towards her, Slough even, well, sloughing out of his current form into a new, insectoid one to catch her even though he was falling beneath her.

But I was faster, air jumping to her and grabbing her in a bridal carry.

I landed on the ground, letting the monkey absorb the entire impact, cradling the child I had never known of and yet met before.

You reached out to me, once. Across the world, even though we’d never known each other.

She was so light, seemed so frail.

I’d never really thought about having children. Or rather, I’d been planning to think about the possibility of considering children together with Tamara, all those years ago. I’d never seen myself as responsible enough to do right by a child. People with my kind of background usually ended up screwing their children up something fierce.

But now, holding her small, warm body in my arms as the monkey melted away, I suddenly had to fight back the tears at everything I had missed… I had failed her, in more ways than I’d known. What must she have gone through to become this?

Could I have prevented it?

Somewhere else, Dearheart was shouting at me to let go of her, Slough was bristling for some reason and Tamara and Vek were running to get to us, Tamara running so fast she left the other woman behind.

But right now, I could only look at my daughter’s unconscious face, and wonder.

Wonder about how I could have been so stupid, back then.

Wonder about whether or not she would ever accept me.

Wonder about how many people I would have to pull apart piece by piece, until I got my hands on whoever had done this to her, if there was someone responsible – oh please, let there be someone.

Wonder about how I could ever make it up to her, express just how sorry I was.

* * *

Two hours later…

It took quite a while to sort things out – the local director tried to stick me with the responsibility for starting the battle and endangering innocents – but Vek, Tamara and the other heroes, save for Dearheart (who wanted my head on a platter, preferably with my balls in my mouth) vouched for me, plus I still had that nifty medal.

By the time we got back to Three Heavens Gates – Tamara insisted that it was best for Hennessy to rest at home, where she had a gentle, familiar emotional backdrop – nearly two hours had gone by.

So we took her there, and I was even allowed to carry her out of the armored taxi they provided and into her bedroom (she had a lot of plush toys in all sizes) and to lay her to bed.

I almost kissed her on the forehead once she was lying there, but Dearheart – Camille when out of costume – would probably have ripped my crown jewels off to arrange said platter if I’d done that, so I restrained myself.

Besides, that was a right I had yet to earn.

Dearheart threw me out, saying that she would change Hennessy’s clothes, giving me a murderous glare as if daring me to demand to do that, while Slough remained outside the door to stand watch, now looking like… well, he had a lot of dog and some bird in his form.

What kind of perverted scumbag did she take me for?

Tamara took me down to the empty living room and we sat down, her on an armchair, me on the couch.

I idly wondered where Phil and the little princess were.

“Phil took Charity out for a walk, to calm her down. She’s never witnessed Henny lose control like that before,” she explained, interpreting my curious glance just right.

“I see.”

We sat there, looking at each other.

After about ten minutes, I finally spoke up.

“Tamara… there is so much I want to tell you, to explain to you…”

“Yes?” she asked, perhaps a little hopeful?

“But… what in the name of God’s light switch happened to her!?

She turned pale, looking down at her feet in shame.

I gulped down the anger, feeling ashamed in turn. If anyone deserved being accused of not doing a proper parenting job, it was me, not her.

“Tam, I’m sorry, but…”

“No, I understand,” she whispered, then looked up at me. “How do you know something bad happened to her?”

“Five… no, six years ago. Or at least almost six years. Closer to five, to be honest… I felt a… a connection. My power reacted, I reacted, and I connected with someone, someone suffering unimaginably, but still… well, that person helped me a lot, actually. Even though I thought it a fever dream until just a few hours ago.”

She paled even more… and then she looked me straight in the eyes, transfixing mine to hers.

“I… I need your help, Aap,” she said.

Using my cape name. She wants something bad.

“Say it.”

Not smart, to give her a carte blanche. I didn’t care.

“When she was twelve… there was a supervillain. A contriver, calls himself ‘the Ascendant’. Real madman, wants to elevate all humanity to godhood, yadayada…”

My stomach began to twist as I was already connecting the dots. Though I couldn’t tell if it was dread, sadness, shame or murderous hatred. Probably all four.

