Title: Allies & Enemies
Author: Harper Kingsley
World: Heroes & Villains
Genre: mm superhero
A/N: Allies & Enemies is the sequel to Heroes & Villains (ASIN: B00EK3YFB8). Picks up from the epilogue, but could be read as a standalone novel. This is the first four chapters.
Summary: Vereint Georges and Warrick Tobias adopt a young orphan girl and settle into family life. Their biggest difficulty is hiding their secret identities as an ex-supervillain and current superhero.
Darkstar x Blue Ice.
The sun was struggling to shine through the clouds, but it was just one of those days guaranteed to be miserable. Not just because of the weather, but because of the girl sobbing out her heartbreak on a sterile hospital bed, the sheets pulled up around her shoulders as she buried her face in the rather flat and lumpy pillow.
Vereint clenched his hands together on the handle of the shopping bag he held. It took all of his will to keep from running into the room and scooping her up into his arms. Instead he stood on the other side of the glass and watched her mourn the loss of both of her parents. Behind and to the left of him, he could hear Warrick fast-talking the doctors and the police and anyone else he had to, and Vereint was sure everything was going to work itself out.
They were going to take that little girl home and give her a family and make sure she grew up knowing that she was loved. He didn't think they could ever wipe away the loss of her parents, but they would try their best to make her realize that she still had a whole life to live and they would be there for her.
There was the slight scuff of dress shoes on the linoleum floor, then Vereint had Warrick's arm across his shoulders and he didn't hesitate to hug Warrick's wrist against his chest. He breathed in the scent that his brain uniquely identified as Warrick Reidenger Tobias and something screaming and tight released. "Do we get to take her?"
"I talked them around," Warrick said. "There will be social service visits and we'll have a social worker assigned and they'll still be looking out for any family that she has, but she gets to go home with us tonight. They say she's all right, just shaken up, so it'll be better for her not having to spend another night in the hospital."
"Good." Vereint had never been fond of hospitals. Just the smell and the sounds were enough to make him uncomfortable; he didn't want to know how miserable it would be for a grieving twelve year old that had watched her parents die. "It'll be fine for tonight, and tomorrow I can go and get things to make the guest room more comfortable."
He'd get her a few things to make her feel welcome, then later after her grief had a chance to settle a bit he would take her to pick out the things she wanted for herself. It would give them a chance to bond. He wondered what she looked like when she smiled.
"Here comes the social worker," Warrick said.
There was the clack-clack of sensible pumps attached to a tall, thin woman with a pair of no-nonsense glasses perched on her nose. She looked like she might be kind, but she didn't suffer fools gladly. The subdued floral print on her purple and black blouse showed that while she had a softer side, she was serious about her job.
"Mr. Georges, I'm Nancy Daniels and I've been assigned to Melissa's case." Her handshake was brusque and businesslike. She wasn't ready to be friends, not until she was sure of them, but Vereint could tell she was the kind of ally they were going to need.
He smiled at her, trying to pour on the charm without going too far over the top. "Thank you. I'm just glad you're letting us take her home with us."
She sighed. "It will be nice for her to be out of here. From what the nurses have said, last night was not a good night for her." She walked toward the door. "Come along and I'll introduce you."
Warrick reached the door before her and held it open with easy grace. He gave Vereint a pat on the back as he passed and Vereint gave him a slight smile before his attention was caught and held by the girl on the bed.
With the opening of the door, she'd turned and sat up, scrubbing her eyes with the corner of the sheet and trying to pretend that she hadn't been crying. Her black hair was a tangled mess and her face was blotchy and red.
"What do you want?" she demanded, her teeth clenching tight around the words as she tried to maintain her control.
"Hello, Melissa," Nancy said, her voice gentle and soothing. "I know you said you want to leave the hospital, and that's why I've brought these two gentlemen with me. This is Vereint Georges and his husband Warrick Tobias. They want you to stay with them until everything gets figured out."
Melissa gave them a suspicious glare. "I don't know them. I don't want to go anywhere with them."
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," Nancy said, "but you can't leave the hospital unless you have somewhere to go, and Vereint and Warrick are offering you a safe place."
Vereint stepped forward, keeping his hands in view at his sides, the bag hanging from his left wrist so she could see his palms. He gave Melissa a tentative smile. "Hi. I can tell why you'd want to get out of here. I don't much like hospitals myself, and it must be pretty cold here at night, huh?"
Her black eyes were still suspicious, but she gave a nod of grudging agreement. "The blankets are really thin and you can hear everything that goes on at night. I think the man in the next room died last night; there was a big ruckus going on and people running in and out." Her chin was a hard nob that she refused to let tremble.
She was a cute Korean-American girl with long black hair and a triangular shaped face. She was short, her body so tiny that her head looked large in comparison. She could have been a doll, and just looking at her made Vereint want to go "Ah!" at her complete adorableness.
The fact that she was so self-defensive and sarcastic actually made him like her more. The first time he'd spotted her after her parents' death he had felt as though something had stabbed him hard in the chest. He'd never believed in fate, but it was completely obvious to him that he and Warrick were going to take her home and raise her as their daughter. There had been so much hurt in her eyes when they'd met his, and so much spirit beyond that, it was no effort at all to nudge Warrick into grudging action.
It wasn't that Warrick was heartless or anything, but he'd long ago learned that there was no helping everyone. He already went out night after night to save his slice of the world; he couldn't take every orphaned kid home with him. Vereint had completely agreed with that sentiment, but seeing Melissa Kim of the Fabulous Flying Kims standing on the platform, her eyes wide and horrified as she'd watched her parents frozen to crystal and shattered into red stained pieces had gotten to him. There was no way he could turn away from that girl, not with his every instinct screaming at him.
The events had taken place three days ago, and almost like fate there had been no family to call. There was no one stepping forward to take Melissa, and Vereint had felt his instincts vindicated. It was only a few moments thought for him to go to Warrick and suggest they take Melissa in.
"Come home with us," Vereint urged. "There's a bedroom waiting for you and we'll make sure you're well taken care of. It's no commitment, but we would like it if you were to become part of our family."
"Why are you doing this?" she asked. Her fingers were twisting and twisting together in her lap. Her fingernails were bitten down and the skin around them looked tender and raw from her nervy chewing.
"Because you need us," Vereint said.
Part of him wanted to just snatch her up and force her to go home with him to where she belonged, but he knew he couldn't be like that. He wasn't the bad guy anymore. He was trying to be just a guy, and regular guys didn't go around subjugating the wills of the people around them. Warrick had told him it was rude.
She bit her lip, her teeth tiny and white. Her right eyetooth was a bit crooked and she had a tooth pressing in on the left. Her eyes darted to Nancy as she asked, "What will happen to me if I don't go with them?"
"You'll have to remain here at the hospital until late afternoon when you'll be transferred to a group home until we find you a foster family," Nancy stated bluntly. Melissa's eyes got wide and shiny. Nancy shook her head and softened her tone, "Look, sweetie, this is one of those times when you have to act a little grown up. We'll try to help you as much as we can, but you have to help out too. There are some things that will be in your best interest, and fighting everything won't help you at all. Do you understand?"
Melissa blinked hard, but it was obvious she was processing the information she'd been given.
"If you honestly don't like it with us," Vereint said, "you can always call Nancy. We won't keep you if you don't want to be there."
She drew in a huffing breath, her cheeks puffing out thoughtfully. "Okay." Melissa nodded to Nancy. "I'll go with them. Just... can I have my stuff?" She glanced at Vereint, then Warrick. "I mean, well... I can understand if you won't let me keep the whole trailer, but can I bring some of my family's stuff?"
Vereint snorted. "Forget that," he said. He looked at Warrick. "Can we have the trailer delivered somewhere? Like put it into long-term storage or something?"
"Of course," Warrick pulled out his phone, "give me a minute and I'll arrange something."
"See?" Vereint turned back to Melissa. "You can keep all of your things. It's going to be all right."
"Really?" She gave him a tremulous smile. "Thank you. I was... I was really worried they were just going to throw everything away. I mean, I've seen movies and TV, I know they don't let kids in foster care keep most of their stuff. I'm only twelve, there's no way they'd pay for our trailer to be stored somewhere for the next six years, and there's no way I could pay for it. I just..." She closed her eyes briefly. "That trailer is my home. I've spent nearly my whole life living in it."
"Well, your home won't be getting sold anytime soon," Vereint said. He leaned close and dropped his voice to a whisper, "Warrick will make sure it's there for you when you want it. Is that a good deal?" He gave Melissa a smile filled with so much charm it should have been "Charm!" with glitter and diamonds and bright splashes of fireworks.
There was no way a preteen girl could withstand his powers, so it was no surprise when she smiled back at him with shy delight and reached out to shake the hand he extended.
"It's a deal," she chirped, with only one disturbed wrinkle of her brow before she was caught and her brain responded to his pheromones, flooding her body with the chemicals for trust, affection, and a taste of hero-worship. Her forehead smoothed over and her eyes gleamed at him, captive.
Vereint blinked and quickly lowered his eyes, his chin dipping down in what might have seemed a clumsy move. That surge of live wire tension he always felt when he powered up settled back down. The sharp clarity returned to normal focus and he knew his eyes had changed back to their usual blue. He lifted his head and gave Melissa a smile she was quick to reciprocate even without him pressing her.
Vereint glanced over real quick and Warrick was still talking on his phone a few feet away and hadn't seen what he'd done. It made him feel guilty to hide anything from Warrick, but he really hated receiving that disapproving frown.
He figured that what Warrick didn't know wouldn't cause any fights between the two of them. And all he'd really done was prime Melissa to be more receptive to the help she needed. It wasn't like he'd made her love him or anything, which he easily could have done. All he'd done was ease her grief a little by introducing a set of more positive emotions.
Vereint knew he was trying to upsell himself, but he couldn't help it. There was something about Melissa that called out to him and he wanted to take her home where it was safe. He couldn't explain what it was about her, but he wanted to help her, to protect her from the world.
"Here, I brought this for you," he said, holding out the large shopping bag. It was glossy black with a red heart on the front. "I thought you might need some clothes. I had to guess on the sizes, but seeing you now I think I did a pretty good job."
Melissa held the bag on her sheet wrapped lap for a long moment before opening it and looking inside. She reached in and pulled out a purple tee shirt with a glittery blue quilt design on the front, then she dropped it back in and held up the jeans and gray sweatshirt he'd picked out.
"You didn't have to buy me anything," she said. "I have plenty of clothes."
"Except you don't have anything here," he said. "Until we can get you some stuff from your trailer you're going to need something to wear."
"Well," she nibbled her lip and gave him a sideways glance through the curtain of her hair, "thank you."
"You're welcome," he said. "Why don't you go change so we can get out of here? Like I told you, hospitals creep me out." He gave a melodramatic shudder.
There was the hint of a smile around her lips as she pulled the clothes out of the bag and climbed off the bed. She was wearing a loose pair of blue scrub pants and a matching shirt that hung off her slender frame as though that were the way they were supposed to look. She'd tucked the long hem of the shirt into the waistband of her pants and her socks were very white as she dashed toward the bathroom, closing the door with a loud click.
Vereint looked at Nancy. "Well, I guess that's that."
She gave him a long look, then a nod. "We'll give her one more chance to back out on the deal, then she'll be in your care until the situation changes."
* . * . *
Standing off to one side, Warrick gave instructions to his assistant, then called headquarters to let the rest of the League know he was going to have a civilian staying at his place. He hadn't wanted to drop that bombshell on the team until after he was sure it was really going to happen.
It wasn't like he hated kids or anything, he just hadn't ever really wanted any. After the initial anguish of finding out he'd been rendered sterile in a bad fight when he'd taken one of the worst blows of his life, he'd come to the decision that he was actually rather relieved. He worried sometimes that he was too much like his father, and that was definitely not the way he wanted to be with a kid.
But Vereint had asked if they could take Melissa in and it was obviously something he really wanted. Warrick thought he'd handled things well when he agreed that they could offer themselves up as foster parents for Melissa, and it had only taken a single phone call from him to have things pushed through.
If Vereint wanted Melissa in their family, then that was what they were going to have. He just hoped Vereint wasn't going to start taking in strays all over the place.
Vereint had already gotten himself Hank as a new brother, and now he was picking up a pseudo-daughter, or as he'd proclaimed her, a "ward" like they were suddenly in the 18th century or something. It made Warrick wonder if Vereint was going to insist on getting Melissa a governess or something.
Warrick felt his lips twitch as he thought about the rather humorous image of all the trouble Vereint could get himself into. It was something Warrick had realized with time, but he'd come to the conclusion that there was very little in the world he wouldn't let Vereint have if he really wanted something. Though if it came down to it, there wasn't a whole lot he could do to stop Vereint if he went off the rails.
Vereint could be a terrifying and unstoppable force and it was just luck that he showed even the tiniest bit of concern for other people. If Vereint had been completely amoral, he would have been a monster terrible enough to be classified as a force of nature. Instead he had indulged in largely petty crime and his body count was low for someone with such a powerful reputation. People were frightened of what could happen if he got angry at them personally, but as a whole he had never been that much of a threat to society.
Warrick finally made his last phone call, then slipped his phone back into his jacket pocket. He'd almost been notifying people by rote at the end, but it was one of those things that needed to be done. He was high profile, and if he didn't make sure his calls were rerouted it would only be a matter of time before his secret identity was blown.
It was one of the biggest reasons why he didn't think bringing a child into their home was a good idea. He had too many secrets he was hiding, and having a kid around seemed like a lot of risk. Though Vereint had told him he should try playing the Daddy Warbucks card. Which basically entailed him locking himself in his office for "work time" and not telling Melissa a single thing about what he was doing. It was going to be a change in his routine, but it wasn't like he had any other choice.
One look at how Vereint practically glowed as he gathered up Melissa's small amount of possessions and Warrick knew that this was happening. It was good to see Vereint being seriously involved with something. He didn't notice how mechanically he went through his days, but Warrick had.
Since retiring from crime, Vereint had tried to write a book and taken art lessons and driven go-karts and taken on so many failed hobbies that failure was getting to be his hobby. The fire that had always seemed to blaze around him had dimmed and Warrick had begun to worry that Vereint was getting depressed, that he was going to decide enough was enough and just leave one day. The idea of Vereint leaving him had sent a jagged blade of unease through Warrick and his mind had started spitting out ideas for how he was supposed to save his marriage.
The bathroom door opened and Melissa stepped out in the jeans and hoodie ensemble Vereint had chosen for her. She'd been brought to the hospital in her circus costume-a red and yellow leotard with flesh colored tights-so she'd spent the last couple of days in hospital pajamas. She looked relieved to be wearing real clothes again.
