Evan Shapiro
Justice Wing, Serial, Superhero

⎇001JW Justice Wing: Forebears #13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Forebears

“Our daughter Loredana is a parahuman, Evan. She chose to bluesuit. That’s fine. She gets to do that… for now, anyway. But the things we’re hammering out in those meetings… Evan, it’s not about Justice Wing or super heroes or even what happened in Europe or all the dead people. It’s about terrified prosahumans and what they might do out of fear, and every bit of it is pointed square at Danni. So no, Evan. There is no realistic alternative. I will die ten times in agony before I allow my daughter to spend the rest of her life hiding from her government and neighbors.” She took a slightly ragged breath. “So. Are there any questions, or have I made myself clear?


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, though in his youth he studied many different disciplines and actually helped to codify the 9-dimensional nature of Actuality. He’s married to a lawyer named Mandalora Hartley Shapiro – once the heavy hitter of the Pentad of Guardians known as Antonym – and has daughters Loredana (called Danni) and Eve (called Evvie). Now, Shapiro, like the rest of the world, is recovering from a number of traumas after the Apocalypse Agenda even as a recess is called in the ongoing negotiation for the fate of parahumanity, conducted between a team of negotiators representing Justice Wing – negotiators which include Mandy Shapiro, along with parahuman lawyer and producer Cozette ‘Cozy’ Wight and disgraced former intelligence operative Doctor Lillian Tartikoff – an old friend of Evan’s. Now, while Evan prepares to travel out to California and meet up with Mandy and Danni, so the three can watch Evvie compete as a gymnast in the Junior Olympics, Lillian Tartikoff has shown up in Bay City to convince Evan to go see his brother Garrison while he’s out there… and while there’s still time. This has led to friction between Evan and Mandy, since Evan hadn’t told Mandy his brother had taken a fatal dose of ionizing radiation at the end of the Agenda… even as Evan tries to convince Mandy to leave the negotiations and come home to recover from her own injuries.

Forebears

Book Two: Evan

Part Three

The classroom had been wrecked. Gar had stopped screaming but by then the class had been evacuated. Ev was sure that school officials or janitors or someone were on their way, but he’d heard the scream from the other side of the building and torn down there as fast as he could. He told them they should take all the same classes so they’d be together, but no one listened to junior high students…

Gar was sitting in the chaos of half-desks, books, papers, a broken yardstick… he had his arms wrapped around himself, his head down, facing away from the door.

Ev looked at Gar for a few moments. It was worse than normal. He heard people running down the hall, and he turned and put a hand up. It was a couple of teachers and Vice Principal Hanson, and they weren’t given to listening to 12 year olds in the best of situations, but this time? This time they hesitated, before the vice principal nodded slightly.

Ev stepped into the classroom and pushed the door shut. “Wow. You’re great at getting attention. I mean it. You should teach classes or something.”

Gar didn’t turn around. His shoulders were shaking slightly.

“Oh, come on. I know you can hear me.” Ev walked over. “I know I’m not Lily and I’m sure you’re disappointed, but you could still look at me when I talk to you. I mean, that’s the whole problem, right? You’re too good at looking? Why don’t I get to have a turn?”

“…it was too much, Ev…” Gar whispered. “I don’t… I can’t do this.”

Ev walked over, kneeling and putting a hand on Gar’s shoulder. “Yeah. Yeah, this one looked bad. But honestly, I already told you. You can do this. I believe in you. You believe me, right?”

“…I believe you…” Gar whispered.

“And when I say you can handle this, I mean it. Do you believe me?”

“…I believe you…” he whispered again, in exactly the same tones.

“Then okay, Gar. Breathe or something. Keep loose. And look at me.”

Gar didn’t move.

“Gar? Look at me.”

He slowly turned. His eyes looked like he was wearing black contact lenses – black but shiny, like a car or something. “Hi,” he whispered.

“Hey.”

“I’m not disappointed.”

Ev blinked. “What?”

