Nineteen Days Later
I hadn't even had breakfast yet, but I once again found myself lost within the pointless escape of fiction. Was it pointless? The story took place after Harry's fifth year, as so many did, and Harry was filled with angst, like Harrys often were. And the circumstances were contrived, sure: the Dursleys had died in a car accident—what else would they have died in?—and Harry had to be adopted by someone else. Not Snape, this time, nor Dumbledore or even McGonnagal, but instead, the Grangers. Hurt and comfort and family, in a way I'd rarely seen before.
The story ended. He didn't fight Voldemort. The story wasn't about that. It ended where it should have, and for all I longed for more, I knew it would only take away, and I'd enjoyed it too much to have it be any less.
And, if I'd enjoyed the story… perhaps it hadn't been so pointless, after all.
I laid the tablet upon my bedside table. Another gift from Armsmaster. He'd dropped by a couple of times. Hopefully, he'd be over this evening, as well. We'd invited everyone. Well, New Wave, Armsmaster, and Miss Militia, anyway. Miss Militia was a bit of a long shot. I'd still not met her properly, even in the aftermath of the battle. But we invited her anyway. Hopefully she'd show.
For a bit, I laid in bed. Today wasn't a bad day. Not yet, anyway. Not that I hadn't had a few over the past few weeks. Most had been mild. A couple less so. I was getting better at asking for help, whether from Dad or my therapist, from Amy or Vicky, or from Carol or from Mark. Still, I didn't like feeling as if I needed it. I was not alone, even without yo—
I shook my head and laughed a small, nostalgic laugh as I stared up at the ceiling. Above me, once more, was that stain. Orange juice. We were in our own home once again.
I'd decided against being a Ward. The PRT hadn't managed to protect Dad, after all. And besides, there weren't many who wanted to fight me, anymore. Instead, I was joining New Wave. I was pretty much a member already. We just needed to pick a date for a proper announcement.
We'd given Dad a half-dozen ways to contact New Wave in case of emergency, and a dozen more to contact me personally in case he found himself unable to use those. With Amy's help, I'd even placed bugs beneath his skin. Gross, but they worked. If he got hurt, or even felt too afraid, I'd know.
I pulled myself out of bed. Perhaps I could make a quick sketch before breakfast. I'd been doing my pen drawings, again, just for fun, and a bit of fun might not be a bad idea. It was Sunday, after all. Emma always tried to call after breakfast on Sundays. Dad had asked if I wanted to block her number, but sometimes I answered her. I still wondered if there was something I could say— but I could think about it later.
I was halfway over to my desk when the doorbell rang.
"I've got it," I heard Dad yell.
I glanced to my desk. Then my bedroom door. Might as well head downstairs. My feet shook the steps with each fall, one then the next, one then the next, one then the next, each resonating deeply throughout the house.
The sun was shining through the windows, their curtains open wide. The smell of bacon mixed itself with the fresh May morning air, and together, they brought a smile to my face.
As I reached the foot of the stairs, I saw, of all things, a dog. A very fluffy, very white dog that looked less like a puppy and more like a cloud, and which I was sure I'd seen before. It was sniffing the air, salivating at the smell of the bacon.
"Hello, Mr. Hebert, Taylor," said a woman whose voice I did not recognize.
"This is a stupid idea," said another, whose voice I did. Alexandria. I grimaced slightly. I'd once wanted to be her. But not anymore. I'd never properly met her, in spite of seeing her twice in person, but even so, I didn't think liked her. I knew why, but I didn't quite know how to say it. She felt callous, maybe?
"I think it's a wonderful idea," said the first woman, awkwardly straightening her slightly baggy Alexandria t-shirt. I wondered if she was a cape, but if she was, she wasn't in costume. The actual Alexandria, meanwhile, was in costume.
"I'm sorry about Alexandria, Mr. Hebert," continued the woman in the Alexandria shirt. "She's not always very nice. I've been trying to get her to work on it, but she's kind of stubborn. May we come in? Alexandria can wait outside."
