Evan Shapiro
Justice Wing, Serial, Superhero

⎇001JW Justice Wing: Forebears #12

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Forebears

“…okay, that’s dark. Dad… are you sure you’ve recovered enough to travel?”

“I wasn’t physically injured, Tip.”

“Yeah, well, Albescu didn’t take a swing for me for almost six years and didn’t connect when he did but I still have nightmares. You’re the one who told me PTSD was a thing, remember?”


After years of planning and scheming and billions of do-overs though history, the Mad God Urizen’s insane plans to neutralize the heroes of Justice Wing so he could destroy all of Actuality – the nine dimensional construct that contains every universe within the comprehensible multiverse – in an effort to finally and definitively end his own existence finally went into effect. Despite all the odds being stacked against them and terrible losses, the heroes of Earth held on and ultimately and definitively stopped Urizen – but left a devastated world and a death toll of possibly more than a billion. In the wreckage that remains, both parahumans and prosahumans have to pull together and rebuild… but no one knows what role either super heroes and villains or parahumans in general will have after all that’s happened. This is the end of Justice Wing: the Apocalypse Agenda.
Doctor Evan Shapiro is a professor of philosophy at Riverside University in Bay City, New Jersey – an honorable if humble position for a man with multiple PhDs in subjects ranging from physics to history and more and went on to help codify a new post-Emergence understanding of nine dimensional space, all as a precursor to his true vocation. During this time, he also managed to marry a woman named Mandalora Hartley – once the heavy hitter of the Pentad of Guardians known as Antonym – and have daughters Danni and Evvie. Now, even as the world tries to get back to normal after the horrors of the Apocalypse Agenda, Shapiro himself is recovering from traumas of his own even as a recess is called in the ongoing negotiation for the fate of parahumanity, conducted between a team of negotiators representing Justice Wing and de facto parahumanity as a whole and a team from a Coalition of Nations seeking to prevent another Agenda from ever happening again. Now, with Shapiro’s daughter Evvie preparing to compete as a gymnast in the Junior Olympics out in Las Bendiciones, California, one of those negotiators – Shapiro’s old associate and colleague, the controversial Dr. Lillian Tartikoff – has hitched a ride with Church Industries stalwart (and old friend) Andy Pope, in time for Andy, Lillian, and others to interrupt one of Shapiro’s classes Andy’s daughter Skyler was taking, in time for Lil to pull Evan Shapiro off for coffee and to explain just why she’s there…

Forebears

Book Two: Evan

Part Two

Tuesday

 

The Student Canteen was one of several places on campus where someone could grab a cheap caffeine hit or nosh. Otherwise, it was a good sized open atrium with lots of stylized pipes and arches overhead, with the exterior wall large and glass. The building itself was called the Student Arts and Recreation Center, and it was the kind of showpiece that ended up in all of Riverside University’s publicity. Which, given the rest of campus was mostly rectangular boxes made of brick, was probably a good idea.

Evan and Lillian sat at one of the tables, each holding Styrofoam cups of coffee. Evan took his straight. Lillian took hers with triple cream and triple sugar. But then, some things never changed.

“So why are you here?” Evan said. “The Coalition’s recessed until a week from next Wednesday, right? I’d think you’d go home or keep Cosette company on her flight to Kansas and then out to Las Bendiciones to see that friend of yours. After all, with Cosette and see that friend of yours. Or, and I’m just throwing this out there, maybe try to find a job?”

“That ‘friend’ of mine’s making money hand over fist. I’m not worried about the rent.” Lillian sipped her coffee. “I’m actually thinking of going back into private practice.”

“Back? When were you in private practice? You got your M.D., your Ph.D., and your government job within three weeks of each other. I was at your graduation ceremony. I know how the dates line up.”

