Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Damson Christmas

Liberty’s been hassling me again to talk to someone. I got a little rough when we arrested a supe criminal today. I've been pushing the edges of the “excessive force” laws a lot lately. Writing in here seemed to help let some of the stuff in my brain out, so I guess I should keep going.  I left off just before I confronted Tamara.

While I watched from behind a 2-way mirror, Jack gave Tamara a quick, delighted kiss on the cheek after the massive, swing off the feet hug. She blushed as he left, still grinning with happiness.

Tamara turned her back to the mirror as she stretched to get a CD of old Christmas music off a high shelf.
I wiped the tears out of my eyes, pasted on a smile and opened the mirror. I reached over her head for the CD just as she was looking around for a chair to drag over and stand on.

“Whoah, didn’t see you there!” Tamara chuckled. “You enjoy those secret passages way too much.”

I handed her the CD. Tam showed no sign of shame or concern that I might have seen her with Jack.

“Thanks, Dee. Being vertically challenged can be a pain,” she said, still grinning like a maniac. She was practically glowing.

I tried to smile back. “You’re sure in a good mood, Tam.”

Her grin faded a little. “And you look like someone just ran over your dog. What’s up, chica?”

“Knowing Rocky’s luck, it wouldn't surprise me.”

Tamara didn’t let me re-direct. She grabbed my hand dragged me over to a comfy little old-fashioned settee and said, “Something’s bugging you, big time. Spill.”

I had no idea what to say. “You first, and I promise I’ll follow. Tell me about the happy glowy face.”

Tamara had a dusky brown complexion as dark as mine, but still managed to pink a little on the cheeks. Her short dark hair fell forward, the blue streak touching her forehead, when she looked at the hardwood floor. “I’m sort of, in a relationship.”

“Is this recent?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“It’s someone I've known for a while, but we've just recently, …” she shrugged, with a crinkle-nosed grin. “Become more than just friends.”

I swallowed the big lump in my throat. “You seem happier than I've ever seen you.”

“I've been alone a long time,” she said. “Since before my tour.”

Tamara had been in the military, stationed in Afghanistan for four years before she became a firefighter. 

She’d been stateside for more than three years. “That’s a long time.” She was only twenty-six. She’d spent most of her adult life without anyone to love. I knew how she felt.

“It’s tough, you know, to find the right match, someone who really gets you.”

“Yeah, I know.” I blinked hard, determined not to cry. I could be an adult about this. “I’m happy for you both.”

Tamara squeezed my shoulder a little. “Thanks. Your turn now. What’s eating you?”

“I … I just … wanted you to know that, I’m happy for you, both of you. I already knew about it, and … it’s okay.”

“I got that already. But what’s bothering you?”

“That’s it. I can’t pretend you two being together like that doesn't bother me. But, I want you to be happy, so …” I shrugged and couldn't look her in the eyes. I was not going to cry. I refused to cry.

Tamara pulled away from me a little. “It didn’t occur to me that you’d have a problem with it.” She got up and put some distance between us. “I forget most of the time, that you’re a lot older than you seem. I guess I should have expected a woman in her sixties from a small town in Texas to react that way.” Her smile was wiped away.

“Hey, times haven’t changed that much.” How dare she bring my age into it. I might be older, but I’d still look twenty-three when she was covered in wrinkles. “I don’t know any woman alive who wouldn't have a problem with her best friend and her boyfriend hooking up.” The anger overwhelmed the hold I had on tears and one escaped. So much for being an adult about this. “I thought you were my friend!” I hurled at her and stormed out, slamming the door in her face as she stood there with her mouth hanging open. I had to get out before the tears got away from me completely.

Tamara chased after me. “Wait, Dee!”

I ignored her, ran blindly down the hall and slammed right into Jack.

He caught me by the shoulders before I could knock him down. “Hey, what’s wrong, partner?” Jack asked.

I snorted, and it turned into a sniffly sob. “Like I’m still your partner.”

“Huh?” Jack glanced over at Tamara, who had caught up with us. “What’s she talking about? What’s going on?”

Tamara blushed again, and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “She thinks you and I are together.”

“Together how?”

“There’s no point in trying to hide it now, dammit.” I pulled free of Jack’s grip. “I saw you in there just a minute ago.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Like I saw you hugging Mark Novak without his shirt?”

“That wasn't what it looked like. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know.” He raised both eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes. “This is pointless. Tam already told me you two are more than friends now.”

“Hang on, Dee,” Tamara said. “You totally misunderstood. It’s not Jack I’m involved with. It’s Jerica.”

“Jerica? Jerica Peters in dispatch?” I knew they were friends. Tam had been making all kinds of excuses to hang out with the shy, pretty dispatcher. “But she’s a girl.”