"Looking good," Vereint said, giving her a grin. "Here, I got these for you too." He pulled a pair of tiny tennis shoes out of his jacket pocket and held them toward her. They were red and white shoes with a yellow bird outlined in a rich blue.
Melissa's hands trembled slightly when she reached out and took them, her fingers ghosting over the flying bird design that had been hand painted on the outside of each shoe. "These... these are the shoes I wanted," her voice cracked. "I didn't tell anyone because they're too expensive. How did you know?" She raised her head to look at Vereint.
"I saw them and I just thought of you," Vereint said, giving her a warm smile. It was the type of unthinking kindness that made Warrick love him even more.
He knew that Vereint was a work in progress, but he didn't mind that as much as Vereint seemed to. He had long since accepted that neither one of them was perfect, and one of Vereint's faults was an inability to care about most people. Which made the times Vereint did something compassionate or sweet for someone other than Warrick more precious and important.
It was horribly sentimental, but Warrick couldn't help thinking that he wanted to see every face Vereint could make. He wanted to know every part of Vereint to the point that he could fold those memories into every corner of himself.
Warrick liked that he had a reputation for chilly disinterest toward any kind of human weakness. It sent a surge of ego through him to know that he had never fucked up at his job and that he was known for always getting the job done the right way the first time. Yet he liked that he was able to give Vereint the softer side of his personality. He liked to see Vereint happy, with that little tilt to his lips that was only seconds away from a laughing smile. He would do just about anything to be able to see that expression.
Which was why they were taking home a twelve year old orphan girl that had been raised in a circus and had very little experience with normal life. There was something about her that had struck a cord with Vereint.
Warrick pulled out his phone and sent a quick text to his assistant-a young man named Bertram of all things-then watched as Melissa sat on the edge of the hospital bed and pulled on her new shoes. He didn't know how Vereint had done it, but they were the perfect size.
"Thank you," she said, giving Vereint a shy glance.
He shrugged. "It's no big deal. You need shoes if we're blowing this Popsicle stand." Warrick could see that he was pleased though, the tips of his ears turning red.
Warrick took it as his cue to step forward and herd everyone out of the room. Vereint held the shopping bag in one hand while he kept his other hand free in case Melissa happened to want to take it. She didn't this time, but the offer was left open and Warrick couldn't help a bit of melting in his heart.
Bertram was standing at the nurses station, wrapping up the last bit of the checkout process, and he turned with a nearly puppyish excitement when he saw Warrick. He came trotting over with a bright green folder clutched in his hand. "Sir, she's all checked out and the car is ready downstairs to drive you home."
"Thank you," Warrick said, accepting the folder and not breaking stride as he led the way to the elevator. It was always somewhat funny to see the usually well-put together young man scramble to keep up with him, his loafers squeaking on the floor and his Ichabod Crane elbows and arms bending like Stretch Armstrong.
Bertram Cooke was an overly educated, under socialized man that had been training his entire life to be someone's underling, though he probably hadn't realized that was where his education was leading him at the time. Still, he was good at his job and Warrick had just about gotten him trained up enough where he didn't have to offer any handholding. Bertram was able to take care of things with a minimum of dramatics, and that was an appreciable skill.
Tobias Industries was one of those monolithic companies that practically ran itself, and Warrick could get by with scanning a few reports at the end of each quarter and watching his bank accounts expand. The kind of rich his family had always aimed toward in the knowledge that if they wanted to pursue their obsession with crime fighting there would need to be a steady income to pay for everything. Because there was no way a Tobias was going to wander around dressed in a substandard uniform.
Under the iron rule of his grandfather, Warrick had built up the family fortune to the point where he had men like Bertram Cooke to protect his interests and he could take the time to save the world and please Vereint. He'd automated his wealth to such an extent that he was free to be the superhero he wanted to be.
Warrick kept one eye on Vereint and the girl as they rode the elevator down. Melissa stayed in Vereint's shadow with a pinched expression on her face as she watched the numbers flick by. She seemed tiny between Vereint and the social worker, her left foot kicking back against the elevator wall nervously.
He couldn't help a surge of pity when he looked at her. Being an orphan was bad enough as an adult, but she was a kid and she'd watched her parents die with her own eyes. He figured they were looking at years of psychological tests and counseling to make sure she grew up all right. It was a responsibility he wasn't sure they were ready for, but there was nothing he could do about it. Vereint wanted to care for the girl, and Warrick would never even think to say no.
He slanted a glance toward Vereint's face and was startled to meet his eyes. Vereint flashed him a quick grin, and Warrick smiled back before focusing on the numbers counting down.
Everything would be all right.
* . * . *
Nancy the Social Worker made him feel a bit nervy, but he knew there wasn't a whole lot she could call them on. Their apartment was beautiful and clean and he'd already prepared a guest room for Melissa. There were no dangerous weapons in evidence and they had more than enough money to care for a thousand kids.
If Nancy wanted to give them a hard time, he had no doubts about how far he was willing to go to get what he wanted. Though he was holding all that back as a last resort as he knew that Warrick wouldn't approve of anything that smacked of supervillainy.
Sometimes Warrick was a real buzzkill.
Vereint shot him a fond look across the car and received a slow wink in return.
They were being driven to Tobias Towers in one of the company limousines, their driver expertly cutting through traffic with nary a bump. Vereint had gestured Melissa into the spot next to him with Nancy on her other side. Warrick was sitting across from him with Bertram focusing on his ePad next to him, a worried little frown tugging at his wide lips.
"What's up, Bert?" Vereint asked, unable to hold it in any longer. They were trying to play all happy family, but sometimes Vereint couldn't bite his tongue fast enough and had to pick away at people.
It was lucky that Bertram had been around long enough to figure out Warrick's whole "Vereint Protocol." He didn't even raise a single brow and smoothly said, "Nothing much, Ernie."
Vereint snorted and glanced at Melissa. "If you come with us, that's the kind of humor you'll have to put up with all the time. I'm sorry."
A faint smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, but didn't quite fully bloom. "It's not so bad," her voice was soft enough that he wouldn't have heard her if he'd had normal hearing.
He patted her on the shoulder. "It gets worse." He glanced out the window as the car slid to a smooth stop. "Ah, we're here."
He led the way out of the car and through the lobby to the elevator. "We're at the very top," he told Melissa.
She was looking around the metal and glass elevator curiously, her head tipped back to see. She was such a small girl, her expression open and clear. "It's high up," she observed.
"Sometimes we land the jet on the roof," he said, giving her a sly wink.
She laughed and he could actually see her relax. "No way."
He nudged her shoulder just as the door dinged open. "Come on. Let me show you where you'll be staying."
He led Melissa through the spacious penthouse apartment, pointing out different features and giving her a general rundown on what she was allowed to use and what she should leave alone and why. He felt a bit like a talk show host or something and had to resist the worst bit of sashaying and Price Is Right hand waving.
"This is the living room where we like to hang out most of the time. I don't go out all that much, so you can be sure that most times this will be where I end up." He let her try out the couch and the recliners, then took her to the open kitchen. "This is where the food comes from. Please don't try to cook by yourself, at least until I can make sure you're not going to set the microwave on fire." He gave her a charming smile.
"I won't," she said. She watched interestedly when he opened the refrigerator and showed her that it was packed with food, then he popped open the various drawers and cupboards. "What's that?" She pointed at a bamboo steamer.
"That's where I make my delicious gyoza," he said. "I think you're really going to enjoy helping me next Saturday."
"What's next Saturday?" She followed him down the hallway. Her eyes flicked everywhere, taking everything in.
"Every Saturday, Warrick and I have a family dinner together." Vereint pushed open a bedroom door and let her go in first. "It was always kind of lonely before with just the two of us. It's going to be so much nicer with another person around." He waved his hand. "This will be your room. What do you think?"
She was a little agape as she stood in the middle of the room turning slowly around and around, staring everywhere. "It's... it's so pretty," she whispered.
Vereint smiled. "Yeah. We let my mother decorate this room and forgot to give her a limit on what she could do. She always wanted to be an interior designer or something. She went crazy."
The guest room had been an uncomfortably large open space with generic furniture, and Sandra had been able to turn it into a more comfortable and intimate space. The walls were a rich orange and there were dark red and purple fabric hangings that made everything seem warm and safe.
The bedspread had a vibrant yellow starburst pattern on a turquoise background. The furniture was all lushly comfortable and Vereint made a note to ask Melissa if she really liked the chairs and couch or if she wanted to exchange them for something a little firmer.
"It looks like A Little Princess," Melissa said, sitting down on one of the blue chairs, grabbing up one of the yellow-orange brocade pillows and giving it a test hug.
Vereint shrugged. "Knowing my mom, that's probably how she got her inspiration. She wants to be an artist someday."
Melissa jumped up from the chair and walked over to the bed to sit down and test out the give. "It's a lot better than the hospital."
"Yeah," Vereint said.
By the look in her eyes, he knew he didn't have to point out how much better it would be than whatever bed she'd get at the group home. She was a smart kid.
"If you decide to stay with us, we'll get you some more personal things," Vereint said. "We've got a couple of weeks before school starts up and I know you'll want to look your best."
"I've... I've never been to a regular school," Melissa said. "My mom taught me in our trailer while we were on the road."
Moving slowly in case she wanted to duck away, Vereint reached out his hand and rested it on her shoulder. "That's all right. If you need extra tutoring or anything, we can arrange that, or if you're more advanced than your peers we can get you more advanced classes or whatever. There's nothing for you to worry about."
She blinked at him. "Okay."
He smiled, a feeling of accomplishment going through him. He could practically see that she was bonding with him and that was good.
He'd never had much experience with kids before, but he really didn't want to screw this up. She'd already had such a bad time of it. He didn't want to add to her problems.
"This really is a very pretty room," she said.
"Yeah. You can tell my mom that when you meet her," Vereint said.
There was the sound of talking from near the door, and when Vereint turned to look he saw that it was the social worker and Warrick. From the expression on Nancy's face, Vereint had a feeling that things were going in their favor.
There wasn't a whole lot she could call them on, and the fact that she didn't know about either of their metabilities was a big plus.
Warrick Tobias was worth a lot of money, and he was definitely the kind of guy that hapless bureaucrats went out of their way to keep happy. Nancy may have been serious about her job and the careful placement of all her charges, but those above her on the totem pole...
Vereint didn't have a single doubt that Melissa would be staying with them. It was inevitable.
He smiled at Melissa. "Let me show you the rest of the apartment. Then I'm sure you will enjoy seeing our rooftop garden. We put a lot of work into it."
He held out his hand and patiently waited.
A small hand tentatively linked with his.
It was the little victories he enjoyed the most.
It was strange having a kid in the house. Just the sound of a new person breathing broke the routine, but to hear the weakness of those lungs... It made something shift and bend in Vereint's chest.
He'd spent most of his life feeling completely alone. Then he'd met Warrick and his life was changed forever. He had someone to love, and it had settled some wildly snarling beast that had always lived inside him.
Now he had a family of his own and it raised a powerful protective urge inside him. He liked it.
Sliding out of bed, he found his robe on the bedpost and put it on over his pajamas. He spared the still sleeping Warrick a fond look before leaving the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.
He padded into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee before starting on breakfast. It was such an everyday thing that a feeling of warmth rushed through him.
Vereint mixed up some pancake batter and started frying bacon. He'd barely finished the first batch before a sleepy looking Melissa in pink cloud pajamas came in. He smiled when he saw she was wearing the fuzzy blue monster slippers he'd slipped into her room. With every step the mouths gaped open and there was a honking-beep sound.
"Good morning," he said. "You ready to eat?"
She nodded her head and went to the chair at the table that she'd already claimed as hers. She didn't return his smile, but she met his eyes without any kind of rancor. She handled her grief with a quiet kind of desperation.
He made a mental note to arrange her some group counseling or something. The one-on-one stuff she was already set up with could probably do with some age appropriate dynamics.
Vereint shook his head to clear it and carried the plate he'd prepared for her over to the table along with a glass of orange juice. "Here you go, sweetie. Breakfast of champions."
"Thank you." Her voice was a little hoarse. He wondered if she'd cried last night, though he hadn't heard anything.
Children were such a strange mix of fragile and resilience, able to handle so much before breaking. He really didn't want to mess this up.
Vereint went back to cooking, keeping one eye on her. She was such a lost little girl. He wanted to keep her safe.
There was the quiet click of the master bedroom door, then Warrick came in. His blond hair stood up in dandelion tufts around his head and he was wearing gray sweats and a white tee shirt. He gave Vereint a smile when he came into the kitchen for coffee. "Good morning," he said.
Vereint handed him a plate of pancakes, bacon, and sliced strawberries. "Here you go," he tapped his cheek meaningfully and got the kiss he wanted, "and thank you."
"You're certainly in a mood today," Warrick said, their fingers brushing. "I like it."
Vereint smiled. He was in a mood, wasn't he? "I'm happy," he whispered.
"Try not to sound so surprised about it," Warrick advised. He leaned forward to give Vereint another kiss, this one a brush on the lips, before carrying his plate and coffee to the table.
When Vereint glanced over, he saw Melissa hastily look away. The tips of her ears were pink where they poked through her dark hair. She held her fork clutched in her fist, stabbing away at bites of pancake.
"Melissa, would you like some more bacon?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm getting full." She lifted her glass and sipped her juice. "It was very good. Thank you."
Vereint smiled at her. "It was my pleasure." He switched off the stove and quickly made himself a plate. He carried it over to the table and sat next to Warrick, who reached over to fill his glass with juice.
Sitting there, the sun pouring in through the wide windows, Vereint could practically see their life unfolding in front of him. It sent a burst of warmth through him, tinged with sadness for Melissa's loss. But there was no way he could have let her go with anyone else.
The second he'd seen her there on top of the platform with her face twisted in horror and fresh grief, he'd known: This one is ours.
It was only fitting that two damaged souls take in and raise a damaged child. Maybe they could all fix each other.
He took a bite of pancake and chewed slowly, enjoying the comfort of not being alone.
* . * . *
Having a kid around was strange and alien. It was the kind of thing Warrick had never imagined happening to him, not once he realized he was gay and there was no way he was ever going to get together with a woman. There might have been some disappointment from his family at the idea of the heir to the Tobias family not wanting to produce a next generation, but he'd brushed them off.
His family had taken so much from him. There was no way he was letting them decide his sexuality too. Then their opinions had ceased to matter after the Tobias Tragedy took most of their lives. After that, there was no one else but him to say how he was supposed to live his life. He'd been freed of the burden of expectation. Which was about the point that he'd been rendered sterile and the whole conflict became moot.
