Rhys

Flat on my back with my paw stretched out, the sun warming my bacon-filled belly, I was on the fuzzy side of my third cat nap of the day when I heard the jangling of a dog’s ID tags. It was distant enough that I didn’t immediately scramble to safety, but instead rolled over and stretched, then looked to see if Will had heard it and if Rhys was close to him.

Rhys stood on his father’s feet, death grip on his fingers, as Will stomped in a circle with him. The three-year-old’s head was thrown back, and he squinted against the sunlight, giggling with each step Will took.

I sat up and cocked my head to listen. The dog was on the steps to the right, and with the sound of his tags came the soft thud of someone’s shoes. So, not alone.

Dog approaching.

Sounds like a big one, too.

Will stopped. “Hey.” He bent over to speak to Rhys, speaking softly. “How about some chocolate milk? Just for you.”

“But I had a cibbamom roll. Cinnabom. Cinnamon.”

“I know. I also know you wanted the chocolate milk but didn’t ask for it.”

“’Cause you don’t like it when I eats lots of sugar and that has lots of sugar. Hyrum said so.”

“Just this—”

Dude.

Too late. The dog was on Union Square, and Rhys had spotted it. He slid from Will’s feet and grabbed onto his leg, the fabric of his jeans caught up in one miniature fist. When he was certain the dog was coming his way, Rhys jammed his free thumb into his mouth, but he didn’t try to hide behind Will’s legs, instead keeping an eye on it.

At the human end of the leash was a man named Scotty; he was a lawyer who represented the shelter system, and had been Aisha’s first real boyfriend, though Will didn’t hold that against him. The familiarity, however, meant that Scotty was going to come over and greet Will, not knowing that Rhys’s lone experience with dogs had been painted in terror. He’d been trapped up a tree, a small pack yapping and growling beneath him, and he was sure they were going to eat him.

When he was ten feet away, Will held up a hand to stop Scotty.

Scotty stopped, and with a gentle tug on the leash, his dog sat down.

“He’s a bit wary of dogs,” Will explained. “Perhaps not frightened, but unsure of what to expect.”

“Ah.” Scotty crouched next to the golden retriever and ruffled the fur on his head. “This is Strider, Rhys. He’s very friendly and doesn’t bite, but he might try to lick you.”

The thumb came out of Rhys’s mouth. “He’s a nice puppy?”

“Very nice.”

“He won’t eat Wick?”

I moved to sit by Rhys’s feet, where Strider could get a good look at me while Scotty had the leash firmly in hand.

“We have a cat at home and they’re best friends. He might want to sniff Wick, but he won’t hurt him.”

“Promise?”

Scotty nodded. “Promise. Would you like to pet him?”

Strider opened his mouth to pant, and his giant pink tongue flopped out.

“That’s a big tongue,” Rhys said, taking a few tentative steps closer.

“He’s a big dog.”

Rhys stopped a few feet away and squatted, trying to decide if he trusted the dog, and if he wanted to get close enough to touch him.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Will said to Rhys, softly.

He wanted to; I could feel it. If he didn’t, he would be upset with himself for the rest of the day. There was a puppy, albeit a full grown one, right in front of him, and he wanted to pet it more than he wanted the chocolate milk Will had offered.

I absolutely did not want to get too close to the dog with the now-dripping tongue. It didn’t matter if he had a cat at home. I was not that cat, and he might not like me nearly as much. Still, Scotty had a firm grip on him, and I didn’t think he would be able to catch me even if he wanted to lunge.

I inched my way to him and didn’t stop when I heard Will suck in a sharp breath.

Strider looked down at me, but he didn’t move. The tongue went back into his mouth and his head pushed back a bit so he could see me down near his front foot, but he didn’t make a move toward me.

Dude, up close, you’re humungous.

Strider looked up at Scotty, and a tiny whine escaped him. He had no intention of grabbing me with his mouth but wanted a little slack on his leash so he could get a better look at the tiny cat near his feet.

Rhys scooted a bit closer but was watching warily. I wasn’t sure what he hoped to see, other than Strider not biting my head off, but I had an idea and went with it.

I rubbed up against Strider’s leg.

See? He really is friendly.

He whined again, and Scotty let out a few inches on the leash, giving him enough space to lie down. I was nose-to-nose with the biggest dog I’d ever been remotely close to and endured his loud sniffing as he took in my scent.

Okay, so you really are friendly. How annoyed will you be if I climb on you? Just so Rhys can see that everything will be okay.

Strider nudged me with his nose and rolled onto his side.

Do you understand me? Know what I’m saying?

He grunted in return.

Carefully, after rubbing my head on him a few more times, I jumped onto his side and laid there. I didn’t want to use my claws to hang on, but I flexed my paws and hoped for the best. Rhys smiled and came within reach of Strider and squatted next to him.

“Wick likes you!” He looked up at Scotty. “Is he a boy puppy or a girl puppy?”

Really? Pronouns, kiddo. Pay attention to them.

“Boy. And he likes kids. His favorite thing is to play with them at the park.”

“Don’t bite me, okay?” he said to Strider. “Can I pet you? I’ll be nice.”

Strider answered by jutting his snout toward Rhys. He went to his knees and carefully reached out, setting a few fingers on his head.

“Daddy, he’s soft. Like Fluffy.”

Fluffy is a cat. Don’t take it personally.

Strider did not take it personally. He remained as still as a chronically happy dog can; his tail thumped, and he kept trying to wedge his head under Rhys’s hand, but he did nothing to frighten the little boy. I jumped off and went to stand by Will; Rhys had inched as close as he could and was scratching Strider between his ears.

You might want to remind him that Strider isn’t a cat. He might not like head skritches.

“He’s used to petting Wick,” Will said. “If he touches Strider in a way—”

“He’s fine. This dog thinks he’s a cat. A lap cat. There’s nothing like seventy pounds of dog leaping at you before you’re even all the way into your chair.”

Will had an idea what that was like. Hyrum often ran and jumped at him, counting on Will to catch all one hundred eight pounds of him.

“Daddy, can I have a puppy for my birthday? I wanted one since forever.”

He’s not exaggerating. He’s been asking for once since he learned to talk.

“We talked about this, Rhys.”

Rhys got up and stood in front of his father, craning his neck to look up. He clasped his hands at his chest—something he’d picked up from Hyrum—and knotted his eyebrows together. “But Wick likes Strider and Strider didn’t try to eat him.”

“That’s not my concern. I can see that Wick is fine with Strider, but there are other people to consider. And I don’t want this to be a whim. If you still want a puppy when you’re ten, you will absolutely be allowed to get one. But not until then.”

“But that’s years and years away.”

“Six years. And by then your brother and sister will be old enough to help care for one, as well.”

Dude, you had me when you were his age and you cared for me just fine.

“But—”

“This isn’t a negotiation, Rhys.”

Killjoy.

I can talk Drew into getting a dog and letting Rhys play with it all day, you know.

“Rhys,” Scotty said, tugging a bit on the leash to get Strider to sit up, “I’m a lawyer. Your dad is now contractually obligated to get you a dog when you turn ten. It’s a guarantee.”

“Yeah,” Rhys grunted. “I have a witness.”

I bet Drew likes dogs.

“Does Uncle Drew like dogs?”

Will and I both twitched. “I don’t know,” Will said, evenly.

“I bet he does. Can you take a picture of me and Strider so I can show it to him?”

Right now, I really wish I could laugh out loud, because you’re gonna get so played.

~

“Jax seemed certain that Rhys’s gifts included everything everyone in the family already had,” Aisha reminded Will that night. They were at the dining room table with Jo and Finn, the kids in bed and supposedly asleep. “He might not be aware that he understands Wick.”

Hyrum catches words and he doesn’t realize it.

Hell, the dog understood me today.

“Are you sure Strider understood you?” Will asked me.

He rolled onto his side when I asked if I could climb on him. And then grunted when I asked if he understood.

“That could be coincidence.”

Jo wanted to know if Will remembered at what point he was certain he understood me. “I know you were around Rhys’s age when we finally admitted that you and Wick were having honest conversations, but it had to have been going on a while.”

He was pretty quick on the uptake. I don’t remember him not understanding me.

“Rhys is also intelligent enough to mask his understanding of Wick,” Finn said. “He’s aware that you and Drew speak to Wick, but he’s smart enough to grasp that other people shouldn’t know.”

“Wick,” Aisha said, “do you think he understands what you say?”

I think he’s where Hyrum is at. But it would be easy to test. I can do that, if you want.

“Just pay closer attention,” Will said. “He’s a little boy, not an experiment.”

Jo nearly flinched at that, and he noticed.

“I didn’t mean anything by that, Mom.”

“I tested you,” she said. “There’s a difference between testing and experimenting. And frankly, I’d like to repeat those tests on you to see if there are noticeable differences in your brain now.”

“And Rhys?” he asked.

“If you’ll allow it.”

You thought it was a game when you were little. Just tell him the truth, that Grandma wants to see how his brain lights up, and then show him it doesn’t hurt.

He repeated what I’d said and added, “I honestly did consider it to be a game and I enjoyed the interaction with your technicians. That my brain created more colors on the monitor than theirs was a victory. Aisha?”

On our first visit to Saint Francis, before we knew that we were locked into a simulation, Will and Aisha found a tablet with the data Jo had collected from Will. Aisha hadn’t met Jo, knew little about her, but the idea that she had turned her little boy into an experiment angered her. Will braced himself for a stern “Oh, hell no,” but that upset had long faded. She understood Jo now.

“As long as he’s told the truth and understands you’re collecting data because you’re interested in his brain. But I swear, he will never be made to feel like there’s something wrong with him—”

“I never felt that, Enzo,” Will said.

You go first and let him watch.

Or I’ll go first and let him watch. My brain was never peeked at, was it?

Jo wasn’t sure she could extrapolate useful data from me, but if she could get it to work it would be worth a try. Will had ideas about how best to connect me to the computer without shaving my fur and was about to share that when Drew came in, waving his phone at them.

“Why do I want a dog?” he asked.

“Good lord,” Aisha sighed.

Rhys had Will’s phone and was texting Drew from the bedroom. “At first I thought you were the one suggesting it,” Drew said. “It was a true ‘what the hell?’ moment. But then you asked if I had any strawberries and would I share them? So.”

Told you he was going to try to play you.

Start a betting pool. I have a month’s allowance on Rhys.

~

Because the underground spaces of Finn’s lab—once Will’s playground—were fireproof, Jo resurrected her equipment there, on the third level where Finn had built the gates he used in his quest to invent personal transporters. Those had been moved to the lab in the Wastelands, leaving the entire level open for Jo’s use.