“He… he kidnapped sixty-six children and… he did things to them. Drugged them up with contrived drugs, tortured them, put them into death courses…” Her voice broke for a moment, and she pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, wiping her nose.

I, in contrast, was already cool. Really cool.

“She… most of them died. Only four survived for more than three days. The… the UH had just tracked him down, was attacking his base, some hellhole beneath a cabin in the woods outside the city, when he decided to bet it all on one chance. He… he overdosed all four of them. Lethally.”

Please let him still be alive and at large.

“They all triggered. Manifested. Whatever. All four of them, two girls and two boys. But…” She broke down again, sobbing.

I moved over to kneel in front of her, cupping her cheek with one hand. Cool. Totally C.O.O.L. Not even a hint of a tremble.

“Shsh. Tell me at your pace if you need a break,” my mouth said.

I want names, details, targets, now, my brain thought.

The monkey was even more single-minded.

“One of the boys… he manifested first. A… an S-Class. His power was… it was just wrong. And it somehow tainted them, even as they… as they manifested while they lay dying,” she sobbed.

“Then the other three manifested… the heroes, some villains who’d been helping with the search – even the Dark was helping, he thought it was disgusting what the Ascendant was doing – they managed to take the poor boy down. Killed him. Had to kill him. And even then, if it wasn’t for the three children helping, he might have broken through to the city.”

“What happened to the other two children?”

I could guess already.

“Dearheart and Slough. They all joined the Junior Heroes, after two years of largely unsuccessful therapy,” she explained.

No wonder these kids had such messed up powers.

“What happened to the Ascendant? And what do you need my help for?”

“He escaped. And he’s back. That’s why she’s wound so tight, why Dearheart is so aggressive. They’re all terrified.”

She looked at me, pure hatred in her eyes.

“That monster came back here and sent them a letter. Said he wanted his children to return to him.”

If I’d been an unstoppable rage monster, I would have gone on a rampage right about now. Fortunately, I had the monkey to outsource that to, for the moment.

She took a deep breath, drying her eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief.

“I want you to kill him.”

With pleasure.

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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 1)

Previous | Next

The second blast took me right in the face, knocking me to the ground.

If it wasn’t for the monkey protecting me, I’d at least be missing my teeth right around now.

I sat up, dazed, but before I could react, and do anything other than prevent the monkey from going on the offensive, I heard a strange, animal-like wailing, and then something slammed into my throat.

I choked, gasped, and saw Hennessy’s solemn face, her mouth open in that strange wail, her hand around my throat.

Wings bloomed from behind her back and she took off, pushing me by the throat over the water of Lake Michigan.

She was fast, and all the time she was pounding me with telekinetic blasts to my face and emotional pressure, raw, burning rage pounding against my head, so I did not really manage to do much for a few seconds – but then I got my bearings.

I drew my arm up and slapped – gently – her arm aside, breaking her grip on my throat and dropping down before she could react.

The cold dark water of Lake Michigan came close and closer, but I was not interested in taking a bath right now. Calling on the monkey, I allowed it to manifest around my legs, blue-black shadow-like fur manifesting inches from my skin around my ankles and lower shins, as I landed on the water, the monkey absorbing the impact and allowing me to stand on it.

I immediately took off, running for the nearest island while pouring on the speed, Hennessy’s wail following me as she hunted me, shooting her telekinetic blasts – she had incredible aim, smacking me around on the water and very nearly getting me wet. In fact, I was forced to let the monkey emerge around my wrists and forearms, so they too could help me maneuver on top of the water.

Those blasts hurt, but they’re not as strong as what she loosed against the villains. Was she holding back, or was she weaker for some reason?

I took the blasts, rolling with them, until I reached, strangely enough, a pier on an island. I remembered the island (good place to take your SO for a date, especially when you wanted to get her out of her clothes) from many a date with Tamara.

Now that I thought about it, this might have been the place in which we conceived Hennessy.

My life is straaaaaange.

There hadn’t been a pier here before, and the new one looked kind of haphazardly built of old tires, driftwood and other planks scavenged from wherever.

At least the lighthouse atop the island’s raised plateau still stood in all its dark glory, as did the ruined old town near the shore.

