Rippling crimson light, swirling past the window as the Carrier tacked into the Bleed, turned the metal walls inside a dirty rose and the blanket wrapped around Jenny in his arms a muddy black. The Midnighter sighed, rocking Jenny a little as she fussed. Henry Bendix had filled him full of expensive toys, made him tougher and faster than your usual hard-man bastard, put a computer in his head to help look at any situation and see the soft spots, the perfect places to let him beat the shit out of superfucks and alien gods. If he looked too close at his reflection in the glass, or whatever weird transparent metal passed for glass here, he saw his own largest target marked slap-bang on the girl in his arms. Bendix was probably laughing his ass off in hell, in the brief gaps between being raped by cancer-squirting shitweasels.
Warmer air gently hugged him a whole nine seconds before Apollo was close enough for the Midnighter to smell ozone and sunshine, a summer storm shaped like a man. Buttery gold flooded the rose, making the room shimmer around them, making Jenny coo, little hands grabbing at the air like she could grasp light itself. And maybe she could. Even Kriegstein hadn't been able to properly describe what her powers might be, what being the "Spirit of the Twenty-First Century" actually meant.
"What are you thinking?" Apollo glowed at his shoulder, offering a hand-warmed baby bottle, a perfect thirty-seven degrees.
The Midnighter took it and offered it to Jenny in return, who grizzled for a moment before finding the teat properly and then drank in greedy gulps. He said, "We probably don't need to childproof the electric sockets."
"The Doctor already introduced her to the baby universe."
The Midnighter let out an amused breath. "Centuries of wisdom at work."
"Do shamans even have children?" Apollo frowned slightly. "Shamen?"
"Shamans." The Midnighter shrugged as best he could without disturbing Jenny. "They live on the edge of the tribe, protecting it from threats from within and without, apparently."
"That makes us all sound like shamans." Apollo's lips twisted briefly in something like distaste. "I don't really care for the mystical stuff."
"I'm holding the spirit of the age in my arms," the Midnighter pointed out.
"Jenny doesn't count," Apollo said loyally, and reached past him to tickle Jenny's belly. "Do you, princess?"
The Midnighter's enhancements kicked in but, even pushed out to arm's length at super-speed, Jenny still managed to burp milk-puke all over his leathers. She goggled at him in surprise before kicking her legs and arms so wildly he had to pull her back so she wouldn't wiggle right out of his grasp. Jenny made a contented sound and wiped her dirty mouth on his collar. The Midnighter sighed, pretending he couldn't hear Apollo's muffled giggles, pretending he couldn't see the amused affection in his own reflection's thin lips.
"That's never coming out."
It had taken less than two days to evacuate the planet so they could fight the old Doctor but somehow weeks to get everybody back again. That told you all you needed to know about the human heart, the Midnighter mused. Nothing short of immediate, objective, irrefutable death would get people moving. He wondered briefly if that worked on babies, tried to imagine actually threatening Jenny like that, and quickly the pushed the thought away. No, this would have to be done the old fashioned way. He waved the baby friendly curve-edged wooden block at Jenny, who was sat between Apollo's legs on the rug, looking back at him with interest.
"See the block, Jenny?" he asked. She made happy noises and waved grasping hands in his direction. He set it down in front of her, just a little way out of the reach. "Get the block, Jenny."
Jenny gave him a scrunched faced confused look and made grabby hands again. When he didn't move, she looked up at Apollo beseechingly.
"You can do it," Apollo said, lifting her and carefully settling her on her belly. "All you have to do is crawl."
"This isn't going to work," the Midnighter told him.
Apollo ignored this, making encouraging noises at Jenny, who managed to get herself up onto elbow and knees and then stopped, apparently confused as to what to do next. "Left side, right side," Apollo encouraged. "One, two; one, two."
Jenny pushed both arms forward and then fell on her face. Apollo started reaching towards her again, but the Midnighter shook his head, and Apollo subsided, biting his lip with an adorably worried face. Jenny managed to push herself up again, actually pulled herself forward an inch this time, and then somehow rolled over onto her side and then her back. She looked up at the ceiling with an equally adorable confused face.