Trust Vereint to mess with the status quo. To bring a child into their little duo and turn them from a hot and sexy couple of guys into a family.
Warrick smiled fondly at Vereint where he was showing Melissa how to work the complicated media system. They'd had so many remote controls that they'd slaved everything through a tablet computer.
"See? You push this here and it turns on the TV," Vereint said.
Melissa reached out with one of her tiny fingers to brush against the touch screen. She jumped and jerked her hand back when the TV immediately switched on. "I barely touched it!"
"It's pretty sensitive," Vereint said. He touched the Guide button. "And here's how you find all the cartoon and kid friendly channels."
"No porn?" Melissa asked.
Vereint spluttered a second before finally giving in to a laugh. "No. There will be no adult entertainment for you. And please don't tell me why you know anything about it. It's all kids TV for you from here on out."
Warrick was sitting on his favorite chair with his ePad propped on his crossed knees. He was flicking through his daily blog roundup, but there was nothing that leapt out at him, so instead he was watching Vereint's face.
It was something he always seemed to do when he had nothing to keep him occupied. Vereint was his obsession. He could spend the rest of his days watching the expressions touch that face and he would still want more.
He was glad to see that Vereint looked happier than he had seemed lately. Having Melissa around had brightened his mood and given him something to look forward to in the days when Warrick couldn't be there.
For a while after they'd been married, Warrick had been sure it was only a matter of time before Vereint went back to supervillainy. Instead, Vereint had surprised him by never once being tempted back into his old ways. Sure, he'd made some mistakes in the way he'd handled a given situation, but he hadn't used his metabilities or gone on a crime spree or anything. Vereint had stuck to being a normal guy.
Warrick was proud of Vereint. He knew that there was no way he'd ever be able to give up his powers and live as a normal man. He'd been wrapped up in superhero life for too long to ever just let it go.
It was odd how well Vereint had taken to normal life. Odd, but good.
Seeming to sense Warrick's regard, Vereint turned his head and gave him a smile and a wink. "You sure you don't want to join us over here as we try to figure out the mysteries of your way too complicated media setup?"
"It's not complicated," Warrick said, "as long as you know what you're doing. And I'm comfortable where I am. Though I would really appreciate something to eat if you decide to make anything later." He tried on a charming smile.
Vereint sighed good-naturedly. "Sometimes I don't know why I put up with you." He nudged Melissa. "If you ever decide to get married, you gotta understand that it's kind of like roulette. Sometimes you win... and sometimes you get a guy that wants to sit around in his favorite chair surfing the Internet while other people do all the work around the place."
Melissa giggled and took the tablet out of Vereint's hands. Her fingers ghosted over the icons and the TV changed channels and the stereo went on.
"I see you're already better at that than I am."
"It's not complicated," Melissa said, then gave Warrick a wink and a grin.
He gave a surprised laugh. Though she'd been with them less than a week, she was already showing that she had a real personality to her. It went well with Vereint's innate sarcasm and his own laconic tendencies toward anyone that wasn't Vereint or Caspian.
He'd never been the best at making connections with other people. It had always just seemed as though anyone outside of his little circle was nothing but an annoyance he forced himself to put up with.
Even his own family had rubbed him the wrong way. They'd always been forcing their expectations on him and just expected that he would capitulate. Giving in had always seemed like weakness and he'd hated it. Yet Vereint just had to hint at some desire and Warrick couldn't bend over fast enough.
There were times when he questioned what kind of man he had become, but there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that Vereint had made him a better person. Certainly a much happier one.
His ePad made a melodic sound and jolted in his hand. Warrick glanced down at the screen and saw that the little Yin-Yang icon had lit up, notifying him that the League was looking for him.
"Darn it," he said, standing up. "I just got an email from the company. There's a situation they need me to take care of."
Vereint raised a questioning eyebrow and Warrick nodded. Vereint sighed and turned to Melissa. "Well, if he's going to leave us, I guess he's going to be sad about missing out on our fabulous lunch date at The Purple Fez."
Warrick grimaced. "You're really eating at that place?"
"What's wrong with it?" Melissa asked.
"Nothing!" Vereint insisted before Warrick could answer. "They make the best club sandwiches and I thought we could share one and have some of their minestrone soup. And if we've still got room for it, we could get spicy chocolate lava cake."
"Lava cake?" Melissa folded her legs under herself and rose up on her knees excitedly. She cocked her head. "What's that?"
Vereint shot Warrick a victorious grin before turning to Melissa. "You'll just have to wait until lunch to find out." He stuck his tongue out at Warrick. "You go off and do your boring office stuff while we have a great time together without you."
"I'll see you guys later." There was no resisting the fierce grin Warrick gave before he left the room. He could already tell that Vereint was happy. All his worries about having a kid around seemed to have been as stupid as Vereint had called them.
I guess I really am a selfish ass, he thought, amused. He hopped in his private elevator to go to the apartment he used as a staging area now that Melissa was around. They'd had to move everything out of the penthouse and to his new gear room. It was lucky that they both possessed superstrength, and the sex afterward still made his toes curl.
Coming out of the elevator, he had to tap his private code into the touch pad next to the door to open the access panel. Then he suffered the retina scan and palm scan before the lock would accept his house key and he could open the door.
He walked inside, kicking the door shut behind him as he briskly walked across the room to the security panel. He popped the lid open and typed in his code. If the code wasn't entered within five minutes of the front door being opened, a security alert would go to both him and Vereint.
Warrick figured that if anyone broke in, they would get the surprise of a lifetime when Vereint blasted them into vapor. If there was no evidence of a crime, they wouldn't have to file anything with the League or the CMPF either. It wasn't something he'd mentioned to Vereint, not wanting to give him ideas, but he understood how deep battle instincts ran.
Vereint would blast first and ask questions later. He could be pretty vicious about it too. So if anyone wanted to try and break into Warrick's Blue Ice stash, they would only get what they deserved.
Warrick quickly changed into his uniform, the blue and white bodysuit fitting him closely, before he tugged on his armor flak jacket and guards. He pulled his head stocking down to cover his blond hair, though it had been cut in an I-shape in the front to leave his eyes, nose and mouth clear.
He'd tried full face masks before, but it had never worked out. His father would have cursed him for risking his identity with his uniform choices, but Warrick had just added a shaped half-mask and let it go. Head stockings had always been too stifling for him and age hadn't changed that any.
Once he was dressed, he paused to give himself a quick once-over in the mirror. The last thing he wanted was to let carelessness leave clues to his secret identity.
The stories of how Katmandu had bought it had slammed reality down Warrick's throat. The assholes had even gone back and chopped up her kids as a lesson to other heroes about getting sloppy with their kit.
I'm a father now, he thought, and it was still an alien concept. He didn't feel like a parent, yet there was a kid in his life and he had to be smarter than before.
Vereint could protect himself. Melissa was a liability.
"Get your head in the game," he told himself. His voice seemed loud in the silence. It made him uncomfortable.
Warrick grabbed his utility belt and strapped it around his waist. His partner, Caspian Dukes, was probably already waiting. The half-Atlantean was startlingly quick about responding to call ups, probably because he didn't have much of a life outside the superhero gig.
Not that Warrick could judge him. Before Vereint, he hadn't had much of a life either.
Aliens. It was aliens again.
He remembered a time when the thought of aliens brought to mind awkwardly waddling glob-monsters that just wanted to go home. Now he had to deal with aliens that wanted to suck out peoples' brains before absorbing their organic tissue into its heaving mass of pink and red ick.
"E.T., go the fuck home!" he yelled, dodging out of the way of a writhing tentacle that burned the asphalt like acid where it hit.
"Why do all aliens have to look like fucking Jell-o monsters?" Caspian asked. He'd been given a dart gun loaded with some kind of chemical that was supposed to render the blob monster helpless, crystallizing its insides or something. Only the darts he'd fired so far had all bounced. Neither one of them was having a good time.
Warrick blasted an oncoming tentacle, freezing it in mid-air. "Not all aliens are blob things," he puffed. "Some of them are hot alien babes sent to seduce strong virile superheroes. Remember Blandromeda? She kept trying to get into my pants. I had to have Lady Arcana give her the girl-talk about why I wasn't into her generous offer."
Caspian snorted. "She was sent to destroy Earth's mightiest heroes by infecting them with space herpesyphilaids. You dodged a bullet, man. Charismo's wiener had to be surgically amputated after it started smoking and melting. Dude's still bitter about it."
"Didn't the Mechanic give him a robo-dick though? Wasn't that good enough?" Warrick froze the tentacles heading toward Caspian, giving him a chance to fire another shot.
The dart bounced.
"Dammit." Caspian tumbled out of the way of a finger-thin tendril. Seemed like the space blob was trying to teach itself to be stealthy. "I don't know about you, man, but I like my original parts. And if I ever decide to get anything replaced, I don't want it to happen because I caught an STD from some space hooker."
Warrick cackled. "Space hooker. That shit's going in my diary."
They had been maneuvering the blob away from the civilians trapped in the overturned bus and hazmat suit wearing police rushed in to hustle them out of the way. It was the best they could manage until their League backup arrived with better weapons.
The blob quivered with frustrated rage and a shudder went through the whole thing. There was a disgusting sucking-gurgling sound and an oozing maw lined with human-bone pseudo-teeth opened up.
"Have you ever seen the movie 'Teeth?'" Caspian's voice had gone up hysterically. "That shit gave me nightmares that went something like this."
Warrick leapt up into the air and swooped down to snatch Caspian up under the arms just as the blob jumped into the spot Caspian had been standing. Angry tentacles reached for them, trying to grab a trailing foot, but Warrick carried them up high enough it couldn't reach. He blinked sweat from his eye.
"Whoo, that almost got ugly," he said.
Caspian gave a wordless whimper and his grip on Warrick's shoulders was almost painful.
"You guys all right?" a brassy voice asked.
Warrick turned to find Witch Fire hovering on her broom. "We're fine, but you better have brought something to handle that thing. If it eats one more person, it might get too strong to be stopped."
Witch Fire made a face at him, but reached into a velvet satchel at her waist and pulled out a glass vial filled with a glowing blue liquid. "It took a while, but the lab boys whipped this up for you. You freeze it and I'll pour?"
Warrick shifted Caspian around until the guy could clamber onto his back. "I got this."
There was something about using his abilities that made all of the problems he faced seem tiny and far away. It was as though his metability froze his emotions too. It was one of the things that made him great in a fight-he always kept a cool head.
Focusing down on the pool of liquid ice that always seemed to lap away in the deeper corners of his mind, Warrick called it out of him and down his arms. It was distilled winter blasting out of his hands, the kind of deadly cold that nothing living on Earth could hope to survive.
To him, it felt warm. Like a shot of straight whiskey burning in his belly, only it went through his whole body.
The alien blob was frozen solid, though it only held a few minutes. Whatever was at the heart of that thing had a molten core and a hunger for living flesh.
It was frozen long enough.
Witch Fire unstoppered the vial, releasing a puff of noxious black smoke she kept well away from her face, and she zipped down to pour the thick, viscous blue straight down the creature's maw. Making a mouth had been a mistake.
"We need to get back!" Witch Fire yelled, zooming past him.
Warrick didn't hesitate to follow, ducking behind the safety of a skyscraper. "What's going to happen?"
"Oh..." There was a thunderous BOOM! and the wet splatter of regurgitated organic matter slapping against buildings and the ground.
"Just that." Witch Fire's grin was positively demonic. "Enjoy the clean up, boys." She zipped away in a flash of trailing red hair.
Warrick came back around the building to see the result of their actions. "I feel like we just got F'd in the A."
Gobs of red and pink stuck everywhere like half-digested steak tartar. There was already a rancid smell happening and Warrick's mouth watered in the way that warned he was about to vomit.
Caspian made a heaving noise behind him and Warrick twisted so Caspian fell loose, then caught him around the waist from behind. He gripped Caspian by the hips as Caspian bent forward and began to throw up, the vomit hitting the ground below with a sickening splash.
Warrick squeezed his eyes tight shut and tried to hold his breath and picture kittens. Cute, cuddly, furry, non-vomiting kittens.
"Sexy alien babes would be so much better," he said.
"Yeah," Caspian garbled agreement.
Luckily they didn't have to stick around for clean up duty. They were able to leave that to long suffering city workers while they made a break to League headquarters and the luxury of boiling hot showers. The stink of exploded blob monster was insidious.
"Never again!" Caspian ranted, scrubbing his skin furiously. "The next time there's a blob problem, it better be someone else's blob problem. I can't even fly, you know? So it's not like I can fly away. And I can't run that fast either, because I don't have superspeed." He turned toward Warrick. "I'm not scared of dying, but there's no way I'm going out as blob food, you hear me?"
"I think everyone can hear you," Warrick said, rinsing his hair under the water. "You're yelling."
"Damn right I'm yelling. No more blobs!" Caspian slapped the tile wall with his palm emphatically.
Warrick rolled his eyes. Caspian would let himself get hysterical in their downtime, but he was always great backup when the shit hit the fan.
"So, on to other things," Warrick said, "me and Vereint took in a kid."
Caspian was right in the middle of going into another fit when he dropped his hand and stared at Warrick. "What?"
"Yeah. We were at that circus show the other night, remember?" Warrick switched off the water and grabbed his towel off the rack.
"Where the tragedy happened?" Caspian poured a palmful of shampoo into his hand and rubbed it into his short black hair.
"Yeah." Warrick nodded, looking down at his bare feet. He needed to trim his toenails or Vereint would complain. He scrubbed his hair with the towel. "There was a little girl, Melissa. Vereint asked and we decided to take her in."
"Just a normal kid?" Caspian rinsed off quickly and turned off the water. He grabbed his own towel and wrapped it around his waist, not even bothering to dry off with it. The water beaded and ran off his skin, part of his Atlantean heritage. "You're not worried about your secret getting out?"
Warrick dried off, then wrapped his own towel around his waist and followed Caspian out into the locker room. "Naw, we moved my stuff out of the apartment and onto another floor. It was a smart move anyway, something we probably should have done a while ago for security purposes."
"Security shmurity," Caspian said. "You guys have a fucking kid! That just blows my mind. I mean, dude, you are a selfish fuck."
"Nice language." Warrick opened his locker and pulled out one of his spare uniform. "Make sure you don't talk like that when you come over tomorrow. We're having a barbecue."
"Does Vereint know you're having a barbecue?" Caspian opened his locker and paused to lean close and peer at his face in the square mirror. He fingered a possible blemish with a frown. "God, my skin is just falling apart."