I swear this place can feel like gloom and doom in broad daylight. Probably not a good sign for me.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t gotten much all that ahead of Hennessy, and I’d stopped just long enough for contemplation that she’d caught up. I knew so by virtue of the blast that took me in the back – and then the world broke.

* * *

I’d always been a fan of fairy tale imagery. Mythology as well, and old testament stuff, too (not the wishy-washy new testament things).

Especially lost woods. I don’t know why, but the image of a gigantic, labyrinthine forest just drew me right in. For a while, I’d spent quite a bit of money (one thing I never lacked for) collecting pictures that fit my little fancy, and I’d built up quite the collection.

Actually, I should check up on my safe houses, see if my stuff is still there.

But nevertheless, I had never seen a picture of a lost wood that compared to what I saw now.

I saw… flesh. Mounds and hills and mountains of flesh. I saw the arms of a slender woman growing from a ground that was smooth flesh, or raw hide, or scales. I saw the same arms, repeated innumerably around me, colossal in size, forking at the joints to grow branches of limbs, all reaching out in gestures of gentleness, offering help and comfort to whomever passed by.

There were the heads of lions, male and female, growing like a bush nearby, the legs of an eagle emerging from the center, the wings of doves and stranger things, repeated a thousand thousand times, sprouting from the back of a colossal female torso with skin whiter than marble, but no head or arms, emerging from the waist up from the ground.

There was an ocean of boiling hot blood, set ablaze with red, blue, green, purple and black flames that reached to the skies, there were plains covered by tentacles and legs swaying in a wind that came from an ox’ head as big as the Empire State building.

I saw a gentle world made of flesh, human, animal and other things. And there were the eyes. Everywhere, all over everything, whether human limbs, or torsos, breasts or heads, bird’s wings or bat’s wings, eagle’s talons and ox’ horns, everywhere there were glowing red eyes, in all sizes, but always the same, shaped like Hennessy’s, with only the colour different. Blood red orbs stared at the world of flesh, almost glowing with gentle fire.

I saw streams of blood, boiling hot and almost freezing cold, in all colours of the rainbow, pour down from the skies and into the burning ocean.

And I saw it bleeding, cutting itself off, every movement, every little action demanding that it mutilate itself, burning away pieces of itself as fuel.

* * *

Another blast hit me and smacked me into a rock the size of a car, breaking up the vision I’d seen just now.

What in the name of Lady Light’s billiard cue collection was that?

Hennessy was still wailing, and I noticed a tell just before she smacked me through the rock with another blast.

Every time she fired off one of her blasts, her wailing rose in pitch for a moment, then dropped off again.

That was all I needed to know to take her down, within seconds if I wanted.

Now there was only one problem. Namely, the fact that I wasn’t going to. Even if I barely knew her, even if I hadn’t known about her until minutes ago, she was my daughter. I had done many a bad thing in my life, but beating up my daughter, even when she was attacking me with near-lethal force, would not be written down on that list any time soon.

So I took the next blast, rolling with it to put some distance between us. There was something off about them, and I needed more information, hopefully to find a way to stop her without hurting her.

As I flipped backwards, I let more of the monkey emerge, coating my left arm and leg entirely, and crawling up the left side of my neck. Jet-black flesh, with even darker nails, emerged out of thin air just inches around my hand, forming my namesake monkey hand. I dug it into the ground and ripped out sod and dirt, throwing it in the air the moment the pitch of her wail rose.

Her blast took me in the chest with full strength – and it did not pass through the dirt I had thrown up, even though it was exactly in between us and I’d been hit from her direction.

Damn that hurts.

I let the monkey cover the left half of my body and my lower left jaw, the black fur flowing as if there was a strong wind blowing. Hopefully, this would be enough, because I dared not unleash more of him – the monkey was almost in battle rage, and I didn’t want it to hurt her.

The next blast, I blocked with the monkey’s left hand, enlarging it to double size – and she still tore into the black flesh, almost to the bone.

My little girl’s got moxie.

Another blast, and I blocked it again, the hand barely healed as she flayed it to the bone.

Wait a minute…

I jumped backwards, nearly half a mile, and threw up dirt and sod again. Her blast hit again, without disturbing the dirt – but it was blocked by the rejuvenated monkey hand.

If I’d been a cartoon character, a little light bulb would have lit up above my head right around now.

