“Bubblegum Crisis” created by Kenichi Sonoda.
"Drunkard's Walk II: Robot's Rules of Order" created by Bob Schroeck.
Neither of these gentlemen should bear any blame for what follows.
Dedication: This chapter is dedicated to Chris Davies, who gave me the only FFML feedback I got for Chapter 0: “Continue this or ELSE.”
Well, Chris... this is all your fault, now. :)
(Narration voice: Peter Cullen (in his “Optimus Prime” voice))
It has been slightly more than a decade since The Year of the Loon. In that time, MegaTokyo and the world it inhabits have changed a great deal. For the better, in many ways, but great change always brings with it great challenges. And, as James Douglas Quincy imperfectly foresaw, great challenges encourage the rising of great heroes.
Of course, “great” and “strange” are not mutually exclusive, as the Loon himself proved....
The year is 2048, and MegaTokyo is about to experience:
a “Drunkard's Walk II” omake fanfic
As always, the cleanup took longer than the combat. Daley took a moment to stretch, trying to loosen muscles still singing with unpurged tension, and found himself staring at the rooftops over which the so-called “Saber Senshi” had vanished just ahead of the Special Weapons teams' belated arrival. Leon's utter failure to rip them new anal orifices for their tardiness had them so spooked that his subsequent odd behavior had gone unremarked. Noticed, but unremarked. No one wanted to trigger the nuclear-grade ass-ripping which the Old Man was obviously saving up for someone in particular.
Daley looked around and forced himself to admit that he had run out of excuses for avoiding Leon any longer. Saotome was long gone, packed off to the regen tanks at Quincy Memorial by a team of grotesquely cheerful medics who were already talking about upgrades. The forensic team was stowing their equipment, along with the carefully-gathered ashes of the chimera. The EOD team had been and gone, half-relieved and half-disgruntled that there had been no unexploded ordnance in need of their special skills.
Except, of course, for the single biggest, most volatile warhead currently within the city limits. Which was entirely the personal, private responsibility of Mama Wong's favorite (well, arguably so) son. Joy.
Said warhead had spent the last hour of the after-action cleanup sitting in the passenger seat of the new Interceptor he had ordered the motor pool to send out, indistinct behind the tinted glass and radiating an aura of incipient menace so powerful that it surely hadn't merely been Daley's imagination – everyone else had avoided the car just as assiduously. The Deputy Chief of the ADP sighed, squared his shoulders, and headed for the car, suddenly feeling a strong kinship with the EOD troopers and their love/hate relationship with volatile, explosive compounds.
Ten minutes later, they were on the Bay Loop Expressway, and not a single word had been exchanged. Daley eyed Leon surreptitiously, casting about mentally for a conversational subject so bland as to not risk setting his partner off. Leon, for his part, continued to hold the same rigid pose he had maintained for over an hour, face like granite and eyes unreadable behind his shades.
Finally, Daley made a conversational sortie into the battlefield of silence between them. “So, where to now? Are you hungry? I'm feeling a mite peckish, myself,” he chattered blandly, congratulating himself on how perfectly normal his voice was. “I was thinking of maybe Les Eiffel, or that new Ukrainian take-out place down on--”
“...cafeteria food it is, then.”
Daley suffered the rest of the drive in silence.
Half an hour later, Leon stalked through the halls of the ADP Tower like a force of nature, Daley trailing along like a bit of flotsam caught up in his wake. ADP troopers and staff, recognizing the combination of sunglasses and body language for what it was, scattered like quail in pure Pavlovian reflex.
Except for one small redheaded obstacle, who intercepted them in front of Leon's office door and showed no signs of moving. Leon ground to a halt in front of her, and she stared up at him, eyeball-to-lens.
“Leon,” Nene began quietly but firmly, “what the hell happened out there? There are all sorts of crazy stories going around, about a new set of Knight Sabers.” Her expression sharpened as she finally took in his obvious mental state, and her voice dropped as she moved closer to him. “Leon, are you all right?”
Leon remained rigid for a long moment, then seemed to deflate slightly as the murderous tension making his body thrum like a live wire lost some of its edge. Daley silently sent up a prayer of thanks to whichever saint patronized hackers as Leon, looking suddenly weary, pulled off his shades and jerked his chin at the office door. Nene took the hint without further prompting and opened the door. Before she could close it behind them, however, a large furry grey shape blurred through the opening and took up a position against one wall. Leon, uncharacteristically, ignored their sudden canine companion, but Daley couldn't help but grin. “Heck, Nene-chan, do you have to bring that fleabag with you everywhere?”