“You said. You did. You said that I’d be disappointed because you weren’t Lily. Ev… I never… I’ll never be disappointed. Not when you show up. When you’re here.” He shivered again. “I saw… it was so much, and so many people and they believe such terrible things and I think about what that means the world is really like—”

“You believe everything, Gar. I dunno why, but you do. Sometimes that means you believe pretty crappy things.”

“…I wish I could go to Nangiyala, Ev.”

Ev felt his heart clutch. “No, Gar,” he said. “Not yet. Not for a long, long time. It’s not time yet. You know that, right?”

Gar took several deep, shuddering breaths. “I believe you,” he whispered. “But Ev…I can’t get them out of my head, Ev. I can’t stop thinking about—”

Evan saw the room grow bright and almost yellow, like all the lights were replaced by those light bulbs that drove off bugs. He leaned closer. “Look at me, Gar.”

Gar focused on Evan.

“It doesn’t matter how rotten the world is. It’s also nice. There are nice people. I believe that, Gar. And I wouldn’t believe it if I was wrong about it. You know that. I believe you can handle this if you keep trying. I believe you’ll learn to like the world and see the good things and maybe put the bad stuff… just… I dunno. I believe you’ll do that. And I believe you’ll be happy.” He leaned closer. “Do you hear me, Gar. I believe in you, and I believe you’ll be happy, and I’m never wrong and I never lie about what I believe. All right?”

Gar nodded slowly, his eyes clearing back to their usual light brown. “…I’m scared,” he whispered.

“I know,” Ev said.

“You never get scared.”

“Yeah I do.” Ev’s own vision had gone back to normal. “I get scared something’ll happen to you.” He touched Gar’s shoulder. “So don’t let it. I don’t need that kinda crap.”

Gar snickered, despite everything.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Then let’s get this place cleaned up. Old Man Hanson was on his way and I think that vein in his head – the one that throbs? It’ll probably explode if he has too wait too long. And I’ll get in trouble if I get blood on another shirt and you know it.”

Gar laughed, a little distantly.

Evan turned and sat down, leaning against Gar perpendicular to how his brother was sitting. He held his left hand out to the side, without looking at it.

Gar didn’t turn, but he reached over and took Ev’s hand. And that meant it would be okay.

“Hey!”

Evan blinked, turning. Lil was munching on her double cheeseburger. That, a shake, two apple pies and a ton of fries. “How you stay fit’s beyond me,” Evan murmured.

“I like being a woman of mystery, Evan.” She paused. “Where were you, just then?”

“Mm? Oh. Thinking about junior high. One of those times Garrison went out of control and threw a tantrum.” Even considered for a moment. “Along with several desks.”

Lil snickered. “Yeah, I remember that sort of thing way too well.” She shook her head. “It took him years before he really found…”

“Stability?”

“Contentment.” Lil chuckled. “Yeah. It was… Gods, for a while he just followed me. I went to college so he went to college. I went to med school so he went to grad school. I got my M.D. and Ph.D, so he got his doctorate. When I ended up assigned to Tangent Swan, he moved to Evergreen. When I transferred to Las Bendiciones, he followed me there.”

“He stopped following you after that.”

“I know. He found a place to be. People to be with. A woman. Like I said: contentment.” Lil sighed a bit. “I was a little offended, at least briefly. After all, he’d depended on me for so long and now here he had all his new friends. Okay, they were my friends, too, but still – I wasn’t being rational. Still… with me moving out to Grantham to launch the Institute and Doc Muon talking about turning their decidedly unofficial group into the West Coast version of the Excelsiors, right after Gary got that USC job…”

Evan snorted. “You were jealous because he found new playmates. I understand that. I felt that way about you for a good year. Then I got over such ridiculous things.” He paused. “Mostly, anyhow. Though still – he got USC and I got a tiny non-profit liberal arts college in New Jersey? And people wonder why I’m a cynic.”

Lil laughed. “You’re no cynic. You’d have to care about the world to be disappointed in it.”

