previous: Rise of Hellion ch18
When we landed back at the Vancouver base the first thing I did was reach for Abby. I pinned my arm over my robot companion’s chest preventing him from leaving his seat. “Nash! Give me the baby, please.”
“Sure, why wouldn’t I?” Nash rolled his shoulders, popping his neck, prompting his chest cavity to open.
My little son had been asleep for the majority of the flight. He looked so comfortable I almost felt guilty about picking him up.
My baby blinked his big blue eyes. “Ma-ma?” With a sleepy yawn, he looked up at me with the sweetest smile.
“Ma-ma!” Abby sat up, flailing his arms, just begging to be held.
At that moment I knew what people meant by, ‘my heart literally melted.’ I truly felt like I was going to die from love. “I missed you too.”
With my son in my arms I skipped, twirled and danced in the direction of Dr. Toki’s lab. My soul was filled with joy, love, until the physical pain (and my damaged leg) took hold and I nearly dropped my baby. ‘Shit!’ I leaned against the wall, steadying myself before knocking on the door. No answer. This seemed oddly familiar; just like when Tony died.
Where was Axel? I pounded harder on the door. “Dr. Toki!” I felt a sharp pain in my chest. Leaning my ear to the door, I could hear soldiers, shouting orders as they ushered in heavy machinery. ‘Where was Faust?’
After a while the door opened and Dr. Toki greeted me with open arms. “Nicki, Abby!” there were tears of joy in her eyes; she was truly astonished that we made it back alive. “I’m so proud of both of you!” she quickly shut the door behind her, keeping us in the hallway. “Excuse the interruption, we’re in the process of moving Faust to a secure holding cell.”
“More secure than the last time?” I asked with a forced smile. I didn’t want to accuse her of incompetence but my prosthetic legs were a constant reminder of what happened last time Faust was in custody.
“I am well aware, there have been several instances where Faust has escaped TAC custody, but rest assured we’ve learned and evolved.” The way she smiled sent shivers down my spine. What did she have planned?
“Can I speak to him?” I asked as innocently as possible.
“Only after all precautions have been taken.”
“That’s fair.” I wanted to ask more; what was Faust, why did he look like the adult version of my son? Was Dr. Toki going to kill and dissect him? I couldn’t think about that. “So, where’s Axel?”
“There was an explosion at the base.” Dr. Toki’s voice began to trail off. “Axel had gone into shock; his heart was weak. And there was so much blood. We brought back what we could.” She led the way to a ward of patient rooms (the base’s personal ICU.) While I mentally prepared for the worst.
Axel had a brace on one leg and the other was simply gone. “Hi, Nicki, I guess we match now.” My older mentor smiled big and bright despite the fact his face was badly bruised with several notable lacerations.
“Hi.” My heart was in my throat. Julian seemed alive, happy even, but I felt so guilty for leaving him behind. “What happened?”
“Kitsune is dead,” he said with a confident shrug. “that’s all that matters.”
I made my way closer, walking my fingers along his chest. His body was held together with bandages caked with blood, under which I could see staples, stitches. He had to be in an unbelievable amount of pain. “So, um, you blew up the base?”
He nodded proudly. “There will always be others, but that’s a task for another day.”
All thoughts of meeting with Faust were pushed aside. I’d been so close to losing Julian. All I wanted to do was hold him like an emotional support animal.
Julian placed his hand on my shoulder. “Dr. Toki, please Close the door on your way out. I don’t want us to be disturbed.”
Once I heard the door shut, I started to sob uncontrollably. “I’m so sorry!”
I could feel Julian’s hand on my back, patting my shoulder. Abby leaned against my chest, attempting to nurse through my sweaty clothing. “Ma?”
Since I was still hysterical, I shifted my weight placing Abby in bed between Julian and myself. This gave me just enough time to get up and walk around. “I need to splash some water on my face.” I rushed to the in-room sink, soaking a piece of paper towel in cold water. I paused, taking deep calming breaths.
“Will you stay with me?” Julian asked. His voice was weak, timid, even a little scared. “If you need to leave, I understand.”