Nene shrugged. “It's either that or he breaks down the door to follow me. Since Sylia won't let me in a hardsuit for another six months, Mackie insists that I have a bodyguard. It's easier to accept it gracefully than fight a battle I can't win.”
The massive grey-and-white dog shot Daley a reproachful look from his soulful blue eyes, and moved over to Leon's chair. He dropped his chin onto Leon's knee and whined softly. The ADP Chief gave him a ghost of a smile and a desultory ear-rub before returning his attention to the head of his Technology Division. “Nene, I need to talk to Sylia. Securely. Now.”
Nene blinked. “How securely?”
Daley didn't miss the sudden lack of luster in Nene's cheekbones, but she gave no other outward sign. After a moment of accessing the link strapped around her left wrist, she produced a small memory rod and moved around to Leon's side of the desk. He made room for her at the keyboard, and Daley joined her beside Leon's other shoulder.
Nene shut own Leon's computer, inserted her memory rod, and paused with her finger on the power touchpad. ”Yoji,” she said just a bit sharply, “do you have fleas?”
The dog, who had been sitting as quiet as a statue, sniffed at the air, then shook his head vigorously and whuffed once. Nene relaxed visibly.
“Okay, the room is bug-free. Here we go.” She touched the power control, and Leon's computer came back to life. Instead of booting from the normal memory block, a special custom kernel bootstrapped itself from the memory chip and started a unique operating system, which proceeded to kill every network connection between Leon's computer and the ADP network... and activated a special hardware link whose mere existence was known to fewer than a dozen people. It probably wouldn't have mattered, since every packet of the bootstrapped OS's internal and external data traffic was encrypted using a one-time cipher pad, but Leon had invoked the Knight Sabers' highest level of security, and the architects of that security left nothing to chance.
The computer finished booting to a simple command line prompt, and Nene began typing commands faster than Daley could follow. The conferencing holographic display above Leon's desk rezzed into life to display a “CONNECTING” message.
“This could take a few minutes,” Nene commented absently. “She might not be at a secured terminal.” As if on cue, the screen switched to a life-size view of Sylia Stingray's face, her hair still damp as if she'd just left the shower. After the better part of a decade of intermittent contact, Daley felt he knew Sylia moderately and tolerably well, and counted her among his friends, though not a particularly close one. But while the sheer speed and breadth of her perception and intellect had ceased to intimidate him, he was nonetheless impressed all over again at how quickly she seemed to grasp the shape of the situation merely by sweeping a glance across the faces of the three ADP officers.
Leon didn't bother beating around the bush any more than she had. “This afternoon Daley and I had an encounter with a group of what appeared to be young women in hardsuits, calling themselves the 'Saber Senshi'.”
Nene let out a sharp “Wha-!?” Sylia simply went very still, a tiny and momentary widening of her eyes the only outward sign of the depth of her surprise. She was silent for no more than a second before she spoke again, but Daley was morally certain she had already deduced most of the rest.
But all she said was “I see. Did they have any identifying marks, or any distinctive technologies?”
“Aside from the color coding and attack themes of the Inner Senshi,” Leon ground out, “their hardsuits appeared to be very similar to the Knight Sabers'. Either derived from the same work, or developed by a skilled imitator.”
“I see,” Sylia repeated. She met Leon's gaze calmly for a moment. “And?”
Nene was still spluttering in disbelief. She choked as Leon dropped the other shoe: “And, the one calling herself 'Saber Moon'... is Jennifer.”
To Daley's eye, Sylia looked less surprised and more like someone receiving confirmation of an unpleasant suspicion.
“And her fellow 'Senshi'?”
Daley made careful note of the several questions she didn't bother asking, that most people would have. Leon shook his head. “After I review whatever recordings we have, I might have some suspicions. But right now, nothing. I was... distracted.”
“Yes,” Sylia replied absently, weighting the single word with a wealth of nuance. She met Leon's eyes again. “Thirteen months ago, Jennifer approached me about becoming a member of the Knight Sabers. I refused, pending express permission from Priss and yourself. She was less than eager to bring you into the conversation, and seemed to let the matter drop.” The ghost of a wry smile touched her lips. “It would appear otherwise.”
