(Author's Note: A half chapter this week due to limited writing time. The chapter is expanded from a planned preamble that I've been meaning to write for a while. No points earned this chapter, but we'll be getting back to Joe next chapter.)
87.1 Interlude Rory
Rory sat in his dimly lit room, staring blankly at the wall. The room felt like a time capsule, or an artifact of a previous life. That is, even more than it did before. A preserved piece of his previous life, maintained in his family home.
The collection of trophies and sports awards belonged to the person he'd been before he became a hero. Before years of being not quite good enough had driven him to his limit. Before he had gone to his father, asking for any way to close the gap. Before his father had given him that vial.
When he asked he'd been expecting… well, he didn't know exactly what he had been expecting. The sixteen-year-old son of the mayor who still saw his father as someone who could solve any problem. Maybe a training camp? Or a private coach? Or one of those crazy nutrition courses that you hear about the pros following? Not a bottle that gave you superpowers.
It hadn't even mattered. Right after he had taken it, the moment he finally became fast and strong enough to know he could go all the way, they announced a new screening process. MRIs for everyone entering professional sports. Parahumans were already banned, but the policy had depended on obvious identification of powers. People with subtle abilities had slipped through, which was why they stepped up the screening.
And with that his dreams of a baseball career died. The remnants of that dream were scattered around him. Trophies, team pictures, and sporting equipment. Most of it untouched for years.
He'd moved on, found a new calling. A better calling. Something he could devote himself to with the same fervor he had reserved for baseball practice, but something infinitely more important. He would never be a sports star, but he could be a hero. He had thrown himself into his work, giving everything he had to the Wards and Protectorate.
His father had helped, leveraging connections and making sure he managed his identity properly. When the time came for him to leave the Wards he wasn't one of those kid heroes awkwardly trying to rebrand or find a new role. Hell, the fact that he had entered the Wards at sixteen meant he never had to worry about the kiddy images that haunted Chris and Missy. When Triumph joined the Protectorate it was a natural transition, a real hero taking a place that had been waiting for him from the start.
At least, that was the way it had looked. The reality was far less stable. Going from leader of the Wards to the most junior member of the Protectorate was a jarring transition. Battery was the only one who could relate, and she was something of a unique case. To compensate he had fallen back into his old habits, throwing everything he could at the role. Embracing his new identity to the exclusion of everything that came before it. Everything he left behind.
And he saw the consequences of that. Carlos trying to manage a disaster of a hostage standoff against the Undersiders and ending up disgraced and mutilated. Forced into a transfer as a desperate PR bid. Dean losing his armor and having to leave the city to find a replacement. Dennis, of all people, standing up in the city's darkest hour, distinguishing himself in a way few could have hoped to.
After the opening attacks he'd been as lost as anyone. Just trying to keep his head above water against the insanity of the ABB's new power and coordination. Against the responses of the Empire and Merchants. Against the ever-growing shadow of Apeiron.
Apeiron. He missed the time back when the tinker's insane capabilities were just concerning theories, potential threats, not ones he'd lived through personally. It really said something that the experience stood out even with how close to death he had come.
It had been a first-hand lesson in the danger of the new ABB, one he received personally before it had been given to the entire city. Being ambushed immediately after he checked in with headquarters. Perfectly predicting his patrol route and hitting him with a bomb that fried his communicator. Being dragged off to that warehouse by desperate people conscripted into service, and then thrown into what amounted to a cage match with Lung.
He knew what was happening, why they had gone to so much trouble, but that didn't matter in the face of the situation he had found himself in. His options were to fight Lung and watch the man grow stronger, knowing that he was being used as part of the ABB's plans, or lie back and die. Ruin their plans at the cost of his own life.
Well, it sounded noble when you phrased it that way. As if they wouldn't have had fallbacks and contingencies. As if Lung being a few minutes behind in growth would have shifted things in their favor. As if he shouldn't fight for his life.
