“I want to meet her.”
“Yeah,” his voice came out as a croak. It was hard to know what to say in a moment like this.
“My daughter. My sweet, sweet girl. I want to say my goodbye. I want to hold her.”
“You are holding her, Kel.”
“You know what I mean. Please know what I mean.”
The space was dark, and with everything having shuffled around, mud flowing into the open window to add to the claustrophobia, the pressure mounted. The van that had been their house, their transportation, and the storage for everything the two of them owned was now their coffin. There was barely any light, and at times it didn’t feel like there was enough air; his head would buzz with a headache and he felt like he could nod off into a miserable sleep he would never wake from.
He could feel the breeze through the damaged window, almost ice cold when the rest of him was hot and prickly with sweat. Kelly, trapped where she lay in a position lower in the van than he was, didn’t seem to get that breeze.
“Shawn. I can’t take her with me. You can’t make me.”
“How would I make you?”
“Don’t make me spell it out,” the words were a plea.
He wasn’t used to her being the rock or being the one with the plan, but she was the one who had kept it together after… after whatever had happened. He found himself walking himself through the known, to get to this thing that Kelly seemed to think he should know. He’d been emancipated from his parents at sixteen. She’d simply run away. They’d found each other.
It hadn’t been easy. They had their individual neuroses and traumas to get over before they meshed properly. Kelly heard voices. She didn’t see things, she just heard the voices, and she didn’t hate the voices. That didn’t mean they were always the best thing for her, but she didn’t hate them. She’d always talked about how people with schizophrenia in other areas of the world tended to hear happy voices, or supportive voices. She blamed culture and she blamed society for the fact that people in ‘the West’ heard negative or paranoia-inducing voices. She wanted to reject that society. Most of all, she wanted to reject the medicines, the institutions, and her parents making every decision for her, when her parents were something she couldn’t talk about without going to a dark place.
Figuring out whether he should trust her on that had been a task, and a long series of compromises. He’d been sixteen when he met her and admittedly not the best when it came to judgment calls. The last few months had seen her spiral out, then rein herself in. He’d gotten her to talk regularly with someone who knew better than he did, got her to agree to try medications if she had another bad patch.
But given circumstances, he’d felt it was his duty to give her what she needed, and she wanted to get away from society, focus on the simpler things.
They’d paid their money at the campsite, took up their spot on a rise in the woods, he had his licenses in order to fish and the go-ahead to hunt rabbit and only rabbit. He’d signed on the dotted line on the sheet that said he would take out everything he brought in. No trash.
Twice a week, for the last three weeks, he’d taken her into town. While she had appointments, at hospital and with the head doctor, he bought groceries, bought the little odds and ends, and then went to the library to while away the remaining time.
For the first time in his life, he’d smiled because the days made him happy. He’d been able to breathe in deeply and take in raw oxygen, close his eyes and feel the sun against the lids, and he’d felt at peace. Better yet, he’d seen Kelly at peace. Not perfect, but as good as he’d ever seen her.
A very long and light rain had closed out the summer. Not what he’d thought of as ‘natural disaster’ rain. They’d been laughing at how everything was wet, sorting out the van, when the mud had come down, rolling the van, swamping and mostly burying them.
Burying them alive.
It had been Kelly who had talked him down when he’d broken down, after the van’s horn stopped working. Because he’d exhausted the battery, or, from his rudimentary car knowledge, corrosion under the van’s hood. He’d known he wasn’t rationing it out enough, but he’d panicked. Because Kel needed help. Kelly had kept him sane, helped him to relax, and hadn’t once blamed him for overusing the horn.
Rationally, he knew the campground had records that put him and Kelly on the hillside. It was a question of time. He’d heard helicopters.
His chair squeaked and grated as he twisted around, his hand extended, reaching for her hand.
She didn’t take it. Instead, she pressed something into his palm, reached up, and closed his fingers around it.
“Whatever happens, no matter how this turns out, you absolutely cannot let my parents have her. They don’t see her, they don’t talk to her, they do not touch her.”
In the gloom, his hands traced the outline of the thing he had been given. He was careful, because he already knew the shape of the handle.
“Promise me,” she said. “Promise me, promise me, promise me.”
“I promise,” he said, even though he was still wrapping his head around what she wanted. Or he understood, like he understood the knife, but there was always that doubt in his mind when it came to Kelly.
Once in a long while, she would go off on a tangent, and he would be so tired that he believed her without question, only to find himself having to catch up, second guess, and realize she wasn’t making sense. Then he would tell her, tell her to eat and sleep, and she’d usually listen. Or she’d talk at him for another few hours, while he tried to steer the conversation. The lines of reality could be that much blurrier for her when she was tired, and the tricky part was that they’d been joined at the hip for the past two years, which meant he was often tired when she was tired. It was easy to get drawn in.
And he was tired now, he was running on empty too.
Was this the thing to do? Was there another way? Could they wait? Was Kelly even that hurt?
“I know I’m not the coolest, I’m not smart, I didn’t finish high school,” she said. “If you want to lie to her about who I was, I understand. Do-”
“No,” he said. He would have teared up, if he weren’t dehydrated. The mud had dried up enough to become dirt, around them. “No, what? No. You’re the best person.”
“I’m really not.”
“You’re the first decent person I met in my life,” he said. “You’re the first person who put a real smile on my face. The first person who opened minds of people instead of closing them. You never had a mean word to say about anyone-”
“Anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
“You can’t let my parents-”
“I won’t,” he said, firm. “And she’ll know you if I have to talk about you ever day.”
“No. I don’t want to be a weight, like-”
She kept going back to that. The weight she hadn’t been able to leave behind. She’d blamed her parents for the unusually early onset to her schizophrenia, hinting at stress causing it, but he’d talked to the therapist, and there wasn’t any evidence that stress was linked to age of onset.
More concerning, there might have been a delirious edge to the fact she kept going back to that place. It spooked him.
So he talked, talked over her, even, because he found himself in a place where if he didn’t keep going or working his way forward, he would stop and find himself paralyzed. Because he could talk of warmer things, and all of the good things he liked about Kelly, and hopefully lift her up and keep her away from that kind of thinking.
