They sat down for breakfast in his apartment, just Jessica Tolbert and Simon Todd. A simple moment in time of two old friends sharing an equally simple meal of cereal in milk. Later they would become Valkyrie and Ghost once more, but for a few minutes they could just be ‘normal’. At the very least, pretend to be.
“I heard your grant was rejected for the Norway dig,” he said between spoonfuls. “They’re a bunch of fools, if you ask me.”
She smiled. “Their loss. It’s not like it’s my career or anything. At least the museum was willing to keep me on as a consultant. I haven’t burned all my bridges yet playing superhero.”
“Stop that,” he said, pointing his index finger at her while simultaneously holding an empty spoon. “You’re good at what you do, one of the best. And that goes for the archeology as well as being Valkyrie.”
“Anthropology. I’m an anthropologist, Simon.”
He waved off his error. “Whichever. Simple folk like myself will never understand the difference.” His flippancy caused her to smile again, this time more heartfelt.
“Really? So I worked hard for the ‘Doctor’ appellation for nothing?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “I can show you my PhD. Again, if need be.”
She had tried to explain the difference to him several years back. Right in the middle of their failed attempt at a romance. They could have blamed that particular misadventure on the pressures of trying to lead normal civilian lives and those of active superheroes. Instead they had been honest with one another, Jessica and Simon were too different of people to make a relationship work. Superhero or not.
But she did miss his straightforwardness and glib manner at times. Her and Simon’s awkward attempt at romance had been Jessica’s last serious relationship. It was hard finding someone. Between being and anthropologist or a Nordic warrior doing her best to protect the country, there wasn’t often time to pursue more than a stutter-stop method of searching. She did wish for more, though. She wouldn’t lie to herself. There were just too many responsibilities which took priority.
“You really haven’t changed a bit.” She dropped her own spoon in a now empty bowl. There was a moment she almost reached for the box to pour another, but the sugary tang left on her palate from the first portion was enough to curtail that thought.
“Eh? Nobody would like me if I changed,” he replied. Unlike Jessica, Simon had no qualms about refilling his bowl. Even before his own was completely empty. “I have it on good authority that I’m rather charming.”
Now she laughed. It wasn’t meant in any mean-spirited way, but it caused his ego to visibly deflate. A dribble of milk hung off the edge of his lip as it trembled.
“But. . . the nice girl on the phone. . . ” He dropped his spoon into the dry cereal, elbows on the table and his head drooping into his hands. “Was she really only talking to me because I was paying nine-ninety-five a minute?” When he raised his head it was to reveal a pouting lip and wide, puppy dog eyes. “You think I’m charming, right?”
“Poor, poor Simon,” she said between laughs. “Never grew older than six.”
The moment of levity passed. It was inevitable.
She was only planning to be on the west coast for a couple more days at most, crashing at his place seemed the most ideal situation. They discussed the strange cases of what appeared to be mass murders without bodies well into the night, settling on nothing concrete. Jessica still had too many questions for him they had not touched on the night before.
Her coffee was almost gone, so she went for a refill. Returning to the table, she said, “So. Your new team, the Faction. Tell me about them.”
Simon leaned back in his chair. “Well, you’ve met everybody. We’re just a bunch of guys with extraordinary powers in the area that have banded together to make a better difference.”
“A ‘better difference’.” She couldn’t help rolling her eyes and shaking her head. “Don’t give me the stock lines, Simon. I know you. Aegis and Siege I’ve heard of, more so Aegis, though. That young kid, Lynx, I don’t know of. And I’ve heard nothing about you guys as a unit.”
He looked down at the table and scratched at the back of his neck. “Yeah, well. This is. . . ” he hesitated. When he spoke again, his words were low, almost whispered. “This is kind of our first real case as a team.”
Simon held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Now hang on a second. Just because we haven’t taken on anything major as a group yet. . . ” There was something in his face now, a pleading for understanding which helped her hold back her incredulity. “We’re all experienced in the field. We all have our share of bad guys we’ve had a hand in taking down. Nobody is a novice here. I mean, it’s nothing like the Guardians have handled, but still.”
She had to take a breath before responding. Bad enough she had flown across the country to help him out, but it would have been a totally different story had she known he was banking on her helping his new team to make a name for themselves.