“Then, who?” Leon grated. Daley could feel his anger building up again. “GENOM?”
“Unlikely.” Sylia shook her head. “It would be out of character for Madigan, and she has established too tight a grip over corporate operations for this to be a rogue element. But if their hardsuits are in fact derived from Stingray technology, then the only potential suspects are myself, Dr. Raven--”
“Or me,” a male voice broke in.
Sylia's head swiveled to face someone outside her video pickup's aperture. “Mackie,” she said, in almost perfect chorus with Nene, but in a very different tone.
The hologram zoomed out to bring Sylia's brother into view as he sat beside her. “Hi, Sis.” He turned to face the pickup. “Hello, sweetheart. Leon. Daley.” He nodded to the two men, and showered Nene with a smile that made him look like a newlywed.
His wife was having none of it. “Mackinnison Katsuhito Stingray,” she growled in a voice that took Daley right back to his Catholic grade school. “What have you done?”
At the three-way intersection of Sylia's, Nene's, and Leon's gazes, Daley figured that the younger Stingray sibling should have turned to ash on the spot. Instead, it seemed to leave him unfazed. “If you're asking if I'm behind the Saber Senshi, the answer is yes.” He sat there, looking calm and relaxed, waiting for the next salvo. Daley couldn't help but think that Mackie would hardly be so sanguine if he were not on the far end of a videoconference connection.
The edge of the desk creaked alarmingly under Leon's grip, but his voice was surprisingly even. “Why?”
Mackie shrugged. “She was very persuasive.” Leon's glare alone, now, should have been enough to incinerate him, but Mackie seemed unaware of the heat. Or determined to ignore it. “To make a long story short, Jennifer came to me about a month after Sylia shot her down, and gave me the whole pitch. She had it all planned out, a partial team selected, and a prepackaged set of logical arguments to answer all my objections. At one point, I almost expected her to start whipping out viewgraphs and charts.” He shrugged again. “Of course, I turned her down cold.”
Leon's voice was glacial. “So what happened?”
Mackie's expression turned serious. “She pulled out the big guns. Basically, she told me that if I wouldn't help her, she'd keep looking until she found someone who would. Like Madigan, or the Underground, or some back-alley technomage willing to work cheap. I tried to talk her out of it, but I couldn't budge her an inch. She'd made up her mind.” He shook his head. “That girl is as stubborn as both her parents put together, I swear.”
“And you didn't say anything?” The glacier was accelerating.
Mackie looked Leon in the eye without flinching. “I gave her my word that she could talk to me in complete confidence. And it wouldn't have done any good, anyway. You would have had to lock her up until she changed her mind, or put bodyguards on her twenty-four/seven. She was that determined.”
“That,” Leon ground out, “could be arranged.”
Mackie began to look irritated. “Right. You'd turn your own daughter into a prisoner in order to keep her safe.”
“If I had to.”
“Newsflash, Leon,” Mackie snapped, leaning forward. “She's not a little girl anymore. She's eighteen now, a legal adult. You pull that crap, you're going to lose her.”
The temperature in the office seemed to drop five degrees. “That is between me, my wife, and our daughter. Not you.” Behind his outward expression of placid interest, Daley sent up a short prayer that Mackie would be smart enough not to push Leon any further.
Mackie eyed Leon for a moment before apparently deciding not to contest the point. “At any rate, she eventually convinced me that if I didn't help her, she'd be running around the streets in some kind of cosplay outfit waving an Earthshaker in one hand and a magical wand in the other. So I decided to give her what she wanted... on my terms.”
Nene made an “Ah” noise, and Mackie nodded at her. “I set up the same kind of training sims that Sis uses for the Sabers, added some 'special refinements,' cranked the difficulty up to eleven... and dumped her in off the deep end. I thought – well, I was hoping,” he corrected himself honestly, “that if she got a good enough taste of just how bad it could be, she'd do the smart thing and choose a less militaristic sort of social activism.” He shook his head, looking grimly rueful. “I underestimated her. She took everything I threw at her, and asked for more. I drove her until she dropped, and she wouldn't stop. She just plain outlasted me, and I had the easy job!”
His expression turned pensive. “Looking back on it now, I wonder just who was pulling whose strings, there. That girl has such a talent for reading people, it's scary. I'm not sure she didn't have every move planned out in advance, like a chess game.”