His entire life, his parents had told him that they loved him, and not once had they shown it. His grandparents, his aunts, his uncles, they said the same. Teachers said he had potential, urged him onward, but even the most supportive of those relationships hadn’t seemed to mean anything. He’d written an email to a favorite teacher from the library, thanking her for her support and letting her know he was happy now. He’d signed with his name. The reply had been a telling ‘who is this?’
His parents had been fine as parents, but they hadn’t felt like family. He could imagine sending his parents a status update and getting a reply like he had from his teacher.
That might be the delirium talking.
“I want to see her,” Kel said, insistent enough to cut through his rambling. “Don’t worry about hurting me. I can’t feel anything. I haven’t been able to feel a lot for a while now.”
He wasn’t positive she was telling the truth, but he set to work, using the knife.
“Eyes forward,” she said. “Focus on what comes next.”
He’d had moments where he’d faced down a crisis and he’d been calm. A past landlord who had pushed his way into the apartment. Dealing with hostile and drunk campers who seemed convinced this was their spot. Leaving the van and the tent they’d hooked up at the rear as an extension to the van only to find himself ten feet away from what might have been a pair of coyotes. Moments he’d faced down danger with composure and came away from it feeling like a man.
He didn’t feel like that here. Panic set in, and Kelly’s voice didn’t help like it had after the horn had given out. The situation was too messy, there were too many question marks.
In the midst of it all, he ceased feeling like himself. He was an outside observer, somehow cataloguing every detail and not registering or keeping a one. Time blurred and the act seemed endless.
And somewhere in the midst of all of that, he found himself being swept up by a current. Lost in the midst of a greater flow of connections that threatened to distract him. He wanted to focus on this, on the future, like she’d said, and this rush of sensations and images threatened to pull him away from it.
He flew among planets, but he really only wanted to be in this planet, in this van, in this mud, with Kelly.
In the midst of it, he felt it give way. There was almost a sentiment to it, a sigh, a frustrated concession.
Power crackled along the knife, and it glowed faintly, illuminating the work he was doing. It was just hot enough to cauterize the open cut.
Kelly, silent, touched his face.
The child was silent as he pulled it free. Eleven weeks early. With the edge of panic, he almost shook it, to make it start crying. A bad sign for the kind of parent he’d end up being, he thought. A good thing that Kelly took the child into her arms. He’d been warned by the prenatal nurse that it could feel like mothers had a nine month headstart into being a parent. He felt that now. He was glad for that warning, because he very much felt like Kelly was more ready for this.
The child didn’t cry as much as he’d anticipated, and its initial whimpers and complaints were easily shushed. He let Kelly have every moment, his focus purely on managing the wound he’d created.
She whispered to herself, like she tended to do when she was hearing the voices, but he liked to imagine she was introducing those voices to their child. A deeper connection.
“What do we name her?” Kelly asked. He wasn’t sure at first that she was talking to him, but the illumination from the glowing knife he’d stabbed into the back of one of the van’s seats gave him a view of her eyes.
“We could name her after you.”
“No,” Kelly said, firm.
There was some back and forth.
In the midst of it, her coherence faltering, Kelly passed the child to him, her arms almost too weak to manage the meager weight. He was just in time to catch it.
“You have her?” she asked.
‘Her’ had a penis, it seemed. He found himself caught in a dilemma.
“I have her,” he said. Kel had wanted a girl so badly. Had she not noticed? Or was she already that out of it?
“You’ll take good care of her. You took good care of me.”
He wasn’t sure, but he nodded. The glowing knife let them see each other. He was barely concerned with it. It was secondary, unimportant.
“The name,” she said.
He couldn’t give the child a girl’s name, and he couldn’t bring himself to provide a name he would later change. That would betray Kel.
“Addison,” he said. Gender neutral. And maybe if Kelly had been gifted like he’d been gifted, in this tomb of theirs, and she’d seen something in Addison, then the name should work then too.
“Good,” Kelly agreed.
The child missed Kelly’s warmth, and it might have wanted more of the meal it had been given. It might have disliked that cool waft of air that came in from the gaps in the mud above the broken window. He did what he could to bundle it up, and tucked it into his shirt, head poking out of his collar, the tiny body laying along the crook of his arm and armpit, head cresting near his chin.
But Addison cried, and another of the prenatal nurse’s warnings was made evident, because he’d been told the pitch of a baby’s cry had been keyed by evolution to strike at the heartstrings and drill into the mind. He’d been told it was okay to put the baby down, to walk into the next room, even step out of the house, because the crying could be overwhelming.
He was overwhelmed, he couldn’t walk into a next room. His heartstrings were strained to their limits as they were.
He felt the weight of Addison on his arm, and he focused his mind forward, focusing on what he needed to do next. He and the baby waited for their rescue.
Their world was illuminated by the glowing knife he laid in the hollow above the glove compartment. He could already feel more power building up inside him, and he instinctively knew that when time came, he’d be able to put more power into something. For now, it was an insignificant thing.
He turned away from the window. The sun was setting, and the forcefields over the floating headquarters gave it some interesting hues, bringing out the subtler colors. Inside, everything was white and black, faintly tinted by those same hues outside. Battery and Challenger were approaching.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Things are good,” Battery said. She smiled. “Listen, Armsmaster and Miss Militia got the latest calendar. We’re the only ones on patrol tonight, so we get first pickings. I’m really really hoping you take one of these. Can you guess which?”
The calendar. The ‘schedule’ was more focused on the week, and that was for Armsmaster to write up and for the Director to sign off on or amend, much like how Armsmaster would get his say about hires and personnel changes in the Protectorate and Wards, but it was ultimately down to the Director.
The calendar wasn’t the schedule. The calendar was a list of events coming over the next month, though sometimes there was notice of something coming months later. Armsmaster would usually pull in Miss Militia and Triumph to help make the top-level decisions. Already, some roles were penned in. Triumph and Gallant were down for the video game thing. Probably because they were the only ones who hadn’t sat in yet. Velocity’s name filled in the blank beside an event at a conference with Maine state law enforcement. No reason given for that. A long way to travel, maybe.
There were a lot of shorthand codes and notes by each entry. One person was to give presentations at every school in the city. The shorthand indicated they needed to write up a draft of what they would present and get it cleared. There was a lot of work, which was probably why it was indicated with a (B) – or pay bonus.
