The Ones You Love

Continuity: Okay, Iím sorry if the Jackson King reference screws this up. Otherwise Iíve got very little idea where this belongs save before Coup Díetat. Why donít you tell me?

It would only happen on my day off, well theoretically my day off. Itís not as if they really exist amongst capes, in the biggest pyjama party in creation, even if youíre wearing your underpants inside your trousers, youíre not off work. The key is potentiality. Even if youíre not wearing a mask you are one. A call could go out at every time, screaming over radio-telepathy, burn-your-brain loud. Alien cod soldiers and thing from the nth dimension do not take days off. Ergo, capes and masks donít either.

Unless youíre a little shit-for-brains, who goes out, marries a pop star who more closely resembles a two cent hooker, turns off the bug in his head and tunes out with the aid of what he sincerely hopes is heroin. Having seen enough drug pushers, in what a politician would call our ďwilderness yearsĒ and what Apollo would term our ďeating pizza out of trashcans, fighting and fucking yearsĒ, I know itís never quite heroin. They cut it with cat worming tablets and oven cleaner and anything else they can get their little two-bit gangster hands on. The CIA boys are worst for that, anything to make the budget go farther and ensure that the unemployment figures stay low. So, I should just be happy that Jenny isnít going to catch worms off the Doctor and that heís nice and shiny clean inside, or at least cleaner than his outside.

As I said, potentiality is the key, even standing here feeling half naked without my mask and with a new haircut. Blonde, short, very military, very me; Apolloís going to love it, love brushing his hands across it, love holding his head in his hands as he leans in to kiss me.

Apolloís not here, Iím doing this solo, and unless I want things to get embarrassing fast, not to mention attracting a lot of attention I donít really want, Iím going to stop thinking about him right now.

Iím not spending this time out on the town, living the life of Riley, Ďcourse if I tried, it would not really have much charm, as alcohol just tastes pretty now, and looks pretty too, if youíre downing Sea Breezes and Margaritas. So you expect me to drink moonshine whisky and smoke cigars? Iím not that kind of tough guy. For starters, Iím not a tough guy, Iím a bastard. Sure, the opposition are bastards, but who bastards the bastards, to quote a little Latin. I was made to be unstoppable, Iím immune to poison, and when you get down to it, thatís your little drink after work with the boys. Poison. Or anaesthetic, and Iím immune to that as well.

Sure, I can remember getting drunk, half remember anyway, a throat burning with tequila as the gang cheer me on, the blond oneís loudest. A name swims past, Straight John? Heís all Americaís Sweethearts, too tall and skinny to make a footballer, but great for a soldier. Looks like he stepped out of a recruitment poster, until he turns at least, and I see the scar running down the side of his face, just missing those true-blue eyes. He should reek of apple pie, instead he reeks of stale pizza and liquor. Itís odd, remembering him, yet seeing him for the first time. Part of me wonders if heíd recognise me now, or whether heíd just see me for the first time, just like Iím seeing him.

Theyíre all chanting my name, a blank sound Iíve almost got used to, and various shouts of encouragement or derision. Another glass is pressed into my hand, another shot and the noise just got louder, and a lemon in the other. I look down for the salt, itís where itís been for the past eights shots, on a tanned chest, looking more like glitter than salt. He looks up at me, white blond hair, sun kissed, getting into his face, itís not exactly long, but those bangs sure are not military issue, no GI-Joe this one, and a half-familiar hand sweeps up to push it out of his blue eyes.

And everything stops.

I know those eyes better than I do my own, that searing coruscating blue, flecked with gold now, but still the most beautiful Iíve ever seen. What I really recognise, though, is the smile, that sunlight smile.

And Iím back here again, desperately wanting to go back, but stuck here, in this corridor smelling of piss and stale air, looking desperately for a door back into the past. Heís always going to be my undoing, seeing him was such a surprise; you have to realise that I donít get surprises anymore; the computer your tax dollars paid for, nestling away in my head, answers for that; and then Iím not moving with the flow, following the current of memory, but Iíve stopped and the waterís turned to ice, glass and fractured.

