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The Valiant

Chapter Text

Interview with The Valiant, March 31st, 1998

 

“I…are you sure this thing is on right?”

 

“Yes sir, you’re doing just fine.”

 

“I just…this thing is soweird…”

 

“That’s fine, sir, just fine.”

 

Finally, The Valiant settled into his chair, microphone secured on his chest. He lounged in his chair with a lazy smile, aware of how it made his fans squirm with delight—particularly the ones in love with him.

 

“So, um, Mr. The Valiant, sir, do you have a secret identity?”

 

The Valiant snorted. “Well of course. Why wouldn’t I? It’s very handy to have—can you imagine all these people running up to your house at all hours of the day going, “The Valiant, my sink is clogged, can you fix it?” or “Sir, my wife is cheating on me, how do I bring her back?” People would be hounding me nonstop asking me to fix every single problem in their lives. Does that sound fun to you?”

 

◊◊◊

 

Interview with Russandol, March 31st, 1998

 

“Absolutely. It’s the smart thing to do,” Russandol said, smiling politely at his interviewer. “Can you imagine the havoc I’d cause if I walked into a doctor’s office as Russandol?”

 

The interviewer chuckled. “I bet that would give the waiting room a shock!”

 

“Yep!” Russandol said, grinning at the thought. “Can you imagine the poor doctor? They’d be scared out of their mind, treating a superhero! Why would I do that to some poor soul?”

 

◊◊◊

 

Interview with Felagund, March 31st, 1998

 

“I know!” Felagund said, slapping the arm of his chair. “Can you believe it? And the entire time, all she wanted was my secret identity! Can you believeit?”

 

“No, sir,” the interviewer said, awed by Felagund’s brightness.

 

“I mean, you’ve got me, Felagund, all-powerful and wise and sexy as all Mandos, and you want the mild-mannered alter-ego? The Mandos? Lady, is there something wrong with you or something?”

 

“Surely your alter-ego is also amazing?” the interviewer tried.

 

“Oh, of course!” Felagund smiled a dazzling smile, one that made all his fans melt like chocolate. “I mean, how could it not be? But come on, choosing ordinary Joe me over superhero me? Are you kidding me?”

 

◊◊◊

 

Interview with The Valiant, March 31st, 1998

 

“I mean, do you have any ideahow annoyingbeing a superhero is?” The Valiant asked. “It…I cannot beginto describe to you how tired I am of getting home from work, exhausted and ready for bed, and the police scanner goes Tour bus robbery! Tour bus robbery! The Valiant, get your ass over here right now!I mean, it’s enough to make a grown man cry!”

 

“Have you cried, before?” the interviewer asked curiously.

 

“Hey now, that’s something for me to know and the public to guess at,” The Valiant said, waggling a finger teasingly. “But yeah, it gets tiring after a while. Not to sound like an ass or anything, but I feel like a mom who’s been picking up after her kids all day and is ready to pass out, and then her kid goes and spills juice all over the carpet.”

 

“Oh, that’s funny!” the interviewer laughed, clapping their hands. “That’s a very accurate description, I suppose!”

 

“Yes, yes! I swear, it can really wear a man down!” The Valiant yawned, stretching his arms, and made to stand.

 

“Ah, sir? We’re not finished yet! Sir—!”

 

◊◊◊

 

Interview with The Valiant, March 31st, 1998

 

“Yeah, I do think I’d like to settle down someday,” The Valiant said, twiddling his thumbs. “Maybe not with kids of my own, though…that really isn’t my thing.”

 

“Ah, a bachelor for life, eh?” the interviewer asked slyly.

 

“No, not quite. I would like to find a spouse, though. Someone nice, good-looking, smart…”

 

“A lovely lady for a handsome man!” the interviewer finished heartily.

 

The Valiant gave them a restrained smile, wondering how long it would take for them to catch on.

 

“But yeah, no kiddies for me. I do have other family members I would like to help raise, though.”

 

“With your beautiful wife by your side!”

 

The Valiant smiled at the sweet, clueless interviewer. “Sure.”

 

◊◊◊

 

Interview with Russandol, March 31st, 1998

 

“Are you serious?” Russandol asked the interviewer. “Of course I’m not going to settle down! Not any time soon, anyway.”

 

“And will youhave a handful of children running around?” the interviewer asked. “I’m sure any woman would love to be your wife!”

 

Russandol almost rolled his eyes. Seriously? Couldn’t people take a hint?

 

“A wife and children aren’t my style,” he said. “And leave the fate of the world to the rest of these morons? No way!”

Chapter Text

April 18th, 1999

 

The gun fully loaded, the man leaned out of the car window and began to fire, his shots either missing their mark or denting the police car chasing them.

 

The bag of money was pressed firmly against his thigh, and it was this that kept him firing, aiming for the glass protecting the policemen.

 

The cops wouldn’t win this time.

 

◊◊◊

 

Findekáno Ñolofinwëanon/Fingon Fingolfiniôn, commonly known as Finno, was humming to himself, squirming in his seat as he coasted down the street.

 

He was so excited—!

 

The radio squawked to a halt, cutting off the cheerful tune that had been playing to blare, “We interrupt this program to bring you a live news report. An armed pursuit is taking place on Over Hill Road and Under Hill Avenue. Citizens are cautioned tostay away!”

 

“Damn!” Finno swore.

 

He hit a button on his console and a digital map popped up. His controls shifted to a knob with several options and he twisted the knob to the ISOLATE PURSUIT option.

 

The cars appeared as blinking dots on the map…not far from him!

 

Finno looked at his watch. Five thirty.

 

“Yeah, I’ve got time,” he said easily.

 

He twisted the knob to INTERCEPT MODE and the route was lined up for him on the map.

 

The auto drive kicked in and Finno let go of the wheel, smiling as he slid smoothly around the cars.

 

Lying back in his seat, he shifted to the right and stretched out. Iron bands clamped around his chest and separated, removing his tuxedo and replacing it with his super suit.

 

Finno loved his super suit. It was a dark blue shot through with near-invisible strands of gold. His belt and boots were all gold. A giant gold-outlined overlaid T and V stretched over his broad torso.

 

But his helmet he loved the most.

 

It looked like an ordinary knight’s helmet. But this helmet was solid gold. Little gems of lapis lazuli dotted the arch over the face—almost like a crown. A solid slab of lapis lazuli striped with subtle gold streaks hid his nose, mouth, and chin from the world.

 

Sitting back up, The Valiant shifted back up to the driver’s seat and held up his hands. Iron bands clasped around his arms, then lifted and folded away to reveal his signature golden gloves.

 

Taking the wheel again, the car morphing into his signature vehicle, called The Chariot, The Valiant pressed the red button in between the map and the knob. The engine kicked in and he sped up, weaving through traffic faster than a spider can ensnare a fly.

 

He was so close to the chase…The Valiant hunched forward over the wheel, grinning like a fiend. This was going to be fun—!

 

“Oh, The Valiant! The Valiant!”

 

An old lady was walking right in his path!

 

The Valiant slammed on the breaks, screeching to a halt just in the nick of time, his front bumper a mere inch away from the old lady’s skirt.

 

Rolling down his window, he said, “What might I do for you?”

 

“Ah, my cat Tom won’t come down from the tree!”

 

The Valiant looked up to see a tiny brown cat yowling from a tree branch high up on a tall tree.

 

Knowledge of the chase itching in his mind, The Valiant said, “Absolutely, milady, but I must insist you take care. This may get ugly.”

 

“Oh no, he’s quite tame!” the old lady insisted.

 

The Valiant grabbed the tree and lifted it completely out of the ground, tilting it so the branches were a mere six feet off the ground. The little old lady stood beneath them, calling, “Tom, come here, Tom! Come on down to Mommy!”

 

The Valiant could hear the sounds of gunfire in the distance. He began to gently shake the tree, Tom clinging to his branch for dear life.

 

The cars were screeching around corners now, exchanging gunfire. They careened around a lamp pole, heading straight towards them—!

 

Gritting his teeth, The Valiant shook the tree harder, Tom thrashing around in midair. They were getting closer

 

“Come on, come on, get off the fucking tree,” he mumbled to himself.

 

They were coming up to them!

 

Finally, the damn cat released his grip on the branch and fell into his owner’s arms.

 

The Valiant heaved, and the tree arched through the air…to slam right into the gunman’s car.

 

◊◊◊

 

Setting the tree back in its place, The Valiant turned to face the old lady and the two cops.

 

“Thank you, The Valiant. You’ve done it again,” one cop said.

 

“Please, please, the pleasure is mine,” The Valiant said easily.

 

In the background, his radio squawked. “We have a report of a tour bus robbery occurring…”

 

“A tour bus robbery?” The Valiant slid his glove up to look at his watch. “I’ve still got time.”

 

◊◊◊

 

After saluting the officers, nodding to the old lady, and petting Tom, The Valiant ran back to his car and slid inside. Slamming the car door, he grabbed the steering wheel—

 

“Duo ready for takeoff!”

 

“What the—?”

 

Seated in the passenger seat of his car was…a young boy? What?

 

The kid was dressed in blue shorts and a sleeveless shirt with glitter glued on. He wore a golden cape and had The Valiant sneakers on his feet. A plastic knight helmet spray painted gold was perched crookedly on his head.

 

“Who are you supposed to be?” The Valiant squawked.

 

“Well, I’m The Courageous!” the kid said, striking a pose.

 

“No, no, no, you’re that kid from the fan club! Ulfast,” The Valiant said, snapping his fingers. “Ulwarth. Uldor. No!” The Valiant’s head snapped up “Ulfang!” He frowned at Ulfang. “Ulfang…”

 

“My nameis The Courageous,” Ulfang said through clenched teeth.

 

The Valiant sighed, wishing he could rub his face through his helmet. “Listen, child. I have taken photographs with you, given you dozens of autographs, but thisis—”

 

“No-no-no, you don’t have to worry about training me!” Ulfang assured him. “I know all your moves, catchphrases, every single thing you do!”

 

His black eyes were big and bright. “I’m your number one fan!”

 

The Valiant pushed the EJECT button and the roof flipped open. Ulfang was flown out of the car and safely into the grass. The Valiant closed the roof and sped off.

 

He could hear the kid yelling behind him, but he ignored him. He had a robber to catch.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man tore through the lady’s purse, searching for anything valuable. A wallet? Score! A watch? Nice! A Pez dispenser? Weird. A stuffed turtle? What the fuck?

 

He tossed the purse aside—

 

“You know…”

 

The man whirled around to see The Valiant looming over him. He began scooting back, reaching for his gun.

 

“If you wanted a piece of gum,” The Valiant continued, “all you had to do was ask.”

 

Freeing his gun from his waistband, he pointed it at the shining superhero. “Listen here, you—”

 

Something hard and metal collided with his face and the world went black.

 

◊◊◊

 

The tall man smiled at the baffled look on The Valiant’s face and stepped out from the shadow of the shed on the roof and into the fading sunlight. His copper super suit, complete with an iron belt and boots, gleamed. His iron facemask, covering his face from chin to nose, gave his face an otherworldly look, and his luscious, short wine hair appeared to be on fire.

 

He looked beautiful. And he knew it.

 

“Russandol,” The Valiant got out.

 

“The Valiant,” Russandol returned, smiling. He bent to pick up the man—

 

“It’s okay, I’ve got him,” The Valiant said.

 

“Do you really?” Russandol said dryly, dropping the man onto the ground. “Because it looks to me like you’re trying to take credit for mywork.”

 

“You only did that because he was looking at me,” The Valiant protested.

 

Yes,” Russandol said slowly, as though he were talking to an infant. “Something I used to do my job.”

 

“No, youdid myjob,” The Valiant corrected unsteadily.

 

Russandol smiled. Beauty was the most effective tool in manipulation. That and brains. Those never hurt either.

 

“Whatever happened to first come, first serve?” Russandol asked innocently.

 

“Well, whatever happened to finders keepers?” The Valiant returned.

 

“Hey, look, Russandol got me first, okay?” the man croaked, pushing himself up with the building for support.

 

Russandol aimed a fist in his direction and his arm turned to solid copper, which stretched out to punch the man in the face and knock him out cold.

 

“We could always share,” Russandol offered.

 

The Valiant scoffed. “I work alone.”

 

“Well, now! Sounds to me like someone needs to be more…”

 

Russandol extended his hands to tug The Valiant to him, pressing their chests together. He leaned down—he was also known for his extraordinary height—to whisper, “Malleable.” into The Valiant’s ear.

 

Pulling back, he watched The Valiant blink rapidly. “Are…um, are you…d-doing anything later?” he stuttered.

 

Russandol smiled teasingly. “I have a previously planned engagement.”

 

Releasing The Valiant, Russandol turned and ran towards the edge of the building. Leaping off, he dove toward the street, holding out his hands.

 

His hands turned to copper and extended. When they hit the tarmac, they sank down a bit, then pushed up, shooting him up onto the roof of the next building. He repeated this twice more, then jumped onto a speeding train heading exactly where he needed to go. Russandol smiled.

 

He had an engagement to get ready for.

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant stared after Russandol, feeling as though he had the power to fly (he didn’t—that was Felagund’s territory). He was sure that, had he taken off his helmet, his cheeks would have been red enough to match Russandol’s perfect hair.

 

Valar above, he was so beautiful. And witty. And strong. And smart. And sassy. And perfect.

 

The robber groaned, shaking The Valiant out of his reverie. He produced a pair of handcuffs from his left boot (left boot had handcuffs, right boot had a gun—for emergencies only) and chained the man up to a pipe protruding from the roof.

 

Pressing the lapis lazuli button on the side of his helmet, the hidden mini phone embedded within the helmet whirred to life—a direct line to the police station.

 

“Hello, officers? Yes, this is The Valiant. I’ve got a thieving asshole on the roof of the Prancing Pony Apartments Complex C on the corner of Bree Street and The Shire Avenue,” The Valiant said, grinning as he heard laughter on the other line. “If you could pick him up within the next half hour, that would be splendid. Thanks.”

 

The Valiant hung up in time to see a helicopter whirring over the city, a machine gun firing onto the people below. The Valiant tensed, ready to—

 

“Yo, Val!”

 

The Valiant grinned at the sound of his best friend’s voice. “Hey, Felagund!”

 

Felagund was flying towards the helicopter. His yellow suit and white belt and boots and hood, gave him the look of a shooting star ninja blazing his way across the sky.

 

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Felagund yelled as he grabbed the helicopter’s landing gear.

 

“I’ve still got time!” The Valiant called after him.

 

A scream drew his attention and The Valiant ran to the north side of the roof.

 

A crowd had gathered at the bottom of a massive skyscraper, along with several ambulances and firefighters. A spotlight was pointed at the very top and The Valiant followed its beam with his eyes.

 

There was a man up there! He was balanced precariously on the edge of the building, teetering in the light.

 

“No!” a woman screamed. “Túrin, don’t!”

 

The Valiant watched with horror as “Túrin” hurled himself off the building, eliciting many awful shrieks from below.

 

The Valiant stepped back a few feet, braced himself, waited, waited…now!

 

Pushing off, The Valiant leaped off of the building and caught Túrin, crashing through a window and rolling safely to a stop on the floor of a meeting room.

 

“I think…you’ve broken something…” Túrin croaked.

 

Well, mostly safely.

 

“Not to worry,” The Valiant said, picking himself up. “In due time, and with a good therapist, I believe you’ll be grateful I did.”

 

Suddenly, The Valiant hunched over, concentrating on the small crackling sound coming from the hallway across the room. What could that mean?

 

The Valiant ran to the hallway and pressed his ear against the wall. The crackling was steadily growing faster…

 

Realization struck and The Valiant threw himself to the far wall a second before it exploded, sending debris flying and a giant safe door towards The Valiant, pinning him to the wall. If he had been anyone else, that probably would have killed him.

 

Low grunting and thudding footsteps had The Valiant tensing. He knew who this was.

 

He rolled the safe door aside to reveal a bulky balrog at least a foot taller than him and made entirely of fire. His black eyes seemed dull compared to his blazing body. In one massive hand, he clutched a handful of really expensive jewels.

 

“Gothmog,” The Valiant growled, assuming a defensive position.

 

Gothmog growled unintelligibly, most likely something nasty.

 

“And The Courageous!”

 

You havegotto be kidding me, The Valiant thought in exasperation.

 

Turning to the hole in the window, he saw Ulfang illuminated by a searchlight.

 

Gothmog made a confused sound. The Valiant wanted to slap his forehead.

 

Ulfang rose up from the ground and flew—flew, okay, wow—over to him, his The Valiant sneakers spouting flames from the bottoms.

 

“Want to know how I did that?” Ulfang asked, landing unsteadily in front of The Valiant. “I modified your sneakers into rocket sneakers!”

 

The Valiant sighed. “Go home, Ulfang.”

 

“Okay, can we talk?” Ulfang said. “You always say that someday you’ll know who you are, but you never said when! I’ve figured out who I am now. I am your ward…The Courageous!”

 

He spread his arms wide, grinning wildly.

 

The Valiant almost groaned out loud. Was this kid serious?

 

“Okay, you have officially gone to far,” The Valiant said, grabbing Gothmog’s arm. The balrog had tried to slip away during their conversation.

 

“Is this because I don’t have powers or something?” Ulfang asked angrily. “You don’t need powers to be a superhero! I madethese! Me!” He gestured to his rocket sneakers. “I can fly!”

 

He glared at The Valiant. “Can you fly?”

 

“Fly home, Ulfang,” The Valiant said sternly. “I work alone.”

 

Gothmog rumbled, probably a scathing comment and nothing appropriate for a kid to hear.

 

“Could you just give me one chance?” Ulfang pleaded. “Look, I’ll show you! I’ll go get the police!”

 

And that was when it happened.

 

Ulfang turned and ran for the hole just as Gothmog tossed a glob of fire onto the edge of Ulfang’s cape, where it stuck.

 

The Valiant’s eyes widened.

 

That was one of Gothmog’s most deadly weapons—a firebomb made from his own stomach. It was disgusting and disturbing—and lethal.

 

“No, stop!” The Valiant howled. “There’s a firebomb!”

 

He released Gothmog and ran for Ulfang, who had either not heard him or was ignoring him. The Valiant jumped and caught the edge of Ulfang’s cape just as the boy took off.

 

Ulfang was yelling at him, but The Valiant couldn’t hear him, too focused on grabbing that firebomb, which was constantly fluttering out of his grip.

 

This went on for several terrifying minutes—Ulfang careening wildly all over the place and him grappling for the damn bomb. The Valiant was being tossed around so badly he was afraid he’d be shaken off before he could save this kid.

 

Finally, he snatched the bomb, just as he finally lost his grip on the cape. He and the bomb fell through the air, the city spinning around them.

 

The Valiant landed hard on a train track and curled in on himself, groaning. Even for a superhero, a fall like that hurt like Mandos.

 

He heard the bomb land and then a horrible explosion that sent hot air blowing towards him, heating his face beneath his helmet.

 

Peeling his head off the tracks, The Valiant surveyed the damage—a good-sized chunk taken out of the tracks—and went for the button to call the police—

 

A horn blared and The Valiant saw, with no small amount of horror, a train coming straight for the hole in the tracks.

 

The Valiant pushed himself to his feet and ran for the hole, leaping over it with practiced ease. He stopped a good distance away from the hole and stopped, bracing himself just as the train slammed into him.

 

◊◊◊

 

The woman was humming to herself, slowly turning the pages of her book. She was almost to the best part—

 

A nasty BAM sounded as the train hit something. She was thrown from her seat, screaming when she landed funny on her arm, something snapping beneath her.

 

The lights were flickering around her and people were screaming. One man landed hard on her leg and she cried out as his elbow caused another bone to snap.