Warrick zipped up his suit. "You're getting older," he said. "It's the menopause."
Caspian threw a sock at his head. "You mean the 'manopause' because I'm totally The Man."
"Whatever." Warrick slipped his spare belt on. "Plan on showing up tomorrow around five-ish and we'll eat around seven. I'll even ask Evan to show up too."
"You know, one day he's gonna ask to bring his kid, then what are you going to do?" Caspian used his purple handled brush to fix his hair, turning his head this way and that as he admired himself in the mirror.
"Feel bad when I tell him no." Warrick pulled on his boots, stamping to get the fit right. "I like to keep my two lives separate. And I think Vereint appreciates it too." Even though he didn't know it was all for him.
Warrick was a realist. He was getting older, and it was obvious to him that Vereint was not. There would come a time when he would stumble at the wrong moment, and Vereint would be left a widower. And the only way the League would leave Vereint alone was if they thought he had no idea what any of their secret identities were.
Knowledge was power, unless you were a superhero's spouse, where it was better to play ignorant. Vereint was quick to don the mask of vacuous airhead to put off any unpleasantness, and Warrick appreciated that.
"You're going to have to bring him into the fold someday," Caspian said. "Doesn't he get curious at all about who some of the others are?"
"Nope." Warrick frowned at his spare head stocking; there was something black on the side. He fingered the smudge, then sniffed it. "I can honestly say that he wants nothing to do with any superhero other than me."
"You lucky asshole." Caspian shook his head. "I date a woman for a week and she instantly wants to know what superheroes and villains I know. That last one, I think she only went out with me because she heard I knew Darkstar. The minute she got everything out of me, she was gone."
Warrick gave him a flat look. "And you didn't get a single thing in return?"
Caspian shrugged. "I never said I didn't get anything. I just meant it's awkward to have someone try to wring me for info like that. If she'd been even a little less hot..." He grinned.
Warrick shook his head. "There's a good chance you're going to hell. And I'll be right there with you for listening." He pulled his head stocking on and finished dressing. "Hurry up or I'm going to leave your ass behind."
"Hey, it takes time to look this good." Caspian hurriedly began to pull his clothes on. "Do you want me to bring anything for tomorrow?"
"Oh, can you pick up some of those Nutella cakes? Vereint won't let me buy that kind of thing, but you're an outsider and he won't want to come off as shrewish. He's very sensitive about that kind of thing."
Caspian paused with his arm half in his sleeve. "Are you trying to get me to bring in contraband? Is that what's happening here?"
"Exactly," Warrick said. "I also want a couple bags of Cheesy Poofs, some cupcakes, and some ribs. I'll give you some money later."
"He's gonna know something's up when I bring a whole second dinner with me. You're inviting me to eat your food." Caspian pulled on his pants, tucking his shirt in before zipping his fly.
"He'll suspect, but he won't know for sure," Warrick said. "We'll totally get away with it, I know it."
Caspian snorted and shook his head. "You have definitely changed."
Warrick grinned and stuck his mask to his face. "I know. I like the mellower me a lot more."
"Ugh. Go kumbaya up the idea of marriage to someone else. I'm practically a teenager for an Atlantean. Let me enjoy my youth." Caspian pulled on his boots, zipping up the sides before grabbing his mask and slamming his locker closed.
"So you're still waiting for that puberty to hit, huh?"
Caspian shoved him, then got him into a headlock. "I'll puberty you. I'm just chock full of male jelly."
Warrick made a gagging noise and elbowed him in the ribs as they stumbled toward the door out of the locker room. "Asshole."
He thought he was going to have to creep in, but it was only a little after eleven when he saw the clock on the wall. The living room lights were turned low and Vereint was curled up on the couch watching a movie on the big screen. He had his The Nightmare Before Christmas blanket wrapped around his shoulders and was picking at a bowl of M&Ms. Warrick noted that he'd already picked out all the red and blue ones.
Warrick glanced at the TV, then blinked and looked away. It sounded like the movie was in Korean and there were subtitles, but what was happening was horrifying.
"What are you doing?" he asked, walking over to the couch and reaching down to take a handful of M&Ms out of the bowl. Candy sounded like a great idea considering what he'd gone through earlier.
Vereint shrugged. "Watching a scary movie and waiting for you." He smiled slyly. "This movie made me really scared. I think I need a big strong hero to make me feel safe."
Warrick smirked and crunched an M&M between his teeth. "Since there's none of those around, I guess you'll have to put up with me." He sat down on the couch and Vereint wrapped the corner of his blanket around him. "How can you watch this? That's a lot of gore!"
Vereint shrugged. "It's a revenge story. The guy got locked up in a hotel room for years, was tortured and became kinda crazy, then was let go with no explanation. And all they fed him was dumplings the whole time he was there."
"Harsh." Warrick poured the M&Ms he held into his mouth, then licked his sticky palm clean.
"Yeah," Vereint said. "Shit is about to get fucked up."
"Should you curse so much now that you're a mommy?" Warrick asked, slipping his right hand under the edge of Vereint's shirt.
"Never call me mommy again." Vereint glared half-heartedly. "And no, I still get to swear and be thoroughly depraved, I just have to make sure the kid's not right there when I do it."
Warrick laughed and snuggled in close against Vereint, rubbing his cheek against Vereint's warm shoulder. He stroked his hand over Vereint's stomach, then up over Vereint's chest.
"Oh, this is the best part." Vereint was staring at the TV. Warrick was staring at Vereint.
"What's this movie called?" Warrick asked distractedly. He slipped his hand around Vereint's side and started drawing shapes against Vereint's back with his fingers.
"Oldboy," Vereint said. "I put off watching this because I heard it was really brutal, but I just had to try it. Holy crap, but this movie is crazy."
"It seems that way." He casually slipped his hand beneath the band of Vereint's sweatpants and began drawing shapes on his bare skin. Not even seeming to notice he was doing it, Vereint leaned forward.
Warrick bent his head forward to taste the back of Vereint's neck with his mouth. He liked where the razor had shaved the smallest hairs from Vereint's neck. He ran his lips over that patch of skin, making Vereint unconsciously shiver.
"This movie is... this movie is..." Vereint stopped and pulled away from Warrick to turn and give him a serious look. "Are you trying to seduce me?"
"Yes." Warrick gave him his best sexy grin. "Is it working?"
Vereint was thoughtful a moment. "I think so. I'm definitely more interested in you than I am in the movie right now."
Warrick snorted. "If you'd turned down sex to finish a movie you can watch any time... I'm sorry, but I'd have to break up with you forever."
"Please," Vereint scoffed. "You're madly in love with me and you know it. You wouldn't be able to keep away from me for more than a day tops."
"You're very sure of yourself," Warrick said.
Vereint smirked and took his shirt off. "Yes I am." He flexed his chest muscles and Warrick was gone.
Warrick kissed up the side of Vereint's neck and pushed him flat on the couch, pressing their groins together as his hands moved down between them.
Vereint reached out with his hand to fumble the tablet remote off the coffee table. He brushed the icon without looking and the TV shut off mid-movie. "Let's take this where we can get more comfortable."
Though Vereint tried not to use his powers, he had no problem wrapping his arms around Warrick's waist and rising up off the couch, carrying them down the hall into their bedroom. Warrick laughed and kicked the door shut behind them.
Being under someone else's power was always strange to Warrick. There was this sense that he was like those people in movies being jerked through the air on wires. At the same time, he was free to get a good grope in while Vereint maneuvered them to the bed.
"Geez, but you're handsy," Vereint said, hovering over the bed, rotating them so he was on the bottom, on the top, on the bottom.
"Don't do it, don't do it!" Warrick pleaded, then "Oofed!" as his back bounced on the bed and Vereint landed on top of him, straddling his waist. "Someday you're going to put me right through the bed."
"And on that day, we will need to go and buy a new bed," Vereint rose up on his knees and started pushing his sweatpants down. He sat back on Warrick's straining erection, ignoring the embarrassing high-pitched sound Warrick couldn't help making, and lifted his legs up to pull his pants off, throwing them toward the floor.
"No underwear?" Warrick waggled his eyebrows.
"Easy access," Vereint said. "Now," he began to stroke his own erection, "let's begin the negotiations on who goes first?"
"Me?" Warrick suggested hopefully.
Vereint snorted. "You're cute when you're convinced you're going to win."
"Does that mean you're going to let me win?" Warrick asked, trying to reach as much of Vereint as he could with his hands while Vereint was sitting on him.
"There's no winning or losing in what we're doing." Vereint grinned, leaning down to kiss Warrick hungrily, happening to grind his ass down. "There's winning and winning."
"I..." Warrick groaned and gripped Vereint's hips tight enough to break bricks. "I feel like you're winning more than me."
"Probably." Vereint reached down to unfasten Warrick's pants, pushing them down just far enough to free Warrick's erection and leave him trapped, at his mercy. "But don't worry, you're going to feel like a winner too."
Vereint slipped down on Warrick's thighs and gripped both of their dicks. Warrick wanted to thrust up against him, but held himself back. Vereint liked to play his little games.
"I do like feeling like a winner," Warrick said. He tilted his head, giving Vereint's nibbling teeth better access to his neck. Warrick groaned as Vereint sucked and bit at his flesh and he slid his arms up Vereint's back, trying to pull him closer against him.
"Wait, hold on," Vereint gasped suddenly, putting his hand over Warrick's mouth as he froze. He turned his ear toward Melissa's room and listened hard. "Do you hear her?"
Warrick rolled his eyes and pulled Vereint's hand away so he could talk. "She's sleeping. She didn't hear anything. Relax."
"How can I relax?" Vereint asked, looking down at him. "How fucked up would it be for an already traumatized child to realize that we're having noisy animal sex in the same apartment?"
"Most likely, she would think that we were watching terrible TV," Warrick said, "but I don't think we have to worry about it. She's sleeping, and unless you're going to start yelling at the top of your lungs she's not going to wake up. This room is practically soundproofed."
"Then how come I can hear everything?" Vereint asked. He was adorable in his complete neurosis, his brow furrowed and his bottom lip pouting out indecisively.
Warrick didn't feel bad at all about gripping Vereint's upper arms and flipping them over so he was on top. He leaned down to press a kiss against Vereint's lips. "You can hear everything because you have superhearing. Melissa has normal human hearing. She's sleeping now and she's going to stay asleep. At least until I've finished fucking you into the mattress."
Vereint gave him a wide-eyed look. "Really? Well, aren't you confident. Maybe I will let you fuck me." He laughed. "Be serious. I'm going to fuck you."
"Well, then you better hurry up or I'm just going to take what I want." Warrick bit and licked at Vereint's lips until Vereint was writhing and humping against him.
"Aggressive," Vereint gasped, arching his neck. "You know I like it."
"I know," Warrick said.
* . * . *
It was a surprise to Vereint to find out they were having a barbecue, but he couldn't help thinking it might be fun. Melissa was going to have to start school soon and she had displayed some nervousness at the idea of meeting new people.
She'd spent most of her life performing death defying feats in front of large groups of people, but they had all been strangers and she hadn't interacted with a lot of people on a personal basis. She'd received her schooling from her mother and she hadn't known anyone her own age.
He took Melissa with him to the grocery store and they wandered around buying pre-shaped hamburger patties, chicken breasts, vegetables for grilling, wooden skewers, and everything they needed to make all kinds of pasta salad. Vereint made sure to grab an extra box of the multi-colored rotini just because it always made him smile.
"Can we get this?" Melissa asked, holding up a box of brightly colored fruity cereal.
"That has next to no nutritional value whatsoever." Vereint frowned. "Toss it in the cart with the understanding that for every bowl you eat you will have to eat two cups of vegetables and one fruit. Do we have a deal?"
Melissa closed her mouth with a snap. He could see the thoughts shifting behind her eyes. "One cup of vegetables and two fruits," she said.
"Ah, I see you've already learned the value of negotiation." He smiled at her. "Deal."
She smiled and dunked the cereal in the cart. "Can we get some chocolate milk too?"
He raised a brow at her. "Are you ready to pay the price for such a luxury good?"
Melissa put her fists on her hips and stuck her lower lip out at him. "Milk will give me strong bones and teeth."
"Yes, but chocolate tastes incredibly delicious," Vereint said, pushing the cart toward the dairy coolers. "There's a cost for delicious."
She rolled her eyes so hard that he could almost hear it. He couldn't help laughing. She was fitting right in.
Warrick ran the grill while Vereint had Melissa helping him make gyoza in the kitchen. They were both wearing aprons, Vereint's a plain white one while Melissa's was purple with daisies all over it. She'd pulled her hair back in a ponytail.
"Usually gyoza are fried then steamed, but we're keeping an eye on Warrick's cholesterol so I put the ban hammer down on all fried foods." Vereint made a sad face. "Keeping Warrick alive has made it a worthy sacrifice, but sometime you and I will have to sneak down to this little place I know."
Melissa raised her eyebrows at him. "We're keeping secrets from Warrick?"
Vereint snorted. "He knows. We both pretend that it's some big secret, but I've caught him sniffing my shirt after I've come back from the diner to vicariously enjoy my cheeseburger and fries."
Melissa giggled. "Really?"
Vereint shrugged and finished mixing the filling. "I let him have turkey sausage and in return he's going to live to be a hundred years old. We have an agreement."
"Like the one we have about cereal?" Melissa gave him a squint-eyed look.
Vereint bumped her shoulder with his elbow. "Exactly. The world is built around consensus, and I like to keep that idea alive in my household everyday." He began laying out the round wonton wrappers. "You ready to do this?"
She picked up the spoon he'd given her. "Ready."
There was something about making gyoza that was soothing. It allowed him to relax into the hypnotic motions of scoop and fold. He only had to help Melissa the first couple of times and had to fix a couple she'd done, but by the time they'd finished the whole batch she was practically an expert.
"Good job, kid." He smiled at her, walking to the sink to wash his hands before loading the steamer.
The doorbell rang, but before he could go answer it, Warrick called, "I got it!" and there was the sound of him opening the sliding door and coming in from the patio.
"And so it begins," Vereint said, shooting Melissa a grin.
She was looking a bit nervous, especially when they heard the sound of Caspian's boisterous laughter and a scrabbling thud followed by Evan's cursing.
"Watch it, gentlemen!" Vereint yelled. "There's a child in the house!"
"Got it!" Caspian yelled back.
Then there was a bunch of shushing and laughter.
Vereint rolled his eyes and went back to his gyoza. They were worse than children, if children had dangerous superpowers and a willingness to use them.
He looked over at Melissa and saw her hiding a smile with her sleeve.
"Ah ah, don't you encourage them. They're terrible," Vereint said with a smile. "They act like fratboys."