“He can’t start a fire here,” she mused. “What about his percussive abilities? How strong are they?”

We had only seen Rhys use that ability once. Instead of sending a surge of electricity from the tips of his fingers—his most prominent gift—he sent a blast of explosive air, knocking a knife from the hand of a woman intent on burying it in Jax. It had also knocked her to the ground, and Will had no idea how strong Rhys would be if allowed to develop the skill.

“After the last big earthquake,” Will told her, “this was rebuilt to withstand one of the magnitude that nearly leveled the city, and then some. I think it’s safe to presume that one little boy does not contain that much power.”

“It’s wiser to not presume,” she said.

“Your other option is to wait and allow me time to build a new facility for you. Perhaps retrofitting one of the buildings at the Wastelands complex, or a new build at the Ozoo complex.”

She waved him off. “If you’re confident he won’t bring the lab down on our heads, that’s good enough.”

He was going to argue. After all, she would eventually lease space at Ozoo and she knew it, she knew what the future likely held for baby Eli and herself—absent ending her marriage to Finn and moving to a new When to live out her final days. Will presumed that Eli would be himself, still interested in the same things, curious about how Finn built his original time machine, and he would want to play around with it.

“I’m not sure this Eli is the same as Finn’s father,” Aisha confided one night, as they cuddled in bed with the lights off. “What if he’s not?”

“Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Will. The Eli we first met, the one who cared for your sick mother, could have been your twin. And his eyes—that was the first thing I really noticed about him. They were as green as yours, just not quite as bright. The baby’s eyes are so blue they’re nearly violet.”

He’d noticed, too, and wasn’t sure how it was even possible.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We have the Old Mint—”

“It doesn’t matter as far as the end of the world,” she said. “But it matters to me. There’s a timeline coming up behind us, and I damn well want that Aisha to end up right here, basking in the afterglow, listening while you complain about Wick offering suggestions to you.”

That Aisha would never know the difference. Her life could take a new trajectory, with an unbroken heart. “The fact that we’re together now, when every other timeline registered in the old Mint suggests otherwise, might be an anomaly. We might be the lucky ones. It might never happen again.”

She told him to bite his tongue. “I swear, I’ll run through a portal myself and find the younger me and warn her what’s about to come, and I’ll make sure she knows that she just needs to be patient.”

Oh, tell her what you did.

Go on. Tell her.

If you don’t, I’ll go tell Drew and tell him to tell her. So start talking.

“Is it enough if the young Emperor has been spurred to make decisions that will get us right back here?”

“Will, what did you do?”

He’d told teenaged Will that his life wouldn’t end at 42, as expected. He would get the girl, start a family, and have—no matter how long or short it was—his happily ever after. “Once he was asleep, I suppressed the things I’d told him, and I implanted timed suggestions, things that would create a path to get him here and help him survive. He’s still going to break her heart, but he’ll make decisions along the way that will yield the same results. That includes allowing Aubrey to host the birthday party that brought you back to me.”

“Eli has to be born to make that happen. If this isn’t the same—”

“It is. He is. We just have to get him in the right place at the right time so that he meets my grandmother.”

Plant the idea in his head now, so that by the time he’s nineteen he’s ready to go.

“I am not playing with an infant’s mind, Wick.”

So wait until he’s three or four.

“He needs Jo’s cooperation, too, doesn’t he?” Aisha asked. “She’s why he left.”

He needed more than her want of leaving this When for another. Eli drew close to her because of her grief in losing Will. If they weren’t as close this time, he might not have a reason to go.

“Drew has assured me that they’ll cultivate that closeness. He and Oz intend for her to be their children’s third grandmother. And before you protest about the unfairness to Aubrey, she agrees. She understands the stakes, and it matters to her that Eli has Finn, and Finn has me.”

“This is the first When that Jo has her own grandchildren,” Aisha reminded him. “Their feelings—”

“I know. We’ll find the balance.”

I hear tiny feet in the hallway. At least pull a sheet up, cripes.

Aisha covered; Will did not.

Rhys shuffled into the bedroom clutching the stuffed bear Hyrum had given him. He squinted against the light and rubbed one eye, sniffing.

“Can’t sleep, sweetheart?” Aisha asked.

“I had a bad dream. The puppies were gonna eat me. Daddy kept saying they were only gonna lick me, but I was still scared.”

Will patted the mattress and told him to crawl up, and as Rhys wedged himself between them, he finally grabbed the sheet and tossed it over his lower half.

“Were you dreaming about being stuck in the tree?” he asked.

“Huh-uh. We were outside by the donuts and they were running and jumping and trying to bark. But they could only go ‘yip yip yip!’”

“Big dogs or little dogs?” Will pressed.

“Little but they were bigger than Wick. There was three.”

Just about every dog is bigger than I am. Except maybe Chihuahua puppies.

“Rhys, dogs generally don’t eat people. Those puppies truly wanted to play with you, and puppies like licking little boys.”

“Wick said they were tasting me.”

“Wick.”

Hey, I was not present for his dream. I wasn’t even in there peeking.

“The Wick in your dream was teasing,” Will said. “I promise, puppies don’t want to eat you. They won’t behave as nicely as Scott’s dog because they’re not trained yet, but the worst one might do is lick you.”

“And you’ll laugh when they do,” Aisha said. “It tickles.”

“Maybe it hurts in my dreams,” Rhys said.

Will leaned over and kissed him. “All right, that’s fair. But it was just a dream.”

“What if I have it again?”

“Then you’ll come back here and tell us, and maybe we can make you feel better,” Aisha said.

“Can I stay here until I fall asleep? Then Daddy can take me back to bed?”

Will reached over and turned the bedside lamp off. “No kicking or squirming, all right? Your feet are within reach of things I prefer to not have kicked.”

“Okay.” He closed his eyes and tucked the bear in tight. “Why are you naked?”

“Sometimes I enjoy sleeping this way,” Will said. “Your mother often radiates an uncomfortable amount of heat at night.”

“Can I sleep naked sometimes?”

“If you like.”

“Not until you decide you want your own bedroom,” Aisha added. “Examples, Will.”

“Alex and Charlie are free—”

“Not until they’re completely out of diapers.”

“I won’t pee on you,” Rhys sighed.

“This,” Will whispered, “is not a conversation I ever would have guessed I would have even as recently as six years ago.”

“Oh, hon,” Aisha snickered, “we’ve had far better conversations in the last five years that you never would have imagined then. Once he’s asleep, we might even have another one.”

Softly, Will placed a finger on Rhys’s forehead, sending him into deep sleep.

“I am not above this.” His fingers lingered a bit, and when her eyebrow went up, he said, “I’m also not above nudging a bad dream into a decent one. I promised him a dog when he turns ten. I want—”

“You don’t need an excuse, Will. Except for that promise.”

“I’m obligated. He has a witness. A lawyer, even.”

I was witness, too. I’ll even remind him.

“Why would you remind him, Wick? You realize it means a dog in the building, which might be measurably worse for you than if a flock of pigeons wound up inside.”

You’ll train the dog and I have a hover cart. I’ll get used to it.

“Puppies are not predictable,” he warned.

But they stop being puppies. I’ll be fine. You don’t even have to wait until he’s ten.

“We’ll wait until he’s ten because that’s what I told him.”

We’ll see.

Even Aisha laughed at him.

~

Hyrum skipped over the notion that Will and Rhys were there to play games and asked Jo to include him in her testing. He understood he’d suffered brain damage from his father repeatedly beating and shoving his mother down the stairs before his birth, and he wanted to see it. He wanted Jo to see it. She knew more about brain things than anyone he knew—more, he suspected, than even Dr. Brian—and he hoped she could explain to him what was wrong.

Jo felt an unexpected surge of reluctance. Ideally, she wanted to include him—she’d wanted a look at his brain since she’d met him, a want that doubled when she learned about his ability to throw electricity—but she also worried he would ask her to fix the damage. Her concern was amplified by knowing that she could do that; she could take him through a portal, stick him in a surgical tank, and allow the nanobots to carefully repair much of the damage done to him. What she didn’t know, what none of them knew, was how that would affect his personality. No one knew if it would change him, better or worse.

No one wanted to risk infantilizing him, and especially no one wanted to turn him into another Levi.

Hyrum just wanted to see. There had been other scans of his brain, but he’d never paid attention to the images displayed for his mother to fret over, nor to the scans done when he arrived in Pacifica. All he’d wanted then was a cheeseburger, a bath, and to deliver his message to Aubrey, though not in that order.

“We’re treating this as a game,” Will reminded Hyrum while Jo accessed her old test files. “Rhys is here to play, and we don’t want him to think he’s doing anything more than getting to do something fun that his little brother and sister don’t.”

Hyrum understood. “Can we tell him he wins a lot? It’ll be more fun if he wins a lot. I know Drew lets me win games sometimes and it’s fun.”

“Drew doesn’t let you win as often as you think,” Will chuckled.

“We’re gonna learn how to play poker. Drew says people play for money, but we’ll play for pieces of candy. That way everyone wins, on account of the winner will share.”

“Hyrum, I’ve played poker with him. He wants to play for candy because he’s afraid you’ll win all his money.”

When Jo was ready, they gathered around the cluster of monitors set up in a semi-circle on the right side of the testing space. She’d pulled up old footage of Will when he was a little older than Rhys. He was playing video games with a young Brian Massimo, and Jo was off to the side monitoring the influx of data. Will’s brain lit like twinkling Christmas lights, pops of color here and there, moving around as the game progressed.

She then switched to footage of him at twelve. In one test, he had placed a hand on Finn’s bare forearm; Jo pointed to the spot in his brain that had flared bright red as he listened to a specific thought Finn shared. In another he ran on a treadmill, competing against a male technician. In a third, unintended data capture, Will’s brain went haywire as a younger female tech walked past. There was nothing salacious about it, but he was twelve and had only recently started humping things around the house.

“You did what?” Drew asked, snorting.

“Shut up.”

“Do we get to play video games?” Rhys didn’t care about his father’s hormonal impulses. He wanted to get started. “Hyrum and me wanted to play Word Wizard.”

“Hyrum and I,” Will corrected.

Rhys frowned. “Well, you can play, too, but it was my idea, so I get to go first, okay? Can we play it?”

“It’s not free,” Hyrum said. “I forgot to ask if I could buy it.”

“You don’t need permission.” Will turned to the closest computer terminal and began searching for the game. “You only need to ask if something is appropriate before allowing Rhys access.”

