Epilogue—10 months later
I could see through the tall, rectangular windows that it was drizzling while still simultaneously staying sunny. It was oddly appropriate, all things considered. Graduating from anything was always sad and exciting. It wasn't that graduating from college was different from that, really; it was just more intense. It didn't seem to matter that I would be going to graduate school in the fall, either.
Nobody I knew was anywhere close to where I sat in the P section of the hall. It gave me a strange feeling of insulation, being neatly packaged into my own little world with nothing but my thoughts and semi-interesting speeches from Presidents and Deans to focus on. I had been able to see the people I knew and cared about (well, most of them) walk up and grab their diplomas as if from a movie theatre, detached and far away. For the first time in a long time, I felt as if I was seeing them for the first time. I had been academically fascinated to see Nikki's crazy strawberry blonde locks bouncing with every step, Brian's sauntering gait, Marie's flawless outer appearance. I saw various members of the tribe pass by that invisible threshold, every one of them caught between youth and professionalism in their gowns. It was basically the same thing I had seen at Lane's graduation ceremony earlier today, but at the same time it was different because this one belonged to me.
The tribe wasn't disbanding, exactly. While Marie and I and a few others were moving out of the city, and we were all moving on to the lives of aspiring professionals, the tribe itself would go on without its four core members. It would eventually forget that we were the first to start calling it that, too, and it would be no better or worse off.
I stood up with all of the others in my college when asked, a whole sea of black surging upwards at a single word. For just a moment, I felt a powerful sense of camaraderie for all of my fellow students. We had done it. We had all survived our programs, and we were a force to be reckoned with. The notion was gone by the time the cheers went up, but I didn't think I would ever forget that sense of belonging to something so much bigger than myself.
It took a bit of jostling, but I finally managed to meet up with my friends at our predetermined rendezvous. Marie's parents and boyfriend (the one with the tongue stud) were also there, along with Brian's folks and Nikki's single mother. Mine, in jail for being an accessory to attempted world domination, obviously hadn't been able to make it. Lane was there, though, grinning hugely as I approached him.
"It's kind of exhilarating, isn't it?" he asked, like he still had trouble wrapping his mind around what having a bachelor's degree felt like. His college's commencement had happened earlier today, and he had long since changed out of his robes and into the usual excellently fitted polo and jeans. His hair was uncharacteristically tousled, though, which made me think that he hadn't exactly been around for the entire graduation ceremony.
I laughed. "Sure—hey, what's this?" I touched the lei that he tossed over my head. It was made of some kind of nut I didn't recognize, each one buffed but not shiny.
"Exactly what it looks like," Marie said, standing between her boyfriend and her mother. "You just got lei'd, son!"
"Oh, hardy har," I intoned, but privately I found the pun enjoyable. I looked to Lane. "Is this true? Did I just get lei'd without giving prior consent?"
He laughed and bent down to press a brief but firm kiss to my lips. We had been doing more of this sort of public affection recently. Not much by average standards, no, but quantifiably more than we used to. "Yes. Now say thank you and move on, like a good boy."
"Hold on a second," I began.
"So are you and your crew coming to the party tonight, Lane?" Nikki asked, leaning her elbow casually on Brian's shoulder. Her mother was in the background, chatting with Brian's and Marie's parents (Marie's boyfriend, I noticed, was nowhere to be found). I wasn't convinced that any of those parent-figures had actually met each other until today, but things seemed amiable enough—which was good for Nikki and Brian, at least. It had nearly been about a year since they started dating, and they were actually still going strong.
"I am, but I don't think anyone else is," Lane said. "You know my friends don't drink."
"Except NJ, and at that only occasionally," I piped up helpfully—well, I meant to sound helpful, but I could hear how abstracted my voice was. I was still examining the lei about my neck. The nuts were black, and streaked with white. It didn't look like the designs had been painted on. Something was niggling at the back of my mind, a half-formed identification, but I couldn't quite seem to reach it. I must have seen this in California somewhere, because it sure as hell wasn't an east coast thing.