“I like girls,” Tamara said, with an amused smirk.

“What has that got to do with you and Jack? I've seen the way you two are together. You’re so much more touchy feely with him than with me.” What the heck did Jerica Peters have to do with anything?

Jack chuckled. “Dee, you’re being dense.”

Tamara put a hand on my arm, then pulled it back. “Look, you’re right about me acting different around you.”  She looked at her toes for a second, then back up, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “I like you, and I know you don’t swing that way, and I wouldn't do that to Jack anyhow, so …” She cleared her throat. “So I've been a little more reserved around you.”

“I don’t understand. What has that got to do with …?”

Tamara sighed and rolled her eyes a little. Then she grinned in Jack’s direction, and he nodded as if giving her permission.

Tamara went up on tiptoes and kissed me, right on the lips. “You’re a lot more my type than that pain in the rear.” She indicated Jack with a thumb.

I think I made this big OH thing with my mouth after she kissed me. I've never been kissed like that by a woman. Which was the point, clearly. It took an actual, physical kiss for me to finally get it.

Jack socked Tamara in the arm, playfully. “Hands off, princess. Try to kiss my girl again and I’ll taser you in the rear.”

Tamara shoved him back, chuckling. “You’ll try.”

I just stood there blinking for a few minutes as my world re-arranged itself in my brain. Eventually, I remembered to close my mouth. “Jerica Peters is really nice.”

The big, goofy grin that Tamara had been wearing earlier made a reappearance. “Yeah. She’s awesome. She’s going to introduce me to her family tomorrow. She’s Jewish like me, but her family has time off this time of year, so they do a big get-together on the 26th.”

“That’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you.” I really was. I’d been hoping she’d find someone special, and she finally had. And it wasn't my Jack, naturally, because she wasn't even attracted to guys. “I’m a complete idiot.”

They both laughed at me.

“We love you anyway,” Jack said, and put an arm around my shoulders.

Tamara put an arm around my waist on the other side, apparently no longer shy about touching me, and they both walked me down to dinner, poking fun at me for being so slow on the uptake. Maybe being from a tiny Texas town had affected my outlook a little. I refused to think it had anything to do with my age. I’m still a teen the way dragons count things.

Christmas dinner was spectacular. I sat between the man I loved and my best friend, and smiled until my face hurt. All around me, my friends and family laughed and ate great food.

Liberty, at the other end of the table, thankfully, hesitated a little, looking at the magnificent spread of food. She inquired if the produce was locally grown. Ma crinkled her eyes and heaped sweet potatoes with pecans on the slender heroine’s plate. “It doesn't get much more local than my garden in the courtyard.” Catherine looked relieved and ate more than I would have thought she could hold.

Brad ate enough for four people, of course. He seemed a little quieter than usual, though. He’s always polite around Ma, but he seemed especially formal that day. He kept calling Alrek “sir” and Ma “maam.”

Donovan joined us about half way through, blinking sleepily with his dark hair ruffled in the back. Even groggy from several hours of nap, he still looked better than he did that morning.

Flynn and Donovan got along like a house on fire. Flynn had been trading the occasional jibe with Tamara and looking uncomfortable with so many supes. When Donovan finally joined us, Flynn found a kindred spirit. They spent half of dinner in their own little gripe session about having to regularly deal with supe opponents without the benefit of supe abilities.

Alrek was the new face at the table. He was family, sort of, but he was also a stranger. He told some interesting tales about his travels all over South America, and a fair amount of Canada and Alaska. He waxed a little nostalgic about northern Europe. He hadn’t been back to his homeland in more than a thousand years.

Ma seemed unusually reserved with Alrek. She treated him with her impeccably polite hospitality to a guest, but she didn’t warm up to him, at least not like she did to Mark Novak.

Donovan and Jack might treat the guy like he had leprosy, but Ma, once she’d accepted the former Georgian as no longer the enemy, practically smothered Knight with love. She knew a soul desperately in need of mothering when she saw it. She put extra helpings of food on his plate, patted his arm periodically, asked him about his health, called him “dear” and gave him the first slice of pie.

Novak, the world famous Protector, accustomed to having cameras and microphones shoved in his face, still blushed at all the extra attention. He made noises like he didn’t want Ma to go out of her way for him, but it was pretty obvious that he was soaking up the affection like the desert sand soaked up rain.

I soaked it up, too. It was possibly the happiest day of my life.

And it got even better that night.

I can’t write about that night yet. That night was too perfect. Too … special. It hurts just thinking about it. Maybe I’ll manage it some time. But not today.

D Dragon

Sunday, September 8, 2013

For Friends and Family

Friends and Family

I just found my journal stuffed under my bed. I haven’t touched it in so long, almost a year now, that I had to brush a layer of dust off. What would I write in here? I eat, I sleep, I work, I train. I go through the motions. I try to act like everything’s okay, but it’s not okay. It’s never going to be okay again.