These aren’t blasts, not really. She creates them anywhere within line of sight, even if there’s something in between.

Which didn’t fit, because in her fight against Patchwork and Necrophobe, her blasts had definitely had to travel the distance, allowing the villains to evade.

Whatever was going on with her power, I needed to stop her, because I could tell that her attacks were growing stronger. And as if that wasn’t enough, I saw a lily white arm bloom out of thin air, inches from her thigh, it’s nails made of crackling blue fire.

I need to get out of her field of vision.

Suiting action to thoughts – hehe – I pulled one of my favourite moves, diving towards her, ducking forward. She was so surprised by that, apparently, that she focused her sight over me, creating an explosion of soil.

Her eyes tried to follow me, but I poured on the speed before she could angle her flight to follow me and jumped up to reach her from behind.

And then glowing red eyes opened all over her seven misshapen wings, staring in every direction at the same time.

You have got to be kidding me.

She blasted me back towards the water, flipping me tail over tea kettle – and where in God’s name does that saying come from? – which revealed to me a sight I was not really glad about. Several figures were flying over the water, towards the water.

I landed on the pier and, before she could attack, let the monkey cover my left eye, it’s burning red eye appearing over mine, zooming in on the approaching metahumans.

Her team. Great. And Tamara, too.

This was going to turn into one hell of a clusterfuck, especially if they recognized my power… recognized me.

I heard her wail’s pitch change and jumped again so strongly I cracked the wood of the pier – only for it to be torn to kindling as her blast hit it.

Soaring up above her, I focused on my – on the monkey’s – feet and jumped again off the air, creating a booming sound as I flew towards her.

There was always a three second gap between her attacks, if not more. I didn’t know what I could do without hurting her if I got close, but I wasn’t gonna resolve this by just evading her attacks, either.

Only I hadn’t taken the arm with the burning nails into account – it reached out and pointed at me, a sphere of fire the size of my chest flying at me at a blinding speed.

Ah crap.

I raised my left arm and tried to grab the sphere with my monkey arm – sometimes, it interacted weirdly with ranged attacks, allowing me to catch and throw them back.

Not with this one, though. It burned into the arm – and then kept on burning, eating through the flesh and towards my real hand.

Double crap.

I pushed the monkey’s flesh out, excising the afflicted portion, letting it drop and disintegrate as the fire ate it up, regrowing it as quickly as I could.

Her next blast drove me so hard into the earth it created a small crater, and then her wailing got louder and I saw a female leg, black as the night, and a golden – literally golden, not just yellow – talon emerge from the crystal floating behind her back. At the same time, her wings expanded, and though still misshapen, were now thrice the size of her body, dotted with eyes ranging from the size of a finger nail to football size.

Mouths appeared in the gabs between eyes, soft rosy and red lips with vicious pointed teeth, and then in the palm of the fire-nailed hand, along it’s length and all over the flesh of the jet-black leg.

I could guess what was coming, and let the monkey cover my ears, too.

Not a second too early, for the wailing scream that followed shook me, dizzying despite the protection my monkey provided.

I should have been annoyed, or worried, or angry. Instead, I just felt proud.

My little girl’s a powerhouse!

A bubbling, deep belly laugh overcame me, and I shook on the spot even as her wailing scream shook the very earth around me, pounding me with the kind of decibels you don’t get even at the most hardcore rave.

The emotions she was projecting changed, adding exasperation to the burning rage – maybe not the smartest move on my part – and she charged towards me, her wings melting together into something more akin to a pair of feathered bat wings with eyes. The arm she’d manifested earlier shifted upwards and back, floating in the air next to the crystal at her back, and shot a steady stream of fire spheres at me.

Oh no my dear, this is the kind of stuff I have more experience with than you.

I dug my monkey hand into the soil, enlarging it to car size, and threw a large chunk of earth against and through the spheres.

The following explosions tore it appart, and she shot through the dust – only to find me gone, because I immediately dove into the hole I made and dug downwards.

Moving forward a few meters, I burst out of the ground, reaching for her dirt-covered body with both my monkey hand and the other one, trying to get her into a bear hug.

* * *

Vek and her team – what little remained with most of the veterans now at the wall – landed on the very edge of the island, just half a mile from the two battling metahumans.