The Director wanted to step things up with Crisis Points. Checking in with victims and the vulnerable. There was room for two names there. Accelerated schedule. More work, no bonus indicated.
There was work with local law enforcement, giving them the run-down on the powers and the gangs, a refresher on what to do in a given circumstance, as well as policies for different classifications, and then a stint of increased coordination after that, riding along. The job included babysitting Wards. It was a diversion from normal work, marked with the (DFP) code, and that meant taking it on would mean reduced patrols for the duration. If someone was recuperating from an injury or scare, the bosses would usually pen them in for something like that.
Morning tv and radio. Everyone knew that was a trap, but the people at the very top of the PRT wanted to push high-visibility and approachability, and it was important a lot of people start the occasional days hearing from the heroes. It was too easy for the capes to all be denizens of the night.
Standing representative at an event opening. Mayor Craig had pledged to reopen the ferry as a campaign promise. Those were always a bore, and if the promise fell through, it’d look bad for the heroes. It was purely a political move, winning points with the mayor that could later be cashed in. The line would remain blank until someone needed punishment detail. That someone would probably be Assault.
And someone, it seemed, would be getting a vacation. A trip to Toronto, where a TV show was being filmed. Just about every television drama had its token ‘cape’ episode, if capes weren’t a casual background element. A recognition that powers were a thing, for a single episode or three-episode story arc. Even the mention that a Protectorate cape or Ward would play a part would provoke interest in the midseason.
He paged through the papers that were part of the bundle. There were more details on the show. ‘Flip’, a relationship show with a science fiction premise. Facial prosthetics and partial mask. The role was supposed to be as part of an elite force. Always positive, or the PRT wouldn’t sign off on it. Two members of the elite force would be a couple, no doubt because even a whisper of a relationship between capes in real life would stir fans and supporters into a frothing tizzy.
“You want me to take the TV show?” he guessed. Battery had a natural aversion to anything ‘couply’.
“Please,” Battery said.
“I’m not good in front of cameras,” Challenger said. She had a red bodysuit with epaulettes that had fine chains dangling from them and other decoration, and with her headgear off, strikingly different facial features, with a very sharp, pronounced chin, lines that joined nose to jaw if she had any expression that wasn’t neutral, and very sharply drawn, black eyebrows over green eyes. Her hair was damp and while it was normally straight, when damp it took on a slight curl as though it had been finely braided.
There were capes who didn’t wear full masks, and who used makeup, wigs, or altered their hair to change their costumed identities. There were also ones like Challenger, who were ‘normal’ in costume and who went to more extreme measures out of costume. Her headgear, which was in her hand, was a chin-strap, ear-cover, and a diagonal blindfold that covered one of her eyes. She’d lost her sight in the eye after an incident in a past city.
She walked a finer line with identity, given the lack of a full-face helmet or cover, and with her features being the kind that someone would take notice of, he could understand her not wanting the scrutiny that came with the television camera.
“Why not you?” he asked Battery. “Why do you want me to take this?”
“If I go Assault will want to go too. Miss Militia warned me it was possible and they would jump at the chance.”
He wasn’t sure what to say to that. There were a lot of times, he found, that he couldn’t seem to find the right words. He knew Assault and Battery were dating, they’d formally told the people in charge, but didn’t seem to him like it was a good thing. Already, she was playing defensive, making excuses, and pulling strings to avoid the bad, instead of seeking the good.
“I’ll have to talk to my wife. If I can take Addison to see Toronto, then I might,” he said. “It pays?”
“It pays a lot. It’s in the last few pages.”
He flipped through. Sixty-five thousand an episode, two episodes. To be filmed across nine days. Reduced taxes paid on said income, because PRT work was technically government work.
He didn’t need the money for himself. That wasn’t an aspiration. He had been happy living in a van with a girl he loved, who loved him back, running into town twice a week for groceries and catching his own meat. Addison’s education fund was at its limit. Anything more would be excess.
Jennifer would probably like more things for the house, but Jennifer was constantly on the lookout for the next move up, and now that they lived in the Towers, the nicest area in Brockton Bay, she was hinting at possible moves to other cities.
He had the charity he’d set up out of respect for Kel, but if he did a few episodes of television, Jennifer would wonder where the money ended up. It would put him in the position of lying or justifying the charity again.
But he really did want to help those guys out.
Battery shifted her weight. He glanced up at her, and he was struck by a thought, that he’d judged her and Assault by a measure he wasn’t applying to himself and Jennifer.
The problem was, Jennifer was really, really good for Addison.
“I’ll think about it. I’ll give you an answer before tomorrow morning. If it’s a yes, you can forge my signature on there and pretend it was always there.”
“Thank you,” Battery said.
“I can’t promise yes.”
“Thank you, though,” she said. “You’re not due to patrol yet, right?”
“Not yet,” he said. He glanced out the window. The sunset had changed dramatically over the course of the conversation and reading. “But if you cover the last bit of my schedule, it’ll give me more time to convince my wife.”
“I can do that,” Battery said. “Do you want a Ward?”
“Sure,” he said, smiling.
At best, they were some terrific kids. At worst, they were good training for dealing with teenagers with issues, in case Addison ended up struggling.
They made their way down to the platform, where the bikes were all arranged in a row. Aegis, Gallant, and Kid Win were there, eating sandwiches from the vendor who was set up in one corner, to serve staff.
“No Vista?” he asked them. “I thought she was coming tonight.”
“She’s missing it because her grades slipped, and she’s really mad about it,” Gallant said. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah. Stretch my legs some, enjoy the nice weather.”
“Crack some skulls,” Challenger said, as she fit her headgear into place.
“No,” Battery said. “We avoid trouble while we’ve got the Wards riding along. Or we set a good example.”
Challenger rolled her eye, looking at Aegis, who matched the expression. Good example indeed. She gave Kid Win a push on the shoulder, and he looked uneasy in smile and posture both.
“Are you biking?” Kid Win asked.
“Yeah,” Dauntless replied.
“You can’t fly yet?”
Dauntless tested his power, feeling out for the boots and activating them. He lifted himself up into the air, but it was shaky, too brief before the power burned out. It would enhance his leaps and bounds, but not flying, not yet. He’d wanted firepower first. There were a few people around the city who were pretty scary. The nazis. Lung and Lung’s flunky Oni Lee.
