I stare at Megajoule, in the flesh, sitting and smiling at me like nothing is wrong with this picture.
He chuckles, and says, “The answer to the first question you’ll be able to articulate is that I’m not actually here, nor am I some spirit or resurrected ghost.”
Unable to say anything, I walk over and plop down next to him.
“As to where I came from, I’m actually a memory construct created by Oracle, implanted in your brain and grafted together from Megajoule’s memories. I was triggered to form after you publicly revealed your identity and took on my mantle,” Megajoule says.
“I… I didn’t, though. I refused your name.” My brain is scrambled on every level. I’m staring into a mirror that’s aged me up twenty years. I’m hallucinating him all over again. No, he’s been in my brain this whole time thanks to Oracle.
I dreamed I was him. Oh, God. I dreamed I was him because he was rattling around inside my mind. That memory of his wife… augh, my stomach’s flipping.
“My mantle is not the name Megajoule, and it’s not the armor I wore, or the cape,” Megajoule says. He smiles the smile he gave those reporters and bystanders after the Titan Tower incident, a reassuring smile that steadies me. He places a hand on my shoulder. It isn’t the same as another person touching me, but there’s a tactile feeling, like something fuzzy, or warm gas.
“Why?” I ask. “Why did they do this?”
Megajoule pulls his hand back, but he keeps his eyes locked on mine. He leans back into the bench, not looking away, and says, “Nobody does life alone, Gabe. Not even me. Any time I did things alone, I messed up. I’m here so you don’t have to be alone, ever. You’ll always have someone else to tell you it’s going to be okay. Someone who’s been through what you’re going through, and someone who can give you advice.”
I tap my chin. His memories, his words, free advice. I’ve often wondered if I was handling things the right way. “Okay. Have I done things right? Did I handle the Fear right?” I don’t feel like I did. Snow Owl, those bystanders, Krater, Empyreal. The Second Ward. There’s so much I didn’t handle right.
Megajoule smiles a bit. “You handled it as well as I expected you to. You don’t have the advantages I did.”
Bedevil said the same thing in her apartment. “Twenty miles below you,” I echo.
“That’s a pretty harsh way of looking at it,” Megajoule says. “I was a world renowned cape with the full support of OPI. I had access to a team of competent capes and gear beyond anything you’ve used.”
“What can I do going forward? You told me to tear it all down and build a better world. How?” I ask.
Megajoule studies my face like a scientist. His small smile grows into a full grin, and he puts his hand on my shoulder. He stares at me without saying anything for a few more seconds, and says, “I want you to know I love you. I’m proud of you. The way you do it is the way you do it. I believe you can change the world, if you push hard enough.”
I choke some words out: “I… Okay. I can do that.”
“Gotta go, Gabe. Somebody’s coming.” Megajoule smiles. “Wouldn’t do you any good to be talking to the air in front of people, now would it?”
Bedevil comes up to the bench. “Hey, Gabe, Echo just arrived.” She pauses, looking concerned. “Are you okay?”
I stand up and smile for her. Like he would. “Yeah.”
Bedevil and I join Epione, Drone, and Maisa at the porch, while Remise guides Echo in from the dirt road. Remise opens the gate, and Echo limps through on crutches, her leg in a cast. She’s still battered around her face.
Echo makes her way over to me with clumsy effort. She stops a foot short and looks up at my face. “You really are. Wow.”
“I… should have told you sooner. You put it all on the line for me.”
“You had reasons,” Echo says.
“Thank you for helping us. For everything you did, even at the Second Ward, and finding Maisa the first time.”
Echo smiles. She’s regained a bit of her chic aura, the easy air of a confident woman, but she’s still not completely recovered. “Of course. I’m afraid that the house is…” She looks away. “It’s mine. Crane left it to me in his will.”
“We’ll help you,” I say. “Clean it, I mean.”
“Thank you.” Echo walks with her crutches past me, up the stairs of the porch, and to the door. She unlocks the ranch house and shuffles in.
Sledge’s rampage through the Bay Biters left the living room untouched. There’s two blue couches and a white love-seat, and a few wooden chairs around that, all assembled around an old coffee table and a TV. Old metal signs and antique photos give the feeling of history, but on inspection of the photos, I see that the families are all different. Either this house changed hands a lot, or someone just grabbed old photos of people to frame.
Blood stains the stairs to my right, leading up to the second floor. A scarred, burned finger hides behind a potted plant. I grimace. Pyre. Worse, the kitchen floor is drenched in gore.
Remise helps Echo to the couch and sits her down. “You okay, darlin’?”
“Darling?” Bedevil whispers into my ear.
Guess Remise did ask her out. Then again, Remise has called every member of the Underground darling before.
Bedevil floats over the dried blood in the kitchen, to the fridge. “May I?”
“Knock yourself out,” Echo says. “There’s food and drinks.”