"Right," said Lane slowly. His gaze traveled to me and my ponderous examination of my lei (oh, the puns were endless), torn between annoyance and amusement.
"Kukui nuts," Brian said.
"Excuse me?" Marie wrinkled her nose, clearly with half a mind to be offended.
"Holy damn, you're right! That's exactly what they are!" I cried happily. Mystery solved, I let the lei fall and fully resumed my part of the conversation. "Thanks."
"How did you know that, anyway?" Nikki wondered, peering at her significant other over the elbow she still had propped up on his shoulder.
"Saw it in a movie once."
"Huh, no shit. What was the genre?"
"I don't remember. It was just set in Hawaii."
"I didn't know you were into that sort of thing." It was phrased as a statement, but I couldn't have been the only one who heard the slight question behind the words.
Brian raised an eyebrow at her. "I never said I was happy to watch it."
Nikki nodded in genial acquiescence. "Fair enough."
"So nobody's coming?" Marie asked Lane. "Not even to hang out before things get too boozy?"
Lane smiled apologetically. Our friend groups actually did get along, and it was understandable to try and take advantage of the time that we were all still here, since most of us would be scattering in the next few weeks. "No, probably not. Watching drunk people do things isn't near as fun as it sounds in theory, unfortunately. The only reason I'm going is because I'm the designated driver for this one." Cue thumb in my direction.
"Wait a second," I said. "I was under the impression that you would be joining in the drunken revelry."
"Um, no. Besides." Here Lane raised his eyebrows. "I seem to recall that my sobriety also held a nipple piercing in the balance?"
I nearly choked on my laughter in my incredulity. "Oh my god, that was years ago! You still remember that?"
"Of course! How often do you threaten to pierce your nipples?"
"Is this a legitimate bet?" Nikki asked with interest. "Because you do know that once you get one nipple pierced, you have to get the other done, otherwise you'll chaff—"
"Nikki, why do know that?" Marie asked. "Do you…?"
"Me? Hell no. But I do have this friend—"
"It wasn't a legitimate bet," I said. "Just FYI. If you still want to go on about nipple piercings, be my guest."
"So he says now," Lane added. "There wasn't near as much sarcasm as you would think the first time."
"Actually, there was."
"I'm the one who actually heard you speaking, aren't I? I think I'd know."
At first I just looked at him, my mouth angled in lack of amusement. Shouldn't I know what I had put into my own inflection, out of anyone? "Believe me, there was a hefty amount of sarcasm." I waved my hand. "But that's neither here nor there. You're still having at least one drink with me tonight. It's your graduation too, you know." I pushed at Lane with my elbow. It wasn't really meant to be persuasive as much as an excuse to touch him. "And one drink will not make you so drunk you cease to function, I promise. I'll even mix it myself, just to make sure."
"Of course, if one drink is enough…"
"Brian, look at him." I gestured to my boyfriend's 6'1", broad shouldered and pleasantly muscled form. "He's a lightweight, but it's still going to take more than one weak cocktail to intoxicate him."
"He's also standing right here," Lane intoned, annoyed.
Brian just laughed. He turned (dislodging Nikki's elbow in the process) when he heard his parents beckoning. "Oh, I think we're heading out," he remarked needlessly.
Marie's tongue-studded boyfriend had also returned as inconspicuously as he had left. He leaned down to mutter something in her ear, to which she nodded and turned to our little group, "We're going too, but we'll see you kids later tonight! It's going to be a lot of fun."
Lane and I smiled, waved, and made the necessary goodbyes. Once we were relatively alone in the crowded, humid hall of graduates and their families, I touched the kukui nuts around my neck again and gave Lane a particular look. "You didn't."
He scratched at his elbow and shrugged noncommittally. "Want to get out of here, too? All of these bodies are making me sweaty, and a little bit claustrophobic."
I actually agreed with that assessment. Mentally bookmarking that conversation, I dug my phone out from under my black robe and showed him his reflection on the darkened screen. "Care to rebuff my implied conclusions again, wind hair?"