“That’s too bad,” Gallant said.
“Soon,” Dauntless said.
“We were talking about who would ride with who,” Gallant said. “Can I ride with you? Kid Win with Battery?”
“I seem to be left out,” Challenger groused.
“You get me,” Aegis pointed out.
“You fly, and you’ll fly off if given the choice,” Challenger replied. She opened a locked case in the wall, and lifted down her axe. A weapon as tall as she was. She held it with one hand and grabbed her rifle, which was similarly proportioned. Each weapon was mounted on one side of her bike, which had been repainted.
“No vehicle tech yet?” Dauntless asked Kid Win.
He got a shake of the head in response.
“Battery goes five miles an hour over the speed limit, max,” Gallant murmured. “Challenger rides like a maniac. Kid Win was scared to ride with her, and I was preparing myself to be nice, but… I’m glad I don’t have to.”
“Got it,” Dauntless said. “I could mention it to people, if you wanted.”
“Maybe,” Gallant said, in the young-teenager way that signaled a ‘yes’.
They divided up the city. Dauntless climbed onto the bike, Gallant climbed on behind. Kid Win got on behind Battery, and Challenger revved her bike’s engines.
As Battery input the details for the people managing the floating HQ’s forcefields, Dauntless leaned to one side to look at Gallant over one shoulder. “I need to call home. If you could turn a deaf ear to that?”
“I’ll put my music on, tap my knee when you’re done.”
The forcefield bubble flickered off. The hue of the sky changed, and that wasn’t just his own perception. With light reflecting off of the bubble, it tinted the clouds above in rainbow hues. The dropping of the bubble was something people across the city would notice. In a way, it signaled that evildoers and criminals should beware.
Challenger roared off, speeding toward the platform’s edge, even before the forcefield path over the water had been fully laid out. Headed to the Boardwalk and the Docks. She popped a wheelie, even.
Battery was next. She sometimes liked to go full speed while they had the clear, straight path over the water, then ride more conservatively in the city, but with Kid Win on board, she was more moderate.
Dauntless took off. His path was curved, the start of it extending off the south edge of the platform, the curve sweeping out over the bay itself, the final length of the forcefield path pointing west. He was headed downtown.
The curve wasn’t perfectly flat, with a slight dip to his right and a rise to his left, and he’d always liked that. That he tilted at an angle to meet the curve squarely. He exaggerated the effect for Gallant’s benefit, until they were almost horizontal, and put his boot out. It glowed, providing some propulsion, and helped stabilize them.
Jennifer picked up while Gallant was still making noise.
“Early patrol tonight, Battery’s covering the later shift. I’ll be coming home early. I’ll see Addison before he goes to bed.”
“He’ll like that. Should I keep dinner warm?”
There was a brief exchange to follow. He had a sinking feeling as it concluded. That thought that had passed through his mind as he’d talked to Battery wasn’t leaving him.
He’d loved more than a few people over the course of his life. Addison. Kelly, Jennifer, some other women over the years. In a way, he loved his team and the Wards. He was fond of some of the people from the charity, and he loved that they’d been receptive to his wavelength and what he wanted to do. Kel’s way wasn’t the right way, but it had been a way forward. With the money and resources he’d put in, the charity helped ensure more teenagers with mental health problems or other crises had a way forward.
But when it came to receiving and feeling love, though he had a growing number of fans and supporters in the community, and he’d married a beautiful woman who had beamed on their wedding day, it rarely registered. It only felt like ‘real’ love with Addison, and back in the days with Kelly.
He and Gallant sped forward, a mostly invisible bridge between them and the roiling water. The wind whipped by, and the engine of the bike vibrated beneath them, powerful, special issue.
With his thumb, he flipped through settings on the bike. Cheating a little.
He reached the end of the glowing forcefield, and entered the city proper, still going faster than he should. The bike’s onboard computers were hooked into the traffic network. People at red lights were treated to flashing signs in the corners, to warn them that the light wasn’t about to turn green.
The coast was clear to sail through the first few intersections. The city worked with him, the flow of traffic was his flow.
To better stabilize with his nascent flight, he put more power into his boots. The power crackled and danced around his feet before solidifying, pressing further in until there was something almost crystalline about the configuration. He could see the facets, the power, and he could see the shape of what it was doing. He couldn’t decide the end results, but the results made sense, given what the object was and what he was doing with it.
It meant a little something, this headway.
“Done digesting?” Shawn asked. He was as nervous talking to his son as he was on any first date or first day of the job. As nervous as he’d been when stepping up to participate in his first costumed fight, against Blackball.
A thirteen year old Addison sat at the kitchen counter, his laptop beside him. The boxes from their recent move were still unpacked.
“I’ll start with the obvious… it’s not a desk job?” Addison asked.
“No,” Shawn said. “Sometimes, a lot of the time, but no.”
Addison was thoughtful, prone to his own ruminations. He was almost a carbon copy of Kelly, dark in style but always well meaning, with a lot going on beneath that mop of black hair that hung too far into his eyes. The girls in his class were ‘bananas’ crazy about him, to use phrasing he’d heard from one of Addison’s female friends. A fact which seemed to fluster his son twice as much as it pleased him.
Shawn had learned Addison liked to have time to process things, or he got easily frustrated. He’d provided the information, the full information about who his dad was, with helmet set on the kitchen counter as some evidence, then let Addison have the space to work his way through it. He’d done the same with punishments, letting Addison think about what he’d done wrong before they talked about it. He’d done it when Shawn’s dad had died. He’d really fucking wished Jennifer had done it when dropping the news about the divorce, but there was nothing he could do about that.
The issue was, the approach had a way of moving things to the far other extreme of the spectrum of reactions. Addison seemed disconcertingly calm about it all.
“Okay,” Addison said. “I understand why you lied.”
“For the record,” Shawn said, “I didn’t lie. When I told you I had paperwork, I was telling the truth. When I said I’d be late, I wasn’t mentioning I was busy wearing a costume.”
“I felt it was important not to lie to your face.”
“Okay,” Addison said. “Thanks, I guess. I understand why you did it.”
“Okay,” Shawn responded. He felt very aware of the pause. “Any questions?”
“When you said I should be careful about if I inherit mom’s whole…” Addison gestured at his head.
