A/N: This is a short story developing the future-version of the Gasman, and Max and Fang's young daughter, Aria, from the (or just before the) "Uprising" verse. "Uprising" is set 17 years into post-Apocalyptic Earth, and, the bad guys have won. Again, more of a character study, but still fun to write these two together.
Farrow Park was located almost in the center of the city, and of course, not untouched by Itexicon's innovation. The entire thing sprawled under a very clear, sparkling glass dome of segmented, blue-tinted pieces, at least four miles wide.
Getting inside was no problem - disguised as we were in thick, knee-length jackets, and on a chilly, quieter day like this. Flashed the badge, and in we were: rolling green grass and spotless, paved walkways; a sizable duck pond full of Canadian geese; assorted, multi-colored, child-infested playground equipment, picnic tables and grills - even historical pieces and landmarks that had been moved "indoors". Aria held my hand, practically bouncing with excitement - she wanted to catch the geese with the other kids, be the first one up that twisting, electric-blue slide. "Can I go, Daddy, please?"
"You know the rules."
I let her go.
Not sure if she even heard me - or cared - I watched her run off to harass the crowd of hapless, disgruntled geese, and went myself to wander amongst the more "wooded" area. Get this: you walk into the trees, a veritable forest, right? Then you look down, and they're all in lightly-colored boxes. TREES in BOXES. Like garden plants. Everything here had that surreal "Strawberry Shortcake" vibe, between all the self-floating balloons, squealing kids annoying their doting parents, this spectacle, the shade of the glass effectively blocking the brightest of the sun - plus, the steady hummm of the massive ventilation fans that kept this place 70 degrees perfect built-in to the dome...it was space-age Nick Jr.
I came out on the other side, passing other couples, mostly young and hand-in-hand, to an extension of that pond, flowing beneath a very red wooden bridge. Lush weeping willows surrounded the impossibly clear water, the vibrant scarlet of the passage, housing turtles and tadpoles and who knew what else Itexicon had put to live in there. The clouds were very white and puffy behind that dome, like ships from here. I breathed in. Unreal.
Standing on the bridge and resting on the rail, I stared out at where Aria play - hard not to miss the constant angry honking and explosions of geese everywhere - stared beyond her to where a black steam engine from the 1930's parked on the lawn like it belonged. Sigh.
It wasn't that I hated coming here. Well, kind of. When you give up one war for another, and live with it for the rest of however long you've got, it does get depressing after a while. Maybe it's because this reminded me of how, once upon a time, Jeb would sneak us to a park like this. It would be him holding my hand, letting me run off to play with the geese. And after crazy games of ground-tag and hide-and-seek-tag and zombie-tag and whatever else you will with the Flock - attack the ice-cream cart or have a picnic, sitting in the grass and enjoying the breeze of summers gone by.
Once, we bought a bag of puppy chow before we arrived to the duck pond. It was so cool to have them all leave the bemused feeders holding out bread pieces, and go positively ape-shit over it, pecking at the speed of light to eat the most from our hands. And fight each other for it. As Avians, we could relate!
And here I was now, "single-father" at twenty-five, bringing my daugh - my niece - to maybe have fun doing the same.
"Hey, it's my turn on the slide."
"We can all be on the slide."
"It's my turn."
Avian audio tuned me in to the "Aria Channel", and it sounded like a negotiation was about to go down. I watched in boredom, hoping the little rat bothering with her wouldn't get hurt too badly.
She and he stood toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye, fists clenched at their sides. I'll give Max's kid credit, she looks just like her mother when she does it: formidable. When this kid did it, he looked like he was getting ready to cry for his mommy, whom I noticed had an eye on me, all the way over here. And I didn't appreciate the look. Hmph.
"It's not. I was here first."
"It's my turn!" He whined back, and shoved her. Nobody's pushover, my girl scowled and shoved him back almost immediately, on reflex - and he fell smack on his butt. The back of his head bumped the plastic grate behind him.
And he started crying.
The mother stared at me a while longer, making sure that I was watching, then strode over to the slide. "Get your hands off my boy."
Aria protested. "He pushed me first - "
"Touch him again, and I'll have you locked away. I know what you are."
The boy bawled louder and pointed as she picked him up. "She hurt me!"
"I didn't! I didn't mean to!" Aria cried, abashed and confused at this treatment, and stepped forward - but the mother stomped her foot into the small rocks, spraying them. "I said stay back. Don't they keep people like you on a leash?"
"Don't they keep people like you in grade school, Mom?" I approached the mess with no sympathy for her bawling brat, and stood between her and Aria. "What kind of adult kicks rocks and spews racial slander at a child?"
She narrowed her eyes. Somewhere in her thirties, very pretty, full red hair and fake-pearl earrings. Dressed in casual business attire. Enough makeup to cut a knife through. Perfect manicure. Stockings beneath her short and well-ironed office-skirt. Real estate, maybe?
"YOU stay away from him. You stay away from us."
"Try me today."
"Get out of here, or as the Lord as my witness, I will have you both removed and locked up in a lab, where you belong. I should press charges for what your...offspring...just did to my son."
Said boy, brown haired and red-faced, cried louder.
I didn't flinch. "He's not hurt."
"I should sue you."
"Walk. Away." I turned my look onto the boy, who took one look, and choked - and swiftly grabbed his mother's hand. False tears streamed down his red cheeks, but he made no more noise.
The mother suddenly shoved me one-handed in the chest - not nearly hard enough to knock me off balance, but hard for her. "Don't you look at him! How dare you - !"
