Dana opened her eyes and gasped. “Oh sweetie, it’s gorgeous!” She took the dress gently in her hands, and the fabric was beautifully soft. It shimmered in the light as she held it – she could see how amazing it would look once she had it on. “It’s just what I wanted! How did you know?”
Meredith grinned. “I have my sources.”
“Well aren’t you just the sneakiest little sweetheart.” She kissed her wife happily. “Merry Christmas.”
They held each other close.
“Don’t think that this means you get your present early though. Some of us like to stick to proper, Christmas Day tradition.”
“Darn.” She pouted, but only until Dana giggled at her, and she couldn’t hold the expression any longer. They laughed together, in their little bastion away from the outside world.
Over in Rook City, a rather exclusive party was being held. All the best people had been invited, and of course journalists were huddled outside in the cold, hoping to catch a glimpse and maybe a word or two from one of the fabulous guests.
Another black limousine pulled up, and a tall man in a suit got out, reaching back to help his partner rise gracefully from the car. She was stylishly wrapped in red, and as she took his arm a couple of the journalists reflected on how gorgeous these people looked together, and why couldn’t they find a date who looked like that, and what were they doing with their lives that meant they were standing outside a party in the snow on Christmas Eve.
As the gorgeous pair made their way inside, the man muttered “I don’t know why you invited me. I won’t know anyone.”
“I invited you because it’s Christmas, Tyler, and this is a Christmas party, and you should have some fun from time to time. All you ever seem to do is work!”
“And you don’t? I know the hours you put in at your company.”
“That’s different, it’s my company after all. If you ever start running the whole US military, maybe I’ll lay off. And you will know people, because I’ll introduce you. Big handsome man like you, all my friends will love you and want to steal you away.”
He chuckled. “Maia, you didn’t just bring me along to set me up with someone, did you?”
“Well, not just for that reason. I’m also here to dance!”
In a quiet suburb, there was a family home. Comfortable, not ostentatious but solid and well-made, the sort of place that could be lived in by generations, and had been. It even had a white picket fence.
Inside, the family was gathered for dinner – just the three of them, for tonight, but that was enough. Paul was rushing back and forth, bringing dish after dish, making sure that everything was perfect, until finally his daughter laughed at him. “Dad, it’s wonderful! Just sit down!”
“Just a moment, I need to get one more thing.” He ducked into the kitchen, and was back quick as a blink, with a large and brimming gravy boat. He set it down carefully near the centre of the table. “There. Perfect.”
Emily grinned at him over the table. “It looks amazing, dear. Now sit, and let’s eat!”
“Absolutely. Merry Christmas, ladies. Enjoy!”
Megalopolis was quiet tonight. Almost everyone was indoors, with their family and friends, hanging stockings or preparing for their celebrations tomorrow. A few people still had errands to run, and rushed back and forth on the frosty, snowy streets.
One man, though, was wandering with much less purpose. He trudged slowly along, watching the snow fall through the glow of streetlights, gazing at others as they scurried around. He wondered idly where they were going – if they were heading back to partners, friends, families, or if like him they had no-one to go home to. Just an empty room in a quiet building.
He shook his head at his maudlin thoughts, and his armour squeaked at the neck joint. He sighed. One more thing that Meredith would need to repair. At least with the weather like this, the suit wasn’t working so hard at keeping him cool, and its whirring was quieter than usual. He could ignore the sound, and imagine that he was a normal person. That no accident had ever happened to ruin his life and make him this way.
He caught a glimpse of someone running along with their child. The kid looked like they were maybe about eight years old, and as they passed they pointed at him, telling the adult to ‘look at the man in the weird suit! Look!’ That brought on another sigh. It did no good to pretend he was normal – he wasn’t, and he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to forget it.
He kept walking. Just one heavy footstep after another. Ignoring his thoughts, and keeping on moving. Letting his blood flow sluggishly through ice-cold veins. Keeping him feeling more or less alive.
A noise caught his attention, the sound of glass breaking nearby. He looked – it seemed to have come from a nearby toy shop. The window was dark, but there was movement inside.
He stepped softly closer. Usually a metal suit wasn’t the stealthiest outfit, but the thick snow made it much more manageable. The shop, Barton’s toys, certainly looked like it had been closed up for the night, and the figure moving inside seemed much too hurried to be there legitimately. It was also a lot bigger than the average shopkeeper.
For a moment, Absolute Zero considered calling in the others. It might be Christmas Eve, but they’d probably answer anyway, and a figure like this could be dangerous. On the other hand, the mysterious thief was robbing a toy store, which wasn’t exactly serious supervillain behaviour.
His decision made, he stepped inside.