Evan snorted again. “What was that you called me before? One of your oldest friends? I can certainly see that affection now.” He shook his head. “Of course, there was a reason for it all. There’s always a reason for it all. Garrison’s appointment at USC taught me something about myself, taught me something about philosophy as a vocation, and in turn taught me something about philosophy as a discipline. That’s how I got over jealousy. After all, there’s always a reason, right?”

“Oh, absolutely. It had nothing to do with Gary himself. That would be silly.” Lil took a bite of one of those apple pies. “It’s hard to see reason in anything, these days. It all just… went to Hell. I lost everything. My whole life just imploded. And then the Agenda hit. Is there really a reason for all that?”

“Of course. Whether we see it or not, if it happens there was a reason behind it. That’s the point. That’s always the point.” Evan looked down at his half-eaten burger. “It has to be. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“And does the universe need to make sense?” Lil asked.

“I have no way of knowing if the universe needs to make sense, but I solidly believe that the universe does make sense.” Evan looked at Lil. “What do you believe, Lily?”

“I believe that you shouldn’t call me Lily.”

“Garrison calls you Lily.”

“I don’t believe that changes my statement in the least.” Lil stood up. “And with that, I’m going to go out to the living room, lie down on that unimaginably stylish couch some witty person bought you as a housewarming present, and allegedly sleep in hopes of being fresh for our one a.m. departure to our five a.m. flight.”

Evan nodded. “And between you, me, and Danni? We can make sure Mandy’s safe and cared for and still go to see Garrison. All without distracting Evvie while she competes, of course.” Evan bit his lip. “It all sounds so neat and tidy.”

“Doesn’t it?” Lil half-smiled. “Try to get some sleep, Evan. You won’t do anyone any good by fretting. Gary and Mandy are both being cared for.”

“For some value of ‘care’ that involves landing in Kansas and holing up in some hotel because her caregiver wants to check on that bar band she manages.”

“Bar band? You know they had a number one best selling hit off their last album, right?”

Evan arched his eyebrows. “Why would I possibly know that?”

Lil snickered. “Good night, Evan.” She started walking out into the living room.

“You just want to go into a half-trance and watch your girlfriend play her gig,” Evan called after her, though he was looking back down at his burger.

“‘Just?’ It’s the highlight of my day!” Lil looked back over her shoulder and smiled. “Good night, Evan.”

“Good night,” he said, absently. It was too early to go to bed, but Lil’s point was sound – getting some rest made sense. He wrapped the rest of his burger up and put it in the fridge, tossed the remnants of Lil’s meal, and then swung around and climbed the stairs to the second floor. He pulled the bedroom door shut behind him and laid on his bed, still in slacks and button down shirt though he’d taken his coat and shoes off at the door.

He looked to his left. Mandy’s side of the bed. She was in a different time zone but he still stuck to his side of the bed. Habit? Human nature? Superstition? Mandy would explain it one way, Lil another. But was there some universal truth to be found in tangible absence? It felt likely.

Evan shifted, reaching for the landline phone on his night table. He picked up the receiver, hearing the steady dial tone – no messages on their voicemail. Good. He pushed the top autodial button and listened to the phone beep out Mandy’s cell number. Electronic tones became electrical pulses, sliding down to the central office and veering off down the fiber optic highway to the last place Mandy’s phone registered on a tower. That tower sent a signal, Mandy’s phone responded, and with a click the call connected through.

The phone started ringing. It had taken maybe a second. The miracle of the interconnected world.

Two rings. Not one. Not three. “Yeah?” Mandy muttered after picking up. Still annoyed, but not actively angry.

“Telling you would have meant confronting Garrison’s condition,” Evan said. “Not as an abstract, but as a reality. And I wasn’t… I wasn’t ready for that. I’m not ready for it now. I just have no other choice.”

“Yeah,” Mandy said. She sounded tired. “That’s the thing about a marriage, dumbass. We help each other deal with the things we can’t deal with on our own.”

“And any other year I would.” Evan stared up at the ceiling, listening to the slight hum and crackle on the line. “But then, I’m not ready to deal with your situation, either.”

Mandy snorted derisively. “I did my job when I had to do my job. The same things that let me survive also nearly killed me. And now? I get to remember that wonderful day every time I look at myself in a mirror. What’s to deal with?”