Leon started to speak, but Nene beat him to the punch. “And you didn't tell me?!?” she snapped dangerously.
Mackie looked stoic. “I gave her my word, Hon.”
Nene's glare jumped from “laser cannon” to “Death Star” on Daley's mental chart. “I'm your wife!”
Mackie looked, if possible, even more stoic. Or perhaps constipated. “I'm sorry.”
“Ooooh, that does it, Mister! You are sleeping on the couch. For the next six months!”
Daley found himself privately wondering if she'd be able to hold to that threat once her second-trimester hormones began kicking in, but decided that holding his tongue was his best route to keeping his skin attached to the rest of him. “Nene.” Leon's absolute lack of inflection stopped her cold in mid-rant. His eyes had never left Mackie's face. “So what happened today?”
Mackie rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking tired. “The girls were ready for the field over a month ago, and Jen was pushing me hard over it. Part of our agreement was that she wouldn't take any action without my approval, unless there was a dire emergency, but I was running out of excuses and she knew it. I was holding out for having this conversation first, she was refusing to even consider the idea, and we've been deadlocked like that for weeks.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Anyway,” Mackie finally continued, “when today's incident began, I was across town at Whiz Labs. By the time I even knew what was going on and got to my chopper, it was all over. I haven't even been back to the Arcade yet, but the telemetry says that everyone made it back without a scratch. Apparently Jennifer left to go straight home as soon as they had the hardsuits stored.”
“Wait a minute,” Daley interjected. “You mean Jenny-chan had full access to the equipment? You didn't have it locked up?”
Mackie shrugged. “She'd given me her word, and it seemed like an open gesture of trust would be the most effective way to encourage her to keep it. That's the way that Sylia keeps Nene out of her private files, after all.” Out of the corner of his eye, Daley could see Nene's cheekbones turn bright pink. “At any rate, the genie's out of the bottle and the cat's out of the bag,” Mackie went on. “So I guess we have to discuss what happens next.”
Daley was suddenly very aware of the smoldering, fulminating rage still rolling off Leon like smoke, and started to sweat. If Leon lost his temper now, and delivered an ultimatum Mackie would refuse to submit to--
“Since Priss does not return from her current North American tour for another forty-three hours,” Sylia stated calmly, derailing Daley's train of thought, “I suspect that Leon will want to table any such discussion until after he has had time to discuss the matter with her privately. Leon?” She arched one elegant eyebrow in inquiry.
Leon started slightly, obviously jarred by this reminder. “Ah, yes. Yes, of course.” He looked at Mackie again, eyes flat and threatening again. “And then we are going to have a very long talk.”
Mackie returned Leon's glare blandly, not giving his anger anything to gain traction on, while Sylia simply nodded as if they were discussing a holiday picnic. “Very well. Since today is Friday, and Priss is returning on Sunday, I suggest that we reconvene on Monday, perhaps for lunch?”
“Where at?” Daley inquired.
“My place,” Mackie replied. “My private lab, that is, at Eyrie and 75th. That way we can get everything out in the open.”
“That seems reasonable,” Sylia said. Both Stingray siblings fixed Leon with expressions of polite reasonableness, so nearly identical that Daley felt a mild chill. “Is that agreeable, Leon?”
For a moment, Daley was afraid that sweet reason was going to be exactly the thing to set Leon off, but the ADP chief somehow found the strength to swallow his rage. “Fine. I'll speak with Priss and let you know. And in the meantime,” he added, voice going harsh, “the 'Saber Senshi' are not going to do anything. At all. For any reason.” His expression nearly begged Mackie to give him an excuse, any excuse at all, to do more than issue a mild ultimatum.
Mackie, for his part, didn't bat an eyelash.
“I can do that, Leon.” He made it sound as if he were doing Leon a favor, rather than yielding to the implicit threat. “I'll lock up the lab until our meeting on Monday.”
There was no way Leon was going to thank him. “Fine,” he grated. “Until then.” He cut the connection without further pleasantries.
Mackie got up, moved across the room, and crashed into Sylia's easy chair with a shudder. “Damn. A couple of times, there, I thought Leon was going to go absolutely berserk.”
“That could still happen,” Sylia replied chillingly. “Or have you forgotten that you're going to have to explain this to Priss in two days?”
