I smiled as David vanished into the other world. I was still tired, but maintaining the link was easy compared to everything I’d had to do just hours ago. I’d be able to keep up the link for fifteen minutes at least. Perhaps in time I’d be able to do better than that, and give David more time with his father - several hours, maybe even a full day.
So much had happened in the past few hours, and despite the calm of the moment, sitting in the sand on a hill in the middle of nowhere in Australia, I knew it would soon catch up with me. The current calm, forced as it was, was actually a welcome respite from the craziness that was undoubtedly currently taking place in Ildithia, and in fact all over the Fractured States.
What to expect? The darkness was gone, but would Calamity stay gone too? Either way, not all Epics would suddenly be good. Obliteration had clearly chosen to be evil, or at least he’d chosen to continue being his religious creepy zealot self. We’d still have to find a way to deal with him.
But we’d done it. Well, David had done it, mostly. Against all the odds, Calamity was gone. it would be an interesting world going forward, but the undisputed reign of Epics would, at the very least, not be so undisputed anymore.
My eyes fell on Prof. He was sitting in the sand, a distance away from me. He hadn’t moved much in the past hour, hadn’t so much as indicated that he’d seen Obliteration come and go. I found myself… well, I found myself pitying him, a little. I, maybe more than most, understood what had happened to him. He’d succumbed to the darkness, and he’d done unforgivable things. He and I both had to live with the knowledge of what we’d done. We had hurt people, killed people. We had been in the thrall of a power greater than us, true, but it didn’t feel like much of an excuse to me: it felt like a weakness, that we’d been unable to fully stand up to it. Prof had gone worse than many others, and far worse than me. It had been awful, seeing him in all his Epic glory, seeing only the barest glimpses of the old Prof surfacing occasionally.
When I’d still been with the Reckoners, I’d tried to keep my distance from Prof for fear of betraying myself somehow. The man knew Epics better than most - what if he’d somehow been able to spot me, the occasional flashes of darkness I’d felt? Now, however, I felt we were almost kin.
I stood up and walked over to him, then set down next to him in the sand. He’d been drawing figures in the sand, and as I sat, he erased them with his hand.
I didn’t know what to say. What did you say to someone who’d been an enemy, a mentor, a killer and a despot in the past year, only to end up as a broken man who’d lost what was most important to him? What did you say to someone after you had defeated them with their biggest fear, especially when it was such a personal fear as his? As embarrassing as it was to have your fears exposed, I couldn’t help but be glad that my fear, at least, was not something to be embarrassed of in itself. Fire, after all, was a very dangerous thing. But fear of failure… that revealed something far more personal.
And he had failed. It had been by his orders, if not by his direct powers, that Tia had died. I could not imagine what he was going through. During our time in Babilar, in my more self-flagellating moments, I’d occasionally imagined what it would be like if David died because of me. It had brought me pain, had strengthened my resolve to keep my distance from him, had made me irritable about the impossible situation. But it hadn’t been enough to keep me away from him. It hadn’t been enough to keep Prof away from Tia either. The power of love, reversed.
They had been together for decades, it seemed. They’d kept their relationship to themselves when I’d been with the team. Only once, just after we arrived in Newcago, I had seen them in a close embrace, Prof comforting Tia about something. Even then, it hadn’t really clicked for me.
And now, she was gone. A victim of Prof’s own reign.
Prof scraped his throat, then spoke. I’d been so caught up in my thoughts that I jumped.
“That girl…” he said, hoarsely. “The one you pulled from the other dimension.”
“Tavi”, I noted, nodding. I still felt guilty for subjecting that poor girl to our own messes, though David had told me that she’d been alive and kicking in the other dimension.
“Tavi,” Prof repeated softly. “In the other dimension, she is still...she is our daughter?”
“Yes,” I said, eyeing him. Tia had thought she recognized Tavi. Who was she to them?
Prof sighed then, a deep and bone tired sound. He was silent for a moment.