At least, those had been his thoughts at the time. That was before he had seen the recordings of Lung's fight with Apeiron. How close it came at so many points. How maybe if Lung had been just a bit weaker at any of those moments the fight would have concluded earlier.
And all that it would have cost him was his life. If someone explained the significance beforehand he might have been able to bring himself to do it. To avoid fighting, or focus on escape, or limit himself to defensive moves. To be willing to give up his life to save people who lost theirs in the drawn-out disaster of the Ungodly Hour.
That was before he had seen it. Before the world had broken and he had learned exactly what was waiting for him. That twisted nightmare showing him the future he had bound himself to when he drank that vial.
He slumped forward, lowering his head. It had been five days since that moment. Five days of testing, questions, and theories. Five days of hell where he wasn't sure where he stood on anything. Gingerly, he reached out to one of his trophies. It was one of the older ones, from when he was just getting into baseball. When his talent for the game was just starting to be recognized.
As his fingers pressed against the cheap metal he felt the well of energy from deep inside him. The vial had given him strength, healing, and durability, enough that he could punch through concrete without trouble. But the real expression of his power was the roar. That burst of sound that didn't behave the way sound should. More of a concussive blast than a burst of volume, he prided himself on how well he could shape and control it.
But he'd never been able to accomplish anything like this. The roar built within him, but instead of following the usual channels, matching his breath and voice to build in a triumphant shout, it filled his body. Like breath flowing through solid matter, it felt unnatural, wrong.
Wrong was the predominant feeling he had been experiencing since that night, so perhaps it was appropriate that it followed the new expression of his power. He took the energy he would have transferred to his lungs and throat and drove it through his limbs and into his fingers, and then into the material of the trophy.
Metal, plastic, and cheap wood vanished into a puff of dust that spread over his dresser. A fragment of the trophy's base remained, but the rest of it had been cleaved away as smoothly as if someone had taken an ice cream scoop to the object.
His new striker power, tentatively rated at striker 6. It probably would have been higher if it worked as well on living material, but the samples of green wood had merely burst on the point of contact. Still damaged, but not a complete lack of Manton limit.
Rory was grateful for that. Grateful there was some limit on the new power. He remembered the way that chaos had filled him, his body brimming with energy that leaked into the ground around him. He could barely focus, even before the world turned insane, but he understood what had happened. How it had happened. His new, strong power, as if that made up for what had happened to him.
But it still had limits, controls. He didn't need to worry about accidentally reducing a person to dust and mist. No, instead the point of contact was likely to explode in a burst of gore. There were plenty of ways a power could be dangerous even when Manton limited.
It seemed that was all anyone cared about. The new, changed power. The new case designation. Case 69, but there was no humor in it for him. Not after what he had seen.
The sound of his phone ringing jarred him from his thoughts. Specifically, his work phone. He slowly rolled to the opposite side of his bed to check the screen. The number of people who had called or attempted to check in on him in person would have been heartening if not for the fact that he couldn't talk to them about anything that had happened.
To his surprise, he saw the call was from the one person he actually could talk to. Reaching down, he answered the call from Vicky.
"Hello?" He said.
"Hey Rory." Came Vicky's voice. "I heard you were still having a rough time and wanted to check in. You know, talk about things from the inside." There was an awkward humor to her voice and he wondered if she had been put up to this. Or maybe she just wasn't sure how to handle his situation. Given the fact that he wasn't sure how to handle his situation, that seemed fair enough.
"Thanks." He said. "I'm still on leave." He looked around his childhood room. "Out of the hospital and back home. How about you? How's New York?"
"Eh, nonstop testing, but the facilities here are a world apart from Brockton Bay." She said, "Plus, it's good to see Dean again. He says hi, by the way, and hopes you're doing better."
Rory smiled at that. Dean was someone he had been at least acquainted with before becoming a Ward, the consequence of years of fundraisers and political events. The Stansfields were major players in the city's business world and have been a fixture at every major event of his father's career. As a Ward Rory had recognized the same kind of devotion and dedication from Dean that he always tried to bring to the table. The assurance that he hadn't just disappeared in the aftermath of his fight with Hellhound, that he would be back, it was heartening.