She gave the hero a pointed look. Alexandria sighed, and gave the dog a little scratch on the head, and then a pat. Hesitated. Turned away.
"Oh," said Dad. "I… sure? And there's no need for Alexandria to—"
The strange woman's pointed look turned to Dad. For a moment, he stared her down. Then he turned to me. He must have heard me come downstairs. Then again, with my feet banging against the steps, how could he have missed it?
"I'm sure there's enough breakfast for her," I said, after a moment. If there wasn't, we could make some. I might not like Alexandria very much, but as much as I disliked her, I didn't think much of that dislike was rooted in anxiety, and I wasn't about to let dislike alone leave her standing alone on our porch, no matter how lovely May mornings were in Brockton Bay.
We gathered around the kitchen table, each in our different chairs. I allowed myself a small amount of schadenfreude as Alexandria got the uncomfortable one with the stiff back. The dog sat between the strange woman and I, its intent gaze continuously shifting from her to the table and back again.
"Her name's Fluffy," said the woman, giving the dog a scratch on its cheek. Fluffy? She didn't look like a Fluffy. Too small, and only one head.
"And I'm Contessa," she continued. "And you can call Alexandria 'Lexie.' It's her favorite."
"'Alex' will do," said Alexandria quickly. She nibbled at a bite of bacon.
"You might recognize Fluffy," said Contessa. "Do you mind if I give her a bite or two?"
Dad shrugged and looked at me, not realizing I'd done the same and looked at him. Contessa took that as permission, and after a quick trick—"Sit! Shake!"—gave Fluffy a small bite of bacon.
I tried to place where I'd seen Fluffy before. When had I— oh! All those posts on PHO. The pictures had been very sweet.
"She was Eidolon's," I said. "Are you— is she yours, now?"
"That's the question," said Contessa, chewing her food as she talked. "I… hm. I'm not sure how to— I mean… I'm not used to this. I have a power, you know? A really good one. I win. Whatever I try to do, with some exceptions, I win."
She gave me a glare I didn't understand. I glanced at Dad, who seemed no less befuddled than me, and then to Alexandria, who looked mildly amused, in that way one did when they didn't want to appear it.
"You were an exception," Contessa continued. "It's a precognitive power. The precognitive power, really. If there's any possible way for me to get what I want, anything I could possibly do, I'll know the steps, and be able to perform each one perfectly. But it didn't work on Endbringers, and didn't work on Scion, and since Scion was interested in you, it often didn't work on you, either."
I suddenly felt a little uncomfortable.
"Then… what do you want?" I asked. "Right now, I mean?"
Contessa chose that moment to take a bite. Had her power chosen it? Why would it? I wasn't sure I understood, and perhaps I was overthinking it. Her eyes widened, as if she had only belatedly understood the question, and in a rush to swallow her food, she briefly choked upon it.
She pounded her chest with her fist a couple of times, took a giant sip of water, then continued.
"Sorry, sorry," she said. "I'm not using my power right now. I mean, I'm not using it for this. I'm not really used to talking like this. I'm sorry. I can use it, if you'd like?"
She looked almost like she hoped we would say yes. But I'd searched for excuses often enough myself to recognize the signs in her, and there'd likely been a reason she had chosen not to use her power today.
"No," I said. "That's alright."
"Stupid," muttered Alexandria. I pretended I didn't hear her.
"I know you know how to be nice," said Contessa. "I'll activate a path to Alexandria being polite if I have to."
"Is step one threatening to find a path to make me nice?" asked Alexandria, a touch mockingly.
Contessa ignored her, and took a sip of her orange juice. After a moment, she seemed to realize we were all waiting for her to continue.
"Right, well. I thought— well, I mean. Fluffy. She needs a home, and I was thinking. Dav— I mean, Eidolon. Well, I mean, don't tell anyone—"
Alexandria sighed and rolled her eyes.