What the fuck was Apollo doing with a bunch of soldiers? Then again, do I really want to know? I know soldiers, squaddies, commandoes, and spies; I know people like me, and I now that a lot of things get written up as ďstress reliefĒ, and he was the only guy who wasnít like me there, and he was letting some paid killer lick salt off his neatly waxed chest. Apollo doesnít wax his chest, itís hairier than mine, silver hairs against milk white skin; no hair then, just tanned skin, clearly still a sun-worshipper. I really donít want to think about it, my vague memories of the self-dubbed Gay Team (except for Straight John, of course) pretty much scream the obvious at me, and they donít sound pretty.

Of course, Iím not going to tell Apollo. What would I tell him? I remember my past, and you remember nothing, and in my past you were at best a complete and utter slut, whoíd play games with eight soldiers of no virtue whatsoever, and at worst a rent boy, whoíd play games with eight soldiers of no virtue whatsoever for pocket money.

It could just be my subconscious, but I doubt it.

That could only happen to me, or possibly any other poor fuck who got the Henry Bendix mindwipe treatment, with a spa massage and battle computer thrown in as handy extras. So I go back about my semi-legal business. Iím not stupid, I know we need boltholes in case thereís anyone scarier than us, let sunshine boy handle the house in California that heís been bending my ear back about and would so light up his life. Iím just getting boltholes and a lot of them. This oneís a low-rent no class apartment in Twoblondes, Arizona. Itís cash in hand, briefly, then cash in pocket, and cash walking down the street. Unmarked bills, of course. An illegal sub-let definitely. Safe? Possibly.

But letís have a hundred or two to play on the safe side, and donít ask where I get the unmarked bills from, and donít be stupid enough to ask why I donít just ďdoorĒ here. I did not catch two trains and a greyhound to get here, just to be confronted with stupidity. Remember, kids, stupidity can often prove fatal. In many deeply interesting and painful ways; be stupid and your Uncle Midnighter will show you.

So, I walking down the corridor, business done, lease of one luxury apartment with wall-to-wall running cockroaches secured. Of course, Apollo and I barely need it, we did fine bedding down in doorways for years, we donít need to eat, we donít need to sleep. All we did was try to avoid getting bored, and in some small way make a finer world. Jennyís the problem. She eats and sleeps on a regular basis, not because sheís chosen to, as it were, and she needs somewhere that is at least halfway warm and dry.

So corridor, yellow, paint probably lead based, as per spectrum analysis, so the landlord clearly doesnít do much maintenance, all good. No kids running round in corridor, also good. Nothing left in corridors except the occasional bullet hole, not good except that it proves that these people want to keep themselves to themselves, or at least those people not full of bullet holes for snitching on the local dealer. Risk assessment: minimal.

Loud banging noise behind the door where the shadows from numbers long-gone say twenty-nine, interesting. Female screaming and repeated banging noises. I donít need my computer on this one, there are only really two likely scenarios, itís either a heady S and M session, or thereís some wife/girlfriend/random female battering going on. And my money isnít on the first choice, whips and stuff cost money, and there isnít much of it Ďround here except in the pockets of the wannabe property mogul who rented me my nice new piece of shit apartment, with charming views over the electricity substation.

Like I said, youíre always wearing a mask, a cape, funky underpants that you just have to share with the world; even when youíre not. I could just walk by and let another asshole drive his girl to drink, or ER, or an early grave. Except Iím The Midnighter, and Iím the guy who monsters are afraid of.

Iím just going to keep Nightís Bringer Of War thing quiet, and be that nice Paul Wilder, a bunch of guys in Haight remember buying groceries, that nice Paul Wilder that the old new Weatherman cooked up for me. As such, as a secret identity itís pretty compromised, but itís good enough when youíre being asked questions by the local police. A nice ex-civil servant with the UN, taken early retirement, because, as you know it pays a bucket, which is why Christine and Jackson are cooped up in a little office at the top of the UN building, drinking bad coffee and typing up reports, when they could be soaking up the sun in their idyllic Caribbean villa.

So like the nice civil servant I am, I kick the door in with my nice sneakers. The hinges are cheap and give up too easy, but the door still swings in, hanging from all the locks on the other side. Security, good, I like people who take responsibility for their own security. What I do not like, are people who think itís alright, commendable even, to kick their significant other in the face.

