“Sooo…” Adam said from his seat between the two younger children, on a swing set built for a larger family than his. “… Wanna play chasey?”
“No,” said Myriad, echoed almost immediately by her companion. He knew their names (or at least their Lawrence approved ones) without having to ask. How could he not? They’d been all over the papers for a solid fortnight after their show at Parliament House, their miracles scratchily preserved in black and white. Even without that, Maelstrom had been in the New Child, if only as a baby in arms or sporting in a fishtank. Myriad, though, she had to be a later acquisition, whatever her eyes said.
It was embarrassing, to be honest. In the months he’d been trying to figure all of this stuff out, he’d taken to pretending to talk to them from time to time, just to bounce his frustrations somewhere other than inside of his own head. And sometimes to fight lava-pirates.
Adam was rapidly coming to prefer the ones in his head.
“… Lemonade?” he tried.
Fine. If his mum and dad were going to banish him outside with his imaginary friends while they chatted with the book people, he was at least going to sate some curiosity. “Are you two brother and sister?”
“No!” the pair both shouted at him, though Adam thought he heard something… else in the boy’s voice.
“Cousins? It’s just—the eyes. Yeah.”
Maelstrom folded his arms, scowling. “She’s a power-snatcher. She’s just using mine.”
“Power copier,” Myriad clarified sourly. “And I’m actually using his mother’s. She’s much better.”
“Right…” He sat there between them for a few more seconds, trying unsuccessfully not to fidget. “Did I do something wrong?”
Myriad simply huffed at that, but after a moment, Maelstrom let out a sigh.
“… No. Sorry. It’s Adam, right? Nice to meet you.” The smaller boy held out a hand, and Adam shook it, confused. “We’re not mad at you, I’m mad at her.”
“Why are you mad at her?” Adam asked.
“Cuz he’s a weenie,” Myriad huffed again. “A mean weenie who doesn’t listen.”
“Because she made things confusing,” Maelstrom answered softly, not looking at her. “And it hurt.”
“Did not!” Myriad retorted, her voice rising.
“Yeah, Allison,” he whispered. “Yeah, you did.”
Huh, so she did have a proper name.
Adam gazed between the silent pair for a long moment, then shook his head. Honestly, little kids were pretty stupid. It was times like these when he was thankful for all the life experience he held over their ilk.
“Was she trying to hurt you?” he asked.
Maelstrom didn’t reply at once, preferring instead to drop his eyes to the ground, scrapped clear of grass by a thousand sharp stops.
“Have you asked?”
“Well, maybe you should.”
“I wasn’t trying—”
Adam put a hand over the girl’s mouth. “You, shush.” He could feel spittle on his palm from the girl’s muffled sputtering. Who knew the girl Lawrence felt worth presenting to the whole nation could be such a brat.
Looking to Maelstrom, he said “Now, ask her if she was trying to hurt you.”
Maelstrom took a deep breath. “Were you trying to hurt me, Myriad?”
Adam nodded at Myriad, removing his hand from from her mouth. Frowning, she answered, “No, I wasn’t. I just thought it was weird that—”
“You promised not to talk about it!”
“And I haven’t! Why are you so mad at me when I’m doing what you—”
A hand over both their mouths, this time. Adam noted that Maelstrom protested far less. “Just—just don’t try explaining anything or complaining. Not while I’m stuck out here with you.” Bloody little kids—they hadn’t even done any tricks yet and he was already having to play mediator between the two. He looked right into Myriad’s copycat eyes. “Now, just say you’re sorry.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. If Adam had any brothers and sisters, he would have known what was about to happen.
A sharp, crushing pain, and Adam jerked his his hand away. “Ow!”
Myriad lunged at Maelstrom, pulling him down into the dried mud and whaling on him over and over.
For a moment, David just lay there and took the blows. What else was he going to do? Hit Allie?
Then, he realized: Allie was hitting him.
Allison was hitting him.
Maelstrom screamed, managing to tumble on top of his friend and start clawing her face. Not that his advantage lasted long. He had never used his bare, human strength against another child, while Myriad fought with the ferocity of a dozen primary school bullies, poured into one bioengineered body.
Adam hovered around the scuffle like they were a pair of tussling cats, all sharp ends ready to close tight around any interloper. He wondered if he had stumbled onto something… tender.
Myriad was shouting now, a handful of Maelstrom’s hair in her fist. “Why. Are. You. Such. A. Wimp?”
The girl had her mouth open, ready to lash out some more, but Maelstrom’s fist caught her in the stomach, and whatever she’d been about to say was lost in a high pitched wheeze as the air was forced hard out of her lungs.
