Breaking down in tears in front of your parents can give them the idea that something may possibly have gone wrong with your day. Something that, maybe, they need to look into. I love my parents, but the thought of them trying to unravel what had happened to me left me chilled.
Meta-awareness was all too happy to show me how that might play out. The easiest path would be the one where they didn’t believe me. That would hurt, and the lack of trust would drive a wedge between us but it would keep them safe. The alternative? Where they became fully involved? That was horrifying. Rationally, I could handle the concept of paying for my own mistakes. Putting either of them in a situation where they had to deal with things like the Shadow Court, or the Oblivion Knight though? That was simply unthinkable.
So I didn’t weep with relief when I made it home. As much as I wanted to, I managed to avoid it. Yesterday I couldn’t have. Yesterday, I would tried to hold back the tears and they would have exploded out in wracking sobs anyways. I paused, just inside the threshold, trying to figure out what the difference was, why I was more in control then it seemed like I should be. James caught up to me at the same time that the answer did.
Molly. And Jenny. And so many others.
I’d dreamed of being older and wiser, of being stronger and more experienced. Just as Molly and Jenny had become real for me, so too had their nature’s blended with Jin’s. I had their maturity, their experience, their strength to draw on. I wasn’t who I’d been anymore, I was becoming who I imagined myself to be. Some part of me wondered if that wasn’t true for everyone, all the time though.
“Where have you been? You’re late for dinner!”, my Mom scolded us, looking up from the technical papers that were scattered in front of her.
“We ummm…”, I couldn’t decide where to begin. I couldn’t tell her the truth, and even the most reasonable lies wouldn’t make sense.
“We were at the police station.”, James said. I winced. That wasn’t the foot I’d wanted to start the conversation on. On the other hand it was better than stunned silence, so James was going above and beyond the call there, given that we’d agreed I’d be the one to speak to Mom.
“We’re not in trouble or anything.”, he assured her quickly, “They just had some questions for us because we saw something we thought was villian related.”
Mom’s expression went from annoyed at us for being late, to concerned, to straight up afraid. “Villain-related” hit a sensitive nerve for both of us.
“What do you mean? What did you see?”, she asked addressing James with the first question and me with the second.
“The Shadow Court. They were trying to abduct someone.” I said. There was no point hiding that part.
Mom went as still as a frozen pond and as silent as a ghost. Or more silent than a ghost. Heather had been fairly communicative after all. After a long moment, she finally spoke.
“I was at the library. I saw the signs, so I hid. When James got there, we called the police and they sent a team over, and then there was a lady at the police station who questioned us.” I said, covering the points it seemed safest to talk about.
“You were at the police station?” James’ Dad asked. He’d come downstairs and only picked up the tail end of what I was saying.
“Yeah, it’s ok though, they let us go before the fire.” James said. I winced again. That was definitely not the way for the conversation to go. My Mom’s eyes were burrowing into mine.
“They let you go? What did you do?” James father asked. He wasn’t mad, just concerned.
“It was me, they wanted to question me because I saw some stuff at the library. Villain stuff.” I said. I felt awkward and exposed. The more I tried to hide things, the sharper Mom’s expression got.
“Was anybody hurt?”
“No. Or, yes. I mean, no one was hurt at the library but when the police station got attacked some people got hurt there.” I said, fumbling still.
“How bad was it?” James’ Dad, my Dad now, was concerned. He could see something was messed up in me. Everyone could.
“There was a fire. Some of them died.” I said. Admitting that hurt. It revealed just how serious things had been. I felt the echo of losing my Dad. Other people had lost their loved ones tonight too. I looked at my Mom and saw the same pain reflected in her eyes.
Unwelcome meta-awareness showed me things I didn’t want to see. She’d lost her first husband, my father, to violence that had sprung from nowhere. She loved James’ Dad but she’d never stopped loving my father either, or aching from his loss. This moment was bringing all that back to her. The pain that had never really left was rising like a screaming maelstrom in her, fueled by the thought of the deaths that had occurred. She was looking at me and feeling certain that she was going to lose me too.
She held herself still to keep from coming apart inside. She wanted to scream at me, she wanted to comfort me, to hold me close and to run away from it all. Anything to escape that pain.
I’d been scared up till now, but I’d also been able to do something, to fight back against what was going on. For my Mom there was no fighting back. Life had taken things from her before and here it was poised to take from her again, and there was nothing she could have done then or now that would change that.
