The battles were over, the players going their own ways. Of Reaver and Bloodhawk there was no trace. Hellion and the woman teleporter—she called herself Anchor—were in custody and on the way to the Pit. They would be locked away for a long, long time, likely never to run free again, if justice held. Sawbones and his army of Flesh-kin were dust and ash. The members of the Guardians and the Faction were bruised and battered, but whole.
Isaac had shrugged off all attempts at consolation. Without a word, he transformed into the horseman, cradled his wife’s body, and rode away. No one tried to stop him or knew where he was going. Or if he would ever be back.
Proper authorities were called in. An investigation opened into the disappearance of the residents of Dows, Iowa, the corpse-less murder sites in Seattle, and the missing remains of the explosion victims in New York. The heroes were bombarded with questions from various organizations.
When they were finally permitted to leave, the joint teams piled into the Guardians’ van and Valkyrie flew them back to the base. By the time they touched down outside the warehouse, adrenaline surges had long worn off. Weariness and sorrow ruled. None of the Faction turned down the offer of a shower and a bunk at Guardian headquarters.
Shockwave separated himself from the group almost as soon as they arrived. Lately, it had seemed the smart course to allow the man time to himself, but Valkyrie didn’t think that would apply this time. She followed him to the second floor. The space was converted and reinforced to resemble a large gymnasium; it was where the Guardians trained and worked out.
“Derek,” she called to his back, shutting the double doors behind her.
Shockwave’s gait halted halfway across the floor. His shoulders tensed, eventually slumping. He didn’t turn around. “What?”
She could practically feel his hostility. “Something’s eating at you. It has been for a while now.”
He didn’t reply, head bowed as if he were more interested in his boots than anything Valkyrie had to say.
“Look, I know we’re all exhausted. These past weeks have been hard on us all, yet don’t think I haven’t noticed that it’s been particularly difficult for you. We’ve known each other a long time, Derek.” She moved in front of Shockwave. “Talk to me before this gets worse.”
When Shockwave looked up, there was something in his eyes she had never seen there before. It bordered on defeat.
“I don’t know if I should be the one to continue leading this outfit,” he confessed. His hand came up and the mask was removed. He dropped it to the floor, head bowed.
Valkyrie shook her head. “That’s crazy. You’re the best one for the job. You have the most experience, the kids look up to you. You have the respect of the team.”
“That’s just it.” Shockwave pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do I deserve any of that? Guardians were hurt on my watch. Hundreds, thousands of lives were lost because I couldn’t put things together. And then this thing with Ghost. I let it get in the way of clear thinking, Jess. A leader can’t do that. Not to mention what I wanted to do, what I almost did to Hellion and Bloodhawk when I had the chance.”
She laid a hand on his shoulder. There was no denying Shockwave had made some errors, but hadn’t they all? She said as much. It seemed to perk him up a touch.
“Besides,” she continued. “The fact that you didn’t kill those two—even though they probably deserve it—shows the depth of your character. You turned Hellion in, like a Guardian would. None of what happened was your fault. Nobody could have predicted this kind of madness.”
“We’ve all had thoughts of permanently taking out one of those evil bastards out there.” Her mind drifted to Reaver and the battle in midtown. It was the closest she herself had come to crossing that very line. “But we don’t. Because we’re better than that.”
Shockwave’s head bobbed with little feeling. But at least he seemed to be coming around. Valkyrie had never seen the man so low. It was sobering. Yet if she knew anything of Derek Miles, he would get through this, come out the other side stronger and more determined to be the hero he strove to be.
Shockwave raised his head at last. There was an intense mixture of emotion playing across his face. His question, when it came, tears rolling from his eyes, took her off guard. “What does that say about Ichabod?”
No answer came to her lips.
The moment lengthened until they both looked away.
One week passed. Two.
Life returned to its strange semblance of normalcy for the remaining members of the Guardians.
Pulse and Vector recovered well, though it would be some time before Pulse’s bones healed enough to head back into active field duty. Vector was taking things slow, on the advice of the doctors and Shockwave, and against her own headstrong desires to return in full. Valkyrie even had to gently remind Vector how important finishing up school work was when she found the girl fiddling around in the Comm Room on the eve of her finals.