Evan didn’t answer.

“Ev? Evan?”

“It’d be easier if I were with you,” Evan murmured.

“I know.” Mandy paused. “But that’s not what you mean. You mean it’d be easier if I were with you, recovering in Bay City, and not going anywhere near the Coalition or the negotiations.”

Evan closed his eyes. “This is the problem with marrying smart people,” he muttered.

“Yeah, you should have figured that out a while ago, Philosopher.” He heard a scratching sound – probably from repositioning her phone. With his eyes closed he could almost – no, he could see her. Sort of see her, anyhow. There was a view from above. Her silhouette lay on the outline of a queen sized hotel bed, vignetted in gold fading to white even as he heard her keep talking. “I had to do this, Evan. I have to do this.”

“It seems like you don’t have to,” Evan said, softly. “You chose to do this.”

“It’s only a choice if there’s a realistic alternative. There isn’t.”

“Mandy—”

“Our daughter Loredana is a parahuman, Evan. She chose to bluesuit. That’s fine. She gets to do that… for now, anyway. But the things we’re hammering out in those meetings… Evan, it’s not about Justice Wing or super heroes or even what happened in Europe or all the dead people. It’s about terrified prosahumans and what they might do out of fear, and every bit of it is pointed square at Danni. So no, Evan. There is no realistic alternative. I will die ten times in agony before I allow my daughter to spend the rest of her life hiding from her government and neighbors.” She took a slightly ragged breath. “So. Are there any questions, or have I made myself clear?

Evan didn’t answer right away.

“Evan?”

“Mm?”

There was a long moment of silence, with only the slight crackle of the line proving they were still connected.

“Evan, you’re… not… talking.”

“I’m aware.” Evan rubbed the corners of his eyes. He couldn’t clearly see Mandy any more, but that was for the best, probably.

“Evan… I’m sorry. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but—”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Evan said, very quietly. There was no real strength in his voice. Just a whisper over the line.

“I know. That scares me.”

Evan didn’t say anything.

“Evan?”

“It should scare you,” Evan murmured. “It’s not a good sign. And that’s before the Chekhov.”

“The what?”

“Nothing.” Evan didn’t know why Evvie’s gunshot joke made him glint, but it did. He couldn’t protect Mandy from a theoretical gunshot, but he could at least warn her. “But do me a favor and stay out of open spaces.”

“Stay out of open spaces? But goodness, Evan. I was going to go to the mall and then dance down the boulevard singing gaily to the birds and passersby. I thought I’d also inform the media of my movements and wear bright clothing while I was at it. No shit I’m staying out of open spaces. I’m staying indoors and away from everyone except Cosy until Danni gets here.”

“Okay. Thank you. Just…”

“Evan?” Mandy said, quietly. “I love you. Okay? Angry or not, I still love you and I always will.”

“I’m aware,” Evan murmured. “And I know you’ll do everything you have to do to keep Danni safe. I believe that. I believe in you. I always have and that hasn’t changed.” He sighed. “And I only believe true things.”

“…so what did change? Is Gary’s—”

“Garrison’s condition has had an impact on my mood, but I don’t think that was your question.” Evan took a deep breath. “I’m going to let you get some rest. I’m going to try and get some sleep before the flight. I’ll call you before we leave. And I love you, Mandalora. I really do.”

“…yeah. Okay. I love you too.” She paused. “I really, really do, Evan.”

“B-bye.” Evan almost mechanically hung up, then lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

Mandy had been warned. Maybe it wouldn’t do her any good, but since there was nothing else Evan could do, the Chekhov probably wasn’t aimed in her direction. That would just be shock value, and that was ridiculous. All right. That left Danni, Evvie, Lil, Gary, and Evan himself, right? He wasn’t sure, but that seemed like a good starting list. So, which one was going to attract a bullet? Evvie’s original joke was about social interaction – ‘mingling’ with the other gymnasts – but that didn’t mean the gymnasts would be involved. It just meant ‘people interacting,’ in the broader sense. But not a comfortable interaction. There would be tension. People who didn’t care for each other.