The more she though about it, the angrier she was getting. She grit her teeth when she spoke. “Simon, tell me you’re not being a totally selfish asshole asking me to come out here.”
He inhaled deep before saying anything. “All right, I deserve the suspicion. But hear me out, OK?” He waited for her to nod, slowly, before continuing. “It’s not like I didn’t want the Faction to be able to handle this on our own. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘Hey, I’ll see if I can get Valkyrie to join up and legitimize us.’ I called and asked for your help because I believe that we’ve got a genuine and very dangerous threat on our hands out here.
“I know you don’t know much of the rest of the team, but think about what you do know. There’s me, I’m the only fully-known quantity. The good and bad.” His voice dropped at the admission.
“Aegis is powerful, but his confidence in himself and his abilities are tenuous since his kidnapping. Lynx is a good kid, but he’s the greenest of us, and it shows. Not only that, but he’s still working out some issues with the appearance thing. Siege, he’s solid. But he’s also still a little torn between loyalty to his old club and resentment at the way the higher ups cast him aside.
“Take a good look at us. Aside from Siege, who’s literally a walking cannon, who is a heavy hitter? Which one of us can handle going toe-to-toe with a MechaDragon or a Black Satyr if it’s a powerhouse like that behind all this? As a team, maybe we could pull it off. But at what cost?”
She stared at him.
“Look, Jess, I—I realized how bad this could be and called the first, no, the only person I knew I could rely on.” His hands splayed outward. The plea was making a difference. “Say something. Please.”
“So,” she said after making him sweat just a touch longer, “I’m the muscle for you. Is that it?”
He was shaking his head before she completed her question. “Absolutely not. I wasn’t kidding when I said you were one of the best, Jess. I can’t figure this thing out. People are dying and my crew is virtually helpless. What else could I do? Call in Monocle and Mustache to save the day and preen for the cameras? Find the Kraken and beg him to join up? Or maybe the Supra-Naturals would like to expand their workload from the southwest. I doubt any of the Omegas would deign to notice us little people.”
She sighed after a moment. He was making sense. Of a kind. Innocent lives had to take priority. The original members of the Guardians had their own interpretations of how things should run, but they all had agreed on that one point; the paramount importance of the people was not the issue which split up the founding members.
“Damn it, Simon.” He was right. At least enough that she couldn’t retain her ire. “How bad do you really think this is?”
“You remember the Ereshkigal incident?”
She did. All too well. It left one Guardian dead and ultimately caused the dissolution of the original team. That he would compare the horror of that event to the potential damage of this current affair spoke volumes. Especially considering his own place in that history.
“That bad?” she whispered.
With a swallow, he nodded and looked away.
She caught the sorrow, the glimmer of the guilt he tried to bury. Her hand moved across the small table to cover his; he squeezed her hand in response, letting her know the comfort was appreciated.
While his direct actions had not gotten Starbright killed those years back, the decisions he had made in response to their teammate’s death precipitated the break-up of the team. And cost Shockwave, personally. Not to mention what happened with Starguard afterward.
Now his asking for her help made more sense. Simon feared making another terrible choice if things went wrong. Bad enough innocents were being slaughtered out there and no one had a clue who the butchers were, but to have a lack of trust in his own judgment was crippling. The burden of leadership threatened to crush him.
“We’ll figure this out, Simon,” she murmured. “Because it’s what we signed up for, to make a positive difference, to protect those without the abilities we possess from others who would use their might to cause harm. And we won’t make the same mistakes we did before.”
“I wish I had your confidence, Jess.” He slipped his hand out from under hers. “I really do.”
She caught his eyes and held them. “You’re a good man, Mr. Todd. We’ve all made mistakes, as ourselves and as our alter egos. We’re still human, no matter what gifts we have. It’s about time you realized that.”
He remained mute, but at least nodded.
She glanced at the clock above his sink. It was just past nine in the morning; that would make it after noon on the east coast. Time to check in.
But to end their conversation on such a dour note did not feel right.
“Finish your breakfast and maybe we’ll get some ice cream later,” she said. His expression softened from dismay to relief.