"Eidolon's name was David," said Alexandria. Fluffy's ears perked up. She looked to Alexandria, and I felt something threaten to break in me. My hand immediately found its way to her ear. She was so soft…
"Don't tell anyone," Alexandria continued, her words inflectionless. "Contessa wasn't supposed to tell you. Contessa, David, and I, along with a few others, spent our lives looking for a way to defeat Scion, as he was going to eventually destroy Earth. All Earths. We made sacrifices you'd hate us for making, just as you already hate me. I'd thank you not to judge, as existence was in the balance, and I only ever told you the truth—you couldn't fix him—but perhaps such understanding is beyond you."
She spoke in a monotone, one word after the next, as if she were bored and unfeeling, or as if she did have feelings, but refused to acknowledge them. I'd have felt sympathetic were it not for the last jab, but then, maybe that had been why she'd made it: she didn't want sympathy.
"In any case, you succeeded where we would have failed, even if you did not intend to, and you did so without making such unpleasant sacrifices. Contessa viewed this as a symbol of 'hope,' the 'same hope,' she said, as Fluffy inspired in David. And here we are. A stupid idea."
She couldn't bring herself to meet my eyes. Instead, she seemed focused on Fluffy.
I glanced at Contessa. She shrugged.
"It seemed fitting," she said. "To me, at least."
I was missing something. I could feel Dad looking at me, but I wasn't sure what he was looking for, so I looked at Fluffy instead of meeting his gaze. I gave her a little scratch on the head, then another as she looked up at me, her mouth hanging open with a pleased sort of smile that may also have been anxious— but then, perhaps the anxiousness was mine.
"I'd been thinking about it already, you know," said Dad, after a moment. "Could be good for you, Taylor."
I tore my gaze from Fluffy, and looked at Dad rather quizzically.
"A dog, Taylor," he said, rather slowly. "Fluffy."
Oh. I was usually much more quick on the uptake, but today, I had a dog distracting me. Fluffy, staying with us? A smile crossed my face at the thought.
"We always called her Fidolon, you know," said Contessa.
"David hated it," said Alexandria, with a small laugh before she could stop herself.
"Don't worry about food or anything, and can I swing by sometimes?" said Contessa, half a statement and half a question. "And Lexie, too, if you don't find her too annoying? She loves Fluffy, you know."
"I wouldn't want to intrude—" started Alexandria, but I cut her off.
"Of course," I said. Alexandria and Contessa were obviously part of Fluffy's family. The thought that Dad and I would take even more away from her— sorrow gnawed at me at the thought, warring with a feeling of insult.
I sighed, then collected myself and fixed Alexandria with my sternest impression of Minerva McGonnagal. "You will visit at least twice weekly, if not more often, is that understood?"
She looked at me incredulously for a moment, but I did not drop my glare, and it gave her the excuse she needed to nod in assent. I shifted my gaze to Contessa—
The phone rang.
I grimaced. Glanced at my eggs, only half eaten. Usually we'd finished breakfast by the time she called.
"Taylor," said Dad, but he didn't know quite what to say next. "Do you want to…"
"I don't know," I said. I let myself scratch Fluffy, again. "No, I guess."
Dad nodded, and left the room. The house phone was in the hall.
Both our guests looked confused, but Alexandria was trying not to ask. Apparently she could be polite, after all.
"Who was it?" asked Contessa. Apparently she had no such filter.
I started to speak, but stopped short, not quite sure what I'd been planning to say. A friend? An enemy? A traitor? I took a breath.
"Emma," I said. "She was a friend, once. But now… Well, I don't really know. She did a lot of mean things to me. She's why I… Um, yeah."
I didn't feel comfortable completing the sentence. I doubted many capes would. Both Alexandria and Contessa seemed to know what I meant. Alexandria looked like she wanted to say something, but thought better of it.
Dad returned to the room. Gave me a nod. I sighed.