“Initially? That ‘government job’ needed a cover, so going into private practice gave me an airtight one. Properly executed espionage constructs every lie out of truth, after all. I didn’t expect to find practicing as a psychologist and psychiatrist rewarding, but I did. By the time I was transferred to Operation Tangent Swan it sometimes felt like my medical practice was the only real good I gave to the world. These days – well, I usually maintain an office somewhere. I like to keep my hand in. There still aren’t that many parahuman psychologists or psychiatrists, and the demand is only growing.”

“Mm. That might be either commendable or opportunistic.” Evan sipped his coffee. “So is that why you’re in Bay City? You’re going to open up a practice here? I can’t say that’s a prudent choice.”

Lillian smiled a bit more. “And prudence is considered a virtue, or so I hear.”

“Oh, how I love it when you think you’re being cute.” Evan sipped more coffee. “Why are you here, Lil?”

“I’d ask if I couldn’t just be visiting one of my oldest friends—”

“—but I’d laugh in your face and you know it.”

“Exactly.” She sipped her own coffee. “And you know exactly why I’m here, Evan.”

Evan looked at Lil, then looked down into his half-full coffee cup. “I’m actually pretty solidly booked these days.”

“Normally I’d let you get away with that, but I already know you’re going to Las Bendiciones tomorrow.”

“That’s right. I’m going to Las Bendiciones tomorrow… to watch my daughter compete in the Junior Olympics. Like I said. I’m booked.”

“Aren’t her first events on Saturday?”

“Of course they are. Which gives me Thursday and Friday to acclimate to the time change and make sure Mandy has whatever she needs. You do remember Mandy’s special needs, I trust?”

Lil chuckled. “After weeks working with her on the negotiations? I’d better remember them. And it sounds like I should be talking to Mandy so she can make you—”

“Am I supposed to believe that you haven’t already spoken to Mandy about this?”

“Actually, I haven’t.” She paused. “But Mandy does know. Delia Temple told her.”

Evan looked down and swore under his breath. “Of course she did.”

“Mandy also knows you didn’t tell her.”

“Oh, trust me. Just now, when you said Mandy knew? I immediately started planning for the now-inevitable argument. I’m considering including a prelude. Unless you think I should use an opening statement model instead?” Evan drank the rest of his coffee. “Why haven’t you dismissed Mandy from the Negotiation team and sent her home?”

“I don’t actually have the authority to do that. I don’t work for DETAILS any more, remember? I’m there as an expert and an observer.”

There was a ripple over Evan’s vision, and the lights in the room seemed to grow significantly warmer and brighter. At the same time… in a way, it was like Lil was coming into sharper focus, along with… well, everything else. “If you told the negotiating team to send Mandy home, they’d do it,” Evan said, evenly. “And it would have to be you – no one else in that room has the necessary gravitas with all the stakeholders. More to the point, if you told Mandy to go home she actually would.”

“Angrily and under protest,” Lil said. “And careful. You’re glinting.”

“I’m well aware.” Evan did concentrate for a moment, and the ambient light seemed to cool back down. “Though no one will ever actually notice my glinting without specific need or cause, and you know it.”

“It’s pretty distinctive.”

“I stand by my belief.”

Lil rolled her eyes. “Ah. And if you believe it—”

“You have your little tricks of the trade and I have mine, Lil.” He looked at his watch. It was exactly the time he thought it was. “Are we having another cup of coffee?”

“Have you agreed to accompany me to the Protectory on Thursday with an option to spend at least part of the day on Friday as well?”

“No.”

“Then we’re having another cup of coffee.”

Evan nodded, getting up. “Triple-triple again?”

“You know me so well.”

“Yes.” Evan turned and walked over to the canteen’s coffee line. In another forty-five minutes, the window would close and coffee would come from a machine that still charged only fifty cents for a cup of ‘coffee’ with ‘lightener.’ It would be dispensed in a cup decorated with printed poker hands. It was like a small bit of 60’s kitsch had clung to this corner of Riverside University.

Since there was a line, Evan pulled out his phone. It was the same flip-phone he’d been using for three years. Before that, it had been Mandy’s, but she’d had to upgrade to a smartphone and her old phone was plenty for Evan’s needs. He punched star-1 and waited.