The hulking figure was moving quickly, but also carefully. It was moving along the shelves, grabbing toy after toy and shoving them into a sack. It seemed to be a little selective, too, checking each item as it took them.
“Okay, I think you might have this Santa thing a little backwards.”
The figure whirled to face him, and muttered “Aww, nuts.”
“Don’t feel bad, it’s easy to mix up ‘giving toys to children’ and ‘stealing toys from stores.’ Anyone could make that mistake.”
The Hippo, revealed in all his muscular-but-ridiculously-clad-in-a-hippo-costume glory, seemed to weigh his options. He hefted his sack, flexed his giant muscles – but Zero just shook his head. “I wouldn’t try it, buddy. You and I both know you can’t handle me. Sooooo...what are you doing? I mean, I’m no expert, but if you’re going to rob a store, wouldn’t stealing the money be a little more usual?”
The Hippo grunted. “None of your business.”
“Fine, be that way. So, you want to come quietly, or do you want me to take you to jail in a big iceblock? Because either works for me.”
“Wait, wait!” The big man held up his hands. “Okay, look. It’s kind of a long story.”
“I hear Christmas is a great time for those.”
He grunted, and leaned back against the wall. Somehow, it took the weight. “Alright, okay. I...I pretty much grew up in an orphanage, okay? And it sucked. It sucked bigtime. You wouldn’t think it to look at me now, but for a while there I was a skinny little kid, and some of the others weren’t good about that. I got in a lot of fights...well, whatever. We were kids, it happens, right? But the worst thing was Christmas. We all knew that normal kids got presents from their families, from Santa, whatever. Hell, even saw all that on tv. Damn Christmas specials telling us how great it was to get stuff from your family. We were lucky if we got a half-decent meal. So...every year, I get some toys and take them to an orphanage. Make some of the kids happy. Make them feel like they’re normal, you know?”
“And by ‘get’ some toys, you mean stealing them?”
He shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”
Zero folded his arms and considered for a second. “Okay, well that sounds very sweet and all, but we can’t go around stealing from toy shops. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” God, he was starting to sound like Legacy.
“So you going to stop me?”
“No, I don’t think so. Not exactly...”
Minutes later, the bell over the shop door jingle-dinged as they left. The shelves were empty, and the soft quiet of night fell over the place again. The only thing left in the store was a note, left on top of the till, saying “Sorry, we needed these toys for important superhero business. Please bill us! Love, the Freedom Five.”
The walk was quiet, and it didn’t take long for the quiet to become uncomfortable. The two men exchanged a few awkward glances – or at least, Hippo gave some awkward glances to Absolute Zero, and in return received some stiff body language and glances that probably would have been awkward, if anything of Zero’s face were visible behind his visor.
“Heavy snow this year.”
“Yeah,” said the Hippo.
There was silence.
“Yeah,” said Absolute Zero.
“You like winter?”
The Hippo looked surprised. “Really?”
“No, why? Do you?”
“No, but I figured...” he shrugged enormous shoulders, “if anyone would, it’d be you.”
Zero laughed, just once, short and sharp. “You’d think, but no.” He almost stopped there, but...what the heck. It was Christmas, after all, a time for...sharing, or something. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t always locked in this suit. I used to be a regular guy, with a job, and an apartment, and...anyway. One day at my job there was an industrial accident, I guess you’d call it, and next thing I knew I was waking up in a cryo-chamber, being told I couldn’t go outside without dying.”
The Hippo was blinking at him. “Wow. That’s...heavy stuff. Sorry.”
Another beat of awkwardness, and this time the Hippo was the one to push through it.
“But uh, you’re outside now? Is that what the suit’s all about?”
He nodded. “Yeah, that and the superheroing. It keeps me cold so that I don’t have to just sit around my tiny room, doing nothing all day but listen to music. And it lets me shoot ice-beams from my hands. Which I guess is a bonus.”
“So...what about you? How did you get started?” He cringed as soon as he heard his own voice. Stupid question, obviously no criminal – at least, no criminal as unsuccessful as the Hippo – wants to talk about what brought them to it. But weirdly, the big guy didn’t seem to mind it.
“Well. I told you about my childhood, right? After a while, I got pissed off at always being the little guy. Always getting picked on. So I decided to get tough.”
“Yeah? How’d that work out?”
“Pretty good! Took a while, but I got big enough that nobody tried to pick on me any more. And it turned out I kind of liked being big. Got me respect, felt good, it was great! That’s about when I got into baseball.”
Zero made a heroic effort, and didn’t laugh at the image of an enormous man in a hippo costume trying to run to second base.
“Thing was, I was with the Rook City Renegades, and they...well, they sort of encouraged me to do some stuff. Kind of illegal stuff. They said it would be alright, but when I got caught, I got sent to jail. And they booted me off the team.”