“No, I’m fine right here.” I started to remove my sweaty clothing to reveal my nipple (and the fact that I was overdue for a shower.) I dragged over a plastic visitor chair, close enough to hold Julian’s hand while breastfeeding. “Hand me my little gremlin, if you please.”
Julian placed Abby in my arms and I proceeded to feed my superbaby, like a normal human mother. “Your little boy is truly something special.”
“And he knows it.” I looked down at my son’s face. He didn’t need me; he was a truly unique soul destined for greatness. It was actually kind of scary. Would I be able to teach him anything? Would he eventually grow to resent me?
Abby released my nipple, giggled and squirmed. At first, I thought he was being playful, then I realized Abby was a normal human baby who’d just soiled his diaper.
Julian laughed at my noticeable discomfort. “Let me guess, you’ve never changed a diaper before?”
“Well, he’s been with Dr. Toki for the majority of his cute little super powered life,” I pointed out. “And I never had the chance to earn money as a babysitter.”
“Give him here.” Julian held out his hands. With one arm he took hold of Abby while the other moved a rolling medical trolly closer to the bed.
“Don’t tell me you’re making a diaper.” I had to admit I was impressed.
“Yup,” he replied with a genuine smile.
“And how do you know how to make a diaper?”
Julian laughed. “You know, I’d like to tell you I did it for the first-time while doing volunteer work in Rwanda.”
“Growing up the oldest of six kids, plus all my distant cousins, I learned a lot. And by that, I mean, I had to help out or else my mamma would beat my ass. Bless her soul.”
“Lucky you.” I laughed out loud. Feeling happier than I had in a while.
“Before I begin will you grab that tub of wipes over there, near the sink?”
“Sure.” I brought over a package of hand wipes, first testing them on my hands to make sure they weren’t bleach.
“Did you just check to make sure they weren’t bleach?”
“And to make sure it’s not alcohol or anything that would hurt my little cutie pie’s skin.”
“How very maternal of you.” Julian proceeded to clean Abby in a sweet, gentle way. I watched in awe as the wounded soldier laid out a clean towel to use as a changing mat.
“Da!” Abby calmly allowed Julian to clean him off and create a make-shift diaper out of a second towel.
“Be careful when you hold him,” Julian said as he cuddled the overjoyed little boy in his arms. “I don’t have actual pins or tape.” He shifted Abby’s body, holding him close in a way that allowed my baby to comfortably stay in the diaper.
I couldn’t help but smile. He looked like a father. “That comes so natural for you.”
Julian froze, his voice went silent as his eyes drifted off in deep thought. “I’ve lost a lot of good people in my life.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. There were several possible answers; ‘yeah me too,’ or ‘life is unfair,’ but they all seemed to come off as condescending. “You have me.” I reached for his hand, blinking back tears. “You have us.”
Julian leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. There was a long silence, as if he was trying to decide if he believed my words. “Is it true you would have married Tony?”
“Are you asking me to marry you?” I said with a smirk, walking my finger along his sexy jawline. His face was rough; coarse, a map of a life well lived.
“If that’s what it takes for you to stay.”
“I have a feeling Dr. Toki wouldn’t let me leave with Abby. I mean at least if I stay, I get to be with Abby, Nash and you; my family.” My words were the truth, I literally had nowhere else to be. ‘I mean, I guess I could walk away if I had to.’ Looking at my sweet little boy and my beautiful Latino soldier, I knew that would never be an option; I would die before leaving them.
Julian looked at me with his deeply emotional eyes. “Would you marry me out of pity?”
“Marry you out of pity?” I had to assume he was joking. Or was he truly that lonely.
“I’ve lost so much.” Julian clenched, gripping at his thigh. I watched as he swallowed hard, choking back emotional discomfort. “I might need something for the pain.”
Even I knew his tears were for more than just his leg. “Can I see?”
“Sure,” Julian said with a sigh. He probably knew the only alternative would be to call back Dr. Toki for advice.
As he held Abby, I lowered the hospital issue blanket to examine the full extent of his disfigured legs. “Wow.”