But only to a point. What kind of situation would Dean find when he came back? Weld was the new leader, with Dennis running his own team that showed such effective synergy that there was no chance of it being disrupted. And even then, he would need to wait for his new armor. How long would that take, and what state would the city be in when he got back?
"That's great." He replied. "I'm glad they let you out long enough to see him."
"It hasn't been that bad." She assured him. "Sure, they've got hours of testing and new experts every day, but it's probably a lighter schedule than what we saw whenever there was a clash between the gangs."
She casually referenced the kind of mass response that always seemed perfectly normal, but was being highlighted as a sign that there was something, that there had always been something very wrong with Brockton Bay. The weird city of crazy capes, or so it was being touted to avoid having to actually admit that real people lived here and had to deal with the aftermath of the stuff that filled their memes and video clips.
"Even went out for dinner last night, and shopping on the weekend." She continued. "It's not exactly a vacation, but it's not like they're keeping me locked down here."
That almost felt like an attack or accusation, a direct reference to the way he had gone from the hospital to his room and barely left since. He quickly dismissed the gut reaction. Worst case someone had reached out to her out of concern for him, in which case he should probably be grateful. The layers of gag orders over every aspect of that night had been maddening.
"The testing?" He asked. "It's still focused on your connection? You can still feel that?"
"The Fragile One?" She asked, using her endearing term for her own passenger. "Yeah. I think they're trying to communicate or something. There's been a lot of work on that. I can sense them, but it's hard to put into words, you know?"
Rory immediately tensed. Through the phone he could hear a sound of regret from Vicky.
"Rory, I'm sorry." She said quickly.
"It's okay." He lied as flashes of that decaying mass played through his head.
"Have they… Do they have any idea why yours was like that?" She asked softly.
"No." He lied again. Vicky had seen exactly what he was connected to. She'd been able to confirm what he had assumed… hoped really, had been hallucinations. Fragmented delusions caused by a near death experience. Not a look beyond the veil of reality caused by the shattering of a mad tinker's work.
He had seen his own 'passenger', as well as the others that Vicky had reported. He wasn't as lucid as she had been at the time, but he was able to match up flashes from his own experience with the things she had reported. Her own 'Fragile One', tiny compared to the powers of her family. The scale of the passengers themselves, from those that supposedly represented New Wave to the three faces of March's source of power.
And then there was his. The collection of dead and mismatched pieces, cobbled together and barely functioning. None of the life or energy that she generated, just a machine of decaying flesh and crystal grinding itself down to oblivion. He had lied and said he had no idea why his was different, but he knew.
His passenger was an abomination because his power was an abomination. Superpowers from a bottle. Something that sounded too good to be true, and clearly was. He didn't have Vicky's endearing little Fragile One. His power was a crippled wretch, and one he was bound to for the rest of his life. And beyond.
"Vicky, when March died…" He heard her take a sharp breath and paused for a moment. He knew it wasn't an easy subject for her either and didn't want to press. When she didn't say anything he pressed on. "When she died, did you see what happened with her passenger? How she got caught in there?"
"I… Sort of?" She said and he heard her sigh. "That's… a lot was happening. I'm not sure what it meant." She paused for a moment. "Is this about the other guy?" She asked somewhat skeptically.
"I know you didn't see it." Sometimes he wished he hadn't seen it either. The three faces, as Vicky had referred to it, and with more than a single person caught in there. "But I'm pretty sure, and if it means what I think…"
"I've told the people in New York about it." She assured him. "They've been bringing in the best parahuman researchers. The best of the best. Seriously, I've met some of the people that you read about in Parahuman Studies 101. They're looking into everything, but they aren't sure of what it means yet."