 

What was happening?

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant gritted his teeth as he skidded towards the hole. He dug his boots into the tracks, pushed back as hard as he could, anything to slow this train down.

 

They were getting closer to the hole—!

 

The train was slowing, but not quickly enough. The Valiant pressed harder, praying to Manwë that he could stop this train in time, that these people would live…

 

The front of the train reached the edge of the hole and The Valiant was forced to hold on as he was pushed off the ground to dangle in midair.

 

But thankfully, the train finally came to a full stop. The Valiant sighed with relief, even as he heard screaming emanating from the train cars.

 

The Valiant released the front of the train and dropped two stories to the ground, hitting the concrete so hard his knees popped.

 

Ow.

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant dragged a fuming Ulfang towards a police car, where two officers waited.

 

“Please take this little one home,” The Valiant said wearily to the officers, handing Ulfang over to them. “Please make sure his parents know what he’s been up to.”

 

“You need me!” Ulfang called as he was escorted to the car. “You’re making a huge mistake—hey!” he squawked as the car door was slammed in his face.

 

“Okay,” The Valiant said, rubbing his gloved hands together. “You’ve sent for paramedics?”

 

“They’re en route now,” one officer said.

 

“Excellent. Now, the blast in that building was caused by Gothmog’s firebomb. Now, we might still catch him if we surround—”

 

“You mean…he got away,” the other officer said dubiously.

 

“Yes,” The Valiant said, gesturing to Ulfang. “Samwise over there made sure of that.”

 

“The Courageous!” he yelled.

 

“You are not affiliated with me!” The Valliant snapped.

 

He looked at his watch and swore. “Motherfucker, I’m late. Sorry gentlemen, I have somewhere to be.”

 

He saluted the officers and ran for the curb where The Chariot pulled up, waiting.

 

“Well, what about Gothmog?” the first officer blustered.

 

“Look, I would go after him if it was any other night, but this time, I just can’t.” The Valiant climbed into his car. “But don’t fear! I will eventually find him!”

 

He drove off before he could hear the officers’ replies.

 

◊◊◊

 

The second the car was parked, The Valiant stripped off his uniform, the iron bands doing their jobs well. Soon enough he was back to his tuxedo.

 

Grinning, Finno jumped out of the car and ran up the stairs to the small church, each step somehow taking an infinity to pass.

 

When he pushed open the doors, Findaráto Ingoldo Arafinwëanon/Finrod Finarfiniôn, or Ingo, was checking his nails in the light of the entranceway.

 

“Hey!” Finno said, patting his friend/best man on the back. “Is the groom still here?”

 

“He’s not going to be happy with you,” Ingo said dryly. “You’re very late, you know—shit, man, you’re still wearing your helmet!”

 

Finno gasped and yanked it off his head. He’d forgotten he’d still had it on!

 

“I’ll take care of it,” Ingo hissed, grabbing it out of his hands. “Now get out there before your husband-to-be rethinks his decision to marry you!”

 

Finno approached the doors to the church proper and felt a fluttering in his stomach. He swallowed and pushed it down.

 

“Here we go,” he murmured.

 

Finno pushed the doors open and walked into the church.

 

◊◊◊

 

The pastor was speaking words Finno knew he should be paying attention to—it had been hard enough to find one willing to marry two men—but he only had eyes for his darling almost-husband.

 

Nelyafinwë Maitimo Fëanáranon/Maedhros Fëanoriôn—Nelyo—looked stunning in his tuxedo, as always. That fond glint was in his eyes, the one only Finno seemed to get, and Finno got lightheaded every time knowing it was for him.

 

“You’re late,” he whispered as the pastor droned on. “I thought you were joking earlier when you asked me what I was doing.”

 

“I was,” Finno whispered back.

 

“Apparently not, because you got here past your bedtime,” Nelyo teased.

 

“You need to be more…malleable,” Finno hissed.

 

“I will always love you,” Nelyo murmured, nearly bursting Finno’s heart, “but you are going to have to become so much more than a superhero now. You know that, right?”

 

Finno smiled up at his beloved Nelyo and said, “I do.”

 

“Then by the power vested in me by Eru Ilúvatar, I pronounce you husband and husband,” the pastor said, startling Finno. It was over that quickly? “You may now kiss the groom.”

 

Nelyo threw his arms around Finno, dipping him back, and kissed him thoroughly. Finno allowed his eyes to drift shut and his hands to twine lazily in Nelyo’s beautiful hair.

 

He could hear his family clapping, Ingo’s family sniffling, Aunt Findis clicking her tongue, Aunt Lalwen snorting, and Nelyo’s family catcalling and wolf-whistling, but he didn’t care—nothing existed now except Nelyo and him.

 

“Throughout anything,” Nelyo breathed as they separated, their noses touching. “No matter what happens…”

 

“Hey,” Finno said, smiling bright enough to power the sun. “We’re superheroes! What could happen?”

Chapter Text

May 24th, 1999

 

"It's stunning," the news reporter announced. "A man has actually taken a superhero to court. Túrin Turambar is suing The Valiant for foiling his attempted suicide. Surprisingly enough, this case has been taken to superior court. Here's a clip of the two being interviewed by reporters:"

 

["Mr. Turambar did not want to be saved," Túrin's lawyer said, "and because he was, he is now in pain and likely will be for the foreseeable future."

 

He gestured at the brace around Túrin's neck.

 

"That's not fair! I saved you!" The Valiant cried out.

 

"No, you damned me!" Mr. Turambar screamed, tears in his eyes.

 

"My client is not available for comment at this time," The Valiant's lawyer said, holding The Valiant back.]

 

May 29th, 1999

 

"And The Valiant's in court again!" the news reporter said, shocked. "The victims of the train crash are suing The Valiant. His losses have cost the government millions. Wow. I'd hate to be him!"

 

July 20th, 1999

 

"Well, Iron Man's in jail for allegedly wrecking a teenager's car with his powers! Gosh, I never knew he had it in for little kids!"

 

October 1st, 1999

 

"And we've got Dark Heart taken to court for…killing children with cancer? Hey, are you seeing this? They think this guy, known for his healing powers, is killing the kids of people he doesn't like! I mean, is it that far-fetched? I don't know…"

 

October 8th, 1999

 

"Well, now Red 2, is in jail for reportedly rigging the Kentucky Derby so the horse he bet on would win! Can't blame him, myself, I'd probably do the same thing, but still…"

 

December 20th, 1999

 

"And, now Mystic Mirror's in jail for being a peeping Tom! Unconfirmed reports say she was using her mirror powers to spy on people! Now that's just creepy! How much worse can this get?"

 

January 1st, 2000

 

"Well, someone really hit the new year with a bang last night! Fire Heart defeated the Grog Orc Gang yesterday—at the expense of an entire building. That's right, a building. Their fight demolished almost all of the Homely House Orphanage. Luckily, no one was in there at the time, but still…can you imagine all those poor children? They don't have anywhere to sleep now! Superheroes are really starting to turn dark these days."

 

February 14th, 2000

 

"And on this day, Governor Denethor II will be giving a speech on the current superhero backlash. We cut now to a live feed of the speech:"

 

["It is time," Governor Denethor II said, brushing his gray hair to the side, "for their secret identity to become their only identity. It's time for them to join us…or go away."

 

The crowd cheered loudly.]

 

March 8th, 2000

 

"And the police have had to fight yet another riot in the streets—golly, this is getting intense. It was just a few streets away from the studio, and we could hear them, couldn't we? All of them were yelling: "NO MORE SUPERS! NO MORE SUPERS! NO MORE SUPERS!" Unbelievable, folks. Utterly unbelievable."

 

April 1st, 2000

 

"And the Ku Klux Klan has gotten involved! I don't know if this was an April Fools' Day joke or what, but they hung piñatas of some of the world's more popular supers on trees and lit them on fire. It's a good thing supers have powers—Mandos, it's a good thing they have secret identities! Otherwise, they all might have been killed by now!"

 

May 1st, 2000

 

"Today is a historic day, ladies and gentlemen. Governments all over the world have initiated what they call the "Superhero Relocation Act." Superheroes will not be held accountable for their past actions as long as they promise to "hang up their capes" and never again take up superhero work."

 

July 4th, 2000

 

"People all over the world have been asking, "Where are the superheroes now?" Well, they live among us, as ordinary as they can be, making the world a better place in the best ways they can."

Chapter Text

Present Day (15 Years Later)

 

 "What do you mean you deny my claim!" the old man rasped. "It says right here that I have full coverage!"

 

"I'm sorry sir," Finno droned for what seemed like the tenth time. "But our liability is spelled out in the paperwork."

 

"B-But…"

 

Finno's iPhone began to ring, rattling his pencil jar.

 

"Pardon me a moment." Finno picked up his iPhone and, without looking at it, pressed the green button. "Hello, this is Findekáno Ñolofinwëanon speaking, how may I help you?"

 

"Wow, you must need a vacation if you can't recognize your own husband's number," Nelyo said, his voice bright. "I call with good news! You remember that OCD patient I was treating? The one with the thing about mechanical pencils?"

 

"Yes, yes, he couldn't hold them, or his little sister would burst into flames," Finno said dully. "What about him?"

 

"I got him to hold one for a solid minute!" Nelyo said excitedly. "And without his little sister in the room! He's made such good progress!"

 

"That's fantastic, Nelyo." Finno glanced at the man in front of him. "Listen, I'm seeing a client right now."

 

"Ah, say no more! Go save the world, one policy at a time. I have to go pick up your siblings anyway. Love you. Bye!"

 

"Bye." Finno hung up and turned back to the old man. "Apologies. Where were we?"

 

"I'm on a fixed income, I can't do this!" the old man croaked.

 

Finno huffed a sigh. He hated this job, he hated that he had to do this—

 

Wait.

 

Finno stood up and peeked his head out of his cubicle, making sure there was no one around who was listening. He peered over the top. Nope. No one.

 

"Listen," he whispered, sitting back down. "I'd love to help you, but I can't.” He picked up a notepad and pen and pressed them into the old man's hands.

 

"I would not take a copy of your claim to Gelmir—Gelmir," he hissed, pointing at the notepad—the old man wasn't writing anything. "G-E-L-M-I-R on the sixth floor."

 

Nodding, the old man began to scribble down the name onto the paper.

 

"I would also not advise you to find and fill out the file Dor-Lómin found under our emergency files. I would not expect someone to get back to you quickly to resolve the issue."

 

Finno smiled innocently and shrugged at the old man when he looked up. "I'd love to help, but there's nothing I can do."

 

"Oh, thank—!"

 

Finno hushed him, then trumpeted, "I'm sorry sir, I know you're upset."  He nodded to the old man, who hobbled out of the office, muttering about the youth of this generation and how they could kiss his sagging ass cheeks.

 

Finno chuckled as he sat back down—

 

"FINGOLFINIÔN!"

 

Finno nearly groaned as Edrahil, his boss, stormed into his cubicle. He slammed a file onto Finno's desk, sending his pencil jar crashing to the floor, scattering pencils everywhere.

 

"You authorized payment on the Alqualondë policy?"

 

"Someone broke into their house, sir, their coverage—” Finno started defensively, picking up his pencils.

 

"I don't care about their coverage, Fingon! Don't tell me about their frigging coverage! Tell me how you're keeping Hithlum in the blank with you writing checks to every poor bastard or unlucky bitch that gives you a phone call!"

 

Edrahil marched out of the cubicle. Finno sighed and sat back down. Could this day get any more depressing?

 

His pencil jar fell over again.

 

Finno buried his face in his hands.

 

◊◊◊

 

Nelyo walked into the principal's office to find Principal Bilbo sitting behind his desk and Mr. Maggot standing behind him—and Arko in the chair in front of them.

 

When he saw Nelyo, Arko hurriedly turned around in his seat, looking at his thumbs.

 

Oh no. What had Arko done this time?

 

"Thank you for coming down here, Mr. Fëanoriôn," Principal Bilbo said solemnly.

 

"What's this about?" Nelyo asked, coming to sit beside a fidgeting Arko. "Has Arakáno done something wrong?"

 

"He's a disruptive influence," Mr. Maggot said stiffly. "And he openly humiliates me in front of the class."

 

"Says you," Arko muttered. Nelyo barely restrained himself from slapping his forehead in exasperation.

 

"Look, I know it's you!" Mr. Maggot snapped, pointing an accusing finger at Arko.

 

"And you've seen him doing this," Nelyo said, pushing the man's trembling hand aside.

 

"Well, er…em, no. Not…really," Mr. Maggot said, toying with the neckline of his shirt.

 

"Uh-huh. Then how do you know that it's Arakáno?" Nelyo asked suspiciously.

 

"I hid a camera!" the teacher said smugly, holding up a remote. "And this time, I've got him!"

 

Nelyo glared at Arko, whose eyes were bugging out of his head.

 

Shit.

 

Mr. Maggot turned to the television in the corner of the room and turned it on, displaying a full-color scene where Mr. Maggot was in front of his class, walking towards his seat. Arko was seated in the back of the room.

 

As the TV Mr. Maggot sat down, the chair collapsed beneath him, sending him toppling to the ground.

 

"You see? You see it?"

 

Nelyo squinted. Was he supposed to be seeing something, or…?

 

"You don't see it." Mr. Maggot sighed and rewound the tape. He pointed at Arko, who was just sitting at his desk, flattening his palm on the wood.

 

Nelyo blinked. Okay…

 

Wait.

 

Arko must have been using his mind to loosen the nails holding the chair together, hence the splaying of his palm—a way to concentrate his energy.

 

That little shit. Nelyo would have been impressed if he weren't still angry.

 

"You see? He moves! Right there!"

 

Principal Bilbo frowned. "I don't see…"

 

"Wait, wait!" Mr. Maggot rewound the tape again. "Right there! He moves right as I'm sitting down!"

 

He turned off the TV and looked defiantly back at the rest of the room.  "I don't know, I don't know how he does it, but the second he moves, my chair collapses! Coincidence? I think not!" Mr. Maggot yelled, one eye twitching.

 

Nelyo couldn't stop himself from shifting away from the slightly unhinged teacher. He was right, of course, but still…the stress of teaching high school students was apparently getting to him.

 

Would it be inappropriate to offer him counseling sessions?

 

"Ehm…" Principal Bilbo laid a hand on Mr. Maggot's arm. "Farmer, I—"

 

"Don't "Farmer" me!" Mr. Maggot snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at Arko. "That little rat is guilty!"

 

"Ah, Mr. Maggot, it sounds like you're quite stressed out," Nelyo tried uneasily. "Would you perhaps like to come to a counseling session with me? Or if not, I know a wonderful place that offers massages—"

 

"And you!" Mr. Maggot shouted, rounding on Nelyo. "Not only is it bad enough that you refuse to punish your brother-in-law, but you also insist on treating me like one of those freaks you try to cure every day! Go back to Angband, faggot!"

 

"Farmer!" Principal Bilbo gasped.

 

"Don't talk to my brother like that, you piece of shit!" Arko yelled, leaping out of his seat.

 

"Arko, sit down," Nelyo said patiently. "It's fine."

 

It was most certainly not. Nelyo was tempted to reveal himself and strangle this little bitch with his own remote.  But he couldn't do that. Because not only was it illegal and against his moral code, it would also reveal them as past supers and start another uproar.

 

So Nelyo took a deep breath and cooled his temper.

 

"You and Argon can go now, Mr. Fëanoriôn," Principal Bilbo said quickly. "I am so sorry, and I assure you, he and I will be having words about this."

 

"Thank you," Nelyo said. "Come on, Arakáno."

 

They both stood up and walked out of the office, closing the door and trying to ignore the enraged screams of Mr. Maggot behind them.

 

◊◊◊

 

As they walked to the senior side of the school to pick up Irissë, Arko stared at the ground, trying not to look up at his big brother.

 

He was really in trouble this time.

 

"Arko."

 

Arakáno Ñolofinwëanon/Argon Fingolfiniôn looked up at Nelyo with his best puppy dog face. "Yes, Nelyo?"

 

"You know this is the third time this year you've been sent to the office," Nelyo said sternly. "And because of the same teacher. Twice is a coincidence but three times is purposeful. Care to explain?"

 

"He's mean," Arko said, tucking a bit of hair behind his ear. "He's rude and stupid, and he never follows through on what he says."

 

"Arko, you are sixteen," Nelyo sighed. "That's a kindergarten excuse, and you know it. What's really going on here?"

 

Arko kicked the ground. Could he tell Nelyo and not get in any more trouble?

 

"Arko?"

 

Arko looked up at his older brother-in-law, who was smiling patiently at him. Arko was an inch and a half shorter than super-tall Nelyo, but somehow, Nelyo always made him feel like they were equals.

 

"You can tell me anything," Nelyo said patiently. "I promise I won't get pissed."

 

That broke Arko's resolve. He sucked in a breath and said, "Mr. Maggot badmouths superheroes."

 

Nelyo blinked. "What?"

 

The dam broke and words flooded out of Arko's mouth. "He's constantly making fun of superheroes, telling us how all of them were worthless and evil and attention-seeking whores. Oh, you should have heard it, Nelyo, even you would have gotten angry!"

 

"He really says all that?"

 

"Yes!" Arko snapped, throwing his hands in the air. "And his favorites are you and Finno and Cousin Ingo. He likes to call Finno "all brawn, no brain." You're "a sweet ass with no brains" and Ingo's "a worthless bolt head." It just makes me want to—"

 

Arko slammed his fist into his palm.  It infuriated him. This was his family that fucking asshole was badmouthing. But he couldn't even tell him that because that would be blowing their frigging cover!

 

"Why haven't you reported this?" Nelyo asked, his voice sounding concerned.

 

"Because that's how it works, nowadays," Arko grumbled, kicking the ground again. "People dump shit on superheroes, and anyone who disagrees is an outcast. I just don't say anything, so I'm still cool, but still."

 

Hearing those taunts and threats against superheroes made him want to cry—what had they ever even done wrong? They were trying to save people! Sure they caused a little damage, but that was nothing compared to what would have happened if they hadn't been there!  Why wasn't the world fair?

 

"I'm sorry you have to hear that, Arko, but you just have to learn to do what Finno and I do and turn the other cheek," Nelyo said.

 

"Finno doesn't turn the other cheek, though," Arko countered. "He usually breaks whatever he's holding or goes and finds something to break."

 

Nelyo rolled his eyes. "Don't pay attention to him when he does that. He's a little hotheaded."

 

"Says the guy with fire for hair!" Arko reached over and petted Nelyo's ponytail of wine hair for emphasis.

 

Nelyo chuckled. "Fair enough."

 

"That's another thing," Arko grumbled. "He makes fun of me because I'm the only black kid in his class. What's the deal? We may be different colors, but we're still people! I'm not going to suddenly start acting like an ape!"

 

"Unfortunately, that's how some people think," Nelyo said softly. "But don't let it get to you. Whenever he starts to rag on you, tell him that at least your hair looks better than his bald head."

 

Arko ran a hand through his fuzzy hair. "Is it really?"

 

"Yes, it is," Nelyo said, smiling. "Be proud of it."

 

They were almost to the senior side of the school.

 

"He says other things," Arko mumbled, shoving his hands in his pockets. "About you…and Finno."

 

Nelyo stiffened. "Does he really?"

 

"Yeah. Mr. Maggot always calls me out in front of the other kids. I'm the "brother of two faggots" to him, and he takes his time to teach us all about how LGBTQ+ people were persecuted all over the world and then write essays on why that was okay."

 

"Is that the essay you didn't do?"

 

"Yeah. I ripped it to shreds."

 

Nelyo was silent for a moment. "Does it bother you, ever? The fact that Finno and I are married?"