"Oh god, look at it! Kyle, why didn't you tell me sooner?" he cried in dismay, instantly reaching up and trying to order his relatively short brunette hair with his fingers. "Hold the phone up a little higher?"
I obliged wordlessly. Truth be told, he didn't have all that much to fix. If his hair had been just a centimeter shorter, there wouldn't have been enough of it for the wind to mess up so conspicuously at all.
I knew when he was done fixing himself, and put away the phone accordingly. "Why did you fly all the way to goddamn Hawaii to get me a graduation lei?" I asked again. "I didn't get you anything."
"Two parts," Lane said easily. "The first being that hearing the same ceremony twice in the same day was boring enough to make me want to go for its own sake."
Without having to actually discuss it, we started walking shoulder-to-shoulder towards the two sets of double doors at the far end of the hall (read: freedom, drizzle notwithstanding). There were multiple cliques of people to squeeze through, of course, but our conversation continued as we navigated our way around them.
"And the other?"
"Well." Here he paused, and I noticed him bite at his lower lip in indecision. He let out a small breath. "I just thought you'd prefer trying to figure out how and why I thought it was a good idea to toss ribbons of nuts around your neck, instead of thinking about how your mom isn't here."
I didn't have anything to say to that. His sheer thoughtfulness had floored me so utterly that it was all I could do to keep in step with him as he led our way towards the nearest set of double doors. Lane let me keep my silence, though he did shoot me repeated looks of apprehension.
He waited until we were standing next to my car in the light rain, and I was ripping my graduation gown over my head to reveal the plain green t-shirt and pale blue jeans I had on underneath. This made grasping my keys and unlocking my car for us to get in substantially easier. Moving mechanically, I tossed the gown into the back as I slid into the driver's seat and jammed the keys into the ignition to start the vehicle (and thus the heater). The sun was still shining, but its light was feeble, and it was chillier than it looked out here. The kukui nuts crackled together as I leaned over and blindly groped through the space behind my chair for my plain black zip up hoodie.
Lane's seat was pushed as far back as it could go, but even then he still looked a little cramped, his bulk compressed somewhat unnaturally in the four door sedan. I zipped up my hoodie halfway and, lacking any other distractions, went still.
"Wrong idea?" he guessed finally. His voice was small, already making apologies. My chest clenched hard. How could he think like that?
"Are you kidding?" I had to stop to clear my throat, because those three words didn't come out with my usual clarity. When I looked at Lane, the familiar hazel of his eyes hinted that he didn't know where this was going anymore. "This," I said, touching the lei. "Is the most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me. I haven't said anything about her in months, Lane." Hell, I couldn't even stand claiming her as the woman who had brought me into this world anymore. If I absolutely had to refer to Christa Prendergast, I used the most distancing pronouns possible, her or she or that woman. Most often, though, I could get away without talking about her at all.
"But you knew anyway," I said softly, fingering the smooth ridges of a kukui nut. The rain was pattering gently on the windshield, and I could feel the trembling of the engine under the hood, just waiting for the command to go. "I don't know whether I've suddenly become transparent, or…"
"To be honest, I just thought about what I would have wanted, if I had been through what you have. It wasn't really from anything that you did."
"Oh, Christ." I laughed and let my hand fall into my lap. "Is it that bad? Am I that damaged? You've been through way more than me."
"Yes, but I asked for it when I became a vigilante. I put up the defenses I needed years ago. What happened to you is different. All you asked for was…" he trailed off and gestured inarticulately with his big, calloused hands.
I reached out and caught one. Our palms seemed to merge into one another of their own volition, our fingers melting together and locking in place. I waited until Lane conceded to look at me before I suggested, "All I asked for was you?"
"I've shaken up your life a lot more than you've shaken mine," he said quietly, his gaze fixed upon our connected hands. "When we first met, you hated heroes."