"What does that mean?" Melissa asked.
Vereint shook his head slowly. "It means they act like they're in college or something. It's all kinds of laughing and joking and someone ends up ruining a brand new golf cart."
Melissa laughed. "How did they do that?"
"Very easily," Caspian said, appearing in the doorway. "No one told us how steep the hills were on the course or why cart racing had been banned. Warrick was happy to pay for the cart just because he was so grateful I was all right." He walked over to the counter and set down five bulging plastic bags.
"Oh, is that what happened?" Vereint asked. "Warrick said your pleading was so pathetic he paid for the cart to shut you up."
"Slander!" Caspian pointed his finger. "I should challenge you to a duel."
"Whatever." Vereint wiped his hands on a towel and walked over to poke at the bags interestedly. "What's all this now?"
"Please, we all know you're a food Nazi." Caspian started unloading the bags. "Today's a special occasion. You should let Warrick eat real people food."
"What special occasion?" Melissa asked curiously.
Caspian pointed at her. "You, kid. Today is all about you." Caspian held out his hand for a shake. "My name's Caspian Dukes, and you're Melissa, right?"
Melissa shook his hand firmly. "Right."
Vereint had the feeling things were working out better than expected.
Life with Melissa wasn't all roses and happiness. She was a grieving girl, and once the shocked placidness wore off, she was a bit of a spitfire. There were definite traces of a brat in there.
There were a couple of times where Vereint had to remind himself that he wasn't a supervillain anymore. There were a couple of times where Warrick had to remind him rather forcibly as well, though those little scuffles usually ended in fabulous makeup sex, so he didn't mind that as much. Still, having a kid around was a whole different world for them. It added depth to their relationship or something.
Vereint's mom, Sandra, barely gave him any warning before she was in a car with Patrick and Hank, promising a long visit. She was desperate to see her new granddaughter and she wasn't going to let anything get in her way, Vereint included. Not that he would ever try to block her from anything-he wasn't that stupid.
His mother was a force of nature wrapped up in a human skin.
Instead, he made sure the apartment was immaculate. He liked hearing Melissa's soft giggles as he raced around at human speed washing dishes, folding laundry, vacuuming, and preparing a feast for their guests.
"You could help me, you know," he said, giving her a sideways glance. She was curled up on the couch, her little feet wearing brightly colored striped socks.
She shrugged. "I could. But you seem to be having a lot of fun."
He switched off the vacuum cleaner and put his hands on his hips. "That's it, little lady. Get your hiney off the couch and go make sure your room is clean. My mom's going to want to see it first thing to make sure you're not living in squalor."
There was a visible shifting behind her eyes, as though she was contemplating telling him to go shove it. Finally, she threw her feet off the couch and stood up, padding quietly toward her room.
"I'll be in with fresh sheets in about ten minutes," he called after her. "I don't want to see a single toy on the floor."
"Gotcha!" she called back.
Vereint stood there for a long moment. His life really had become something very different and strange, yet it was a good kind of strange. Warm and quietly happy.
He shook his head and switched the vacuum cleaner on, going back to making sure all the lines in the carpet bent the same way. He paused midway through to light the scented candles on the coffee table and on both end tables, sniffing contentedly as he worked.
He glanced at the decorative sun-faced clock on the wall and had to wonder where Warrick was and when he was going to be home. Warrick had promised that he would be here when the Georges appeared.
* . * . *
"Son of a motherfucking BITCH!" Warrick braced his feet and tried to wrench himself free, but it felt more as though his hand was going to be ripped off first. The hot water steadily rising up past his shoulders made him blink his eyes furiously at all the steam and kept him from being able to freeze the manacle. There was a good chance he was going to drown, and that seriously pissed him off.
It was just supposed to be a routine patrol. He would fly around, take a quick look at what was happening in the city, and he'd be back in time to help Vereint panic and rip their already immaculate apartment to pieces. Then he'd spotted a strange glinting light from the air and he hadn't spared a second thought about dropping down to check things out.
He was regretting not calling it in. That was the kind of mistake that got newbies killed.
Warrick still wasn't completely sure what had happened. He'd approached the building, then there was a fiercely bright light strobing in his eyes and everything shut down. He thought he might have had a seizure or something from the way his arm and leg muscles felt and how his jaw ached from clenching.
He'd woken up in some kind of cylindrical concrete tube structure that had to be at least two stories tall, his right hand manacled to the wall. He'd received a jolt of electric current that left him pissing himself when he'd tried to freeze and break the metal. It had seared through his whole body and he'd bitten his tongue as he jerked around uncontrollably.
He'd been in too many battles to care too much about the loss of bladder control. That kind of thing happened, and he'd developed a thick skin about embarrassment versus survival. Survival always won.
He was still wearing his uniform, so that was a plus, but his utility belt and any hidden weaponry was gone. It gave him a sick feeling that maybe he was facing someone that knew him and how he operated. Someone that wouldn't hesitate to kill him.
He'd been trying to physically rip himself free when the boiling hot water had started gushing in from spouts that slid open in the walls. His metability allowed him to cool the area around his body, though he didn't dare stretch his powers out too far, not after that second, even worse jolt of electricity. It made him think that someone was watching his torment, probably getting their rocks off.
The water rose up past his chin and he tilted his face back, staring up at the round light glaring down at him from the ceiling. He could die here and Vereint would never know what had happened to him.
The thought of Vereint crying and grieving and ripping the world apart to find his body made Warrick have to blink back furious tears of his own. He'd never been afraid of dying, but he did fear leaving Vereint alone.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What do you want from me?"
There was no answer. The water just rose higher, brushing against his lower lip teasingly.
* . * . *
After making Melissa's bed and ordering her to get all those toys she'd jammed in her closet out and put away, Vereint gave into his worry and called Caspian on the phone.
It sounded like Caspian said "Yellow?" when he answered. He sounded exhausted and Vereint had the suspicion that he'd dragged the guy out of bed.
"This is Vereint," he said. "Do you know where Warrick is? I don't want to come across as some kind of worried housewife or something, but he said he was going to be home an hour ago and my parents are supposed to be showing up soon."
"I haven't heard from him." There was a rustle of cloth as Caspian sat up. "He's pretty tight assed about keeping to his schedule. He hasn't called you or anything?"
Vereint rolled his eyes. "Do you think I'd be calling you if I knew he was supposed to be late? He went out for a quick patrol and said he was going to be home to help me." He felt a nervous roll go through his stomach, but forced himself to stay in control. He wasn't going to let himself panic over every little thing. "Do you think you can check to see if he left a location in the database or anything?"
"I'll check it out," Caspian said, then hung up.
Vereint stood there for a long moment, staring at the phone in his hand. Warrick had said there was nothing happening, that he was just going to take a quick look around. If something unexpected had happened...
He shook his head. Warrick was fine. He was going to come walking through the front door and maybe it would turn out that he'd stopped off at the grocery store or something and he hadn't bothered to charge his phone. Never mind that Warrick was nearly anal about making sure that everything he carried was ready for immediate use, his phone included.
Warrick was fine. He was going to come home.
There was an unpleasant crunching sound and a whiff of ozone. Vereint blinked in surprise, realizing that he had crushed the phone in his fist.
The doorbell rang and he hurriedly dumped the twisted bits of plastic and circuitry into the trashcan before going to answer. There was a thud and mad scramble from Melissa's room that made his lip twitch in amusement.
He opened the front door. "Mom! Dad! Hank!" He opened his arms wide and Sandra Georges rushed forward to fill them, Patrick hanging around at her shoulders to wait impatiently for his turn.
Vereint was hugged and kissed and shunted aside just as quickly. "Now, where is she? Where is my grandbaby?" Sandra asked.
"I see how it is." Vereint sighed woefully. "Shoved aside by a younger child for you to dote on. The love is gone. My mama done did me wrong..."
She jabbed him in the ribs, causing him to make a high-pitched yelping sound. "Don't go playing that card, son, you really won't like how things play out. Now show me the girl and no one gets hurt."
"Geez, she sounds like it's a hostage situation or something," Hank said to Patrick, who snorted a laugh. Both quieted at the fierce glare Sandra shot their direction.
"She's in her room cleaning the place up so she can show it off to you," Vereint said, gesturing down the hallway. "We've made the guest room hers."
Sandra clamped an iron hand around his wrist and dragged him with her. "Come introduce me."
"Yes, Mama." It was the only reply he could give.
He glanced back and saw Hank and Patrick grinning at him, Hank even going so far as to flutter his lashes and stick out his tongue. Vereint realized that he had mommy issues, but there was no reason to call him on it.
"And where is Warrick?" Sandra asked, looking around the living room as they passed through. "Didn't you say he was going to be here today?"
Vereint sighed. "I don't know. He got called into work, but I haven't been able to reach him on the phone."
"Well, no reason to worry about it," Sandra said. "What's the worst that can happen, paper cuts?"
"Yeah. What's the worst that can happen," Vereint said, trying not to think about what could be happening to Warrick. There was nothing he could do about it and he trusted that Caspian would do his best to find Warrick and make sure he was all right.
Vereint rapped his knuckles against Melissa's closed bedroom door. There was the sound of frantic scuffling inside. "Melissa?"
"Just a second!" Something thumped against the floor and he thought he recognized the sound of Lego pieces being poured back into the tub. After another minute of waiting, the door opened and there was Melissa with a nervous look on her face. "Hello."
"Oh honey, it's nice to meet you," Sandra said, kneeling down to bring their heights equal. "You can call me Grandma, and this is Grandpa and Uncle Hank."
Vereint had worried that Melissa would freak out at seeing so many people hanging over her, but she was a tough kid. Throwing herself through the air without the hope of a net below had taught her to be fearless.
"I'm Melissa. This is my room." She stepped back to let them in. "Vereint and Warrick bought me a lot of toys and a smaller dresser because the one that was in here was too tall for me."
"I see that." Sandra let herself be led around and shown all of the changes they'd made to accommodate Melissa. The look she gave Vereint had him nearly hearing her make an "Aw!" sound. He could already tell that she was enamored with her new granddaughter. It relieved some tension he hadn't even realized he'd had.
He covertly glanced at his watch and frowned. Where the hell was Warrick?
"Come on into the living room," Sandra told Melissa. "We brought you some presents."
"Presents? For me?" Melissa sounded surprised.
"Of course," Sandra said. "The minute I heard about you, I went out and got you some things I hope you'll enjoy."
* . * . *
When the water rose over his nose, Warrick had a pretty good idea that he was going to die if he didn't get out fast. He had a lot going for him, but breathing underwater wasn't one of them.
Silently cursing the assholes that had put him in this position, he brought both feet up next to where the manacle attached to the wall and held his right hand in place with his left.
He wrenched hard, air bursting out of his lungs in a pained gurgle as he broke his wrist with a pop. Then he jerked as hard as he could, working his wrist back and forth, trying to ignore the grinding pain as he tried to get his hand through the manacle.
Of course not, he thought bitterly.
He clenched his teeth together as he grabbed his thumb with his left hand and jerked sideways. He hoped it was only dislocated, otherwise he would be looking at surgery, but he really didn't care at this point. His lungs burned and his heart was pounding fast and hard in his ears. His body was sending him desperate messages that he was about to lose consciousness, and if that happened he was going to be dead.
Ripping his hand out of the manacle, he kicked his feet hard to break the surface of the water. He gasped in some air and tucked his hand under his armpit to keep from jostling his wrist and hand, which were already aching fiercely.
He'd had to dislocate that same thumb several times in the past and he'd been told that there was a good chance he was going to end up damaging the joint due to lack of cartilage. It was one of the health risks of being a superhero, and when it came down to it he'd rather have his wrist permanently fused than his fingers completely useless.
Anger was smoldering away in his stomach. It drove him up into the air like a missile, his only thought to beat the crap out of whoever had captured him and go home to Vereint. That bright white light was his target. He burst through it in a shower of fluorescent tubing and glass.
There was a cement foundation and it didn't take him much to realize that he was far underground, the cement reverberating with the sound of the city trapped outside. He punched his way out with his left hand and found himself in a darkened cellar. He shook off quickly, water splattering everywhere, and stomped his way toward the nearest load bearing wall. All those years of studying architecture as a hobby were finally paying off.
He listened and heard less than a handful of people in the building. It must have been some kind of old tenement or something that some assholes decided to use for their nefarious purposes.
Even knowing it was probably a bad idea, the kind of thing that could have him brought up on criminal charges, Warrick was so angry that he didn't care. He just brought his foot back and kicked and kicked and KICKED until concrete was cracking and rebar was crumbling away, ice spreading out from beneath him in a wave of weakness, eating away at the building around him until walls were coming down and the ceiling above him was creaking threateningly.
There was a loud rumble and dust started falling down, a little bit at first, then more and more.
He kicked the wall one more time, then ran toward the opposite wall and hit it hard with his shoulders, slamming straight through and out onto the street. There was a loud crash and half of the building collapsed in on itself with a plume of dust. He heard the echo of screams inside, but he was beyond giving a damn.
"Whoa, what happened here?"
Warrick turned and found Caspian still straddling the shiny motorcycle he was so stupidly proud of. "How'd you get here?" he asked, raking his good hand through his hair.
"Your better half called me all concerned." Caspian climbed off the motorcycle and walked toward Warrick, his boots crunching against the bits of shattered concrete scattered all over the road. "There was a lot of worry that you might be dead or something."
"Thanks, I guess." Warrick turned to survey the building he'd partially demolished. It still needed a thorough going over before he felt comfortable going home. Vereint would understand.
"I brought backup," Caspian offered. "They can handle all this while we get out of here."
There was a screech of tires on asphalt and a black van took the corner sharply. The back doors opened before the van was fully stopped and six junior members of the League of Superheroes jumped out, jangling with weapons and gear.
They all looked incredibly fresh-faced, the stink of newness still clinging to their skin. He recognized one of them, a young man named Neobright, that he'd dealt with before.
"I'm not going anywhere until I find out what the hell happened here," Warrick said.
"You don't think that's a little stupid?" Caspian asked.
"Stupid is leaving the scene without me finding out what the hell they wanted," Warrick said. He turned to the kid he'd met before. "You guys ready to get in there?"
Neobright nodded. "Yes, sir. We're ready to go."
"Take point," Caspian said. "Blue Ice and I will bring up the rear." He curtailed Warrick's objection with a narrow-eyed glare. "Shut up. I can tell you're still all kinds of wet and whoever is in there might be willing to try to take you out again."
"If they try, I'll flatten them. They got me by surprise the first time, and now I'm pissed," Warrick said. He watched as the Junior League ripped an opening in one of the still standing walls and tramped inside, their boots thudding.
