1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
3) I will accept any legitimate criticism of my work. However, I reserve the right to ignore anyone who says "That's wrong" without showing how it is wrong, and suggesting how it can be made right. Posting negative reviews from an anonymous account is a good way to have said reviews deleted.
Part One: Introduction
Thursday Night, December 23, 2010
The bus from Chicago pulled into the Brockton Bay depot and stopped with a hiss of air brakes. With a sigh of relief, the driver set the handbrake, killed the engine, then pulled the lever to open the doors. He was already thinking of the soft sheets that he'd be sleeping on that night as he opened his log book and began to fill out the row of figures.
Beside him, the passengers filed out of the bus, most of them just as pleased as he was that the endless journey was over at last. Long-haul from the Windy City to the 'Bay was no joke at the best of times, though he wasn't entirely sure why anyone would be coming to the city. Busy scribbling down odometer figures in handwriting only degrees more legible than a doctor's scrawl, he entirely failed to notice the slight distortion in space behind the last passenger, a tired woman with three cranky children.
Preoccupied with her own brood, the woman assumed that the teenage boy who appeared behind her had been slouched down in a seat and had just now gotten up. Politely, he waited for her to herd her offspring off the bus, then stepped down to the stained pavement himself. As he looked around, he felt wonder at what he saw and heard and felt, but he did not know how to express it.
Before anyone could query his presence, and the fact that he was unaccompanied by an adult, he walked off into the night.
The acne-scarred convenience store attendant rang up the sale. "That'll be forty-two dollars and seventy-three cents, please."
Naomi Hess rummaged through her purse and found two twenties. Further down, she located three dollar coins, which she placed on the counter with the twenties. The attendant took the money and counted out twenty-seven cents change, which she dropped into the purse. Prices go up every year.
"Thank you," she said to him. "Are you working over Christmas?"
"Gotta," he replied with a shrug. "Need the money."
He had a point, she had to admit. Keeping her two younger children fed and clothed was a constant trial, even though Sophia seemed to be able to pay her own way more and more these days. She carefully avoided thinking about how that might be the case; it was just good that Terry had his own job these days.
"Well, be safe," she told him. It wasn't the best of neighbourhoods; this late at night, her regular store had been closed, and she'd had to drive across a couple of neighbourhoods to find a place to pick up spare diapers as well as some other essentials. I swear, Sophia didn't use half as many.
"You too," he mumbled, already going back to whatever magazine he was reading in between sales. Laden down by her purchases, she hooked the door handle with one finger and pulled it open.
It was a good fifty yards down the block to where she'd parked her car. Her feet were already sore; the walk back to the car with the groceries would only serve to add another layer of discomfort to that. She visualised getting home, getting her shoes off, soaking her feet …
"Well, what the fuck do we have here?"
It was the tone behind the words, as opposed to the content, that made her heart sink. A covert glance over her shoulder confirmed her worst fears; three tattooed skinheads, flaunting the colours of the Empire, were rapidly catching up with her from behind. She tried to increase her pace as they swapped comments back and forth, but it was no use. Even if she dropped the bags and ran, she knew that they would catch her with relative ease.
Slowing her pace again, she hunched her shoulders, dropping her gaze to the ground. Maybe they'll just throw a few comments around and get bored and wander off. It was a slim hope, but it was all she had. There was a pepper spray tube in her purse, but to try to use it on three determined opponents would be a bad idea. She would almost certainly miss one, and that would get her stabbed or worse.
In moments, they were surrounding her on three sides.
"Hey, bitch, where you going with that shit?" That was the opening ploy. If she didn't answer, she was ignoring them. That would give them an excuse to escalate.
"Home," she mumbled. It was probably better to say something than nothing.
"What's this shit you're carrying? You steal that shit, bitch?"
"Yeah, nigger bitch probably stole it." She felt a tugging on one of the bags, and hung on to it.
That was when one of them shoved her; she staggered. "Let go, bitch. I wanna see what you stole!"
"I didn't steal it." She knew it was a mistake to speak up, but the words came out anyway. "I bought it."
"Bought it, huh?" Another shove. This time, she barely kept her feet. "Probably stole the money to buy that shit with."
"Just leave me alone," she pleaded. "I'm not hurting you."
A foot hooked between her ankles, tripping her; she fell heavily. One of the bags came free of her hand, spilling groceries across the pavement. She tried to hold on to her handbag, but one of the skinheads plucked it off her shoulder. "Let's see how much money this bitch stole this week."
"Or whored for it," put in another one.
"Hey, that's a good point. You whore for this stuff?" She stayed silent, knowing that there was no answer that would satisfy. A kick caught her in the ribs, and she gasped, curling around herself. "Answer me, bitch! You whore for this?"
"'Course she did," said the one who had suggested it in the first place. "Still, she probably ripped 'em off. Maybe we should try out the goods, see if she's worth it."
No. No no no. Please, no. Naomi had been mugged before – in a city like Brockton Bay, this was in no way an uncommon event – but they'd never gone this far before. She tried to struggle to her feet, but the kick caught her in the stomach this time, sending her on to her side, curled around a ball of pain. All the negative thoughts she'd ever had about her daughter going out and being a violent costumed vigilante were gone; there was nothing that she would have welcomed more than Sophia's costumed form swooping out of the night to deal with these thugs.
That didn't happen, but something did. "What are you doing?"
It wasn't Sophia's voice. It wasn't anyone she knew. The speaker sounded masculine, though young. There was no anger in the question, or even menace. The question sounded more curious than anything.
"The fuck?" That was one of her tormentors, the one who had raised the idea of rape. "Fuck off, cocksucker. None of your fucking business."