“That’s what I meant,” Hyrum sighed.

I want to see what Rhys’s brain does when you correct his grammar. I bet it’s not a happy color.

“Wick.”

You know what he meant, and he tries hard. He’s not even four yet. And think about what always being wrong made Hyrum feel like when he was little.

Will hesitated before finishing the game purchase. “Point made and understood.”

Jo explained how they would be hooked up to the computer; they would have fewer wires than Will had been forced to tolerate, but their brain scans would light up the same way. “We’ll use the game as a baseline, and then move on, all right? Half an hour or so.”

“That’s not very long,” Rhys grumbled.

“I know, but we have a lot of games to play today.”

He still thought it wasn’t enough time, until Will promised he and Hyrum could play again when after lunch. “We won’t be doing this all day. And if you decide you’re not having fun, we’ll stop. All right?”

The game, which involved earning imaginary points and trinkets for spelling words correctly, went on longer than Jo intended. She fell prey to Rhys’s requests for “just a couple more minutes because we’re almost done with this level” until they had completed it, their score nearly identical. Will sat back and watched, saying nothing when Rhys pressed for playing a little bit longer; his attention was largely focused on the monitors, watching the pops of color as they played, and the increasing intensity in vibrance the further along the game they went.

“Fascinating,” he mumbled to himself. Hyrum had clearly intentionally misspelled a word to give Rhys the edge at the end of the level, and his brain flared. “Pleasure,” he said to Finn, who leaned close to see what Will was looking at. “Rhys was pleased to edge ahead but allowing it to happen made Hyrum truly happy.”

“We need to get Hyrum to play one of us,” Finn suggested. “See how he feels if he’s earnestly playing.”

That could happen later, without Rhys present. Hyrum wouldn’t want Rhys to see him struggle for victory, nor if he gave up.

Get Drew here. Have him play against Hyrum. Tell him to let Hyrum win at first and compare how he feels about being allowed to win against how he feels about letting Rhys win.

Will whispered to Finn, who nodded.

“Hyrum knows Drew often lets him win. Make it obvious.”

“That feels a bit manipulative,” Will said.

Hyrum already agreed that he might not like some of the tests. He understands what Jo is doing.

“Somewhat,” Will said. “He understands she’s looking at the areas of his brain damaged before birth. He doesn’t know she’s also using him as contrast between the results I had as a child and Rhys’s results now.”

She’s also hooking you up, you know.

“I am aware.”

She should compare your sparky sponge ability against Hyrum’s. Last person to light up loses.

“Very funny.”

After the game ended, Will was the next hooked up to the computer. He repeated games played when he was Rhys’s age, and others from when he was older. Jo stood back, eyes darting between Will and the displays, eyebrows furrowed. When he’d run through them all, she added Rhys and Hyrum, watching the monitors carefully.

“Will is obviously faster than he was when he was young,” she said to Finn, softly as to not disrupt the testing. “His sense of reasoning is obviously more age-appropriate than it was, but this—” she gestured to a particularly bright area on the monitor “—is vastly different.”

It suggested that as a child, he’d had a heightened sense of fight-or-flight; he’d nearly always chosen to fight, awash in cortisol, not aware that the edginess he felt was somewhat internal. Finn wanted to know what it meant in a broader sense.

“It means our son was a terrified little boy. Even at play.”

Rhys, on the other hand, was evenly tempered and immersed in the joy of playing a game with no rules. To him, it was a video game in which he had to hit the big red button as quickly as he could when a new color flashed on the screen in front of him, and his goal was to beat Daddy to it. He mimicked Will, sometimes standing on one foot, sometimes running in place. Finn mused that data might be lost or skewed because Rhys and Hyrum both were having fun and, unlike young Will, were not competing for a clear win.

The Word Wizard game was forgotten. When Rhys slapped his button at the end of the test, he squealed and asked if they could play it again.

There were several games still to be played. Jo wanted to move onto their most basic of gifts, sparks dancing above fingertips. She quickly ran them through increasing skill levels; there was a metal target on the farthest wall of the massive room, and they spent fifteen minutes shooting ropes of electricity at it.

“Can we make a jump rope?” Rhys asked her. “A pretend one. Like we made when we were playing at Quinn’s.”

“Grandma hasn’t seen that, has she?” Will mused. “You’ll appreciate this, Mom. They’ve developed an interactive method to their abilities. This is the safest place for them to show you.”

As they had in Shivan’s Saint Francis back yard, Hyrum and Rhys stood close together, white light crackling between their outstretched hands. When they had enough energy moving between them, they began taking backward steps until they were ten feet apart. Each moved their hands in circles until they had a thick rope of white electricity and began turning it like a jump rope.

“Make a ball!” Rhys squealed.

The rope shot back into their hands and Hyrum created a soft ball of light, carefully tossing it to Rhys.

“Get a little closer,” Will said. “Let’s limit the possibility that one of you might miss and catch it in the face.”

“That won’t hurt me,” Hyrum said.

“But it might hurt Rhys. He clearly has some of your absorption capabilities, but we don’t know about impact and I’m not willing to test that.”

“I wouldn’t hurt him! I promise!”

Jo’s head snapped to the monitor. Hyrum’s brain was flaring red.

“I know you would never intentionally hurt him,” Will said. “But he’s still developing and might not catch the ball.”

The ball disappeared.

“I’m not doing this if it might hurt him. I’m sorry, Rhys. You’re so smart that I forgot that you’re so little.”

“It’s all right—” Will wanted to soothe Hyrum’s feelings before he ramped up, but Rhys ran to him and threw his arms around Hyrum’s legs. He didn’t say anything, but reached up to take his hand, and Jo watched as the flaring red in Hyrum’s brain rapidly settled.

“Curious,” she muttered.

Will didn’t care what she was curious about. He punched through the tension and announced that it was time for lunch, and they could play their video game while waiting for the pizza to arrive.

Hyrum perked up. “Can we have root beer, too?”

They were getting anything they wanted, whether Will realized it or not.

~

“So far,” Will told Aisha a week later, “I have fed them more junk food than I would care to see in six months. Worse, Hyrum seems to know where every greasy cheeseburger and pizza is on this side of town, and they all know him and what he prefers to order.”

Stick to delivery, then. Order from BlahBlahBlah Healthy Foodlike Products. Maybe you can get a giant box of Cleaner Colon and a side of Looks Like Barf.

“Wick, stop,” he sighed.

“They’ll survive on the junk for a bit. How much longer is Jo going to do this?”

“Two weeks, no more than three.”

“I want it over by his birthday.”

“I want it over before he starts school,” Will said.

Jo had promised to end the testing in plenty of time for the start of pre-school. She had already run them through most of their known abilities, discovering that along with Rhys’s ability to generate percussive energy and his empathic traits, he also clearly had Jax and Oz’s ability to see color in sound, but it was at will. He could choose to see the colors or not, depending on what he wanted to know.

Where concussive noises in large cities, with traffic and the hum of thousands of people gave Oz a headache for all the colors that slapped at her, Rhys could simply choose to not see them. But if he sensed a lie, he could sniff that out.

“He also has Zed’s ability to smell emotions and other things about people,” Will told her. “I am not, however, willing to test against Zed’s ability to hear the final thoughts of the dead.”

Can you test to see if he really does understand me? Sometimes I think he does.

That was next. We were all connecting to the system, after lunch, having a conversation. Jo wasn’t sure it would reveal anything, but she’d never peeked at my brain and had only measured Will’s when he spoke to me.

I was willing to let her shave me if it meant finding out that in time, Hyrum and Rhys would be able to understand me.

“If you tell her that,” Will said, “she will shave you.”

Only parts of my head. Can I have a mohawk? I would rock a mohawk.

“She doesn’t need to shave your head, Wick. We have leads small enough to adhere to your skin, even with your fur intact.”

Are you sure they’ll work?

“Why wouldn’t they?”

Well, given the massive range of my intelligence, she might need something a little sturdier.

“Trust me, that’s not an issue.”

I think he insulted me, but it was time for lunch and there was real live fresh dead shrimp, so I let it go.

~

Rhys and Hyrum were already hooked into the system when Jo pulled up video footage of Will at five and then at twelve as he carried on conversations with me. She grabbed still shots of the imaging of his brain, times when it was most active, to have a ready comparison of the real-time conversation we were about to have.

I kept my eyes on the monitor that would display the mapping of my brain as she placed the tiny leads on my head, watching as the picture popped up section by section, until there was a full-screen rainbow visual of how my brain worked. Everyone but Rhys was silent as they examined it. Hyrum got closer to see better—making me wonder if he needed to have his eyes checked—and then glanced at the monitor with his data.

“Wick’s brain has more colors,” he said. “Does that mean he’s smarter?”

Tell him no.

“This doesn’t measure intelligence,” Jo said. “Wick has less mass to work with, so his images will appear brighter than yours or Will’s. This is a matter of having similar numbers of electrical impulses in a smaller space.”

“Like sparks in a box,” Hyrum mused. “A hundred sparks in a tiny box is brighter than a thousand sparks in a big room.”

“Exactly.”

Damn, dude, that was creative.

Jo directed Will to sit with me on the floor, as he had when he was a child. She’d replicated as much as she could; there was a plush piece of carpeting on the floor, along with a tiny table. He didn’t need the table now, but when he was five, there was an assortment of small toys nearby, things he could grab when he felt anxious, things he could use as a distraction. Now there were graham crackers on a plate, snacks for Rhys and Hyrum when they sat down to talk to me.

What did we talk about before? I don’t remember.

“Initially, how boring this was. Though truthfully, I was at a loss as to the topic we should begin with. A conversation that occurs naturally is much easier than one contrived for data.”

We managed, though. But we also had a lot to talk about then. I think we were trying to figure out if cracking open one of the plasma batteries and licking it would give us superpowers.

Jo was not prompting us by reminding me of the things we’d discussed. Her eyes were on the data, particularly mine.

“Did we ever resolve that?” he wondered.

Mass guessed at what we were talking about and said the only thing it would get us was dead. I suppose we should pick something else. Maybe we can bitch at each other this time.

That made him chuckle. “Fine. What’s on your mind, Wick? What list of complaints do you have for me?”

That could take a long time.

“We have enough time.”

I don’t really have any. I have suggestions, though.

“Do I really want to hear them?”

Does it matter? We’re here to talk. So I’m talking. First suggestion. Take the stick out of your asterisk. Making Rhys wait until he’s ten for a dog seems…arbitrary. Why wait?