 

"No, never!" Arko gasped, putting his hand on Nelyo's shoulder. "I don't care! You guys are in love!” Plus, it’d be hypocritical of him, being pansexual, to judge them. “How could that be bad? Why is it bad?"

 

Arko didn't understand it. He had watched his friends' parents and Nelyo and Finno—and they acted just the same! Finno and Nelyo did their taxes together, Finno and Nelyo cleaned together, Finno and Nelyo helped Arko, Irissë, and Turno with whatever they needed, and Finno and Nelyo doted on Itarillë!  What was so wrong about that?"People think it's a perversion of nature," Nelyo explained, a sour look on his face. “They think that men and women are the only ones that can marry."

 

"They're wrong," Arko muttered.

 

Nelyo shrugged. "I guess so. But that's the way things are."

 

"People don't like superheroes, people don't like gay people, people don't like people who have different skin color, what's next? People don't like people with blue eyes? When's it ever going to stop?" Arko asked, exasperated.

 

"I don't know. Whenever people get it through their heads that we're all equal in the end."

 

"That needs to happen soon," Arko grouched.

 

Nelyo laughed. "I feel you, kiddo. I feel you."

 

They reached the front of the senior side of the school, where Irissë was supposed to be waiting for them. But she was nowhere to be found.

 

Arko frowned. "Where is she?"

 

"I don't know." Cupping his hands around his mouth, Nelyo called, "Irissë! Irissë! We're here!"

 

There was a loud bang from the alleyway between the junior and senior buildings and several kids decked out in black bolted out and away from the school as fast as they could.

 

"Yeah!" a figure said, pumping their fist as they ran out of the alley. "Next time you call someone a nigger, be prepared for a fight, bitch!"

 

"Irissë," Nelyo snapped.

 

Irissë Ñolofinwiel/Aredhel Fingolfiniel turned towards Arko and Nelyo, a guilty grin on her face. "Hey, Nelyo!" she squeaked, making finger guns. "Arko! What's up?"

 

◊◊◊

 

Irissë frowned as she drew random patterns on the window. On her other side, Arko was sneaking glances at her.

 

"Hey!" she snapped.

 

Arko jumped. "What, what?"

 

“Keep your eyes to yourself.” She punctuated each word with a poke to Arko's chest.

 

Arko nodded. "Okay!"

 

"That is enough from you, young lady," Nelyo said sternly from the front seat.

 

"They called me a nigger! I was just getting them back!" Irissë said defensively.

 

"Irissë, you should have told someone instead of hitting them back. Violence is no way to solve a problem."

 

"It shuts them up fast enough," Irissë grumbled. She grinned as she remembered the look on that bitch-ass kid's face when she'd swung her fist.

 

"You need to find a better way to let out your anger than beating up some poor kids," Nelyo lectured.

 

"Gee, how could I do that?" she asked sarcastically. "I mean, I don't suppose sports are an option—"

 

"Irissë, don't even go there," Nelyo warned. "You know why we can't do that."

 

"I would slow up, I swear," Irissë protested. "I would make it look like a challenge before I won."

 

"Irissë, the last thing you need is a way to show off your powers. Once you start, there's no taking it back."

 

"You always tell us to do our best, but you never let us do our best! Why, why can't I do my best? Other kids can. It isn't fair!"

 

"Irissë, I just finished having this conversation with your brother," Nelyo said tiredly. "Right now is not a good time for supers to exercise their powers. So we just have to fit in, for now. It won't be for forever, I promise you."

 

"Finno says our powers are great," Irissë sneered. "He says our powers are what makes us special."

 

"Everyone's special, Irissë," Nelyo said coolly. "Don't forget that."

 

Irissë curled up against the car door, pressing her face to the window.

 

""Everyone's special,"" she mumbled. "More like ""no one's special.""

 

◊◊◊

 

"Hello, Itarillë," Turukáno Ñolofinwëanon/Turgon Fingolfiniôn cooed. "Have you had a good time at daycare?"

 

Itarillë Turukánanon/Idril Turgoniel giggled and clapped her hands. "Dada!

 

 Turno smiled at his two-year-old daughter and picked her up, laughing as she squealed with delight, waving her tiny hands in the air.

 

Striding out of the college daycare and down the hall, Turno smiled and nodded at various students, all of who were in awe of him—the valedictorian, the aspiring lawyer, and a single parent to boot! He was practically a legend around his college.

 

Turno's phone buzzed in his pocket, and he knew that meant. Nelyo and the others were out front, waiting to pick him up.  He turned a corner to the front doors—

 

FUCK!

 

Ducking back behind the corner, Turno peeked around the wall.

 

There he was.

 

Voronwë was sitting propped up against a locker, earbuds tucked in his ears. His frizzy brown hair, shades lighter than Arko's, gleamed with gold in the afternoon sun, as did his warm sepia skin. His big brown eyes, a soft and inviting chestnut, were focused intently on the notebook propped on his knees.

 

Oh, Valar damn him now.

 

Voronwë was also popular, but for different reasons. He was on the college rowing team's captain and had never lost a competition. He was a friendly fellow, always the one who offered to tutor someone or help someone move something or watch someone's kid.

 

Then there was the fact that he was really fucking hot.

 

Turno had had a crush on him ever since they had sat next to each other in Econ. Voronwë had asked for a spare blue highlighter, and Turno had almost choked on his own tongue. Not one of his best moments.

 

A small voice in his head told him to just go up and talk to him. But Turno knew better. The second he did he would do something embarrassing, or Itarillë would throw up all over him, or Voronwë would try to get away from the conversation. No thank you.

 

So that left the question: how was he going to get out of this situation?

 

Turno's phone buzzed again, and Itarillë babbled, probably wondering why her daddy was just standing there doing nothing.  Turno chewed on his lip. What to do, what to—

 

Wait.  Turno looked up and down the hallway. Nope. Everyone had cleared out. It was just him and Voronwë.

 

Turno stepped into the hallway and willed himself to transform.  The heaviness of his skin melted away, and Turno became water, still shaped like a human body but made entirely of clear liquid.

 

Unfortunately, his clothes and Itarillë weren't included, so if anyone looked, they would see only jeans, sneakers, a shirt labeled ‘"Sleeping is for the weak," I say as I sleep for a week,' a backpack, and a tiny two-year-old floating in midair.

 

Turno braced himself and leaped over the hallway and through the open doors, landing safely and rematerializing in the bushes outside.

 

Itarillë laughed and clapped her hands. She loved it whenever Turno transformed with her.

 

Turno peeked through the doors. Had Voronwë seen?

 

Voronwë was frowning at the air in front of him as if he'd forgotten something. He must have caught sight of him!

 

Now you've done it, Turno, he groaned to himself.

 

But Voronwë looked back down at his notebook.

 

Turno sighed with relief. Okay, he hadn't noticed anything too weird—

 

Wait a minute.

 

He had noticed him!

 

Turno felt his insides squirm with delight. Voronwë had noticed him!

 

A horn honked. Whirling around, Turno saw the family car parked by the curb.

 

Shit. Had Nelyo and his siblings seen him with Voronwë?"

 

He hadn't come out as bisexual yet. It wasn't because he was afraid of being turned out—are you kidding? He had the most accepting family around—but because he didn't want Irissë to tease him or for Nelyo, Finno, and Arko to try and relate with him. He didn't think he could stand that.

 

"Come on, Turno!" Arko called through the open window.

 

Turno ran for the car, Itarillë giggling as she was bounced around. Sliding into the front seat, he passed Itarillë to Irissë, who buckled her into her car seat, then closed the door and turned to Nelyo. "Sorry. I was running late."

 

Turno then took note of the frown on Nelyo's face, the glare on Irissë's, and Arko's look of anxiety.

 

"What's up?" he asked curiously.

 

Nelyo held up a hand. "Don't ask."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno hunched over his steering wheel, listening to the symphony of honks and yells around him as he was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

 

He was starting to envy Nelyo, who was smart enough to work mornings or by-phone appointments. He was definitely the smart one in their relationship and Valar damn it, move it, Granny!

 

Finno sighed.

 

When had this become his life? When had he gone from saving citizens to working nine-to-five? When had he gone from punching bad guys to punching a time clock? When had he gone from adoring crowds to yelling coworkers?

 

When had this become his life?

 

Finno rubbed a hand over his eyes.

 

Why did this have to be his life?

 

◊◊◊

 

The car sputtered to a stop, sliding back a bit before coming to a halt.  Finno's head lowered as he stepped out of the car—

 

"Shit!" he yelled as he slipped sideways, grabbing the top of the car for support. Looking down, he saw he was standing on a skateboard.

 

"Damn it, Arko," he groused. He kicked the skateboard away and went to take his hand off the car—

 

And he had dented the car with his fingers. Fantastic.

 

Muttering to himself, Finno tried to shut the door—

 

The door wouldn't close.

 

He tried it again.

 

Still nothing.

 

Frustrated, Finno slammed the door with all of his strength—

 

The window shattered.

 

"OH MY—!"

 

Finno picked up the car and—

 

A little boy was sitting on a tricycle staring right at him, a bubble blown from his gum.

 

Finno blinked.

 

Glass tinkled.

 

The bubble popped.

 

Finno set the car down gently, trying for an innocent smile.

 

The kid didn't move.

 

So Finno walked inside, whistling to himself and praying to the Valar that the kid wouldn't tell anyone about this.

 

◊◊◊

 

Nelyo smiled as he watched Turno pick apart bits of broccoli and hand them to Itarillë, who gobbled them up, laughing happily.

 

Itarillë and Turno were vaguely similar in face shape and structure, but their skin was what set them apart. Turno's was a light umber while hers was more of a brownish-gold. His hair, held back in a ponytail, was pure black while hers was a mess of beautiful blonde curls, like her mother's. Turno had deep brown eyes where she had bright blue ones that shone like the sun.

 

"More, more!" Itarillë squealed, reaching out with chubby fingers.

 

"Okay, okay, I'll give you more!" Turno chuckled, snapping apart another piece.

 

"Okay, that's cute and all, but there's only so much I can take," Irissë grumbled, crossing her arms.

 

"He's feeding a toddler, Irissë," Arko said from across the table. "It's not supposed to be entertaining."

 

"Oh shut up," Irissë snapped.

 

Irissë and Arko didn't look much alike either. Irissë looked like Turno if Turno wore what could only be described as goth makeup and a white beanie. Arko looked more like Finno. His skin was a dark umber and his hair a dark brown, a frizzy halo around his head. His big eyes were almost black yet brighter than his siblings'.

 

"Irissë, don't say that to your brother," Nelyo said sternly. "He's allowed his opinion just like you're allowed yours."

 

"Shiny!" Itarillë squeaked. She was pointing at Nelyo's right hand, a prosthetic made of copper. "Shiny! Shiny!"

 

Smiling, Nelyo reached over and let Itarillë hold his hand, flexing the fingers and running her tiny hands over the palm.

 

"It's really creepy when you do that, you know," Irissë said, watching Nelyo's hand. "I don't think you should be letting a kid use your fake arm as a plaything."

 

"It's cute!" Arko said indignantly, always one to defend his brother-in-law. "She's learning to accept Nelyo for his differences! That's a good thing!"

 

He looked at the other end of the table, where Finno was scanning the newspaper. "Right, Finno?"

 

"Hmm?" Finno didn't even look up. "Yeah, sure."

 

Nelyo glared at his husband. "Must you read at the table?"

 

"Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah."

 

Nelyo rolled his eyes. Husbands.

 

Finno looked very different from fifteen years ago. No longer short, his dark brown hair was long and braided into multiple braids with golden ribbons. No longer bright, his dark eyes were clouded and dull. Nelyo couldn't remember the last time he'd seen him genuinely smile.

 

"Um, Nelyo?"

 

Nelyo looked over to Arko, who was looking down, embarrassed. "I think there's a bone in my chicken."

 

"Oh." Arko refused to eat food with bones. "Oh, okay. Finno, would you mind cutting up Arko's chicken?"

 

"Mmm? Oh, sure." Finno grabbed his little brother's plate and pulled it towards him, never once looking away from the newspaper.

 

"So Arko, anything you want to tell Finno about today?" Nelyo asked pointedly.

 

"Ha. Uh…" Arko scratched the back of his head. "We, um…we watched ‘To Kill A Mockingbird?'"

 

Nelyo sighed. "Arko got sent to the principal's office again."

 

Turno blinked. "What?" Itarillë began tapping her fingers on Nelyo's wrist.

 

"Nice," Irissë said, grinning at her younger brother.

 

"That's good," Finno said absent-mindedly.

 

"Finno, that's bad," Nelyo corrected.

 

Finno looked up. "What?"

 

"Arko got sent to the office again," Nelyo reiterated.

 

"What?" Finno frowned at Arko. "What for?"

 

"He wrecked the teacher's chair. During class."

 

"They didn't even catch me on the tape!" Arko protested. "Besides, he had it coming."

 

"Damn! They caught you on tape, but you still got away with it? Good one!" Finno said, grinning at Arko.

 

Nelyo slapped his forehead—thankfully with the non-metal hand. The last time he'd almost given himself a concussion.

 

"Wait. What do you mean, the teacher "had it coming?"" Finno asked. "What'd he do?"

 

"Apparently, lovely Mr. Maggot's been spouting slurs in the classroom," Nelyo said darkly.

 

"About what?" Irissë asked sharply.

 

"Superheroes, my race, you and Nelyo's marriage—you know, pretty much anything he can think of," Arko grumbled.

 

Turno gasped. Irissë said, "That motherfucker!" Even Itarillë made an upset sound.

 

"I'm going to kill that son of a bitch," Finno growled, standing up.

 

"Me too," Irissë said, shooting out of her seat. "Where does he live? I'll get my baseball bat—"

 

"Both of you sit back down," Nelyo said tiredly. "You're not going to do anything."

 

"Oh, I am!" Finno snapped. "Nelyo, that's our family he's insulting."

 

"I know. But the principal said he would deal with it. Besides, it's a better alternative than beating up an innocent civilian."

 

"Nelyo, even you can't let this slide!" Irissë cried. "Surely you're mad too!"

 

"Of course I am, but violence is not the answer," Nelyo said, trying to keep his voice patient. "Please just come back and sit down."

 

"No." Finno pointed at Irissë. "Go get the machete behind that painting and—"

 

"I said sit down," Nelyo snarled, banging his free fist on the table. The room began to rattle, the metal in the walls responding to his frustration.

 

Finno and Irissë glanced at each other, then slowly sat down.

 

"Thank you," Nelyo said, relieved. "Let's let the principal handle it, and if it continues, we can discuss legal action. Okay?"

 

"Okay," Irissë muttered, sulking. Finno didn't say anything, just glared at Nelyo across the table.

 

Nelyo had to fight back a groan. Dinner tonight was going splendidly.

 

"Besides, Irissë, you've had enough violence for one day," Arko said solemnly, sipping his water.

 

"Shut up, you little insect!" Irissë hissed.

 

Finno, who had begun to cut Arko's chicken again, looked up. "What do you mean?

 

 "Nothing," Irissë said through gritted teeth, shooting a dirty glance at Nelyo.

 

"She got into another fight today," Nelyo said, ignoring Irissë entirely.

 

"Why?" Finno asked. "What happened?"

 

"They called me a nigger," Irissë said sullenly.

 

Turno choked on his broccoli. "They didn't."

 

"They did, Turno. That's why I beat them up."

 

"So what'd you do?" Finno asked eagerly. "Did you do the old one-two combo or did you go for roundhouse kicks or what?"

 

"Finno, stop encouraging this," Nelyo said. Ugh, husbands.

 

"I'm not!" Finno squawked, beginning to saw faster. "I'm just asking what happened, it's not like I'm telling her to keep doing it—"

 

"Finno, the plate!" Nelyo yelped.

 

A sharp crack shocked the room into silence, and Nelyo eyed with unsurprised exasperation the broken plate and the knife sticking out of the table.

 

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Finno groaned, rubbing his head with his hands. "First the car, now this, I swear to Eru—!"

 

"What happened to the car?" Nelyo asked.

 

"Here," Finno said grouchily. He slid his own plate over to Arko. "I'll get a new plate."

 

He scooped up the paper and walked towards the kitchen.

 

Okay, then. Nelyo rubbed his head and turned to Turno. "Please tell me your day was good? Please?"

 

"It was," Turno assured him. "I turned in both my essays and gave my speech on phobias! So I guess you could say I got a lot done."

 

"Excellent," Nelyo said, smiling.

 

"But what about that mysterious crush of yours, hmm?" Irissë purred.

 

Turno paled. "I don't know what you're talking about."

 

"Yes you do," Irissë sang. "Some of my college buddies have reported seeing you blushing around the halls, and one of them caught a doodle of someone with fluffy hair in your notebook!"

 

"That's private!" Turno yelled, looking flustered.

 

"Yes, Irissë, that's very rude," Nelyo chided.

 

"The only question is: who is it?" Irissë simpered. "Hmm, who could it be? Some girl in your speech class?"

 

"Shut up," Turno growled.

 

"Or maybe the lady at the daycare?"

 

"Shut up!"

 

"Or maybe it's not even a girl at all!"

 

"Stuff it, Irissë!" Arko snapped as Turno began to turn red. "You're one to talk—I've seen your locker. It's filled with pictures of Cousin Turko!"

 

Nelyo blinked. As in his brother Turko? Wasn't he thirteen years older than her?

 

"At least I'm subtle about it!" Irissë yelled. "I know about that Red 1 pillow underneath your bed and what you do with it at night!"

 

Nelyo raised an eyebrow. As in Red 1, the superhero, who happened to be Nelyo's other brother Telvo?

 

Man. Clearly, Ñolofinwë's children had a thing for his family. It wasn't bad, of course, but this was starting to get weird.

 

"At least I don't stalk him on social media!" Arko returned.

 

"That's still better than humping a pillow!"

 

"You call yourself Fëanáriel on Instagram and Twitter! That's just creepy!"

 

"Knock it off, you guys," Nelyo ordered. "Finno? Backup?"

 

"Yeah, what Nelyo said!" was the response. Nelyo was tempted to start banging his head on the table.

 

Thankfully, that quieted everyone down. The siblings started to eat again while Itarillë tried to play patty-cake with Nelyo's hand. Nelyo breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, silence—

 

"Has Turko asked you to marry him yet, Fëanáriel?" Arko sneered.

 

"That's it!" Irissë shrieked. She launched herself across the table and knocked Arko and his chair over.

 

"Hey!" Nelyo yelled. "Stop that this instant!"

 

Arko had managed to pin Irissë down and was pinching her nose and her cheeks, Irissë spitting cuss words at him.

 

"Arko, let go of your sister!" Nelyo stood up, eliciting a whine from Itarillë, and made his way to their side of the table. "That's enough!"

 

Irissë finally threw Arko off and got to her feet. But instead of standing down, she began to run in circles around the dinner table at top speed, slapping Arko on each loop.  Growling, Arko held out his hand—

 

Irissë slammed into an invisible force and was knocked over, groaning and rubbing her head.

 

"Hey-hey-hey, enough!" Nelyo shouted.

 

"No fair!" Irissë howled. "No force fields!"

 

"You brought that on yourself," he said, smirking.

 

Water splashed onto both of them, drenching them and smearing Irissë's makeup.  Everyone looked to Turno, who was holding out his hands. "That's enough," he said calmly. "Let's just calm down—"

 

Irissë tackled Turno to the ground and grabbed his arms. She began rapidly slapping Turno with his own hands, saying, "Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?"

 

"Enough!" Nelyo yelled. "Stop that right now!"

 

Turno melted into liquid and seeped into the floor, leaving his clothes behind. Irissë blinked—

 

An invisible pair of hands grabbed Irissë's hair and yanked. Irissë shrieked as her head was pulled back.