Sludge pulled through the worst of his injuries and was taking something of a sabbatical from the team. He promised he would return, but there were a number of personal things he wanted to attend to during his convalescence. Spending quality time with his wife, kids, and grand-kids was top priority. Nobody blamed him. Surgeons said he was lucky to have survived the operations.
Lady Luck, to the surprise of all, turned down a guest spot on a highly-rated sitcom to concentrate on Guardian business. With two members gone and another two not fully recovered from their wounds, the rising starlet proved to have more of a heroine’s heart than most suspected. Valkyrie wondered if it didn’t have something to do with the events beneath Dows, specifically the fight with Reaver. There had been a change in Gina’s eyes since then. Time would tell if it was for the better or worse.
Ghost and the rest of the Faction were establishing themselves back on the west coast. They had found a backer and were in the midst of converting an old, rundown storefront near the Puget Sound for a headquarters. With the bit of legitimacy they had gained beside the Guardians, a smattering of local superpowered individuals started inquiring about membership.
“And I trust Simon has no idea that it was me that spoke on their behalf?” Shockwave asked. He sipped from his can of soda as they sat on the roof of the base. He wore his usual gear even though they were relaxing. The mask was off, however. Perhaps one of the few good things to have come out of the Dows incident. Shockwave didn’t wear the mask around the base, as if finally at ease with that part of his past.
“None,” Valkyrie replied. For the moment, she was simply Jessica Tolbert. Street clothes and sneakers. Even the PhD was relegated to the background. “From what I gather, Mr. Morrigan set up everything under a trust. Even if Simon wanted to dig, I’m sure the old man buried his involvement sufficiently. At your request, no doubt.”
Shockwave said nothing.
“Are you ever going to let Simon know?” she asked.
“Yup. Same day they resurrect Roosevelt.”
He took another sip. “The badass.”
Jessica laughed. It felt good. Right. “I’ll let the scientific community know they should get right on that.”
“Sounds like a plan then.”
They remained in companionable silence for the next few minutes, enjoying the descent of the sun on an autumn New York night. Through the years, they had both learned well the value of taking advantage of these types of moments of peace as they came. Perhaps they had different methods of enjoying them, but the sentiment was the same.
She broke the quietude. “That other stuff you said Morrigan told you about. Has there been any other news on that front?”
He let out a long breath, the kind that caused cheeks to puff. On Shockwave’s scarred visage, the effect was interesting. “Sounds like everything is going forward. The government wants a stronger hand in regulating superpowered individuals. We can expect formal announcements within the next few weeks. They’re pushing to get all their ducks in a row before elections.”
“They want fingers in all the pies.” She shook her head. “There’s going to be a strong resistance from those with abilities. Things have been going fairly well for decades. Yes, there have been moments where some of,” she hesitated, “our kind have thrown their weight around too much. But this could tip some people the wrong way. We have enough bad guys out there already, not to mention the renegades.”
“Everything is about privatization these days. The government wants to limit personal control over superpowered individuals. The classic ‘You don’t know how to utilize what you have. We’ll do it for you. Our way.’ I can’t say it’s all bad what they’re trying to do, but some of the projects Morrigan was telling me about. . . things could go bad quickly.”
“Great. ‘Enjoy the ride while it lasts’,” she said.
“That about sums it up. ‘Wait and see’, too.”
The mood darkened at mention of the demon. He had played them all. No one had suspected he was the orchestrator of the massacres, the one to bring the villains together, and even providing the mad Sawbones with the idea of creating an army of Flesh-kin. Hellion sang like a bird from his cell in the Pit when he realized the imp had left him to hang.
“Nothing,” Shockwave said. “Not a trace. But now that we know he’s a real threat rather than an annoyance, we’ll be ready for him.”
Another quiet moment slipped by. She slid her hand into his as the sun sank half-way below the horizon. After a brief hesitation, he responded by squeezing back.
“Think he’ll come back?” she asked.
Shockwave took a moment to think about it, knowing who he was without having to ask. Ichabod had been on his mind often these last weeks.
“If and when he’s ready,” he said. “If and when.”
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