"Leave my Daddy alone!" Aria shouted, about to jump at her, but I held her back. Passerby were beginning to stare. "Freaks!" Cried the mom, backing up. "Someone call the cops!"
"What's going on?"
"Are they mutants?"
There was never any point in reasoning with people like this. She was throwing quite the fit, gesturing and pointing and storming around in her little circle, trying to stir up the other pedestrians; I stayed calm, resigned, thinking of how easy it would be to just push her over out of her stupid, spotless, high-heeled shoes. Turning to Aria, I saw what had been the cause of all the commotion: one of her wings had slipped from her harness during her play. Maybe the strip broke or whatever, the entire wingtip was visible beneath her little furry coat. I turned my back to the horrid woman and knelt long enough to adjust it, pulling it out of sight, then took Aria's hand. "Come on, sweetie. Let's go."
"But - that's not fair!" She nearly screamed, outraged at the suddenly delighted little boy and the wicked expression on his mother's face. "Why - !"
We were drawing quite a crowd. I sighed, holding her steady. "I know. It's not. But we have to leave now."
I could just flash my badge again, and get her to back off.
I could just knock her on her butt, like Aria had done to her snot-nosed little kid.
I could just rip into this woman and all her higher-and-holier-than-thou airs both politically and intellectually, and let her know what a crap example of humanity she was. And I would win.
But there was, again, no point in reasoning with people like this. She knew what she was doing wasn't right. And she didn't care. That had been her whole plan all along. Did it make her a bad person? No. Just a greedy person. A selfish person. A nasty person.
A human nonetheless, who would win any argument by default. For the war I'd failed for Aria's, this was the price to pay. And I wished there were a way to apologize to Aria where she would understand.
We walked away, her taunts still ringing behind us. The little boy even stopped crying to shout after us: "Bird-girl, bird-girl!"
Her hand clenched mine hard, her back straight and smarting with burned dignity. She suddenly stopped to look around one more time, and I did too, briefly. The boy was on his slide, the crowd watching us go. The mother, giving me a shit-eating smirk that fueled the rage in my stomach. And we continued on.
I could hear her sniffling all the way out of the park.
Silence. She wasn't going to talk to me. I'd let her down.
"Aria Valencia Ride, you answer me when I'm talking to you."
Sniff. She rubbed her eyes and nose on the back of her sleeve, her voice muffled. "It's not fair."
No, no it isn't.
"No. It's not."
Sniff. "How come we had to leab? We were dere first. Why were dey being so bean?" My girl was trying so hard to stop crying. "...What did I do wrong?"
The way she whispered her last sentence haunted me. We exited the wide park doors and came to a stop some ways down the street, across from the Botanical Walk and fountain. In the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, we waited for the light to change. I took this time to kneel down again and face her. "Hey. Look at me." Aria wiped her eyes and nose again and looked at me with Max's eyes. Demanding eyes. Eyes that I knew would one day need an answer for the injustices she was destined to face since she'd been born, since she'd survived her birth. I brushed a loose strand of brown hair from her face. I would not lie to her. "Listen to me, Aria, and listen good, okay? Cry. Cry right now. Don't try to stop it."
She blinked, suppressing a light sob, confused. I went on. "I want you to cry now, while you're still small, because you're too young to know how to stop. When you know how, and you can, you'll be a grownup. And when you're a grownup, you can never cry again. Because right now, Aria, I can apologize until my face turns blue and it still won't be enough to make up for how much you're going to suffer when that happens. For how much I won't be able to protect you from."
Funny, how things came full circle, huh. Somewhere in my memory, I was eight-years-old, two years older than she was now, unable to play with the other kids more because of my background than what I was. In that memory, a bigger kid turned away with a smaller one crying, under his arm. "...planet dumb-ass..."
A memory of years of running, of fighting, of constantly being chased. Of never a single moment of peace. Of the anxiety of one day dropping dead for no reason other than a date might appear on the back of my neck. Of knowing that my own parents had given up me and my sister for money, and not knowing them. Shot at, nearly drowned, kidnapped, cheating death.
No one else to talk to.
Never a simple, normal, human life.
What did I do wrong?
"I said it when you were born, and I'll say it again," I said softly, straightening the fuzz-lined hood, and wiping a rolling tear from her reddened eyes. "You're a human, and you're a bird. By some miracle, you are here, and you are as much a person as anyone else. Maybe more, than anyone else. You come from a pair of very strong and impossibly brave parents, and though you are what they say - you are better. You are you. So no matter what happens - will happen - I know for a fact that you will be okay." I faltered, hanging my head. Six-year-olds, genetically enhanced or not, understand a lot more than they let on, but it was hard to find a way to explain, flat truth, that though the world had basically ended and the only "family" she had in this world worked for the faction responsible; that she shouldn't exist period, and that her life from here on out would be as pointless and improbable as it would be for me to be raising her.
That her deceased parents had made the ultimate mistake, the cause of all of this, and pushed it onto us.
That the half-bird, half-man determined to take care of her, the thing that kept telling himself and her that he wasn't her father, was as much responsible for the world she lived in as the rest of them. Would be as much a cause of trouble as her protector from in the times to come.
Her arms wrapped around my neck, and her forehead placed itself to mine, and I held her tight, amazed and angry at the same time.
It wasn't fair.
And she understood regardless. I didn't have to say any more. She understood that she couldn't fully understand right away. She accepted it because she trusted me.
I'm sorry, Aria.
The light turned red for the passing traffic and flashed the WALK indicator.
"Love you, Daddy."
I didn't even think of saying it for the hundredth time, that I wasn't...
"...Love you too, munchkin."