"Sure. You all right?" Caspian asked, his eyes raking over Warrick's body.
"I'm fine." Warrick cradled his hand against his chest and tried to pretend he hadn't just destroyed a building in a tantrum.
"Yeah, you look fine." Caspian shook his head. "What I can see of your skin looks the color of cream cheese. You should really go home."
"I'm fine," Warrick repeated through gritted teeth. He let Caspian walk a few feet in front of him as they poked their way into the building. He wanted to know for himself what was going on, but he knew he wasn't in the mood to handle arrests himself. That was how superheroes became murderers and ended up serving hard time.
"Your hand looks like it hurts," Caspian said. "Did you dislocate your thumb and break your wrist?"
"I was chained to a fucking wall," Warrick said. "Whenever I tried to use my powers I'd get an electric shock so I couldn't break my way free."
"So you broke yourself instead." Caspian shook his head. "Was it some kind of freaky handcuff situation?"
"Basically." They followed where the Junior League kids had disappeared.
"Geez, you have the worst kind of luck." Caspian didn't hesitate to press a hand in the middle of Warrick's chest and hold him back so he could enter first. Off Warrick's look, Caspian snorted. "Please, you just escaped from these guys. I'm not going to let you take point."
Warrick sighed and took up the rear. "Let's just get this over with. I don't want the rest of the building to collapse on top of us."
Caspian had his head tipped back as he looked up. "Taking in the damage, you did a number on this place. It's gonna be condemned forever."
"Good. That was part of my master plan." Warrick stepped over some chunks of concrete and went with Caspian into a large open room that smelled faintly of Pine Sol and dust. "God, there better not be any black mold in here. If I get lung cancer, I'm going to sue someone."
"Whatever dude." Caspian shoved aside a big slab of concrete to display the eight foot wide hole in the floor. He peered down into it curiously. "This is where you were trapped?" He spat to hear it splash into the water below. "If I'd been stuck in there, I'd be dead."
"Except you can breathe under water," Warrick said.
"Yeah, but that doesn't help a whole lot if I was handcuffed to the wall." Caspian scratched his chin. "I don't know if I'd be willing to chew my own hand off with my teeth."
Warrick rolled his eyes. "You should try it sometime. It's not as bad as it seems. We could call it an experiment."
"You've got some serious problems," Caspian joked, shaking his head. He walked over to a shadowed pile of junk and kicked a box with the side of his foot.
"I've got a shortage of fucking cartilage is what I've got," Warrick growled, as far from being in the mood as possible. "I didn't want to have to dislocate my thumb again, but I didn't have a whole lot of choice. After a while, I won't be holding anything with this hand again, that's what the doctor told me last time."
"At least you're alive." Caspian had looking on the bright side of things down to a fault. "And you didn't have to do like that guy in Saw."
"Ugh, don't mention that movie to me, ever." Warrick made his way across the cluttered space to his friend. "What is this place?"
There were metal tables running along the walls piled with tools and wires and and all kinds of electronic components. There were cardboard boxes and wooden crates stacked everywhere. It was like someone's basement workspace gone horribly wrong, and not just because of the murder pit in the middle of the floor.
"Dunno. I've got some of the kids rounding up the guys running this place and they're already questioning with extreme prejudice. It looks like you were snatched by a bunch of mid-listers going by the name 'The Society of M.'" He glanced up from his com with a grin. "The 'M' is for 'Murder' by the way. Complete amateur hour."
Warrick snorted. "Really? Could I have been grabbed by a group that was anymore lamer? Whatever. Let's get out of here," he said, turning toward the door. "The kids can clean up the rest. I want to get my wrist taken care of and head home. Vereint is going to be pissed off."
He wasn't going to let himself consider the fact that he'd nearly been killed by minor league villains. That kind of thing happened.
By the time Dr. Jorge Vasquez had finished checking him over and fitted him with a dark blue cast, Warrick was more than ready to be on his way. His muscles ached and the first thing he did was wrap his cast up in plastic and take a shower, scrubbing himself down with antibacterial soap.
Vereint wasn't susceptible to most kinds of sickness, but he did have a nose like a bloodhound and would throw a fit if Warrick came home reeking of sweat and mung water. Warrick hadn't really noticed at the time, as he was busy fighting for his life, but the water he'd been swimming in smelled absolutely terrible, and so did he for having floated in it.
He put on his spare clothes and took the back way out of the League of Superheroes' headquarters. Caspian was there waiting for him, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.
"What are you doing here?" Warrick asked.
Caspian shrugged. "Thought I'd give you a lift home. You already drive like crap and I don't think the cast is going to help you."
"Thank you for your kind words." Warrick rolled his eyes. "I really appreciate it."
"I know you do." Caspian fished the keyring out of Warrick's pocket and spun it around his finger. "Come on. Let's get outta here."
Warrick was too tired to argue. He just followed Caspian down the corridor and out through the heavy metal door into the parking garage. He always kept a spare car around to save him in case he wasn't in the mood for flying.
Caspian hit the button on the keyfob and there was a "boop-beep" sound and a flash of headlights. He whistled when he got a good look at the cherry red sports car waiting for them. "Fancy."
"Thanks." Warrick opened the passenger door with his left hand and awkwardly climbed inside. "God, now I get to go home and pretend everything's cool in front of Vereint's parents and brother."
"Sucks." Caspian fumbled around, nearly backing into a parked truck, before he got a handle on driving. He peeled out of the parking garage at unsafe speeds, whooping as he avoided running into a concrete column by bare inches. "So you guys have officially got the kid now, huh?"
Warrick gripped the sides of his seat tight enough to leave finger impressions in the leather. "Be careful!" he warned, squinting his eyes so he didn't have to see the oncoming death. "Yeah, we've got a kid now. We're those guys."
"I thought we used to make fun of those guys?" Caspian asked, spinning the wheel wildly.
"Not since we became those guys. From now on, we have nothing but respect for those awesome, hardworking guys." Warrick leaned forward and switched on the radio. The sound of candy pop music filled the car interior. "Vereint's happy."
"Oh, well, as long as Vereint is happy the world will keep on spinning and puppy dogs will wag their nubby tails all over the place." Caspian shook his head. "Change the station. This shit is a hard on killer."
"As I don't want you to have a hard on in my car, maybe I should leave this terrible music on," Warrick said, already changing the station. "They're all going to be there and we're going to have to sit around eating dinner together and I'm going to have to pretend that everything is all right and I don't just want to crawl into bed and forget this awful day ever happened."
"But it did happen and you're never going to forget," Caspian said. "Go enjoy the fam-fam, eat Vereint's delicious food, and maybe later he'll give you some snoo snoo and you'll be able to repress the memories until you're in the therapist's office five years from now pointing out on a doll where those guys electroshocked you."
"You are the worst friend ever." Warrick leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Let me know when we get there."
"Will do," Caspian said.
Warrick appreciated a friend that loved fast cars and always had his back. The fact that Caspian knew when to hold his tongue was an added advantage.
He let himself drift off, feeling the car slide him this way and that as Caspian took the corners at high speeds. But he felt remarkably safe with Caspian at the wheel.
"Hey, dude, we're here."
Warrick groaned and opened his eyes, wincing away from Caspian's next finger prod. "God, you should file that thing as a weapon," he said, going to rub his shoulder and thumping himself with his cast instead. "This is going to suck balls."
"Maybe if you're nice, it'll be your balls," Caspian snerked.
"Thanks for the ride," Warrick cracked the door and stepped out. "Bring the car back tomorrow."
"Awesome!" Caspian waggled his fingers at him. "Bitches love fast cars!"
"Bitches love smacking people that call them bitches," Warrick said, slamming the door and trudging toward the lobby doors.
Rather than pushing the doors open, he slapped the automatic door opener. His wrist was beginning to ache and he was thinking about taking the pain relievers Dr. Jorge had given him. He usually swore off drugs considering his past history. Going back into rehab wasn't something he ever planned on doing.
"Mr. Tobias, are you all right?" Franco, the desk clerk asked, making like he was about to come around the long counter.
Warrick waved his good hand at him. "I took a tumble, that's all. I'm fine, thanks for asking." He tramped toward the elevator, his back prickling with Franco's eyes on him.
Once he got in the elevator, he leaned against the wall and cradled his broken wrist against his stomach as he waited for the numbers to count up to the penthouse. He hoped tonight wasn't going to be completely terrible, not that he was too worried about it. Vereint's parents were surprisingly understanding people and Hank was the kind of laid-back that meant they could share a cold beer and not have to talk about much of anything.
The elevator door dinged open and he walked to the apartment door in time to realize that he'd given his keys to Caspian. He closed his eyes a moment, silently praying that the door was unlocked, then reached out to try his luck.
The knob turned easily and he pushed the door open, stepping inside. Immediately the scent of Vereint's candles assaulted his nose and he had to sniff hard to keep from sneezing.
Vereint's parents and brother were sitting in the living room with Melissa, who was dancing around in her socked feet.
"There you are!" Vereint came out of the hallway, wiping his hands on the sides of his jeans. "I was really getting worried about you."
"Look! Look what Grandma and Grandpa got me!" Melissa called enthusiastically the moment she saw him. She was waving a stuffed panda in the air by the paws, making it dance, then she grabbed a handful of glittery Lisa Frank stickers and held them out. "And stickers!"
"That's great, honey," Warrick said, trying not to limp. His muscles had begun to seize up in the car and he was wishing for his heat pad.
"Whoa. What the hell happened to your arm?" Vereint demanded, striding across the room.
Warrick shrugged. "I fell off a ladder. Just a stupid accident." He tried to tell Vereint with his eyes that he was all right, that he would explain everything later. "I broke my wrist."
"Hm." Vereint's lips went tight against his teeth for a moment, then he forced himself to relax. "I guess you won't be signing anything for the next month."
Warrick huffed a laugh. "Yeah."
"Are you all right?" Vereint asked.
"Yeah," Warrick said again, nodding. "I'm fine."
He ignored the way his legs still wanted to tremble and pasted on the most realistic smile he could manage. He could tell that Vereint didn't believe him, but there was nothing they could do with all the added people around.
Warrick had a feeling he would be catching hell later. He was just glad that he was going to be alive to get lectured.
He waited as long as he could before retreating into the kitchen. He needed a minute to get himself back together.
Warrick was leaning his hip against the counter sipping from a bottle of red Gatorade when Hank came in.
"Do I want to ask what happened to you?" Hank cocked his head. There was an extra bit of knowing to his eyes, but Warrick didn't know how much the guy had guessed about him or Vereint.
At twenty-two years old, Hank had grown into his frame and was actually a few inches taller than Warrick. He had just started college in the fall, having had to catch up to his peers after living on the street for several years doing whatever he had to do to survive. Vereint had found him as a teen and taken him home to his parents; he thought it was hilarious that he'd found his own adopted brother.
Warrick calmly drank his Gatorade. He needed the electrolytes after burning all those calories. He would eat something as soon as he stopped feeling so nauseated; the pain of his broken wrist was just beginning to really hit him. Those pills folded up in his pocket were calling his name.
"I fell off a stepladder," he repeated his lame excuse. "I was sure I could reach the top shelf and gravity made me its bitch."
Hank raised an eyebrow. "You should be careful. Sounds like your job at the office is more dangerous than I thought it was."
Warrick laughed, and it was maybe a little hysterical. "Yeah."
* . * . *
It was amazing how well Melissa was getting along with her new grandparents. It gave Vereint the hope that everything was going to work out. His only concern now was that Melissa was going to run off with Sandra and he was going to have to get into a super battle with his mother.
He wasn't certain that he would win.
"What's with that frowny face?" Sandra asked in the brief lull when Melissa ran off to use the bathroom.
"You're not going to kidnap her are you?" Vereint gave her an inquisitive eyebrow.
"It wasn't part of my plans, but now that you've given me the idea..." Her smirk was almost a clone of his own. "While we have a brief moment, can you tell me why you didn't tell me about my first grandkid the minute you brought her home?"
Vereint shrugged and earned himself a fierce frown. "What?" he asked defensively.
The look she gave him was fierce enough to have him shifting uncomfortably. "Why didn't you bother to tell me immediately? What's wrong with you?"
Vereint licked his lips and tried to lighten the moment with his version of humor. "I don't think I was breast fed. I blame my mother for..."
Sandra thumped him on the shoulder just as Melissa came back in the room, adjusting the waistband of her pants. "You think you're real funny, but you're not," Sandra said. "Now go get me something to drink as I get to know my new grandbaby."
"Yes, Mama," Vereint said.
He rushed into the kitchen where he found Warrick and Hank talking next to the refrigerator. He glanced to and away from the cast on Warrick's arm. That was something they were going to be discussing later when the shouting wouldn't bother anyone else.
"I cannot believe you guys left me out there like that," he said. "Whatever happened to never leaving a man behind?"
Hank laughed. "I can't believe you've met your mother, yet you thought it was a good idea to hold off on telling her you'd somehow gotten a kid." He shook his head. "You're lucky to be alive right now."
Vereint sighed heavily. "Gee thanks." He dug in the fridge until he found a can of ginger ale. His mom loved the stuff and he hoped an offering would appease her anger. "And you've gotten me thinking of my mother like she's some angry volcano god or something."
"She kind of is," Hank said. He took the glass Warrick offered and stuck it under the ice maker. There was the grinding clunking sound, then the glass was half full of ice. Hank held it out to Vereint.
Instead of taking the glass, Vereint popped the top on the can of ginger ale and poured it into the glass. "There. Go take that to her, please."
Hank looked at the glass he held. "Are you insane? You really want to try the switcheroo on Sandra? She senses movement you know."
Vereint snorted. "She's not a T-rex or something."
"She's worse than a T-rex," Hank said. "A T-rex just wants to eat you. She makes you clean your room and join her in bonding activities." There was genuine fondness running through his complaining. "She made me join her for a macrame class last spring. I didn't even know what that was before then. I was happy not knowing. I'm not going back in there alone. You go first and I'll cover you."
"Unless she makes you go to the mother-son rodeo, you don't have any right to complain." Vereint snagged a large vegetable tray out of the fridge and snatched the glass out of Hank's hand before turning toward the door. "Once more into the breach, dear brothers."
He could hear Warrick and Hank razzing him as he made his exit and smiled.
There was something nice about having family around. Even his T-rex of a mother.
Life settled into a routine they could all live with. The whole having a kid thing no longer seemed like such an emotional ball kick and Melissa really began to seem like a member of their family.
It was hard keeping Warrick's identity as Blue Ice away from her, but it wasn't like they hadn't been practicing liars before. Vereint's supervillain past seemed more like dirty laundry than Warrick's predilection to go out and save the world.