"Roll over, Jenny," Apollo encouraged. "Wave the block again," he insisted and the Midnighter obliged, lifting it over Jenny and then bringing it down to one side.
Jenny rolled over to follow it, managing after a few tries to rock herself back onto her belly, and pushed up onto all fours again. She looked at her own arms and legs, kicked the latter, waved the former, almost managed to start moving forward again, then made a frustrated noise, flopping on her belly. She shoved her hands out in front of her, making grabby hands, little face screwed up in concentration. The block began to faintly glow, lifted a little off the rug, and then tumbled over and over into Jenny's outstretched arms, where she made triumphant noises and slobbered all over one corner.
"Saw that coming," the Midnighter said.
Apollo tried to take the block away and then, when Jenny's face went red and she sucked in breath for a really good cry, he quickly gave it back. At the Midnighter's look, he smiled sheepishly. "I know, I know. We're supposed to encourage locomotion, or whatever the books call it. She's showing curiosity, though. That's a start, right?"
"Say that when she starts floating people into reach," the Midnighter said dryly. He picked up a frankly hideous purple and green bear that Jenny was unaccountable fond of and tried waving it at her. She blinked at him around a mouthful of block. "Wait until she's a teenager and getting a date for the prom by just summoning people off the streets."
Apollo tutted at him. "Hit the soft parts with your hand. Hit the hard parts with a utensil." His father's words on Apollo's lips, not weird at all. "How does the Midnighter solve a problem when there's nothing to hit?"
This was the moment. He said, "I thought we'd start by adopting Jenny," before he was really aware he was going to say it, heard the words aloud and knew he had no intention of taking them back.
Apollo's face went completely blank for one, long, breath-taking second, and then a smile began to bloom, slow and sure as a sunrise, lighting up his face. "Yes."
"Yes," he repeated, fervently. "You, me and Jenny. That's family."
"You big sap," the Midnighter said and didn't look away from Apollo, even when the toy bear, now glowing, pulled itself out of his hands.
One of the things about the Carrier the Midnighter could never quite get used to was the constant, faint background humming, like choral singing happening in some distant room. It had to do with the sympathetic quantum harmonics between the shift engines and the baby universe that passed as their power source; Angie had tried telling him the Carrier was purring like a happy kitten when he'd asked and then sighed and actually explained the science when he'd glowered her into submission. The rhythms of the multiversal stack rotating. Still, Jenny liked it at least, banging her sippy cup on her walker to the beat and babbling happily at him. He pulled faces at her to make her laugh and then quickly pretended to be interested in the news screens when Apollo looked around.
"Anything interesting?" Apollo asked. "Leads on a new mission? We haven't really done anything proactive since that thing in Southeast Asia."
The Midnighter, who had definitely not been hiding from the refugees still on board, rolled his shoulders in something part stretch, part shrug. "Not yet, but Jack's got a bee in his bonnet about those new gen-active thugs in Shitstain, Nebraska."
"Don't swear in front of Jenny," Apollo tutted. "It would be just our luck that she picks it up as her first word."
"Dar, dar, dar," Jenny said helpfully, and waved her cup at the Midnighter.
"Is that for me?" he asked, and took it when she waved it again. "Thank you, baby." There were gnawing marks in the spout. Perhaps the magazines were right about sippy cups being bad for children's teeth.
"Ba dah wah mah nah gah," Jenny announced, walking her walker into Apollo's legs, apparently on purpose as she giggled and did it again. He picked her up with a reproachful look, and she patted at his face, pushing his lips up.
"You heard the lady," the Midnighter said, just to make Apollo smile.
"I really think she's starting to get full words in," Apollo said, bouncing Jenny a little in his arms. "I think she said 'papa' the other day."
"Probably just gas," the Midnighter said like he hadn't been spending most of their downtime trying to teach her.
"Doh doh doh!" Jenny chortled.