“For the first few moments I couldn’t even feel the pain,” Julian said with a forced laugh. “I wanted so badly to die.” He blinked once then allowed his eyes to close. “Maverick, bless her heart she was one cold bitch but she was still the love of my life. And Tony, or Deathstroke,” a soft chuckle slipped from his chapped lips. “To me he was just a little boy playing superhero. He was so strong, with such an admirable spirit and a level of courage I’d never seen in anyone.”
I could feel his damaged leg muscle throbbing, as if calling out to the missing portion of Julian. Ironically that was what Julian himself was doing; calling out to the lost. “Tony was the way he was, because of you. You taught him to be a soldier, a hero. Hopefully you can do the same for Abby; train him, teach him, love him.” I placed my hand upon Julian’s bandaged limb. his leg was packed with gauze, but I could feel where the bone was amputated. “You can be the father he deserves.”
“He deserves more than a washed-up cripple.”
“Ok,” I said with my hands on my hips. “You just said we were twins; are you calling me a cripple?”
Julian laughed so hard he gripped his side in pain. He flinched, briefly shifting his weight, and then he laughed some more.
I tickled Abby’s cheek. “Is our papa down in the dumps?”
“That settles it, we’ll heal together, as a family.”
I stayed with Julian for the rest of the night, awaking to coffee, oatmeal, and a package of store-bought diapers. I had to admit, it felt nice.
It was nearly a month before I visited Faust and when I finally did, it was only because Julian was in physical therapy for the day. I left him with Abby (who still had access to the Nash suit, making for an ideal training partner.)
Faust was strapped to a table. There were IV lines in his arms and chest, but my attention was drawn to his freshly shaved head, where a blue liquid was being pumped into his brain. I also noticed fresh surgical stitches on his forehead; he had a brain injury, or perhaps he had been lobotomized prior to my visit. I was about to touch his skin when his lips opened.
“It’s a chemical lobotomy.” His voice was weak, scratchy. “What do you want? Why do you care.” His fists clenched as I watched him suffer a grand-mal seizure. The pain was evident.
I simply took a seat watching his body writhe in agony. Looking around I could see a wall of screens observing his vitals. “You done?”
It took him a few moments to be able to speak, but it was clear he had heard me. “What do you actually want?”
“I want to be happy.”
Faust chuckled. “Good luck with that.” He turned his head to face me. “So, pray tell, where is your little genetic miracle?”
“With his father.”
“With, Noah?” he asked with a smirk. “So, you killed him as a way to free yourself from these people?”
“Very funny,” I stood up, walking around the room, marveling at the array of data being processed. “I meant Julian.”
“Axel? You’re in love with a man old enough to be your father?” Faust laughed until his chest started to spasm. “And you see that as wise?” He added between coughs.
“Julian is nothing like my father.” The very comparison made me sick.
“That may be true, but are you like your mother?” Faust asked with a confident grin.
Would I choose my partner over my child? Absolutely not. “If Julian or anyone in TAC ever hurt my child, I would not hesitate to destroy them.”
“You say that now, as you are still only a child yourself.”
Now he was getting annoying. I was tempted to leave when something caught my eye. This equipment seemed oddly familiar. Was this the same set up used to dissect Tony’s body? Was TAC going to harvest Faust; his powers, his mind, his intellect? Were they trying to port his consciousness? I placed my hand upon one of the screens, just close enough to feel its warmth. This was not a touch screen, but for whatever reason it started to shimmer. The movement, an animation of sorts seemed to spread to the other screens.
At first it seemed like just random motion; flowing water or bending light, then it started to form a human hand. Faust continued to speak, possibly asking what the hell I was looking at. But I didn’t care. I knew who this was. The hand guided me to a locked drawer. (Or rather a drawer with a six-character scrolling lock.) I didn’t know the code, and the hand seemed to already know that.
Five lights, in the position of fingertips appeared. The now human-sized hand traveled from my eye line, down to where my fingers were. It drew a heart and then a star. This glowing digital finger painting was followed by a diamond, a moon and a clover. I started to hum the Lucky charms commercial, “Frosted lucky charms, they’re magically delicious.” Wait a second. ‘Lucky charms? That had to be it.’