Rory was. He had been sure from the moment he saw it, and sure of what it meant to him. The rumors that had come out about Somer's Rock, about Apeiron's confrontation with The Butcher, only served to reinforce things. The Butcher only served to reinforce things.
He remembered people taking things like the Fairy Queen or the Butcher as evidence of an afterlife, as proof of the existence of the soul. It was the kind of thing that was a lot more comforting in the abstract than when you were seeing it for yourself.
And probably a lot more comforting if your ultimate resting place was a towering giant of unfathomable power clustered around your family. Or some nascent passenger who cared about you immensely. Not a malfunctioning charnel house where you would be bound for eternity in necrotic isolation.
It was the kind of thought that scared him in a way that even the worst villains never had. How were you supposed to be a hero when you were terrified of… well, not death, but what was waiting for you after death. When you'd had an experience that visceral and harrowing and were expected to just bounce back.
And what if you couldn't? Then you would get decades rather than years before you reached the hell that was waiting for you? Or you'd suffer some misstep, a stroke or accident or fatal illness and then it would be over. All because you took a Faustian bargain for power that you didn't understand in the first place.
He took a breath. Dwelling on this for the hundredth time wasn't going to help. He was glad Vicky had called, glad he could at least talk about what happened, even in abstract terms. He didn't need to get bogged down with concerns that he could do literally nothing about.
"I'm glad that they're looking into it." He said neutrally.
"It is a big focus, along with the Case 69 stuff." Vicky said. She at least seemed to find some level of amusement in the case number they had been saddled with. With her making light of it and him moping it felt like things were upside down.
"How is that going?" He asked. He hadn't seen her altered power in action that night, just the diminished displays she'd been able to pull off since. "Have you been able to project again or whatever?"
"Not yet, but I think I'm getting close." She said, "Still need to anchor to me, but I can definitely stretch further. Well, sort of stretch. It's not really me doing the driving when that happens."
"Right." He said quickly. He didn't need another reminder of passenger dynamics.
"How about you, Mr. Striker Six." She teased.
He lifted a hand and felt the energy flow into his fingers. With a thought he dissipated it, causing a light shimmer in the air. "I'm getting better at controlling it, shaping the effect, but I haven't really been practicing."
There hadn't really been a cause to. That wasn't the element of Case 69s that the Protectorate cared about. Vicky wasn't being fawned over by the best minds in the country because she had a short-range telekinetic effect. It was because she had a direct link to one of the beings that served as the source of powers. And a rather cooperative one by all accounts.
"Still on leave, staying at home." He continued.
"Must be hard being cooped up like that." Vicky said. He could tell she was leading to something. "Have you heard anything? About what's happening with Amy?"
Rory let out a long breath. "Not directly. Dennis stopped by to see me. He said Amy was in off-site holding. Basically, a guest house where they don't let you have a phone. Assault's been checking in on her regularly. I think she's doing okay, but I don't know why she's still being held."
"Neither do I." Vicky said, and he could hear the concern in her voice. "My mom's been handling everything with the Protectorate, but she's not even talking about Amy, and with the lockdowns and restrictions on everything…"
"I know." He replied. It was the same problem he had. So many people were worried and he could explain so little. Even the parts of the story that were in the official record were classified on a clearance level he'd never even heard of. He had paltry level one access with his posting to the Protectorate proper. Before this the highest clearance he had heard of was level three, but apparently the scale went well beyond that.
And that was for things he could actually talk about. In the aftermath of the event, the Case 68 as it was being officially classified, he had debated coming clean. People wanted to know why his passenger was the way it was. What caused the kind of reaction he'd had. In the face of everyone else who might find themselves shackled to the same monstrous fate he had been ready to tell them everything, about the vial, the source of his powers, and the connection to his broken passenger.
He'd been ready, right until he'd received a warning note about revealing the information. Not the kind of threat that would have normally discouraged him, except for how the note was delivered. His sisters had stopped by to visit him in the hospital. For them, even in the aftermath of everything he had been able to put on a brave face and reassure them. To accept their delivered flowers and handmade card with brotherly gratitude.