"That's true, I did." My thumb roved over the warm knuckle of his index finger. There should have been a plethora of scars, but there weren't. Metahuman healing abilities did have their advantages. "But that doesn't make the fact that you changed my mind a bad thing, Lane. Why is shaking up my life automatically relegated to the negative sphere?"
"I don't know." He shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. "It just seems to be what heroes do to the people they love. You've been kidnapped, used for bait, nearly killed—"
"—Experienced substantial personal growth, made about a dozen new friends, gained a whole new worldview. And," I added, pulling on our interconnected hands until I could look him in the eye as I pressed a soft kiss right over where all those scars should have been. "Been loved more and better than I ever thought possible, much less deserved. If you're going to take responsibility for the events that have changed my status quo since we met, Lane, you have to take responsibility for everything."
"Do you regret it?" he whispered.
He had wanted to ask that for a while, I could tell. Maybe even years—we had been together for over three, at this point.
"You know what, big guy?" I said with a somewhat wry smile, still holding his hand up. "Regret has been so far from my mind these last few years that it didn't even occur to me that it was possible until you suggested it just now. I guess it still is, technically speaking, but I can't stomach it."
"Kyle, you mean that," he breathed. All things considered, I couldn't decide whether I found his shock insulting or not.
"Yeah, I do." I let our hands come to rest in the center console. Then I offered a funny sort of grin. "I have never once regretted falling in love with you, Lane, and it's all your goddamn fault. Honestly, I don't know how you sleep at night with something like that on your conscience."
He laughed in spite of himself, his ears going pink at the edges with flattery. "On one hand, I think I needed to hear that. On the other, you're being an ass about it, Kyle. Seriously."
"Okay, let me put it another, less asshole-ish way," I said genially. "Do you regret the fact that we're moving to the location I chose next week?"
Lane blinked. "We're going where your grad school is. Why would I regret that?"
"Yes, but it's not like there's anything there for you, is there? I'm the one who chose where we were going."
"I thought you said the acceptance letters chose where we were going."
"But I made the selection a biased one, didn't I? I chose which schools to apply to, after all."
"But we're still going to a city. That's basically all I need," Lane said logically. "I'm not all too particular about which one, because all cities need vigilantes. It would inconvenience me if I had to commute from a rural setting, but we've already got an apartment right where it needs to be."
"And everything else is hunky dory, huh?" I said doubtfully, raising an eyebrow.
"Why wouldn't it be? Kyle, I'm not catching on to the point you're trying to illustrate. It's almost like you want me to find something to be resentful about." I didn't say anything to that, and after a beat he finally caught on as to why. Laughing a little and shaking his head, Lane said, "Alright, nevermind. I got it after all."
I smiled, my chest full of warmth and affection. Then I leaned forward, lei crackling merrily, and kissed him full on the mouth. Our hands, still solidly connected, shifted to rest on his thigh so I could keep upright. "Thank you for the lei, honey," I murmured to him. "I needed it more than I thought."
Lane grinned. The expression at once told me that he was glad to have done the right thing, but that a joke was eminent. "God, I wish I had known three years ago that a lei was all it took!"
"What can I say? I'm a man of simple pleasures," I waxed dramatically as I settled back into the driver's seat. "And getting lei'd is the epitome of happiness."
Lane snorted in laughter. He also wasn't offended when I disconnected our hands to buckle up, put the car into gear and back out of our parking spot. I frowned slightly at the way the feeble light refracted off of the still falling rain, distorting my view through the back window.
"So I was thinking we could swing by the liquor store now instead of later," I said as I started driving forward. I flicked the windshield wipers to their second lowest setting to combat the drizzle. "You can choose what we'll drink, and then I can buy it, and—"
"For the last time, Kyle, I'm not drinking tonight!"
"Just one, that's all I'm asking. You don't have to get hammered. I'll probably get hammered, and it would be fun if you got hammered with me, but I'm not asking for you to have that much fun."
"Getting drunk is not the only way to have fun!" Lane was quickly becoming indignant, I noted with amusement. It was by far his most endearing expression.
"But Hungover Heroes is such a great alliteration," I protested. "You have to use it every once in a while."