“That wasn’t mom’s whole thing,” Shawn said. “It was one part of your mom, that wasn’t in the top three defining qualities about her, just so you know. She was luckier than some, but even if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t be her in whole.”
“Bad word, sorry,” Addison said. He seemed to ruminate for a second before asking, “It wasn’t code for superhero stuff?”
“No. But you might get powers, because I have them.”
“Wow,” Addison said, voice dry. “Whichever parent I get something from, it’s going to be interesting. Fuck.”
“Could be neither.”
“Could be both.”
“Could,” Shawn said, feeling that nervousness again.
“I looked you up. Dauntless.”
“And there was this interview question. It’s on video-”
Addison turned the laptop ninety degrees. Shawn approached his son, one hand touching his back, and leaned down to better see. It meant a hell of a lot that Addison didn’t shy away or react to the proximity or the touch.
One of the school events.
“I heard that you get powers from being awesome,” a girl on the screen said, the camera struggling to find her, focusing in only as she finished saying ‘awesome’. “Can you tell us what you did?”
The question evoked a lot of defensive squabbling, some students protesting that you couldn’t ask that sort of thing. Even some teachers were ready to protect his identity.
“I can’t tell you the exact details, but I saved a life,” the Dauntless on screen said. “One that meant everything to me.”
Addison glanced from screen to his dad.
“I did. It’s not the exact truth, but I did save a life. Yours. It was… much too panicked to be something I’m proud of, but I saved you, and I’m proud of that.”
“You’re not going to explain it any more?”
“When you’re a bit older.”
His son gave him a look. As far as Addison was concerned, he was old enough for everything now. But the response was a calm, “Okay.”
“I was just wondering… who you are, I guess.”
The words hurt.
“Who Dauntless is,” Addison clarified. Maybe he’d seen the hurt.
“He’s me. Trying to do my best.”
“Why tell me now?”
“Because you’re about the right age to possibly get powers. And because Jennifer’s moving away, I don’t have someone helping cover my tracks, and you’re too damn smart. I can’t hide it, and I’d rather tell you than get caught.”
Addison’s hand gripped the fabric at the back of Shawn’s shirt, and a moment later, the boy was standing, hugging him.
He hugged back, fierce.
“I’m going to worry,” Addison said.
“That’s allowed. I’m sorry you have to.”
“I saw some other stuff. Fights.”
“Yeah. I’m backed by some good people, and I’m good at it. But yeah.”
“Call me? Every time you’re back and safe? Keep me updated?”
Not the usual thirteen year old. He was a sensitive soul, and one that was feeling hurt and bewildered by the divorce. This timing hadn’t been the best.
“Oh, about covering tracks and hiding it…” Addison said. He broke the hug and picked up the helmet, feeling its weight in his hands. “I invited Mo over to help me unpack. She’s coming in… twenty minutes.”
“Mo. I like Mo,” Shawn said. She was Addison’s friend who had remarked about how crazy the girls in the class were over him. She was very much on Addison’s wavelength, with the friendship clicking so easily and quickly they seemed to just belong together, but she hadn’t indicated any interest as of yet. Shawn found himself secretly rooting for the two, but he didn’t want to force things.
“You say that a lot.”
“If she wants to help, we should ensure she’s rewarded for her efforts.”
“She’s not going to work. She’ll keep me company and read my comics while I do the unpacking.”
“Tell her that if she helps some and helps the two of us move some furniture around, she can decide what we order for dinner.”
Addison rolled his eyes.
“She likes Greek.”
“Alright. Greek. I’ll look up some places.”
“There’s a place downtown. Zervas. We ate there a week ago. It’s awesome.”
Shawn gave his son a kiss on the top of the head. “Got it.”
“We’re going to a movie later. I don’t suppose you’d give me some money?”
“For the two of you?” Yes!
“There’ll be five of us.”
“If you and Mo get some real unpacking done and help move furniture, I’ll pay for the two of you. I’ll give you all a ride if-”
Addison was making a face at that last sentence.
“-Okay. No ride. But let me know what the plan is before you leave.”
“Can everyone hang here before we head to the movie?” Addison asked. “How much can I milk you feeling guilty?”
“That much. Go clean up a bit before she comes,” he said. He didn’t mention that he wasn’t motivated by the guilt. Addison was sharp but he wasn’t right about everything. Those scary days would come in a few years, Shawn guessed.
“It’s so crazy that you’re a superhero,” Addison said. “I’m going to tell everyone.”
“Don’t,” Shawn said, stern, fully aware Addison was joking. “Not even Mo. Not before talking to me about it first.”
That got him a nod. The helmet was handed back to him, and Addison picked up his laptop before heading to his room.
The helmet did have some heft to it, Shawn found. He bounced it in his hands, feeling that weight. Concentrating, he tapped into that reserve of power he felt inside himself, and crystallized that power into the helmet’s capabilities. Sensory, protective, and some general shielding capabilities.
“Your kid is pretty great,” he told Kelly, looking down at the helmet, which now glowed white hot, the energy arcing along its length and width.
He’d heard the air raid sirens and was out of bed and dressed before the phone call came in. He pulled on his Dauntless boots, checked his power.
The phone rang, and he answered mid-ring.
“Where and how bad?”
“Here,” Miss Militia answered. “Leviathan, he thinks. Sent you the location as I made the call.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I need to contact the others. Good luck, Shawn.”
He hadn’t wanted to hear that. ‘Good luck’.
“You too, Hannah,” he told her.
She hung up.
Addison was out of bed, pulling a shirt on. He looked in through the bedroom doorway, clearly alarmed and trying to hide it.
“Get ready. Boots, jacket.”
“What is it?”
“Leviathan,” Shawn said.
“Oh,” Addison breathed the word. “He’s attacking Boston or something?”
“Brockton Bay,” Shawn said. He wouldn’t start lying now. “Get ready.”
“The best thing you can do for me is to get ready, as soon as possible. I want you somewhere safe. Then I can focus.”
“You’re going to fight?”
Shawn opened his mouth to say something. Addison seemed to shake himself out of it, and didn’t even wait for the answer to the question. He was gone, feet tromping as he ran down the hall.
The rest of his ‘Dauntless’ gear went into a gym bag.