 

"Okay, that's it!" Nelyo stormed around the table. "You all will stop right now—!"

 

Arko jumped over the table and landed right where Turno was, sending water spraying everywhere. Irissë backhanded him across the head as a thank-you.

 

"ENOUGH!" Nelyo screamed.  Itarillë began to wail, upset by all the loud noises around her. "Dada!" she cried. "Dada!"

 

Nelyo extended his hands, and long copper wires flew out of his fingertips, wrapping around Arko, Irissë, and Turno.

 

"Stop!" he snapped. "Stop it right now! You are all in so much trouble!"

 

Turno seeped out of Nelyo's grasp and began to spray water at both Irissë and Arko's faces. Irissë started kicking Turno's liquid form, raining even more water on Arko. Growling, Arko sent bursts of energy to slice through Turno's invisible body and slap Irissë's cheeks.

 

Nelyo yelled in exasperation.

 

Oh for fuck's sake.

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno was standing at the counter, his eyes darting across every word, every sentence.

 

He had just finished an article about a football player who had written a book when he got to the missing person lists. He looked over the faces, looking for—

 

Wait.

 

That face was familiar.

 

He peered at the image of a family—a man, a woman, and a little girl. If he could just—

 

Yes. That woman's face was definitely familiar.

 

He peered down at the descriptions:

 

[Names: Teleporno Galadhonanon/Celeborn Galadhoniôn, Artanis Nerwen Arafinwëiel/Galadriel Finarfiniel, Celebrían Celeborniel  Ages: 31 (he) 30 (she) 10 (child)  Occupation: Diplomat (he) high school counselor (she) 4th grader (child)  Last Seen: Boarding a private plane to Hawaii March 8th, 2015  If found, please contact: (xxx) xxx-xxxx]

 

Artanis…Teleporno…Celebrían…

 

Finno dropped the paper, clapping a hand to his mouth.

 

Artanis…

 

Mystic Mirror.

 

She and her family had been missing for two months.

 

Why hadn't they contacted anyone yet?

 

The government had established a phone link between all supers worldwide, so if any super was in trouble, they could get help quickly.

 

Artanis knew this. If it came to it, Artanis would reveal herself as a superhero to Artanis' husband and daughter (they were regular humans) and contact Ingo immediately.

 

That hadn't happened.

 

So…

 

"FINNO! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE NOW!"

 

What?

 

◊◊◊

 

"DO SOMETHING!" Nelyo yelled when his oblivious husband walked back into the room.

 

"What the Mandos happened?" Finno yelled.

 

"LIFE HAPPENED, NOW INTERVENE OR SOMETHING!"

 

"You want me to intervene? Okay!"  Finno grabbed Irissë and Arko and lifted them up, causing Turno to have to jump up to reach them.

 

"THERE, I'M INTERVENING!" Finno roared.

 

The doorbell rang.

 

Everyone froze.

 

Finno set Irissë and Arko down, and Nelyo released them so they could all sit down. Turno went to his clothes and re-formed, hastily settling back in his seat. Itarillë even stopped crying.

 

"Irissë! Get the door!" Finno hissed.

 

Irissë sped over to the door and opened it, revealing a man dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a regular green T-shirt. His brownish gold skin gleamed, and his short mop of golden curls bounced as he walked

 

 "Yo, Ingo!" Irissë crowed before zipping back to her seat.

 

"Hello, Lightning McQueen!" Ingo said, his gray eyes gleaming. "Finno, my man! Arko, looking good. Turno, love the shirt! Hello, my precious baby girl. And Nelyo, you dream! Nice to see you all."

 

"Sheesh," Finno said. "You got here quicker than lightning!"

 

Nelyo buried his face in his hands. Did he have to do this every time?

 

"Oh ha-ha, how original," Ingo said sarcastically.

 

"Hey, Ingo!" Irissë lobbed her empty glass at him.

 

Ingo groaned and held out his finger. A bolt of electricity zapped from him and melted the glass in midair.

 

"Turno, if you would," Nelyo said as the hot liquid fell towards the floor.

 

Turno snapped his fingers, and a blob of water caught the liquid glass, cooling it until it was a solid mass, then dropping the glass shape gently to the ground.

 

"Aw," Irissë whined. "I love when it burns the floor."

 

"I don't," Nelyo muttered.

 

"At least now you have a pretty new glass figurine," Arko pointed out.

 

Irissë nodded. "True."

 

"We've got to go," Finno said, leaping up from his seat.

 

"What? Why?" Nelyo asked, confused. Where did he think he was going—?

 

"It's Wednesday!" Finno said, snatching his jacket from the coatrack and grabbing Ingo's shoulder.

 

Nelyo sighed. "Bowling night." How could he forget?

 

"You sure you don't want to join us, Nelyo?" Ingo asked as Finno tried to tug him out the door. "It'd be fun."

 

Nelyo shrugged. "I have work to do. Say hello to Bëor for me, would you?"

 

"Will do!" Ingo said as he was pushed outside. "Goodnight you guys!"

 

The door slammed shut.  Nelyo turned to look at Irissë who tried for an innocent smile.

 

"Don't think we're done talking about the fight, Irissë," Nelyo said sternly, forking a piece of broccoli into his mouth. "Finno and I are still going to discuss it."

 

"What's the big deal?" Arko asked honestly. "I get that fighting's bad, but lots of kids get into fights. Námo, lots of kids get sent to the principal's office, too!"

 

"Lots of kids don't have superpowers, Arko," Nelyo said dryly. "And yes, it may be perfectly normal for—"

 

"Normal?"

 

Everyone turned to look at Irissë, who was shaking with anger.

 

"What do you know about normal?" she snarled at Nelyo. "What does anyone in this family know about normal?"

 

"Hold on," Nelyo said.

 

"We act normal, Nelyo! Act! Why can't we be normal, why can't I be normal!" Irissë yelled. "I'd give anything to be as normal as Itarillë, and she can barely speak!"

 

"Issi!" Itarillë giggled as if to prove her point.

 

Irissë buried her head in her hands and began to cry, her shoulders shaking.

 

"Here, here." Nelyo stood up and came to her, scooping her up in a hug, her face almost buried in his armpit (she was a great deal shorter than him). "It's okay, it's okay."

 

Turno and Arko stood, the former picking up a cooing Itarillë. The family that had been fighting a few minutes ago came together for a group hug.

 

Well, almost all. Finno was missing.

 

As if he'd heard his thoughts, Arko muttered, "Finno isn't here."

 

"News flash: Finno's never here," Irissë groused, her voice muffled. "You should be used to it by now."

 

"It's almost like he hates us," Turno mumbled.

 

"Guys, Finno doesn't hate you. He loves you all very much," Nelyo said reassuringly. "He's just emotionally distant right now, is all. Maybe even going through a brief depression. But he'll get better, I promise."

 

"You sure about that?" Arko asked.

 

"Hey, I'm a mental health specialist," Nelyo reminded them. "This stuff's right up my alley. Trust me, he'll be okay."

 

Finno's siblings all made noises of understanding. Nelyo smiled for them, but his mind was elsewhere.

 

The truth was Finno had been different ever since supers had been outlawed. Less bubbly, more stoic. He was becoming less, and less of the Finno Nelyo had fallen in love with.

 

It wasn't that Nelyo didn't love him—of course he did. He would always love his Finno. It just…it was as if the real Finno was missing. Like a part of him had died when supers were made illegal. And, he supposed, it had.

 

But that was no excuse for not loving his family. These were Finno's siblings. He had an obligation to make sure they were loved and felt loved. And Finno was failing on both counts.

 

Nelyo was the one taking care of them. Nelyo was the one who had any interest in their lives, he listened to their problems, he helped them in any way he could. It was all him, him, him, not Finno, Finno, Finno.

 

It wasn't that he minded the job—he loved it. He loved these people, and they loved him like a full-blooded brother. It just would have been better with the love of his life by his side.

 

Where are you going, Finno? Nelyo thought, holding his family.

 

When are you coming back?

Chapter Text

"Right, so I'm just sitting there, staring at Drauglin while he watches his fucking poodle get its hair blown out," Ingo said, holding out his hands to show the volume of the poodle's fur. "And I'm thinking, "This is the crazy werewolf that eats people? Just watching his poodle get groomed? The Mandos am I looking at?" It was crazy!"

 

Finno laughed. "So what did you do?"

 

"Well, I couldn't do jack because I was sitting there waiting for Huan as Finrod Finarfiniôn. I couldn't just go superhero right there and go, "Drauglin, you're under arrest for getting your poodle groomed in broad daylight like a completely normal person!" What was I supposed to do?"

 

"What'd you tell Turko when you dropped off his dog?" Finno asked.

 

"I looked him in the eye and said, "You run into the weirdest people at the groomer's."" Ingo snorted. "He didn't understand what I meant."

 

The police scanner squawked. "Attention all units, we have a bank robbery in progress in Númenor bank…"

 

"Ooh, is that close to here?" Finno asked. "Hey, you want to catch a robber?"

 

"Uh, no! To be honest, I'd prefer bowling over this. Hey, what if we actually did what our husbands think we're doing, just to shake things up?" Ingo asked hopefully. He was getting really tired of just sitting in a car listening to the police scanner.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man pursed his lips, staring at the two former superheroes chatting in their car. Humming, he raised his phone to his ear.

 

"He's not alone. The pudgy guy's still with him. They're just…talking."

 

◊◊◊

 

Ingo rubbed the hair out of his eyes. "Finno, what are we doing here?"

 

"Um, protecting people? Hello?" Finno asked in a condescending tone.

 

"Okay, look," Ingo said, throwing his head back. "No one asked us for protection."

 

Finno glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "You really need an invitation to protect someone?"

 

"Uh, yeah! I like them! They're very comforting! Look…" Ingo blew out a breath. "Remember Artanis? My baby sister?"

 

"Yeah. Hey, there was something about Artanis in the paper. It said she'd gone missing, her and her family! Do you know anything about that?"

 

"She actually mentioned taking her family down to Atlantis to visit your father," Ingo said carelessly. "Besides, she would have called if she was in trouble."

 

Ingo, despite the big brother instincts that screamed otherwise, was not worried at all. His siblings disappeared off the grid for months at a time all the time. He had every faith in Artanis to keep herself and her family out of trouble.

 

"Anyway, she had trouble adjusting to civilian life too." Ingo smiled, remembering the irate phone calls he would get at least once a week before she'd started dating Celeborn.

 

"Have you seen her recently?" Finno asked worriedly. "Or anyone else?"

 

"I usually meet with my brothers and sister and their families at least once a month. But outside of our family, nope."

 

A buzz of static. "We have a report of a fire going on two blocks west of—"

 

"A fire! We're close!" Finno hooted. "All right! Wahoo!"

 

Ingo sighed. "We're going to get caught this time," he said, but he indulged his cousin and old friend and pulled out of the alley.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man chewed on his thumbnail. To follow or not to follow?

 

Ah, fuck it. Might as well see what those two were up to.

 

He put the car in drive and drove discreetly after them.

 

"But after this is over," he said to himself, "I'm getting some coffee. I don't care what the boss says, the stuff we have back home is nasty."

 

◊◊◊

 

Ingo slung the last person over his shoulder. "Okay, that's everyone."

 

"Great!" Finno coughed, his hands full with another half a dozen people. "Now put out the fire!"

 

Ingo thrust out his hand at the nearest wall, but nothing happened. The flames just kept growing.

 

"What's your deal? Put out the fire!" Finno yelled.

 

"I can't, it's too big!" Ingo gasped, his muscles feeling like they were about to collapse.

 

""It's too big?" What do you mean it's too big? I thought electricity was fire! Why can't you stop it?"

 

"I'm old!" Ingo snapped. "And I haven't done this in a while!"

 

"Haven't done this in a—Ingo, you idiot, the building's going to come down! Figure it out!"

 

"Oh, I'm sorry, let me just pull a solution out of my ass! What's your excuse? Did you run out of muscle or something?" Ingo roared, poking Finno's flabby stomach

 

 "I can't just smash a wall, the building would come right down!" Finno protested.

 

"All I wanted to do was go bowling, and look where we are now!" Ingo screamed.

 

Bits of smoking wood rained from the ceiling, hitting Ingo and Finno and the people they were carryin

 

 "Okay!" Finno shouted. "Stay right with me!"  He ran for the nearest wall, Ingo right on his heels—

 

Not only did Finno go through the flaming wall, but he also went through the wall of the next building. Ingo followed, jumping through the hole after Finno.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man watched as the building came down, collapsing in a blaze of flames and burning wood.

 

Well, that happened.

 

◊◊◊

 

Groaning, Ingo pushed himself off of the floor, watching as Finno did the same. They both looked behind them to see the pile of people, unconscious but alive.

 

Ingo grinned at his best friend and gave him a fist bump.

 

Pulling himself to kneel on the ground, Ingo leaned against the glass case beside him—

 

Wait.  Glass case?

 

Finno must have had the same realization because he stood up quickly, his body intercepting several spotlights.

 

Spotlights?

 

Ingo pushed himself to his feet—

 

An alarm began to blare, and lights flooded the room that was—

 

A fucking jewelry store.

 

Fantastic.

 

"This is just great," he said to Finno sarcastically.

 

◊◊◊

 

Pulling up to the curb, the young police officer stepped out of his car.

 

"You!" the chief yelled, pointing at him. "Go scout the store!"

 

"Yes, sir!" he cried.

 

He grabbed his gun and released the safety as he bolted to the store and burst inside.

 

Two men, one skinny and one plump, both wearing black ski masks, were standing in the middle of the store, yelling at each other.

 

"We look like bad guys!"

 

"If you had just put out the fire—"

 

"—should have gone bowling—!"

 

"Freeze!" the police officer yelled, pointing his gun at them. "Or I'll shoot!"

 

The two turned to face him, their hands in the air.

 

Suddenly, the skinny one blinked, as if he had had a revelation.

 

He began to shuffle his feet on the carpet like kids did when they wanted to build up an electrical charge.

 

"Freeze!" the police officer reiterated.

 

"I'm nervous," the man said.

 

"I said freeze!"

 

"Just let me work my nerves off, please."

 

The guy kept shuffling before coming to a stop.

 

"Okay. You've calmed down," the police officer said. "Now freeze, or I'll—"

 

"I got it," the man said. "Shoot."

 

Lightning flashed in the store.

 

◊◊◊

 

The chief was chatting with the firefighters when he heard a boom come from the store.

 

Yelling for his officers, he drew his gun and burst into the store. "POLICE OFFICERS!" he bellowed.

 

But…the store was empty.

 

Looking around, there wasn't a sight of any robbers—just a bunch of sooty, unconscious people.

 

The chief turned to look for the young officer and…

 

What in the world was this?

 

The young officer was lying on the ground, twitching, electricity crackling up and down his body.

 

What the Mandos?

 

Did the other guys have a taser or something?

 

◊◊◊

 

"That was…way…too close," Ingo panted as he and Finno sprinted for his car. Sliding into the driver's seat, he yanked off his mask, wiping his sweaty face.

 

He turned to look at Finno, who had done the same and was looking at him with dark eyes that sparkled. Ingo saw a light there, a sight he hadn't seen since the good old days. He hated that he had to take that sparkle away.

 

"We are not doing that again," he said shortly.

 

Finno didn't look disappointed, just nodded, his eyes still sparkling, too caught up in the high of saving people.

 

Ingo sighed and started the car to take Finno home.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man watched as the two men drove away, and chuckled to himself.

 

"Do you want to switch targets?" his phone squawked.

 

"No. This is the guy he's been looking for," the man said. He ended the call and started the car.

 

He wondered if any local cafés were still open and if they served pumpkin spice lattes this early in the year.

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno eased the door shut and tiptoed through the kitchen. He had to get in bed quickly, or—

 

Hold up, was that chocolate cake?

 

Mmmm.

 

Finno lifted the glass cover and snatched the last piece of cake, taking a huge bite.

 

Ah. Food. Food after a workout was always the best.

 

Continuing to nibble on his treat, Finno snuck out of the kitchen and into the living room. Hopefully, Nelyo would be sleeping—peacefully, he prayed—and he could—

 

A tiny creak broke the silence in the room, and Finno whirled around, striking a defensive position.

 

A lamp clicked on. Then the chair next to it swung around to reveal Nelyo sitting there frowning, clad in sweats that hung off his skinny frame.

 

It struck Finno, then, just how beautiful his husband was. Nelyo's wine-red hair had grown, and he now wore it in a braid, golden streaks glistening in the light. His pale skin had so many freckles—Finno had wasted whole nights trying to kiss each and every one of them. And his gray eyes shone with intelligence, revealing the incredible wisdom behind the pretty face—

 

But now those eyes were clouded with anger.

 

"I thought you'd be back by eleven," Nelyo said sharply.

 

"I…said I'd be back…later?" Finno tried, taking another bite of cake.

 

"True, true. If you came back at all, you'd be "back later."" Nelyo used air quotes for emphasis.

 

"Well, I'm back, okay?"  Finno turned towards their bedroom, intending to finish his cake and go to bed—

 

A cold hand gripped his shoulder, and Finno winced as he turned around.

 

Nelyo walked towards him, his arm slowly shortening until he reached Finno. Then, an eyebrow raised, he picked a piece of concrete off of Finno's sweater.

 

Finno winced.

 

Valar damn him and filet him like a fish.

 

"Finno. Dearest. Light of my life. This wouldn't be rubble, now. Would it?"

 

"It was just a little workout." Finno shoved the rest of the cake into his mouth. "Just to stay loose."

 

"You know how I feel about that. Damn it, Finno, we can't blow our cover again!"

 

"It was fine, the building was coming down anyway," Finno said, inching towards the bedroom.

 

"WHAT?"

 

Finno sighed.

 

Manwë fuck him in the ass with a lit cigar.

 

"You knocked down a building?" Nelyo whisper-yelled and Finno remembered that other people were sleeping in the house.

 

"It was on fire," Finno said defensively. "It was structurally unstable—look, it would have come down anyway!"

 

"I am going to break that Valar-damned police scanner, so help me Eru," Nelyo snarled.

 

"Look, I did a good deed! Is that so terrible?" Finno asked, irritated.

 

"When you risk uprooting our family just so you can relive the glory days? Yes, that is very terrible!"

 

"Reliving the glory days is better than acting like they didn't happen at all!" Finno sniped, glaring at his husband.

 

"Yes! They happened! Yahoo! Whoop-de-whoop! But you know what's happening now?" Nelyo snapped. "Your family. And you know what you're missing? Your family! You don't even want to go to Arko's science fair!"

 

"What's the damn point? So, he made a volcano or whatever. Big deal!"

 

"He wants you to see it!" Nelyo said, shocked. "He did very well! He got an A and everything!"

 

"What's the point?" Finno asked. "They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional—"

 

"This is not about you, Findekáno. This is about our family."

 

Finno blinked. Nelyo never used his proper name unless he was furious.

 

But…but Finno had done nothing wrong!

 

Anger built up in his veins, and words came spewing out of his mouth. "Oh, our family, huh? You want to do something for them? How about Irissë? Why don't you let her go out for sports? Let her actually compete?"

 

Nelyo drew back, his face flushed as red as his hair. "How dare you…making me the enemy…you know why she can't do that!"

 

"BECAUSE SHE'D BE GREAT!" Finno shouted.

 

"THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU!" Nelyo roared, and Finno had never been more aware of how much taller Nelyo was than him.

 

Footsteps sounded, in time with the crying of a child, and Finno and Nelyo turned to see an angry Turno carrying a wailing Itarillë into the room.

 

"What the Mandos is wrong with you two?" he hissed. "She was sleeping just fine until you started yelling!"

 

"I'm sorry," Nelyo said. He turned to look at the couches. "Okay. Irissë, Arko, you two can come out. It's all right. We're done."