Apollo grinned down at her. "Can you say 'daddy', Jenny? Or 'dada'?" He repeated it with exaggerated mouth movements. "Daa-daa."
"Door," Jenny said.
"Did she just--" The Midnighter was on his feet in a blur.
"Door!" Jenny exclaimed, half falling out of Apollo's grip as she swung backwards towards him. "Door! Door!" Gold light washed over them. For a moment, they were standing on a wide, dusty veldt, then Jenny clapped her hands and yelled "Door!" again. Gold became the thick tangled green of a deep rainforest, became gold, became a great crashing ocean on a white sand beach, became gold, became the freezing blue-grey of the tundra, became gold, became red, gold, teal, gold, maroon, gold, beige...
"Jenny, no!" they snapped in unison, and she broke off, gawping up at them.
"The door is not a toy," Apollo admonished her.
"We did need child proofing after all," the Midnighter said. Jenny's eyes began to fill with tears.
"Why didn't your fight computer pick that up?" Apollo snapped.
The Midnighter was wondering if he meant the Door or Jenny's incipient breakdown when the gold flashing stopped, leaving them standing in the middle of a group of clearly super-powered thugs, caught in the middle of razing a large town.
"Er," one of them said, a rather fat fellow with mottled, oily skin, standing in a circle of melting brickwork and body parts.
"Nebraska," the Midnighter said, deftly taking Jenny out of Apollo's arms and ducking behind him as fatso wriggled disgustingly and then threw -- he really wanted to think "threw" but "squirted" was more accurate -- burning acid slime at them. Apollo responded in the time honoured tradition of setting fatso on fire with his eye-beams, and took Jenny back while Midnighter casually vaulted up, kicking off the wall between two of fatso's friends so they hit each other (some kind of energy emitter and a hydrokinetic, he noted absently) and somersaulting into a drop kick on the third (giant man-armadillo thing, hide less tough than the Midnighter's boots). He stepped out of the gore to take Jenny back, and Apollo took to the air to meet the incoming flyers like an elevating concrete wall.
"Bad Jenny," the Midnighter scolded her. "Look what happens when you mess with things. You could have been in a lot of trouble if we hadn't been here. Not to mention that Jack is going to be grumpy we poached his--"
Her eyes went huge and the Midnighter realised she'd also seen the long clawed man-wolf guy loping up behind them a fraction of a second too slow. Coruscating energy, so bright a blue it was all but white, seared the air, bending around him and Apollo but otherwise hitting everything in its path like a runaway freight train. That was on fire and filled with explosives and nails.
The Midnighter felt Apollo land gently behind him. Jenny buried her face in his shoulder, and he patted her head carefully. The gen-idiots had made a mess of the place and Jenny had made it tidy. Perhaps being admonished to keep her toys tidy all those times had made some impact. Of course, she'd made it tidy by making it gone, the entire immediate section stripped to the bedrock, the town beyond that untouched but now surrounding a glass smooth hole of emptiness. New town square slash tourist attraction, perhaps. At least she didn't clean up her own toys that way. She got grumpy enough when Mister Bear needed taking away to be washed once in awhile.
"What are you thinking?" Apollo asked, shuffling a little in the silence.
"No spanking." The Midnighter pressed a kiss to the top of Jenny's head. "And no saying 'Door!' for you, little missy." Gold light washed them into the silver of the carrier. "You got that, Jenny? Don't say door." She moved her head against him, which he decided to take as agreement. "How about you try something else. Can you say 'Apollo', Jenny?"
"Shit!" said Jenny cheerfully. "Shit! Shit! Shit!"
The Midnighter sighed.
Another typical day with the Authority: ignoring Angie's explanation of how the Shadowmen were transdimensional beings that could flit around space like it was photos in an album, the Midnighter burst into the playroom at a run, snatched Jenny up without stopping, and rolled across the corridor between sudden dark scythes while Shen asked pertinent questions like, how do we make them stay down after we hit them? The Midnighter, setting Jenny on one hip, pulled two flash bombs from his coat and flicked them out a half second before two shadowy figures slipped out of nowhere into view -- and also directly into the path of the bombs with deadly blazing result.