Mackie shuddered again. “No, but I'd like to. Right now, I'm concentrating on how to survive Nene tonight.”
To a stranger, Sylia's expression would have been almost unchanged, but her brother could easily see humor and anger warring for dominance beneath the surface. Humor won, by a hair. “You have always demonstrated a talent for earning her forgiveness, Mackie. And Nene has always demonstrated a willingness to forgive you. Eventually.” Her lips quirked slightly. “I cannot understand why, but the fact remains.”
Mackie snorted and ran his hands through his hair, ruining his business-meeting coiffure. “Every woman in my life is going to be after my hide for the next few weeks, I can see it coming. Nene, Priss, Jenny, Linna, you,” he added with emphasis. “I can't pick Nene up from the ADP tower for a couple hours yet, so you might as well get an early start.”
She studied him for a long moment before replying. “Why?”
He didn't try to pretend not to understand. “For Jenny's involvement, exactly the reasons I stated. For the rest, well... partly, the research challenge. I suppose I wanted to try my hand at matching my big sister.” He grinned lopsidedly. She did not. “And partly because, even though things have gotten a lot quieter, this city still needs the Knight Sabers. And the original team isn't getting any younger. I didn't start out planning it that way, but as things began to come together, I realized I had a chance to really accomplish something.” His expression turned rueful. “I was hoping to introduce them to you and ease them into the role, sort of like an apprenticeship program.” He shrugged eloquently. “But Murphy had other ideas.”
Sylia sighed, rubbing her forehead. She could feel the onset of a headache. “Yes. And now, you've helped create a situation that could seriously damage several relationships within our extended family for some time to come.” She glared at him, beginning to look truly angry for the first time. “Did you ever stop to think about the consequences of what you were doing? Right now, Leon is angry enough to seriously consider finding some probable cause to arrest you. Your wife is one of his lieutenants. One of our best friends is his wife. Did you even think about what could happen if your actions led to an open break between the Knight Sabers and the ADP? How many people could end up hurt? It would be almost impossible for Leon to move against you without cracking the wall of secrecy that has kept us safe all these years.” Her voice rose. “Your unthinking, juvenile actions have placed everyone close to you at risk!”
Mackie let her anger wash over him like waves over a rock. “It wouldn't have come to that. Leon's too smart to cause a blowup like that. And if he had to have a sacrifice, I was prepared to give him one. This is exactly why I didn't involve you, or anyone else – the conflict of interest would have been too much.”
Sylia regathered her equilibrium with an effort. “Mackie, you helped put Leon's daughter at risk. It doesn't matter that she's a legal adult – there are few things as blindly dangerous and unreasoning as a parent frightened for her children. Today, there was a very real chance that Leon might have done something that he would have regretted bitterly... after the fact.” She took a deep breath. “I believe the situation is salvageable, but I must admit I am quite angry with you myself for creating this situation.”
Mackie refused to back down. “I did what I believed was right at the time,” he said evenly. “I'm sorry about the mess, but even knowing what I know now, there are only a few things I would change if I could. I remember what it was like to be the 'kid,' and Jenny was going to do something dangerous regardless of what we did or said. She's an adult, whether we like it or not, and it's time for everyone to come to terms with that. Treating her like a child would have accomplished exactly the opposite of keeping her safe.” He stood up, glaring at Sylia with an old, long-suppressed resentment whose sudden intensity surprised him. “We can treat her like an adult, and help her deal with the risks, or treat her like a child, and see her get hurt because she wouldn't come to us when she needs help!”
A wave of hurt surprise rippled across Sylia's face. “Mackie....”
He sat down again, feeling the old rounded corners and dulled edges of his anger slip through his fingers. “Sorry. You never tried to force me to stay you little brother. And I came to terms with your tendency to overprotect me at the time – even back then, I understood your issues with losing family. But--” He looked up at her with an expression that made her breath catch slightly. “But dammit, Sis, there were times when you needed my help, when we were in too deep to afford keeping me on the sidelines. You weren't willing to risk losing me, but you were willing to make me risk losing you.”
Several incidents that proved otherwise queued up in Sylia's mind, but she refrained from pointing them out. It was possible that both of them were less than entirely rational on this subject....
“I'm sorry,” she said honestly instead. “I never wanted to make you feel....” At an atypical loss for words, she waved one hand in a vague sort of gesture.