“I’m not!” he shouted. “I’m just nice!”
“And I’m not?”
“Grrh!” Another body-slam. Maelstrom swallowed a mouthful of dirt. He wondered if this was what being Veltha was like.
Adam was dimly aware of the rasp of a screen door sliding open somewhere far away.
“I know it might be hard to believe, Mrs. Sinclair, but our Alberto…” Lawrence’s reassurances trailed off as he saw the ball of violence his favourite students had become.
“Children!” he barked, running over to the children to try and pry them apart like hateful magnets. “Stop this at once!”
The two ignored him, twisting in his arms as they scratched and kicked at each other. Lawrence could only be grateful they weren’t using their powers.
Like wolves fighting with their claws sheathed.
The old man looked plaintively at Tiresias, still standing in the doorway a few paces behind the gawking Sinclairs.
“Help,” he mouthed, garnering only a wry grin from the psychic.
“Sure, Bertie. I’ll get riiiiight on that.”
Myriad was still screaming at her friend, “Why do you let people make you feel like this?”
Melusine barged past Tiresias and strode towards the scene, sending a flurry of panic through Lawrence. He had seen what she did to those who wronged her son. Even Alberto looked concerned.
Those concerns, as things turned out, were unfounded.
Françoise strode between the two like a ship through the seas, the children parting like waves crashing harmlessly off her hull. With a move Adam could not quite find the words to describe, she placed a hand on each of the fighting children’s heads and pulled them apart, tangled limbs and all. Adam couldn’t quite fathom how she did it, only that she had.1 Then, she sat down between them.
“Now, Allison,” she said, “why are you and my droplet fighting?”
Allison didn’t seem quite able to look at the older woman in that moment, instead staring determinedly at her feet.
“… Cuz he’s a doop.”
“Am not!” David shot back past his mother. “You’re a meanie, and a bad-truth teller, and a-a… a bad friend!”
Adam watched, confused, as both Allison and the adults from the Institute stared at the little boy like he’d grown a new set of ears.
“… Did the kid just grow a spine?” Alberto asked, one eyebrow raised.
Françoise held up a hand towards Alberto, palm flat, and he wisely shut his mouth.
“Now, David,” she asked her son, either not noticing or ignoring Lawrence’s frown, “do you think Allison’s the kind of person who hurts people just because she wants to?”
Adam glanced at Allison, expecting her to object. She didn’t. She was still staring at her feet, her lip beginning to quiver.
“Well,” Fran replied, ruffling the boy’s hair. “I think we both know you’re a kind enough boy to forgive someone when they hurt you. Aren’t you?”
“… It was a lot of hurt.”
“Then I’m proud of you for standing up to her. But I want you both to remember that you’re still friends. I’ve seen you cuddling.”
The only reason Allison didn’t blush was that her face was already flushed from the fight.
“Do either of you want to lose that?”
Both children belatedly shook their heads.
“Good. Then you can talk this over with each other later. If you need a grown up to help you talk about it, then come see me. But right now, I’d like you both to give each other a hug, because you care about each other, and that’s what matters. Okay?”
After a few tense moments, Allison pushed herself up onto her feet, and shambled awkwardly across to her friend. Adam watched the two embrace, one eyebrow raising as David tried to stifle a sniffle. He shook his head. Kids were weird.
Once the blood and grime was rinsed off the children’s faces, and they’d been settled on the Sinclairs’ overstuffed lounge room sofa, Lawrence launched off into a tirade. Mrs Sinclair didn’t much see the point of it, after the Frenchwoman’s intercession, but she recognised the pattern well. How many times had she sorted out some misdeed of Adam’s, only to mention it to his father after he’d come home from work, and have him storm in and open up the whole wound anew.
David and Allison just sat there in their soiled Sunday best, one of Françoise’s arms over each of them, and let the old man’s words wash over them. Occasionally they’d flinch, like they’d been spat at by burning grease.
Adam, meanwhile, feeling that painful super-visibility of any child watching another be reprimanded, silently made note of every line he’d read in Lawrence’s book.
“You can’t afford to let yourselves succumb to this kind of pettiness. A human child who loses their temper might just strike their friend, but you…”
“…You need to set an example…”
Too many to count.
“…And in front of strangers, too!”
Well, that was just universal, wasn’t it?
Mid-lecture, Lawrence turned away from the children to address Mr and Mrs Sinclair. “I swear, they aren’t usually so churlish.” Like a lot of proud guardians of gifted children, Dr. Lawrence seemed to expend a lot of words on insisting that their behaviour wasn’t typical of them.