Two rings. If Mandy was close enough to the phone to answer after the second ring, she always did so. Never after one ring, never three. Always two. This time was no exception. “What?” she snapped, her habitual annoyance accentuated by the fatigue and slight raggedness in her voice. She was working too hard again, damn it.

“You used to chide me for ignoring Caller ID when you called me,” Evan said. “I’d accuse you of being hypocritical but I’m uncertain how the accusation would benefit me in the long run.”

“Trust me, you’d operate at a loss,” Mandy snapped back. “And what makes you think I didn’t check the Caller ID?”

“Not an assumption. Merely a supposition.” The line incremented forward by one. “So, you’re angry at me.” It was a statement, not a question.

“You think?

“Constantly, but that’s not what you want to hear right now. I’ve just been having coffee with Lil.”

“I know. She wanted to go guilt you so she snagged a ride with Andy, since Skyler and that other kid are in your class.”

“Which means she idly suggested the plan to Andy and Carson, who otherwise probably wouldn’t have thought of it, and yet Andy’s no doubt certain it was his idea in the first place. Lil really shouldn’t have quit Intelligence. Spycraft’s less a skill and more an artistic medium with her.” He looked back over his shoulder. Lil was reading something on her phone – one of those T-Glass models Temple had put out – a slightly newer model than Mandy’s own T-Glass. “You could have called and let me know they were coming.”

“Yes I could. Go on, Professor. Make a logical connection. I dare you.”

“You were angry at me so you let them surprise me, knowing full well Lil intended to badger me about my trip plans, so I wouldn’t like this surprise at all.”

“God, it’s like listening to a Vulcan talk about fashion. Evan, when were you going to tell me about Gary?”

Evan sighed. “I knew you’d ask that question.”

Rocks knew I’d ask you that question, Evan. So answer it.”

“I didn’t have any specific timeframe,” Evan said, mildly. “I’m certain I would have brought it up after his death, but since we’re not entirely certain when that will be—”

“We’re apparently a lot more certain than I realized. Have you told the girls?”

Evan closed his eyes. “The girls aren’t particularly close to Garrison. Given Xander’s recent death, I felt it best not to bring it up with Evvie since she’s heading into competition. You already know I don’t really speak to Danni all that often, which is something of a pity.” Just two people in line ahead of Evan, now…

“Okay. That is an actual answer and I thank you for it. So, let’s get right down to the fun question. Evan…” Mandy’s voice dropped a bit. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Evan stepped forward again. “I’m almost to the head of the line at the canteen,” he said. “I won’t be able to talk much longer.”

“Then answer quickly.”

Evan sighed. “It happened during the Apocalypse Agenda – he was in the Protectory during their last stand. There was an accident. Garrison was at the site of an unexpected prompt criticality excursion, receiving an exposure of approximately seven grays. He went into immediate care and it had looked like he would… well, survive, if not fully recover. Given everything you had dealt with, were dealing with, and would continue to deal with, it seemed somewhere between foolish and cruel to add to your burden.”

“Jesus Christ.” Mandy sighed. “Okay, and in the literal months since then?”

“Initially you were in the DETAILS Parahuman Intensive Care Unit with no clear prognosis as to your own survival. Garrison had been responding to treatment. Once again, there was no rational reason to add to your burden. After that, you were brought into the Coalition’s negotiations, so… I’m at the head of the line. I’ll tell you more later. I love you.”

“I love you too, which is lucky for you because you’re an idiot.”

“Be that as it may. We’ll talk soon.” Evan clapped the phone shut. “Hello, Judith. May I get another cup of black coffee and another cup of coffee with triple cream and triple sugar?”

Less than two minutes later, Lil put her phone down and accepted the styrofoam cup of coffee from Evan. “How’s Mandy?”

“Surly. I imagine she has a headache. I certainly do.” Evan sat back down.