The man sitting next to me was nothing like the Prof I’d come to know. He seemed exhausted, not just physically, but tired of life. I sympathized.
“We had a daughter, once,” Prof finally said, in the same soft and tired tone. “Before… everything. She died.”
I wiped away a bug that scuttled up my bare leg. My clothing was partly in tatters, particularly my pants, but I didn’t feel like creating an illusion to cover myself up again. The revelation that Prof and Tia had had a child, an Epic and a non-Epic together, did things to me that I currently preferred not to think about.
“Things are different, in the other world,” I told him. “David’s father is still alive, but David died. Actually,” I smiled in a twisted fate of irony, “David’s father is Steelheart. He’s part of the Reckoners. Tavi is too.”
I hesitated then, rubbing my temples. Should I tell him that Tia was alive in the other dimension? Would he want to know, to meet her? David was meeting with his dad, so it wasn’t impossible to have friendly contact with the ones from there. I myself was quite curious to properly talk to Firefight, without death and destruction looming over us. At the same time, I wondered at the wisdom of allowing ourselves to participate in that world. David’s father was dead in our world. Tia and Tavi were too. Escaping into a different place where those facts were not a reality… Just having access to different dimensions had messed me up badly. What could happen if we we went too far, lost ourselves in an alternative version?
“We had discussed all this, you know,” Prof said. “What would happen if - if I snapped. We both knew it was a realistic option. It took more and more out of me, not using my powers, trying to protect myself. We made plans years ago, after seeing what happened to Amala, to Abigail. It was hard, but we were realistic. We both decided that, if it came to it, Tia would have to do it. She took that seriously, we both did. But…”
“But you never thought she would end up dead,” I said softly.
“It’s stupid,” he whispered, staring in the distance. “We’d seen Regalia, we’d seen Amala and many others. We knew that, once an Epic snapped, friendship wouldn’t matter anymore. Love wouldn’t matter anymore. And yet, I believed myself stronger than that. Wasn’t I keeping the darkness away, year after year? Still able to be around others, to be with Tia, to plot to bring down the very people I was most like?” He brushed his cheek; was he crying? “If I hadn’t been so arrogant… Valentine and Exel… Tia…”
He put his arms around his knees and rested his head on them. I’d never seen him so beaten down, so broken. I didn’t know what to do. Would he accept comfort? How could I even comfort him? Sparks, this situation was messed up.
In the end, I laid my arm across his shoulders, but I didn’t say anything. I wished David would get back soon; I was getting tired, maintaining the link. I wouldn’t be able to do it much longer, but beyond that, David would probably know what to do. He was surprisingly good with people, even if he didn’t see it that way.
Prof and I sat like that for a few moments, until finally Prof exhaled roughly and raised his head. I removed my arm.
“We don’t know what the world will be like, going forward”, he said gravely, echoing my thoughts from earlier. “I’m glad that you and David found a way to make it work. But, Megan… be careful.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already learned to deal with the occasional urge to shoot him,” I responded sourly. Prof huffed out the ghost of a laugh.
“Speaking of, I’m going to get him back now.” A headache had started to build, and I’d been gritting my teeth without noticing. The pain was nowhere near as bad as before, but I still had to be careful not to overtax myself.
I still couldn’t quite explain how the other dimensions worked. It was like I thought about it, and then I could just see into the other world, and pull things from it if I wanted. David was … flying?... with his dad. I let him know that I had to pull out soon, and a minute or two later David came back, appearing on the sand beside us. He was smiling, but it faded somewhat as he regarded us.
“You okay?” he asked me. I nodded, but didn’t respond further, rubbing my temples and trying to keep my muscles relaxed. It would take me a while to get back to normal.
David eyed Prof briefly, then sat down beside me and pulled me to him, massaging my neck and shoulders. That always helped to relieve some of the built up tension.
Prof stood and walked downhill towards the space station, finally settling in its shadow. I was grateful to him, but David paused in his ministrations.
