|Summary:||In which Henry Robinson is ten and life in HQ is complicated.|
|Published:||January 4, 2012.|
|Rating:||PG/K+ - Unseemly references to goats.|
Agent Ilraen stepped purposefully from the portal, carrying a struggling mass of skin and bone under one arm. The portal into Headquarters snapped shut as though to emphasize the battle-scarred Andalite’s displeasure as he proceeded through the corridor with his burden and passed under the sign of the multiple exclamation points.
He planted said burden firmly onto the couch in office C-14. <Jenni, I believe this is yours.>
“OW,” said ten-year-old Henry Robinson, shifting from side to side in his bluejeans as though bruised. He shot a glare at the Andalite, then turned suppliantly to Jenni, green eyes wide. “Mom!”
Jenni sighed, one hand covering her mouth. She had aged over the last eight years or so, literally keeping up appearances since her son was old enough to notice. Though mid-thirties was by no means ancient, a care-worn look around her eyes made her seem tired.
The fact that it was late and she was wearing a blue terrycloth robe and slippers also contributed.
After a moment, she shook her head and waved her hand vaguely at Henry. “What did he do this time?”
<Let me see.> Ilraen began counting on his seven fingers. <Skipped class—>
“I hate class,” Henry interjected, flattening his mess of static-charged black hair.
< . . . stole a remote activator—>
“It fell into my pocket.”
< . . . and an HFA-modified wand—>
“Didn’t even work.”
< . . . and then followed myself and two trainees into the field, sabotaged the mission, and attempted to flee into the Word World. He also kicked me,> Ilraen added, ticking off the last finger.
“I trust no lasting damage was done,” said Jenni.
Ilraen shook his head. <The trainees stayed behind in the fic. I believe they are capable of carrying out the Duty. And my leg is fine, thank you.>
Henry had caught on to the fact that he wasn’t getting any support from his mother. He folded his arms and put on an impressive sulk, scowling down his long nose. “I just wanted to see my dads.”
Jenni finally turned to her adopted son. “Henry, you can’t go running off into the Words like that! Not only is it dangerous to you, it is dangerous to the agents in the field and to the world itself. I know you’re curious about where you come from, but there are right and wrong ways of finding things out.”
“The right ways are boring,” Henry groaned, collapsing against the back of the couch. “I’ve read the Harry Potter books a million times already, and they never let us go anywhere in class. It’s so lame. I should be at Hogwarts.”
When Jenni faltered in her response, Ilraen filled in. <If I may ask, Henry, do you not wish to become an agent? When you finish agent training, you will be allowed to go anywhere your missions take you, and I assure you it is far from boring.> He had the scars to prove it, external and internal.
Jenni patted him on the shoulder. However, Henry cut the moment of compassion short.
“I want to be a wizard! I want to do stuff, now! And I never want a partner. My classmates are stupid, and if I have to listen to the midgets sing the Happy Assassin Song one more time, I’ll puke and probably die.” He seemed pleased with this dire threat.
Jenni planted a hand on her hip. “I doubt that very much. You used to like the Happy Assassin Song.”
“Singing is for babies and Sues.” He didn’t have to see Jenni stiffen or hear her breath hitch to know his calculated strike had worked. He shot up and stalked the few steps to the door. Ilraen reached out to stop him, but Jenni squeezed the Andalite’s shoulder, and he desisted.
Oblivious, Henry hurled one final remark at them: “Stop treating me like a baby!” He slammed the door behind him.
<Jenni?> Ilraen trained all four eyes on her. <You do not wish to go after him, after that? I could catch him.>
“It’s all right.” She shrugged, letting her hands fall to her sides. “I think I know where he’s going.”
<Ah.> Iraen nodded in realization.
There was a short silence.
<Are you certain you would not like me to catch him?>
They didn’t get it. Ilraen was a furry big brother to Henry, and he was usually pretty cool, but he had an annoying tendency to take Jenni’s part in everything, and he was way too strict about rules. As for Jenni, she was a mother. No mother in the history of ever understood these things. This was Man Stuff. There was one person in Headquarters Henry knew was guaranteed to understand Man Stuff, because he’d taught Henry everything he knew about it.
With a hard little fist, he banged on the door to Response Center 2771a. “Su! Suuuu! Come on, are you there? This is important!”