Given Mandy’s work with the Negotiation team, that almost certainly meant the tensions between parahumans and prosahumans. Lil’s parahumanity was public knowledge, as was Cosy Wight’s – maybe she needed to be on the danger list, too. Mandy and Danni were parahumans, but that wasn’t common knowledge – though more people knew about Mandy than Danni. Did that make his wife or his daughter the more likely target? Or did it make them less likely.

It was all connected. Evan just didn’t know how. And that was terrifying.

But then, a lot of things were scaring Evan right now. What was one more?


Senior year hadn’t really registered on Evan. It wasn’t a chore and it wasn’t a delight. It was just another gate that had to be passed through on his way to college and his real work. What was that work? Evan really wasn’t sure. He assumed it didn’t much matter.

“Mister Shapiro! A word?”

Evan looked over his shoulder. He’d been walking through the halls with a bookbag slung over his shoulder, heading to the library like always. He’d never been off the honor roll, so he’d never had to go to a study hall – he could always go to the library instead. As a senior, he also had ‘senior privilege,’ which let him hang around the cafeteria, the gymnasium, or outside, but he never did any of those things. He just went to the library.

But apparently, he wasn’t going to make it today. The person who’d spoken up was Mr. Digulio, a man with a severe haircut and a severe attitude. Evan had seen a lot of him in grades nine and ten, and only rarely seen him since. It had never been over Evan himself, of course. Evan had never actually gotten so much as detention. It had always been about Gar.

“Sure,” Evan said, turning and following Digulio to his office. ‘Vice-Principal’ was written on a plaque on the door. The door itself had no window – almost every other door in the school had a safety glass window, but the Vice-Principal was the school disciplinarian, so it was considered inappropriate to let people see who might be with him.

So, when Mr. Digulio asked Evan to pull the door shut, it meant no one in the universe would know what happened in that room. No one but Evan himself. Of course, that meant no one else needed to know what happened in that room, but Evan didn’t like talking about that.

“Have a seat,” Digulio said, stepping around his desk and sitting in his own chair. Evan slid into one of the wooden chairs on the other side. “I should mention – you’re not in any trouble.”

“Is Garrison in trouble?” Evan asked.

“Hm. No. Though… that’s why I wanted to talk to you.” The man opened a file on his desk. “We got the latest round of college acceptances.”

Evan arched an eyebrow but didn’t otherwise comment.

“Your brother’s… apparently been accepted to Yale.”

Evan still didn’t say anything.

“Evan… obviously Gary’s got the grades, but getting accepted to an Ivy League school usually takes more than a four point grade average. But not only has he been accepted, he’s got a full scholarship.”

“So obviously that’s a good thing,” Evan said. As a statement, not a question.

“Is it? Evan… Gary has no extracurriculars at all. And while his disciplinary problems largely ended some time ago, he still has some difficulties in staying focused in class—”

“I was accepted to Grantham University, Tufts, and Harvard,” Evan said. “On full scholarships. I have almost no extracurriculars.”

“You won the school essay contest four years running,” Digulio said. “And you’ve been published in magazines. Academic magazines. It’s remarkable. Honestly, I don’t know why you decided to go to Grantham U instead of Harvard, but—”

“I like their program better,” Evan said.

“That’s fine, that’s fine. My point is… of course you got accepted to these places. You’ve exceeded anyone’s expectations for a high school student. But your brother’s…”

“Is Lillian Tartikoff going to Yale?”

Digulio paused.

“She was on the list as well, right? Yale? Full scholarship.”

“Yale, yes, though we didn’t get any financial aid details. I expect that hasn’t been determined.”

Evan shrugged. “If Lil’s going to Yale, then Garrison’s going to Yale. I don’t see the problem.”

“Evan… why are they taking him?”

Evan sighed slightly. “If you want me to answer honestly, then I’ll answer honestly.”

“I expect nothing less.”

Evan nodded. “They’re taking them because their admissions board is collectively smarter than you are.”