It’s funny. I read through the things that happened last year, and it’s like it happened to someone else. Someone … younger. As if one year can make such a huge difference. But it can. I didn’t realize. It can.

I started this whole journaling thing because it seemed to help. It was a way to get some of the swirling maddening thoughts and feelings trapped in my head out of my system. Catherine keeps telling me I should talk to someone. I can’t. I just can’t. But maybe I can write.

I left off right after Smoking Mirror’s goons kidnapped me. I’ll just go from there. Things were quiet for a while after that.

It was clear as glass by then that I really was the target of Austin’s new enemy. Smoking Mirror had some kind of personal grudge against me. Not my city. Me. My city was just collateral damage. I didn't know why, though. Not then.

After the kidnapping, Detective Long questioned the three prisoners with the skull tattoos.  They refused to say anything when he interrogated them, absolutely nothing, not one word, and one by one, they committed suicide as soon as they saw an opportunity. The lady who used too much lipstick was the last to die. Long had her in a padded cell in a straight jacket, and she still managed to strangle herself with her own braided hair.

Long told me to take some leave from work so the police could protect me more effectively, but I refused. 

"No way I'm going to risk losing my job again," I told him.

He rubbed his hand through his close-cropped brown hair. "Look, we're up against some kind of fanatic religious cult here. They're not going to just go away. If you don't cooperate, I might have to put you in protective custody."

"I'm a Protector, now. You can't just treat me like a helpless civilian," I told him. I even showed him the handy dandy badge Liberty gave me.

He sighed. "Technically, maybe. But you've got no powers now, and this "Smoking Mirror" knows it."

I crossed my arms. I just wasn't going to do it. I'd lost one job I loved because of superhero absences. I wasn't going to lose another one just because a bad guy MIGHT try to kidnap or kill me.

Detective Long's eyes narrowed a little. "You do realize that this guy's MO is to blow up buildings that either you're in, or that have a connection to you. Everywhere you go, you're a hazard to the people around you. What if he follows you to the firehouse?"

I swallowed. In my head, I saw a brief flash of the building where I worked suddenly reduced to a pile of rubble with the crushed bloody remnants of my friends buried inside it.

So, I took a couple weeks off. 

Everyone understood. After all, my whole crew had been there on that street corner when I got grabbed. And, I’d gotten the medal of valor before I even made it out of training by stopping a nuclear bombing. No one so much as questioned it. After all the flak I’d caught from Dexter, my old boss, it felt pretty weird to have the higher ups be so completely cool with superhero life related absences.

Donovan pasted himself to my side like a second skin. He even, wonder of wonders, made an uneasy truce with Mark Novak. White Knight spent every moment when he wasn't on duty at the fire house hanging around with me, in full armor with sword at his side and shield on his back. He tried to act like he was just being friendly, asking me questions about dragon stuff, but it was hardly subtle. Jack wasn't any keener than Donovan was on having Novak around so much, but he knew Knight would be handy if it came to a fight. So, he settled for treating the big shiny superhero in our living room as if he didn’t exist. Donovan pretty much did the same. Novak accepted that. Sadly, he seemed pretty used to being treated like a necessary evil.

Brad and Ma just went on about their business. Ma was worried, of course, but worrying was like breathing for her. It was nothing out of the ordinary. And Brad didn't even seem all that worried. I knew the big guy had my back, but he didn’t take any time off from his new job, and he didn’t stop heading out to clubs and music venues for a few beers and some dancing when it suited him.

For my part, I spent the whole two weeks jumping at shadows, wondering when Smoking Mirror would come after me again.

But he didn’t. The one thing we should have learned about the enemy was that he was very patient. He’d already spent most of a year just drawing me out, testing me, finding out what kind of person, hero, fighter, whatever I was.

Absolutely nothing happened for a month. I went back to work. Everyone started to relax. Except Floyd Donovan. He tried not to show it, but while everyone else became more and more certain that the enemy had moved on, or given up, Donovan became more and more certain that I was in serious danger.  While everyone else relaxed their vigilance, he looked more and more haggard and worried.

Detective Long thought Donovan had the right idea, but after a couple of weeks, he couldn't continue to justify the expense of a 24/7 police presence on my tail. So, the cops went back to their normal routines. I went back to my normal routine. Novak stopped following me around looking like he was waiting to throw himself in front of a bullet for me. And I stopped dropping into a Krav Maga defensive stance every time I saw someone with a tattoo or someone in a car looking at me, or when someone made a noise behind me that I wasn’t expecting.

Tamara told me she was proud of how my reflexes were improving, so I guess that was good.