"They hate light," he cheerfully informed the team. "You okay there, Jenny?" He looked down, expecting her usual excited grin, but instead she was clinging to him, shaking and wide-eyed. "What is it, Jenny?"
"It's the Bogeymen." Her voice was small and wobbly and her eyes suspiciously wet. "From under my bed."
"We've told you, the Bogeyman isn't real." The Midnighter started down the corridor, lifting Jenny so she could wrap her arms around his neck. He paused at an intersection, the perfect place for an ambush, and light-bombed another two Shadowmen as they predictably faded in. "We checked every time, remember. Apollo looked in every corner. Auntie Angie couldn't find anything on any of her scans. Auntie Shen couldn't sense anything. Uncle Jeroen said the place was as clean as a whistle."
"They was hiding," Jenny insisted, tightening her grip as the Midnighter jumped from wall to wall to reach the next floor up. "Hiding from Apollo. They don't come when he's here. They scared of the light."
"Particular light frequencies disrupt their warp technology," Angie broadcast. "I'm rigging the Carrier to emit but it will take a few minutes to find the right combination to drive them off for good. Hold them off."
The Midnighter sent back a grunt of acknowledgement.
"You gotta get Apollo," Jenny insisted, kicking him with her hells like he was a recalcitrant pony.
"No kicking," he said automatically. "Apollo's busy right now, Jenny. The Engineer is going to take care of the Shadowmen and--"
"No," Jenny wailed. "Only Apollo can do it! I want Apollo!"
The Midnighter swore under his breath, grabbing her tighter as she struggled and also pivoting on one foot and kicking out, hitting a shadow in the moment it turned solid, sending it flying into the light fixtures before it had even finished forming a proper shape. It and the lighting exploded together. He ignored both.
"Jenny, now's not--"
"I! Want! Apollo!" she sobbed out between ragged, heartbreakingly terrified gasps.
"He's coming, he's on his way," the Midnighter lied desperately. "Just--"
Jenny shrieked "I wan' daddy 'pollo!" and the whole world went away gold and came back blue.
Fresh air rushed past his face, and clouds, and the ground came up towards him, distant specks of people and dots of buildings, getting bigger with each moment. The Midnighter frowned at his hands, ungloved, golden skinned, looked down to see yellow instead of black, and rolled over so he was falling backwards. Strands of white hair fluttered at the edge of his vision. Other people might think Apollo could do with a haircut. He liked having something to grab. Shaping his thoughts into the key that triggered their personal radiotelepathy link, the Midnighter asked, "Do you have her?"
"Jenny? Right here," Apollo sent back. "I'm working the leathers. Body swap?"
"The books all say separation anxiety peaks at this age," the Midnighter said absently, rolling back to falling face down. "How does the flight work again?"
"You have to think righteous--"
"Yeah, no, I got it," the Midnighter said, and kicked to fall faster, chasing the edge of night. "Do you have--"
"I found your flashbangs," Apollo sent back cheerfully, the faint sounds of punches and explosions somehow carried along with it. "This is almost as fun as laser vision. You should join a bowling league."
"And wear rental shoes?" A rim of light edging the Earth behind him, the Midnighter plunged into rising stars, caught a glimpse of the Carrier glimmering in orbit and the wide crescent of the moon, and then a deeper darkness surged, pulling him into the void. He widened his eyes, then squinted, thinking of how Apollo looked on his knees, letting the heat rise up through him, feeling the tell-tale crackle in his optic nerves before beams of golden radiation sent the shadows screaming before him.
"Jenny says she's very sorry," Apollo sent, "and Angie says she's almost done."
"On my way back," the Midnighter said, turning his borrowed body up towards the Carrier, deliberately slowing down to encourage the Shadowmen to follow, idly spinning this way and that. A cargo bay door opened at his approach and then closed around him. The Shadowmen swarmed, passing easily in through the closed door and then screaming, first in confusion at being unable to get back out, then in pain as the cargo bay flooded with eerie light. The Midnighter wondered idly if his own enhancements would have let him see it, or if it was a peculiarity of Apollo's eyes; he was still thinking about this when the last of the Shadowmen crumpled away to ash and was gone.