Sheís looking at me, unsure whether Iím the second coming, or I want in on the hot wife beating action. Thereís a drop of blood, ruby red, hanging from her lip like a pendant. There are bruises on her face, theyíre light, greenish, like grass stains. It looks like she thinks that this is a fact of life; you meet a man, you set up home, he beats the shit out of you because the dinnerís cold. And sheís looking at me, with an expression thatís part fear, part martyr, and part ďI donít want anyone to see me like thisĒ.

And itís like looking into a mirror, a very old, slightly tarnished mirror. Itís brushing away the cobwebs and making me look, and this, this wasnít something Bendix wanted to wipe away, not at all. Hell, no; he put it there. Heís in there, in there among the ghosts, among the dead people. This oneís different, not so far away, not like watching some old home movie. In this one Iím there, trapped in the moment like a fly trapped in amber.

Maybe itís just because Iím not used to this, still adjusting to having an extra brain, ticking off probabilities in my ear; but I really canít predict the Weatherman, I canít. I can predict Lamplightís pomposity; can predict what he pulls out of that lamp of his, without breaking a sweat. I can even predict the colour of Crow Janeís nail polish.

But I canít predict Henry Bendix, not in the least, and that frightens me. Iím not meant to fear anymore, Iím meant to be fear, Iím meant to make fucking armies piss their pants at the mention of me. I am not meant to be afraid of our boss. I am not meant to be afraid of this wonderfully stalwart man who defends the Earth without question from all threats.

But I am. And right now I am very afraid indeed.

We all know the rules, ďFraternisation amongst Stormwatch officers is an offence and ultimately punishable by death.Ē The Weatherman really is all heart. I know why the ruleís there, I know from experience, Iím probably the only guy on this team who can know from experience. Iím the only one with any left, and I know thatís not because the doctors had a moment of oversight, itís because Iím the only one with experience pertinent to my new role, my new life. I mean flying powered by the rays of the sun, no one has experience of that; ditto using a mystical lamp to create helpful phantasms; ditto running at twice the speed of sound; ditto everything.

Part of me wonders, maybe Stalker has some memories, some memories at all, since if heís half alien, heíd have always looked like that, right? I want to ask him, but I canít, I canít do it and be wrong, I canít let the others know I still have memories, that I still have some traces, however small, of a past. I canít. It wonít be right, it wonít be fair, it will be for the team. The only person who knows, besides the Weatherman, and heís the guy giving the orders, is Apollo.

The rest of me, the larger part, the part that was desperately trying to get the computer to actually peg on Bendix, is hoping that none of the team have squealed. That the temptation of replacing the two favourite children isnít enough to make them do it. I think they know weíre doing it, breaking the rules, putting the whole operation in jeopardy before we even start. Fuck, I should put myself on charges, being the good soldier and all. Scratch the good. From what I remember, those vague and frustrating snatches of memory, I was never good. Except in taking orders. Killing civilians isnít good, killing children even less so, sneaking in some countryís borders and carrying out terrorist acts that somebody else is going to carry the can for really isnít. Maybe thatís why I gave myself to Stormwatch, gave my body to the Weathermanís labs, gave myself over and hoped they would wash away my sins. Only to find that they didnít. I was too useful with them intact. Something about that gives me doubts about the Weatherman, but only for a moment.

What if he knows? What if heís found out? What if heís found out about me and Apollo? What if Iím not just due a dressing-down for screwing up on exercises? No, Iím not normally such a worrier, warrior yes, worrier no; but Iíve given him enough grounds for suspicion today, more than enough, especially if a little birdís already been whispering in his ear, especially if he already suspects.

I was too busy covering Apolloís back today, let the mission objectives go to hell, and pushed him away from danger, pushed him out of the path of the machine guns. I shouldnít have turned back, should have stuck with the plan. But I prefer my lover not with more holes than a swiss cheese. Iíll have to admit, that theyíre realistic for war games. Sure, I expect the bullets, itís not like the Weatherman to mollycoddle us, but the dedication of the guys on the ground, youíd almost think we were on a real retrieval mission. And something about that sets off alarm bells too.

How can I think with this going in my head, I think Iíve almost got a whole belfry of campanologists (I half remember a very good education, or at least the sense of one) in there, ringing away. Just when I need to think clearly, have a good reason ready. And I do. I think.