Then he had opened the envelope, the envelope that had been sealed by his own sisters, and behind the construction paper and glitter of their get-well card he saw a plain note with a simple message.
"Do not mention the vial or origin of your powers under any circumstances."
He'd slipped the note out of the envelope while his sisters were arranging the flowers in a hospital vase and destroyed it with a burst of his power, but the message had been clear. Any organization that could sell powers would have incredible resources, and their interests didn't end at the point of transaction. As much as the information was tearing him up inside, he couldn't take that risk. Not when his family was involved.
"They're going to make an announcement at some point." Vicky assured him. "The Case 68 and 69 stuff is probably going to get published or whatever. And it's going to be kind of obvious once we're back in the field."
There was a prodding edge to her voice, but the best Rory could manage was a rough "Yeah."
It was also a reminder that things weren't going to go back to normal. It wasn't like that had ever been a reasonable possibility, but it always seemed to be the case. The city got turned upside down, then things settled. Maybe gang borders shifted a little bit, maybe the rosters cycled slightly, maybe a new player would stick around, but for as long as he could remember the balance in the city had held.
Held right until it hadn't. Now things weren't just 'not holding', they were crumbling, burning, exploding, and being externally investigated for possible indictments. Nobody knew what the city was going to look like once things settled, or even if it was going to actually settle, rather than ramp up for another conflict.
He decided to return the sincerest sentiment that he could manage. "It'll be good to get you back as well."
With Vicky and Dean back, with Amy out of containment, with some semblance of stability in New Wave, then maybe they could see things through, with or without him. He hated that thought. The idea that he might not return to the field.
It was the persistent dread, the fear of death that experience had burned into his mind. It felt like cowardice, but at the same time that seemed unfair. He had taken risks and put his life on the line hundreds of times without worrying about what would happen. Now that he knew what was waiting for him, it didn't seem unreasonable to be concerned about it.
But he knew he couldn't live like this. He had to come to a decision, to somehow deal with the nightmare that was specific to him. Well, him and whoever else had gotten their powers from a bottle. He had no idea how common that was, even if he had his suspicions. It wasn't exactly the kind of thing you could bring up in casual conversation.
"Thanks." Vicky replied. "They say this shouldn't be too much longer, but they've been saying that since the weekend, and I swear my mom is dragging things out."
Rory didn't have any idea what kind of reason Brandish could have for that, but given the situation in New Wave it was anyone's guess. It could be anything from legal maneuvering to petty attacks against the other members of the group. As much as he wanted things to be resolved somehow, for both Vicky's sake and the rest of the city, it didn't seem likely.
"Hope it works out." He said, then heard a slight knock at his bedroom door. "I've got to go. It was nice talking to you."
"Yeah." She said, "I'll check in if I learn anything."
"Thanks. I appreciated that. Goodbye."
"Bye." She echoed, and the call cut off. He put the phone away before turning back to the door.
He was expecting to see his mother, trying to get him to eat something, or maybe the concerned face of one of his sisters looking for reassurance from their hero brother. Instead, he saw his father. Mayor Christner was home for dinner, like he always committed to be.
"Dad?" He asked.
"Hey Rory. Were you talking to someone?" His father asked.
He nodded. "Vicky called from New York. The testing's dragging out, but she's been able to see Dean, so that's good."
"Yes, I spoke with his parents the other day. They're hoping to have him back by the end of the week." His father explained. To Rory that seemed like a very ambitious timeline for commissioned tinker tech armor, but he's learned not to underestimate the Stansfield's resources.
"That's good." He said. "Vicky said they're focused on her passenger. Bringing in experts to try to communicate with it."
"But not yours." His dad replied.
"No." Rory said in a hollow voice.