“Is he… what happened?”
“I talked to him,” I told him. “He’s going to need time… and space. Tia…”
David nodded understandingly, then pulled me into an embrace. “I still can’t believe it,” he said softly. “She’s fine in the other dimension, it was - jarring.”
“How was it?” I asked, pulling back to look at him.
“It was… complicated. Good. But also confusing. Like - well, like meeting up with your father who has been dead for eleven years, and discovering that somehow he had turned into his own murderer, who you’d been chasing for most of your life.”
I smiled. “Finally, one of your metaphors makes sense.”
“Hey!” David said, indignant. “My metaphors always make sense. It’s not my fault others don’t understand them.”
“You’re like a potato?” I quoted skeptically.
“It sounds stupid if you say it like that,” he grumbled. “The minefield was the important part of that comparison.”
I grinned. “Well, Knees, thankfully you’ve redeemed yourself to me since then.”
He moved so he faced me, then kissed me.
Mmmmm. David was not very experienced. He’d actually admitted that without any embarrassment, which I found strangely appealing. But I actually preferred it that way. Back in Newcago, I’d had to kiss Fortuity, and that man had been used to taking what he wanted, all aggression, teeth and tongue and invasion. I’d had to fight myself the whole time not to kick him, or at the very least pull back from him. I’d felt almost violated, afterwards. David was far more gentle, and let me take the lead if I wanted to.
It was good. In fact, I found myself thinking about all the possibilities, now that the threat of our deaths wasn’t looming over our heads anymore - not as largely, anyway. We’d have more time, more space, and hopefully more privacy. It would be great to do things people my age actually did, rather than fight Epics and dying all the time.
I found myself smiling against his mouth. He pulled back slightly, focusing on my face, which made him go slightly cross-eyed. “What?”
“Think of all the things we can practice,” I whispered to him, wiggling my eyebrows.
His eyes grew large, and a downright dirty grin spread across his face. Then he pulled me back to him and kissed me again, with both more enthusiasm and more intensity.
After some time, somebody scraped their throat, and I pulled back. Prof was standing close to us. I fought a blush, but suspected I failed. David let out a tiny yelp and removed his hands from where they’d been caressing my sides.
“Copter will be here soon,” Prof said in his gruff voice. “Might wanna… cool yourselves down.” His face was stern and sad, but there was a slight twinkle in his eye.
“Yes sir,” David said, red spreading across his cheeks. “Um, will you be joining us in Ildithia?” We’d go there first, to meet up with the others and regroup. We hadn’t discussed what to do with Prof yet, though.
“I guess I will,” Prof responded. “If - you’ll have me.”
David quickly glanced at me. “That’s not just up to us,” he told Prof. “I can’t speak for the others. We’ll need to discuss it.”
Prof deflated slightly. Well, what do you expect? I thought. He killed three Reckoners. Maybe he wasn’t entirely responsible, and maybe one of them was his own partner, but he was still responsible for three deaths in the team, and many more outside of it.
“But,” David continued, “we’ll need your help, regardless. Abraham’s arm is missing-” Prof flinched at that - “And you ruled Ildithia. People will need convincing that the darkness is gone. You could help with that.”
Prof almost seemed to shrink before our eyes. Gone was the high and mighty Epic, the powerful and ruthless despot. The powers were still there, but they didn’t make him feel powerful anymore. Now, they were just a reminder of his loss.
Yet, he nodded. “I can do that,” he said.
Then he looked at me. “Is Tia alive, in the other world?” His voice broke on her name.
I tensed. I had no idea whether to be truthful or not. But it was David who responded.
“She is,” he said. “I haven’t told her what happened here.”
Prof nodded. He seemed thoughtful, but thankfully he didn’t ask any further questions.
A dark spot appeared in the distance, slowly growing. For a brief, crazy moment, I wondered if Calamity had returned. Then I realized it was the copter, and relaxed.
It was time to go back home.