"We'll have to have words with her," he said when Apollo showed up, tall and sauntering in a body not made for either. "We can't have her doing things like this during missions. Power's useless if you can't aim it right--"
"I've only just got her to sleep," Apollo said. He was looking the Midnighter up and down with open interest.
"What are you thinking?" the Midnighter asked.
"Jenny's sleeping." Apollo smiled, a warm widening of the lips almost alien on that face. The Midnighter wondered if he smiled like that at Apollo. Angie would take photos and tease them forever. "It would be a shame to wake her up so soon." The smile got hotter and now the Midnighter smirked back. "All the things I can see to do with this computer brain of yours... We can get her to swap us back in the morning. Have our talk then."
"In the morning, right," the Midnighter agreed. "Maybe the afternoon." He casually swept Apollo up into his arms, pushing off the floor and hovering there, full of sunshine and starlight and impossible strength.
After the mess with Reality Incorporated, Jenny's nightmares lingered in a way they hadn't with the bogeyman. Partly, at least, it was because Jenny had worked out how to glow at will, and now there didn't have to be shadows if she didn't want there to be. She had defeated the bogeyman and the nightmares had gone. She had defeated the alien insect bastard too, the Midnighter knew, but that had been different, of course. On some level, Jenny had known the boogeymen weren't actually real. Ty had been very real, was very really dead, and the Midnighter, so many thousands or maybe millions of his own kills later, still remembered how much that first one got inside you, messed you up. And Jenny was so young, still so young. Of course the nightmares lingered.
Jenny whimpered against him, twitching, and Apollo shuffled a little closer, sandwiching her safely between them. The Midnighter stroked her hair while the Carrier hummed a lullaby all around them, bright pinpricks of light dancing through the walls.
Angie telling Jenny about how he'd almost been eaten by a Godzilla wannabe hadn't helped, of course. She'd seemed fine at the time but perhaps she'd picked up on some of the bowdlerization, some of the outright fabrications, because Jenny had been down for a couple of hours at most before she was crawling into their bed, sobbing, mumbling something about giant insects trying to eat her, about them dashing themselves against her like she was a bug light. They'd managed to get her calmed down, like they always did, but she hadn't fallen back asleep, not properly, just stayed, caught, teetering on the edge.
He slipped his fingers through her hair, slow as his heartbeat, soft as her breath. Apollo was making no pretence of not watching them both, a little crinkle of worry between his eyebrows. Of course he was worried. Weren't they all seeking comfort, in their own ways? The Doctor with his needles. Shen and her temples. Angie and, what, her machines, her Jack? The frowning sun god watching night's bringer of war cradle the spirit of the age in his arms. And they'd won, of course they'd won. They'd saved Kuala Lumpur by traumatising a nine year old into a permanent vegetative state. And they could rationalise it. Of course they could. Power you were too afraid to use was no power at all and there was always a greater good, always someone's safety and security you could point at. But. The nightmares lingered.
His hands stilled. Jenny stirred, blinked huge, watery eyes up at him.
"What are you thinking?" Apollo asked softly.
"Physical therapy. Hey, kid," the Midnighter said, ruffling Jenny's hair. "Want to go blow shit up?"
"No potty words!" Jenny sniffed, but she was smiling a little now, nodding enthusiastically, and that was worth the dollar for her swear jar.
"It's four in the morning," Apollo said, but he gamely followed them out of the bed, carrying Jenny until the Midnighter had pulled on some clothes and then handing her back while he dressed in turn.
Jenny wrapped her arms around the Midnighter's neck as he balanced her on one hip and he simultaneously marvelled at how big she had gotten and how small she was, less a weight (though even without his enhanced strength, she would not have been much of that) but a thrumming presence, a mighty generator hum inside small, soft flesh. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and she fussed a little, a token protest belied by the way she squeezed as he carried her through the corridors to what Angie called his playroom and Apollo his gym, and which the Midnighter secretly termed his Punch Endless Fuckheads Engine. Beyond the weight bench it appeared empty but the smallest thought could summon a dozen or more luminous phantoms, each programmed with a variety of fighting styles and capable of learning and adapting and being solid enough to punch and only just not quite solid enough to kill you. The perfect daily workout.