His father took a deep breath before looking down at him. "Because of the vial?" Rory didn't respond. "Rory, I didn't know…"
"I didn't ask." He said quickly. He saw the concern on his father's face. He hadn't discussed the exact nature of his experience, not beyond the change in his powers, but with his father's resources it was anyone's guess how much he could have learned about what happened. "This isn't on you. It wasn't the kind of thing anyone would have turned down. Not with what we knew back then." Rory assured him.
"Are you going to be alright?" He spoke with the same fatherly concern of the man who had seen his son desperately work for an impossible dream and found a way to make it happen. The man who was always there for him, who was making time even when there were a thousand other things that would be screaming for his attention.
He knew that right after dinner his father would be back in the office. That he might not return that night. He was familiar with the same schedule during his shifts with the Protectorate, back when he'd been on active duty.
"I'm going to have to be." He said quietly. He reached over to his phone and pulled up his official messages. "They aren't pressing me about leave, but I know they're stretched thin out there."
"They can manage, and you don't need to rush back." His dad assured him.
"I know. And I'm not sure about any of this." He held up a hand and watched as the air blurred around his fingers. He saw his father's eyes jump from his hand to the disintegrated trophy. There was no judgment, just concern.
"I'm going to be attending Garment's charity event tomorrow." His father explained. "I know the Protectorate is looking out for representatives. It would be nice to have you there."
It was a neutral offering. A point of familiarity for both of them, from even before Rory had become a cape. With no villains or patrols or cause to use his powers, or his new powers, it seemed like the perfect way to ease back into things.
Provided he wanted to.
"Do you have time for something like that?" Rory asked, more out of an awareness of how it would play for the public than knowledge of his dad's schedule.
His dad looked down at him. "Uppercrust is attending, and giving the opening address." Rory nodded in understanding. "Plus, invitations have gone out to both the Protectorate and the visiting Chicago team. New Wave as well, and Parian's contributing to the event. Representatives from other agencies have already confirmed, so it's pretty much set. And there's even more national visibility now."
Rory gave his father a confused look.
"Garment put out another video. Well, one of her feature length documentaries with all the bells and whistles. Focused on historic style and design in Brockton Bay. Fashion and architecture, but she highlighted historic buildings that were destroyed or damaged in the attacks." His father explained.
Rory nodded. The Docks weren't exactly an architectural treasure, but it was an older part of the city, if perhaps not the best preserved. "It's good?"
"It's poignant." His father said. "If that's setting the tone for this event then it's going to practically be a memorial for the attacks." Which wasn't the kind of thing his father could afford to sit out.
"Damaged buildings came across that strong?" Rory asked skeptically.
His father gave a tired shrug. "The music helped. She's already selling the soundtrack for it, more proceeds to charity. And there was a whole feature about the Montgomery Building, that old depot in the docks? Dated to around the 1880s."
"I know it." Rory said. He had passed the place on patrols a few times.
"The whole thing came down days after the attacks. Support beams just came apart like someone sliced through them with a knife." His father shook his head. "After that they're slowing down work inside the blackout zone, making sure everything is safe." He paused, apparently realizing he was shifting focus back to work. Rory appreciated the effort his father made to keep the parts of his life apart.
"A strong showing would mean a lot for the city. But only if you're up to it." He continued.
Rory nodded. The concerns and anxiety weren't going away. Near death, then worse than death. No, a 'worse than death' that had always been there, but he'd only realized it then. It wasn't an easy thing to process, particularly when you had maybe two people in the world you could talk to about it.
He was lucky that they had both reached out to him. He looked up at his father and nodded. "I'll try." He said weakly. It was a couple of hours in costume, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras. Even with all the uncertainty he was struggling with, he could manage that. For his father and for the city.
"Thank you. Now, your mother made shepherd's pie." One of Rory's favorites. "Do you feel up for joining us for dinner?"
He didn't have much appetite, but the smells wafting up the stairs hit familiar notes for him. A ghost of a smile crossed his face as he remembered family dinners, the cornerstone of their time together.
"Sure dad." He said, climbing to his feet. "Let's go."