There was a moment of silence. Then Henry heard a distant grunt, followed by the sound of something crashing to the ground and a muffled series of curses. Finally, a light snapped on inside the response center, and heavy footsteps crossed to the door. It opened, and Agent Suicide stood there, blinking sleepily.
The past few years had been both kind and unkind to the Scythian. He had successfully reached age fifty without dying (again), something that had won several members of FicPsych a substantial amount of money in the office pool, and for a man with notorious disregard for life and limb he had managed to remain relatively functional. Not that it was all good news: both of his hands were cybernetic now (thanks to a G.I. Joe Sue with a penchant for grenades), and the lines in his face and under his eyes were deeper than ever. He was wearing drawstring pants and a t-shirt with “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor” printed on it, and he raised an eyebrow as he looked down at Henry.
“It must be,” he said, stifling a massive yawn. “You know how I am about my beauty sleep, kid. What’s the problem?”
“You gotta talk to my mom,” he said without preamble, slipping into the response center like he lived there and dropping into a blue zebra-print recliner with a wood frame. “She, y’know, likes you, right, so she has to listen to you sometimes,” he reasoned, holding his hands out in front of him. “Right?” He looked up at the older man, hoping for confirmation he wasn’t entirely certain he was going to get.
There was a groan from the shadowy depths of the response center, and a dark head poked itself out of a mess of blankets in the far corner. “Whuh . . . ?”
“Kiddo’s having some problems,” Suicide responded. “Go back to sleep, Dio.”
The head mumbled something and withdrew back into its fleecy cocoon. Suicide yawned again, stretched, crossed to the small refrigerator under the console, and pulled out a cellophane-covered jar of kefir. After some consideration, he grabbed a bottle of butterbeer to go with it and closed the refrigerator door with his foot.
“It’s the middle of the night and you need advice. The Narrative Laws say you need to have a drink,” he said, tossing the butterbeer to Henry. The boy was technically a few years too young, but hell, the rules also said that kids weren’t supposed to be learning how to kill stuff. “Rules” was usually just another word for “no fun” as far as Suicide was concerned.
As Henry uncapped the butterbeer, Suicide settled himself into the camp chair across from the zebra-print recliner. He pulled the cellophane off the jar, took a long swig of kefir, swiped a strand of gray hair out of his eyes, and focused on Henry. “Okay, Kiddo,” he said. He hadn’t actually called Henry by his name since the boy had been small enough to ride on his shoulders. “What’s she done this time? Caught you sneaking into DoSAT again?”
“’Raen caught me,” Henry mumbled, fiddling with the cap. “He was going to the Potterverse, and I thought . . . .” Well, it went without saying that he thought he could get away with following him for a while. That Ilraen would actually take the time to drag him home in the middle of a mission was not something he’d considered. “It’s dumb that you have to be eleven to do stuff in canon,” he said, skipping to what he considered the most important part. “It’s a stupid number. I’m ten. That’s practically the same thing. I can do anything any eleven-year-old can do. Nobody listens to me.” He finished with an appropriately long-suffering pull at his butterbeer.
Aha, that kind of “talk to Mom.” Otherwise known as “get Mom to let me do dangerous stuff that she’s already not happy about, and do it sooner rather than later.” Suicide swallowed another mouthful of kefir and eyed the unhappy boy, weighing his words carefully.
He liked Henry. Despite a frankly inauspicious start as a Snape-and-Harry M-preg baby, Henry Rowling Robinson had grown up well, and relatively sane, as far as anyone could tell. Suicide considered himself equal parts Henry’s honorary uncle, parole officer, and chief instigator: in one legendary afternoon he’d taught Henry to ride a horse, to butcher an animal, and then to combine the two into a rollicking game of buzkashi that had involved every horse the PPC had and ended with Agent Wledig accidentally hurling a goat carcass through the window of the Nursery. However, Suicide’s love of violence and firm belief that boys should raise Cain were battling against his little-used protective instincts, and he couldn’t tell which was winning. Even boys in his time hadn’t gotten into trouble that involved shattering realities.
“That’s part of growing up,” he said. “If you’re feeling older than you really are, it means you aren’t as old as you think.” He grinned wryly at Henry’s nonplussed expression. “Look, your mom and the fuzzy centaur have your best interests in mind . . . as irritating as it can get. They may be misguided, but they really think they’re doing the best thing for you. Really, really misguided, even.”