He pulled on a jacket, flipping up the hood well in advance of stepping outside. He lifted the gym bag, and had to put straps over his shoulder because of the weight of it.
Addi was waiting in the hallway as he emerged. Shoes on, coat on, ready to go.
“You could back out. You get stronger every day. If you skipped the one-”
He guided Addison toward the door. Outside the front window of the house, he could see other people had emerged from their homes. Some wore nightclothes and were looking around for guidance. Others were dressed and were hurrying in the directions they were supposed to go, for the nearest shelter.
“If you skipped this, wouldn’t you get so much stronger for the next one?”
“I could skip that one for the fight that comes after,” he answered. “And the one that comes after that. We don’t know if my power has a limit, but it’s possible it does, and the time I supposedly buy ends up being for nothing. This is my city, Addison. A city with you in it. With Jennifer. With your friends, your teachers the places you love. There’s never going to be a place that I’ll step up to defend faster or with more conviction than our city.”
“Okay,” Addison said. He didn’t sound like it was okay.
Fourteen, now, and still soft-spoken. Still not fond of sudden twists or things being sprung on him.
Nobody is, here.
“Get dressed and hurry to the shelter, Mr. Combe!” Shawn raised his voice, calling out across the street.
The elderly Mr. Combe turned around, hurrying inside.
In another circumstance, Shawn would have helped the man. In this circumstance, he tried to tell himself, he was still helping by going to the front lines.
Robin lived a couple of blocks away, and had made a beeline for him right away. The Pelhams lived in the neighborhood too. Not a neighborhood of Jennifer’s level of taste but a nice area. Robin was staying human, jogging over at a normal speed, one hand in pocket, the other with phone pressed to ear. He had a grim look on his face.
Neil and Eric were nearby, both in costume already. Shawn idly wondered if they slept in the things, or if they hadn’t slept at all last night, and had been on their way back from patrol. The bombings had only calmed down a short while ago, and they had been immediately followed up by the attacks by Empire Eighty-Eight, with Purity’s rampage.
Eric raised a hand to wave a ‘hi’ to Addison. Addison raised a hand in response.
Because of the periodic barbecue and because they both went to the same cape-safe therapist, the two had found each other in the same circles. Enough to know names and talk about movies or shows.
A light rain already pattered down around them.
“Hey,” Robin said, as he caught up. He laid a hand on Dauntless’s shoulder. “Hi Addison.”
“You good to go?”
Shawn nodded. “As soon as I’ve taken care of Addison.”
“That’s fine. It’s not far. We’re heading over now.”
“Even Eric?” Addison asked.
“Yeah,” Robin said. “Even Eric.”
There weren’t any parting words. No urging to come, no commentary on the possibility he could take his son and simply make a break for it, to get as far away as possible.
They all had to.
Shawn led his son along with the crowd, toward the archives building. Government owned, and that always made setting up the shelter easier. The stairs were packed with people, with police managing the flow of people in past the circular, bank-vault-like door.
“Jean!” Shawn called out. A neighbor.
Jean jogged over.
“Look after him?” he asked her.
“I don’t need looking after.”
“Are you sure?” Jean asked.
“I have to-” Shawn started. He couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Mr. Combe needs help,” Addison said.
“If I can’t get him to this shelter or if it hits capacity in the meantime, I’ll go to the one at the library. Please.”
He dropped to his knees, the heavy gym bag making some noise as it landed. He was aware he was getting his knees and things wet. He pulled Addison into a hug that was probably too tight.
A dumb thing to do, as he buried his face into his son’s neck. He couldn’t bring himself to let go.
“Call me, as soon as-”
It was Addison who pulled away, turning his back immediately to go to Jean, who he only casually knew, hugging her with one arm. He was just tall enough to put his head against her shoulder.
Jean turned and gave Shawn a somber nod.
She probably knew. The times he’d called her over to watch things because of an emergency call, especially when the bombings had been happening.
He watched Addison go for longer than he should have. Had he left sooner, he wouldn’t have seen Addison rub at his eyes.
He hefted his bag, turning his back to the scene. He didn’t wait until he was fully in the clear before using his boots to lift himself off the ground. He flew up to a rooftop, and let the bag fall. Piece by piece, he strapped on his armor. Some of it had only received a few crystallizations of power. But the spear, in multiple pieces that he screwed together, the shield, which was small at the outset, and his helmet were all things he’d focused on over the years.
He left spare clothes and the gym bag behind. It didn’t matter.
The cloud of heaviest rain was advancing steadily toward the bay. Armsmaster had been right. The guy was an asshole who’d had it in for him from the start, but he didn’t screw up when it came to things like this.
Clockblocker and Browbeat were on the scene, standing outside the building and waiting for everyone to arrive. They stared out over dark water.
There was a crack, a boom, and Strider came in with a group, the teleportation contractor the PRT had been using recently.
Strapping Lad, Young Buck, Chronicler and Exalt were in that group. Eidolon was head and shoulders above them all, and rose even higher as he took flight.
Surveying the threat and the city, taking note of Dauntless and a few of the other fliers who were doing similar things. Lady Photon was up here.
Eidolon dropped out of the sky, landing in a clear spot by the building entrance. The people in the way parted to let him through.
They’ve wondered out loud if I would become like you, Dauntless thought. How many years? I never asked for it, but it’s not impossible.
The image of his son wiping away tears stayed with him. Addison had tried to hide it for just this reason, he guessed. To avoid distracting.
They had been rescued a little while after Addison had been born, and Kel had gone to the hospital. He couldn’t claim to understand the thought processes that had driven her to refuse visitation, or the piece of legalese that had been mailed to his parents, because she didn’t know where else to contact him. Forfeiting her parental rights.
Panic, maybe. Maybe self-doubt. She had never believed in herself enough, and he’d wondered in retrospect if her calm in that buried van had been because she no longer had to worry about herself and her role in it all.
He desperately, desperately wished she’d stayed, but she’d needed to do what was good for her, and he needed to do what was good for Addison.
So he’d signed, and he’d done his best. He’d avoided saying an unkind word about her to their son, and he’d organized the charity to do what he could to avoid a similar heartbreak from happening again.
Jennifer had told him he put too much on his son’s shoulders.