There was a pause, then the question was repeated in exactly the same tone. She turned her head, looked upward. The newcomer was white and seemed to be fifteen or sixteen, well-built for his apparent age, with reasonably good looks and artfully tousled black hair. He was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. She was momentarily distracted by the thought that he should be wearing a jacket; while the temperatures in Brockton Bay never fell below freezing, it was a chilly night.
When he failed to get an answer, the boy took a step forward. "Why are you hurting her? She has not harmed you."
"Always gotta be someone," muttered one of the other skinheads. There was a click, which her mind interpreted as a switchblade opening. "Okay, motherfucker, give us all your money. And your phone. Right the fuck now."
"I do not have anything to give you," the boy replied guilelessly. "But even if I did, why would I do that?"
"Because I'm going to cut you if you don't." She saw the skinhead step closer to the boy, who hadn't even raised his hands to protect himself. Run! Get away! They'll kill you! She wanted to shout all that and more, but she could barely breathe right now.
"No, you are not." The boy didn't sound defensive, or even scared. Nor did he sound angry or confrontational. His tone was just … factual. The sky is blue. Water is wet. You are not going to cut me.
"Uh, hey … " This was one of the others. "He might be, you know, a cape or something."
"I am not a cape."
Oh no, groaned Naomi silently. You could've gone with it, made them back off. But you had to say that.
The skinhead said just one thing. "Good."
Naomi saw him lunge forward, the blade in his hand glinting yellow in the glare of the street-light. There was a blur of motion followed by a dry snap, and the skinhead screamed; Naomi couldn't quite see properly from her prone position, but it looked like the boy had the Empire thug's wrist turned back on itself somehow. He let the skinhead go as the other two began to move in.
Naomi had recovered a little from the kicks, and managed to sit up as the skinhead fell to his knees, cradling his wrist and whimpering slightly. She rummaged in her purse for a moment.
The skinhead looked around as she spoke. She let him have it in the eyes with the pepper spray; he screamed all over again, recoiling backward, trying to clutch at his face. For just a moment, she savoured the satisfaction, then painfully climbed to her feet. Maybe I can get away now.
But it seemed that there was no need, not any more. Both of the other skinheads were down, one groaning a little. The boy was looking down at a slash in his T-shirt, though thankfully Naomi saw no blood beneath it.
"My god, are you all right?" she asked anyway. He just beat up those three punks to save me. "Thank you, thank you so much."
He looked up at her, his expression mild. "I am well. They only cut my shirt." His expression fell a little. "It is my only shirt."
"Oh, uh …" A moment later, she registered what he had just said. "What, you have no other shirts at all?"
"No other clothes?"
"No. This is what I have." He gestured to himself.
She frowned. He didn't look half-starved, and his clothes appeared relatively new. I doubt he's living on the streets. "If you don't mind me asking … why is this?"
"I do not mind. It is all I have."
"Nothing else?" She tried to work this out. "Did your folks kick you out? Have you run away from home? Where are you from, anyway?"
"I have not run away from home. I am not from anywhere."
It was like asking a brick wall for answers. "Um … listen, what's your name? Mine's Naomi."
He looked steadily back at her. "I do not know what my name is."
"Your family? Do you remember your family?"
"Yes," he replied. For a long moment, she thought that he was finished, then he said one more word. "Behemoth."
Naomi Hess had seen the cartoon effect, with a light-bulb going on over the character's head. She had always derided the notion, until right now. It was as if a thousand-watt bulb had been turned on, so brightly did the realisation illuminate everything.
It made so much sense. He didn't have anything, not because he had run away from home, but because he had lost his family. She'd heard of cases of traumatic amnesia before now. Poor kid probably saw them killed in front of him, and he's blanking it all out. Blanking everything out, including his own name. It wasn't the weirdest thing that she'd seen or heard in her life. It explained his simplistic way of speaking as well; he'd retreated to a more childlike mindset, to deal with the horror of what had happened.
"Shit," she muttered. "Uh, do you have any place to stay?"
"I have no place to stay."
For a moment, she couldn't believe that she was really considering this. Then she made up her mind; on the one side was gratitude toward the boy who had risked his life to save her. On the other was her natural caution It really was a no-brainer. He saved me from … well, whatever those guys had planned for me. I owe him this much.
"Listen," she said gently. "You saved me from … well, you saved me. I can't thank you enough for that. Have you eaten today?"
"I have not eaten today."
"And you don't have anywhere to stay, either. Right." I can't leave him to starve on the street. He doesn't have the grab-everything attitude that he'll need to survive. "Okay, then." She took a deep breath. "If you want, you can sleep on my couch tonight. I'll make you dinner. I'm pretty sure my son's got some old clothes that'll fit you. In the morning, we'll try and find out who you really are, see if we can contact any family you have left."
He looked back at her for a long moment, making her wonder if he was going to refuse through stubborn pride, or maybe ignorance of what faced him. Then he nodded. "I would like that."
The taillights of the car had faded into the distance before Conrad stirred and sat up. He moved with difficulty, because his right arm was refusing to work correctly, but he managed it.
"Guys?" he asked.
A groan came from one direction, where Joe was trying not to claw his own eyes out with his left hand. The acrid tang of pepper spray still hung in the air; Conrad figured that one out pretty easily. Well, he won't be good for much until he gets them cleared out.
Conrad looked toward Brent, and recoiled. The last of the three skinheads lay on his back, sightless eyes staring at the streetlight above. His chest was caved in like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it; there was a really serious concavity there. If Brent wasn't dead, then he was tougher than anyone Conrad knew.
Painfully, he staggered to his feet, trying to stop his right arm from swinging around too much. Need to talk to someone about this, he decided. That little fucker was a cape, all right. Nobody else coulda done that shit to us so easy.
Unsteadily, he stumbled off into the darkness.