“We need her,” Lil said, after sipping her coffee.

“Mandy?”

“Yes. We need Mandy, Evan. We desperately need her. I have no adequate way to express how much fear and anger was in that room. We were looking at worldwide repression. Pogroms. Ridiculously unfeasible registration schemes. I had five different analysts do independent analyses, Evan. Three of them gave double-digit odds the resulting conflicts would end in a planetary extinction level event. The best case projections suggested parahumans all over the world would be in danger. Enslaved. Murdered. Maybe something even worse.” Lil sighed. “They wouldn’t listen to Paragon, Evan. They sure won’t listen to me, Cosy, Connor, Truncheon, or the Beacon. But Mandy… they listen to her, Evan.”

Evan sipped his coffee. “Yes, of course they do. She just has to literally court death in the process. And you know that. You have four medical practitioners including one of the strongest mystic healers on the planet surrounding and supporting her, all while doing your damndest to ensure the people on the other side of the table won’t figuring out Mandy’s past. She’s still badly hurt. She’s still in pain. She’s nowhere near recovered or well enough to go out to dinner, much less negotiate with the most powerful nations on Earth on behalf of the entirety of parahumanity. We don’t even have a good way to detect or measure neuroleptic surges any longer.”

“I know. And she’s literally the only one who can do this, Evan. Her and Cosette Wight working together – that’s our Hail Mary to get out of this with some semblance of justice for parahumanity.”

“And that’s worth her death?”

“Yes.”

The two looked at each other.

“Well, that’s stark,” Evan said. “I was just telling Mandy you really should have stayed in government service. In addition to your unquestionable skill at espionage, you’ve positively mastered the art of performing a risk of loss calculus and then justifying predicted but acceptable losses.” He set his coffee cup down. “But you’re wrong. This isn’t worth her life, Lil. It’s not even worth the additional pain you’re putting her through.”

“You mean it’s not worth it to you,” Lil said.

Evan arched an eyebrow. “Naturally. There’s no other relevant criterion.”

“Watch it. One of my professional associates goes by Criterion. But you know that.”

“Of course I do. That’s irrelevant.”

“Evan… no matter what you believe about yourself, the world, the universe, and creation, the rest of us have to muddle on without regard for how our lives affect you.

“Let’s not get into that debate today, all right? I know you understand the concept. You defined it when you disrupted my class.” Evan picked his coffee back up and drank a gulp of it. It was a bit too hot for that, burning a bit as it went down, but he didn’t care.

“No, I didn’t,” Lil said. “I defined classical solipsism. You don’t subscribe to classical solipsism. You believe in that philosophical model you were laying out for your class. You believe all those creation myths, methods, and thought experiments happened and co-exist… well, somehow. And since you laid out a hypothetical case where Skyler Pope was the solipsist imagining the rest of us into being, and then laid out a second one where you were the solipsist, instead… that means you’re both the ones imagining or perceiving the universe into being, and so is everyone else for that matter.”

Evan nodded slightly. “That’s right.”

“Thou art God. Congratulations. You’ve taken Heinlein’s multi-person pantheistic solipsism concept and made it an actual philosophical tenet.”

“Well. Something like that, anyway. It actually manages to explain people like Freya or Hecate or that bassist in your friend’s band. Regardless of that, the one mind – the only mind – that matters to the universe is my own. And, by derivation, the only reason the universe itself matters is on my behalf. From my point of view, anyhow. Your’s would differ, but that’s none of my business.”

Lil slipped off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “If that’s true, then going and seeing your brother before he dies is your business, literally by definition. After all, if you’re right, your unconscious mind hit him with that ionising radiation in the first place. If that’s true, there must be a reason, it must involve you, and therefore you have to go see him.”

“I don’t have to do anything.”

“Gods, Evan.” She closed her eyes, still rubbing the bridge of her nose. “He really wants to see you. He loves you.”