Or nightly, whichever.
Now, however, he skipped realism for simple, abstract shapes in blues and greens, glittering on random arcs around them like a crazy hipster disco. Jenny cooed at them and consented to being put down, though she kept one hand holding onto his leg. The Midnighter pulled a double fistful of throwing crescents and then, glancing at Apollo, asked, "Want to go first?"
"Hit blue, save green," Apollo said and summer bloomed behind his eyes and a half dozen shapes popped in rapid-fire succession, spreading fading clouds of twinkling azure dusk. The Midnighter grinned and threw as the targets went wild, speeding up and zipping erratically in every direction. There was a satisfying series of loud popping bangs and Apollo kicked off the floor, grinning now too, sliding sinuously through the air and reflecting a laser off a shiny wall power to catch a cadre of blue targets trying to hide behind an innocent green. Jenny laughed, clapping, and the Midnighter felt his heart lighten.
"Your go," he told Jenny. "Remember, blue only."
Jenny nodded seriously and bit her lip in concentration. Her eyes turned electric blue, colour washing out of the irises across the white, filling the space between her eyelashes with liquid light. Static crackled around her hands, grew thicker, faster. She turned her head this way and that, watching the targets swoop and turn intently, before settling on one in particular and following it, now here, now there, now coming this way, now going that, now the other, now-- She flung both hands out with a wordless yell and the Midnighter slipped sideways as the coruscating blast wiped out the blue target and the five behind it and the two green behind them and another dozen targets beyond that, blue and green both, and would no doubt have continued on straight through the wall if Apollo hadn't dropped in to absorb it. Jenny shrieked at that, and jerked her hands up, light going out, but Apollo just chuckled.
"A bit too much kick," he told Jenny, floating close so she could see he wasn't even scorched, "but that was a good first try. You got what you were aiming at."
"And all the others," Jenny pouted. "And greens. The ones I was 'sposed to save."
"The first time Apollo tried his lasers, he destroyed an entire Stormwatch base," the Midnighter said, crouching down to her level. "Took Henry Bendix's hair right off, left him bald for life."
"He did not," Jenny giggled, looking from Apollo to the Midnighter and back again.
"I was on potato peeling duty for months," Apollo said, straight-faced.
"Here," the Midnighter said, taking Jenny's arms and positioning them for her, one arm straight, one bent with her hand supporting the other wrist. He folded the outstretched hand into a fist, and then coaxed Jenny to point just her index finger. "Relax your knees a little. There we go, nice and balanced."
"Think of the power pooling in your belly," Apollo suggested, coming to sit cross-legged a few inches off the floor next to them.. "Think about drawing it up through your body in a thin stream, like sucking on a straw. Can you picture that, Jenny, love?"
She nodded. Her eyes had begin to glow again, this time only at the edges of her irises.
"Keep breathing," the Midnighter said. "One breath goes in. And comes back out. One breath goes all the way in. And comes all the way back out."
"Let the power rise with your breath. Feel it flow down your arm, thinner and thinner, until it will fit through your finger."
The static crackle came back, first all around her hand but slowly condensing, compressing, until there was just a single mote of electric light blazing an inch in front of Jenny's outstretched finger. She blinked at it owlishly, then grinned up at them.
"That's our girl," Apollo said proudly, and her grin got wider.
"Watch the targets now," the Midnighter said softly. "Don't aim for where they are. Breathe and watch, until you know which way one is going to go. Breathe and watch, and aim just ahead of it. Let it come into your shot." Jenny looked dubious about this, but she did as she was told, picking out a target and following it with her eyes, her finger moving too. "Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe--"
"Fire!" said Apollo.