 

To Finno's surprise, Irissë and Arko climbed out from behind the couches. How had Nelyo known they were there? Maybe it was his big brother instincts.

 

"It's okay," he said. "We were having a discussion."

 

"A discussion, huh?" Irissë didn't look impressed. "Well, kind of odd to be having such a loud discussion at one in the morning, wouldn't you agree, Arko?"

 

Arko nodded solemnly.

 

"Yes, that's true. But what's essential is that Nelyo and I are a team," Finno said, wrapping an arm around Nelyo's bony waist. "We're united against the forces of…the…the forces of…um…"

 

"Pig-headedness?" Nelyo asked dryly.

 

"I was going to say evil, but that works," Finno muttered.

 

"We're sorry we woke you. Everything's okay now. Go back to bed," Nelyo said gently.

 

"Here, Turno, I'll help you put Itarillë back down," Irissë yawned, striding over to her older brother and taking a still squalling Itarillë from him. They walked down the hall, Arko trotting along behind them.

 

"We should all be getting to bed," Nelyo said coolly, brushing Finno's hand off of him.

 

Finno felt like arguing again, but he figured he'd pushed his luck as it was. At least Nelyo hadn't ordered him to the couch.

 

Behind him, he heard Nelyo turn off the lamp.

 

What a night.

 

◊◊◊

 

"NOOO!"  Finno jerked awake, looking around wildly before his eyes settled on his flailing husband.

 

Fuuuuuuuuuuuck.

 

"Nelyo," Finno whispered, pressing a hand to his strained face. "Nelyo, wake up. You're dreaming.”

 

"No more, please…"

 

"Nelyo. Nelyo. NELYO."

 

Finally, Nelyo jerked up, dislodging Finno's hand, tears pouring down his face. "No…please…where…"

 

"Nelyo. It's Finno," Finno said soothingly. "Are you okay?"

 

Wild gray eyes met his. "Oh, Valar, Finno—"

 

Nelyo collapsed against him, and Finno wrapped him in a hug, stroking the prominent ridges of Nelyo's spine.

 

Nelyo was sobbing into Finno's shoulder, trembling so hard Finno thought he would shatter. Finno made soothing noises as he tried to rub the tension out of Nelyo's back.

 

It wasn't fair, Finno thought angrily. It wasn't fair that sweet, gentle Nelyo had to suffer like this.

 

When Nelyo was a young boy, he had been captured by two of the worst villains to ever live—Morgoth Bauglir and Sauron Gorthaur.

 

These two demons had taken over the bodies of the President of Angband and his husband and had used their powers to build an empire based on crime and black marketing. They loved to kidnap people and torture them—it amused them for some reason.

 

Nelyo had been seven when he was captured—the son of the artist Fëanáro, one of the wealthiest people in Middle Earth? Quite the catch. They'd tortured Nelyo for three years. Fëanáro, in both his alter ego and superhero form, had fought viciously to free him, but to no avail.

 

When Nelyo turned ten, Morgoth and Sauron hung him by his right hand on the side of a cliff. That was when Nelyo made his escape. He bit his right hand off and climbed down the mountain. Then he snuck into Angband and singlehandedly murdered Morgoth and Sauron, freeing the President and his husband, all while bleeding freely out of his right hand.

 

So Nelyo had escaped Angband. And that was when Russandol hade made his debut because it was Russandol, not Nelyo, who saved Angband. Melkor and Mairon Utunmo had agreed to that story to protect Nelyo and Fëanáro's secret identities.

 

But Nelyo hadn't come away unscathed. His hand was replaced with a copper prosthetic. His brother Moryo, despite being seven at the time, was able to use his healing powers to erase Nelyo's scars. But nothing could be done about Nelyo's mental state.

 

Nelyo experienced frequent, heart-wrenching nightmares. Often, flashbacks occurred, and he had terrible panic attacks. He stopped eating for days at a time—a sort of anorexia, he'd explained, that stemmed from the starvation he endured—and Finno and the others would have to fight to get him to eat. Sometimes, the only way to get food into him was to have little Itarillë feed him—no one could say no to her.

 

Watching his husband suffer like this made Finno want to hit things. How could anyone have done this to an innocent child? Why did Nelyo have to suffer so much? Who hated his darling so much that they would force him to endure this kind of trauma?

 

"Finno?" Nelyo sniffled. "Finno?"

 

"I'm here," Finno cooed, pressing a kiss to Nelyo's bony shoulder. "It's okay. You're here with me. We're together. Okay?"

 

"Okay…okay…"

 

Finno leaned back until he and Nelyo were resting on the bed again. Nelyo pressed his head into the crook of Finno's neck, and Finno reached up to stroke Nelyo's hair.

 

"Shh, Nelyo," he whispered. "It's okay, Nelyo. Let it out. Let it out. Breathe, breathe."

 

Eventually, Nelyo pulled back to rest his head on the pillow beside Finno's. His face was streaked with tears.

 

"Shh, darling," Finno said softly, brushing Nelyo's tears away.

 

"You know why I don't miss the old days, Finno?" he asked suddenly.

 

Finno blinked. "You don't? Why?"

 

Nelyo took a deep breath. "Protecting people, saving lives—you know how good that makes you feel. But somewhere in the back of your mind isn't there a sliver of fear for your life?"

 

Finno thought about it. He hadn't really given it much consideration, so caught up in the high of the moment.

 

"I thought about it a lot. And my brothers. And my cousins. And then you. I was always worried that someday…some bad guy would get their hands on one of you and…and do to you what—Morgoth had Sauron…do to…me…"

 

Nelyo covered his face with his trembling hands.

 

Finno hadn't ever thought about this. He'd never had to worry about his siblings' safety because they weren't even in the game. As for his cousins and half-cousins—they could take care of themselves. Finno had always been confident that they could handle anything that came their way.

 

Never had he even considered that something terrible might happen to one of his loved ones.

 

"Now I know," Nelyo said, his voice muffled, "that there is a less likely chance that one of them will get hurt, even with my brothers' notoriety. And you and Turno and Irissë and Arko and Itarillë—I can keep an eye on you all, and it helps me to know that you're safe."

 

Finno was shocked. How long had Nelyo been struggling with this problem?

 

Gently, he pulled Nelyo's hands from his face and kissed him on the lips, attempting to pour all of the love in his heart into the kiss. Nelyo didn't fight back like he usually did, a playful wrestle for dominance. This time, he just let Finno do as he wished.

 

Finno didn't like the implications of this. So he caressed Nelyo's lips, traced the seam of his mouth with his tongue, all things he knew Nelyo loved.

 

"You will never have to worry about that, okay?" Finno said, pulling back. "We are all going to be just fine. No one's coming to get us. Don't worry about it anymore, okay?"

 

Nelyo nodded. "I'll try." He sniffed. "Thanks, Finno."

 

Finno smiled at his husband. "Any time you need me, Nelyo, I will be there. I swear it."

 

Nelyo's lips twitched, and he pulled Finno to his chest, tucking his chin on the top of his head. Their bodies pressed together and their legs tangled.

 

Finno rubbed Nelyo's skinny chest soothingly until he heard Nelyo's breathing even out and felt his body relax. Then he frowned.

 

Nelyo's worries were…definitely well-founded. But irrational. All of them were safe, stuck here in a simple, boring life. Nothing could happen here.

 

Finno snuggled closer to Nelyo's ever-warm body.

 

There was no need to fear.

 

None of his loved ones would ever be in danger here.

Chapter Text

Click-click-click-click-click-click-click

 

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap

 

Finno's eyes flicked up and down from the paper to the computer screen as he typed his notes into an email.

 

His phone rang.  Finno pressed the answer button and flinched as his ears were assaulted by Edrahil's very loud yelling.

 

"HAVE YOU GOT HIM YET? WHERE IS HE? I WANT HIM IN MY OFFICE NOW—!"

 

"Edrahil would like to see you in his office," his secretary droned over the yelling.

 

"—GET HIM IN HERE, THE LOUSY FUCKING—!"

 

"Now?" Finno asked dully.

 

"—I WANT HIS HEAD ON MY WALL! AND—!"

 

"Yes, now."

 

Finno hung up the phone and stood up, walking out of his cubicle and down towards Edrahil's office. He wondered what he'd done wrong this time.

 

On the other hand, maybe this would make his day a little more entertaining.

 

◊◊◊

 

The man watched as the former The Valiant was out of sight before slipping into his cubicle.

 

Picking up The Valiant's briefcase, he clicked it open, pausing when a gleam caught his eye.

 

Looking up, he saw a framed photo reflecting the light. Squinting, he made out a family—The Valiant included, smiling and holding his hands with a freakishly tall, hot redhead—wearing straw hats and Hawaiian leis, posing in front of a beach.

 

The man smiled. How sweet.

 

He shook himself. Not now. Now was time for work.

 

The man quickly slid the package in the briefcase and snapped it shut, then set it back down and hurried out of the cubicle.

 

Now, all they had to do was wait.

 

◊◊◊

 

Edrahil pulled his pencil out of the sharpener, smiling at the perfect point.  He set it down with the other three pencils, carefully aligning it with the lines of his desk calendar.

 

He looked up at Fingon. "Sit down, Fingon."

 

Fingon sat—and a pencil rolled away from the line. Edrahil rolled it back before refocusing on his employee.

 

"I'm not happy, Fingon." Edrahil rose from his seat. "Not. Happy."

 

He walked in front of Fingon and began to pace back and forth. "Ask me why."

 

"Okay. Why?"

 

Edrahil almost rolled his eyes. Heathens. "Why what? Be specific, Fingon."

 

"Why are you unhappy?" Fingon droned.

 

"Your customers," Edrahil said, pointing at Fingon, "make me unhappy."

 

"What, you've gotten complaints?" Fingon asked, looking concerned.

 

"Complaints, I can handle," Edrahil said proudly, straightening his tie. "What I can't handle is your customers' inexplicable knowledge of Hithlum's inner workings! They're experts! Experts, Fingon!"

 

Edrahil began to pull his hair. "They use every loophole, get around every obstacle! THEY'RE PENETRATING THE BUREAUCRACY!"

 

"Did I do something illegal?" Fingon asked.

 

"No," Edrahil growled. He wished he had—it would make this so much easier.

 

"Are you saying that we shouldn't help our customers?" Fingon asked, frowning.

 

Holy Eru.

 

"The law requires that I answer no," Edrahil said testily, rubbing his face. Eru, this man was getting on his nerves!

 

"We're supposed to help people," Fingon retorted.

 

"We're supposed to help our people!" Edrahil yelled. "Starting with our stockholders, Fingon! Who's helping them? Let me tell you—it's not you!"

 

Edrahil took a deep breath and pressed a hand to the contract on his desk.  "You know, Fingon? A company…"

 

"Is like an enormous clock," Fingon said.

 

"…is like an enormous clock—yes, precisely!" Edrahil said, smiling. He was finally getting it, praise be!

 

"It only works if all the little cogs mesh together!"

 

Edrahil began to pace again as he continued his lecture.  "A clock must be orderly, well lubricated, and must work well. The best clocks have gears that match perfectly. This isn't metaphorical, Fingon, you get me?"

 

Edrahil glanced at Fingon…to find him staring out the window, a horrified look on his face.

 

"Fingon?"

 

No reaction.

 

Fed up, Edrahil grabbed Fingon's chin and pulled him until he was facing him. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

 

"That man out there," Fingon said urgently. "He's in trouble!"

 

"What?" Edrahil asked, slightly irritated. What did that have to do with anything?

 

"He is getting mugged!" Fingon yelled.

 

Edrahil looked outside the window. Sure enough, one man was beating up another in the alley.

 

Okay, great. Life was happening. Move on.

 

"Well, let's hope we don't cover him!" Edrahil retorted.

 

"I'll be right back." Fingon stood and strode to the door.

 

Edrahil was fuming. How dare this upstart little prick—!

 

"STOP RIGHT THERE, OR YOU'RE FIRED!"

 

Fingon froze. Edrahil smirked. He knew he'd gotten him.

 

"Close the door," Edrahil said.

 

Fingon did so with more force than necessary.

 

"Get over here. Now," Edrahil commanded, tapping his foot on the ground.

 

Fingon stalked back to him, his expression filled with murder.

 

Edrahil was not impressed. "I'm not happy, Fingon. Not. Happy."

 

Fingon was staring out the window again, glaring holes through the glass.

 

"Oh, what is it now?" Edrahil asked, exasperated.

 

"He got away," Fingon said through gritted teeth.

 

"Good thing, too," Edrahil remarked, pinching two fingers together. "You were this close to losing your j—!"

 

Edrahil lost the ability to breathe as a fist gripped his neck.

 

◊◊◊

 

The lady hummed to herself as she click-clacked down the hall in her brand-new high heels. She sipped at her coffee—pumpkin spice latte. Mmm.

 

Maybe after morning break, she could finally finish sorting through that pile of files on her desk—

 

With an almighty bang, a flying object whizzed past her, ruffling her skirts, and banged hard into the filing cabinets on the far wall. It slid to the ground—

 

Wait. Was that the boss?

 

Sure enough, Edrahil was sprawled half on the wall, half off, groaning in pain. The uneven angles of his…well, his everything, indicated many broken bones.

 

What on Earth…?

 

She turned around and almost dropped her latte.

 

Why was there a hole in the Eru damn wall?

 

◊◊◊

 

Heads turned, looking through the numerous holes through numerous walls, all pointing directly at Finno, who stiffened with fear.

 

"Uh oh," he uttered.

 

I am in so much trouble, he thought.

 

"Someone call 911!"

 

The government would have a fit with this.

 

"What did you do?"

 

Nelyo was going to kill him.

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno stared despondently at Edrahil, bound by bandages, a brace around his neck, and his arms and legs held up in the air, through the glass window. Edrahil's eye met his, and if looks could kill, Finno would have been so dead even Dark Heart couldn't have saved him.

 

A door opened, and Finno looked up to see Rúmil walking out of Edrahil's hospital room, a grim look on his face. Finno looked at him pleadingly, but Rúmil just turned away, waving away the FBI agents standing watch over Finno.

 

Oh, joy. Rúmil's evil personality was in control.

 

Finno ran and caught up with Rúmil, who was striding towards the elevator. "How is he?"

 

"He'll live," Rúmil grunted.

 

"I'm fired, aren't I?" Finno asked, rubbing the back of his hand with one hand.

 

"Really?" Rúmil gave him a look of feigned surprise. "What ever gave you that idea?"

 

"What can I say, Rúmil?"

 

"Nothing I haven't heard a thousand times, Findekáno."

 

"Someone was in trouble!" Finno protested.

 

"Someone's always in trouble!" Rúmil snapped. "Every single time you say those words, it means a month and a half of trouble for, guess who? Yours truly!"

 

They'd reached the elevator. Rúmil jabbed the down arrow with one long, manicured fingernail.

 

"Findekáno, you're wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars here," Rúmil grumped. "You know that, don't you?"

 

"I know," Finno mumbled, hanging his head.

 

"Let's review, shall we?" Rúmil asked, beginning to count on his fingers. "We've got to: keep the company quiet, fix the damn holes in the walls, erase the memories of every single worker in that shit company, and—oh! Here's one—relocate your family!"

 

Rúmil glared at Fingon. "Sound familiar? It's the same old pattern we go through every fucking time! And every time, we waste more money! Findekáno, we can't keep doing this."

 

The elevator doors slid open.

 

"Look, the world appreciates what you did in the good old days," Rúmil said, stepping into the elevator, "but those good old days are over. You're on your own from here on out."

 

The doors began to slide shut.

 

Suddenly, Rúmil's hand shot out and held the doors open. He looked at Finno with a somber expression on his face.  Finno almost sighed with relief. It seemed Rúmil's friendly personality was surfacing

 

 "What just happened?" Rúmil said blearily. "What was I doing? I heard about your accident, then it's all just a blank."

 

Finno felt sympathy for the old man. Living with Split Personality Disorder had to be tough.

 

"You were just yelling at me about the accident," Finno explained. "You said I'm on my own."

 

"Unfortunately." Rúmil sighed, running a hand through his gray hair. "Look, I'm a good friend of your grandfather's. I can always relocate your family…for old time's sake, you know?"

 

"I can't do that to them," Finno said immediately. "They just got settled. No, I…not again."

 

Rúmil nodded and smiled sadly. "See you around, Findekáno."

 

He let the doors close.

 

Finno buried his face in his hands.

 

What was he going to do now?

 

◊◊◊

 

The car groaned to a halt, and Finno looked at his lap, nervous and tired.

 

What was he going to tell his family?

 

He closed his eyes, imagining Turno's worried look, Irissë's angry tirade, Arko's shock, Itarillë's sad babbling.

 

And Nelyo. Oh, what would Nelyo say?

 

Finno got out of the car. As he turned to close the door, he saw the same kid with the tricycle, staring at him.

 

"And what are you waiting for?" Finno asked harshly.

 

The kid shrugged. "I don't know. Something amazing…I guess."

 

Finno heaved a sigh. "You and me both, kid."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno flicked the lights on and closed the door to his office.

 

It was the only office in the house. Nelyo preferred the open space of the living room—he hated small places, courtesy of Angband. So Finno had gotten his own space.

 

And had decorated it accordingly.

 

The walls were choking on pictures, drawings, magazine headers, and newspaper pages, all showing The Valiant in his glory. In the corner, suspended in a glass case, was his old suit and helmet, gleaming in the light.

 

Sitting down at the desk, the sole piece of furniture in the room, Finno slapped his briefcase down and clicked it open. He pulled out the Hithlum employee handbook, a virtual textbook. Rolling his eyes, he ripped it in half and threw it in the trashcan.

 

He was still thinking of what to tell Nelyo. Would he break the news in private, or when the entire family was at dinner? No, that would be quite a buzzkill.

 

At least he had some time. Nelyo and his siblings were out getting Thai food, so he had at least half an hour to think something up.

 

Finno began throwing his papers and envelopes into the trashcan, a waterfall of ink and manila. Finally, fed up, he tipped the briefcase over—

 

Thunk.

 

Wait, what?

 

Since when did he have something that heavy in there?

 

Looking down, Finno saw a long, manila envelop wedged awkwardly into the trashcan. Picking up, he opened it and pulled out a thin, gray tablet.

 

What the heck?

 

The screen began flashing, and words appeared in the middle.

 

"Hold…still?" Finno read.

 

Blue lines erupted from the screen, hitting Finno's face.

 

"Match," a robotic voice buzzed. "The Valiant."

 

Finno yelped and dropped the tablet.

 

A gray antennae shot up and emitted the same light, this time splashing the room with blue lines.

 

"Location secure," the voice informed him as the antennae slid back into the tablet. "Now playing the message."

 

The screen winked to life and a large man with tan skin, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, black eyes, and flame tattoos crawling up his neck.

 

"Hello, The Valiant," the man boomed, his voice rough. "Yes, we know who you are. Rest assured, your secret is safe with us."

 

Awed and confused, Finno picked up the tablet, staring at it intently.

 

"My name is Bór," Bór said. "We have something in common. According to the government? Neither of us exists."

 

Finno blinked. This Bór…he was a super?

 

"Please listen closely as this message is classified and will not be repeated. I represent a top—"

 

Realization struck, and Finno practically threw the tablet onto the desk, grabbing a pad of paper.

 

"—that specializes in testing potential—"

 

Where was a writing utensil? Finno grabbed at his pencil jar, snatching up a pen—that didn't work when he tried to write. Frustrated he threw it to the side.

 

"—for the protection of—"

 

Another pen. Another blank page

 

Finno growled, raking through the jar—

 

There! A pencil! Yanking it out of the jar, he pressed it to the paper.