“I know that,” Evan said, softly. “I love him, too. If I didn’t…”

Lil opened her eyes, slipping her glasses back on. Her eyes almost looked like she was wearing green contact lenses, now. Metallic ones, with no pupils – almost like her corneas had been anodized green. “If you didn’t love him so much, you could go see him without any trouble. But you do love him and you don’t know if you’re strong enough to see him like this.”

Evan snorted, looking down into his coffee cup. “You’re glinting.”

“I know I’m glinting. But I’m a public parahuman, so who cares if I glint? You’re not out.”

“I’m a prosahuman.”

Lil rolled her (once again grey) eyes. “Yes, but while I understand that and further understand the distinction, not one other person in this student union would. Stop side-tracking me, Evan.”

“For the first fifteen years of our lives, my life revolved around Garrison’s life,” Evan muttered. “It had to. He needed my perspective or else he just fell into the chaos of perception – he saw too much. Perceived too much. It was too much for anyone to take, much less a little boy. Ultimately, you took that role over – you balanced him in ways I couldn’t. And that makes sense; you’re his natural balance. But for all those years….” He shook his head. “I mean, of course I complained. I had to complain. If I didn’t complain, people would think I had no complaints. But… for all those years, he was the constant in my world. The constant of my world.” He picked the coffee up, drinking it down until there was none left, then looked at Lil. “Why would I possibly want to taint my memories of that?”

Lil sighed. “Why are you going out to see Evvie compete? You’ve seen her routines before. Why take the risk of seeing her fall off a… bar. Onto… the floor… exercise… es.”

Evan looked at Lil.

Lil flushed, which made the warm terra cotta brown of her skin take on a rose undertone. “What?”

“Sorry. I’m just amazed I found the one person who knows less about Artistic Gymnastics than Mandy.”

“It doesn’t change my question.”

“And you know my answer. I’m going out there to support Evvie. To show her how proud I am. And to be there for her no matter how well she does.” He paused. “It’s not impossible I would also like to buy merch. There’s precious little Women’s Artistic Gymnastics merch at either Target or Hot Topic.”

Lil opened her mouth, then paused. “Why… specifically Target and Hot Topic?”

Evan shrugged. “I always go to Target. Mandy has an unreasonable love of Hot Topic. That set a pattern for our shopping habits.”

“…‘kay.” Lil looked at Evan. “So. Even if the universe exists purely for the benefit of Evan Shapiro… you’re going to go out to Las Bendiciones for several days to support Eve Calantha Shapiro even though it has no intrinsic benefit to Evan Shapiro… because you love her. And admittedly to score a t-shirt.”

Evan chuckled. “Arguably, the t-shirt puts the trip back into the ‘intrinsic benefit to Evan Shapiro’ category.”

Lil rolled her eyes again. “Evan… I know you don’t want to go out there. Gary annoys you on your best days together, but below all of that you love him. And I understand being scared to see him like that.” She shrugged. “Get over it. It’s not about you. And if I hear one word about solipsism–

“Understood.” Evan looked at the dregs of the coffee in his styrofoam cup. He slowly crushed the cup in his left hand, breaking it up as he did so. “And of course I’m going to go with you. Of course I’m going to go see him. Of course we both knew I was going to do that before you ever walked into my class. This was at most an intellectual exercise. A ritual we both knew we had to go through. And I’m scared. All right? I’m scared of what I’ll see.”

Lil nodded. “I know. Me too.” She smiled sadly. “Evan, you’re one of my oldest friends… but Gary’s my balance. He’s as much my brother as your brother. He’s… setting aside romance or sex, since those were obviously never a thing with me and Gary? I’ve never loved or cared about anyone one tenth as much as I love him. And that’s before we factor in literal telepathic meshing.” She shrugged. “But I have to do this. If I didn’t do it, then I’d regret it the rest of my life.”