Bedevil pulls opens all the cabinets at once with her telekinesis, and a bunch of household cleaning supplies dance to the counters, like she’s Mickey Mouse in a wizard hat. I can’t help but notice she’s also found a bottle of whiskey. A glass hovers from one of the cupboards and ice from the freezer, and while a box of baking soda empties itself on the stain, she pours herself about three fingers too many of liquor, and downs it.
“Hey-” I start, but she snaps a glare at me. I stop in my tracks.
Bedevil’s face softens, and she says, “Later.” A bottle of vinegar pours itself into a bowl, and the baking soda box floats to me. “Hit the stairs.”
“There’s more blood in one of the rooms,” Echo says. “Upstairs.”
“We’ll handle that,” Epione says. Drone follows her upstairs, arms full of cleaning ingredients.
Bedevil’s mad ballet of vinegar, baking soda, and sponges wipes up the floor, all while she drains her glass and pours another. And then another. I’ve never seen her drink that much that fast.
“Come on, Gabe,” Maisa says. She takes the box and sponge to the stairs, and sprinkles the baking soda on the stains there. I follow with the vinegar, unsure how to feel about all this.
Hands full, head down? I’ll talk to Bedevil about it later, I guess.
“You should rest,” I say to Maisa.
“You should rest,” Maisa says. “You are the one who fought today.”
“You fought, too.” I chuckle. “I’m sorry.”
“You keep apologizing.” Maisa dips the sponge in the vinegar and starts scrubbing the stairs. “Stop. You are not to blame.”
Maisa doesn’t reply, so I dip my sponge and start scrubbing a little higher up the stairs.
“Are you…” Her voice lowers, and she looks at the living room. “Are you and this Bedevil…?”
Right, she needs to be caught up. “Kinda, yeah.”
“I thought she hurt you.” Maisa gets back to scrubbing.
I scrub a bit, and realize that’s a funny place for that conversation to die. “Is… Uh…?” I shut my mouth, and then open it again. “Does that bother you?”
“It does not.” Maisa scrubs more, a little harder. Her stair is clean.
“If it does-”
“It does not,” she repeats, a little harsher.
I back off. If she’s got an issue with it, she might need to work it out by herself.
“We need Captain Crunch,” I say, absentmindedly.
Maisa smiles. Tears well in her eyes. “I’m very glad to be back here with you.”
We manage to clean the stairs, Bedevil gets a little sloshed but cleans the entire kitchen by herself, and Drone and Epione return to the living room with trash bags full of crimson paper towels. I haul all of our used towels and trash out to the dumpster behind the cabins, and while I do that, Saw Off, Lugs, and Mil-dot arrive. Pawpaw bounds across the lawn and jumps up at me, barking out his greeting.
I grin and rub his head. “Good boy.”
Saw Off curses and struggles to hold on to the bags of cats she’s carrying, and Lugs has my laptop under the crook of his remaining arm. Mil-dot has a few duffel bags of stuff, I’m assuming clothes and necessities.
I actually haven’t spoken to Lugs since he lost his arm. He looks haggard, and a giant bandage covers the shoulder wound, but he seems like he’s walking fun. “Hey, man. Thank you for getting my laptop.”
Lugs’ tired face lights up with a grin. “Course.” He offers me the laptop. “Had to carry something, didn’t I?”
My smile fades. He’s got good humor, but that’s really the last defense of the broken. “I’m sorry.” I’ve said I’m sorry about a dozen times today, and I still feel like I have so much to apologize for.
Lugs shakes his head. “Take the dang thing, I’ve only got the one hand.”
I take the laptop from him, and hold it close to my chest. “Thank you. We just finished cleaning.”
We head inside the ranch, and Mil-dot, Lugs, and Saw Off let Bedevil’s animals loose. Bedevil grins at her pets, looking a little bit tipsy already. Echo squeals at the sight of Pawpaw and the cats, immediately won over by their hesitant exploration of the new house.
Epione is already started on a batch of cookies, bless her entire soul.
I clear my throat. “Okay. I need to debrief.”
Bedevil slams the rest of her glass of whiskey, and floats over to the white love seat. Everyone gathers in the living room except for Epione, who listens in from the kitchen.
I’m not really experienced with this kind of thing. I know Flashfire usually just goes for celebratory dinner, but today isn’t a total victory. “First off, we got Maisa. So that’s nice.”
Saw Off starts cackling, and that spreads to Bedevil, who’s already pretty tipsy, and then onto the rest, the full fire of laughter burning through all of my friends, warming my bones like a campfire in the mountains. Even Maisa laughs.
After it dies down, I say, “But, I haven’t told everyone the full story of today, and I think I owe it to you since you’ve been through hell and back with me. I should have told the Bay Biters and the Devils who I am. I didn’t, but now the whole world knows, anyway. I feel like that was a mistake. You’re all fighting with me, even now that we saved Maisa. Next, we need to save Flashfire.”