As Naomi pulled into the driveway on Stonemast Avenue, the house looked subtly different. Or perhaps it was in her own perceptions. What had happened to her – what had nearly happened to her – had changed her view of the world. She had known that Brockton Bay could be dangerous at night. Hell, it could be dangerous during the day. But this fact had been now driven home to her in no uncertain terms. The realisation had changed her, and would continue to do so. She wasn't so sure that the changes would be positive in nature.
On the drive back to the house, she had attempted to strike up a conversation with the boy, but she hadn't gotten far. He knew some things but not others, and he had no opinions whatsoever about, well, anything. The one positive statement she got from him came when she asked him straight-out why he had come to her aid.
"I am here to help," he had replied.
"I don't understand," she said. "What do you mean by that?"
"I am here to help," he repeated, in exactly the same tone.
"Oh," was all she could come back with. "Well, thank you again."
"You are welcome," he responded brightly.
Neither one spoke after that, until they got back to the house.
Terry looked up from the first-person shooter as he heard the car pull into the driveway. Mom'll want help with the groceries. He paused the game and got up off the couch. "Sophia!" he called. "Mom's home!"
"Not deaf!" she yelled back from her room. But there was no sound of her door opening or of her coming down the stairs. She obviously didn't feel like helping with the groceries, either.
Fine. Be that way. I'll do it all myself.
He knew that his mother would have trouble with the front door if her hands were full of groceries, so he strolled over to open it for her. His timing was spot-on; the door swung open just as she stepped up on to the porch. But she wasn't carrying any groceries. More to the point, there was a teenage kid behind her, just now hefting them out of the car.
"Mom?" he asked. "Who's that?" If he's stealing them, I am so gonna chase him down and beat the crap outta him.
"He's going to be our guest for a day or so," she said. "I was attacked when I was coming out of the store. He stopped them." Leaning in closer, she lowered her voice. "He's got amnesia. Endbringer attack."
Terry's eyes widened. "Shit, really? Are you all right? Who was it? Empire?"
"I'm fine, yes," she assured him. "And yes, it was some skinheads. But it's all good now."
He kind of doubted that last bit; she had new scrapes on her hands, and she was holding herself a little oddly, but she was walking and talking, so he let that be.
"Okay, sure, I'll just help him with the stuff. What's his name?"
She shrugged. "He couldn't tell me. He can't remember."
Terry blinked. "You're not kidding about the amnesia." He gave his mother a quick hug. "I'm glad you're all right."
Smiling, she hugged him back, then added a kiss on the cheek for good measure. "Me too, Terry."
The boy had the last of the grocery bags out of the car when a tall young man came out of the house and approached him. "Hi. The name's Terry Hess."
Placing one of the bags on the ground, the boy shook his hand. "Hello, Terry Hess."
Terry shook it with a firm grip. "Mom says you helped her out of a bad spot. I want to thank you for that."
The boy picked up the bag again. "I am here to help."
"Well, works for me." Terry Hess did something to the car door and closed it. "C'mon, I'll help you with the bags." The bags were no burden at all, but the boy allowed Terry to take one of them. If Terry wanted to help, then he could help.
Terry led the way into the house and began showing the boy where to put the groceries. Although the boy knew what a kitchen was, this was the first time that he had ever seen one. Naomi Hess came into the kitchen and smiled at both of them. "Oh, good," she said, and picked up the diapers from where Terry had left them on the bench. "I'll just go deal with this, then I'll start dinner."
"No, Mom," Terry told her. "You have a shower and lie down or something. I'll make dinner tonight."
"Are you sure?" she asked, doubt in her voice.
"Sure I'm sure," he said firmly. "I'm not as good a cook as you, but I'm not bad. Go shower."
"But I've got to -" she began, holding up the pack of diapers.
"Get Sophia to do it," he interrupted. "Pretty sure she's only up in her room texting to her high school friends anyway."
"Well, okay. You twisted my arm." But her tone did not indicate anger, and the boy knew that Terry had not touched her, much less twisted her arm. He assumed that she was saying one thing to mean another, and that both of them knew what she meant.
Smiling, she kissed her son on the cheek and left the kitchen.
The knock on Sophia's door startled her; it was followed by her mother's voice. "Sophia? Are you in there?"
With a grumpy huff, the teen Ward swung her legs off of her bed. Her text to Emma and Madison was unfinished, so she added an extra line. Hold that thought. Mom here.
The text sent, she shut the phone down, then got up and opened the door. "What's the matter, Mom?"
Almost immediately, a pack of diapers was thrust into her hands. "Anna needs a change. Please deal with it. I need to shower."
Sophia grimaced. "Can't Terry do it?"
"Terry's cooking dinner. I'm making it your job tonight." Her mother's tone became plaintive. "No backchat, not tonight, Sophia. Please."
It took that clue for Sophia to notice things; mainly, the scrapes on her mother's knees and the palms of her hands, but also the way she was holding herself, as if her ribs were painful. Sophia knew that look; she'd been on that side of the equation more often than she really wanted to think about.
"Shit, Mom, are you all right?"
"A lot better than I might have been." A deep breath. "I got mugged. Empire thugs. They … they were going to get pretty violent. But someone stopped them."
Sophia clenched her fists, anger growing within her. "Empire? Those racist fucks. Next time I'm out that way -"
"No, no, I'm fine," Naomi insisted. "I just need to have a hot shower and lie down for a bit."
"Oh, okay." Sophia frowned. "Still gonna send them a message." A thought struck her. "Who was it who stopped them?"
"I don't know his name." Her mother's voice was matter-of-fact. "He's about your age, but I'm pretty sure he lost his family in an Endbringer attack, and the experience has affected him mentally. He certainly doesn't remember anything about where he's from, or his name, or anything like that. But he doesn't have anywhere to stay, so I offered him the couch for the night. Until we can contact Family Services, see if they can figure out who he really is."