“And the same is true for me. And that lesson’s my ‘intrinsic value,’ isn’t it? So it doesn’t even have to contradict my worldview in the process. Aren’t I lucky.” Evan shook his head. “This year, Lil. This year’s taken so much from me. It’s going to take more before it’s done, too. That’s why I want you to send Mandy home. If… if she…”

“I know, Evan. I swear I understand.” She paused. “You know she knows all this.”

“Of course. This and the Apocalypse Agenda before are the only two things that pass her single criterion for stepping back into that world.”

“Which criterion’s that?”

Evan snorted. “‘Is this more important than being alive for my husband and kids?’ Since the day of the sundering she’s always answered ‘no’ to that question. Always… until the Apocalypse Agenda. And… admittedly it was complicated since I’d been kidnapped again, but still. I hadn’t been kidnapped this time, but she still answered ‘yes,’ anyway.” He closed his eyes. The light was tending warm temperature anyway, meaning he was glinting.

Lil didn’t say anything for a long moment.

Evan finally opened his eyes again. “Well. We should probably go.”

“Yeah,” Lil said. “You know something, Evan? As crazy as it sounds, I know how you feel.”

Evan paused. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I’ve had… people… in my life. People I absolutely knew I could count on. People who always put me first.” She shrugged. “Until they didn’t. And it’s the worst feeling in the world even when they’re making the right choice and you know it.” She shrugs. “The difference between you and me, deep down? Is that other than Gary and Mandy, you’ve never had anyone you could count on, because absolutely no one else could count on you.”

Evan paused. “I assume you’re wearing your psychologist hat, because if that was supposed to be comforting it was the worst job of it I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Broadhead try to be sensitive.”

“Yeah, well – I doubt you could afford my rates. Evan, you and Gary have the exact same problem at your core. Neither one of you can see things from anyone else’s point of view. You’re cynical, so you don’t believe in other points of view. Not really. Gary’s guileless, so he accepts whatever he’s told as truth without having any idea why they feel that way. And it’s crazy, because you’re both geniuses.”

“The term ‘genius’ is semantically null,” Evan said, looking down at the table. “Intellect, wisdom, native talent, learned skill, the capacity for synthesis, the capacity for dismantlement… all these things can provide examples of ‘genius.’ Whenever someone starts believing in their own genius, they lose the capacity for self-evaluation. Contrarily, if someone believes in their own stupidity, that belief becomes self-fulfilling. The only real issue is sentience, and I’m no more sentient than you, or those students at the next table, or Judith.”

“If we exist in the first place?”

“You exist, as do they. Perhaps I created the world from within my mind. Perhaps we all did. Whatever that answer, you exist. You all exist.”

Lil smiled a bit, then paused. “You’re very certain of that.”

“Of course I am. Mandy exists. Evvie and Danni exist. Ergo, the world exists.” Evan shrugged. “As I recall, your friend and that singer are also often called geniuses.”

“They have names, Evan. Even if Cassie doesn’t use it professionally.” She smiled, just a bit. “And whatever else you believe, I know Cassie’s a genius. First hand experience.”

Evan snorted. “Such a terrific genius that she managed to put the final nail in the Institute and your career, not to mention diminishing that gravitas I mentioned before just enough to hamper your effectiveness in the negotiations. Perhaps a reassessment of the evidence—”

“Evan.” Lil’s voice was cool, cutting him off smoothly. “Given everything we’ve both been through, I’m giving you a chance. If you were about to insult Cassie, even by implication, you would regret it for a very, very long time.”

Evan paused, then inclined his head. “I certainly don’t fault her taste, if that helps.”