Mrs Benning tried to run towards them, only to be stopped by Dearheart – Give the girl her due, she’s got brains, if not manners – and shouted: “Henny! Kevin! Please, stop!

Neither of the combatants reacted to her words as Mister Paterson – the Aap Oordra, one of Chicago’s most beloved thrill-villains and pranksters – kept coming at her, despite getting knocked down again, and again, and again.

“Give that asshole points for persistence, at least. Not smarts, but persistence,” commented Dearheart with a sneer, while the rest of the juniors, and the two only other adult heroes, took up fighting positions around them.

“Dearheart, be quiet, please. Does an-“

She was cut off by the sound of the very earth breaking.

* * *

“You need to attack less and plan more, Hennessy!” he shouted, evading another fire sphere. She’d stopped using her – ultimately ineffectual – kinetic blasts and had spent the last few seconds trying to burn me alive.

I evaded another sphere and the accompanying explosion – she’d had a second fire-nailed forearm and hand sprout from the elbow of the first one, and from then on, the spheres had exploded like high explosives, with both fire and kinetic force – and threw rocks at her.

Yeah, rocks. I know, I should at least be chucking cars, or bystanders, but there were none around.

With an explosive motion, six more arms, now normal-sized, sprouted from behind her, wrapping around her dirtied body, grabbing hold of her, two even groping her own breasts.

For some reason, that bothered me a lot.

The rocks smacked into an invisible armor around her, barely touching her – though they did move her.

I chucked three more football-sized rocks at her, evading another two spheres in the process, fliping around like a, well, a monkey, trying to find an angle for attack.

“Listen, Hennessy – or do you prefer Chayot? – I don’t want to fight you. I know you’re angry, maybe you even hate me, but we can talk, I promise!”

She looked at me, with tears forming in her eyes, and made a gurgling sound.

“Ghuu-glll aaaaahhww.”

What?

At least she’d stopped chucking fire spheres at me, and even her mental assault – How in God’s name is she getting past the monkey? – lessened.

“Please, let’s sit down and just talk, alright?”

“Wrrrr-ssssss iallllliiii,” she hissed.

An idea started to form in my head.

“Hennessy? Can you… understand me?”

“Ullackkkkk,” she gurgled, then nodded.

Oh God, no.

My daughter couldn’t speak. I’d known a few cases like that, metahumans who couldn’t communicate normally – one of them had been a good friend of mine – and they were rarely… well.

I felt pity for her, and I immediately realized that that wasn’t a good thing to do in front of an angry teenage empath.

Gggggguuuuuuuuahaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!” She screamed, and her scream kept building – until she started having a seizure.

“Hennessy!” I shouted, shocked, but she just thrashed around in the air… and then went limp.

Hanging in the air, as if suspended by her shoulders, flesh blooms from all around her, masses of limbs and eyes and torsos enveloping her fragile looking form.

The flesh was moving as if it boiled, forming and then again absorbing limbs and heads of all kinds of animals, and then it parted like water, horizontally, revealing her form once more, curled up with her arms wrapped around her legs, her eyes closed, her face solemn as ever.

Metal formed around her, two golden rings turning within each other, missing sections along their lengths, covered inside and out with red eyes. The flesh above and beneath her twisted and grew.

Below, it formed a lion-like body, all catlike grace and savage strength, with pure white fur and an ox’ hooves for the last four limbs. Yes, last four. It had seven pairs of legs, two pairs of ox-like legs, two pairs of lion-paws, two pairs of eagle-talons and a pair green-scaled red-eyed snakes, as well as a dragon’s neck and head for a tail. Instead of one head, it had three, ox, eagle and lion. Behind those three legs was a half-spherical depression in which the sphere formed by the two metal rings rested.

Above, the flesh formed into a nude, golden-skinned woman, ending at the waist, which formed a half-spherical opening to connect to the sphere, essentially having Hennessy in her two wheels as the gut. From the back of the woman, six burning wings sprouted, her face was beautiful and solemn, her hair made of fire and in her hands she held a fire saber longer than she was tall and a spear that was twice that length.

All of her heads save for Hennessy’s real head opened their mouths, howling in rage.

Oh, joybunnies…

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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.