Melissa spent most of her weekdays at the expensive prep school they'd gotten her into. Burstow Academy was the same place Warrick had gone to as a kid, so she received a legacy benefit, and even though her last name was Kim, it was well understood that she was a member of the Tobias family. Special treatment abounded.
There had been a few rough spots, like when Vereint got called in because Melissa had been "acting out." He'd shown up nervous, expecting to hear that his kid had killed someone or leveled a large chunk of the school. Instead he'd had to bite his lip hard to keep from calling the teacher a "Nominal bitch" to her face and flinging her desk at her. He still had a few anger issues he hadn't managed to tame.
Some jerk had called Melissa a chink whore. So naturally she'd kicking him on the shin and cursed at him in Korean. By the time Vereint got there, the kid had already been sent home with an ice pack and Melissa had nearly been suspended for physical assault. He'd had a long talk with her about how physically attacking someone was not the correct response, especially when she was at school, and she seemed to really understand. Especially when he pointed out that his being called into school was not a good thing.
Vereint was proud of his level of control. Nobody died and he got Melissa's suspension revoked. But that teacher had been added to his List.
Other than a few minor issues, Melissa settled into school with the kind of easy grace other kids envied. It seemed natural that she would become popular and join after school activities such as Cheer Squad, gymnastics, and drama club. She was so full of energy that she was constantly looking for something to do with it.
Life was good.
There was something soothing about doing household tasks the old fashioned way, the human way. When he could speed through every task as a blur, it seemed almost a game to slow himself down and fold the laundry at human speeds. It was like a childish game of make believe.
It was a normal Wednesday. He had the radio on and his hips wiggled to the beat, not-quite dancing. Warrick was at Tobias Industries schmoozing the board, and Melissa was at cheerleading practice. He had the whole place to himself and he'd taken advantage by breaking out his secret stash of Girl Scout cookies. Both Warrick and Melissa thought they were all out, but he'd saved an extra box for himself. He did used to be a supervillain after all.
He tossed a rolled up pair of socks into the basket and had just bitten into a cookie when the front door slammed open. There was the loud clatter of Mary Jane's on the hardwood floor.
He quickly stuck the cookie back into the plastic tray and slid the box under the folded towels.
"I'm in here," he called. He glanced at his watch with a frown. She shouldn't have been home for another hour at least. Something must have happened.
Melissa burst into the laundry room, her shoulder length black hair tangled at the bottoms. She looked like she'd hastily changed into her school uniform, one of her knee socks crushed down around her ankle and her little black tie gone. Her short sleeved white blouse was wrinkled where her hands had been wringing the fabric.
Vereint stepped away from the counter. "Are you all right? What happened?"
She shook her head, her eyes wild. "I... I..."
Vereint reached out and caught her shoulders. He stared down into her face. "Breathe. Come on, just breathe. I'm here."
There was a nervous twisting in his gut. She was a pretty girl just turned fourteen. If someone had taken advantage of her or hurt her he would...
"I'm a freak!" she burst out.
"What?" he asked, his vengeful thoughts derailed.
Melissa blinked at him fearfully. "You won't hate me, will you? I don't know what I'd do if you hated me."
"I don't hate you," Vereint stated. "Why don't you tell me what's going on."
"I'm a freak," she said again. "We were supposed to be practicing lifts and I... I don't know what happened. She just felt so light all of a sudden, then Tiana was flying through the air and she could have been really hurt if we hadn't been using the mats. I could have killed her because I'm a giant freak."
Vereint furrowed his brow. "But she's okay, you said?"
Melissa huffed and pulled out of his hold. Her whole body was tensed as though ready to run. "Don't you get it? I'm a metahuman."
"Oh, is that all?" Vereint shook his head. "You got me all worried it was something serious."
She stared at him, her mouth agape. He was tempted to laugh, but he was still surprised that his supposedly normal human kid wasn't so normal.
She was like them.
It made something fierce burn in his gut. She was like them.
Calming Melissa down involved ordering her to change into more comfortable clothing while he made herbal tea and cut them each a big square of brownie.
She came out in a pair of black sweatpants and a bright pink hoodie. She must have been stressed because she had the cat-eared hood up over her head.
"Come on," he said, pointing to her spot at the dining table. It was where their most serious family moments took place.
She sat down and he pushed the plate toward her. "I can't eat this," she said, staring longingly at the brownie. "It will make me fat. I won't be able to fit into my cheer uniform."
Vereint laughed and took a big bite of his own brownie, trying to catch all the crumbs on his plate. "Don't worry. If you're a physical based metahuman you burn calories faster than a normal human. You'll actually need to eat more to stay healthy."
"Really?" She broke off a corner of her brownie and nibbled on it. "You're not upset that I'm a freak?"
"Pshaw, you're not a freak. You're just a metahuman. It doesn't even get you special parking or your own Olympics."
Melissa spluttered. "Vereint!"
He grinned at her. "See, you're the same easily outraged kid you were before. All that's changed is that you might have some superstrength."
"Might?" she asked.
Vereint shrugged. "I won't rule out the possibility that you had one too many Luna Bars and all the energy made you misjudge yourself. We'll have to run some tests before we get you your superhuman tee shirt."
"How are you going to test me?" she asked.
"We're going to order some takeout food and wait for Warrick to come home." There was no way he could do the testing himself, not if he wanted to keep his own abilities hidden.
"And how is that going to help any?" Melissa asked.
Vereint looked at her for a long moment, then reached out and poked her bottom lip. "Suck that lip back in and learn to have some patience."
She gave him a doubtful look and opened her mouth like she was going to demand another answer. He used his fork to pop a chunk of brownie in before she could say anything.
"No more questions. Just enjoy the deliciousness and drink your tea."
* . * . *
There'd been a mind-numbing meeting of the board and Warrick had spent nearly the entire time wishing he were very far away. He'd doodled some rather artistic renditions of the people in the room with him and was glad his position at the head of the table kept anyone from seeing what he'd drawn. It had been a relief when the meeting ended and he was able to go to his large executive office alone.
He hit up the liquor cabinet and poured himself three fingers of ridiculously expensive brandy. His people always bought him the best brands, but whenever Vereint stocked their private supply he always picked up the cheap rotgut. Warrick had kind of developed a fondness for it over the years, but good brandy was something he preferred.
Warrick walked over to the large window and leaned his shoulder directly against the glass. He sipped his brandy slowly, enjoying the warm mellow burn in his stomach as he stared over the city sprawled out below.
Megacity really was a beautiful town. It was so bright and clean from this high up, all skyline and patches of green. He had one of the best views in the whole city and sometimes he felt sorry for all the people that never got to see the city like this.
The door to his office clicked open.
"I thought I asked to be left alone," he said, not turning around.
"Your husband is on the line," his personal assistant, Amy Jennings, said. She was a statuesque blond with big gray-green eyes and a penchant for tight sweaters. She looked like she could be an underwear model, but had a serious no-nonsense approach to work that he respected. She just liked to look amazing.
"Ah, thank you." Warrick turned away from the window and walked over to his desk. He took a last sip from his glass before answering the phone. "Hello?"
Amy slipped out, the door shutting quietly behind her.
"Warrick, I need you to come home early," Vereint said. He sounded normal, not as though the penthouse had burned down or anything, but that didn't mean much. Vereint had a strange propensity for treating even the most panic worthy situations as completely everyday.
"What's wrong?" Warrick drained the rest of his glass. He figured he'd toss back one more before making his way home.
There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "Well, it seems that Melissa is a very special girl. More special than we ever thought she was anyway." There was a disgruntled "Hey!" in the background. "Oh, chill out, why don't you? I'm obviously speaking in code. Anyway, Warrick, can you duck out early? We're going to order food from that one place you like."
"Jenny Lee's?" Warrick asked hopefully. They made the most amazing pies he had ever tasted, both hearty dinner and fruit pies. Vereint didn't really like the restaurant for some reason he wouldn't explain, so the only way Warrick got to eat their delicious apple crumble was to go alone or with Caspian.
There was a moment of silence. "That other place you like. Or maybe that one place that I like. Whatever. There will be food waiting when you get home and we can handle this situation like a family is supposed to."
"What, throwing the kid out the window to see if she can fly?" Warrick grinned. "The building's tall enough we could probably catch her before she hit the bottom."
"Yeah, no," Vereint said. "We'll save that option for a kid we don't want to keep. Anyway, she's got an issue and we've got delicious food coming. If you leave nowish you'll probably be here at the same time as the food and we'll wait to eat."
"Otherwise you guys will eat everything by yourselves, huh?" Warrick shut down his computer and locked his desk drawers. If anyone needed to see the files inside they could requisition a look at the company library's copies. "Darling, leave a light on for me. I'll be there before you close the door to give you all the loving you need," he deadpanned.
"Ugh, you're sick," Vereint sounded amused. "See you." He hung up.
Warrick put on his coat and grabbed his briefcase, then stopped off at the liquor cabinet to drink another glass of brandy at wasteful speeds. Such an excellent label shouldn't have been abused like that, but his metabolism burned alcohol fast. He needed more to get less of a result than a normal human.
He left his office and found Amy waiting for him, her butt propped on her desk. "Leaving early, boss?" she asked.
"Were you listening in on our conversation?" he asked.
"Please," Amy said. "The day I have to listen in on your phone conversation with Mr. Georges to find out that you're going to leave work early is the day I marry that guy my mom keeps pushing at me. You always duck out early when he calls. It's sweet."
"I'm sure it is," Warrick said.
He and Vereint had somehow become the local "it" couple. He'd caught a group of secretaries huddled around a magazine spread featuring him and Vereint and he'd quickly retreated before they spotted him. There were even websites dedicated to them that he refused to visit for fear of being mentally scarred forever.
"I'll have the notes from the meeting sent to your ePad as soon as they're ready, and I'll clear the rest of your day. I've already told your driver to wait for you out front." Amy smoothed her black pencil skirt when she stood. Her high heels were bright red like the cashmere sweater she was wearing. "Tell Mr. Georges that I expect those chocolates he promised to be delivered promptly."
"Why is he bribing you?" Warrick gave her a suspicious look.
She shrugged with a catlike smile. "That's our little secret. You better get home before he calls again."
Warrick sighed. "I feel like my life is being controlled by other people," he said. "See you tomorrow."
"Goodnight Mr. Tobias." There was way too much amusement in her voice. He refused to glance back at her, afraid of what he was going to see.
He came home to an apartment that smelled like something spicy and mouthwatering. It had him throwing his coat in the hall closet and hurrying through the living room to the dining area. There were unopened boxes of takeout food arrayed in the middle of the table.
Vereint and Melissa were sitting across from each other sharing what looked like half a salmon covered in soy sauce, red pepper, and green onions. They had the fish on one plate and were poking at it with their forks.
"I thought you guys were going to wait for me?" Warrick asked accusingly. He crossed his arms and shook his head, then went to his chair. He hadn't realized how hungry he was.
Melissa's cheeks were chipmunked out and she looked guilty, but Vereint managed to swallow and smile at him. "We are waiting. See all this food we're not eating? We..."
"We thought you wouldn't like the fish!" Melissa said loudly. "You always eat the blandest stuff and this salmon is pretty spicy, so we thought we'd eat it before you got home."
"You know, Melissa, it's not that I like eating bland food," Warrick said. He started opening boxes and used the big spoon to dump different stuff on his plate. "It's that Vereint is a tyrant that won't let me eat anything that I really like."
"Give me that. You're making a mess." Vereint took the spoon and his plate away. "You're the one always complaining about your weight."
Warrick sat back in his chair and smiled slightly as he watched Vereint quickly fill three plates with food. There was something oddly elegant about the way Vereint held the spoon. The turn of his wrist made Warrick want to bite his lip and he didn't even know why. Sometimes it startled him to remember that they'd been together a little over ten years; it didn't seem nearly that long.
"So, why exactly did I come home early today?" he asked, once they all had food and had a chance to try a few bites.
"Because I have superstrength!" Melissa was excited, her cheeks flushed pink. "I'm like a superhero or something."
Vereint snorted. "You're 'like a metahuman,' kid. You don't get to have superhero status until you're registered and saving the world." He slanted Warrick a look and they shared a smile.
There had been a time when Vereint had been new to the superhero life too, and he'd screwed nearly everything up. Warrick felt guilty about not helping Vereint back then, because he really had been a giant dick. He must have been battling the world's biggest schoolboy crush at the time and he hadn't been able to resist tugging Vereint's pigtails. Not that he'd known that was what he was doing.
"The first thing we'll have to do is run some assessment tests on you to find out what exactly you have going on," Warrick said. "Superstrength's a pretty basic metability. It's one of the ones people are most likely to have and doesn't earn you super status unless it's remarkable in some way."
"How do you know so much?" Melissa asked. She held her fork in her hand, but it was just hanging in mid-air over her plate as she gazed at him out of wide eyes.
Warrick glanced at Vereint to see what he wanted to do, and received a level look back. Vereint was leaving it up to him if he wanted to unmask himself or not, though he'd already figured out that Vereint was keeping his normal status. He could understand.
It was hard for Vereint to live a normal life. He had so much power in him that it was a struggle not to use it. If he told Melissa that he was a metahuman, she was going to ask him to show his ability, and if he did that there was a good chance he wouldn't be able to stop. Melissa was a smart kid and it would only be a matter of time before she put things together and realized that Vereint was Darkstar. There was a chance she wouldn't take it well.
If someone was going to be coming out to Melissa as a metahuman, it wasn't going to be Vereint. Not now and maybe not ever.
"Watch," Warrick said. He picked up the thick glass salt shaker and unscrewed the lid, pouring the salt out onto his napkin. Then he held the shaker in his hand and gave it a steady squeeze. It crushed inward, sprinkles of glittery glass particles coating his hand.
"How..." Melissa's mouth made wordless shapes for a moment after that first word. Her eyes looked huge and she'd leaned over the table to see better. "How did you do that?"
Warrick smirked. "Superstrength. You're a special kid, but you're not that special."
"Wow," Melissa breathed. Her eyes were nearly glowing with fascination. "Can I do that?"
"Not yet," Warrick said. "We need to assess you first or you could end up hurting yourself."
"And we wouldn't want that to happen," Vereint said. "Which is why there's no superpowers in the house. It's like that Brady Bunch episode where Marcia gets her nose broken."
"And in that scenario Vereint is Marcia and we go out of our way not to hurt him," Warrick said, giving Vereint a smirk.
"Which one is Marcia?" Melissa asked.