I was supposed to have been safe, but I hadn’t been. I wasn’t telling her everything, and she knew it. Why would I try to hide something, she had to wonder, if everything was ok with me?
I walked over to her. I wasn’t planning or thinking, I was just acting, reaching out to make her see that she hadn’t lost me. That I was still here. I went to hug her and she very gently held me away at arm’s length.
“What did the police say about the Shadow Court? Why was there a fire?” she asked. Her voice was calm, but I could see how she cracked when she said those words. They were little fractures, little sharp shards of personality. She couldn’t let me close, not while she was like this.
“Someone attacked the police station. They demolished it.” I said trying to be brave and strong for her sake. Neither Molly, Jenny, nor Jin really had the strength for that.
“Do you know who it was?” she asked, her calm lending an unnatural air to her words. I saw the cracks in her split wide open. Her fear for me, became fear of me with one thought that rose to her mind. We’d mentioned the Shadow Court. The evil faeries that left behind changelings. One thought, at just the wrong time, cut her to the core. It was a simple question; “What if I wasn’t her daughter”.
Her daughter wouldn’t know who it was. Her daughter was just a normal girl. Her daughter stayed away from anything to do with superheroes. Her daughter knew, better than anyone, how dangerous the world could really be. Her daughter wouldn’t have been involved in something like that. Her daughter…
I couldn’t read her mind. I didn’t know what she was thinking as she turned to look me straight in the eyes, quietly waiting for my answer. I froze. What could I possibly tell her? The truth? Exceptional claims required exceptional proof and nothing that I’d seen was real, not anymore. If I lied though, how could she not see it? And when she did how could she ever believe me again.
“The news people thought it could be the Shadow Court, but the cops don’t think so. Someone shot at the place while we were checking in and then came back with some explosives or something. That’s not the way the Shadow Court works.”, James said, and then added, “At least that’s what the cop who gave me a ride said.”
“I heard one of the news guys say that the Shadow Court was gone.” I blurted out, finding a “truth” that was safe enough to share.
“They got away?” James’ Dad asked. Mom was still watching me silently. She’d noticed my hesitation in answering her question. She was looking for the “seam” in my disguise, something that could confirm that I wasn’t what I was pretending to be. That I wasn’t her daughter.
“No, they said they’re dead. The tip we gave…they were able to find a good trail.” I couldn’t say anymore. She didn’t believe me. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t see it and I couldn’t lie to her.
“They called together a Rapid Response Task Force. Professor Platinum, Invertrix, Red Shadow, Aegis and a bunch of others.” James explained, naming the high powered heroes that had been called in. Heroes and, strangely, a Mask. Aegis wasn’t an official hero, but apparently for something like a raid on the Shadow Court’s home realm, the FBMA would take anyone who had a good track record and was willing to take the risks involved.
“I thought you couldn’t kill the Shadow Court? Isn’t that why they’ve never been stopped?” James’ Dad asked. He believed us, but even he could tell there were parts of the story that he wasn’t getting.
“That’s what I thought too.” James lied. Partially. He knew something he wasn’t saying. Something big was hiding there. Something I needed to know. I didn’t care though. I couldn’t. Not with my Mom slipping away from me.
“Maybe the newsguy was wrong?” I suggested, wriggling to find the right words, to say whatever it would take to bring her back. I’d stepped back, giving her space and distance to quiet her fears. She had to see that I was still me.
But was I?
If she looked at me who would she really see? Jin? Molly? Jenny? A stranger?
Her daughter was a normal girl. Whatever I was, I wasn’t normal anymore. Her daughter stayed away from superheroes. I hadn’t. Several times, I hadn’t. I’d had choices where I could have turned away from what I was becoming, but I hadn’t. Her daughter wouldn’t have gotten involved. But I was.
For the moment, I wasn’t thinking about who Agent Haffrun really was. I wasn’t thinking about where the Shadow Court really was. Or what had happened to the heroes. Or the Oblivion Knight. I wasn’t even thinking of how I was going to find Way again, but I knew I would find her.
All those things? None of them were going to go away, and even if they could, I wasn’t going to let them. Agent Haffrun knew about me, I had to find out the truth about her. The Shadow Court was more dangerous now than they ever had been, and the heroes who’d fought them were in greater peril than they could imagine. No one but me knew about that. No one but me could do anything about it.