He hesitated, not wanting Rhys to know what I’d said.

“It seems appropriate in terms of his ability to handle the duty of care required.”

You’re gonna get stuck with most of that no matter how old he is. The point isn’t being able to do all the work.

“Then what is the point?”

Unconditional love.

“He has that.”

But he won’t always grasp that. He needs someone who will be happy to see him no matter what, even if he’s been a little shit all day or had a dozen temper tantrums. He needs someone who won’t see the little boy with the big brain, someone who won’t treat him like he should be fourteen when he’s still just four.

“I hear you.”

You had that. You had me. Finn didn’t find me and say, well, Will isn’t ten yet and he’s not ready to deal with scooping poop and regular feeding, so I’ll leave this cat right here. He picked me up and said he had a little boy who would love me.

“He did, didn’t he?”

That’s all that really mattered. I needed someone and he knew you would love me. And I know you’re going to wonder how Alex and Charlie will feel, and what if they want their own pets, too.

“Well, I’m certainly wondering about that now.”

It doesn’t matter. It’s not math so they’re not part of the equation. Besides, I don’t think they’ll need a pet as much as Rhys does. But even if they do, cross that bridge when you get to it. Maybe they’ll just want hamsters or fish.

“Is there a particular reason you’re bringing this up now?”

Glance over my head at his monitor. He’s listening, isn’t he?

“You believe he understands you.”

When he wants to. But he’s only a couple of weeks short of turning four, Will. I don’t think he has the restraint to hold back if something goes his way. And we both know, it’s an issue you’ll fold on. Because you had me, and you needed me. You know how that feels. You know how he feels.

“Indeed.”

So just admit, he gets to have a dog, and he gets it soon. Like, for his birthday.

He glanced at Rhys’s monitor.

“I have to discuss it with Aisha, but I understand your reasoning. He should have this sooner rather than later, though I’m wholly against that sort obligation as a gift.”

But you agree, he would benefit from getting a dog.

“I do now.”

Rhys’s hands went to his chest and he sucked in a tiny breath.

He’s listening.

“I believe you’re right,” Will said. “Though I’m less sure of his awareness in the matter.”

I’ll settle for his lack of awareness right now. It just means that someday he’ll be able to talk to me. And I might need that, Will. You can Drew aren’t going to live forever.

“Not something I wish to contemplate.”

I know, but the truth is that I might be like Finn, and he’s going to live longer than anyone thinks is possible. If Rhys has your life span, then I’ll have nearly two centuries more of someone to talk to. “And you do need that,” Will mused.

As much as Rhys needs a dog. And I’ll be okay with it, I swear.

“You’ll tease it with your hover cart, chasing it up and down the hall.”

Of course, I will.

If he had any doubt before, Rhys’s quiet giggle convinced him.

The boy understood me.

~

“Just talk to him,” Will told Hyrum and Rhys. “When he meows, give him a chance to finish before saying something else.”

The three of them sat in a little circle on the rug, and I perched on Will’s legs where I could easily see both Rhys and Hyrum. They asked questions—what’s your favorite food, do you like being a cat, who owns you—and as instructed, they waited for my answers before moving on, glancing at Will’s face to be sure it was all right to ask something else. We established that being a cat was fine, though there were times I wished I had thumbs and access to an infinite number of food cans in a wide variety of choices, and that I had never considered myself owned so much as cared for. I enjoyed having free reign in the building, and I slept with whomever I felt needed the company most, or whomever I wanted to pester just for the fun of pestering them. Sometimes that was Will, sometimes Jax, often it was Drew, but many nights I spent an hour or two on each of their beds, making sure they weren’t having bad dreams.

My turn.

“Wick wants to ask you things now,” Will said. “I’ll be his translator, but when you answer, be sure to talk to him, not me.”

Do you still want to be a scientist and a wizard when you grow up? I asked Rhys.

“Uh huh. But they’re the same thing. Kinda. I want to go to space like Drew’s gonna, or work on his tiny robots and make them tinier. Oh! Or maybe invent a new spaceship that can get to the moon in five minutes or maybe an hour.”

What about you? I asked Hyrum. If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

I thought he would need time to consider it, but it rolled off his tongue without hesitation. “A pastor, I think. But not the way it works in Florida where any man can be a priest or bishop or talk in church about his testimony. I think I’d like to be one more like Father Dan. But maybe not just Catholic. A pastor for everyone.”

You could do that, you know.

“Nuh. You gotta go to school for that.”

Rhys perked up. “I’m going to school soon. You can go, too.”

“I’m too old. And besides, that kind of school is probably really hard.”

There has to be something that would let you share your faith with people, and minister to them without getting a degree.

“Maybe, but I don’t know how.”

Will probably knew but was staying out of the conversation.

“You could start your own place for people to go,” Rhys said. “If you open your own place, no one can make you go to school.”

“You can’t just start a church, Rhys.”

Why not? That’s basically how religion starts, right?

“God has to tell you to do that, I think.”

Maybe God just did, and that’s why it occurred to you.

“I dunno. I have two jobs already. If I did more, that would be selfish.”

You don’t have to keep those jobs forever, you know.

Hyrum was horrified at the idea he would ever be willing leave Ozoo or stop helping Zed at Alcatraz. “They need me!”

“You should do what you wanna and not what they wanna,” Rhys told him.

You are allowed to quit a job when something better presents itself.

“I like my jobs, though. I don’t want to quit.”

Even if you could one hundred percent be a minister?

“No, I really want to keep working with Drew and Zed. They make me think a lot.”

There you go, then. That’s what you truly want to do.

“If you were a person what would you do, Wick?” Rhys asked.

King of the World, kiddo. I’d run it all.

“Jax says being king is hard work,” Hyrum said. “You’d miss lots of naps.”

This is true.

“You should be a doctor like Doctor Cheshire. You listen good, just like him.”

“Who’s he?” Rhys asked.

“He’s my special doctor. He helps me feel better about my daddy.”

With that, Will declared the conversation over. Surely Jo had gotten what she needed, and he didn’t want Rhys to learn any more about Levi Munson than necessary. “It’s time for lunch. What do you want?”

Waffles.

Waffles.

Waffles.


“Waffles,” they said at the same time.

“Lots of butter and syrup,” Rhys added.

I’m a benevolent dictator, Will. I give the people what they want. And they wanted the suggestion of waffles. You’re welcome.

~

Years earlier, Will spent time with his mother as she laid dying. He’d gone forward thirty-five years on Drew’s request, to let the people who had loved him and lost him know that this time, he’d lived. While that wouldn’t change their loss or the grief they’d suffered, Drew hoped it would give them a sense of relief. He knew he would want to know; the idea that there was a version of himself that had existed and lost Will ate at him, and he wanted that man to know that his Emperor had not died in the next loop of time.

He was right. The Andrew who had been Midlam’s King was happy; Oz was happy. Jax and Aubrey were thrilled, and Finn was a scattered mix of overjoyed and curious, wanting all the details. But lost in the settling dust was his mother. Jo had left that When for one in which she hoped she would be able to live without an anchor, and it was there he visited, hoping to bring some peace into their relationship.

Will was angry and at odds with the mother waiting at home; she’d known he could learn to control his gifts when he was young, and never hinted that he could have the normal life he craved. But the woman who laid in bed with a Nightwatch switch plugged into her arm, ready to end her own life, deserved to see that her son would eventually live. He wanted that for her and wanted to give her hope.

She’d spent the years after his death trying to understand how he came to be, hoping to pinpoint why her son could touch someone and read their thoughts. She played with miniature versions of Finn’s egg-shaped time machine, sending small animals into null space, then animals that had been bred, and those offspring had unusual gifts of their own.

Her conclusion: she’d exposed Will to null space in utero, and she was the reason he was afflicted with his abilities. Comforted by his forgiveness, she died in his arms, believing the gifts would end with him.

She hadn’t known about Hyrum, who had never been exposed to null space, nor any of his family members who each had quiet gifts of their own.

She hadn’t realized that I was the product of her experimentation, offspring of one of the cats she’d sent off, and that I was later stuck in null space for the same 400 years as Finn.

That Jo died believing Will could safely have children and not pass anything on.

Our Jo had listened to Will’s retelling of the experimentation, was appropriately horrified that she had ever, in any lifetime, risked the lives of innocent animals to quench her curiosities. She accepted it as truth until Hyrum came along, and after Will had spoken to older Hyrum thirty-five years in the future and learned of his siblings’ abilities, dismissed it and mourned the things done to me.

“That never had to happen,” she told Will as they set up for the next round of testing. “I suppose if she had known more about Aubrey’s empathic abilities, she never would have considered it.”

Will didn’t know if future Jo had been aware of the things Aubrey could do; he accepted that he had, after all, passed something along to Rhys, and was certain that those abilities came from Aubrey’s side of the family. He was also certain that there was some component of exposure to null space involved; there was nothing else to account for me, and nothing in the Munson line to explain how long Finn would live, and he would live for a very long time.

Maybe it’s not genetic. Maybe it’s evolution.

“If that were the case, I would have expected far more people such as myself when I was growing up,” Will said.

Who says people would be open about it?

I still think they’re here, now, and just hiding.

And maybe it’s not in your brains. Maybe there’s something different about your DNA. Or kidneys. Who knows?

“That might be next,” Jo surmised. “But for now, we’re playing with brains, and using Drew as a control.”

I thought you wanted to look at functioning brains.

“Hey,” he barked from across the room. “I heard that.”

Will flipped some switches on the computer console. “Ignore the sarcastic feline. And be ready. I’m turning this on in three seconds.”

Drew’s brain was an explosion of color. Even when he wasn’t talking or interacting with Jo’s tests, it fired off as if he were playing games with Rhys and Hyrum, and when he spoke with me, the brightest was a thin line that Finn traced on the monitor with his pointy finger.

There were dozens of lines in Drew’s brain, threads that had set after his initial transponder was placed, and there were smaller, newer lines from the secondary transponder he’d gotten that was specifically programmed to operate his nanosuit. It was a line from the original that intrigued Finn. He compared it to images of Will’s brain and of his own, and when he was certain about what he saw, he turned to Will and said, “He’s the only one with this path. It specifically attached to the language centers of his brain.”

“Capture a static image,” Will said to Jo as he stepped closer to look at it. “We were positive that the simulator’s computer had given him a way to understand Wick, though I was never certain how.”

Jo wanted to know if the simulator’s system had access to the computers used to program the transponders. It was a program designed to learn, to accommodate anyone inside the simulation, and could have—theoretically—drawn on the original program to create this neural pathway.