"No I don't!"
"Oh, look, the liquor store," I said pleasantly as I pulled into a parking spot and cut the engine. "Right by campus. How convenient, no?"
"Kyle, god damnit, I told you I wasn't going to participate in this!"
"Then stay in the car." I unbuckled and carelessly pushed his knee out of the way so I could pop open the glove compartment and retrieve my wallet. "I can pick out our drinks just as easily."
"Oh no," Lane said as he pushed the glove compartment shut. "I refuse to drink anything you pick out. You have the worst taste in alcohol of anything I've ever met."
"What about dogs?" I asked lightly, pulling the soft hood up over my head, pocketing my keys and opening the door.
It took a moment for Lane to get the joke. It only served to make him even more indignant, which I couldn't say I minded. "You know what I mean, Kyle!"
"Well, if you want a choice in what you're drinking then I guess you'd better come with me," I said in sing song just before I shut the driver's door.
The next thing I knew, the passenger door was slamming shut and Lane was at my side. Grumbling under his breath, but there nonetheless. "You are such an ass," he said the moment he saw my shit eating grin.
"I wouldn't have to be if you just consented to have fun every once in a while."
"Oh my god, Kyle, I do have fun! I bet I have more fun in a single hour than you do in an entire day!" When he noticed that my grin had only gotten bigger, he threw up his hands in defeat. "And you're getting off on this. Jesus christ, I can't win."
"Oh, no need to call me jesus, darling, Kyle is just fine," I hummed pleasantly as I shoved him into the liquor store in front of me, so he wouldn't get any ideas about running off. Also, the fact that I was walking behind Lane gave me a lovely view of exactly how well his jeans fit him. I wished I knew who to thank for teaching him how to pick out clothes, because they honestly deserved an award.
We had long since urged the conversation along, but my thoughts were still lingering on Lane's question, do you regret this? For starters, it bothered me that he felt the need to ask at all, but my preoccupation also went deeper than that. I had meant it when I said the fact it was possible hadn't occurred to me, completely and wholeheartedly. I couldn't foresee a future where I wouldn't mean it.
No, what was abstracting me was how I had been before I met Lane. If someone had tried to tell me four years ago that I would fall in love with a vigilante, I would have quickly and viciously torn the entire concept apart. I would have laughed, and promptly listed off a whole textbook's worth of reasons why that would never, ever work out. I had done that, and more than once. The stinking irony of where I was now, walking through a liquor store wearing a lei that had literally been fetched from Hawaii an hour ago, about to move to a city that I had prescreened specifically with an eye for its need of my boyfriend's particular metahuman abilities, was certainly not lost to me.
If I had been asked four years ago where I thought I would end up, I wouldn't have been able to predict this in my wildest dreams. Until Lane I had fully expected to settle with some philosophy or history major with a penchant for letting me walk all over him; the epitome of life's excitement would have been what we saw on the news, or maybe going on vacation out of country.
Four years ago, that sort of life would have sounded good. Now all I could do was snore at how boring it all seemed. Where was the vibrancy, the excitement, the flavor? From where I stood now, all of that would have been far too dull, the taste of domesticity far too subtle for my palate. It wasn't a good week unless I used my CDGs™ (now available for purchase by the general public, FYI; Cedric was making a killing right now) or casually spelled out an allegedly mysterious villain's motives at least once. Lane hadn't meant to, and I certainly hadn't been trying for it, but knowing him had revealed a part of me I hadn't known I was missing. I couldn't go without it now; I didn't want to.
It just goes to show: even the most staunchly protected paradigms can be changed; even the best laid plans can be broken—and it can be the best thing that's ever happened to you. You just need to do is open yourself to the possibility. It's scary, I know, but it's worth it in the end. Trust me.
A/N: So this is it. A thousand thank yous to every person who has reviewed, favorited/followed, ghost-read, or just plain decided they didn't like the story and X'd out midway through. I've had so much fun creating this story with all of you. :) So thank you all for the good memories, and I hope we meet again soon!