Sure enough, heís angry in that cold dangerous way of his. When asked what the fuck I thought I was doing, I already have my answer, Iím just hoping he doesnít know military bullshit when he hears it, ďSorry, sir! Thought the rest of the team could handle it, sir! Thought that keeping the team leader intact was important to mission success and team morale!Ē

It seems to have worked, or maybe it hasnít. Heís beckoning Apollo over from the rest of the team, and I almost piss my pants in relief when he turns and says nice as pie (or at least as nice as he gets), ďApollo, youíre the leader of this team, your role is to guide and discipline your men. Do it.Ē Thatís not too bad, but he doesnít stop, he just pauses, and that isnít good, ďBeat him. Hard. He wonít resist you, youíre his leader, he doesnít want you hurt or killed. He wonít resist you, because Iím ordering him not to,Ē and then a small smile breaks out on his face, ďand I so want to see whether those new exotic carbon fibres Iíve had put into him do their job under stress.Ē

Fuck, itís a test. Maybe. Or maybe heís just fucking with us.

And Apolloís hesitating. Fuck. Apollo, snap out of it, or heís going to twig and then Iíll be facing something more than a couple of bruises. Heís still doing it, looking at the Weatherman like heís grown a third head. So I do the only thing I can do, ďApollo, youíre the team leader here; you have to follow orders as much as the rest of us. And I wasnít, I screwed up and deserve whatís coming to me.Ē Hopefully it will shake him out of his funk, and I kneel ready, following Bendixís little gesture.

Harder, harder is the only thing I can think as Apolloís fists rain into me, harder. Harder so the Weatherman doesnít suspect, harder so the Weatherman is happy, harder so I can lose myself in the blows and go to some distant place in my mind. But I canít. The computer tells me about every blow, pulls me back to reality, all those anti-interrogation techniques I remember so clearly are useless deadweight. So I try to do the next best thing, and try to turn every punch every kick I rock under as my ribs begin to bruise and my shoulder dislocates into a loving caress from those beautiful hands. Only that doesnít work either, and thereís blood upon my lips, he hasnít really aimed above the neck, so thatís very bad news indeed.

Only when Bendix gives the word does he stop. And Iím thankful. We put up a good show, I think heís satisfied. Iím satisfied. Iím sure enough that we havenít given ourselves away. Certain enough. He orders the rest away, Apolloís caught on and doesnít look back. Why does that hurt so much? So much more than the pain, the computerís already telling me whatís wrong, as if I donít fucking well know already, telling me in calm tones of broken bones and bleeding membranes. Broken bones, Christ, Apolloís stronger than I thought. He must be forever holding back on me in the gym.

Iíve got other things to worry about right now. Bendix has taken my chin in his hand, is guiding my face up to look at him, and heís doing it so very gently, like the caress I so long for from Apolloís hands. Only this feels wrong. And I feel sick.

ďYou did well, my child, so very well. Iím proud of you, very proudĒ

I can hear the blood in my chest as I reply, ďArenít we all your children, sir?Ē

ďAre but youíre particularly special, particularly dear to me, but I suppose youíll never understand,Ē fuck, whatís got into him, why has he turned from disciplinarian hard case into elderly grandma, I clearly look bemused enough, ďyes, well, youíre never going to understand not really, but with you I have to be sure of my handiwork, be sure that my favourite boy doesnít come to harm.Ē

Did I mention how Apollo and I were favourites of his, earlier, how some of the others were jealous, and I thought theyíd sell us out for a moment in his esteem? Well, they wouldnít if theyíd ever seen him like this, Iím creeped-out, actually Iím fucking terrified. Iím The Midnighter now. I shouldnít be terrified, I should be terror. But right now, I so want him to stop, to take his hand off me, to go away.