She grabbed an image of Rhys’s brain and displayed it next to Drew’s. “He has a transponder,” she said. “Just curious if it created the same pathway.”

It had not.

“Rhys’s abilities are organic,” Will said. “This does mean—” he pointed at Drew’s picture “—that if we can find the code within the simulator’s programming, we might be able to replicate it. Anyone’s transponder could be programmed to understand Wick.”

“Or any animal, really,” Jo mused.

No.

“No?” Will repeated.

I’d like to be able to talk to everyone in the family, but I don’t want to risk anyone. Drew’s brain is unique. It might damage someone else. Let it happen naturally.

“Or,” Drew said, “we can replicate the code into an external translator. Piggyback off an existing universal translator and see if that would allow family to communicate with him.”

“Well?” Will asked me.

I had no ready answer for him. Until that moment, I had deeply wished that everyone could understand me. It would make my life easier.

I looked over at Rhys and Hyrum, who were playing on the rug. Hyrum was on his back, and Rhys ran a toy car up and down his legs and chest, giggling wildly when Hyrum stuck out his stomach and flicked the car off.

They were both close to being able to understand everything I said, and I wanted it to happen.

Yet, I suddenly felt as if I needed to guard that gift.

When something special is given to everyone, it stops being special.

Drew opened his mouth to argue, but Will nodded and said he understood. “Perhaps later, when we know if the other kids can understand you. There’s no hurry and no obligation to allow this to happen.”

“But the data—”

“No, Andrew. Wick is right. For the same reason we don’t share the portals with the world, nor with every family member, we won’t intrude on Wick’s wish that this gift be organic. If he changes his mind, we can pursue it then.”

And no doing it behind my back, all right?

“I won’t, but I don’t get it, Wick.”

“Think about it,” Will said. “When you realized that you understood him, didn’t that make you feel a bit, well, special? Pride undefined, perhaps. But you could do something that only one other person could.”

Drew’s concern wasn’t how special he was, but how improved my life might become.

I asked him to pick me up and hold me close to his face.

My life is fine as it is. But if everyone can understand me, Hyrum and Rhys might stop sharing their secrets with me.

“They know you’d never tell.”

But they’ll think twice, and right now, Hyrum especially needs a sounding board. The only people I can tell are you and Will. If I can talk to everyone, if I slip up and let something out, then everyone will know.

“And they know neither Will nor I would ever tell.”

Not unless it was an emergency.

“All right. We’ll leave it alone. But, damn, Wick…if Oz could understand you?”

She’d kick me out of the room at night. She doesn’t really want to hear the things I tell you. Not everyone wants suggestions. And you really don’t want her to know you’ve done some things I’ve told you to.

“True.”

Next time I tell you to lick an armpit, dude, don’t listen.

Will snorted, but Hyrum giggled. Drew set me down and groaned, and then wholly agreed: the entire world did not need to know what I was thinking.

~

It was another week before Jo was ready to continue. She had agreed to several Hyrum’s requests, specifically testing while he did “sparky-sponge things.” He wanted to know what happened when he pushed his own limits, when he handled electricity that didn’t come from himself, and to do that she needed to protect everyone else.

While she combed through the data of everything done during the previous week, Will supervised the construction of an insulated chamber in which Hyrum could play with increasing voltage without risking anyone else. He made sure that there was a giant window so that Hyrum could see and be seen, and thick enough that no matter how hard Hyrum went, it wouldn’t break.

“It’s not glass,” Will said when I asked about flying shards. “It’s a composite. Fireproof, electric proof, percussive proof, and for good measure, it’s four inches thick.”

I hopped onto the desk and sat next to the keyboard, so I could see inside the chamber.

It looks like glass. It’s like looking through those giant aquarium walls.

“Similar composition, but a much higher grade.”

It looks heavy. It’s heavy, right?

“Indeed. The chamber will remain here unless we need it elsewhere. Moving it would be more difficult than its construction.”

Inside, the chamber only contained two small Hyrum-waist-high tables with curved metal pieces pointed toward each other, a foot apart. Thick cables went down the sides of each table and across the floor, covered with wide pieces of heavy tape. It took up nearly a quarter of the floor space, which was enough real estate to install an apartment for six people.

The buffer zone was probably unnecessary given the control Hyrum typically displayed, but no one was taking chances.

What’s that? The two tables with the cable thingies.

“Conduits. The electricity will arc from one side to the other, and Hyrum can do with it as he sees fit.”

Hyrum was sitting on the throw rug with Drew. He had a pencil dangling from his lips and another in hand, drawing a picture of dragons flying over water. Rhys was not present for this test; Will left him at home with Aubrey, placating his upset over being left behind with the promise that he could spend the morning playing with his brother and sister, and that Marco would come upstairs to play, too. And when Aisha was done with her classes for the day and he was done here, they would go to the park to play and then out for pizza.

“Just pizza?” Finn asked after Will explained where Rhys was.

“We’ll see,” Will sighed. “Ice cream may have been implied.”

“Can I go?” Hyrum asked. “I know where the best pizza is. And Sean works there.”

Drew looked up from his drawing. “Hell, I want to go. The pizza there is amazing. Super thin and crunchy crust, and the pepperoni bites back.”

“Maybe we should take Oz on a date,” Hyrum said. “I can drive. Then you can drink. Will can drink, too. Even Aisha.”

Just what the kids need to see. All of you drunk off your asterisks.

“Perhaps the two of you should take Oz on that date,” Will said. “We’ll take the kids on a less adult outing.”

“Hey, we can make Oz drive,” Drew said to Hyrum. “She can’t drink right now but you can.”

“Aubrey might get mad if I drink. She says things to Jax when he takes me to Fuzzy’s.”

“She’s not really upset when we go to Fuzzy’s, Hyrum. You know how she sighs and rolls her eyes a little? She’s more amused than anything.”

“Truly,” Will said.

“Will Rhys’s feelings get hurt if I go out with Drew instead?” Hyrum asked Will.

It didn’t matter if it bothered Rhys, but Will wouldn’t risk upsetting Hyrum by leaving room for any doubt. He assured him that Rhys would be fine because he was getting an afternoon in the park; instead, he suggested that they take me along, because my life would be incomplete if I missed seeing Drew throw up after just a few shots.

Hyrum’s eyes went wide. “We’re getting shots?”

“Not those kinds of shots. Little glasses of booze.” Drew got up from the floor and then held out a hand to help Hyrum. “It’ll be your reward for letting Jo peek inside your head. She really digs stuff like this.”

“I do,” she agreed, and then gestured to the chamber. “We’re ready when you are.” He jumped up and skipped to the entrance, eager to begin, but hesitated before stepping inside. “Promise no one can get hurt?”

“No one will be hurt,” Will said.

“That’s not a promise,” Hyrum sighed. “You have to promise.”

The baby Jesus will cry if someone gets hurt.

“You’ll make the baby Jesus cry—”

Will held up a hand. “I promise. This chamber was built to withstand more energy than even you can handle, Hyrum.” When he seemed doubtful, Will added, “I designed it personally. We could set off a bomb in there and everyone outside the chamber would be safe.”

Sure about that? I asked after Hyrum was inside, while Finn pulled the massive door shut.

He was sure. The chamber could hold up to the amount of power he’d harnessed from the old solar farm years before, when he needed more electricity than the city could afford to use to send Finn through a gate built on the Bay Bridge, just to get him home. Finn’s time machine didn’t have a problem with that much power, and neither, he swore, would this.

“Well, the ship was a bit on the crispy side when it stopped,” Finn said. “Still functional, though I was never able to rid it of the stench of burning polymers, even after the hull was replaced.”

You didn’t melt,” Will said as he flicked a switch that opened the communications system between the chamber and lab. “Can you hear me, Hyrum?”

“Uh huh. What do I do?”

He instructed Hyrum to carefully examine the conduits and the control panel in front of it. Will had built it with simplicity in mind; he didn’t want Hyrum to have to stop to ask questions and wanted it to be as intuitive as possible. There were only three controls: start, pause, and stop. Everything else was in Will’s hands. He controlled the slow of energy, and if he felt that Hyrum was pushing limits he didn’t understand, he could stop everything.

“The green switch means ‘start,’” he said to Hyrum. “The yellow switch means ‘pause.’ If you need a break, flip it and the conduit will power down but not shut off. If you need to stop completely, use the red switch. That will stop everything, and the unit won’t turn on again until it’s cooled down.”

“Okay. When do you want me to turn it on?”

“When you’re ready. Take your time.”

Hyrum flicked the green switch and wrapped his fingers around each conduit. He giggled when he felt the electricity being to move through him—it tickled—and then asked if he was doing it right.

“You’ve got it,” Will said. “I’ll gradually increase the power. Tell me if it begins to bother you.”

He and Drew had seen Hyrum absorb a fair amount of power. When we followed him on his trek across Midlam, he’d run into the shell of a wrecked air car that buzzed with power leeching from sheared cables, and none of it affected him. One foot on an active cable would have killed either Will or Drew, but for Hyrum it was merely an obstacle to avoid tripping over when he had a crash victim in his arms.

“What about the leads attached to his scalp?” Drew asked Will. “If he really gets cooking, will they melt?”

The wires Will had attached to Hyrum were wrapped in the same material Drew created for his space suit. Enmeshed with nanobots programmed to activate under stress, they would spread out enough to keep the heat from destroying the leads, and if necessary, would slide under the spots where the leads adhered to Hyrum’s skin and force the wires to detach.

“The bases are covered, Andrew. However—” he pointed to the big red button on the secondary control panel “—I want you near that at all times. If Hyrum is clearly in distress and my attention is diverted, hit it.”

“What if I hit it prematurely? Will that screw things up?”

“The worst that will happen is that we wait for the system to reboot. The conduits will need to cool, but if Hyrum chooses to, we can resume.”

“So, no harm, no foul. Got it.”

Jo and Finn sat in front of the cluster of monitors, monitoring data and imaging while Will focused on Hyrum, who now looked bored, waiting for something fun to happen. Slowly, Will increased the amount of power fed through the conduit, until Hyrum giggled again. He lifted a finger on each hand and sent threads of electricity from one finger to the other, until there was a short, thick rope running between them.

Will asked him to pull the conduits closer together without taking his hands off, and then span the distance between them with one hand. “Little finger from your left hand on the left one, index finger on the right.”

“Huh?”

Pointy finger.

“Pointy finger,” Will repeated. “Then let go with your right hand.”