Digulio blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“You don’t need to beg. I grant my pardon willingly enough, Mr. Digulio.” Evan paused a moment. “I recognize there are a number of benefits the school accrues based upon the percentage of its students that are accepted to college, and those benefits increase when those acceptances are from major universities. My advice is to take the win, sir.” Evan paused. “And if you think my brother somehow cheated, and you pursue that line of inquiry, I believe it will end very badly for you and have no impact whatsoever on him. I do not recommend it.”

Digulio frowned. “I don’t care for your tone, Mister Shapiro.”

“And I don’t care for yours, Mister Digulio. But neither of those facts are actionable, are they?” Evan lifted his chin slightly. “I assume I’m free to go?”

A blood-curdling scream snapped Evan out of sleep. He was still barely awake as he rolled out of bed and ran for the door. He was halfway down the stairs before he had fully shaken the dream off and was tearing into the living room before really waking up. He was still in slacks and button down, having drifted off after his call to Mandy.

Lil had fallen off the couch in a tangle of blankets, curled in a fetal position and clutching her stomach. “…oh God oh God…” she was saying over and over again.

Lil!” Evan shouted, sliding to his knees and probing along her side and trying to get her to move her hands. “What happened.”

“…Evan? Evan I’ve been shot! Help me Evan they shot me,” Lil said, half in delirium.

Evan managed to pull her hands free, looking for blood or a wound–

Nothing.

“…oh God…” Lil said again, shuddering. “It hurts. Oh God it hurts…”

Evan froze. ‘God.’ Lillian Tartikoff never said ‘god.’ Other than quoting someone else, she always said ‘gods.’ Plural. Maybe no one else would notice, but Evan did. “…Cassie?” he half-whispered. “Acacia? Is that you?

Lil convulsed, pulling away from Evan’s hands and curling more tightly around her abdomen. “I can’t – where’s the blood? Why aren’t I bleeding? Oh God what’s happening to me!?” She was sobbing now. Sobbing and shuddering and barely conscious of anything.

“Cassie… Lil… you have to focus. Tell me what’s happening. Do you hear me? Tell me what’s happening?

The house phone began to ring.

Evan ignored it. “Lil? Lil, answer me.” He set his jaw. “Lily.

Lil’s eyes focused on Evan. “Don’t call me Lily!” she hissed.

“Lil, what’s going on!?”

Lil blinked. “…I… Cassie. They were on stage. They were on stage and then it was rushed and she’s been shot oh my Gods she’s been shot—”

The phone kept ringing.

“Take deep breaths,” Evan said. “Focus. Focus on her. She needs you, Lil. She needs you to focus.

Lil’s breath was still ragged, but she nodded. She looked back at Evan, her eyes gleaming metallic green. Glinting. “Answer the phone,” she snapped.

Evan paused, then pushed to his feet and ran to the hall phone, scooping it up. “What do—”

“Shut up!” Mandy half-shouted on the line. “Evan, the Kittens were just attacked on stage!” Her breath was ragged, almost exactly like Lil’s.

“…what happened? Mandy, what happened?!”

“I don’t have details! Cosy got a call – they were performing and some True Human supremacist assholes rushed the stage and opened fire on them! Their lead singer, their keyboardist, and their drummer were all hit!”

“Damn it,” Evan muttered. “And Acacia took a bullet too.”

“What – no, the reports—”

“Lil’s curled around a bullet wound she never took, Mandy!” Evan snapped. “She’s barely coherent because she’s reacting to the injury.”

“No – tell her, Evan! Tell her Cassie didn’t get hit!

“I’m telling you she did!” Evan closed his eyes. “It doesn’t matter. Cassie needs to be sedated or something or Lil won’t snap out of this! What hospital did they bring them to? I’ll call—”

“They’re not at a hospital,” Mandy spat, almost angrily. “They’re still on stage!”

Evan paused. “What?”

“They’re finishing their set!”

“That’s insane! They need to get to a hospital now!