Mr. Sinclair nodded awkwardly. “It’s alright, Doctor, really. I’m sure they’ve had a long drive.” A faint, pained smile. “We all know what children can be like on boring trips.”
Lawrence’s jaw grew tight, and his back very straight. He was no father, but he was close enough to one to recognise the taste of that silent, politeness-shrouded, and possibly imaginary judgment. “Please don’t try to defend them, Mr. Sinclair. They need to be better than other children, for all our sakes.”
Mrs Sinclair waved a hand, as though trying to disperse the argument like smoke. “We understand, Doctor Lawrence. But surely you came here to talk about our son, not your students?”
Lawrence collected himself: he was letting things get off track. “Yes, of course. My apologies.” He lowered himself onto one of the kitchen chairs that had been dragged out into the sitting area. “So, you say your son has not displayed any sign of extra normal ability since…”
“January,” Adam’s mother admitted.
Lawrence nodded thoughtfully. “But he did perform a superhuman feat in that time, correct?”
A reluctant nod, from both of Adam’s parents. He was starting to dislike being talked about like he wasn’t there.
“Could you tell us about the circumstances behind this manifestation?”
“It’s not something we try to think about, honestly,” Ernest said.
Alberto leaned forward in his chair, pointing between the two elder Sinclairs. “It was Boans, wasn’t it?” he said, his tone barely allowing any ambiguity. “Your kid was the one that killed that Fey of Femurs woman from the Coven.”
You could almost hear the dust drifting through the air. Allison and David both looked at Adam like he was somewhere between god and devil. And yet everyone else in the room seemed to be trying not to look at him, even as he felt more watched than ever.
Jenny Sinclair cast her eyes down towards the carpet. “He didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And it was the only way he could save me.”
Lawrence stood and moved to the woman’s side, resting a gloved hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone here is doubting that, my girl,” he said. “The death of that girl was tragic, as any death is. But this one, I think, was chiefly a tragedy of her own making.” The old Oxfordian glanced over to Adam. “You wouldn’t be the first new human child to take a life in the early days of their powers, Adam, and far from the least justified in doing so.”
That was not in the book. Prose hangs around long enough for the author to think it through. Adam sighed. “It doesn’t matter, Doctor Lawrence. The power went away right after. I haven’t done or felt anything like it in months. I’m not like those two,” he said, pointing to the Institute children still gawking at him.
“But you have to be,” Allison piped up. “Your song doesn’t sound human.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “My song?”
Lawrence opened his mouth—
“People make music only our Allison can hear, and it lets her learn things from them. Supers sound very interesting to her,” Fran explained. “Sorry, Laurie, but you would’ve just confused them more.”
“Well, what does my song sound like?”
The girl wrinkled her nose, tilting her head. “…Cludgy? Like whoever wrote it wanted to include all the instruments they knew? Spanish guitar, harmonica—it’s a mess, sorry.”
So I’m a crap super. Great. “But my powers still went away. Maybe the song is like an appendix scar?”
Lawrence scratched his beard. “Perhaps it’s psychosomatic? I’ve heard cases of musicians and writers ‘losing their talent’ after traumatic events.”
Alberto stood up. “May I try something, Lawrence?”
The doctor looked surprised. “I don’t see why not, Alberto.” Quickly, he added, “If young Adam’s parents will permit it, of course.”
The boy in question looked at his parents, not sure what his eyes were asking them.
Jenny’s gaze narrowed on the young man like iron-sights. “You’re not going to hurt him, are you?”
Adam hadn’t even considered that possibility.
Alberto grinned. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” He pulled a tiny clay bird out from his pocket, setting it down on the coffee table.
Does he just walk around with that in his pocket?
“Burn it,” the man ordered.
Adam looked at the bird, then back at its owner, frowning. “I just told you all my powers went away.”
“Yeah, you’re lying,” Alberto replied casually. “Stop malingering, kid, and just blow up the damn bird.”
Ernest sputtered. “Don’t you go calling my son a liar—”
Adam’s father was cut off by the esper throwing up a hand, still looking at his son. “I know he is.”
He strode towards the child, his feet devouring the space between them till they were close enough for him to jab his thumb into the Adam’s forehead. From there, Tiresias traced a pattern across the boy’s face, ignoring his squirming. “I can see it—under his skin…” He manually extended his captive’s arm outward, prying his hand open like a schoolboy trying to steal a smaller kid’s canteen change.
Adam tried to pull his arm back, but there was strength in those long, pale fingers. “I said I can’t!”
“Oh, come on,” the psychic growled in his ear. “You’ll bore a hole through a girl, but won’t even cremate a bloody clay bird? The hell is wrong with you?”