 

"Something has happened in a remote testing facility," Bór began, statistics flashing onto the screen. Finno started to scribble on the page—

 

"Finno! We're home!"

 

Fuuuuuuuuuck.

 

"—this weapon is designed—"

 

"It's time for dinner!" Nelyo called.

 

"Give me a second!" Finno yelled.

 

"—isolated in an empty location, away from civilians—"

 

"Finno!" Irissë called grumpily. "We got food! What are you doing in there?"

 

"It's TV!" Finno hastily improvised. "Trying to watch!"

 

"Seriously?" That was Arko. "Are you crying in there?"

 

"—necessary to stop this machine at all costs—"

 

"Hurry up!" Turno complained. "We're hungry!"

 

"One minute!" Finno snapped. Damn nosy families!

 

"If you complete your mission, your payment will be triple your current doubled annual salary. Call the number on the card. Voice matching recognition will secure a private line."

 

Finished writing, Finno looked at Bór's smiling face.

 

"The supers aren't gone, The Valiant. You're still here! You can still do great things! Or…"

 

Bór gave a knowing wink. "You can listen to police scanners. Your choice."

 

Finno swallowed. Was he serious?

 

"You have twenty-four hours to respond. Think about it."

 

The screen went black.

 

Finno sat back in his seat, taking a deep breath.

 

What in the name of Mandos had just happened?

 

He'd gotten a request…a mission! To take up superhero work! Was this some kind of joke? A sick prank? Or would he really have the chance to be a superhero again?

 

Finno looked up at the walls, looking at the cherished memories of his life of glory.

 

A poster of him emblazoned with the words "Do your duty!"

 

A drawing of him by a little girl, titled "My Knight in Shining Armor."

 

A magazine declaring him the top superhero of the year.

 

A newspaper with the headline "The Valiant Does It Again!"

 

He had lost all of this.  Finno stared at his suit and helmet, untouched by time, just waiting to be worn again.

 

He could have it back.

 

A swishing noise caught his attention, and Finno looked to see a card eject from the bottom of the tablet with the name Bór and the phone number[(xxx)-xxx-xxxx] printed in thick, black ink. He picked it up, examining it—

 

The tablet beeped. "This message will self-destruct."

 

Self-destruct?

 

Fuuuuuuuuuuuu—

 

◊◊◊

 

Irissë looked up from her steaming beef and broccoli. Had she just heard an explosion?

 

Sheesh, she must have been going crazy. She stabbed at a piece of broccoli—

 

The smoke alarm started beeping loudly, and water began spraying onto the table, smearing her makeup and drenching her clothes.

 

"Wooo!" she yelled. "Oh yeah! This is awesome!"

 

"Speak for yourself," Arko snapped. "My pad thai is ruined!"

 

"For fuck's sake!" Turno groaned. He had reverted to liquid form and formed a shield over Itarillë, who was wailing at being wet.

 

"What happened?" Nelyo hollered. "What in Mandos happened? Finno! What happened?"

 

"I don't know, but it's super cool!" Irissë squealed, throwing her hands up.

 

"Shut up, Irissë!"

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno moved the hair dryer back and forth, blowing hot air on the books spread all over the counter. Eru, this was boring.

 

"You," Nelyo said from behind him, "are one distracted guy."

 

"Am I?" Finno rubbed his head with his free hand. "I don't mean to be."

 

"Look." Nelyo came up to stand beside him. "I know you miss the old days, and your job is beyond boring—"

 

Finno snorted. "You can say that again."

 

Nelyo chuckled. "I just want you to know how important it is to me—to everyone—that you keep at it anyway."

 

Nelyo kissed his husband's cheek lovingly.

 

Finno sucked in a breath. It was now or never. He had to tell Nelyo the truth.

 

"Um, Nelyo? About the job…"

 

"What." Nelyo's voice went sharp.

 

Or did he tell him about the mysterious message?

 

"The…the company…"

 

"Findekáno…"

 

No, he didn't want Nelyo involved. It might be stressful for him. And bringing up Nelyo's anxiety would definitely not be beneficial for his health.

 

But still…

 

"…is, um…sending me to…a conference…"

 

Truth or lies, lies or truth?

 

Oh, what the Mandos. He was already in too deep to turn back now.

 

"A conference?" Nelyo asked, his voice skeptical.

 

"Yeah. It's out of town…it'll only be for a few days…"

 

There. Finno had lied. Now he had to wait, to pray to Manwë that Nelyo's brilliant mind wouldn't catch the lie…

 

"They've never sent you to a conference before…" Nelyo mused.

 

Finno cringed. This was it, he was so fucked…

 

"This…this is good!" Nelyo declared.

 

"Yes. Um, yeah," Finno stuttered, shocked that Nelyo, sharp, clever Nelyo, who knew Finno better than Finno knew himself, had fallen for the lie.

 

"You see? You're moving up!" Nelyo drew Finno into a hug, pressing his head into Finno's.

 

"They finally recognize your talent!" Nelyo babbled ecstatically. "Oh, Finno!"

 

"Yes," Finno said, thinking of the mission, the thrill of superhero work, the glory of a job well done.

 

"This is wonderful!" Nelyo said, pressing a kiss to Finno's head.

 

"Yes."

 

Something worth living for again.

 

"Yes, it is."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno glanced at the card as his phone rang. Yep, he'd dialed correctly.

 

Bór picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"

 

"This is The Valiant," Finno said, spinning in his chair to gaze at his radiant helmet. "I'm in."

 

Finno could have sworn Bór smiled over the phone. "Excellent. Welcome aboard, The Valiant.”

Chapter Text

The jet coasted smoothly through the air, as though they were riding in a car on a highway rather than several tens of thousands of feet in the air.

 

At the sound of footsteps, The Valiant swung around in his chair to face Bór, clad in army fatigues, as he came to sit down opposite The Valiant at a desk.

 

"The Urulóki Prototype 8, nicknamed Glaurung, is a mechanical dragon devised to solve any problem it's confronted with," Bór explained, pressing a button. A holograph of Glaurung and its schematics popped up, and The Valiant eyed it with interest.

 

"Unfortunately for us," Bór began.

 

"Let me take a guess; it started to wonder why it had to follow orders?" The Valiant asked teasingly.

 

Bór shrugged, smiling guiltily. "We lost control. And now it's loose in the jungle, threating our facilities—which aren't cheap, by the way. We've had to evacuate all personnel for their own safety." Bór pushed another button, and a map of the island base of operations popped up.

 

"Nice and big," The Valiant muttered, scanning the map. "How am I going in?"

 

"Well, the island's defenses necessitate an airdrop of five thousand feet. Glaurung's cloaking devices make it…difficult to track, to say the least, but scanners indicate it has mostly stuck to the southern half of the island."

 

The area flashed on the map.

 

"Ah, I almost forgot!" Bór said, snapping his fingers. "You see, we've invested millions of dollars in this thing, so if you could…"

 

"Shut it down without completely wrecking it, right?" The Valiant supplied.

 

Bór grinned. "I'm sure you'll manage."

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant buckled himself in and gave the soldier the thumbs up. Returning the gesture, the soldier pressed the button. The Valiant slid forward—

 

There was an uncomfortable jamming sound as The Valiant pushed uncomfortably against the narrow entrance. Looking down, he saw his stomach wouldn't fit in the opening.

 

The Valiant almost groaned out loud. He knew he'd gained a little weight—what was the point of working out if you had no reason to do it—but he didn't even need XLs. It should not be this hard to get him into the Valar damned air-drone-thingy.

 

The soldier tried again. Again. Again. No dice.

 

The Valiant was starting to get angry. That hurt, and if this guy did it one more time

 

The soldier finally pressed and held, and The Valiant was sucked into the air-drone-thingy. He was deposited in a tiny chamber with a small chair and very little breathing room. Good thing he wasn't claustrophobic.

 

As he was preparing for launch, Th Valiant looked up and saw Bór pressing one meaty hand against the window.

 

"I've got to warn you," Bór drawled, his voice tinny. "Glaurung is designed to learn. Every moment you fight it, it absorbs more and more knowledge about your fighting style."

 

"So I have to shut it down, do it quickly, and not wreck it," The Valiant recounted.

 

"And don't die," Bór added.

 

The Valiant nodded confidently before he was blasted out of the plane and down towards the island.

 

The Valiant was pressed back against the seat as he heard an engine kick in. The force doubled as the air-drone-thingy twisted and flew down to the island.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Land in underwater zone one," Bór ordered, looking out towards the island. "Then report to safe zone three, all of you."

 

The three soldiers nodded and scurried around, preparing for landing.

 

"Okay, The Valiant," he muttered under his breath. "Time to see what you're made of."

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant gritted his teeth and pushed on the sides of the air-drone-thingy, but he still couldn't get himself out. Huffing, he cursed these people for building something so damn small. Even Nelyo would have had trouble peeling himself out of this.

 

Grumbling, The Valiant dropped back down into the air-drone-thingy and shoved.

 

The walls went flying in three separate directions, and The Valiant was free. Standing up and shaking his head and hands, The Valiant performed a series of stretches that had once been easy but now cracked his bones.

 

Stretching his hands above his head, then dropping them, The Valiant grinned and said, "Showtime."

 

He began to run through the dense jungle that surrounded him.

 

◊◊◊

 

Panting, The Valiant ran up the hill, dodging ferns, vines, and trees. He got to the top…and looked down in exasperation at the endless expanse of green before him.

 

"You can do this," he told himself. "You can do this. You're doing super work. You'll get money. You can do this."

 

The Valiant started running again.

 

◊◊◊

 

He was sweating as he jogged up the cliff. He'd forgotten how hot super suits could be. Maybe he could find a little pond or something to cool off in.

 

The Valiant moved faster.

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant swatted at a mosquito as he stopped at the top of a hill.  He was exhausted. His suit was sticking to his skin, his legs hurt like Mandos, and his back was killing him.

 

His stomach growled.

 

Great. And now The Valiant was hungry.

 

Sitting down, The Valiant pushed off the ground and slid smoothly down the hill.

 

Next time, he would request a couple of water bottles.

 

And some snacks, too.

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant's chest heaved with every movement, and he had to stop every once in a while and take deep breaths.

 

When he got home, he promised himself, he was going to start working out again. Like there was no tomorrow.

 

◊◊◊

 

"This…is ridiculous," The Valiant gasped, slumping over, one hand braced on a tree. "How the fuck…am I supposed to find…something I can't…"

 

His fingers slipped, and The Valiant's eyes widened as his gloved hand brushed a deep split in the bark.

 

Turning his head, The Valiant stared at the gouge in the tree—one of four, nasty things that had scarred the wood with ugly red claws.

 

Now they were getting somewhere.

 

The Valiant looked down and saw an enormous footprint—like a massive bird if birds had four toes and were the size of monster truck wheels.

 

The Valiant frowned, staring at the dirt still crumbling under his feet. This was made recently. So either Glaurung wasn't far behind, or—

 

CRACK.

 

The Valiant whirled around in time to see two trees be thrown apart and a metallic, clawed foot coming his way.

 

—or Glaurung was hunting him.

 

He yelped and threw himself to the left, then the right as another foot just barely missed the side of his head. Rolling to his feet, The Valiant immediately had to dodge another foot—

 

A stinging sensation flared up in his arm, and The Valiant cursed when he saw his suit torn, a bloody scrape dashed on his skin.

 

Glaurung roared defiantly, turning to face The Valiant, and he got a glimpse of what he was dealing with.

 

Glaurung was as long as a school bus and a half. His body was made up of long, silver, armored plates that covered his wiring like scales. Six long, clawed legs supported the beast. The tail was long and had silver spikes protruding from it. Its head was the size of a truck's trunk. Black nostrils blew steam and red eyes fixed with a laser focus on The Valiant.

 

Well, shit.

 

Bór wasn't kidding when he'd said this thing was a dragon.

 

Glaurung attacked again, and The Valiant took a flying leap over the thing, landing safely on its other side. When Glaurung whipped around to face him, The Valiant punched it as hard as he could.

 

Glaurung went flying into a tree, where it landed half-sprawled on its back.

 

"Yes!" The Valiant grinned and punched the air. That was easy—

 

Its legs shot up and reconnected to the ground, and Glaurung heaved itself up, glaring at The Valiant.

 

Never mind, then.

 

Glaurung charged at The Valiant, who leaped up into the air, prepared to smash this thing's head in—

 

Glaurung's tail whipped up, and the thick of it, thankfully not with spikes, caught The Valiant in the stomach, sending him flying into a tree.

 

The Valiant fell to the ground, stunned and groaning, but quickly pushed himself. He couldn't afford to let his guard down in the middle of a fight.

 

The tree, meanwhile, cracked and fell, aiming right for Glaurung. But the Urulóki curled into a plated metal ball—oh, come on, had these people thought of everything—and rolled out of the way, returning to dragon form when it was safe from harm.

 

The Valiant stared down the metal beast. He refused to cower before this thing. Not even over his dead body would he—

 

Glaurung curled into a ball again, and The Valiant had to dodge as it rolled right for him. Looking back, The Valiant swore as Glaurung swung back around and shot for him again.

 

The Valiant turned and ran for his life.

 

Fear lent him speed, and The Valiant ran so fast he might have been able to match Irissë in a race. He could hear Glaurung rumbling close behind him, and sped up.

 

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck—

 

A cliff appeared out of nowhere, and The Valiant leaped, Glaurung hot on his heels. Flipping over for a bit, The Valiant soon recovered and slid down the cliffside.

 

His feet touched the ground just in time for him to flip to the side as Glaurung flew past him. The beast unfurled as it hit the ground, back to its monstrous form.

 

The Valiant grabbed a boulder nearby and lobbed it at Glaurung.

 

It shattered harmlessly against its metal armor.

 

Oh, come on.

 

Glaurung snatched up another hunk of rock and returned the favor, forcing The Valiant to duck, and remain crouched down as another followed.

 

What the Mandos was he doing? He should be standing up and fighting, not hiding from a freaky robot! He'd faced worse! He could do this!

 

The Valiant stood up—

 

A boulder slammed into him, and The Valiant yelled in pain as he was thrust into a wall of hard rock. Groaning, he bent over—

 

Glaurung's clawed foot shot for him. The Valiant ducked the blow and ran to the right of it, aiming for a nearby cave. He could regroup there, think of a plan—

 

Glaurung leaped and landed hard next to him, throwing him into the air.  But rather than landing on the ground as he'd expected, The Valiant tumbled through the air, falling into a gorge he hadn't seen before.

 

The Valiant smacked onto burning ground, knocking the air out of him. Looking up wearily, he saw that he was on blackened earth next to a pool of—

 

Lava.

 

Great.

 

A hard thump told him Glaurung had landed behind him, and The Valiant pushed himself up to face his opponent.

 

Glaurung's foot flew towards him, and The Valiant caught it, grunting as it pushed him back, back…

 

Oh, shit.

 

This thing was going to push him into the lava!

 

Looking behind him, he saw himself skidding closer and closer…soon, he'd fall back…he was already leaning back over the painful death that would await him…

 

Fury filled his veins.

 

There was no way he'd lose to a hunk of pretty metal!

 

Yelling defiantly, The Valiant pushed the clawed foot to the side and tipped Glaurung into the lava, watching with satisfaction as the Urulóki sank beneath the waves.

 

"Ha ha!" The Valiant crowed. "Take that, you stupid mother—"

 

Crack.

 

"My back!" he croaked, bent over awkwardly. "Damnit!"

 

How could this happen? He was barely thirty-five! How in Eru's holy name did his back crack out of place?

 

Then again, he was really out of practice…

 

The ground exploded behind him, and The Valiant whirled painfully around to see Glaurung emerge from the lava, burning white and nostrils smoking.

 

Oh, for fuck's sake, they made this thing lava-proof?

 

The ground beneath him cracked apart, and The Valiant noted with shock that he was standing right over the crack. He hopped until he was on solid land and watched as a hunk of rock floated away.

 

Glaurung's first set of legs stretched out and began to twirl, spraying drops of lava everywhere. Those things were red hot, and if they touched him…

 

Looking back, The Valiant noted the rock. If he could just—

 

He jumped and grinned as he landed on solid rock—

 

Glaurung snatched him up by the legs and cracked him against the ground. The Valiant groaned. That hurt…

 

The Urulóki lifted him again, and The Valiant yelled as another clawed appendage grabbed him by the hands. Glaurung began to pull his legs apart, stretching The Valiant so far he could have matched Nelyo in height.

 

Owowowowowowowowow—

 

Crack.

 

The Valiant laughed as his back was popped back into place.

 

Well, that was one thing this piece of shit was good for!

 

Bending his body, The Valiant ripped Glaurung's foot from him, tossing it into the lava as it dropped him.

 

Ducking beneath its legs, The Valiant grinned and moved with the beast as Glaurung moved around, looking for him.

 

Looking up, The Valiant noticed a crack stretching down the armored plates. An opening, of some sorts?

 

The Valiant grabbed the crack and pried it open, slipping inside, and found himself wedged in between a wall and some sort of wired gear-thingy—the mainframe, perhaps? He felt Glaurung staggering backward and was rocked from side to side as he felt something hit the Urulóki. Was this thing…clawing at itself to try and get him out?

 

The Valiant grinned. It was like a human with a mosquito bite!

 

Eventually, it stilled, and The Valiant realized the dragon must have damaged itself too much. What to do now? He couldn't just leave the thing…

 

An idea crawled into his mind, and The Valiant smirked like Irissë whenever a particularly evil thought crept into her mind.

 

Popping his torso out of the opening, The Valiant hollered, "Hey, dumbass! I'm down here!" and smacked Glaurung's chest.

 

Then The Valiant tucked himself back inside and pressed back against the wall as Glaurung's head bent down and ripped the mainframe-thingy out of its chest.

 

The Valiant clambered out of Glaurung and began walking towards the wall of the lava cave, where a sliver of light shone, completely ignoring the sound of Glaurung collapsing behind him.

 

He'd won.

 

Take that, Glaurung.

 

◊◊◊

 

The camera zoomed in on Glaurung's sparking ruins, and Bór whistled as he beheld the destruction. "Damn. You were right, he is tough stuff."

 

"Hmm," the boss nodded. "I'm surprised. I really thought I had him with that model. Guess it's back to the drawing board."

 

"Well, what do you want to do with him?"

 

The boss shrugged. "Invite him to dinner! Don't be a heathen."

 

Bór smirked. "Then what? Teach him to tango, maybe offer him some ass?"

 

"Suck a dick, Bór."

 

"His?"

 

"Why do I even employ you?"

 

"Because you can't live without my sarcastic comments."

 

"Smartass. Now sound the all-clear. And for Eru's sake, shower and lose the clothes. You stink, and that shirt makes you look fat."

 

"Love you too, Boss."

 

"Oh, shut up!"

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant stepped out of the elevator, adjusting his tie.

 

Two massive doors, with squiggly lines engraved in the granite, stood in front of him. Walking to them, he pushed them open.

 

The room was dark, with obsidian floors, ceiling, and walls, except for the left one—oh, come on, not more lava—sandwiched between two statues like the ones on Easter Island. A diamond-shaped table with two chairs occupied the middle of the room.

 

The Valiant looked at his watch. Nope, six sharp. He was on time.

 

So where was his host?

 

The lava wall separated, and The Valiant ducked behind the doors, gazing through the slit.

 

A muscular figure—Bór, no doubt—stepped through the part in the lava wall, but turned back to discuss something with someone else. The Valiant couldn't see who it was, but they were thin and short compared to Bór.

 

The figure moved away, and Bór began to turn toward the door.

 

Quickly, The Valiant scrambled away and opened the elevator doors, trying to make it look like he'd just gotten here.