“That sucks. Sorry.”
“Yeah. Didn’t show me a lot of loyalty, you know? Anyway, when I got out, there wasn’t a lot of work I could get. Nobody likes employing ex-cons. You know. So when a couple of guys I knew through baseball said they had work for me that would pay well, I took it. Started working as an enforcer, and,” he shrugged, “that’s pretty much it. That’s how I ended up doing what I do.”
Zero nodded, sighed. “Heck of a story.”
They walked the next block in silence.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess?”
“Do you like being a hero?”
That stumped him for a good few moments.
“You know, I didn’t at first. It was just something that I was being forced to do in order to pay back the cost of keeping me alive. And I didn’t really get on with any of my teammates.”
“Is Legacy as preachy as he seems?”
He laughed. “Oh, he’s so much worse than you think. And it’s all sincere, too, it’s kind of amazing. But after a while...it got to be worth it. I found things that I liked about the others, and I started to like the work, too. Helping people, saving lives, all that...it feels good.”
The Hippo smiled. “Yeah, I bet it does.”
“What about you? Do you like what you do?”
The smile was gone. “Not really. No. But it’s a living.”
“I’m sorry. Stupid question.”
“It’s alright.” But the conversation was over, and they walked on in silence.
The Bright Future Home was a small place, looking almost exactly like any of the other apartment buildings that dotted the city, except for the larger number of beaten-down kids loitering outside in the street. As Absolute Zero and The Hippo approached, their expressions turned from boredom or self-pity to puzzlement and, in a couple of cases, outright alarm.
“So, big guy,” said Zero, “How do we do this?”
“Well, normally I just say HEY KIDS!” All those who hadn’t been watching them certainly were now. “My name’s The Hippo, and this is my friend Absolute Zero, and we’re here to give out Christmas presents! Grab your friends and get out here, we’ve got all the toys you can handle!” He put the sack down, and started unloading toys. The first kid to turn up got a skateboard, the second a large box of toy blocks, and soon kids were crowding around the big man to get their own toys. The Hippo laughed, and under his mask, Zero actually cracked a smile. “Hey, I said get your friends! Don’t be greedy!” A couple of the kids obediently ran inside, while the others kept mobbing him for more presents. “Zero, help me out?”
The hero blinked, but pushed forwards and lent himself to helping. The crowd had grown now, and there seemed to be no end of children, but given that they had a whole shopfull of presents to give, the hands just kept being filled until finally, finally they were all done.
The pair looked around at the children, who were laughing, playing, trading gifts back and forth and finding something to enjoy about Christmas. A few of them were engaged in a heated sword fight, the foam swords whirling through the cold air, while a couple of the younger ones were building a tower out of blocks by the door. It was amazing, really, how quick the change had been.
The Hippo chuckled. “Yeah, see, I know it’s kind of goofy for...someone like me, but I like doing this. These kids, they deserve better than I got.”
“Yeah, they do. And so did you.”
The Hippo looked confused, and Zero leaned against a brick wall.
“Look, I know we’ve fought a few times in the past. Maybe we will in the future. You’ve been a bad guy, you’ve done bad stuff. But that isn’t all you are. That doesn’t have to be you, if you don’t want it to. And just look at these kids. Wouldn’t you rather be someone who makes people this happy all the time?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess. What would I even do?”
“I don’t know right now. And you don’t have to know either. Just do your best, be good to people. Try not to rob any banks.”
They both laughed. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. Good advice.” A snowball fight was breaking out among the kids, all-on-all mayhem. They were shrieking with laughter. One of the kids with a new skateboard used it to rush along as he hurled snowballs, a risky move that completely failed, sending her tumbling into a pile of snow.
The Hippo turned to Zero, looked straight in his eyes. “Okay, so...I know you’ve got me. Dead to rights. Like you said, I don’t know if I could take you, and the weather’s kind of on your side here. Just...can we take it somewhere else? Don’t arrest me in front of the kids.”
Absolute Zero looked into his eyes. The man was a hardened criminal. He probably wouldn’t change that. But still…
He reached around behind his waist, then made an exaggerated oh-no-where-did-I-leave-that-thing gesture. “Oh, wouldn’t you know it? I think I left my handcuffs in my other suit. Look, you just wait here, and I’ll arrest you when I get back. But I have to walk, so I might be a while, okay?”
The Hippo blinked, and found he was doing it at Zero’s back, as the hero turned and walked away. “Wait, are you serious? Are you just...are you serious?”
“Merry Christmas, Hippo. And have a happy new year!”
The snow continued falling, soft and clean and perfect.