Epione stops mixing, and sets the bowl down. She steps to the threshold of the kitchen, and I see the pain on her face. Real pain. Pain that broke through her armor.
“We’ll get him back. But, we need to be in step with each other. Today, I met Cynic, the Director of all of OPI. She made me, essentially.” I struggle to step around the land-mine in my heart. A single explosion could break it open, collapse it into the black hole. “She made me and the others specifically to find Megajoule’s weakness. The only reason I’m still alive is I developed a different power for some reason.
“That’s why they want me back. If they can figure out why my power is different, they might figure out how these powers work, and control them. I don’t want to see a world where OPI decides who gets superpowers. They want Epione for the same reason.”
“What about D- Doc?” Bedevil slurs. She leans her elbows onto her knees.
I chew my lip, and then, I say, “He was supposed to find Megajoule’s weakness. He… he never did. He oversaw the whole thing, though, and he’s responsible for all of my brothers and sisters dying.” My legs shake. I don’t know how much longer I can stand.
“At the same time,” I continue, “He saved my life. He got me out of there, and he ended the program. The only reason I am here, in this room, and alive, is because of him. If not for him, I’d still be their lab rat until they found out what they wanted to know.”
My friends take this news with solemn expressions. Not even Saw Off is smiling.
“Gabe,” Bedevil says, weakly.
“So, that’s the whole story. I wanted to tell you that before I asked if I could invite him to the property here.”
“What?” Remise asks. “Are ye sure ye want to do that?”
“He’s pissing money away in a hotel, and he can’t go back to the apartment. I haven’t even warned him, yet, though I’m sure he knows not to go back now. I figured I’d ask you all, since I don’t want to make that call alone. I told you everything: good and bad.” I sit down next to Bedevil on the love seat. “So, I guess we can vote?”
“I say we let him,” Lugs says. “He saved my life. He patched Echo up.”
“He worked on killing Megajoule!” Bedevil reclines into her seat and shakes her head. “No. No. No.”
“I’m with her,” Drone says. “We can’t trust him.”
“We can,” Epione says. “He only feels remorse for what he did. If you want to bring him, Gabe, I understand.”
“I don’t know,” Mil-dot says. “He did save Lugs. And Saw Off. I think we can trust him.”
Echo nods. “I can’t imagine a man that gave up his entire apartment just to save our lives is a bad man. Since I own the place, I am okay with him coming.”
“I wish I felt the same as ye.” Remise pats Echo’s hand. “But, seems like everybody’s leaning yes on this, and I don’t think he’s a bad man.”
Saw Off shakes her head. “He put me back together. Can’t be bad, even if he…” She looks at me.
Bedevil stands up. “Fuck this.” She storms out to the front porch.
Shit. I didn’t want this. “Seems like the vote is yes. I’ll call him tomorrow. If anyone changes their opinion by then, let me know, okay?” I stand up, and follow after Bedevil.
I find her standing in the garden, hugging herself, and crying.
I don’t know what to do.
“He… he killed him…” Bedevil hyperventilates with her tears. “He helped… he took everything from me… Gabe… please…”
“I know,” I say. “He took it from me, too. He also gave it back.”
“Broken… broken… it’s broken.” Bedevil crouches down, clutching her chest, weeping into the dirt path beneath her. “He ripped my heart out, Gabe.”
I approach her like a priest an altar. I kneel down next to her. “Mine, too.”
Bedevil sits up and looks at me. “God damn it, Gabe.”
Bedevil wipes her nose. “Please.”
“Please,” she repeats.
“Where do you want me to send him?” I ask. “He’s the closest thing I have to family.”
Bedevil dives into me, wraps me in her arms, and screams into my chest.
I return her bear hug, and cry into her hair. We sit in the garden for a long time, silent, sobbing.
She pulls back, and stares at me with broken, golden eyes. She presses her lips, smothered with salty tears, against mine.
We separate, and I stroke her hair. “There’s a black hole in you, too.”
“Let me help you kill the hurt.”
“How?” she asks.
“You need time. But you need to make the first step.” I pull her into my embrace, and she nuzzles her her head into my shoulder. She rests her full weight into me, and I draw her into my lap. “You need to put the bottle down.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready.”
“Is anyone ever?” I ask.
Bedevil doesn’t reply to that.
“I promised I’ll be here every step of the way. No matter how hard or ugly it gets, I’ll be there.”
“We haven’t even gone on a date yet, and you’re already promising so much,” Bedevil says. “Mom told me to stay away from men who promise too much.” She traces her finger along my chest.
I smile against her head. “We’ve had a few nights out on the town together.”
Bedevil snorts. “Last time I tried to kick it without a medical professional. You saw how it went.”
“We have the next best thing. Epione was almost done with her degree.”
Bedevil falls silent against me.
I wait as our hearts hammer out their rhythms.
Off beat, slowly syncing.