"We should just block the number," said Danny. "Or tell Alan to stop her calling. I don't think you should—"
"I don't know," I said. "I just feel like there's something… something I should say. I don't know."
We'd been so close, once.
The day had been going so well. And really, it probably still would. I'd be seeing Amy for lunch, and then the rest of New Wave in the afternoon. And then the big dinner, with all of them and Armsmaster and maybe even Miss Militia; I still didn't know how we'd all fit, but I knew we'd find a way.
It would be a busy day, and maybe even a good one. But right now, with Emma's call—
Fluffy licked at my fingers as the sounds of conversation washed over me. I found myself smiling at the sensation, if only just a little. The dog couldn't fix what I was feeling. But then, maybe she didn't need to.
"I can't fix Emma, either," I said. "Can I?"
Amy and I had a table against the windows, sandwiched just a bit too closely between two other two-person tables. I'd chosen the side across from the windows. I'd have preferred the one against it, from which I'd have been able to see the whole place, but with only a small gap between the tables it would have left me feeling trapped.
"No," said Amy. "You can't fix people, Taylor."
My eyes closed for a moment as I felt something fall within me. Was this disappointment? Had I wanted to fix Emma so badly? I wasn't sure. Somehow, she didn't seem so important. It wasn't about her, was it?
"You can't fix me, either," I said. Amy flinched. Was it resentment I saw in her eyes, again? "None of you."
Her eyes fell to the table. She fiddled with her noodles. Poked at her pork. Her other hand scratched at a rough dent in the table's wood.
"We're not trying to 'fix' you," she said. "I— I don't know. It's not like that, okay?"
I took a bite of my eggplant. Tried to understand. Didn't manage it.
"What is it like, then?" I asked.
"We just— we like you, or whatever. Care for you, I guess," she said. "Want to be here."
I blinked at her. She sighed.
"I can do brains. You've noticed, I'm sure," said Amy, that look of resentment crossing her face again. "Vicky and Mom don't really understand, I think. They wish I'd 'fix' Dad. But anything I did, it wouldn't be 'fixing' him. It would be killing him, and making someone new. I can't fix him. I can only change him.
"I don't mean he can't change over time on his own. Or that medicine can't help him. It does. But that's still him. What I do, though? That's me. I— I don't know how to explain."
I reached a hand out to her. She reached a hand back. That resentment grew louder. I'd thought, once, that she'd resented me; that she'd felt I had somehow compared myself to her dad. But it hadn't been me she'd resented, had it?
"But you're there for him," I said.
"I— we try to be," she said. "It's… complicated, I guess. Sometimes we don't know how. I try to learn. I don't know."
I tried to take another bite of my food. Tried to get a nice helping of the curry. Instead, I just poked around the pieces of eggplant.
"Shouldn't I be there for Emma?" I asked.
"I dunno. Maybe," said Amy. "If you could, I guess. Can you?"
This time, my eyes fell to the table. Finally, I managed to bring another bite to my mouth. I was trying to be better about eating. More consistent, anyway.
"You can't fix everyone, either, you know," I said, as I chewed my food— never mind that it wasn't polite. I felt myself smirk slightly at the thought of what yo— but then, that was a thought for another time.
"At the hospital, I mean," I continued. "You can't be there for all of them. You need to take care of yourself, too."
Amy sighed. She rolled her eyes half-heartedly, as she sometimes did.
"Eat your eggplant, dumbass," she said. "Asked James out, yet?"
"Eat your noodles, dumbass," I said.
"A lot of people," I said. "Not a lot of space."
"You don't have to talk, you know," said Amy. "If you don't want to. Vicky will be there, after all."
"But they're my friends. You're all my friends," I said. "It's important to talk with friends."
"It can be," Amy allowed. She pushed her plate away. "Library?"
How could I say no to the library? It was no longer my only refuge, but it was still a fixture.