Suicide was not displaying quite the level of sympathetic indignation that Henry had hoped for. This was bad. He couldn’t go back by himself, not after what he’d said. “But . . . you don’t agree, right? I’ve heard you guys argue about stuff. Hey, maybe I could be your intern or something.” He grinned at the sudden inspiration. “I’d be supervised, and I wouldn’t run off. I’d be really good!”
“No, I don’t agree.” Henry started to say something, and Suicide held up a finger. “But. But. There’s two factors in play here, Kiddo. First, your mom is scary. Really scary. Part of being a man is knowing when not to piss off the women in your life . . . or men, or whatever it is you’re sleeping with. Second, maybe you can do stuff that eleven-year-olds can do, but I’ve known eleven-year-olds who couldn’t find their dicks with both hands. You haven’t killed anything that can fight back yet.”
Henry looked crestfallen, so Suicide leaned forward and gave the kid an encouraging tap on the head. “That’s not to say you shouldn’t be trying your damnedest to get out there, of course. Back home, a boy your age would be bringing the sacred rooster into battle or training to be the squire of a gentleman-ranker. But sneaking off after Ilraen is only going to piss off your mom. Interning might be the answer.”
“She’s already pissed off,” Henry said, unable to suppress a twist of his lips at the verboten language despite the gravity of the situation. He took another drink of butterbeer to recover. “I might’ve said some stuff. So can you talk to her?” he pressed on, meeting Suicide’s eyes with all the earnestness he could muster. “I’d really like being your intern.”
“You already said some stuff?” Suicide repeated. The kid was laying it on kind of thick, but he also had a point. Suicide’s partners might go insane a lot, but they had one of the lowest rates of mutilating injury in the PPC—mainly because he took all the damage himself. Henry would probably be safe if he trained with Suicide . . . wait a second. “I’m being manipulated, aren’t I,” he said dryly, finishing off his kefir. “You Robinsons are good at that. And said what stuff?”
Henry cringed. Mouthing off always seemed like a good idea at the time, but once you stopped being angry it didn’t take long to turn into guilt. Now Su’d caught him trying to flatter his way out of it to boot, which was even worse. “Well . . . she wasn’t listening. Or she was listening to the wrong things, and . . . .” Suicide didn’t look impressed with the excuses. Henry took a deep breath and plunged into it. “I might’ve sortakinda saidshewasaSue.” He stared at a spot on the floor slightly to the right.
Suicide was silent for a moment. Then he got up, went to the refrigerator, and took out a screw-top bottle of cold coffee. Kefir was all very well at that time of night, but this was definitely an issue that would be keeping him up for a while, and at his age caffeine was more important than ever. Henry watched apprehensively as Suicide opened the bottle, took a long drink, mopped his mouth, and returned to his seat with it in hand.
“Kiddo,” he said, “that was a bad move.”
“Yeah,” Henry agreed wretchedly. Suicide seemed to want more from him, so he went on: “I mean, I didn’t actually say that, really. I’d be so dead right now. What I said was that singing’s for Sues and babies, and I said ‘stop treating me like a baby’, and I left.” That spot on the floor had the most interesting old burn mark. Nothing got those things out of Generic Surface once they’d set in a while.
Ahh, singing. A hotbed of controversy in the PPC, especially when some of the more musically inclined agents and children found themselves reluctant to reveal any kind of talent for fear of Sueishness. Still . . . . “Kiddo, Kiddo, Kiddo,” Suicide said, shaking his head a little. “That was a really bad move. You know how your mom is about harpers and things like that.”
At least Henry seemed to realize how badly he’d screwed up. Suicide relented a little. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “But the big question is, what’re you going to do now? Contrary to my shining example, killing and/or alienating your parents isn’t the way to solve all your problems.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Henry said, squirming. Every so often he got a reminder that his friend Suicide was actually big and scary, even if it wasn’t aimed at him. His mother was scary, too, but in a different way. She didn’t have to do anything, or even yell, and somehow the idea of her being upset was terrifying enough to make a dangerous and thankless life as an agent seem preferable. However, that didn’t seem to be an option. Her scariness even worked on big, scary Suicide somehow. “I guess . . . I gotta go back. Unless I can live here?” He tried one last hopeful smile.