I scrolled through the wheel of letters on the lock. L, U, C, K, and Y all resulted in clicks. But the last character had me at a loss. Was it a letter? I stroked my finger to the screen over and over until the letters turned to numbers. I looked back at the computer screen, hoping for some more help from the mystery hand. Looking up I was face to face with a glowing silhouette. The figure held up five fingers.
He twisted his hand, folding his fist before briefly flashing four fingers. The figure then moved one hand above his head, creating a pose reminiscent of a very specific videogame character. The code was ‘Lucky9.’
I silently fixed the final character of the code, causing the drawer to slide open half an inch. Inside was a cobalt blue pistol-sized weapon. I picked it up, wrapping my fingers around the hilt. Without a second thought, I turned to Faust and fired a single bright red blast. The projectile destroyed his head, leaving behind a smoking stump.
I gasped for air, laughing, crying. “Tony, are you here?”
The room lights flickered. “I’ll always be here,” the voice sounded like static mixed with the auto voice from a word processing program.
An energy rippled through my hands, up my arms, holding me in a loving embrace. It was Tony; he was here, he was everywhere. “Thank you,” I said in a whisper, “but am I going to be in trouble for well, you know…”
“Nah,” Tony’s voice echoed, as if spoken through a seashell. “If the good doctor has anything to say she can talk to me directly.”
“Ok, sure.” Was this really happening?
“Because there was no way in Hell, I was going to share my digital eternity with Faust.” Tony’s voice started to sound more and more human. He was frozen in time as his teen gamer persona.
“Understandable,” I said, blinking back tears. “I miss you so much.”
Tony’s energy tickled my arm. “I miss you too, kiddo.”
His touch felt like when we used to share a bed. At that moment, I wanted so badly to live forever in his arms. “Will I see you again?”
“I’ve been watching over you this entire time,” he said in a soothing whisper, sending shivers down my spine. “You, Abby, and Nash.”
Tony went quiet. “Um, yeah… about that.”
Tony chuckled nervously. “I might have been the one who sent the command to set that particular protocol into motion.”
“What do you mean?” Part of me knew fully well what he meant.
“Once you and Abby-Nash were airborne, I may have authorized a drone attack resulting in a scorched earth protocol command.”
I laughed, assuming he was adding extra words to sound important. “You can do that?”
“I’m a human soul living on a massive server connected to the internet; I can do whatever, wherever.”
“Like what, babe?”
Tony’s voice swirled around the room like a stereo system. “Hack the stock market in Hong Kong, rigg an Ebay auction in Ohio, maybe even rob a few hundred bitcoins from the dark web, all while I’m talking to you.”
Wow, just wow. “But you didn’t mean to hurt Julian, right?” I needed the clarification, otherwise, this moment was a little too ‘horror movie’ for my liking.
“No, of course not. He’s my mentor, my partner.” Tony’s sadness and remorse was noticeable even in his digital form. “Julian has been nothing but good to me; kind of why I feel extra shitty about the loss of his legs.”
“Legs, as in plural?” My stomach sank. His one leg was gone but, Julian had been doing well, regaining balance and strength with the use of prosthetics.
“That will all depend on what Dr. Toki can do for him; cybernetics and all that shit.”
I wanted to ask why he assumed Julian would be losing his other leg. “Have you spoken to him at all?”
“I tried,” Tony replied with a sigh. “A few times, in his dreams, because he sleeps with headphones on.”
I nodded, knowing what he was referring to. In an effort to combat anxiety and panic attacks, Julian slept wearing wireless headphones connected to a playlist on his laptop. “What has he said to you?”
“I know he still blames himself for my death. I tried to talk to him, to tell him where I was, how I was ok, but he just starts to cry or even pray. I don’t think he believes I’m really here. And I figure, if I push too much, he’ll think he’s losing his mind.”
“I can see that.”