He did as he was told, then wondered what he was supposed to do. Will left it open to his whims. Create sparks. Balls of light. Whatever he wanted to play with, as long as he kept a hand on the conduits.

Hyrum began with a short cascade of sparks that spilled over his hand to the floor, and as Will increased the power, it became a shower that shot several feet into the air.

“He’s like a human sparkler,” Drew mused.

Hyrum rubbed his fingers together, working the light into a ball. We’d seen this before; he taught Rhys to create small balls of light that he could then throw, but he worked longer, and the ball grew large enough that Will and Drew squinted against the brightness of it.

“Hyrum,” Drew said, “have you ever let power seep out from anything other than your hands?”

“Sometimes. But I’m not allowed on account of I set fire to my pants once.”

“Can you get your shirt off without letting go? And then limit it to your torso?”

The ball disappeared, and Hyrum yanked his shirt off over his head, letting it dangle from his left arm. “No making fun of me,” Hyrum said. “I know I’m skinny.”

“I would never,” Drew said.

“Joe used to. ‘Eat a cheeseburger, Hyrum. God.’ I can’t help it. I eat a lot, but I stay skinny.”

“Your metabolism is very high,” Will said. “We know that. And we will not shame you for it.”

“Promise?”

In unison, they all said, “Promise.”

I like Joe but that’s a dick kind of thing.

“Joe just teases. He don’t know about it hurting my feelings.”

Hyrum grabbed the conduits with his free hand, let go with his left to let the shirt fall, and then grabbed on with both hands. He closed his eyes, and a minute later his skin began to glow. He shimmered at first, tiny sparks of light dancing across his chest and shoulders, until he was enveloped in white light that ended half an inch from the waistband of his jeans.

“Will,” Jo murmured, “look.”

He glanced at the monitor. “Keep it up, Hyrum,” he said. “Are you comfortable?”

“Uh huh. My nipples got pointy.”

He gestured for Drew to keep an eye on Hyrum while he turned his attention to the monitors. Hyrum’s entire brain was lit, including the areas most damaged.

“Ask him a series of questions,” Jo said. “I don’t care about what but make them a bit more complicated than things you normally would.”

Will wanted to know why.

“Just a hunch.”

Finn reminded Will of the memory stick he’d once used to jar Finn’s amnesia loose. It was fake; he’d wired a battery to a metal pipe, but Finn didn’t know any better, and it worked. “Ask those kinds of questions first,” he said. “Work up to the hard ones.”

“Am I okay?” Hyrum asked.

“You’re doing fine,” Will said. “Jo is getting excellent information from you. Do you mind if I ask questions?”

“Like a test?”

“Essentially. There are no right or wrong answers, all right?”

“Okay.”

“What’s your full name?”

“Hyrum Charles Blackshear. On account of I’m not a Munson anymore.”

“Where were you born?”

“In Florida.”

“Specifically. What region?”

“North Carolina.”

“Did you live near the ocean?”

“Nuh. We were on the other side. But Red took me to the ocean a few times even when it wasn’t my birthday. We had fun. Daddy took us, too. He liked the ocean.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Red. Sometimes pink, though.”

“Favorite food?”

“Cheeseburgers. Or pizza. I can’t choose. I like them both.”

“Who’s King of Midlam?”

“Jax.”

“Who’s King of Pacifica?”

“Duh, Jax.”

“In which direction is Canada?”

“North.”

“How many things are in a dozen?”

“Twelve.”

“What’s two times eight?”

“Sixteen.”

“What’s point-five plus point-five?”

“One.”

“One-eighth times three-quarters?”

Hyrum hesitated. “That’s minuses and you know I can do minuses.”

Jo gestured to the monitor and mouthed, “He knows.”

“Six times twelve times four, divided by nine.”

“Lots,” Hyrum sighed.

Drew tapped Will’s arm; he wanted to ask questions.

“Hy, do you remember when we were working on the hoses that run air from cannisters to my helmet on the space suit?”

“Uh huh.”

“You had an idea on how to improve it but said you couldn’t find the right words. Do you know what you wanted to tell me?”

“Oh, yeah! You need a second set because the way it is now, if it tears, you’re not gonna be able to breathe.”

“It’s pretty sturdy material.”

“But it’s on the outside and things might hit you or you might snag on something like my shirt snagged on my bike when I was cleaning the chain. You need another tube that goes under the suit right to your nose. And the nanobots need to seal off your air tank if it cracks or something so the air goes into the tube under your suit. Like the tubes that give air to fishes in tanks but maybe flatter so they don’t poke you funny under your tights.”

“I’ll be damned,” Drew muttered. “That’s a terrific idea.”

“Can we do it?”

“Damn straight we’re doing it. It won’t add much weight.”

I jumped from Will’s shoulder to the desk to get closer to the microphone. Will’s eyes flicked from Hyrum to me and then back, and he nodded.

What kind of pizza is your favorite?

“Pepperoni.”

Do you know that you can understand me?

“Sometimes. I always try but sometimes you just meow.”

I just wanted to talk to you. And I wanted to be sure that you know I love you.

“I know. I love you too, Wick.”

You look like a glowstick right now, dude. You want Drew to take a picture? It’s kind of awesome.

“I never seen myself like this. Yeah!”

While Drew stepped back to get the entire chamber in the shot, Will began scaling back on the power, until it was just a trickle, and then he shut it off. Hyrum still glowed, but he let go and played with ropes of light and sparks until Will told him that they were done, and he could come out when he was ready.

Jo reached over and turned the microphone off. “He knew the answer to that math problem. Whatever you tell him—”

“I know, Mom.”

“Wait.” Drew shoved the phone into his pocket. “Hyrum, you still up for a few more questions?”

He lobbed a golf-ball-sized wad of light against the window. “Yeah. You want me to keep doing this, too?”

Hyrum could do anything he wanted; light ropes, balls, sparklers, anything that came to him as he listened to the questions.

“More like a conversation,” Drew said. “Like we did with Wick.”

“Okay. What do you wanna talk about?”

“Well, remember that girl who was flirting with you last week, when we went for burgers?”

“Nuh. She wasn’t flirting. She was just being nice.”

“She was flirting, Hy. Oz and I went back, and she asked about you. She wanted to know if you were single.”

“Okay.”

Drew pressed on, knowing how Hyrum felt. “So, do you think you might want to go out with her? Give dating a try?”

He lobbed another wad of light at the window, harder. “Nuh. I don’t want a girlfriend.”

“But you like girls.”

“Girls are nice. But only for friends.”

“Tread carefully,” Will whispered.

“Hy, how will you ever know if you want a girlfriend or not, if you never give one a chance?”

“I just know.”

“Girls are nice. They’re soft and fun to kiss—”

Sparks began to flit across Hyrum’s chest and stomach. “So?”

“You might like that.”

“So?” he asked, a bit more forcefully.

“And then there’s sex.”

The sparks flattened and became a thin sheet that pulled around him, and began to pulse, while he worked up balls of light with his fingers.

“Sex is fun,” Drew went on. “But if you don’t give a girl a chance—”

“I’m never doing kissing things!”

“I mean, it’s really fun.”

“No! I don’t want a girlfriend and I’m never doing kissing things! I don’t want to hurt anyone, Drew. I like girls but it would hurt, okay?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Drew said, but Hyrum wasn’t listening. He was surrounded by pulsing white and red light, and when it sounded as if Drew was going to continue speaking, Hyrum flung his arms wide, sending a wave of power that shook the floor and caused the monitors to jiggle.

“Stop it!” Hyrum shouted. “I won’t do it! I won’t!”

“All right,” Drew said calmly. “Are you okay?”

“No, it hurts. It never didn’t hurt. I don’t know why everyone likes it.”

“I’m sorry I upset you,” Drew said. “Remember, we told you that we might do things to make you mad? I went too far, and I’m very sorry.”

The light faded, and Hyrum stood in the center of the chamber, sweat pouring from his skin, trying hard to not cry.

“I promise, I will never do that again.”

Hyrum swallowed hard. “Did it work? Did Jo get good stuff? I’m okay if Jo got good stuff.”

Will looked to his mother, who nodded. “Indeed, she did. Are you ready to come out now?”

“Uh huh. Can I have a root beer? I’m really thirsty now.”

Drew shoved the massive door open, promising him he could have anything he wanted. If he wanted to stop at Fuzzy’s and get a real beer, Drew was buying.

Hyrum stepped out, shrugging his shirt over his head. “Maybe not beer. But I’m hungry again. Can we get something to eat?”

“Anything you want. And after, we can go to the office and work out details on your idea for the space suit.”

Dude, you can get Drew to do just about anything right now. Ask him for a raise. And a pony.

“I don’t want a pony,” he snickered. “Just a cheeseburger.” He went over to Jo and looked at the monitor. “Did you get good stuff?”

“The best stuff,” Jo said as she shifted the image on the monitor to a stream of data that probably made sense only to her. “Thank you, Hyrum. I have more information now than I can go through in a month.”

“Did I sponge up a lot?”

Will nodded. “The amount of energy you absorbed could power an entire city block for the afternoon.”

“Oh. Should I give it back? I can do that.”

“Wait, you still have it?” Drew asked. “You can store it?”

“He’s a sparky sponge, Andrew,” Will said, sparing Hyrum the mental gymnastics required to explain it.

“I’m kind of a battery, too,” Hyrum said. “I bet if you stick a plug in my mouth, I can turn on a lamp.”

“We will not,” Will said when it looked as if Drew were hoping he’d try it. “Hyrum is not a toy.”

“We can try it later,” Hyrum whispered to Drew, loudly. He turned to Jo and asked, “Did I pass the test?”

“You did wonderfully.”

“I can still answer questions if you want. I’m still hooked up, right?”

“You’ve given me more than enough.” She gave him a short hug. “Thank you, Hyrum. I appreciate all the time you’ve given me.”

He wanted to know how long it would before she could tell them anything about the games they’d played and what it meant. He wanted to know what his brain had told her, and knew she wanted to see how Rhys’s looked against Will’s.

“It could take a month or two,” she told him.

“That’s okay. Drew says you can’t be in a hurry when it’s science. Even though he’s in a hurry to finish his space suit on account of he needs it so he can go to Elysium.”

They left to get cheeseburgers and root beer, and on their way out, Hyrum excitedly reminded Drew to call Oz for their date, but even if she didn’t want to go he still wanted to get pizza on account of he’d get hungry again, and Drew could drink, but if he threw up he was cleaning it up his own self.