Then it was almost Christmas, and I just wanted to feel normal again. So I went shopping. Jack and Tamara went with me. It was fun. We laughed and plotted what we were going to get for people, and acted like we didn’t have a care in the world. Just three besties on a shopping spree. We completely ignored Donovan, the tall, grim bodyguard dogging our steps, looking like he hadn’t slept in a week and would shoot anyone who looked at me funny.

We lucked out on shift timing at the fire house. Novak, Tamara, Jack and I all worked Christmas Eve, a full 24 hour shift, but then we were off on Christmas day and the day after. Everyone came to our house for Christmas. One nice thing about living in a castle, there’s plenty of space for a party. Novak didn’t have anywhere else to go, so when I told him he was invited, he came. Tamara did Christmas morning with her sister’s kids. Her two little nephews were five and seven, so Christmas morning was still magic to them. Then Tam headed to our place for Ma’s awesome Christmas dinner. Brad got the day off. Liberty had some charity appearances to do, but she made it back in time for dinner. I invited Detective Long, and Officer Flynn. Flynn came, but Long begged off to spend the day with his wife and kids. Who knew the guy was married?

I even invited Alrek. He was Agmund’s twin brother, which meant he was my great, great some-odd grand-uncle. And he was in town alone as far as I knew. He had no other family. I would have invited Jupiter Joe, but he’d flown home to his family a week before. It was in his contract, apparently, that he would always be home with his wife and kids at Christmas time.

For Novak, I thought about inviting Fafnir, who was at some Renaissance Faire that had just closed down in Louisiana. But Novak wouldn’t let me. He said he wasn’t ready to face the big red dragon out of legend who just happened to be his dad. He wanted to be the one to tell Fafnir about their relationship, so I hadn't breathed a word. That was between him and Fafnir. Christmas was a really emotionally charged time anyway. I could understand why dealing with his estranged father just then was too much.

I ordered Donovan to sleep. I mean, literally, ordered him. He’d been up watching the monitors all night, waiting expectantly for someone to come to get me, or plant bombs around the house or something. He’d been waiting, expectantly, watchfully for over a month. He looked like death warmed over.

The house filled up with guests, half of them supes, including Knight who followed me like a big shiny guard dog, and Brad who could rip most people’s limbs off, and I wasn’t planning on leaving the house all day. I dragged Donovan out of the security monitoring room to one of the guest rooms, shoved him on the bed and told him he wasn’t allowed to leave the room until dinner at the earliest. That was an order.

“I can’t protect you if I’m asleep,” Donovan said, jaw set stubbornly. His eyes were a vivid shade of pink, nicely set off by the purple smudges under them.

“No, you can’t. So, get some sleep now while I don’t need you.”

“You don’t ever think you need me,” he griped. It was an old complaint, but particularly bitter now.

I thought about Donovan shooting the man who had a .45 pointed at my head. I hated feeling helpless, and needing someone else to protect me. While I’d done the best I could to just move on with my life, I knew as well as he did that Smoking Mirror wasn’t done with me. And I was a normal now. Being human had its advantages, but knowing that someone powerful and cruel genuinely was out to get me made me miss being mostly bulletproof. Donovan shot me the first time we met. I barely noticed. Now, his gun and his trained, vigilant eyes might be the only thing between me and an ugly fate.

“I need you …” I hesitated, just long enough for him to hear what I couldn’t say. “I need you not to fall on your face and snore in the rice pudding.” I winked at him. “Ma worked hard on it.”

He snorted. “Fine.” I think he got what I was trying to tell him. His shoulders relaxed some and he started pulling off his cowboy boots. “Wake me when dinner’s ready.”

One important mission accomplished, I took the secret passage down through the closet to the study, since it was the shortest route. Vlad’s house is kind of a maze, but once you learn your way around, the extra passages are really handy. This meant that I ended up behind a full length 2-way mirror. I reached up to push the hidden latch that opened the mirror, then stopped.

Tamara and Jack slipped into the room holding hands, giggling and looking over their shoulders to make sure no one followed. They talked for just a moment. I couldn't hear them through the thick glass. Tamara did most of the talking. I’d never seen her so excited, bouncing on her toes and grinning like a maniac.

Jack smiled back at her, wider and wider as she talked. He laughed and hugged her, picking her up off her feet and swinging her around.

He’d never done that with me. I’m too tall, but Tamara was just the right height for him. She was just right for him in so many ways.

As I watched, I felt a weird mix of keening pain and joy. I loved them both. They looked so happy together. Tears trailed down my cheeks without me even noticing at first. If this was what was best for them, then I knew what I had to do.

I can’t write anymore right now. I think this might be helping, though. I’ll write more later.

D Dragon