And then there was the Oblivion Knight. I had no idea what I could do about him. I couldn’t imagine a way even the best of the world’s heroes could stop him. He had Pen though, which meant he had one of the keys to ending the world, so it didn’t matter whether I could stop him or not. It was try or accept annihilation.
And Way. The thought of her all alone, or, worse, trapped again, caught me like a sword through the chest. I didn’t want that. That couldn’t be her fate.
“I need to work on my homework, if that’s ok.” I said. I couldn’t stay, couldn’t bear any more questions, any more lies of silence. I started moving away.
“Don’t you want to have dinner?” James’ Dad asked.
“No. They fed me at the police station.” Another lie, sort of. I’d had donuts. Those counted.
I fled upstairs before any more questions could come out. James could answer them. He wouldn’t be lying. Maybe he could make Mom see that everything was ok. I knew that wasn’t true, meta-awareness made it impossible for me not to see that, but it was all I had so I clung to it.
I closed the door to my room, but didn’t lock it. I imagined them walking in and wanted to hide, but the thought of my Mom trying to come to me and turning away because the door was locked was unbearable too.
“Maybe I should have stayed in the police station.” I whispered. I wasn’t serious. I definitely didn’t want to go back there or have to face the fire like that again, except for maybe the part of me that did.
It was easy to imagine giving up. The fire would have hurt, but that would have been an outside hurt. I could have projected myself away from it, maybe. The pain I’d seen in my mother though? The pain I felt seeing her start to turn away from me? That felt like it was never going to go away. Like I couldn’t let it go away or I’d lose what little chance I still had with her.
I lay on my bed, pretending to read a random chapter from my History book, for I-don’t-know-how-long before I heard one of our cars startup and drive away. No one usually went out that late on a weeknight. I’d almost worked up my courage to go downstairs and see what had happened when James knocked on my door.
“Come in!” I called out after quickly drying my eyes.
“Hey, you ok?” he asked.
“No.” I told him. No lies. I didn’t have the strength to carry even one more.
“Pretty scary with stuff at the police station?”, he guessed.
“Yeah.” I wanted to say ‘and with Mom’, but it felt like if I said that outloud it would make it impossible to forget later and I’d never get her back.
“I don’t blame you. But you’re safe here, you know?”, he wanted to say more too, to convince me that his words were true, but the secrets between us were in the way.
“Yep.” I agreed, nodding. I really did feel safer with him around. His Dad was only sorta my Dad. I’d call him ‘Dad’ sometimes because we were close and he clearly loved my Mom and took great care of her. In some ways though he was still ‘James’ Dad’.
James on the other hand was my big brother, regardless of what DNA said. We fought like brother and sister, and we trusted each other like brother and sister. If anyone was going to save me from the rift I felt separating me from my Mom, he’d be one I’d believe could do it.
“Where’d they go?” I asked, guessing that if James was here, our parents had gone out together.
“They’re going to talk to the police too. Mom wanted to find out what sort things they needed to do to keep our names out of the paper. And what extra security measures they should take.” he said.
She wanted to know what the chance was that I was going to turn on them, and what she was supposed to do if I did. That wasn’t the worst case that I’d been fearing, but it still made me feel sick. She hadn’t run away though. I took comfort in that. There was time for her to see that I was still me. If I could just act normal for a while.
I laughed. Had I ever been normal?
“What’s funny?” James asked.
“I’m weird.” I said, terrified that I’d never be able to pass as normal enough to win Mom’s trust again.
“Yes you are, but you’re pretty cool too.” he said, punching me on the arm clumsily, “Of course, if you tell anyone I said so, I will deny everything.”
“Of course.” I smiled, a real smile that bubbled through the anxiety.
“Anyways, I just came to tell you, there’s some food left if you’re still hungry.”
“Thanks. I might grab a bite.” I said. My stomach felt like hell, but part of that was that I’d eaten almost nothing since breakfast.
“Oh and Minnie called.” James said as he turned to leave my room.
“Minnie?” I asked, blanking on who that might be.
“Yeah, your friend from school? She said she needed to talk to you.”
And I remembered Minnie. The friend I hadn’t had before tonight. In my new memories of the world as it was after our return, I saw the minotaur girl who didn’t look like a minotaur anymore. The changeling.
I stared at my phone. I couldn’t talk to a changeling. I couldn’t even be near a changeling or I’d lose my Mom in an instant. But if I denied Minnie, if I rejected her for being a changeling, it would destroy her. Her whole life had changed. She needed me.
But I couldn’t be there for her.