There was a stretch of silence after the door clicked shut. Will and Jo stood there, staring at static images of Hyrum’s brain activity, while Finn scrolled through the data they’d collected.

“You know,” Finn finally said, breaking the quiet, “give him a transponder, and it can reach those parts of his brain that aren’t firing off.”

“At what cost?” Will said. “We don’t know the long-term effects. How his personality might change. I’m already concerned about his life span, if we change anything, what will we truly be doing to him?”

“Why his life span?” Finn asked.

“He burns, Dad. His metabolism—”

Old Hyrum is old. You know how long he lives, right?

“I know how much longer he could have lived, Wick. His body gave out long before his spirit.”

You can say the same for most people. No one is really ready to die.

From the accounts Will had recently read, the Hyrum of his history was perfectly healthy and happy but went to bed one night and simply didn’t wake the next morning. There was nothing about his body to suggest why he had died. No cardiac event, no disease, nothing. He was old even for the average life of people in Pacifica at the time, but given his spryness and activity level, he should have lived longer.

“I have hopes that some of the things we learn now will help us keep him alive longer.”

Even old Hyrum?

Will nodded. “I will do what I can to extend his life, as well.”

“Shame on you, playing with the timelines,” Jo chided.

Finn chuckled. “His playing with the timelines is why another you didn’t die, and has offered to go forward to hump old, old, old Liam Finnegan.”

“She’s not having sex with him,” Jo sighed. “She’s offering her DNA. And if hers fails—”

“You will,” he finished for her. “I’m not sure why you’re waiting. Why he’s waiting. Go spit in a cup and get on with things.”

“He’s looking for the ideal host,” Will said.

“Incubator,” Jo said. “He prefers a human host. And no, I will not be that host.”

“I wouldn’t object,” Finn said. “If you wanted to—”

“No. If I give birth again, it will be yours, and we’ll raise him together. I don’t care if Liam’s DNA is identical to yours, he’s not you. There will be no physical contact with that cranky, contentious old lech, and I won’t have his child.”

Are they really still thinking about having another kid?

“Apparently,” Will sighed.

They’re kind of old.

“We’re not that old,” Jo said to me, even though Will hadn’t translated. “And quit looking at me like that. I don’t understand him, but I know him.”

You’re pushing eighty.

“Middle age, Wick,” Will said. “They’re barely over the halfway mark in terms of expected life span.”

For there. They live here. “Then we better get to it,” Finn said. “Go home, Will. We have things to do.”

Bounce, bounce, bounce. Done.

“Wick,” Will chuckled.

Jo tapped the top of my head and then planted a soft slap on the back of Finn’s. “Stop. Pull up the images of Will, Rhys, and Hyrum speaking with Wick. I’m oddly curious about those.”

Will wanted to see the more current images; why had Hyrum hesitated, and why did Jo think he knew the answer?

She pointed to a bright spot on the picture. “He did the computation and did it quickly. But the answer simply wouldn’t form well enough for him to express it. He doesn’t know that he could have answered correctly.”

Will traced a finger over fine lines on the image, and then asked Finn to magnify it. “Here,” he said, tapping on the monitor. “Call it a misfire, if you will. Perhaps fractions are truly beyond his ability to articulate.”

Then ask Aubrey to stop.

“She no longer attempts to teach him those, Wick. But this explains his frustration and why he’s so quick to anger when presented with them. Somehow, he understands that the answers are right there. He simply can’t access that information.”

Like, it’s on the tip of his brain’s tongue?

“Indeed. That’s frustrating for anyone.”

They spent the next hour poring over Hyrum’s brain. Jo needed time to compare the data, but on the surface, she believed Hyrum’s brain had mostly compensated for the damage, though there were spots that went, for lack of a better way to express it, haywire.

“Those are spots that can be repaired,” Finn said. “Just those, nothing else. I know you’re worried about his personality and what treatment might do—”

“It’s more than that,” Will said.

“His abilities?” Jo guessed. “I don’t think he’d lose them.”

“But we don’t know, and he truly understands them to be gifts. Losing those would devastate him.”

Ask him what he wants.

“Wick?”

Ask Hyrum what he wants to do. Explain the risks, but you need to let him decide what to do for himself. It’s his life. His choice.

“That’s not much different than giving Rhys the choice between an extra serving of vegetables and dessert. You know what he would choose, despite it not being the best thing for him.”

And sometimes dessert is the right answer. The difference is that Hyrum isn’t a child.

“Regardless, this may be an instance where his guardians need to choose for him.”

After work today, Hyrum is going out drinking with Drew. Like an adult. He has two jobs, like an adult. He’s trusted to roam all of San Francisco, like an adult. Either he is or he isn’t. It’s not your choice.

“All right,” Will said. “Consider this. The typical eighteen-year-old male, an adult, presented with two options. One is a woman who will, without question, engage in coitus absent prophylactics, something he desperately wants to try. The other is a woman who will, with reservation, engage with a prophylactic. If he chooses the first woman, he’s warned there will be a fifty percent chance he will contract an STD. If he chooses the second, that chance drops to less than one percent, but the condom will break. Which do you think he would choose?”

“What the hell, Will?” Jo sputtered.

“The point is that each situation carries a risk that no eighteen-year-old wants.”

“Needs more data,” Finn said. “Where’s the second woman, cycle-wise?”

“And does this hypothetical eighteen-year-old understand treatment protocols for sexually transmitted disease?” Jo asked. “His actual risk is low—”

“Don’t complicate this,” Will said, sighing. “The point is that with that information, a young adult might roll the dice, so to speak, and engage with the first woman. Those are the surface odds for Hyrum. Fifty-fifty. His gains versus losses.”

“It’s a poor analogy.” Jo said.

“But it illustrates my point.”

You’re the one complicating things, Will.

“How so?”

Hyrum only wants two things, really. To be good, and to be smart. Start there. Just ask him. If he had to choose, would he want to be good, or would he want to be smart?

“He’ll want both.”

He might surprise you.

It’s his choice, Will. Give him the information in terms he can understand, and then get out of his way.

~

Instead of sending me out with Drew and Hyrum, Will scooped me up and said I was going to the park and then out for pizza. He was afraid I would inadvertently push Drew into telling Hyrum about the things Will had discussed with his parents, and he wasn’t ready to defend his position. He wanted to discuss it with Aubrey and Jax first, and he especially wanted to give Jo a chance to comb through everything.

I could have stayed home, you know.

“Aubrey and Jax have an engagement to attend,” Will said. “You’d have been disappointed come dinner time.”

Who’s watching baby Eli?

“The old King.”

He can feed me.

“I can’t believe you still call him that,” Aisha snickered.

“Habit. I avoided his name for years, not wanting to influence Oz and Drew. In hindsight, I understand it was ridiculous.”

To be fair, that’s also what you heard growing up. Finn and Jo always referred to him as the old King when you were little.

“True. Though my mother referred to Finn’s mother as ‘the snowflake’ but that didn’t stick.”

“Snowflake,” Aisha repeated.

Will half-shrugged. “Charlie gets it from somewhere, you know. My grandmother was filled with joy and wonder, and quite a bit of…specialness.”

Quirky. She was quirky.

“Indeed. Quirky, in a fun way.”

“Nudist at heart?” Aisha asked, looking at Charlie as he chased his sister across the park grass.

“I have no idea. But she had the same earnest sincerity Charlie does, as well as his penchant for stating the obvious.”

He’d caught up to Alex, poking her with a finger. Tag, you’re it.

Giggling wildly, they turned on Rhys and began chasing him, and the air was thick with the mist of toddler joy.

“I can’t believe he turns four next week,” Aisha sighed. “And he starts pre-school. Where did my babies go?”

Have another one.

“Bite your tongue,” she told me. “I turn fifty next year.”

“Your age has little to do with a decision to have another child,” Will said.

“You got snipped, mister.”

“Which can be undone.”

She scooted a few inches on the bench and turned toward him. “You want another baby?”

“I am not opposed to having another child. That said, if you don’t, I’m not opposed to that, either.”

“I really don’t,” she said. “It’s not the number of kids, Will. But being pregnant? No thank you.”

Grow one in an incubator.

“I’m content with the size of our family. If Jay has children, we can borrow them every now and then.”

Jay was still nursing a broken heart. That wasn’t happening any time soon.

Rhys ran around the merry go round, Alex close behind. He kept circling it, round and round, until Charlie was dizzy and Alex was close enough to touch him. “Get on!” he shouted. “I’ll push.”

Charlie’s gonna hurl.

Rhys pushed slowly enough that no one’s stomach was at serious risk. There were high-pitched squeals of laughter, loud enough to draw other children out of the sand box and off swings to join them.

“Jo’s done with testing him now, right?” Aisha asked.

“She is. It will be weeks before she has data ready to share.”

“But?”

“But there was no doubt. That little boy has a myriad of gifts and I don’t think he’s scratched the surface. And while I refuse to isolate him because of it all, we need to nurture those gifts with extreme caution and care.”

“No idea what else might be coming at us?”

“All we know is that he’s suppressing some things, subconsciously or not.”

Tell her about the dog.

“We’ve discussed a dog,” Will said.

“Changing your mind about waiting until he’s ten?” she asked.

“I am seriously considering it,” he admitted, and then repeated the conversation we’d had. “Wick is right. I suspect Rhys will have issues similar to mine when it comes to relating to children his own age. Friendships might be difficult. A pet will afford him the unconditional love he will surely crave.”

“He has siblings. You didn’t have that.”

He didn’t think it would have been enough. “Having Wick helped keep me sane, I think. Being able to talk to him and play with him gave me a slice of childhood I otherwise would have missed. Siblings fight. Rhys is sensitive enough to absorb childish bickering and feel it as a personal attack.”

And even though I’m still here, I’m not his. He’ll feel that.

“Are you sure you’ll be all right if we bring home a dog?” she asked me. “This won’t happen if you feel like you have to avoid our apartment. We want you there.”

A dog is not a pigeon. I’ll be fine.

“I still don’t want to grant this wish for his birthday,” Will said. “He’ll be stressed and excited because of the start of school, and we’ve already purchased his bicycle. If we decide to proceed, perhaps in a few weeks.”

Give him an IOU. A birthday card with a puppy on it that promises he’ll get one in three weeks.

“Three weeks,” Will repeated, softly. Rhys was now running toward the swing set, and he laid across the seat on his stomach, slowly rocking back and forth, fingers digging in the dirt. “I’m not sure we can be that specific. When we’re able to get one for him depends on the animal shelter.”