“It shouldn’t, but it kind of does.” Lil sighed. “We didn’t mean for it to happen. We’d been working together on her issues for some time at that point. She consented to a mental connection. It was a significant act of trust on her part.” She half-smiled helplessly. “We didn’t realize she had a psionic component to her parahuman abilities. We didn’t expect to sync. We didn’t expect to fuse. And after it happened, I immediately reported it to the appropriate officials and recused myself as her therapist and she besides, she never attended the institute in the first place so that wasn’t an issue except in the press, true or not. And she was of legal age. I don’t claim any ethical high ground, but we did our best and we kept her name out of the record and didn’t try to keep mine out, so there’d be no coverup to make it all worse. And…”

She sighed again. “And there was, and is, an inherent power imbalance, so we kept apart and I signed paperwork and… then a billion people were killed. Some right in front of me. Cassie and I saved each other a dozen times each or more, and the people we were around seemed pretty comfortable with us. And now? No one seems to much care about my private life any more, so long as I stay mostly out of the public eye, and Cassie’s seen other therapists and an oracle and then I signed new paperwork – prenups, understandings, that sort of thing.” She smiled very slightly. “Beyond that, it’s no one’s business but ours.”

“I understand.”

Lil chuckled. “No, you don’t. And you’re no good at lying about it.”

Evan shrugged. “Has Garrison met her?”

Lil smiled a bit. “He has. He likes her. She called me after – she likes him too. He said he believes in us, not that Cassie knows what that means.”

Evan snorted. “Garrison believes in everything.”

“Well, yes.”

“And right now Mandy’s flying to the heartland with Cosette Wight, stopping off for their Kansas gig. Which means you just set up Cassie’s introduction to Mandy at a point where neither you nor I are in the room.”

Lil opened her mouth. “Oh… oh dear.” She looked off to the side.

The warm visual haze was back, so Evan was glinting. Hardly a surprise. “That connection’s persistent, isn’t it?”

Lil glanced back, then nodded. “It is. We’re a bit far away from each other to actually hear sentences right now, but there’s always a little bit of her nestled in my brain. I wasn’t kidding when I used the word ‘fusion.’ I think we share a single soul now.”

“That sounds absolutely dreadful. Mazel tov. We should get going – are you staying the night?”

“If we’re both flying out tomorrow then yes, I am staying the night.”

Evan nodded. “We can put you up in Danni’s room. I doubt she’d mind.”

“No, I’ll sleep on your couch. I bloody love that couch.”

“You gave us that couch as a housewarming gift.”

“I have good taste. I need to use the facilities. I’ll be right back and we can go.”

Evan nodded again. He rubbed his eyes. He watched Lil slide out of her chair and head for the broad stairwell. The Student Union was part of the Arts and Rec, and it was built like a tiered promenade. 

He slipped out his phone and punched star one. Voicemail. So Mandy was on her phone or her flight had taken off. All right then. He punched star two.

One ring only. “Hello?!”

“So you’d never believe it. I found a classifieds listing for a fourteen year old Jaguar. Three thousand bucks and the ad claims it still runs. I thought I’d pick it up and spend the weekend restoring it. Want to help? I mean, you don’t have anything else to do, do you?”

Evvie giggled. “Hi Dad!”

“Hey, Tip. How’s it going?”

“Well, Emma was right. Coming out early enough to work through the jet lag helped a lot. I’m feeling a lot fresher now.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He took a deep breath. “So… how much will you hate me forever and ever with the blazing fury of a daughter scorned if I wasn’t there watching you practice and train on Thursday?”

“Huh? Oh, forever, Dad.” She giggled. “If something’s up that’s fine. What’s going on? Some symposium or something?”

“Nothing like that.” Evan considered. Mandy had been angry he hadn’t told the girls about their uncle’s condition, but adding that to Evvie’s burden just before the Junior Olympics, just three months after both Evan and Mandy’s ‘disappearance’ during the Apocalypse Agenda, not to mention Xander’s death covering the girls’ escape, leading to them huddling in a dozen churches as they were carried out of harm’s way…

…no. This would wait until after the games easily enough. Besides, Mandy of all people had no business sniffing at Evan keeping a secret from the girls. “I’ve got some business with your Uncle Garrison.”

“Oh! Okay, sure! Do whatever you have to so long as we have dinner when you get in tomorrow night. Someplace where I don’t have to be around these… the other gymnasts.”