I glanced at my own plate. I hadn't quite finished everything, but I'd done a decent job of it, and I supposed I'd not in fact be lying to myself if I said I'd have a large dinner. Still…
"Make sure I eat plenty tonight?" I asked Amy.
Everyone and our new dog showed up. Even Contessa and Alexandria. I hadn't realized Dad had invited them— but then, of course he would have.
"Call me Tessie," said Contessa, after only her first glass of wine. "Tessie the bestie. Yeah."
I finally got to say hello to Miss Militia— or, as she'd introduced herself, Hannah.
"I already know almost everyone, anyway," she said. "And I can't eat with the bandanna on."
After his third glass of wine, Armsmaster had tried to give me some of his own blood. "Gotta see what will happen with a Tinker power sometime," he said. "Don't you think?"
I might have accepted, had I a stick prepared to soak it up. I wasn't about to absorb his blood into my hands— and, tipsy as he was, I was half-afraid Armsmaster would tell me to drink it.
For dessert there was cake. It consumed half of our poor table, around which we'd managed to cram a third of our guests, most on folding chairs the Dallons had brought; the rest were in the living room, half on yet more chairs, a few more on the couch, and the rest seated upon the floor, all their voices loud and merry and full of laughter.
The cake was chocolate, vanilla, and cookie-dough ice cream, and was frosted with a veritable rainbow of colors in no particular pattern. Fitting, as there was no particular occasion, but then, all of us here together was occasion enough.
Amy and Dad gave me a heaping slice. I wasn't sure how I'd finish it. But soon enough, it vanished, and with it, so too did the rest of the evening.
Everyone got their hugs in, some more than once. Hannah had gone for thirds.
The night was only missing— but, it would always be missing— well. I smiled slightly at the thought I wasn't quite ready to have, bittersweet though it may have been.
Busy, stressful, exhausting…
But still, it was alright. Wasn't it? Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was wonderful.
I've been forgetting about you, lately. Talking with you less and less. Probably a good thing. You'd have wanted me to have my own life, and to be my own person. But maybe this time, what you'd have wanted is beside the point.
As much as I might pretend otherwise, it's not been you guiding me these past few years. You lost that ability when you died and shifted into memory and thought and emotion, your form so often colored by what I wanted to believe more than anything you might have actually said or done.
I still remember the things we did together. I hope I never forget. Once, the memories would have hurt, and sometimes they still do. But other times, they bring smiles, here and there. Your little laughs. Your finger upon my nose. The snow angels we'd make on the floor in July, the stars we'd see upon the ceiling. How Dad had always said never to bring food and drink up to the bedrooms, but you always did it anyway, and then the one day he did it, orange juice ended up on the ceiling.
I remember the stories you told me, and I still wonder about those you didn't. About why you knew so much about punching people, and how to escape zip ties. I should ask Dad. Shouldn't I? Yeah, I probably should. He'd enjoy telling me a few of your stories, and maybe even some of his.
I remember you, and sometimes it hurts and sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's both. The tears come and I let them, whether because the tears are happy or sad or somewhere in between.
I still care what you'd think. Some part of me always will. That part of me will always wonder if you'd approve. If you'd be proud of me. Would you be? I don't know. Can't know, I suppose. Sometimes, though, I'm proud.
This isn't really goodbye, you know, and not just because I may see you again in some sort of afterlife. I'm sure I'll talk to you again, even when you're not there. I'm sure there will be times when I'll use what I can convince myself you'd say as a deciding factor in how I ought lead my life, as much as I wish I could promise not to. But as those times grow fewer and fewer, I know you won't begrudge me. Won't think I don't care.
This isn't goodbye. It's me saying that, yeah, I know I don't have to keep talking with you, even if I still will, here and there.
It's me saying I'll do my best. I'll keep trying. Not for Dad. Not for you. For me.
It's me saying that I miss you, Mom. That I wish you were here, but I understand that you aren't.
It's me saying I love you.
I love you.