Sophia stared. "Mom, are you nuts? Inviting some – some stranger into the house? Who knows what he might do!"
"I know exactly what he might do," Naomi retorted, a steely tone to her voice. "He might step between me and three Empire Eighty-Eight thugs and risk his life to save mine. Because that's what he did do."
"You already said he was affected mentally," Sophia protested. "What if it's the 'I want to wear your lungs as a necklace' type of mental effect?"
Naomi set her jaw. "I've invited him for dinner," she stated flatly. "If you get any sort of bad vibes off of him, anything at all, he's out after that. I'll see if there's a homeless shelter that'll take him in and I'll drive him there myself. But give him that chance, at least, all right?"
Sophia sighed in frustration. "Fine. He gets this one chance."
"Thank you." Her mother hugged her quickly. "I'm going to take that shower. Go take care of your sister?"
"Yeah, okay." Accepting the pack of diapers, Sophia watched her mother move down the corridor toward the bathroom. She turned her attention back to her phone. Powering it up again, she read the return comments. Her lips skinned back from her teeth as she read what they had to say. It was perfectly in line with her thoughts, especially when it came to what was due to happen to Hebert.
Regretfully, she typed back, Cant stay & chat. Put in charge of sister. Guest for dinner. Momentarily, she considered describing why the guest was there, but changed her mind when she realised that she hadn't even met the guy yet. Talk later. Folding the phone, she tucked it away and went to deal with her appointed chore. Once she was done with changing Anna, she'd go down and see about this guy Mom had brought home. I swear, if he's a creeper, he is so gone.
Terry chopped the ingredients of the casserole, dumping them into the pot as he finished with each lot. Their dinner guest watched with fascinated interest; it was as if he'd never seen someone preparing a meal before. Or maybe he just had a thing for cooking.
"So, Mom wasn't really forthcoming about what happened," Terry observed as he sliced strips of meat. "How bad was it, really?"
The kid didn't answer for a few seconds. "It would have been bad," he allowed. "There were three of them. They would have done bad things to her. I asked them why. They could not answer. Then they attacked me. One is dead. The other two are injured but alive."
The knife stopped moving, poised in midair, as Terry turned to face him. "You're saying you killed one of these guys?"
"That is what I am saying, Terry Hess," the boy agreed.
"Wait, who killed what now?" asked Sophia, walking into the kitchen.
The boy turned to her before Terry could decide what to say. "I killed one of the three men who was going to do something bad to Naomi Hess," he explained. "I helped her."
Her eyes widened, but not in fear. Terry couldn't quite figure out what her expression meant. "No shit? How badly did you hurt the other two?" Oh, wait. It was excitement.
"I broke the wrist of one, and the arm of the other," the boy told her in a straightforward manner. "The third one had a gun, and may have hurt your mother. So I killed him."
"So how -" she began.
"Whoa, hold on," Terry protested. "Seriously, Sophia. Not a great topic of conversation. Let's just leave it at that, okay? He had to do something pretty bad to protect Mom, and I can understand why he did it, but can we not dwell on it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Terr, he did it to protect Mom. That automatically makes it a righteous kill."
"What?" He stared at her. "Soph, killing is wrong, no matter who does it to whom. He was kind of justified in this case, because Mom, but still, it's never a good thing to do."
She shook her head. "You don't get it, do you? We live in Brockton Bay. We got a guy who can turn into a giant flaming rage dragon and toast you in your house, and we got a guy who can make steel blades shoot out of the floor and make you into a shish kebab – and just incidentally, neither of those people approve of our skin colour, and both of them lead powerful criminal gangs. The wonder isn't that we've got the murder rate we do. It's that it's not higher."
Stubbornly, he shook his head. "That doesn't make killing good, Soph. It's never right to take matters into your own hands. The courts exist for a reason. Becoming judge, jury and executioner is illegal, and for many good reasons."
She stood her ground. "Tell that to every person who got saved from a gruesome death because some out of control cape got a kill order put on his head."
Terry grimaced. "That's a special case. They only do that for S-class threats."
"But they do it," she insisted. "If you know someone's gonna try and kill you anyway, it's better to hit them first before they can do it."
"But that's murder." Terry shook his head. "It wouldn't even count as self-defence unless they were clearly threatening you."
"Seriously, bro," Sophia retorted. "With some of the capes out there, their idea of a warning shot is blowing up half a city block. You don't get 'prior warning'. You get dead. Pre-emptive self-defence. It's a thing."
"But it's not," Terry retorted, his voice heavy with frustration. "Not legally, anyway."
Their guest broke in. "Terry Hess, are you threatening Sophia?"
Terry realised that he was waving the knife around, pointing the blade at his sister. "Uh, sorry, no. Got carried away." He put the knife on the bench. "Sophia, I don't even know where you're getting all this from."
"Real life, bro," Sophia told him, then turned to the boy. "Come on, let's go into the living room and let Terry finish murdering dinner."
The boy looked at the cutting board. "That is already dead. He cannot murder it."
She rolled her eyes. "Figure of speech. Come on."
"All right, Sophia." They walked out of the kitchen side by side.
Terry watched them go, then took a deep breath. That didn't settle his agitation, so he took another one. When he was reasonably certain that he wouldn't be chopping off any fingers, he went back to cutting up ingredients for the casserole.
God, I hope she doesn't twist his head totally around with her thinking.
Sophia seated the boy on the couch, then sat beside him where she could keep an eye on Anna in her playpen. "So how'd you kill the one guy? You a cape?"
He looked earnestly at her. "I am not a cape, Sophia. I punched him in the chest and his heart stopped."
"Pretty sure that's a cape thing. Or late night martial-arts movies. Not something an ordinary kid can do, right?"
"I am not an ordinary kid. But I am not a cape either."