He had the day’s power to allocate. A fractional bonus to one of his items. The kind of thing that likely wouldn’t make a difference, but felt important.
Weapon? To better hurt the thing?
Helmet, to better understand it, think faster in a pinch?
Boots? To move out of the way?
Breastplate, something he’d neglected. Potentially to turn something lethal into something he could survive. He was struck by the thought of dying in muck, partially paralyzed, and he thought of Kel.
He infused the breastplate, channeling the power in there, hand over heart.
He’s every bit like you. Every good part.
He stared at the approaching storm, then dropped down to the ground, pulsing boots on and off to lower himself.
I do this for him.
Boots, was the thought, as the tail snaked around him. The Leviathan had him, and he’d been just a little too slow to get out of the way.
If he’d infused the boots, then maybe.
He was flung, with a force he knew would kill him. He used his boots to try to slow the movement.
He didn’t die. Things around him flickered, then dissipated. No rain, no dust, no debris. The crowd of people around the space was a blur, viewed through a screen that was beaded with an uneven layer of water. The crowd mutated, drew close, disappeared, each of those things happening in eyeblinks.
No, was his thought, and things around him moved in the time it took him to form that thought.
The tail end of that single word was coupled with the dawning realization he had power available. Not one day, not ten, not fifteen, not thirty or sixty or ninety-
No! was the follow-up thought. His hand couldn’t meet anything before he had another ninety or more days pass. Instead, he pushed power from head to helm.
He didn’t get to choose what happened. But what happened made sense.
His thoughts slowed, and though his body was trapped in time, moving with glacial slowness, those ninety days of accumulated power were spent in the helm, giving him control over the speed of his own thinking.
Which put him in the circumstance of being trapped, unable to do anything but think.
Initially, he fought. He had some residual power, like change left over after he’d spent the bulk on his helmet, and that power was spent on boots, on weapon. As if he could force himself free with enough power from the boots or enough offensive power from his spear. His Arclance, as the PRT had dubbed it.
Now he was aware of the days moving past him at normal speeds. The world beyond was mottled, pollen and dust and construction materials settled on the surface of the globe.
He had twenty-four hours without sleeping to break it up, to decide on each allocation of power.
Helmet. In hopes of reversing this trap he’d found with his mind moving at normal speed while his body remained frozen, or of finding a better way out.
Another day followed, where he felt like he looked back on every decision he’d made in his life, prayed to every deity he could think of, and he realized it was possible Alabaster was in much the same circumstance. At set intervals, Alabaster reverted states, going back to the one he was in when he had entered this time-slowing bubble.
It was possible Alabaster was in the same circumstance he was, and had been from the start.
Another twenty-four hours. It had only been what felt like a day, and already, the events that played and replayed in his mind became distorted. He couldn’t help going back to them, at the same time. He felt like his ego was disintegrating in this space where nothing could happen. He watched the world beyond the bubble, silhouettes moving throughout a rebuilding Boardwalk, and tried to divine particulars or hints about the outcome, who might have survived.
There was a festival to close out the evening. The music was muffled, as if from a house next door, but it did a lot to stave off the low points and the circular thinking.
The sun rose, and he had another choice. Helmet, because anything else would offer only the smallest benefit, and he knew he had a long way to go.
On the third day, he almost managed to convince himself that some individual parts of his past were fictional, figments of his imagination. Almost.
Noon came around, and a group of young students passed through the area. Some came to see him. A teacher or someone followed them, and one of them read off the placquard. He hadn’t been aware there was a third person in here.
Again, there was a festival. He could have wept, he was so grateful for the stimulation. It lasted until what had to be one or two in the morning.
People slept. He found himself remaining where he was, doubting everything.
Sunrise came. With it, he had more power to give. Again, he chose the helmet.
His perception of the world beyond the bubble clarified.
And so it went. Helmet. Helmet. Helmet. For twenty-three days.
By the twenty-third, he was capable of seeing and hearing everything that went on in the buildings nearby. Businesses. He watched people like he would watch bad television.
Every visit was a panacea for the soul. He learned the faces of the repeat visitors and he learned the whys. Some came from out of state. It meant something, in this place where meaning was lost to a black, insensate void.
He constructed elaborate storylines in his head, of his own devising. Ones where he and Kelly had tried to raise Addison together and it had been hard but Addison had turned out much the same, because it was hard to improve Addison. Anything else would have broken his own suspension of disbelief.
One storyline a day, to answer a question, or to explore a theory.
He lost count of the days, but he estimated where he’d been and he counted from that estimate forward. With the helmet giving him the ability to construct better thoughts and see much of the city around him, forward and backward, he built up his ideas and theorized, he unraveled what had happened and to whom, and tallied up a mental list of people to investigate. He picked a person he knew and didn’t know the outcome for, and he searched everyone nearby to try to decipher what had become of them.
Whole days were lost to despair that ate at him and left him unable to think straight for more days afterward.
He focused on the boots, and on the other things. He balanced certain lines of thinking with certain applications, to see if it felt different.
Hundreds of days in, so fast he thought he’d reverted to that accelerated time, the city crumbled. A flash of light, and the buildings fell, giving him a view of the water, of water frothing and foaming as waterside properties tipped into it.
For nine days after that, people tried to pick up the pieces.
On the tenth day, they mostly disappeared, leaving only stragglers. With every passing moment, he scoured and scanned those stragglers, used every awareness at his disposal to try to decipher, investigate, and see if they knew anyone or had seen anyone. Had one said Addison, for any reason at all, it might have stoked some hope.
By the thirtieth day after the city fell, the people who had remained were gone. Many were dead, unable to survive or sick. Others left for places where food would be more plentiful.
He pushed and tried to push his awareness through the distorted portal in the belly of the city, and no matter the investment, he couldn’t.
There was only the water, now. Watching the weeds growing into the cracks, tracking the wildlife, and the steady resurgence of those species best able to survive.
He mourned the world, and he vowed that if this was it, if this was the end perpetrated at the hands of their best hero, then he would retain some ability to explain what had happened if somehow something else were to come and pay a visit. A deity, an alien, a person from the past or from the future.
He was the most powerful person on their Earth, as far as he could tell, and possibly the most helpless. Easy, when he was one of the only ones left.