“Not won’t, can’t,” Adam half-whined. Why weren’t his parents making the weirdo lay off him? Even Dr. Lawrence looked more worried.
“You know what I think? I think you can do whatever it is you do whenever you damn well please. You’re just a coward.”
Tears started stinging Adam’s eyes. “Am not!”
Hot breath in his ear, alcoholic fumes forcing their way up his nose and bringing more tears with them. “Are too,” Tiresias hissed. “All that moaning in your head.” He launched into a childish falsetto. “Why didn’t the Flying Man save Peter? Why’d that bloody giant give him powers if that’s all he got out of it”
“You read Bertie’s book, kid. How do I think I knew that? But that was a good question, but you know what’s an even better one? Why couldn’t you have saved Peter?”
“I was asleep when they got him!”
“Wouldn’t have mattered if you weren’t. Because you’re afraid of rising up above the dross, aren’t you? Keep your head low and the freak-finders won’t bother ya, won’t they?” A crooked grin. “You’d have just stood there and watched them crack open that poor boy’s skull—”
“No!” The boy exploded out of his arms, sending the man into the wall like he had air for insides. “I would’ve done something!”
Adam felt it before he even realised what he’d done. Like his fingers were pressed against summer-warm glass. He looked down at his hands. A sun in each, like a binary star system.
It was Alberto groaning, slumped at the foot of the wall like an abandoned coat, that brought the child back to the present. The suns winked back out.
“Oh. I’m sorry—sorry—”
The light changed. The whole room smelled the way clouds ought to feel. Even the pull of gravity felt like a friend. Fran, David and Allison shuddered as one, even as the children’s cuts and bruises mended themselves. Adam’s parents both sighed like they were breathing in a bouquet. Lawrence appeared to be in awe.
Alberto stood back up, smiling and cracking his neck, blood pouring from fresh wounds that were already beginning to close. “Christ, I feel like I’ve got the liver of a ten year old.”
The Sinclairs both frowned at him.
“Oh, lighten up.” He moved over to Adam, clasping a hand over his shoulder. “Sorry about all that, kid. Thought I needed to angry up the blood a bit.” He pointed at Lawrence. “See that old fart? His folks paid hundreds and hundreds of pounds for some eggheads to work him over into a psychiatrist, and he couldn’t have gotten that out of you in fifty sessions!”
Lawrence ignored the insult, turning to the Sinclairs. “So, shall we discuss enrolment?”
“… What?” Asked Ernest. “After a stunt like that? Are you f-” Alberto glanced sidelong at him, and the sentence seemed to fizzle out in his throat like a dying sparkler.
“There some kind of problem?” Tiresias asked, the corners of his lips tugging upwards in a small smile.
The Sinclairs seemed to struggle for words for a moment, Ernest shifting just a little in his seat, before:
“… No.” Jenny replied. “No problem. How soon can you take him?”
“…What are you doing to them?” Adam asked, the fear rising painfully in his gut. “Let them go. I swear. You stop it right now-” Alberto glanced at him, and he crumpled to the floor, fast asleep.
Alberto let his eyes wander around the room. David and Allison both staring at him, the girl accusing, the boy terrified. He looked at Lawrence, glaring disapprovingly at him, and at Mel, her head resting on her son’s shoulder. Always start with Mel.
Myriad opened her mouth to speak, but Tiresias wasn’t in a mood to humor her. Both children lay back in the couch, dead to the world.
Ernest jumped out of his seat, probably to fetch his gun or the like, but instead just fell forward onto the shag carpeting, his wife soon following.
“I wanted to at least try talking it through with them,” Lawrence growled. “It’s called common courtesy, Tiresias.”
“You did try talking to them,” he replied. “You did it badly, and I got bored. We’re just lucky the Sinclairs were polite enough to shake my hand. For their reward, they all get to remember something better happening instead. I’m sure Elsewhere’s folks would be happier if I had just done that when they all rolled up.”
Lawrence narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t something we should rely on.”
Alberto’s eyes flared. “Let me make one thing clear, old man—I’ve been pulling you out of the fire since the day we met. ” He poked at Adam’s father with his dress shoe. “While you reflect on that, I’ll be checking The Importance of Being Earnest over here’s beer fridge.”
As the psychic headed for the back door, Lawrence surveyed the sleepers in the lounge room. He didn’t think he had seen Myriad and Maelstrom so peaceful since AU’s return.
He just hoped the memory Tiresias wrote for them wasn’t too ridiculous.
1. The Complete Child Separation maneuver (CCS) is an ancient parenting trick passed down between mothers since the dawn of time.↩