“I don’t think so, kid. Diocletian’s only just got the place how she likes it.” Suicide glanced around the response center, at the mess of IKEA furniture, war trophies, and burn marks. “So to speak. But honestly, hiding isn’t going to solve the problem either.”
He considered Henry for a long moment, then stood up. “C’mon. I’ll take you back to your mom’s. And maybe I’ll have a talk with her about you getting out some more.” Henry jumped to his feet, his eyes lighting up, and Suicide shook his head. “I did say maybe. If you’re bored and cooped up enough to be calling your mom a Sue, then something’s clearly not right. Maybe getting your ass kicked by someone with more experience will burn off some of that excess energy, and teach you not to talk back to your mother, too.”
Suicide put down the coffee bottle and creakily got to his feet, stretching. “Getting too old for this shit,” he muttered in a voice Henry could barely hear. After considering himself for a moment, he shucked out of the questionably hilarious shirt and substituted a “Suicide Prevention Hotline Annual Fundraiser 2015—Share the Hope” tee instead. Thus garbed in the most mature and responsible-looking clothing he could manage at what felt like two in the morning, Suicide took Henry by the hand and steered him back through the halls towards Jenni’s room.
Henry trudged along, scuffing his shoes on the floor and doing his best to think really hard about room C-14, but apprehensions of shame kept intruding on his concentration. Far too soon, they walked into FicPsych—behind the front desk, Nurse Elms glanced up from the dodgy novel she was reading and waved at Suicide—and then came up to Jenni’s door. It was ajar, and Henry wasn’t surprised to smell chamomile tea. After tense situations, some kind of tea was never far behind with her.
The Scythian smelled the tea as well, and nodded to himself as he noted it. Several years of on and off . . . dancing . . . with Jenni had taught him something about her moods, and though women would never be an open book to the still tenuously literate man, he’d at least read the summary and admired the cover art on this one. Tea, her cure-all, meant she wasn’t happy—hopefully not Unhappy with a capital U, but just unhappy, a less dramatic emotion that still had the power to cut deep. It was time to tread carefully.
He knocked on the lintel before pushing the door open. Jenni was seated, mug in one hand, paging distractedly through The Masterharper of Pern and probably absorbing one word in six. She glanced up, not so much surprised as startled, and Suicide offered her his best crooked grin.
“Evening, Miz Robinson,” he drawled, leaning against the doorframe. “I believe I found something that belongs to you.” So saying, he steered the petrified Henry into view.
“Su.” Jenni smiled back and got up, placing the mug and book on the end table to her right. The man fell a bit short of conventional charm with the thrown-on clothes and his long, gray hair in a state, but heck, he was trying, and she was glad to see him—both of them. “I was very much hoping you would.”
She looked down at the top of her son’s head, which was all she could see of him above the shoulders at the moment. She folded her arms across her stomach and pulled a wry expression. “Honestly, Henry, you needn’t look like you’re going to your death.” In a milder tone, she went on: “If you have something to say to me, I would be happy to hear it.”
Henry hesitated, but between the feeling of Jenni’s eyes on him and Suicide’s hand on his back, he was pretty sure there was no way out of this. “’Msorry,” he mumbled.
“Can you look at me and say that, please?”
He raised his eyes as much as he dared, enough to catch her expression. She didn’t even look annoyed, just sad and patient, like she’d stand there forever waiting for him. It wasn’t fair. He’d expected to be in trouble, but this was a zillion times worse than any yelling could have been. It left too much room for uncomfortable realizations, like the fact that he meant what he’d just said more than anything else so far tonight. So he said it again. “I am sorry. I . . . I didn’t mean that stuff before. I was just mad.” Now, why that made him want to cry he had no idea, but no way was he doing it in front of Suicide, so he pressed his lips together and balled up his fists, and stood still as a statue as he waited for judgement.
It was quick in coming. Jenni smiled. “I know you didn’t mean it, but it still hurt. Understand?” Henry nodded fiercely. “Okay. It’s all right, then. C’mere.” She drew him into a hug, one hand on the back of his head and the other around his shoulders. She was conscious of the Scythian and his opinions about what he called coddling, but he could take his opinions and go jump in a lake if he didn’t like it. Still, for the sake of Henry’s dignity she didn’t let it go on too long.