For all of her scepticism, she found herself believing him. He was so … open, so transparent. As far as she could tell, he didn't even think that what he did was wrong. Well, neither did she, but then, she knew how the world worked. There's weak and then there's strong. I'm strong. And I'm pretty sure that this guy is too. Which reminds me. I can't just keep calling him 'this guy'.
"So you really can't remember your name?" she asked.
"I have no name."
"Huh. Well, we can't just keep calling you 'the guy with no name' so how would you like a name?"
"I would like a name very much, Sophia." He smiled at her. It really was a very charming smile, causing something to shiver deep inside her.
"Okay then," she said, doing her best not to stare into his vivid green eyes, "do you have a preference? What do you remember about your family anyway?"
He paused for a moment. "Naomi says that they were killed in an Endbringer attack."
"Yeah, she said." Sophia shook her head. "Okay, what kind of name would you like to have? Any ideas?"
For the first time, he seemed uncertain about what to say. "I do not know. Perhaps Ed Ringer?"
"No. Just no." She shook her head. "Way too many people would pick up on it and call you 'Endbringer'. You don't want that kind of reminder, trust me." She rubbed her chin. "How about … Zachary?"
He smiled widely, causing that little shiver again. Hey, stop it. He's cute, but I'm not about to fall for him. I don't fall for guys. I got no time for that sort of thing.
"Zachary is a good name," he said. "I like it. My name is Zachary."
"Excellent." She leaned back on the couch, doing her best to relax. "So, Zach, tell me how you saved Mom. Don't leave anything out."
"All right, Sophia." He leaned back as well, emulating her posture. "She was lying on the ground. There were three of them. One was kicking her. I walked over and asked them what they were doing. They did not want to answer me, and one produced a knife. Another one said that I might be a cape. I said I was not. The one with the knife tried to stab me, and I broke his wrist, but he cut my shirt. The other two attacked me, and one had a pistol. I punched that one in the chest so that he would not hurt your mother with the pistol. The other one tried to hit me with a club, so I broke his arm and knocked him unconscious."
Sophia tried not to stare. Zachary's entire statement had been entirely without any trace of bravado or boastfulness. "Are you sure you're not some sort of cape?"
"I have told you twice now, Sophia. I am not a cape."
"Right, right." She wasn't quite sure why she believed him, but she did. "Not a cape, gotcha." Which meant that he was some kind of badass normal. This was especially impressive, given his apparent age. I'm good, I'm really good, but if I didn't have my powers … She was honest enough to admit to herself that she wouldn't be anywhere near as impressive as he had just described.
This was starting to sound like the plot of a corny martial-arts movie. Kid comes out of nowhere, check. Has no memory of his past, check. Kickass martial-arts moves, check. No super-powers, check. "We are gonna have to spar sometime," she murmured. Unbidden, an image of him on the sparring mat, shirtless, sprang fully-formed into her mind. A very compelling image. Muscles and sweat were involved.
"I am sorry, Sophia," he said. "I did not hear that."
"Never mind." She forced the image away. No. Seriously, no. Stop that, she silently ordered her libido.
Taking a deep breath, she continued in a deliberately normal tone. "So, you've heard my views on necessary killing. You killed that one guy. Why didn't you deal with the rest of them the same way?" I would have, she didn't have to say. Normally, she didn't set out to kill common muggers, but in this case, she would have made an exception.
"I did not have to," he explained. "Only one of them had the potential to harm her, so I ended the threat. The others were no threat at all."
"Oh." It made sense. "But if they had posed more of a threat to her …"
His tone never changed. "I would have acted to end it." She had absolutely no doubt that he meant every word.
Damn. This guy's not just a predator. He's an apex predator. Just like me. "So you've got no problem with killing, when it's needed?"
"It is as you said, Sophia. Sometimes killing is necessary. Sometimes life requires death."
She had never heard it expressed precisely like that, but his words resonated with her. I wonder if …
The thought was not completed, as Terry came through into the living room, wiping his hands with a towel. "Dinner should be ready in half an hour or so," he announced. He looked at Zach. "So what have the two of you been talking about?"
Zach looked over at Sophia's brother. "Sophia has given me my name. I am Zachary."
Terry covered his eyes with his hand. "Soph, really? You know he's already got a name. We've just gotta find out what it is."
"I like the name Zachary," protested the boy. "It is a good name."
"Yes, but you'll have another name, somewhere in the system," Terry tried to explain. "When we find out who you really are, we'll find that out as well."
"So he changes his name." It was obvious to Sophia. "What's the big deal?"
"But he already has a name," Terry reiterated. "Giving him another name will just confuse him when he gets told his real one, or he gets his memory back."
"Well, it's not like we can call him 'hey you', is it?" Sophia snapped.
Terry grimaced. "I guess. But it's not like he's gonna be staying with us for long, right?"
Zach's head dropped at that. Sophia reached out and punched her brother on the shoulder. "Now look what you've done. You've hurt his feelings."
"Since when have you ever worried about anyone's feelings?" scoffed Terry.
"Hey, I can worry about someone's feelings." She couldn't miss the scepticism on his face. "I can! Anyway, look at him. He needs someone to talk to him. To connect to him. Think he'll get that with Family Services?"
"Wait." He looked at her suspiciously. "Are you saying he should stay with us?"
While she hadn't thought quite that far ahead, but he had a point. "Well, why not? He saved Mom's life."
"By killing someone, Soph," he pointed out.
"Well, are you gonna call the cops on him?"
They both looked at Zach then. He looked back at them. Terry shook his head. "Nah. Even if he didn't get charged with murder, it'd still be on his permanent record. He doesn't deserve that, not for saving Mom."
She nodded. "Anyway, it's Christmas. Everyone should have people around them at Christmas."