“I know,” he replied soberly. “And I'm sorry too.” He stood up, and stepped toward her, and she met him halfway. As they hugged each other tightly, she wondered yet again just when he had become taller than she was. Entire chapters of his life seemed to have played out while she was otherwise occupied, and the realization was like picking the scab off an old wound.
They were silent in the shelter of each other's arms for a long time. Finally, Mackie broke the silence. “So... does this mean you'll protect me from Priss, come Monday?”
“After that speech?” Sylia muttered into his shoulder. “Hardly. I will ask her not to do anything permanently lethal, though.”
“Guess I'll take what I can get,” Mackie said with mock resignation, and hugged her tighter.
Leon was hiding.
He was honest enough with himself to admit it, on some deep level of his mind that had somehow avoided being paralyzed into incoherence by his emotional state. He was hiding behind his sunglasses, from Daley who was too close, from his officers who needed to believe in “Mt. McNichol,” from random passerby.... From himself.
What? He forced himself to stop staring at things only he could see and focused on Daley's face. “What?” he repeated aloud.
Daley was trying not to look concerned. “We're here.” Leon looked around, and realized the Interceptor was parked in front of his house. He wondered dimly how long they'd been stopped.
He climbed out, Daley mirroring his actions cautiously on the opposite side of the car. They were parked on front of the garage, which meant Daley had coded them through the security gate and driven up the driveway without Leon noticing. He forced himself to take a deep breath and looked at the house, trying to recapture part of the near-euphoric optimism that it had represented when they had had it built nearly five years ago.
Built into the crown of a low hill on a very large lot in an expensive neighborhood within the ten-minute response radius of two separate ADP reaction centers, the Asagiri-McNichol home had all the advantages of a military bunker without sacrificing the essential elements of a comfortable home. Most of Leon's life savings and as much of Priss's money as could be spent “on the books” had gone into the overt construction. A much larger chunk of Priss's under-the-table Knight Saber money had gone into the sub-basement that served as bomb shelter and armory, not shown on any city planning document and constructed entirely using imported, confidential contractors hired through Sylia's myriad contacts in the global sub-economy. Leon was still amazed that it had even been possible to pull off such a feat in a city as crowded as MegaTokyo, but after witnessing it he was no longer confused over how an operation like the Knight Sabers had managed to build and operate their infrastructure in the heart of the city for so long in utter secrecy.
The house had been a vindication of everything they had fought for, the foundation of everything they hoped their future would be, the concrete symbol of their family. And looking at it now, Leon wanted nothing more than to be elsewhere.
He felt rather than heard Daley step up beside him.
“You know, Leon,” the shorter officer said judiciously, “she was pretty good out there.”
His head snapped around to stare down at his friend, a numbed sort of betrayal settling in his stomach and leaking into his voice. “What?”
Daley took a deep breath and plunged onward. “She saved our asses today, Leon. If she hadn't shown up, there's a good chance we'd be in the morgue right now, along with the ERT. Special Weapons took too long to show up.” When Leon failed to make a response of any kind, Daley continued. “Before I knew who it was, I remember thinking that she was pretty good. A little rough around the edges, but not far behind Priss back when the Sabers were just getting started. And you were thinking it too.”
His words ricocheted about the interior of Leon's brain, but couldn't seem to connect to anything, as if Daley had been speaking Urdu or Lithuanian. He let out a deep breath he didn't remember holding, and tried to sound as if his world were not crumbling beneath his feet. “Go home, Daley. Get some sleep. Long day tomorrow.”
He started up the walk without waiting for a reply. Behind him, he heard the Interceptor's door open, then Daley's voice, soft and almost intimate.
“I love her too, you know.”
Leon froze, but Daley was already closing his door and putting the car into gear, having said his piece. Leon listened to the engine sounds recede down the driveway, and the security gate cycle. Some time later, he heard crickets chirping, and realized that twilight was beginning to creep across the sky. He shook himself and let himself inside quietly.
He switched to indoor slippers and catfooted out of the “shoe room” and down the hall, following voices. Shinji and Jennifer, chatting like any pair of siblings, swapping stories about their respective days, but Jennifer's breezy banter suddenly rang false in his ears, the edits and sidesteps suddenly painfully obvious. How had he missed the signs? He was a cop, as well as a father, and yet somehow he had completely failed to notice that his only daughter had been... had been....