“Why don’t you go get ready for bed?” she suggested, ruffling his hair. “I want to talk to your friend a minute.”
“’Kay,” Henry said, more than happy to agree. He grabbed his toothbrush and pajamas and slipped out the door.
Once he was gone, Jenni gave Suicide a wry smile. “Thanks for bringing him back—again. Twice delivered in one evening, that’s new.” She gestured at the couch and gave the man a querying look, inviting him to take a seat if he had a mind. “So, what did he tell you?”
“Oh, the usual. I’m a man not a boy, I’m being held back, Ilraen caught me doing something dangerous and I’m pissed about the fuzzy centaur doing what comes naturally. Oh, and he wants me to persuade you to make him my intern.” Suicide eyed the couch, eyed Jenni, decided that he wasn’t in the mood to forgo one pleasure for the other, and drew Jenni down onto the couch with him. “He also,” he continued, draping an arm around her shoulders, “’fessed up to me about what he called you, which was the point where I decided this was a little too heavy for my usual approach.” He grinned back at Jenni, swiping one long, gray strand of hair out of his eyes. “So I figured I’d drop by and return your wayward property, and see how you were doing at the same time. I’m that kind of caring, sensitive guy.”
“Yes, anyone can see you’re oozing support,” Jenni said with a half-smile and a small shake of her head. She patted his knee. “Anyway, I appreciate it. Henry left a significant bit out,” she went on. “He told me he was trying to see his fathers—not exactly the sort of thing he’s going to discuss with you. That’s about nine disasters waiting to happen. I can’t imagine Severus being thrilled to have a little kid walk up to him and announce ‘guess what, you’re my daddy!’” She leaned back and raked her fingers back through her hair, which was hanging loose around her shoulders.
“You’re underestimating Henry,” Suicide chided. “He’d say ‘you’re my dad’. And my vote would be for at least eleven disasters, if you count the Marquis coming down with nervous petal-blight.” He tugged gently on one of Jenni’s loose strands of hair, winding it around his forefinger. “Sounds to me like he’s just getting to that age where he’s gonna be yanking on his leash. No sense in getting worked up about it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Eleven potential disasters, but don’t get worked up about it? You don’t want much. I don’t know if I can be blasé about canon disruption, or the various terrible things that could happen to my son if he yanks too hard, not least of which is soul-crushing disillusionment if he’s not happy with what he finds out. HFA looming on the horizon is scary enough without him running off into the Words in the meantime—for which I have to come up with some sort of discipline that won’t just exacerbate the situation, by the way.” She paused for air. “And did you say something about interning?” She looked at Suicide sidelong, uncertain what to think about this development as of yet.
“It’s the PPC, Jenni. Disasters are normal, and for a growing boy, practically de rigeur.” Maybe the fancy phrase would distract her from the high bullshit quotient of the statement. “And he’s smart, and he’s been taught well.” (Mostly well. Suicide privately despaired of his inability to pull a bow with a fifty-pound draw, but apparently that wasn’t normal for—eyeroll—modern kids, anyway.)
“Oh, yeah, interning,” he added, trying to remember the conversation. It was late, and the kefir might’ve been kicking in just a little bit. “He said he’d like it, and he might not run off if he got to intern. That sounded like a threat to me, but he could have a point. He’ll be a man soon enough, after all.” The Scythian pulled Jenni a little closer and nuzzled the side of her neck. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
“I don’t know if—Su!” She leaned away, though it was more a token effort than a real objection. She was smiling. He wasn’t going to distract her, that was all. “Even if it is, I’d need a lot more than ‘might not’ from him. He is smart. Too smart.”
Suicide gave her the full-on big brown puppy eyes, the same ones he’d broken out when she told him that joining the All-HQ Australian-Rules Indoor Quidditch Team wasn’t a good idea. “So chain him to a log for a couple of days; that’s what my uncle Scopasis used to do. Or alternately, give him a little more trust and see how he reacts. Nothing annoys rebellious types more than having nothing to rebel against.” He attempted another nuzzle, hoping that the combination of the deadly brown eyes and the (slight) measure of common sense might get better results this time.