Again, he gave her an odd look. "Soph, seriously? Who turned on your 'nice' setting?"
"I can be nice." Even in her ears, that fell flatter than the first one. With a half-shrug, she conceded the point. "Okay, fine. He's a good guy, and he saved Mom's life, so I'm just saying we should maybe cut him a break."
"I'm not saying no, but we're gonna have to run it past Mom," Terry noted. "And ixnay on the illing-kay thing, too. Just saying."
"I do not understand those words, Terry Hess," Zach said. "What do they mean?"
"What do what words mean?"
They all looked around; Naomi had just come down the stairs wearing a dressing gown. She looked a little more refreshed, a little less worn. Light plasters covered where she had skinned her hands.
"Mom!" Terry spoke first. "How are you feeling?"
"Better." She smiled at him. "Dinner smells nice, dear. What words were you using that confused him?"
Zach stood up from the sofa. "Hello, Naomi Hess. The words were 'ixnay' and -"
"We were just teaching him pig latin, Mom," Sophia rushed to say. "See, Zach, you take the first letter of the word and put it at the back of the word, then add 'ay' as a sound. So for 'nix', which means 'no', you say 'ixnay'."
"Oh." Zach tilted his head. "I see. And this is a language?"
"Wow." Terry frowned. "You don't even know pig latin. I thought every kid knew it."
"Well, I know it now, Erry-tay Ess-hay," Zach said with a smile. "Is that how it is done?"
"That's how it's done," Mom agreed. "You three seem to be getting along all right."
"Yeah, he's pretty cool," Terry said. "Uh, Sophia and me were thinking that if Family Services can't find his folks straight away, he might be able to stay here for a bit? At least until they can get in touch with whoever's been taking care of him?"
Sophia tried not to stare at Terry. She'd been ready to open the subject herself, but hadn't thought that he was totally on board with the idea. But here he was, broaching it as plain as day. Well, crap. Now I'm gonna have to find another reason to dump on him.
"Sophia?" Mom was looking at her quizzically. "Are you really in agreement with Terry on this?"
"Um, yes?" Sophia glanced at Zach, and her resolve firmed up. Don't be too eager about it. "I mean, yeah, sure. He's tolerable, I guess. And I wouldn't want to kick him out on Christmas."
"Hmm." Mom looked at her then at Terry. Finally, she looked at Zach. "And what do you think about this?"
"I think it is good, Naomi Hess," Zach replied. "If you let me stay, then I will be happy to stay."
"Well, I'll think about it." Mom raised a finger as both her children began to speak at once. "I said, I'd think about it. That's not a yes, but it's not a no, either. It's not so important that I can't have twenty-four hours to decide. All right?"
Terry nodded first, the big suck-up. "No problems, Mom."
"Yeah," added Sophia. "That's fine."
"Sophia gave me my name," Zach announced.
Both of Mom's eyebrows rose. "Really?"
Sophia couldn't think of a way to defuse what was coming. Terry gave her an amused glance as Zach went on. "Yes. My name is Zachary."
"Is it, now?" There was a glint of amusement in Mom's eye as she looked at all three of them. "You do realise, Sophia, that just because you named him doesn't mean you can keep him."
"Mo-om," Sophia gritted out. "He's not a dog."
"That's true," Mom agreed. "And as I recall, there was a Zachary Hebron who you had the biggest crush on when you were in fifth grade. Is there any connection?"
"Buss-tedd," murmured Terry. Sophia wanted to jab him in the ribs, but Mom was still watching. She wondered if it was actually possible to die of embarrassment. It's nobody's business whose name I gave him.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Zachary liked his new name. He liked staying with the Hess family. He did not need to sleep, although he concealed this from them, because it would raise too many questions. So, on the first night, he lay down on the couch with the blanket over him and closed his eyes. He did not mind this. It was restful.
He had a primary function. It was something that he needed to do. But the push was not urgent. He still had a few days.
In the morning, he ate breakfast with the family. Eating was another thing that he did not need to do, but to not do so would also raise questions. He somehow knew that if he did not act too far out of the norm, people would not take notice, but if he exhibited strange abilities, then questions would be asked. So he pretended that he needed to eat and sleep. It made things easier.
After breakfast, Zach volunteered to wash the dishes. Terry had shown him how the night before, and he had found that he rather enjoyed it. It was good practice for fine manipulation that was not combat. He was a little surprised that Sophia offered to help him. From what he could see, she did not enjoy it in the same way that he did, and still she chose to do this. She certainly did not need the practice in fine manipulation. He did not understand her motivations, but he still did not understand why people did many things.
"So, Mom," Terry asked as they were doing this. "Have you checked with Family Services yet?"
"I rang their number," Naomi replied. Beside Zach, Sophia tensed a little. Zach heard Naomi raise her voice slightly. "You can relax, Sophia. I got an automated message telling me to call back on the twenty-sixth."
"Oh, okay." Sophia sounded relieved. Zach was not sure why. "Uh, Zach, I was going to get in some last-minute shopping at the mall today. Want to come with?"
"Oh god," groaned Terry. "Run, Zach. Run while you still can. Save your sanity."
"Why must I run, Terry?" asked Zach. "Shopping sounds interesting."
"Shopping can be interesting, when you're shopping for man stuff," Terry said. "But shopping with teenage girls is soul-destroying. Trust me, I've been there."
"But Sophia is just one teenage girl," Zach replied.
"Uh, we might be meeting the guys there," Sophia told him. "If that's okay with you?"
"I do not know who 'the guys' are, Sophia," he reminded her.
"Uh, Emma and Madison," she said. "I've, uh, kinda told them about you."
"Oh. That sounds interesting. I would like to meet your friends." Zach meant it. Meeting new people was always interesting. Even if it did not bring him any closer to his primary goal.
"Excellent. You'll love them."