“Mm. Keep your chin up, Tip. Maintain your composure, let their comments slip off, then rub their noses in your gold medal.”

Evvie laughed. “Oh sure. Piece a’cake. Are you flying out with Mom?”

“No no. She got a flight out of Empire with Ms. Wight, who agreed to look after her on the way. Do you remember Ms. Wight? Cosette Wight?”

“Oh, like I pay attention to Mom’s weird fri– oh. Oh wait. Really bright red hair. Like, not from nature?”

“That would likely be her, yes.”

“Right! I remember her from somewhere.”

“Naturally. Most of the time Ms. Wight’s a talent agent and manager, and one of her bands is playing at a music festival in Kansas, so she and your mother are overnighting there. Danni’s flying in there tonight and she’ll look after your mother the rest of the way to Las Bendiciones. And of course I’ll join them there tomorrow.”

“Oh, of course.” She paused. “Dad?”

“Yeah, Tip?”

“What’s wrong?”

Evan felt his heart clutch. It was his own fault. He had raised a perceptive child. “Quite a bit, absolutely none of which you need to think about right now. Keep your head in the game. Vent to Emma about me not telling you if you want. And when the meet’s over, we’ll talk. Fair?”

“Fair.” She sighed. “Why’d the world have to go so crazy, Dad?”

“It’s inevitable, Tip. When times are good, our natural inclination is to believe we’ve outgrown the more stupid elements of our lives, but honestly… it’s always cyclical. Insanity, banality, the Unimaginable and American Authority, all culminating in ancient gods wanting to commit suicide by omniversal Armageddon? Right when people think those times will never happen again we’re in the thick of it.” Garrison’s face swam through Evan’s mind, very suddenly. It had been doing that a lot recently. “And it’s always later than we think, Tip. We never have enough time, but we always assume we do so we put things off.”

“…okay, that’s dark. Dad… are you sure you’ve recovered enough to travel?”

“I wasn’t physically injured, Tip.”

“Yeah, well, Albescu didn’t take a swing for me for almost six years and didn’t connect when he did but I still have nightmares. You’re the one who told me PTSD was a thing, remember?”

“Yes I do. And… your point is well made. Okay. I’m going to head home so I can get rested. The flight’s a redeye.” Which wasn’t strictly true – it was a 5 am flight – but it was out of Liberty International across the river from Empire City, so he and Lil would probably leave the house at 1 am, especially with the extra airport security after the Agenda.

“Cool. I’m gonna go pester Emma for a bit and then find a quiet place and read or something. It’s that or ‘mingle,’ and I think mingling with the other gymnasts is just asking to end with a gunshot.”

Evan sighed. “Evvie – how many times do I have to tell you. If you hand Chekhov a gun he’s going to shoot it—” Evan cut off. His vision was going warm again. Glinting.

Evvie just laughed. “Okay. Be careful and I’ll see you and Mom tomorrow! Gotta go! Emma just gave me the taco high sign.”

“Understood.” Emma had an odd idea of what constituted a training table. “Hey, Tip?”

“Yeah?”

“Never forget. To be individual… to be different from others… is the only way to become distinguished from the common herd. No matter what they think, I’m proud you’re various enough to be enjoyable society.“

“So I should be content,” Evvie said, with what sounded like a happy cry building. “Thanks, Dad. I love you too.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Evan paused. “And I do love you.”

“…Dad? You… I know you do but you almost never say it like that. Are you—”

“I’m sure everything is all right, yes. But we never have enough time, so putting that off seems imprudent.”

“…oh, Dad. I– crap. Emma’s giving me the ‘food now’ look. Love you bye!

Evan chuckled as the phone line cleared.

“‘Various enough to be enjoyable society?’ That’s a crazy thing to tell your daughter.”

Evan looked up. Lil was waiting there. “It’s a quote,” he said. “An in-joke, really. It’s from The Lost Princess of Oz.

Lil half-smiled. “I should have known. You and Oz. Can we get drive-thru on the way? I’m starving.”

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