Jessica rose from the little two-person table and began searching for her cell phone. It was off, charging at the outlet closest to the pullout sofa bed she had slept on the night before.
“Really, Mom? Gee, that’d be swell.” He even did that swing of the arm most people would equate with the expression ‘Aw shucks!’
Jessica smiled as she powered on her phone. It would be the last time she would feel comfortable enough to do so for quite some time.
“We need you back here,” Shockwave said over the line.
He heard her sigh. When not in her Valkyrie persona, Jessica Tolbert’s voice was considerably lighter and more lilting. It took some getting used to. “I can get back in a few hours. At the earliest. . . ” she paused, presumably to check the time. “Say, six.”
“It’ll do. I’ll be calling back Lady Luck, too. I get the feeling we’re going to need all the Guardians for this one.” Behind him, Pulse was loading some equipment into the van. The younger man dropped something and it clattered to the ground with a metallic ring. Shockwave pulled the phone from his chin to berate Pulse. “Watch it!”
“Problem?” she asked from most of a continent away.
Shockwave let out a breath, settling the device against his ear once more. “Nothing except the ordinary Pulse racket.”
“Gotcha.” She paused a beat. “Listen, Derek, if you think this thing is related to what’s going on out here, what do you think Ghost and his crew should do?”
He heard his teeth grind before he realized his jaw was tensing. There were a few choice things he would have liked to say, but he was still a professional. “Let him know what we’ve got on our hands and how we think these incidents are connected. I’m sure they’re all a bunch of grown-ups there. They should know how to handle their business.”
It sounded like a door shutting on the other end of the line before she spoke again. “I hear what you’re saying, Derek. But it sounds like these bastards can just jump around the country as they please. We know they’re hitting New York, and probably the same ones doing the killing out here. Maybe I should stick around here. Hellion, Bloodhawk, and Reaver might show up while we’re chasing smoke over there.”
“Ghost has our number if he can’t hack it,” Shockwave growled. It was impossible to keep all the anger out of his voice now. Behind him, Pulse jerked to a stop until he realized he should be anywhere but eavesdropping on Shockwave. “If you’re a Guardian, your place is here. Where you’re needed.”
“I don’t like what you’re implying,” she retorted. There was a coldness to her own voice now.
Tension tightened his shoulders. His fears were starting to rear their ugly heads. “I’m not implying anything. This is how it is. We’ve got a situation over here that will require the full strength of the team to handle.” He switched the phone to his other ear and strode away from the van and Pulse. “If you’re a part of that team, you’re needed here. Ghost will have to look after himself for once.”
“This isn’t about what happened between you two, Derek. This isn’t even about what happened between all us Guardians back then. If those three killers as the same ones perpetrating these terrible acts out here, Ghost’s team won’t be able to handle them. They’re just not set up to handle that many supervillains at once. Especially being as how you’re fairly certain there’s at least one more bad guy involved.”
Shockwave pulled up short. Was he being too bullheaded, letting the past cloud his thinking? As much as he hated to admit it, he might just be doing that. Even if that were true, the situation remained the same. The strength of Valkyrie would be needed to bring that trio of monsters to justice.
“Not our problem,” he said. Before she could unleash her protest, Shockwave continued, taking a much softer tone. “Look, here’s the situation. I understand what you’re saying, but we really do need you out here to get these guys. They’re dangerous, very dangerous. You and I both know that, first-hand. And we know they’re acting out here.
“Two things from that. One, if they are the bastards doing the killing on both coasts, we stop them here, they won’t get another chance to do so over there. Two, we know they’re out here, or at least were in action as of early this morning. The faster we bring ’em in, the quicker this all gets resolved. If they’re not the same ones committing murder over there, the faster you can get back over there to help.”
That last part was particularly difficult to say.
She was silent for a moment. Shockwave hoped he’d made his case without causing further animosity. When she came back, he had his answer.
“Give me a few hours and I’ll be there.” The line clicked. Silence.
Shockwave pulled the phone away from his face and hit the END CALL button. He released a long breath. That could have gone much worse. Now he just had one last call to make. Once all the Guardians were back together, everything would work out.
He was certain.
Without thinking, his hand came up to scratch at the left side of his mask.