Hillside Mall Food Court
Emma stared at Zach. The teen looked blandly back at her. "You're kidding, right?" she asked. "This guy beat the crap out of three Empire punks?" From force of habit, she glanced around, but the food court was sufficiently noisy that her voice would not carry very far.
"She is not kidding, Emma," Zach replied for Sophia. "They were hurting Naomi Hess. I stopped them."
"Wow, holy crap," chimed in Madison. "A regular white knight, huh, Sophia?"
"Kinda, yeah," admitted Sophia. "It coulda gone badly for Mom if he hadn't been there."
"So Zach, you seeing anyone?" asked Emma. He wasn't the eye candy that some guys were, but he was good-looking enough and if Sophia's story was to be believed, he could handle himself in a brawl. He was also polite and deferential to a fault, which she admired in a man, especially when it came to her.
The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them, because Sophia turned to look at her. Her friend's eyes slitted ever so slightly, leaving Emma with no illusions as to where she'd gone wrong. "Uh … or not," she amended hastily. "Just curious, is all."
"I am seeing many people, Emma," Zach replied, causing Madison to choke on her slushie. "There are over fifty people in this food court alone. I can see them all."
Emma realised what he was saying, even as she patted Madison on the back. "No, I meant seeing seeing. Like, boyfriend and girlfriend. Not that I'm interested," she added hastily.
"Sophia is a girl and my friend," Zach said. "Is that what you mean?"
She looked at his open, honest expression, and decided not to go there. "Uh, let's just drop the subject."
"Yes," Sophia muttered. "Let's."
"So anyway, I was wondering," Madison put in. "Zach, why do you never use contractions?"
Zach looked at her. "What are contractions, Madison?"
That caused Emma and Madison to both stare at him. "What, you don't know what contractions are?" Emma blurted.
"I do not know what they are in that context, that I should be using them," Zach replied.
"Uh, when you run two words together," Madison told him. "Like they've, we've, I'm and so on."
"Oh." Zach paused for a moment. "I have heard you doing this. I did not know what you were doing." He ate a fry. "These taste very interesting."
"So why don't you?" pressed Madison.
"Why do I not do what, Madison?" he asked politely.
"Use contractions," Emma reminded him. "Why don't you use contractions?"
Zach looked at Sophia. "Should I use contractions, Sophia?"
Sophia seemed to be almost grinning as she shook her head. "You don't have to, Zach. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable."
"Not using contractions makes me feel comfortable," Zach declared. "So I will not use them."
"You realise that it makes you sound like a robot or something," Madison pointed out. "Are you a robot? Or an alien? Or an alien robot?"
"No, Madison," Zach replied politely. "I am neither a robot nor an alien."
"How about a cape?" Emma asked quickly, keeping her voice down.
Zach looked at her. "Naomi Hess asked me that question, as did Sophia. I am not a cape."
Emma was pretty sure that she could tell when someone was lying, or at least shading the truth. Growing up with a lawyer for a father, and then in her position as queen bee of her year at Winslow, she had plenty of practice. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence that undermined Zach's statement, but she found herself taking him at face value. He'd said that he wasn't a cape, so she believed him.
Sophia was glaring at her again. "What?" asked Emma. "It was a reasonable question."
"Swear to god," Sophia muttered. "Next person who asks Zach if he's a cape, I'm gonna punch their lights out."
"So, Zach," piped up Madison, her eyes alight with mischief. "Are you, uh -"
"Don't say it," growled Sophia.
"- going to be attending Winslow?" finished Madison, then poked out her tongue at Sophia.
"I do not know, Madison." Zach turned to Sophia. "Is Winslow a place where I can meet people?"
Sophia shot Madison a dirty look; Emma read it quite clearly as I see what you did there. "Yes, Zach, it's a place where you can meet people."
"That is good," Zach decided. "If I can, I will attend Winslow. I like to meet people."
"Didn't you say that he wasn't in the system?" Emma pointed out. "If that's true, then he's almost certainly not enrolled at Winslow."
"Yeah, well," began Sophia.
Later, at Home
"It's not like they'll even notice an extra student," Sophia argued. "Come on, Mom. It'll be good for him. Terry'll be at work, you'll be at work, Anna will be in daycare."
Naomi pursed her lips. She wasn't at all sure about this. "You realise, Family Services may well take him away before then."
"But if they don't?" Sophia urged. "Is it okay?"
Naomi sighed. "Zach, do you want to go to school with Sophia, if you're still staying here?"
"Yes, Naomi." Zach smiled. "It sounds very interesting."
"What sounds interesting?" asked Terry, strolling into the kitchen to raid the fridge.
"I am going to attend Winslow, Terry Hess," Zach told him. "Sophia says there are many people there."
"Hm." Terry quirked a grin. "Well, you seemed to survive the shopping mall of horrors, so I'm not going to try to talk you out of it." He paused, and his tone turned serious. "Just don't go picking fights with any gang members there. I'm pretty sure that some of them go armed."
"I will not pick any fights," Zach assured him.
"And if someone tries to pick a fight with you, just walk away," Terry added.
"Hell, no," protested Sophia. "Someone gets in your face, you get right back in theirs. You back down even once, they'll think you're weak and never stop coming at you."
Terry covered his eyes with his hand. "Sophia, this is Winslow," he reminded her. "You're reasonably popular and you're on the track team. Not many people are gonna mess with you. Zach's an unknown. He's got no cred there. It's best if he just keeps his head down and doesn't get caught up in anything."
"It is all right, Terry Hess," Zach assured him. "I will not start anything that I do not believe that I can finish."
"Plus, I'll be looking out for him." Sophia spread her hands. "He'll be fine. Trust me."
"That's what I'm worried about," muttered Terry.
Sophia stuck her tongue out at him.