“Anyway, I should probably let you go; run outside, get a head start, before I allow this bastard’s lack of vitals to be visible on the network. With any luck I can convince Dr. Toki that I did it all on my own.”
“That your spirit possessed the gun via some kind of Bluetooth signal?” I guess that wasn’t the craziest thing I’d seen. “Will I see you again?”
“Of course,” Tony said happily. “All you need to do is click your heels together and declare your belief in Tinkerbelle.”
“For real?” I asked. I knew he was kidding but I genuinely wanted the truth; if he could travel anywhere on the internet how was I supposed to find him?
“I’m kidding. Just log on to any device with wi-fi and look for my name listed as a possible connection. I’ll fine you; I promise.”
I felt a tingle going across my neck, to my lips. “Thanks, Tony.” I did as he requested, running for the door, leaving my digital guardian angel to handle the mess.
I knew where my family would be. I headed straight for the outside track. The circular running track was surrounded by bleachers and in the center was a small playground area. Julian was jogging, practicing with his new prosthetics. His missing leg had been replaced with a high-tech model with fully functional joints connected to his remaining muscle and nerve tissue.
I began to job by his side, our mechanical legs matching stride for stride.
“You ever heard of Neerja Bhanot?” he asked as he maintained a stable pace.
“No, I don’t think so.” The name seemed familiar.
“She was a famous Indian model who saved a plane full of people.”
“In the eighties, right!” I could picture the internet famous image; a model turned flight attendant with feathery pageant queen hair.
“I fell asleep watching her bio pic. She reminds me a lot of you.”
“Bullshit,” I chuckled, as we stopped for water.
“Do you know why she was honored by three different governments?”
“Something about tossing out American passports, and dying while saving a bunch of kids.” Those were the stories I’d heard on true crime YouTube channels. “Although, later on, the four men who got arrested escaped prison and disappeared.”
“As far as the United Nations are concerned,” Julian muttered.
“What?” I asked sarcastically, already knowing the answer was out of my paygrade.
“Anyway, over the course of a nearly twenty-four-hour ordeal Neerja Bhanot did three things that reminded me of you.”
“To start, she warned the pilots, allowing them time to escape.”
“And how did she do that?”
“There were only four bad guys compared to her entire cabin crew. She took the opportunity to pick up the phone and radio the cockpit.” Julian took a seat, looking out at the playground. “Nothing too heroic, but she kept a level head.”
“The second thing she did was what made her a hero to all America. The terrorists asked the cabin crew to collect passports from the hundreds of passengers. Neerja Bhanot made it a point to not hand over American passports and she convinced her entire crew to do the same. I mean, can you imagine?”
“How does that remind you of me?”
“I think you would have done the heroic thing, and convinced the rest of your team to be brave.” Julian patted the seat next to him.
“Are you sure you’re not thinking of your wife?” Being a bad-ass hero seemed to be more of Maverick’s thing.
He reached for my hand. “I guess I am.”
It took me a second to realize what he had done. There was a weight on my hand; a gold band with the word, ‘my hero,’ engraved on the top (where a diamond would typically be.) “Wow.”
“As the lead flight attendant Neerja Bhanot was the one who opened the first escape door. She could have been the first person off the plane; it would have been that easy. Instead, she chose to make sure everyone who could still walk got off the plane. And as you know, she went down in history for taking a bullet to save a group of terrified unaccompanied minors.”
I looked out at the playground. Nash and Abby were playing in the sand, appearing like a happy normal baby with his robot nanny. I knew in my heart I would give my life for the ones I loved. “It was her job as a flight attendant to watch over the passengers.” Just like it was my job to be a mom, a teammate and a friend.
“We make choices in our lives,” Julian said as he held my hand, lacing his fingers through mine. “And despite how badly we might want it; we can’t go back, only forward to a new day.”
Nash turned to me. “Nicki!” He stood up happily, scooping up Abby in is arms. “Come see our sandcastle.”
There were a few other children playing in the area, mothers, fathers, nannies and other caretakers.
Fuck you, Faust and all the other assholes who’ve tried to keep me down:
I’d found my happiness.