 

The doors opened, and The Valiant grinned at Bór. "Am I overdressed?"

 

"Nope." Bór's gaze was feral. "You clean up nice."

 

"Thanks," The Valiant said, praying that Bór wouldn't start flirting with him. "So, shall we eat?"

 

◊◊◊

 

The Valiant had removed his facemask to eat but kept the helmet on. He was munching on a carrot when he said to Bór, far across the table, "So, I take it our host is…?"

 

"Yeah, he couldn't make it tonight." Bór shrugged. "He's trying to fix whatever bug Glaurung had. He hopes you understand."

 

Ah. So The Valiant was working for a he. "So, you two are…?"

 

"Old friends. Since we were kids, actually," Bór said. "It was our dream to be able to work with technology. The boss got a patent one day, and here we are."

 

Bór swept his hand to indicate their lavish surroundings.

 

"Am I allowed to ask who it is I'm working for?" The Valiant asked.

 

Bór shook his head. "Sorry, but no. He likes to remain anonymous." Bór tipped his wine glass toward The Valiant. "I'm sure you can understand that."

 

"So, of all the places to set up base why a volcano?" The Valiant asked. "Isn't that kind of dangerous?"

 

"Volcanos excite him. Me too, actually. It's a weakness. And I don't really think it's dangerous…more like misunderstood."

 

The Valiant nodded. "Aren't we all?"

 

Bór grinned. "Exactly. Plus, volcanic soil is one of the most fertile soils on Earth. Everything at the table was grown here. You like it?"

 

"Absolutely!" The food was very delicious.

 

"Me too. Just don't try the coffee." Bór shuddered. "It's lethal."

 

The Valiant snorted. "Noted."

Chapter Text

Finno leaned forward in his seat, rubbing his hands together, as the plane touched down onto solid ground.

 

Ah, he could go home to his family and relax, because he had no job! He could laze around all day! Spend time with his siblings! Dote on Nelyo!

 

Wahoo!

 

◊◊◊

 

"Of course," Nelyo said into the phone. "Yes, sir. You just get some rest. Yes. Absolutely. You have a good day too, Mr. Bush."

 

Nelyo ended the call and stood up from his seat at the couch, walking towards the kitchen. He was hungry. Maybe he could eat that vegetable tray he'd bought yesterday—

 

The door flew open, and Nelyo whirled around to see a blur of brown and gold leap into his arms…and kiss him on the lips, legs winding around his waist.

 

Nelyo's eyes widened as he staggered back, struggling to hold both his own weight and his kisser's. "Who—?"

 

"Nelyafinwë," the person said, pulling back—oh, it was just Finno. Was he back from his conference already—to grin at him. "I love you so much, have I told you that lately?"

 

Before Nelyo could answer, Finno was kissing him again.

 

"Finno," Nelyo gasped in between kisses. "What—the Mandos—is—going on?"

 

"Nothing!" Finno said, beaming at his husband. "It's just great to be back!"

 

Nelyo raised an eyebrow. "Finno, are you okay? You're not acting like yourself. Just how boring was that conference?"

 

Finno laughed. "I'm fine, Nelyo! Here, I'll be right back, I'm going to go say hi to everyone!"

 

Untangling himself, Finno jumped off of Nelyo and zoomed out of the living room, towards the bedroom wing.

 

Nelyo stood there, stunned.

 

What was that all about?

 

◊◊◊

 

"Good girl," Turno crooned. "Now say, 'Finno.'"

 

"Fin-no!" Itarillë said. "Fin-no!"

 

"Yes, good girl! Now say—"

 

"Turno!" Finno said, bursting into the room. "Itarillë!"

 

Turno jumped. "Finno! You're back…are you okay?"

 

"You bet!" Finno gasped. "Hello, baby girl!"

 

"Fin-no!" Itarillë giggled, pointing. "Fin-no!"

 

"That's right, sweetness!" Finno bounded over and scooped up Itarillë, kissing her forehead. "That's good!"

 

Now Turno was mildly alarmed. Finno hadn't acted this happy for…about three years. "Finno?"

 

Finno set a laughing Itarillë down and pressed a kiss to Turno's head. "Love you, little brother!"

 

Finno darted out of Turno's bedroom.

 

Turno looked at his daughter, shocked. "What was that?"

 

"Fin-no," Itarillë gurgled.

 

"I'm not so sure about that one," Turno said, staring after Finno.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Girl, he is no good for you," Irissë declared, sprawled on her bed. "Let me tell you, he doesn't brush his teeth, he kisses like my niece, and he's the size of a baby carrot. I didn't even hit it twice."

 

She listened for a second, then snorted. "Honey, you deserve better than him. Seriously, go talk to Saeros. You know, the football player? He can be a douche, but at least he's—"

 

The door flew open, and Finno bounded into the room and onto her bed. "Irissë!"

 

"Augh!" Irissë yelped, shocked and more than ready to punch him. "Finno, what the fuck?"

 

"Nothing." Finno gave her a big kiss on the cheek. "Just came to tell you how much I love you!"

 

"Huh?"

 

"You can keep talking to your friend, now. Just wanted to say hi!"

 

And with that, Finno skipped out of the room, humming to himself.

 

Irissë's mouth was hanging open. What the fuck had just happened?

 

"Irissë, is everything okay?"

 

"Girl, I think an alien kidnapped my brother," Irissë squeaked, "and replaced him with a hyperactive kindergartener."

 

◊◊◊

 

Arko blew out a breath. Okay, so if x equaled three, he could plug it into the equation and—

 

The door slammed open, and Arko was engulfed by an enthusiastic Finno.

 

"Arko, what's up? How're you doing?"

 

"Um, okay?" Arko said, confused. "Just working on my math homework."

 

"Cool! Yell if you need help." Finno paused. "Hey, your science fair's tomorrow, right?"

 

The one Finno didn't want to go to? "Yeah, why?"

 

"I can't wait for you to show me what you've made!" Finno kissed Arko's cheek and bounded out of the room. "You'll have to explain it to me!"

 

Arko felt like panicking. Who the Mandos was that and what had he done with Finno?

 

◊◊◊

 

Nelyo stood at the counter, chewing on a carrot, and considered his husband.

 

Finno hadn't been himself ever since they'd moved into this house. He'd been irritable, unsocial, depressed. And now he was bouncing off the walls like a hyperactive nine-year-old.

 

Either someone had given him drugs, or that conference had done wonders for his mental health.

 

"Nelyo, Nelyo, Nelyo!"

 

Finno bounded back into the room, grinning like an idiot. "Are you done with your work for today?"

 

"Um…yes," Nelyo said carefully. "Finno, are you sure you're—?"

 

"Great! How about we go watch a movie?" Finno grabbed his arm and began to tug Nelyo toward their bedroom. "I pre-recorded the movie Shattered for you—I know you wanted to see it while it was in theaters, so I thought you might enjoy it! Come on, bring your snack, we can watch until dinner—!"

 

"Finno." Nelyo put his hands on either side of his husband's face. "You are not acting like yourself, and you are scaring me. I just want to know if you're okay."

 

Finno stood on his tiptoes and kissed Nelyo gently, a soft brush of lips on lips.

 

"I'm fine," he said, smiling as they separated. "I'm just happy to be home and with my family."

 

Nelyo's heart skipped a beat. It had been too long since he had heard those words.

 

"Now come on," he said, pulling Nelyo again. "Let's go watch a movie."

 

◊◊◊

 

Arko took a deep breath. He was up next, and he was nervous as heck.

 

He glanced at Mr. Maggot, who glared at him in return. He would get no support from him.

 

"And that was Salgant with his dancing plants! Next up is Argon Fingolfiniôn with his science experiment!"

 

Gulping, Arko rolled his cart, covered with a sheet, out onto the stage to polite applause. Stopping at center stage, he faced the audience and took a deep breath.

 

A toddler's laugh caught his attention, and he looked down to the front right of the audience and saw his family. Itarillë was clapping her tiny hands, Turno was nodding proudly, Irissë winked, Nelyo clapped, and Finno…Finno gave him the thumbs up.

 

Arko felt his confidence returning. He could do this!

 

"So, Argon," Principal Bilbo said, standing at the podium. "Tell us about your experiment."

 

"Well, the inspiration came to me when one of my friends complained about not having an outlet to charge his phone in," Arko explained. "He wished there was some other way to charge a phone. That's what got me thinking. So…"

 

Arko flung the sheet off the cart, revealing a recorder, a skinned watermelon, a paper plate full of ginger ale, an apple a sock, a charger, and Arko's own iPad.

 

"I found four other ways to charge your phone without using an outlet," Arko finished.

 

The audience murmured.

 

"Really?" Principal Bilbo sounded skeptical. "And you're sure these will work?"

 

"I tested them myself," Arko said. "Want to come and help me demonstrate?"

 

Principal Bilbo shrugged. "Sure." He walked over to Arko.

 

"Great. Now, please hold the iPad while I get things started."

 

Principal Bilbo picked up the iPad and Arko plugged the charger in.

 

"First, we'll use the recorder." Arko wedged the other end of the charger into the recorder, then brought it to his lips. He played a simple melody—Hot Cross Buns—and grinned as he heard the audience gasp when the charging sound kicked in.

 

"Awesome!" Principal Bilbo marveled. "Try the others!"  Arko pulled the charger out of the recorder and stuck it in the watermelon. A few seconds later, the iPad screen lit up as the device informed Arko it was charging. The audience gasped again.

 

The apple was placed in the ginger ale and produced the same response. When the iPad began to charge when Arko wrapped the charger in the sock and rubbed it on the cart's surface, actual applause broke out.

 

"That was incredible!" Principal Bilbo said, clapping. "You've got an imaginative mind there, Argon!"

 

"It's all in the electrolytes, sir," Arko responded.

 

His family was on their feet as Arko rolled the cart off the stage, cheering, and Arko felt overwhelmed with happiness. He'd done it!

 

◊◊◊

 

"And the winner of the science fair is…Argon Fingolfiniôn!"

 

Everyone clapped as Arko came up to receive his prize, his family whooping with happiness. Arko was grinning so hard he thought his face would fall off.

 

"Congratulations, Argon!" Principal Bilbo said. "You truly outdid yourself. Enjoy this trophy."

 

He pressed a large golden trophy into Arko's hands.

 

"And here's a coupon for free ice cream," Principal Bilbo added. "It's in the cup."

 

"Thank you very much!" Arko said, excited. Maybe, if he played his cards right, he could convince Finno and Nelyo to take them out for ice cream!

 

"And that concludes our science fair, folks! Your kids have to clean up so you can meet them backstage. Have a nice evening!"

 

Arko and the rest of the students filed offstage. The rest of them started chatting while Arko headed for his stuff. A few people patted him on the back and congratulated him.

 

Arko smiled. He'd won! He'd really won! This was awesome! He'd never won a science fair before—this was his first time! Awesome!

 

Finno and the others were waiting by his cart, and as Arko approached, they all cheered.

 

"Awesome job!" Irissë declared. "You killed it out there, Arko!"

 

"Yeah, that was pretty cool," Turno said. Itarillë giggled, clapping her hands.

 

"I'm so proud of you!" Nelyo praised, reaching over and ruffling Arko's hair.

 

And a beaming Finno placed his hands on Arko's shoulders. "That was brilliant, Arko. I'm glad you won first place."

 

These words from Finno made Arko squirm with happiness. He hadn't heard this kind of praise from his oldest brother in too long.

 

"Now, let's all clean up, then we can go get some ice cream, who's with me?" Finno yelled.

 

Everyone cheered.

 

◊◊◊

 

Later, watching his family spooning ice cream into their mouths and laughing, Arko realized he'd never felt happier.

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno stared hard at himself in the mirror, eyeing the fat he'd allowed himself to gain. He winced.

 

It wasn't that he was afraid of judgment—stick-thin Nelyo wasn't fit either. Actually, he'd never been fit, a false image given how strong his husband was. But still…

 

Finno remembered the rock-hard abs he used to have and puffed out his chest, watching as his stomach shifted a little, but ultimately didn't change.

 

Finno remembered the promise he'd made to himself in the jungle and sighed. It was time to hit the gym.

 

Or wherever he could find where he could use his super strength.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Have a great day at work," Nelyo said, smiling down at his husband.

 

"You too." Finno stood on his tiptoes to kiss Nelyo's lips. "I'll be back by dinner."

 

"You got it."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno huffed and puffed as he dragged the line of loaded freight cars forward, his feet touching down on the gravel between the rails.

 

The exercise was simple: he pulled the freight cars toward one buffer and pushed them to the other. The saying was easy, but the doing was hard.

 

Finno forced himself to run harder, imagining Nelyo standing at the end, waving and cheering him on.

 

You can do it, Finno! Nelyo would call. I believe in you!

 

Finno grinned and put more effort into it.

 

He wouldn't let imaginary Nelyo—or the real Nelyo—down.

 

◊◊◊

 

Irissë drummed her fingers on her book. The words swam before her eyes, making no sense whatsoever.

 

"Why do we have to read the Iliad?" she hissed to Turno, who was sitting across from her. "We already read the Odyssey, so what's the point?"

 

"I don't know, Irissë," Turno replied, absorbed in his own book. "Now hush. I have a geography test to study for."

 

Irissë rolled her eyes. Honestly, Turno could be such a square sometimes.

 

"I found it," Arko said, dropping in a seat beside Irissë. "Between Shades of Gray."

 

"Damn, Arko! I didn't know you were into that kind of stuff!" Irissë remarked. "Just remember to use a condom, okay?"

 

"Irissë, that's 50 Shades of Gray," Arko snapped, smacking his sister with the book in question. "That is a book on unorthodox kinks and unhealthy relationships. This is one of the greatest fiction books of all time."

 

"Whatever," Irissë huffed. "Sounds lame."

 

"Maybe to you," Arko returned, opening the book. Irissë looked back at the Iliad. The words still made no sense to her. It might as well have been actual Greek for all she knew.

 

"I'm going outside to cool off," Irissë announced, standing up. "Don't let anyone take my seat."

 

Her brothers hummed, both absorbed with their books.

 

Irissë sighed as she strolled out of the public library's reading section and past the kiddie zone, where she could see Itarillë having a ball. Shoving the doors open, she skipped down the steps and stood on the sidewalk, watching cars and people fly by.

 

Irissë closed her eyes, running her hands through her hair.

 

Eru, she was bored.  Now, if only—

 

She heard a clang and whipped around, senses on high alert. Readying herself, she edged towards the alley between the library and the next building—a Chinese restaurant, if she recalled correctly—where the noise had come from.

 

As she pressed herself to the library wall like a spy in an action movie, she could hear it now—there was a muffled whining and what sounded like a man swearing.  A second later, a pale man came bustling out of the alley, dressed all in black and sporting an undercut style to his brown hair. Inky tattoos of archaic hieroglyphs were stamped up and down his neck.

 

"Eöl," Irissë growled, unable to stop herself.

 

Eöl whirled around, his lipstick-coated lips jerking into a smirk. "Hello, Aredhel. Back for more, or would you rather dump me again?"

 

"The only reason I dumped you is that you were cheating on me with that other bitch," Irissë snapped. "What were you doing down there?"

 

"Nothing that's of any concern to you," Eöl retorted, crossing his arms. "Now scram."

 

"Fat chance! What were you doing down there? Something illegal, I hope. Oh, I would love to see your ass rotting away in a jail cell!" Irissë sneered.

 

"How kind you are," Eöl deadpanned. "Fine, go see for yourself. But don't come crying to me about what you find. I don't care, and I won't listen."

 

Eöl slouched away, leaving Irissë to stare down the alley.

 

What was he doing down there?

 

Against her better judgment, Irissë crept down the alley, scanning for any movement, listening intently for any sound. She caught the sound of that whining from earlier and headed in that direction.

 

Finally, she came to a trash can, where the whining was coming from. Holding her nose to ward off the stench, Irissë lifted the lid—and gasped.

 

Splayed out on a garbage bag was a small, wrinkly baby. Its skin was shades lighter than hers, its hair a black fuzz. Tiny fists beat the air as he wailed weakly, his voice high-pitched.

 

Horrified, Irissë scooped the baby up, cradling it against her chest. The helpless thing was totally naked, and upon looking down, she discovered that it was a boy. He stopped making noise when Irissë pressed him to her collarbone and blinked big, blue eyes. Irissë felt rage as she had never known sweep her up in its grasp.

 

This was Eöl's son, of that she had no doubt. And he had left him in the trash. To be crushed by a garbage truck! What kind of monster did that to their own child?

 

The baby gurgled, and one of its tiny hands grabbed onto a strand of Irissë's hair.

 

"Shh, it's okay, little guy," she cooed, rocking him slightly. "I've got you. You're going to be okay, baby. Shh, shh."

 

The baby made an indistinct noise and yanked weakly on Irissë's hair.

 

Sweet Eru, how old was this child? And when was the last time he had eaten anything?

 

Irissë felt a surge of protectiveness overtake her, and she looked down at this little baby boy, who had no idea what had almost happened to him.

 

"It's okay now," she told him firmly. "I've got you now. And I am never going to let anything happen to you."

 

◊◊◊

 

"Turno," Irissë said urgently as she ran to her brother's side. "Turno, do you have some milk? I need some milk, ASAP."

 

"Irissë, if you're thirsty, then just go and drink from the water fountain like everyone else," Turno said, still focused on his book.

 

"Not for me, you fuck truck, for him!" Irissë hissed.

 

Turno looked up and nearly jumped out of his seat. "Is that a baby?"

 

"A baby?" Arko asked, already by Irissë's side. "Are you serious?"

 

The baby babbled, waving at Arko. "Where did you get a baby?" Turno squeaked, rifling through his backpack.

 

"In the back alley. Now hurry up!"

 

Turno snatched up a bottle of milk. "It's in a sippy cup, will that work?"

 

"Sure!" Irissë took the cup from him and pressed it to the baby's lips. "Here, little guy. I've gotten you some milk."

 

To her great relief, the baby started to suckle, practically inhaling the milk.

 

"How did you find him?" Arko asked.

 

"I bumped into Eöl outside—"

 

"Eöl? How do you know Eöl?" Turno spluttered. "He goes to my college!"

 

"We fucked for a while back before he cheated on me," Irissë said impatiently. "Anyway, he—"

 

"You fucked him?" Arko squeaked. "Irissë, you're eighteen!"

 

"Yes, and legally allowed to have sex!" Irissë glared at Turno. "And I'd better not hear a word out of you, Mr. Father At Eighteen."

 

Turno's mouth snapped shut.

 

"So, he was fooling around in the alley, and I got suspicious, so I went in and found this little guy in a trashcan!"

 

"A trashcan!" Arko gasped. Turno made a horrified choking sound.

 

"Yeah, a trashcan," Irissë said darkly. "So I brought him in here."

 

"Well, what do we do now?" Arko asked.

 

"We bring him home," Turno said decisively. "We bring him home and show him to Nelyo and Finno. Then we decide on what to do."

 

Irissë felt relieved at the suggestion. She honestly didn't want to let go of this poor little boy, not for one damn second.

 

"Irissë, wrap him in your jacket. He's probably cold."

 

Irissë nodded. She passed the boy to Arko so she could shuck off her jacket, then took the boy back, watching as he snuggled into the warmth of Irissë's body.

 

"Come on." Turno slung his backpack over his shoulder and stood up. "Let's get him home. I'll go grab Itarillë."

 

Irissë and Arko waited at the front of the library until Turno came running back, a frowning Itarillë in his arms.

 

"Play?" she was asking. "Play?"

 

"Not now, baby," Turno told her. "We have an emergency."

 

Itarillë cocked her head, her big blue eyes shining with confusion.

 

Irissë held the baby up so Itarillë could see. "Look, see? A baby!"