Jenny did. A single line of incandescent blue-white fire lanced across the room, turned her intended target into a rapidly expanding cloud of fine dust, and winked out, leaving fading purple after images.
"Perfect," said the Midnighter. Jenny beamed up at him, all smiles, no fear in her at all, and the Midnighter smiled back until Apollo, whooping, swept Jenny up into the air. The two of them spun around together, giggling fit to burst, and then Apollo pointed, and Jenny fired, crowing at each perfect shot, laughing even louder when Apollo started racing her to the targets, drowning out the cacophony of pops and zaps.
Watching them, the Midnighter caught himself thinking that he'd break every body, every mind, every heart in the world, if it would keep them safe and found only chill where he had expected comfort.
Previously unrevealed twin sisters were weird in Star Wars, a shitty plot twist in daytime soaps, and unspeakably terrible when they happened to you in real life. Jenny fucking Fractal. It made you sad you'd already killed God, that you couldn't do it again, just walk up to the pearly gates and kick the fuckers balls so hard they popped out his eye sockets for having the temerity to let shit like this happen. And not just by Fractal, no, not in the least. To her, too. They could have been raising sisters. Girls that could understand each other in the way no other children ever could or would, that could make the universe just that little less lonely, that little more bearable. They could have had a finer world.
"You've got an implant in your head that analyses every possible strategy for eliminating a threat," Jeroen had said, the Doctor had said, writing out his cold, hard prescription, his "take two of these and see me in the morning" scrip. "You know this is the only way." And he hadn't, not for absolute surety, but when could you ever get that? Just, the greater good, the safety and security of the world, of their friends, of their family. So they'd won, of course. Just one hard snap of the fingers. One swift break of his heart.
"Go to her," Shen had said, had repeated, really, her arms around him, the smell of sandalwood and incense and high mountain air, had cajoled, had commanded. "A girl needs her father."
Apollo and Angie had stripped Jenny, their Jenny, Fractal's body, perhaps, but their Jenny, had stripped her of the hijacked shiftship technology, wiped it from her skin as easily as you might wipe away a preschooler's tears. Not that Jenny would ever go to a normal school. Not that she could. Not that you could even really call her a preschooler when she had to be so adult, to grow up so fast, with all the shit that coming down on them. Jenny was clean and clear, was the point, was hale and hearty and whole.
Go to her, Shen had said, and the Midnighter did, because what else was there? Analyses every strategy. The only way. "Look, Jenny! It's your other dad!" Fractal had goaded. "You know what he thinks every time he sees you? It's not 'I love you.' It's 'I can kill you. In a million different ways.' " And the Midnighter had said it was a lie and Jenny had said she knew, but was it? Did she?
He looked at Jenny, there in Apollo's arms. He looked at Jenny, twisting around to see him, her arms going out immediately, no hesitation. He looked at Jenny as he took her from Apollo and held her close. He looked at Jenny and thought "I love you" as strongly, as deeply, as truly as he could. It was. She did. He loved. He hoped.
"What are you thinking?" Apollo asked, a rough note in his voice, not pity or even understanding, but something close enough to it to hurt, to warm his heart.
"There's good in the world," the Midnighter told him, told them both. "Let's go find it."
And he tried not to think about how fragile she felt, with her arms tight around him and her head against his neck, how easily she, like everything else, could be, would be, broken.
He'd asked the Carrier to send him anywhere afterwards, after he'd seen the way the team was going, after he'd seen the pieces of the future Apollo's warnings fall into place, seen the million ways it would go and how each one was as terrible as next, seen it all and made the only decision that made sense, just ripped his own fucking hearts out, his light, his loves.