“No shit! Cosy’s on her way there now, Evan. She’ll get them to—”

“—wait. Cosy’s – Cosette left you alone?!” Rage flooded Evan. “She needs to get back there right now! She—”

“I’m fine, Evan! I’m lying in a fucking hotel bed. Danni’s flight lands in less than an hour! It’s fine!

“Hwan abandoned you on this trip, and now Wight has too, and you’re telling me—”

“It’s not about me, Evan! Those kids were shot on stage!

“I don’t care about them!” Evan snapped back.

“But I do! And they’re Cosy’s priority and they should be! If you can’t handle that then get off the fucking line!”

Evan came up short, looking off to the side, angrily.

“…I can’t do this…” he heard from the living room. “…I can’t do this…” Then there was an almost savage growl. “Yes you can!” Lil – clearly Lil herself, and not the woman who’d become her other half. “You can do this! They’re nothing! They’re nobody! But you are Zephyr Lish, and you are the best Gods-damned guitarist in the universe, and you can do this!” He heard Lil take a ragged breath. “I believe in you, Cassie,” he heard her whisper, even though there was no way he possibly could have heard her whisper.

Well. So that was that, at least.

“Evan?” Mandy asked. “Evan, Goddammit, either you say something—”

“You’re right,” Evan said. “I’m sorry.”

Mandy paused again. “…Jesus, how scared are you?” she asked.

“Terrified,” Evan said, mildly. Like he was talking about the weather. He’d gotten some composure back, at least. Shameful, letting his emotions run wild like that. “All right. I’ll get Lil out there. And we both know Cosy’s not going with you and Danni tomorrow. I’ll make alternate arrangements.”

“It’ll be fine,” Mandy said–

“No it won’t, unless we take measures. We need to keep all this from Evvie until after she’s had a chance to compete. Fortunately, no one there will associate her with the Cheshire Kittens.” Yet, he thought to himself, but didn’t pursue that. “Danni can’t be your only support and I need to go see Garrison, especially since Lil won’t get there for a while, now. Your little friends clearly won’t make it.”

“Rath can’t just ditch his—”

“I don’t care about the details. I’ll handle this. You need to take a deep breath, relax as much as possible, and wait for Danni to get there. I’ll handle logistics. We’ll make it out to Las Bendiciones on time, and we’ll be there for Evvie. Okay?”

Mandy took another few breaths – her breathing was as ragged as Lil’s, but in this case it was physical. “All right,” she said. “Yeah. Good. How’s Lil?”

“In torment.”

“…Jesus. Okay. Go see to her. I’ll be fine. Call me if you need to call me. I love you.”

“I love you too, Mandy. We’ll make it through this. I believe that. And—”

“—and you only believe true things. Get a new catchphrase. Jesus.”

“No promises. I’ll see you soon.”

“Damn right. Love you. B’bye.”

Evan hung up. He walked back into the living room. Lil had pushed herself into a sitting position against the couch, though she was still on the floor. She was breathing hard, and her eyes were seeing something far, far away.

Evan walked past her, flipping on the television and changing the channel to News24. “—believed the attackers were members of a national gang called the Vicars,” the anchor was saying. “The Vicars have known ties to several True Human fringe groups and at least one militia. For those of you just joining us: the Cheshire Kittens – the parahuman rock group whose single ‘Transparent’ hit number one on the Billboard charts for seventeen weeks, were attacked during a scheduled performance at Thunderfest, an outdoor music festival being held—”

“Evan?”

Evan turned. Lil was looking at him, though her body was still rigid and she was still holding her stomach. Her eyes were tightly closed.

“Yeah?” Evan asked, walking back over.

“…I’m thirsty,” she said. “…at least, I think it’s me. But—”

“I’ll get you some seltzer,” Evan said. “And I’ll get you to Kansas so you can be with her.”

“…’kay. Thank you.” She snorted, opening her eyes. They were still glinting green. “For once you’re taking care of me ‘stead of Gary.”

“There’s nothing I can do for Garrison. I’ll be right back.”

Once reaching the kitchen, Evan poured two glasses of lemon flavored seltzer. It had a slight citrus odor.