 

Itarillë squealed. "Baby! Baby! Baby!"

 

The baby whined, and Irissë snuggled him close.

 

"Let's go," Arko said, and they all rushed out of the library.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Hello!" Finno chirped as Irissë and her siblings walked inside. He was standing at the stove, stirring something. "I've got meatballs cooking if anyone wants to make spaghetti—"

 

"Is that a baby?" Nelyo asked, shooting up from the couch.

 

"Yep," Arko confirmed.

 

"What?" Finno yelped. He turned off the stove and bolted over.

 

"Where did you guys get a baby?" Nelyo squeaked. He walked over and laid a finger on the baby's forehead.

 

Irissë rocked the baby as she told the story, careful to support his head, as Turno had told her so long ago. He cooed and squirmed, and Irissë felt love for this child bubble up in her heart.

 

She wanted to protect this baby, keep it safe from all harm. She wanted to be the one to take care of him, to tuck him in at night, to feed him, to teach him how to walk. Irissë wanted this child for her own.

 

"Okay, I'll deal with your sex life later," Nelyo said, waving a hand. "Right now, we need to get this baby to a doctor to get checked out."

 

"Then what?" Arko asked.  Nelyo sighed. "We have to bring him to an orphanage. I'm sure—"

 

"No!" Irissë cried.

 

Everyone's heads turned to her as she continued, "We can't just give him up! What if they treat him as terribly as Eöl did?"

 

"You don't know that," Turno said soothingly. "Besides, it's the right thing to do."

 

"I am not letting this baby go!" Irissë said defiantly, clutching him tighter to her. She would not let them take this baby away from her!

 

"Irissë, what's gotten into you?" Arko asked, shocked.

 

"Guys, I can't let him go," Irissë explained. "I just can't. I don't want anything to happen to him!"

 

"Well, what do you want us to do, then?" Nelyo asked in exasperation. "Do you want us to keep him?"

 

"Yes!"

 

"Irissë, I don't think that'll work very well," Finno tried. "I have to work, so does Nelyo. Turno can't take care of two kids at once, and Arko's too young to have a child's life in his hands. Who's going to take care of him?"

 

"I will!" Irissë snapped.

 

"What?" Arko gasped. "Irissë, you hate little kids."

 

"You swore you would never have a child as long as you live," Turno added.

 

"I don't hate them—I like Itarillë, don't I? And people can change, Turno," Irissë snarled at her brothers, before turning to Finno and Nelyo. "Please. I will take care of him."

 

"Irissë, you do realize what this means," Nelyo said. "He's very young. He's going to need round-the-clock care. You'd have to bring him to school with you, feed him, change his diapers, take care of him at night. It would mean the death of your social life. Your whole existence will revolve solely around this child."

 

"Turno did it; I can too," Irissë said confidently.

 

"No." Nelyo shook his head. "Absolutely not. It's out of the question."

 

Irissë turned to Finno, ready to get down on her knees and beg. "Please, Finno," she said desperately. "Please."

 

Irissë's dark eyes met Finno's, and into that stare, she poured every single ounce of love, eagerness, and willingness she had whirling around in her brain.

 

Something must have clicked because Finno turned to Nelyo and said, "I say we let her do it."

 

Turno choked on air. Arko blurted, "What?"

 

Nelyo stared at his husband. "Are you serious? Finno, she's eighteen!"

 

"Turno did it. And can't you see she's serious about this?" Finno took his husband's hand. "Look, if she doesn't do a good job, we can give him to an orphanage, but for now, why not let her try? You never know, it could work out really well!"

 

Nelyo was still frowning. "I don't know…"

 

"Please?" Finno asked, making the big puppy eyes.

 

Nelyo sighed. "Finno…"

 

Finno took Nelyo's hand and kissed from the back up to his shoulder. Irissë had to stifle a giggle. That was so cheesy! "Please?" Finno asked again.

 

Nelyo eyed his husband in exasperation. "Finno, this isn't going to work."

 

"Guys, turn around," Finno ordered.

 

Irissë and the rest of her brothers turned their backs to the married couple.

 

Behind her, she heard Nelyo say, "Finno, whatever you're going to—ack! Finno, for fuck's sake, your siblings are right there!"

 

"Pretty please?" Finno wheedled. "Light of my life? Moon to my stars? The best thing that ever happened to me?"

 

"Finno…" Nelyo muttered, and Irissë could tell he was blushing.

 

"Please?"

 

Nelyo was silent for a minute. Then, he sighed, "Fine."

 

"Yes!" Irissë squealed, whirling to face Nelyo. "You mean it?"

 

"Against my better judgment," Nelyo said, but he smiled at Irissë. "You know the stakes. Are you sure you're ready for this?"

 

Irissë smiled down at the bundle in her arms. "I am."

 

"Okay." Nelyo rubbed his hands together. "Irissë, Arko, you're coming with me. We're going to go see a doctor. Turno, you and Finno go find a crib and some baby clothes. Itarillë can pick out some toys for him."

 

"Baby!" Itarillë, who had been silent in her father's arms, giggled. "Baby!"

 

"That's another thing. What's the baby's name going to be?" Turno asked.

 

Irissë didn't even hesitate. "Lómion. Maeglin for his Sindarin name. But I will call him Lómion."

 

"Lómion!" Itarillë cried, throwing her hands up. "Lómion!"

 

Arko smiled. "It seems someone here approves of the name."

 

Finno nodded. "Certainly seems so." He clapped his hands. "All right, people, let's move out! We've got stuff to do!"

 

Irissë kissed Finno on the cheek. "Thank you, Finno."

 

"Don't prove me wrong," Finno warned.

 

Irissë nodded. "I won't."

 

◊◊◊

 

"Goodbye, Nelyo," Finno said, making for his car.

 

"Ah ah ah." Nelyo grabbed his tie. "Where do you think you're going?"

 

"Um, work?" Finno tried, confused.

 

Nelyo's eyes gleamed. "Without a goodbye kiss?"

 

Finno laughed as he was reeled in. "Silly me."

 

◊◊◊

 

"One hundred and one," Finno panted as he bench-pressed the train car. "One hundred and two. One hundred and three…"

 

Oh, he was going to nap so hard after this was over. And maybe Nelyo could give him a massage…

 

Oooh, that sounded good.  Finno grinned and kept counting.

 

"One hundred and six, one hundred and seven…"

 

◊◊◊

 

"Hey, guys! Come outside! I've got a surprise for you!"

 

Turno looked up from The Three Little Pigs. "What's he on about?"

 

Nelyo shrugged. "Who knows? Let's go."

 

Turno scooped up Itarillë and walked outside.

 

Finno was in the driveway, leaning against…a beautiful black Tahoe that gleamed in the sunset.

 

"Holy shit, Finno!" Arko gasped.

 

"Arko! Language!" Irissë snapped. She had Lómion in her arms, happily sucking on a bottle of milk.

 

"Finno, what is this?" Nelyo asked, staring at his husband.

 

"Look at the curb," Finno said, smirking. "I've got another present for you."

 

Nelyo turned—and gasped. "Finno…is…is that…?"

 

A massive Jeep, a shining silver that matched Nelyo's eyes precisely, was parked on the street.

 

"Oh, Finno!" Nelyo threw himself into Finno's arms. "Thank you so much!"

 

Turno smiled. Everyone in the family knew that Nelyo loved Jeeps and had wanted one for ages. And now, there was a family-sized one waiting for him.

 

"Latest model," Finno managed, trapped in Nelyo's crushing grasp. "Autodrive. Cupholders. The works."

 

Irissë shook her head. "This is awesome, Finno."

 

Finno grinned at them over Nelyo's shoulder. "Happy to be of service."

 

◊◊◊

 

"So tell me, Irissë," Turno said around a mouthful of steak, "how's motherhood treating you?"

 

"It's awesome," Irissë declared. "All of my friends have become his aunts. They bring me clothes, diapers, and blankets—they even fight over who gets to hold him! I love them all, they're the best."

 

Nelyo nodded to Lómion, who was seated in a high chair. "And how's he been during school?"

 

"Mostly quiet. Lómion only cries when he's hungry or needs a change. Other than that, you can't get a peep out of him unless you're playing with him."

 

Finno grinned. "That's good. And how are you doing, Irissë? Any regrets?"

 

"Nope!" Irissë said triumphantly. "Not one!"

 

"Just wait until he's a teenager," Nelyo muttered darkly, sipping from his water. "Then you'll be having second thoughts."

 

"Is that what you think about us?" Arko asked curiously.

 

Finno shrugged. "Sometimes."

 

Arko squawked with outrage. Irissë made an offended noise. Turno just laughed.

 

Finno tossed a braid behind his head. "So, does anyone want to go anywhere over Christmas break?"

 

"Finno, it's barely the end of September, and you're already planning for Christmas?" Turno asked. "We haven't even had Halloween yet! Do you even know what you're going to be?"

 

"The Valiant," Finno said instantly.

 

"And I'm Russandol," Nelyo added, smirking.

 

Arko rolled his eyes. "Oh my Eru, you two."

 

Turno's phone buzzed in his pocket. Grabbing it, he opened up the screen and saw—

 

The phone clattered onto the table.

 

Irissë frowned. "Turno, are you okay?"

 

Turno felt like he was about to collapse. He was having trouble breathing, and his eyes were tearing up.

 

"Turno, what's wrong?" Nelyo asked, looking alarmed.

 

Turno bolted from the table and to his room, slamming the door behind him.

 

He heard Itarillë say, "Dada?" behind him.

 

◊◊◊

 

It was a while before Turno finally stopped crying.

 

He laid face down on his bed, taking deep breaths into his pillow. This gave him plenty of time to calm himself down.

 

There came a knock at the door. "Turno?" Nelyo said softly. "Are you doing okay in there?"

 

"No," Turno sniffed. "But I'll be all right."

 

"Do you mind if we come in?" That was Finno's voice. Now Turno felt confused. Usually, Finno left the touchy-feely stuff to Nelyo, who was far more experienced with these sorts of things. Why was he here?

 

"Sure," he said dully.

 

He heard the door creak open, then felt the bed dip beside him. Two pairs of gentle hands rested on his back.

 

"What's the matter?" Nelyo asked, rubbing Turno's spine comfortingly.

 

Turno bit his lip. Should he tell them?

 

"You can tell us, buddy," Finno said soothingly, massaging Turno's shoulder blades. "We just want to help."

 

Turno sighed. "One of my friends sent me a picture of Elenwë with her new boyfriend."

 

"Oh, shit," Finno said.

 

"You can say that again," Turno mumbled.

 

Elenwë…she had been the first person he had ever loved romantically. They had dated since sophomore year, and everyone called them the dream couple. Everything had been fantastic…until that party, the day after she'd turned eighteen.

 

Looking back, Turno knew that both of them hadn't made the best decisions that night. But he had used protection, and she was on birth control, so neither of them were worried.

 

Itarillë was a surprise. Both of them were horrified, but Turno was also excited, in a way. He had always wanted a family with Elenwë—this might not have been the way to go about it, but Turno was more than prepared to be there for Elenwë every step of the way.

 

But Elenwë had been angry. She'd blamed Turno for this mess, and although she was willing to have the baby, she wasn't too enthusiastic about the idea of being a mother at eighteen.

 

It had been the most joyful day of his life, the day a squalling Itarillë had been placed in his arms. And he'd thought Elenwë had felt the same.

 

But a few weeks after they had graduated high school, she and her family had packed up and moved to a small town at the edge of the Helcaraxë, leaving Turno with Itarillë, a single father at eighteen. That had been the worst day of his life.

 

He'd had crushes since—Voronwë being the latest—but a part of him would never be over Elenwë. Especially not with their beloved child in his care. And now she had a new boyfriend. She had moved on—and he couldn't take it.

 

"I'm sorry, Turno." Nelyo reached up to ruffle Turno's hair.

 

"I loved her," Turno whimpered, feeling tears form in his eyes once more. "I wanted to marry her. And then we just…I…"

 

Finno pressed a kiss to the back of Turno's head.

 

"I ruined everything," Turno groaned, his hands coming up to seize fistfuls of his hair. "I ruined everything, I ruined it all—"

 

"Turno, you didn't ruin anything," Finno gasped. "It was a total accident. This is not your fault."

 

"It must be because I'm the one who's paying for it," Turno said into the pillow. "And Itarillë. But this isn't her fault."

 

"Nor is it yours," Nelyo insisted. "Turno, sit up and look at me."

 

Turno obeyed, facing his brother and brother-in-law. Both of them looked at him with eyes full of sincerity and comfort.

 

"Turno, Elenwë is the only one at fault here," Nelyo said firmly. "She's the one who walked out on you and Itarillë."

 

"You did the best that you could," Finno added. "You supported her, cared for her. Mandos, you were more than happy to help her raise this child. And we are very proud of you."

 

Turno flushed. "Thank you."

 

"But you have to come to terms with the fact that Elenwë is gone. Not right away," Nelyo amended, "but someday. That way, you can have a life free of regrets."

 

"Do you have a life free of regrets?" Turno asked the redhead.

 

"Well, I married Finno, if that tells you anything."

 

"Hey!" Finno squawked.

 

Turno laughed. Leave it to these two to act like a married couple even at the worst of times. "Thanks, you guys."

 

Finno and Nelyo wrapped Turno up in a tight hug. "Any time you need us, just ask," Finno whispered in his ear.

 

As the two released him, Arko came into the room carrying Itarillë.

 

"Here's Daddy," Arko cooed, passing Itarillë to Turno.

 

"Dada!" Itarillë squealed, reaching for Turno's cheeks.

 

"Hello, baby girl." Turno lifted her until her forehead was pressed to his. "I love you very much."

 

And he always would.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Get back in here! I want my goodbye kiss!"

 

Finno laughed as he was tugged back inside the house. "Okay, okay!"

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno stared at the ground as he did his handstand pushups, a train car balanced precariously on his feet.

 

He was starting to get sick to his stomach. It really had been a while since he'd been upside down.

 

Maybe he should take up gymnastics next.

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno let the tape measure drop and looked at the measurement.  He scowled. This wasn't what he wanted at all.

 

Guess it was back to the train yard after all.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Yes!" Bëor crowed as his bowling ball knocked all the pins down. "Strike! Take that, Muscles!"

 

"Oh, it's on, Fur-Face," Finno snarled.

 

Ingo had to chuckle. "Aren't husbands adorable?"

 

"So adorable," Nelyo agreed, smiling fondly at Finno.

 

They were at their local bowling alley. Finno and company had invited Ingo and Bëor to go bowling with them, a request that had caused Ingo to choke on his milk. But they had come, and now Finno and Bëor were engaged in a one-on-one battle.

 

Ingo cast a glance towards Uncle Ñolofinwë's other children. Turno was feeding Itarillë french fries, Irissë was waiting her turn, adorable Lómion strapped to her chest, and Arko had just rolled his ball. Ingo smiled. It was nice to see siblings getting along.

 

He chuckled. His own family definitely hadn't been peaceful. He and his brothers had continuously argued, and Artanis fought viciously to upstage them all.

 

Ingo frowned. Artanis still hadn't contacted him. Hopefully, she was visiting their father, whose hidden home didn't have WiFi or phones in general.

 

Hopefully.

 

"Have you noticed something different about Finno?" Nelyo asked, drawing Ingo out of his thoughts.

 

"Uh, yeah. The guy's getting thin. Has he been working out?"

 

"Apparently." Nelyo frowned. "I don't know how he finds the time between work."

 

Ingo shrugged. "Eh. Finno's good with time. Remember your wedding?"

 

Nelyo chuckled. "Don't remind me." His face sobered up. "I mean attitude-wise, though. Doesn't he seem different?"

 

Ingo watched as Finno rolled his ball down the alley. "Yeah. He's way too happy—it's like he's been doing superhero work again, but twenty-four/seven."

 

Nelyo smiled. "But I'm glad he's so happy. It's been so relaxing around the house. And he's been in a depression for years. It's like the sun has come out."

 

"Happy husbands are the best," Ingo said, watching Bëor pick up his ball. "I don't know what I'd do if Bëor were sad all the time."

 

"Try to make him happy and fail for three years. Then send him off to a conference and watch the magic happen. That's what I'd advise," Nelyo said, smirking.

 

Ingo stuck his tongue out at his half-cousin.

 

"Ingo!" Bëor called. "Come on, we're doing teams! Couple vs. couple!"

 

"Yeah, come on, Nelyo!" Finno said enthusiastically. "I will not be beaten by Bigfoot over here!"

 

"Watch it, Rapunzel!"

 

Ingo rolled his eyes as he and Nelyo stood. "You're going down," he told the redhead.

 

Nelyo shook his head. "Not if Finno has anything to say about it."

 

◊◊◊

 

They wound up tieing.

 

◊◊◊

 

Nelyo picked up his husband, so they were eye level. "Love you."

 

"Why must you do this?" Finno whined. But he leaned in and kissed Nelyo anyway. "I love you, too."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno was cycling his legs, rotating a circular train car with his feet, when he heard a train horn.

 

He kicked, and the train car landed back on the tracks. Leaping up, he leaned casually against the side and saluted the conductor as the freight train trundled by.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Okay," Nelyo said, clapping his gloved hands. "Everyone got their chores?"

 

"I'm going to wash the floors," Turno said, already in water form.

 

"I'm on dusting duty," Irissë said, twirling a duster in her hands.

 

"I lift things up and down for Irissë to dust," Arko said, hands at the ready.

 

"I'm vacuuming," Nelyo said, gesturing to the vacuum he was holding. "I'm washing dishes," Finno said, holding up a sponge.

 

"And you two are supervising," Nelyo finished, pointing at Itarillë in her playpen and Lómion in his baby seat. Itarillë giggled, waving a building block at the family. Lómion sighed in his sleep.

 

"Ready to clean?" Nelyo asked.

 

"Yes, sir!" everyone declared, punching a fist in the air.

 

"Then, break!"

 

Everyone scattered to start the biannual scouring of the house.

 

◊◊◊

 

"Get back here!" Nelyo yelled as he chased Finno through the house.

 

"You'll have to catch me!" Finno laughed, darting around the couch. Nelyo stopped on the other side. They faced off, neither daring to move.

 

Finno grinned. He had Nelyo now—

 

A pair of copper hands shot out and wound around Finno, bringing him straight to Nelyo's chest.

 

"Got you," Nelyo said, grinning.

 

"Oh, shut up and give me my goodbye kiss."

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno pulled the chains one by one, lifting the train cars so that they crashed into the ceiling of the loading frames.

 

Eru, that sound was so satisfying. He'd have to do this more often!

 

◊◊◊

 

Finno looked at the tape measure—and shouted, "Yes!"

 

Startled, Nelyo looked up from the vegetable tray. "What, what?"

 

"I reached my goal!" Finno said enthusiastically, holding up the tape measure.

 

Nelyo beamed. "Finno, that's wonderful!"

 

"And look!" Finno lifted his shirt to reveal chiseled abdominal muscles. "I got my abs back!"

 

"Augh!" Nelyo put up his hands as if to ward off a bright light. "They're blinding me! My eyes are burning!"

 

Finno laughed and dropped his shirt. "Drama king."

 

"You love it." Nelyo patted the space next to him on the bed. "Come on, it's starting!"

 

Finno obliged his husband and climbed into bed to rest against Nelyo's side. Nelyo laid the vegetable platter on their knees and pressed the play button.

 

As the opening credits for Harry Potter began, Nelyo leaned over and kissed Finno's cheek. "I love you, Finno."

 

Finno felt like the world was spinning off its axis. He always got like this when Nelyo said those three, perfect words to him.

 

"I love you too, my darling Nelyo," Finno said and twined his fingers with Nelyo's. He sighed.

 

Life was good.