He was not disappointed. Jenni would never tell him so to his face, but he did have ridiculously pretty eyes. And the occasional moment of wisdom. She rested her cheek against his head and slipped her left hand into his right. The smoothness of the artificial skin still surprised her when she wasn’t thinking about it, but she wasn’t about to let on to that, either.
After a moment of creature comfort, she said, “So you want me to be Dumbledore. ‘Congratulations, kid! Your bad behavior has resulted in you getting exactly what you want, since coincidentally it’s likely to save the world. Yay!’” She threw in jazz hands—well, a jazz hand—for maximum frivolity.
“Absolutely. Dumbledore’s not such a bad role model.” Suicide’s free hand ‘accidentally’ landed on her thigh. “Like you, Dumbledore was powerful . . . didn’t take any BS . . . had a good sense of humor . . . liked to sleep with men . . . .” He paused. “Too much?”
Jenni grinned. “Only if that was a proposition, in which case wow, was it terrible. Otherwise, thanks. And I’ll give it some thought.” She sighed. “You know I would’ve said no out of hand up till now, but actually sneaking after Ilraen changes things. He asked you specifically, right? Just supposing I went along with it, do you think you’d really want that role? I can’t guarantee that agreeing to it would mean I could forgive you if anything went wrong. That would suck,” she understated.
Suicide drew back a little, raising his head and staring into the distance. “Forgiveness is not something I seek,” he said solemnly. He held that face—stern, noble, resigned to his fate and unwilling to beg for mercy in the face of his own misdeeds—for about three-tenths of a second before cracking up and mopping his eyes on the hem of his wholly inappropriate t-shirt. Jenni also laughed, and Suicide snuck in a quick kiss before they both caught their breath. “Nah, seriously,” he continued once the snickers had subsided, “I could probably handle it. I think Kiddo just wants to be doing something, honestly, and if he’s after disasters I can sure provide ’em. And I wouldn’t mind having him around; we’ve always gotten along well on the weird-uncle-hyper-nephew basis. And it’d give Dio someone besides me to yell at during missions.”
“All right.” Jenni nodded. “I’ll think about it. Don’t tell Henry anything, mind you.” She glanced at the door—he should be back any moment, but there was no sign of him yet. Good. “At the very least he’s going to have time to think about what I’m going to do to him before I make up my mind.” The truth was, “I’ll think of something” was the most effective threat in her arsenal. It sent the recipient’s imagination into overdrive and let them do all the work for her.
“My lips are sealed,” Suicide said cheerfully. “If he asks what we were talking about, I’ll tell him you said you would think hard about the appropriate punishment for this particular heinous transgression. And of course, I pleaded movingly for mercy, but nay, the lady yielded not. By the way, will he be needing a bedtime story? Ith just gave me a brand-new copy of that book about the American doctor who told people they could be cured by goat testicles.”
Jenni was not immune to the Laws of Narrative Comedy, and so it was that she had chosen just the previous moment to remember her half-full mug of tea. Fortunately, the tea mainly ended up back in the mug and only a little bit down her throat.
“Ow, my dignity,” she muttered hoarsely after a recuperative cough. “Also, what?“
Suicide gave her a hearty slap on the back to help dislodge any remaining tea. “It’s a great story,” he said cheerfully. “This doctor convinced impotent men that implanting goat goolies would cure their problem. Modern techniques have really opened up the possibilities for quacks; back in my day they couldn’t do much more than sell you a bottle of vinegar and get a fast horse out of the area. You want to watch that spit-taking, by the way—I think the Universal Laws have been in a vindictive mood lately.” He paused, frowning a little, as another thought hit him. “Talking about medical frauds and goat bits probably isn’t a very good come-on either, is it?”
She shook her head. “That’s more of a ‘get Jenni’s back up’ sort of topic. I mean, really, I’ve lived in less enlightened times, but just a little logic . . . .” She put up her hands, stopping herself. “No. No soapbox before bed. And I hope you’re resigned to yours, anyway. I hate to make you walk back when you’ve already been dragged over here, but still, limits.” This was shorthand for “no emotionally scarring my son,” developed during an early period of trial and the occasional kick to the couch, which was far too short for a man as tall as Suicide to comfortably sleep on. “Unless you think you can behave.”