ďI have to be certain, I have to be certain that youíre safe. That your capabilities are indeed as they should be. Have you got any broken bones?Ē

The last bit comes as an afterthought, and I nod desperately into his hand, not trusting my voice as he says, ďMy boy, my poor, poor boy. I shall be having words with the engineers, you know,Ē like theyíre neighbours who let their dog chase the cat, and then he gets brisker, ďbut, we might as well test everything right now, I donít think theyíre going to strengthen those bones until the damageís repaired itself, and we might as well kill two birds with one stoneÖĒ

Heís fast, faster than any human should be, and Iím slow, too much pain is dulling my senses. And thereís a needle in my arm. I didnít notice it go in, but then I feel pain differently now. Everythingís feeling woozy, it shouldnít. ďÖI might as well test all the new systems. Canít have you falling prey to biological weaponry, can we, not sure why anyone hasnít found a way to use this little upstart virus yet. I suppose the human immunodeficiency virus isnít fast enough for them, and they lack the creativity to make a version that starts active like this one. I have to say Iím surprised, but it can only be a matter of time, canít it, son, and I donít want you going out into the world unprepared.Ē

Theyíre still staring at me, like a still life. ďBastard Beats Up His GirlĒ by Rembrandt or maybe Picasso. Heíll look like a freaking Picasso once Iím through with him. ExceptÖ except that wonít help at all. Hurt him too much and sheíll pity him, let him back in when he pounds on the door, after his bastard friends have put up bail for him, let him talk her out of pressing charges with his fists. Best she can get out that scenario is maybe the guy gives her a bit more pocket money for make-up to hide the bruises better.

Itís only a matter of seconds to get the bastard du jour down for the count, and heís sleeping, or close enough, on the cigarette burn covered couch, while I have a word with the girl, of the ďDonít make me regret this by not pressing charges against himĒ kind. Her name is Marie, she has three kids by three different bastards; Jorge, Jason and Fifi. Every time they left her, every time she thought it was her fault, that if she had sonly been quieter and more compliant, they would have stayed.

I want to bash their freaking teeth in, and rip their dicks off, and stuff them in their mouths. Iím not sure where to stuff the teeth yet. But Iíll think of somewhere. I let the computer run that scenario, keep me nice and happy, and talk to her like the nice retired civil servant I am, while my fists are covered in his blood, and I break his nose for the sixth time, and kick him so hard in the crotch that his balls come out his ears. She talks about her kids, and I talk about my little girl, as we sit on the coffee table and wait for the cops.

Yeah, I made sure she called. Itís not that I donít trust her, okay, actually it is, but I donít trust anyone, not even myself. Except Apollo, possibly, and then all I can trust him to do is love me. Like she trusted them? I hope not. I really hope not.

I still donít now why this pulled that memory out of the hat. Apollo isnít like him, could never be like him, would never hurt me just becauseÖ I know now, what I knew then; Apollo could never hurt me, not from cruelty, but maybe from love, and I hope to hell, that he would if it could bring about the finer world that I so dream of. In so far as I ever dream. That one dream that led us to cast away our lives, our families, our homes. For nothing but masks and a finer, more perfect, more equal world.

When the cops have turned up at last, I was already ready for the question. I already knew it would come. I just waited for it like the nice, polite civil servant that I am, made the right noises talking to the cop, Officer Martinez J, blue eyes and dark hair, clearly nervous. I suppose Iíd be nervous if I met a man, whoíd kicked in a door armed only with his converses and knocked a guy unconscious with pin-point accuracy, and I was armed only with a gun, some pepper spray and some totally inadequate gun training. So I played nice. So the scumbag boyfriend would get to learn about sexual assault courtesy of the Arizona prison system. So Maria would learn that not every man behaves like a caveman.

Iím ready for the question. And when it comes, I already have the answer lined up in my brain, Paul Wilder from California, just passing through town, on my way to Mexico the long way. I have it all lined up, for when it comes. And it does, ďCan I have your name please, sir?Ē and I have it all lined up, but my mouth isnít reading from the same song sheet, and it opens up of its own accord.

And it says, ďBendix, Simon Bendix.Ē

Fuck.

Who else would Bendix have trusted to put in his little secret army, than his own son. His memories long gone, but still the perfect sleeper agent. Who else would he have made the most dangerous man on earth? The only person he thought he could trust absolutely, right up to the moment he found that he couldnít, the moment he found that his favourite child had other interests than serving a guy who was clearly a nutso sadist, and had always doubted everyone save the man he loved.

Fuck. I canít tell Apollo this either. Sometimes I wish I could be the man he is so much it hurts.

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