The bubble popped. His body was freed and his body was utterly trapped. He’d infused power into every article of clothing he owned, sometimes years worth of power, and that power had come due. Every time he had passed on power to his helmet, it had shifted imperceptibly. To become something mythic, something to be proud of.
Now, however, it all came due at once.
His helmet was a crown, extending up and above him like a skyscraper, impossibly tall. He might have snapped into pieces, but other articles worked their way into it.
He’d called it a crystallization, once, and now the crystal crept over him.
There had been ten thousand times he’d snapped while in that bubble. Ten thousand times he’d broken from reality, broken from memory, from hope, from everything.
And in those moments, he’d glimpsed something greater. For longer, and longer, each time. Each effort a vain attempt by his collaborator, his agent, to forge a connection and reach out.
But that wasn’t how this worked. He didn’t get to have connections. That hadn’t been the unspoken bargain he’d apparently struck. He didn’t get the tools to better cut and cauterize wounds and save his son’s mother for nothing.
But it had tried, and as with the helmet and the rest of that crystallized effort, he felt it come due. Connections. Enough connections to the nazi to pull him apart and draw the composite pieces into the crystallization. All were broken connections, reaching out to other broken things to find the most tenuous purchase, but if the crystal was machinery and the agent the power source, then the connection let him have a hand on the wheel.
It was enough to keep himself up, once he’d grown enough that it was ungainly.
The connection came, and the connection stayed.
He saw enough.
“You’re going to have to explain,” Victoria said, whispering. “Because if you can make any sense at all out of this…”
She hovered over a ledge, and that ledge overlooked the distant sight. A figure so tall his heads were in the clouds. The growth that extended up from the ‘head’ was fractal, geometric, crystal, but with veins instead of straight lines.
That growing extended to the legs, starting at the feet and working its way up. A skirt, a dress, a lower body that was a mountain. Limbs and body, all in the rough silhouette of a giant, a titan writ in a strike of white lightning that didn’t budge, flicker, readily change shape, nor stop.
“We mentioned it was a structural issue,” Harbinger Two said.
“Where to start?” Harbinger Three asked. “I’d start by outlining that you have an array. One connects to two connects to three-”
“No numbers,” Swansong growled.
“No numbers,” Victoria agreed.
Harbinger Three sighed. “Then you have an alphabet. A connects to B connects to C. And you tend to end with X, Y, Z. Sometimes there’s a wrinkle in the works. And A connects to L, G, E, B, R and-”
“No numbers!” Swansong said.
“It’s a word,” Harbinger Three said, at the same time Harbinger Two said, “Not a number,” and Harbinger Five said, “It isn’t!”
“Carry on,” Victoria said. Swansong audibly harrumphed.
“Connects back around to A,” Harbinger Three said. “And it connects to P, P again, L, and E. But the underlying structure is gone. ‘A’ flounders, trying to find a connection to anything. And in the process, it finds a connection to P, O-”
“Enough,” Victoria said. “I appreciate the explanation, but I’m too tired to have people spell things out for me. Abbreviate?”
“Like a localized, misspelled apocalypse,” Harbinger Five said. “You get things meant for endings at the beginning, like Z, and that connects to E, which connects to everything, and a few steps later… nothing. Houses of cards that shouldn’t stack up that do, and cards that should that don’t. But they will, by process of natural selection, form their own wills. As we see here.”
“He thinks?” Capricorn asked. His armor was in tatters.
“We think he’s been thinking this whole time,” the Harbinger said.
“Fuck,” Capricorn said. He blurred. He shifted, tattered red plate armor to tattered blue scalemail.
“Fuck,”Capricorn said again. “Nobody deserves that.”
“And now we get to see what that all added up to,” Harbinger Two said.
“No numbers,” Swansong said. “No math terms. ‘Added up’.”
“Wholly accidental,” the Harbinger said, before turning to wink at one of his brothers.
There was no humor on any other faces.
The dauntless titan stood in the ruins of Brockton Bay, mostly unmoving. He or it was there in Earth Gimel, and he was there in Earth Bet at the same time. He was in an equivalent location in Earth Cheit, in Earth N, and every earth they were aware of, as well as many they weren’t.
He reached out, his range unfiltered now by a bubble of compressed time. He deciphered everything he’d tallied up as answers he needed to seek out.
He found what he was looking for, and he reached out. Not gently enough. His efforts at speaking were blunt, and destroyed more machines than he could easily count, in many worlds.
Better not to move. To wait.
It took nearly eight hours. But Dauntless’s son came. The boy drove in a truck, and he reached the perimeter that capes and other forces had gathered as a just-in-case measure.
They let Addison through, along with Addison’s wife. Not Mo, which disappointed Dauntless, but a pretty young lady with a child in her stomach.
He couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t trust himself to move, so he listened. Addison had found his mother, and the two had cobbled together an uneasy relationship. There was that. He’d had holidays with that neighbor Jean, who’d taken up a role and who had taken it on herself to look after Addison well past the point anyone sane would do so, and he’d periodically visited with Jennifer, his stepmom, who took on the role of the aunt and manager of Shawn’s estate.
Dauntless’s son was okay, and that was what was important.
After a couple of hours, they decided to leave.
Satisfied?, it thought, to that kernel of Dauntless.
He was. A terrible weight and an even more terrible pain had been lifted, somehow, by that relatively brief visit.
It remained where it was, waiting. It waited and watched even as the forces arrayed around it readied for an assault, panicked, then retreated.
Up here, the air was so thin that Dauntless’s thoughts buzzed.
Buried in crystal, he was almost claustrophobic, his thoughts running away from him.
But he didn’t let them.
He could only remain where he was.
The reason for the panic and the imminent assault hadn’t been him, but another guest. She settled on one arm, comparatively tiny, a weight on one arm and on one shoulder. Feathered wings draped his arm.
And she cried, and the cries were pitched to pull at the heartstrings and to tug at the mind. He couldn’t step into another room or walk away to leave those cries behind to find a chance to breathe.
And he was tired, in that way that would have made it so easy to believe anything anyone told him. He dwelt on that weight on his arm, his power illuminating every world around him, some occupied, many not. There was no more power inside him to give. For now, he could only wait, endure as he’d endured for four years. He had his son and all the people he’d come to love, who’d loved him and visited him in his bubble, and that was the most significant thing.