“Soapbox!” Suicide snapped his fingers. “I knew I was missing something from my literalism collection.”
As the rest of her words caught up with him, though, he frowned again. He considered retrying the eyes, but once every few days was usually his limit; any more than that and they started losing their effectiveness. Sighing tragically, he resigned himself to a lack of hanky-panky for the evening. “You’re a cruel, cruel woman, Mrs. Robinson,” he said as he made himself comfortable on the couch again. “Tearing my heart out and feeding me to the Friendly Ones, you are.”
Jenni rolled her eyes. “My heart’s bleeding for you. The stains shall never come out of the carpet this time.”
With the mandatory good-humored snark out of the way, though, she gave him a considering look. “Of course, there are other conventions. You played the gallant hero earlier, so I should at least give you the thematically appropriate reward.” She reached over and guided his head down to an appropriate angle for a side-by-side kiss. This was a sop, and one requiring a level of finesse somewhat lacking at this hour in order to be very effective, but Suicide wasn’t quite wounded enough not to make the most of it. His left hand found its way to Jenni’s waist, and she leaned in as much as possible.
That moment, of course, was when Henry reappeared, now wearing red pajamas. He stopped in the doorway, clothes bundled under one arm, and gave the adults a reproving look. “You guys aren’t allowed to do that when I’m here, you know,” he said, shattering the moment.
“You were saying about the Universal Laws?” Jenni muttered, settling back in her seat with a sigh.
Suicide grimaced. Seconds ago he had been kissing a woman whom age had not exactly hurt in that department, if you know what I mean, and now he was being scolded by a ten-year-old in PJs. This was not a turn of events he approved of.
“Kiddo, you have the worst sense of timing,” he said, shifting away from Jenni a little but not removing the arm he had draped around her shoulders. “When you’re older, you’re going to realize how very wrong you were by interrupting just then. At which point you’ll feel very, very, very sorry for ever daring to do that. Ready to hit the hay?”
“Mm-hm.” He nodded and suited actions to words. Under Jenni’s watchful eye, he disposed of his things in their correct places and climbed into his bed, a regular twin now, but still occupying a spot along the same wall as the couch. “Su, are you staying?” he asked cautiously. He seemed skeptical about whether this was a good idea or not, given the kissing, but it was his mother he kept eyeballing. Despite his entrance, he hadn’t forgotten that he was probably still in trouble. Suicide’s presence might make things easier on him.
“Survey says I’m gonna get kicked out in a few minutes,” the Scythian responded, idly tugging on one of Jenni’s loose strands of hair again. “Inappropriate behavior in a public environment and all that. Although I offered to read your bedtime story, so how soon I get the boot depends on your mom’s answer to that.” He raised one eyebrow inquisitively. “But now that you’re a big bad full-grown troublemaker sneaking off into continua on his own, you may be too old for stories.”
“That’s a good point,” Jenni said, casually shooing Suicide’s hand out of her hair. “I can’t decide if this would be too much of a reward or not enough of a punishment after the day’s misdeeds. What do you think, Henry?”
Oh, that was never a good question, not in the precisely measured neutral tone she was using. Henry swallowed. “It’s up to you, Mom.” Delivered humbly without being obsequious, it was the only right answer.
“Oh, good.” Jenni smiled. “In that case, you’re still a kid, and if Su feels like using his time to educate you about medical malpractice, that’s fine by me. Being in trouble should never get in the way of education. I’ll make up my mind about an actual punishment tomorrow.”
A small smile quirked the corner of Suicide’s mouth. That was no idle threat with Jenni Robinson: after all, Suicide rarely took up with women whose mouths wrote checks their supernatural whammy couldn’t cash. He was a simple man of simple tastes.
Adjusting his t-shirt, the Scythian stood up and flicked his hair out of his eyes yet again. (Stubborn resistance to male pattern baldness: blessing or curse?) “Hey, every kid needs to know about medical malpractice,” he said cheerfully. Jenni’s threat of punishment seemed to have suitably chastised Henry for the moment, and now it was time to do his duty as surrogate uncle and teach the boy about things his mother likely wouldn’t. Amazing how many of those things involved goats. “I’ll go get the book. If I’m not back in five, Headquarters ate me. Say something tasteful at my funeral, okay?”