Vereint tsked and shook his head. "Just for that, we're having an ancient TV marathon and your whole life will be changed against your will."
Melissa flopped back in her chair. "How do you make even the day I discover I have superpowers so terrible?"
Vereint grinned at her. "That's my superpower."
* . * . *
It was probably a sign of bad parenting, but Vereint called Melissa in sick so she and Warrick could use her unexpected three day weekend to check out her power levels as a metahuman. He thought about joining them, but figured it was a chance for them to bond. There were some times when he felt as if Melissa was so much more attached to him that Warrick was left out.
The superpower thing could be Warrick's "in" with Melissa, and Vereint didn't want to get in the way of that. So he stayed home and baked reward cupcakes in between assembling a pan of lasagna.
By the time the lasagna was cooling in the oven with the door partly cracked, and he'd finished decorating the chocolate cupcakes with red frosting and the sprinkles Melissa loved, he was feeling a thrum along his nerves. He wanted to be out there doing something. A big part of him wished that he could be the one to train Melissa, to show her all the tricks he'd learned as a supervillain, but that way lay trouble.
Melissa was going to be one of the good guys. He wouldn't get in the way of that.
The front door slammed open hard enough to leave a dent in the wall. "Oops, sorry!" Melissa dashed inside, running toward him, a big grin taking over her face. "Oh my God, Vereint, it was amazing!"
She ran at him and he dropped the bowl he held onto the counter so he could catch her. "Did you have fun?" he asked.
"Fun? Fun!" She squeezed him tight enough that if he had been a normal human he would have been looking at ruptured organs. "You would not believe how awesome it was. I did all kinds of things and I was fantastic and it was just... It was amazing!"
Vereint glanced at Warrick over her head. "Was she really that amazing?"
Warrick wore a faint smile. "She was a little amazing. Not just superstrength, but she seems to have the ability to kind of visualize what someone's going to do before they do it. We'll have to test the limits, but should be good enough for her to dodge some punches."
"Dude." Melissa pulled away from Vereint so she could flap her hands excitedly. "They were only practice blades, but I could hit the target every time with a knife. It was... It was like my hand and my arm were possessed by magic or something."
"Yeah, she's got great speed and accuracy with throwing projectiles," Warrick said.
"I could totally be an awesome ninja assassin!" Melissa yelled. Her grin was manic.
Vereint sighed and shook his head at her. "Yeah, that ain't happening. No assassining for you."
"I can do whatever I want when I'm grown up." Melissa crossed her arms and stuck out her chin. "When I hit eighteen, you can't tell me what to do anymore."
Vereint snorted. "There will never be a time in your life when I won't be telling you what to do," he said. "Believe it."
"Never quote Naruto to me ever again." Melissa made a dramatic gagging sound before her eye was caught by the cupcakes on the counter.
"Never make me have to then. You are never going to be an assassin." He stopped her from poking her finger in the icing of one of the cupcakes. "I have spoken."
She knocked his hand away with her free hand before poking a cupcake. She stuck her tongue out at him before sticking her finger in her mouth. "Fascist," she accused.
"Fabulous," Vereint corrected her, "that's the word you're looking for. I'm fabulous and I'm going to keep you from being a body in a bag somewhere. You're just not meant for supervillainy, m'dear. Being a superhero is just your cross to bear."
"What do you know?" she demanded. "Have you ever met a supervillain before in your life? I don't think so."
Vereint looked at Warrick and pointed at Melissa speakingly. He didn't even have the words to say what he was feeling.
"I got this," Warrick sighed.
"You better," Vereint said. He handed Melissa her cupcake, then held one out to Warrick. "I'm not raising a supervillain in this house."
"What's your problem with supervillains?" Melissa asked, biting into the top of her cupcake. She got frosting on her nose. "They're people too, you know. People with feelings."
"Look," Vereint said, "when I was younger I ran with a rather tough group of people. I let myself be talked into doing some really stupid things that now I'm ashamed of. It was just luck that I didn't end up in prison." He wiped the frosting off her nose with the side of his thumb. "I don't want to see you in prison."
"Would you visit me if I got sent to prison?" she asked.
"Yes," Vereint said, "though I'd probably also tell people you were away at a special school."
Melissa clutched her chest with her free hand. "That really wounds my hypothetical supervillain heart."
"When did you become this kid? I remember a time when you were nothing but sweet."
"I think it started when she became a teenager," Warrick said. He had peeled half the paper back from his cupcake and taken a careful bite. Just seeing him made Vereint want to smile; Warrick was so fussy about some things. "The whole superpower thing hasn't added to her charm any."
Melissa scowled. "I'm not sure if I'm offended or not, but I think that I might be." She took a big bite of her cupcake. "I think I deserve a car to make up for all of my emotional pain."
"Considering you're only fourteen, the chances of you getting a car now are..." Vereint made like he was checking an invisible origami fortune teller, "slim to none."
She gave him such a disgruntled look that he couldn't help laughing.
"Why don't you take your ninja assassin self in and wash your hands?" he said. "I probably should have made you do it before giving you anything to eat. You've probably just ingested a million germs off your filthy hands."
"Maybe it's my superpower. Maybe I'm impervious to germs, did you ever think of that?" She stuck her chin out and glared defiantly. If he'd been a normal human, he might even have been a little scared of her taking the swing he saw moving behind her eyes.
He gave her a flat look. "Or maybe you can wash your hands if you expect to get any dinner tonight," Vereint said.
Melissa huffed and rolled her eyes before stomping off toward the bathroom. Her hair flipped up behind her sassily. Her mood had done a complete turn around.
He looked at Warrick. "What the fuck was that?"
Warrick shrugged, his eyebrows raised high enough to touch his hairline. "I don't know. Puberty?"
Vereint groaned. "Not just superpowers, but teenaged angst at the same time?" He threw up his arms. "That's it, I quit. You handle the next four years while I tour the world."
"What, with your band?" Warrick laughed at Vereint's expression and stepped close to give Vereint a kiss on the forehead. "I'm sorry, but you kind of asked for that one." He looked up at Vereint and smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. He leaned tipped his chin to kiss Vereint, his lips tasting of sweet frosting.
Vereint wrapped his arms around Warrick's back and pulled him even closer, deepening the kiss. He pulled away enough to say, "You're brilliant. We will use sex to desensitize ourselves to the upcoming horror."
"I think you're making too much of it. Your drama genes are showing." Warrick grunted when Vereint gave his ass a hard squeeze and went up on his toes with a wince. "By which I mean this is a situation of serious importance. Code Black all the way."
Vereint nipped Warrick's chin with his teeth. "It's the sinking of the Titanic in our living room, and we have no lifeboats to escape."
There was the sound of stomping footsteps and they pulled apart just before Melissa came into view. Vereint leaned his hip against the counter while Warrick grabbed another cupcake off the plate.
"There, I washed my hands. Are you going to let me eat at the table, or are you going to pour my food into a bowl for me to eat outside?" Melissa crossed her arms and glared at them both.
Vereint looked at Warrick. "No lifeboats." He went to take the salad out of the fridge.
Warrick shoved practically the whole cupcake in his mouth and didn't reply. Vereint couldn't help thinking, Wise man.
* . * . *
Even realizing she was being a jerk, Melissa couldn't seem to help herself. Words would pop out of her mouth and they would sound so horrible she would cringe to find out she'd been the one to say them.
The hurt look Vereint would give her after she said something awful only made her feel worse. Then he would be super nice, and she just felt crummy.
It wasn't his fault he didn't have superpowers, so why did she feel so angry at him for not appreciating hers? It just seemed sometimes that she expected more gushing when she told him about something she could do.
Instead he would tell her he was proud or just say that it was wonderful, then he'd make her clean her room or something.
It seemed that someone with her abilities shouldn't have to wash the dishes or rinse out the bathroom sink after brushing her teeth.
She was going to be a superhero someday, she'd already decided that, so why did she have to play at being normal all the time?
It wasn't fair.
* . * . *
There was all this tension in the house. It made Warrick cringe when he came through the door, at least until he found out the mood of the day.
The worst part was that Vereint didn't slap Melissa's attitude down. He never flat out told her that she was being an awful brat. He just accepted it as she acted like a jerk and rewarded her every accomplishment the same as always.
It came to a head one day when Vereint told Melissa she needed to do her homework before Warrick would train her.
Warrick nodded and picked a magazine up off the coffee table. He didn't mind waiting.
Melissa blew up.
Her face turned red and she stamped her foot on the floor hard enough to crack the tile in the entryway. "Why do you have to be like that?" she yelled. "This is the one thing I want to do, and you have to ruin it because you're jealous."
Vereint's expression went blank and he just looked at her, his eyes going flat. "Jealous? You think I'm jealous and that's why I want you to do your homework before you have fun? Is that what you really think?"
"You're always telling me what to do," she said, and something like fear crossed her face as she stared at Vereint. She knew she'd gone too far, but didn't know how to stop. "You boss me around all the time because you know you're nothing but a normal."
Something shifted in Vereint's expression, and Warrick was across the room holding Vereint's shoulders before he'd consciously decided to move. He knew he couldn't really hold Vereint back, but he had to at least try.
"Go to your room!" Warrick barked, and Melissa fled, her bedroom door slamming after her. The sound of her flinging things around didn't show that she'd learned any kind of lesson though.
Warrick could feel Vereint vibrating under his hands, just barely holding onto his control. And Warrick realized that Vereint had been struggling to maintain for months.
"Was I supposed to yell at her the first time she mouthed off to you?" Warrick turned Vereint so he could see his face. "Was I supposed to be authority guy and did I drop the ball on that?"
Vereint didn't say anything. He squeezed his eyes tight shut, though violet light shone through his eyelids, proof of just how close he was to losing it.
Warrick wondered if Melissa would still be muttering curses in her room if she knew how close she was to facing her first supervillain. He hoped she'd be smarter than that.
"I'll talk to her," he said. "Why don't you go take a walk until you calm down? You can get one of those chocolaty coffee drinks you like from Java Johns."
Vereint drew in a deep breath and opened literally burning eyes, the violet light so bright it cast shadows across his cheeks. "You handle her," he said. So I don't have to.
Warrick nodded. "I will," and watched Vereint go to the closet and take out his jacket. He didn't really need it, but he was always careful to maintain the illusion of being a normal human. And it was getting pretty nippy out.
The door slammed behind Vereint, and Warrick was just glad there had been no strength behind it or he'd be looking at replacing the frame and probably a chunk of the wall. He made a note to get the cracked floor tiles fixed.
He drew in a deep breath and went to talk to Melissa. There were a few things she was just going to have to understand.
* . * . *
She took her shoes off and flung them across the room, not caring that they thudded hard against the wall and left a black mark. She ripped her socks off one at a time, flinging them after her shoes. Her heart was thudding fast in her chest and her muscles trembled with nervous energy.
The look Vereint had given her... It had made a cold chill go through Melissa and she didn't know why. He was the nicest person she knew. He'd never even yelled at her before. Yet he'd made her feel afraid, as though the walls were closing in.
Warrick had sent her to her room and she still felt as though acid had been poured over her. She knew she'd been acting like a spoiled brat and the guilt over it made her feel worse. She wanted to punch holes in the walls and scream. Her whole body was vibrating with energy she didn't know how to rein in much less control.
She'd said such awful things to Vereint and she didn't know why. She didn't think that she was better than him just because she had metabilities and he was a normal human, but the words had just popped out. He hadn't even looked mad. He'd just looked at her, and his blue eyes had gone flat and it was like he wasn't even seeing her anymore. She didn't want him to look at her like that.
She felt so mad all the time and she didn't even know why. There was just some part of her that kept taking over and making her want to hurt the people around her as bad as she hurt inside.
There was the brush of knuckles against her bedroom door before Warrick came inside.
She'd never realized before just how forbidding he could appear, his face all tense lines and his eyes so hard that it almost hurt to meet them, so she didn't, staring down at her bare feet instead. The dark green nail polish was chipped on her big toe.
He just looked at her until she shifted uncomfortably. Finally he said, "You know you've been treating Vereint very disrespectfully, don't you?"
Melissa nodded. She had been.
"It's made him very sad, though he hasn't said anything about it." Warrick put his hands behind his back. "What do you think we should do about it?"
She shrugged and chewed on her bottom lip.
He shook his head with a sigh. "Vereint has always been your biggest fan, I hope you know that. More than anything, he wants to see you succeed in whatever you decide to do... even being a superhero. You know he's not jealous of you, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah."
"Calling him a normal... that makes me worried. The way you said it has me wondering whether you're ready for training and where training will lead you. Because real superheroes, they don't call people normals or Nominals as though being a metahuman somehow makes them better." Warrick stared down at her. "That kind of hate speak is not allowed in our house, do you understand?"
"I..." Melissa's breath came in a hitching gasp and she nodded her head. Her eyes were tickling and burning and she was fighting to keep the tears in. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize to me," Warrick said. "I'm not the one that you were so incredibly rude to for no reason. He has always supported you, and just because he doesn't pander the way you somehow think you deserve, that is no reason for you to treat him like crap. You are not better than anyone in this house whether they have metabilities or not."
"I'll apologize to Vereint tomorrow." She rubbed her streaming eyes. "I really didn't mean to say such awful things. I don't know why I..."
Warrick held up his hand, stopping her. His expression was still sternly forbidding. "That's something you're going to start working out with your therapist at your next session. All I know is that you've been taking Vereint for granted, and that needs to change. I want to hear the words 'Please' and 'Thank you' come out of your mouth and I don't want you to ever act as though being able to beat someone up makes you better than anyone. It just means you have to be extra careful you don't end up as a bully."
Melissa sat on the edge of her bed. "I don't want to be a bully," she said.
"Then don't be one," Warrick said. "It's really easy to lose your head and hurt someone when you've got superstrength. You cracked the floor tiles in the entryway when you stamped your foot. What do you think could happen if you got mad and hit someone? I don't want to come home one day and find out that you got angry and hit Vereint. Do you understand?"
She nodded. The image of Vereint slumped on the floor with a fist-sized hole in his chest popped in her head. The shape of the fist was hers. A sob escaped her throat. "I don't want to hurt him."
Warrick nodded. "Good. You keep that thought right at the front of your mind. We'll focus on your control and we'll see how that works out."
"Okay," she said.
"We're going to move on with your training," Warrick said. "And you're going to see what it's really like to be a superhero. It's not all fun and games."
"I know," she said quietly.
He gave her one last warning look, then left the room.
Melissa scooted back on her bed until she was leaning against the headboard and brought her knees against her chest. She stared at the far wall and chewed on her lip. Silent tears streamed down her face and occasionally she swiped at her eyes with her sleeve.