Monday Morning, January 3, 2011
Winslow High School
"So Family Services is letting him stay with you?" Emma sounded a little surprised.
"Sure," Sophia replied. "They went through their files and they couldn't find him, even in the ones specially set up for Endbringer victims and families. So they're still searching, and in the meantime, Mom's okay with him sleeping on our sofa."
"Yeah, but how's he doing with sleeping on your sofa?" asked Madison.
"I do not mind, Madison," Zach told her. "It is a comfortable sofa, and I do not sleep much."
Madison grinned. "One of these days, we're gonna find something that you do mind, Zach, and I wanna be there when it happens. Just so I can see what you're like when you're not happy."
Sophia had to wonder about that herself. Zach seemed to be the most even-tempered guy she knew. He didn't get sad and he didn't get angry. No matter what happened, he just … was.
Must be the Endbringer thing, she mused to herself. He used up all his emotion reacting to that.
"Oh, hey, there's Taylor now," Emma said, her voice now filled with vicious glee. "She's heading for her locker. Come on."
She hurried forward, leaving the other three to follow in her wake. "Who is Taylor?" asked Zach. His voice held a new note of interest, but Sophia wasn't paying attention. She moved forward faster, leaving Madison behind to explain to Zach.
It happened like clockwork; Hebert opened the locker, letting the stench within out in all its horrific glory. Everyone within five yards gagged and reeled away, save for Sophia herself; she was holding her breath for that very reason. Taylor, at the locker, bent over to throw up.
I'll never get a better opportunity. Sophia hadn't actually planned on this, but she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Grabbing Taylor's hair, she shoved her viciously into the locker, into the noxious sludge that was only now starting to ooze its way out. Trash, meet trash.
The door was slammed shut; Sophia only just pulled her hands back out of the way in time. She looked up into Emma's eyes, bright and eager for mischief. A single thought passed between them; while Emma held the door shut, Sophia reached down and spun the combination lock, locking Taylor inside.
They stepped back then, as Taylor began to scream and bang on the door. All around them, people were staring, some in horrified delight, others in just plain shock.
"Holy shit," Emma gasped. "I don't believe it. We pulled it off."
Three Months Ago
David didn't like to talk about the nightmares. To admit to such a thing would be to lessen himself in the eyes of others, at least as far as he was concerned. One of the most powerful men in the world, he cringed from the idea that such as he could not even control his own dreams.
So he slept alone, from both necessity and choice, where the touch of another could have made his slumber more restful. And so, on this one night, he dreamed a dream.
This dream would change the world.
In the dream, there was a city, a school and a girl. He did not know the city, save that it was gang-ridden, trapped in a slightly faster spiral of economic decay than the rest of the nation. He did not know the school, except that it was a teenage microcosm of the city around it, a hellhole of cliques and gangs, a pressure-cooker enclosed within four graffiti-encrusted brick walls. And he did not know the girl, but he knew her type. Not conventionally attractive, made introverted by circumstances rather than by nature. He knew the type well, because it was what he saw in the mirror on a daily basis.
An inverse of him, she had no power, no control over her daily life, at school or at home. Where others looked up to him, assisted him, even worked alongside him in his self-appointed duties, she was the opposite. Nobody looked up to her; in fact, for the most part, those who saw her at all looked down on her. The invisible girl, trapped in her own spiral of low self-esteem, emotional abuse and lack of anywhere to turn. Her path would inevitably lead, as his once had, toward ending it all in one way or another. Or attempting to. He had failed; she might not.
Within the dream, he felt emotion choking his throat. She's where I used to be. I wish I could help her.
But the dream was coming to an end, the vision of the girl beginning to fade like the morning fog. He watched as she was set upon by those who were nominally her peers, pushed into a stinking locker, locked in. As the dream trailed off, even as his gradually waking mind realised that it was a dream, he raged at the injustice of what was done to the girl.
I wish I'd been able to help her. Stop what was happening to her.
Waking, he blinked his eyes clear, finding tears on his cheeks. Reaching blindly for a handkerchief, he noisily blew his nose. "That was intense," he muttered to himself, even as the memory of the dream slid away from him. All he would recall, later, was that it had disturbed him on a deeply emotional level.
What Eidolon didn't know, and would never learn, was that it had been no dream at all.
Sophia, equally jubilant, was about to reply, when Zach reached them. "What did you do that for?" he asked.
"It's Taylor," Emma told him. "She's a wimp. A weed. Someone who needs to be pushed down."
Sophia almost didn't recognise Zach's voice. The tone was harder, stronger and colder than she had ever heard from him before. He moved forward, toward the locker.
"Hey -" began Madison, grabbing his right arm. He swung back at her; her wrist took the initial shock, snapping like a dry twig. Sophia thought she heard more bones break as the petite brunette was lifted from her feet and sent flying through the air. She bowled over three more students before she hit the ground.
Emma was unlucky enough to be directly in front of him. He swept her out of the way with his left arm; folding almost in half from the force of the blow, she was thrown back into a locker.
Sophia didn't waste any time. Not a cape, my ass. Time for nerve strikes and compliance holds. One punch, two, feeling like she was hitting a brick wall. He didn't react. She grabbed his arm, trying to twist it back. He raised his arm with her still hanging off of it, then slammed her straight down into the floor. She landed hard on her back; something popped. Consciousness fading, she watched him stride up to the locker. Everyone else got hastily out of his way.
Reaching up, he grabbed the top of the locker door and tore it open as easily as Sophia might rip a page out of a book. The shriek of rending metal was still loud in her ears as he tossed the door aside. He caught Taylor as she tumbled out, hefting the skinny girl easily in his arms.
The last thing Sophia heard before she passed out was Zach's voice, as bright and cheerful as ever.
"Hello, Taylor Hebert! I am here to help you!"
End of Part One