He stopped in the archway to the dining room and studied them from the shadows. Shinji was attempting to babble a kilometer a second and eat at the same time, and making a mess of things. Jennifer finally managed to shush him and, with an indulgent, lopsided smirk, succeeded in wiping his mouth and chin with a napkin. As soon as his lips were free, Shinji took up right where he had left off, some convoluted child's tale involving frogs, mud, and rubber bands. Leon tuned him out and watched his daughter. She'd trimmed back her long, curly blonde mane months ago (another missed sign!) and straightened it into a mildly wavy sort-of-pageboy cut. The wild coloring experiments of her earlier teenage years were no more, leaving the natural golden hue untarnished by bleach or dye. She propped her chin on one hand, dropping an occasional and unnecessary encouraging syllable into Shinji's infrequent pauses for breath, her cornflower-blue eyes glowing with gentle amusement and that indefinable mix of pride, mild exasperation, and affection that had always spoken volumes about how much she loved “being 'niichan's 'neesan”.
But in Leon's mind's eye, those long gentle fingers, clad in armored gauntlets, tore desperately at strangling steel hands Those soft blue eyes stared sightlessly out of a shattered faceplate. That soft contralto voice began a desperate cry for help -- and was brutally silenced. Leon felt his fists clench spasmodically in helpless reflex, just as she looked up and saw him for the first time.
It was like taking a blast of icewater in the face. Leon felt his anger drown, reduced in a heartbeat to nothing more than a few dim red coals, and forced his hands open, too late. She had recovered as quickly as the blink of an eye, but he had seen it – she was afraid. Of him.
It had been years since he had seen that hidden flicker deep in her eyes, years where he had told himself that the wounds left by her childhood had finally healed, and that he had played some small role in that healing. And now, even if just for a moment, she had worn an expression that he had silently sworn he would kill anyone for putting on her face. An expression he had put there. He groped for something to say, some reassurance that would repair the damage, but nothing came. They stared at each other for a second that stretched into three, then five, then an impact against his knees early knocked Leon off his feet.
Shinji was wrapped around his legs like a trooper's hands around a beer bottle, beaming up at the towering mountain of his father. It was enough to let Leon pretend things were normal, to pick up his son and hug him so tightly that he squirmed and complained about being “squished.”
By unspoken accord, father and daughter cooperated in maintaining the illusion of normalcy, getting Shinji through dessert, bath, and bedtime story before moving on to their own discussion. Leon found himself hoping fervently that Shinji was fooled. He had seemed to be, but he also often appeared to have inherited some measure of his sister's uncanny people sense. The thought that his five-year-old son might be playing along in order to avoid distressing his father and sister made Leon want to curse. Or throw things. Or maybe cry.
The den was a sufficiently safe distance from the bedrooms to allow a conversation that Shinji should most definitely not overhear. But once they finally arrived there, with no more excuses to avoid the conversation, Leon found himself at a loss for words. Jennifer seemed no better off, and so they stood there, avoiding eye contact, in an awkward silence that grew thicker and thicker as the antique grandfather clock in the corner ticked away.
The first words that fell from Leon's mouth were not what he would have chosen. “Did you really think I was going to hit you?”
“No!” The denial burst from her with such force Leon knew that their thoughts had been following parallel tracks. “No,” she repeated more quietly. “I was just... tense, and surprised, and you looked so angry....” She trailed off miserably as if she could feel the weight of her words piling on his shoulders like bricks. More than anything else, he wanted to pull her into his arms and hug her as tightly as he had Shinji. But whatever barrier now stood between them was something he couldn't find a way to break down.
The clock ticked in unbroken silence again.
Jennifer stirred first this time. “I know you would never hurt me,” she began, smiling shakily. “But Mom always says I'm not too big to spank.”
Something that might have been the ghost of a laugh puffed Leon's lips. He shook his head, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. “I think,” he said after a moment. “I think we should both get a full night's sleep, and discuss this after Shinji leaves in the morning.”
Jennifer tried not to look too relieved as she agreed and fled to her room, wishing him a good night over her shoulder. Leon found himself ensconced in his favorite chair, an old and battered black leather recliner that Priss had been nagging him to dispose of for years. It was positioned with a perfect view of the garden, and he watched the reflection of the rising moon in its waters until he fell asleep, carried along by the ticking of the ancient clock.