Evan closed his eyes and started turning all this over in his head. All right – so Chekhov had taken his shot. It made sense. Evvie had gone out to the Junior Olympics, which meant technically she was ‘mingling with the other gymnasts’ and then there was a gunshot, just like she said. Cosette Wight had been the connection between the attack and Evvie. If Evvie hadn’t been going to the Junior Olympics, the Coalition negotiations wouldn’t have had this scheduled break, which means Mandy and Wight wouldn’t have flown out to Kansas. Whether or not terrorists attacked the band anyway was irrelevant – it wouldn’t have had an impact on Mandy or Evan. Since it did…

Lil had hitched a ride with Andy Pope so she could badger Evan into seeing his brother. That meant Andy was also here for a reason. Lil had defined solipsism in the class, so the solipsist thesis was involved. That meant–

”…what if there’s a point? What if everything in every universe of the multiverse exists specifically for your behalf? What if all our history, from the Big Bang until now, happened entirely so that I could tell you these things in this class on this day? …here’s another question. If everyone exists because that one solipsist created everything… what if the solipsist isn’t you? What if it’s me? …what if the entire course of cosmological evolution and history came from me, and your entire universal purpose was to be in this class, today, so I’d have a reason to give this lecture? What would that point be?”

Oh.

Evan opened his eyes. He wasn’t surprised that everything had that warm yellow cast to it. Of course he was glinting.

Evan brought Lil her seltzer. The news was still talking about the attack, but he didn’t bother listening. Lil took the glass but didn’t look up – she was focused on the other half of her soul, gut-shot but still playing guitar on some stage in Kansas. That was fine. Evan saw her phone sitting on the end table next to the couch, picked it up, and walked out through the hall and back into the kitchen. He turned the phone’s screen on, unlocked it – of course he knew the code – and scrolled through her contacts to place a call–

It rang twice, then got picked up mid-way through the third ring. “Hey, Doc T,” Andy Pope said, cheerfully. “I thought you were going to bed early—”

“This is Evan Shapiro,” Evan said. “The Cheshire Kittens were just attacked on stage. Several of them were shot, including Zephyr Lish. Lil’s in a telepathic fugue after experiencing the attack.”

“—wha… oh my God. Are they all right?”

Evan snorted. “They’re insane is what they are. They’re finishing their set. Lil needs to get out there. You still have a private jet waiting out at Mercer County Airport, right?”

“…yeah, of course I do. But I don’t think—”

“If I have to call Connor, I’ll call Connor. She needs to get out there, and you can bring her most quickly. Right now, Mandy’s been left alone in a hotel room so don’t test me on this. And that brings me to the second thing I need from you.”

“What?”

“Lil was going to fly out with me to Las Bendiciones, so she could help Danni and me take care of Mandy while we support Evvie at the Junior Olympics. That become more important after Mandy learned my brother is dying—”

“—Gary’s dying?

“Don’t interrupt. I can’t see Garrison, support Evvie, and help Danni take care of Mandy by myself. I need an assistant.”

“Okay. I’ll call Connor and—”

“No. I’m taking Skyler. Make the arrangements and let her know. I’ll call the dean so they know to excuse her from class.”

There was silence on the line.

“Do I need to repeat myself?”

“You’re going to pull my daughter out of classes to… are you crazy? I’m not going to agree to that!”

“Yes you are. She’ll get credit for this. I’ll swing this as an internship or the like. And pay her, of course.”

“Why? Why her? She isn’t trained for this? What do you think she’s going to do if Mandy has a seizure, or goes into neuroleptic shock?”

“Whatever she has to do.”

“Why her, Evan?”

Evan sighed. “Because that’s why she was in my class in the first place.”

“…Jesus, is this one—”

“Handle it, Andy. We don’t have time to argue. Lil’s on the floor practically in shock.”

Andy took several deep breaths. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I know better than to argue when you get like this. I’ll make the arrangements. Give me the flight details.”

Evan nodded, though of course Andy couldn’t see him do it. The glinting faded. All right. One puzzle solved, one problem down. Now…

…now there was just everything else.

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