Even the most benevolent dictator is still a dictator, but especially the one that has already run every scenario, has seen every weakness, has already solved the problem. What did it say about him, about "the Midnighter", how obvious that future had been, how plausible? What did it say about him the he could help take over a country? That he couldn't remember his real name but could conjure the feel of every kill? That he could hold a baby, fresh, beautiful, innocent in his hands and--
For Jenny. For Apollo. That's what he'd told himself, told himself now, standing on the edge of Sunshine 60's roof, high above Ikebukuro and the hungry ghosts of the prison they'd built this skyscraper on the ruins of and the beyond top secret International Operations installation hidden below that. The Midnighter had asked the Carrier to send him anywhere afterwards and she'd picked Singapore and he'd been angry at first, until he'd understood. Until he'd found the remnants of the people who had made Fractal of Jenny's sister, found them, and found the traces of unexpected allies, of the fingerprints of old enemies, to follow, from Singapore to Henan Province to Kaohsiung City to Toshima, to follow and to fuck up. Back to old school. Back to the street level life. For Apollo. For Jenny.
He could still hear Jenny calling out to him, hear her voice reverberating through the cold hard cage of his logic and his fight computers showing him over and over just how little choice he had been left with, how little room to manoeuvre. He could hear her still, begging him, saying don't go daddy, saying don't leave us, saying it wasn't him -- but it was, of course it was. Who else was there? Nobody else here but us bastards.
Pulling his mask down, he flipped from the rooftop and tumbled alone out into wide, empty space.
God, Bendix must have near pissed himself laughing.
The Bleed drizzled past the view-port like the newly commandeered carrier was take-out drowning in chilli oil.
"What are you thinking?" Apollo asked.
"Pizza," Midnighter said, honestly enough. In the dim reflection, he saw one corner of Apollo's mouth twitch up and then turn down, saw a frown crease Apollo's brow and then smooth back out into bland guardedness. Jenny, beyond Apollo, so tall now, the barest shadow in the glass save for the unnatural blue gleam of her eyes.
I can fall pretty damn fast, he'd told her, so long ago now, and, god, hadn't that been true?
"Head?" Apollo asked.
He'd had Bendix in there, metaphorically, and Angie literally, and, of course, himself, believing lies because they were so close to truth, the shadow he always suspected lay behind the backdrop of the world, and only two of them were gone. Still, he said, "Fine," and it was less of a lie than he'd expected.
Apollo gave him an impenetrable look. The Midnighter turned away from the window to look at him properly. It didn't help. Three years and betrayal between them. Here was a problem his fight computers refused to come on for. He kept looking anyway, cataloguing similarities, changes, thinking how Apollo cut his hair a little shorter when the Midnighter wasn't there, worked out less when he wasn't, ate real food less when he wasn't there, ate sunlight more when he wasn't there. A stronger tan and a faint smell of egg rolls; was that all it came to?
He snorted and Apollo's lips twitched up again.
"So," said Jenny eventually, digging in her pockets, "you guys broke up because of a lie and then Bendix turned you into a puppet to kill us all with. And you missed years of my life in between. So this is super awkward, huh?"
She found her packet of cigarettes and pulled one out. Midnighter took it from her hand, rubbing it away to tobacco threads with a flick of his fingers. Her unimpressed arching eyebrow was higher than his shoulder now. How was he supposed to get used to that? He glanced back at Apollo and they shared a mutual, commiserating "our daughter done grown up" look before the Midnighter had to turn away again, heart beating faster.
"We could discuss this," Jenny said, pointedly lighting another cigarette, "but, y'know, I linked our digital telepathy network into my social media feeds? And, like, three million people just told me Religimon has escaped from dream-time and is mass converting the faithful one distracted boyfriend meme at a time. Wanna go blow shit up?"
"Fuck yes," Midnighter said fervently.
"That swear jar was a complete waste of time," Apollo said but this time the smile stayed up.
The itch began in his head, nano-molecular situation analysis machines clicking on, bio-mechanical solution engines winding up. Apollo's aura enveloped them as he closed the gap, a warm, bright blanket. The Midnighter pulled in a breath of air that, despite tobacco smoke, seemed lighter and cleaner than any he'd breathed since the Sons of Liberty nonsense. Options and scenarios began to flicker through his subconscious and the weight on his shoulders and the tight bind around his heart lessened as Jenny hooked her arms around theirs, kissed Apollo on one cheek and Midnighter on the other.
"Door," she said, and all was gold.