So saying, he ducked out of the RC, leaving Jenni and Henry alone. Mother and son regarded each other a few moments, Henry fiddling with his covers, before Jenni got up and seated herself next to him on the bed.
“I’m going to be mushy at you before he gets back,” she said, looking down at him. “You know you’re in trouble because I love you, right?”
“Yeah.” They’d had this conversation before. “Love doesn’t always mean getting what I want.”
“That’s right. For me, it means teaching you and keeping you safe—at the same time, when possible—even if it makes you mad at me. I can live with that. I can’t live with you getting into trouble that’s bigger than I am and getting hurt, especially if it could hurt other people in the process. That’s the really serious thing.” This was off-script, and Henry looked up at her as she continued. “You are big enough to be responsible for yourself, and you have to start thinking about others, too. That’s what being an adult is really about. It’s not how tough you are, or how clever, or any of that. If you want me to know how grown up you are, you’ll have to show me how responsible you’re prepared to be. Got it?”
“I think so.” He looked back at his lap, thinking, then looked up again. “So, how do I do that?”
Jenni chuckled. “We’ll talk more about that tomorrow, but nice try. In the meantime, I expect this book of Su’s will contain plenty of food for thought on the subject of responsibility to others, not to mention what not to do with goat parts.”
“This doesn’t sound like a good idea anymore.” The expression on his face was similar to one commonly associated with getting up on the tall diving board only to realize it’s actually kind of high up.
“Too late,” Jenni said cheerfully. “Between me and Su, you’re doomed to learn bizarre medical history you never wanted to know, and that’s that.” She gave him a one-armed squeeze around the shoulders and planted a kiss on the top of his head. “I love you, Henry.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
Jenni could see he was thinking hard again. She waited for him to work it out.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. “Since we’re talking about it . . . .”
Henry took a quick breath in and out. “Do you love Su?”
“Well, yes.” Jenni tilted her head. “I mean, he’s not someone who really wants to hear me say it, and I don’t expect to hear it from him, but yes. Where’s this going?”
“Well, if you’re my mom and you love him, how come he’s not my dad?”
Aha. Jenni hadn’t been sure he’d remembered that particular side of things in the midst of everything else, but there it was. She shook her head with a wry smile. “Sure, that’s easy to answer in less than five minutes. You’re on a roll with these questions.” She ruffled his hair, buying herself a second to think. “All right, let me put it this way. You remember that time a few years ago, with the horses, and how Su and I weren’t speaking to each other afterward?”
“Yeah.” It would be hard to forget something like that. He remembered it as one of the most awesome days of his life, but the aftermath had definitely been rough.
“That’s why. Not that incident specifically, but if there is one word that can sum up all the reasons, it’s buzkashi.”
This was not a very satisfying answer for the ten-year-old, but it didn’t look like he was getting anything further out of his mother for the time being. He sighed. With all the stuff he was supposed to think about, he wasn’t sure how she expected him to sleep at all.
Which, the universe being the universe and having an eye towards comic timing, was the cue for Suicide to arrive with a grin and Henry’s bedtime story. The book had a black-and-red cover, with the word “CHARLATAN” in large letters and a picture of a goat that looked like it had just figured out what it would be losing in the course of the story. “Found it!” he said. “Took me a few minutes. Dio was sleeping on it, and I had to figure out a way to get it free without having my fingers bitten off.”
He paused, noticing the slight air of tension in the room. Mother and son both seemed to have been in the middle of something. Should he come back later?
Nah. He wouldn’t be Suicide if he cared about petty things like that. He winked at Jenni and settled himself on the rug next to Henry’s bed.
Jenni grinned back, letting his enthusiasm catch her. “She’d have to bite pretty hard anymore, wouldn’t she? But, do proceed. I think I’m looking forward to this more than Henry is.” With a parting pat on the boy’s shoulder, she transferred herself to her own bed, lying crosswise on her stomach so she could face the storyteller. Henry settled himself down on his side, skepticism writ large on his face.
Making himself comfortable, the self-destructive ancient warrior opened the book, clearing his throat so that the ambiguously psychic woman and her adopted wizard son could hear him properly. Business as usual, really. Welcome to the PPC. “‘Prologue’,” he announced. “‘Under the Knife, Under the Gun. Milford, Kansas, September 1930’ . . . .”