It needed to be young, Aisha said. She appreciated the idea of rescuing an older dog, but she wanted him to grow with it. His experience with the feral dogs in the simulator made her think he would trust a puppy more. They would deal with the issues a puppy brought. They had Charlie; she was used to cleaning up messes.

“I’ve never had a dog,” Will said. “We’ll need a trainer. Someone who can teach me to teach Rhys how to handle one, and who can handle the thousands of questions that little boy will ask.”

Talk to Scotty.

“Scotty?”

He has a dog that Rhys likes. Start there. He might even know where you can find a puppy that needs a home.

“Sure. Consult with my wife’s old boyfriend.”

“You like Scott. Stop pretending it’s an issue.”

It’s only an issue when he thinks about the bouncy parts.

“Let’s get through his birthday and the start of school before we contemplate this again,” Will said.

What happens if he starts sparking at school?

“He knows to close his fists to snuff them out.”

If he notices. He doesn’t always.

“Will?” Aisha scooted closer to him. “What do we do? We’ve been so focused on not isolating him and giving him the chance to have friends, but Wick’s not wrong. He doesn’t always realize when there are sparks and light at his fingertips.”

It’s a bunch of little kids. Somewhere in that mix is another George.

Will looked past the swings, where the kids had congregated. “Rhys will have what I did not. George’s sister.”

Vicat was on the far side of the playground, watching everyone within sprinting distance of Rhys. There were other guards hiding in plain sight, eyes on the children around Alex and Charlie, but Vicat’s primary responsibility was the young prince who could, if he wanted, set the entire park on fire.

~

Just as Will finished paying for dinner, we felt the ground rumble. No one panicked—if it was an earthquake, it was a baby quake—though the chatter in the restaurant increased and a man in the booth behind us cracked, “See, I made the earth move for you.”

Neither Alex nor Charlie noticed the sensation, but it made Rhys giggle.

That wasn’t an earthquake.

“How so, Wick?”

It didn’t feel like one. It was more…boomy. The earth didn’t just move. It vibrated.

He glanced at the people around us. No one else was upset, and there was no damage, nothing falling off the walls or table. He was less certain about my assumption than I was, until his phone pinged. Then Aisha’s phone pinged. She grabbed hers before he could; it was Jay, texting in bold letters WHERE ARE YOU?

Will lifted his phone from the table while she answered him. MARKET & MONTGOMERY, EXPLOSION, DAD AND GEORGE HERE SOMEWHERE.

‘Are you all right?’ she texted back.

FINE BUT I CAN’T FIND THEM. IT’S A MESS HERE. PLZ TELL ME YOU’RE NOT HERE.

Will was on his feet and had snatched up Alex and Charlie before Aisha could hit send on her next text. We were two blocks away and could run there. Vicat raced in and grabbed Rhys, I jumped onto Will’s shoulder, and we ran.

The smoke hit us half a block down; Will thrust the twins at another guard and ordered him to take them home if it was safe, and if not, hunker down in the lab. He told Rhys to go with the guard, run behind and keep up; he wasn’t sure what we were heading into and thought Vicat might be needed.

He should have been more specific about the guard Rhys was supposed to follow.

~

Smoke was indistinguishable from dust; it hung in the air, stinging my eyes and nose, and Aisha covered her mouth with her hand. As we turned onto Market, the chaos thundered in frantic voices and agonized wailing. Half a block from the Market Street portal, the entire front of the Burger Bash restaurant and everything above it, the wall from ten feet all the way up, was fractured and crumbled, chunks of building materials and blackened pieces of artwork that had hung inside spilled onto the sidewalk and across the street. The tree that had already broken, the one Hyrum rescued a woman from when a branch fell, was completely down, its crown on the sidewalk with the trunk blocking all the bike lanes.

Sirens screamed toward the street from all directions, overhead and on the ground. A blanket of quiet desperation layered over panicked voices calling out names, and Jay’s voice rode the highest. He yelled for James and George, his voice insistent but not yet thinned by fear.

To the left. Jay’s near the tree.

Will barked out his name and Jay turned. His eyes went wide and he ran to us, confusion turning to anger.

“You brought Rhys here? Are you fucking nuts?”

Rhys stood a few feet behind his parents, and several feet behind Vicat.

Will snatched up his young son. “What did I tell you to do?”

“You said to run and keep up with my guard,” he answered, confused about Will’s ire. “I keeped up.”

He couldn’t ask Vicat to take him home. She scanned the detritus for her brother, focused on the voices around her, the sights and smells, anything that would point her to George. If she was aware of Rhys, it was peripherally.

“What happened?” Rhys asked.

“We don’t know, sweetheart,” Will said, his voice soft. “I don’t want you to look. Lay your head on my shoulder and close your eyes, all right?”

Rhys scrunched his nose. “I can help. It’s okay.”

“It’s not—”

“Rhys.” Jay’s hand went to his little brother’s back. “You know what my dad’s voice sounds like, right? Can you listen very hard? Listen for him, even if he’s whispering?”

Rhys nodded and cocked his head. After a few seconds, he pointed to a decorative cement lamp post that had fallen. It was strewn across the ground in massive, broken chunks and dust had puffed up around it. “Over there. I hear Isaac’s daddy telling Jay’s daddy to wake up.”

Will handed Rhys over to Aisha. “Stay here with Mommy,” he ordered. He set me on her other shoulder and told me to keep an eye on things. “Don’t get down unless you see something important. You could get trampled in the chaos.”

“Is Isaac here, too?” Rhys asked Aisha. “Is he okay?”

Zed and Sophia were supposed to watch him tonight. He’s probably with them.

He heard me. “Okay. He’s playing with Marco. Why was Daddy mad? I did what he said.”

Aisha heaved out a sigh and wrapped her arms around him a little tighter. “He meant for you to go with the guard taking Alex and Charlie home, sweetie. He’s not mad. You’re not in trouble.”

“Okay.” He squinted, trying to see what Will and Jay were doing. “I can help, Mommy. You need to put me down.”

“You need to stay put.”

“No.” Eerily calm and evenly, he said, “Put me down. I can help.”

Aisha twitched, but she didn’t argue. He slid from her arms and took her hand as he led us toward the bulky end of the lamp post. It was cracked in half, the heaviest part of it resting on George’s pelvis. James was next to him, unconscious, pinned by his legs. One arm was bent at an unnatural angle, and his face was bloodied.

Jay was on his knees near James’s head, bent over, pushing hair out of his eyes. He pleaded with his father to wake up, and George’s voice rumbled, begging Will to save James. Vicat crept alongside them on her belly, sliding her hand under the space between them, checking for blood and taking a quick measurement of the distance between the post and the ground. After checking the space between James and George she sat up, giving a slight shake of her head before grabbing her comm unit to call for an emergency tech with pressure equipment and a trauma kit.

One of the guards was there before she ended the call. He threaded a cable under the post, a tiny camera, examining the damage. There was a beat of quiet while we waited for him to say everything was fine, we just needed to roll it off them or find someone with giant muscles to pick it up. But, with a glance at the monitor in his hand, he told Vicat to call for additional medical personnel.

“Tell me,” George grunted, focused on Will. “Come on. I know I’m a dead man. I can feel it.”

“No.” Jay shifted, his face directly over George’s. “We’ll get you out of this.”

An EMT began strapping pressure cuffs onto both George and James, arms and legs, and a police officer ran another cable under them, measuring the pressure they suffered under. Will went to the far side of the post and looked at the images and pressure measurements, whispering to the EMTs.

“The truth, Emperor,” George demanded. “I won’t live through this. You can save James, though. Right? Please tell me you can save him.”

Will went back to him, kneeling by his head. “They have to lift this to get James out,” Will explained. “It has essentially crushed your lower torso and severed…everything. Once they lift it—”

“I die,” George said. “Blood pressure tanks, I bleed out, and I’ll be dead in under a second. What a fucking way to go.”

“No,” Jay barked. “We are not letting this happen.”

“Save your dad,” George whispered to him. “Please. And listen to me. Listen.”

Jay began pleading with Will. “Find a way. You can do it. You can do damn near anything. Save them both.”

“The time it would take to work this out would be the time your father needs in order to survive.” Will reached out, a hand on the back of Jay’s neck. “Allow him these moments.”

“Listen to him.” Vicat choked on the words but was still defiant. “Start talking, George.”

Jay gasped, fighting tears, but nodded.

“I love you,” George said, voice already tiring. “I’ve always loved you. From the moment James allowed us to meet…and I’m sorry. For everything. You were the light in my life… My will names you as Isaac’s legal guardian, but James—” his voice broke “—James is his other daddy. In both Whens. Please, take care of them.”

Jay sniffed his promise through his tears.

“Vicat,” George whispered, weakening. “I knew you’d want to stay with the Guard. Otherwise—”

“Shut up. I know that. I’m still his aunt. Goddamn you, George.”

“Emperor.” George’s eyes fluttered. “I’m sorry. So damned sorry.”

“I am aware,” Will said.

George managed a chuckle. “Still with that stick up your ass. Friend in the end despite it all. Fuck you, you know it.”

“I am aware of that, as well.”

“Jesus…”

Rhys let go of Aisha’s hand and moved close to Will. “Daddy, I can help. Let me help.”

Don’t get mad. He did something…Aisha had no choice.

“Rhys, there’s no time,” Will whispered.

“But I can make time.” He turned his face to the dust-choked sky, held his arms out from his sides, fingers curled to his palms, and then flicked his fingers out. Quiet snapped around us like a wet towel. The world stopped. Dust hung in the air. The EMT’s stood stock-still. The only other people moving and aware were Jay, Vicat, Will, and Aisha. There were no hearts beating around us, no terrified breathing, no tears of anguish.

“Dr. Brian is coming,” Rhys murmured.

The screaming silence made the sound of footsteps coming toward us loud and jarring. Will stood and turned, not at all surprised to see Brian Massimo sprinting around the corner.

“I was almost here when I heard Rhys’s voice in my head,” he explained. “What the hell?”

“We have to help Isaac’s daddy,” Rhys said simply. “You can save him.”

Will explained the situation as Mass absorbed the picture in front of him. He didn’t ask why the rest of the world was frozen; he’d learned a long time ago that nothing was ever simple with Will’s family.

Instead of telling Rhys it was impossible, he asked him how he thought it could be done.

“Daddy can jump him to your swimming pool,” Rhys said. “I can make him frozen, and then when you’re ready, you can save him. Okay?”

“I would need the exact coordinates,” Will told Mass. “From here to the tank.”

“Both of them,” Jay said. “Two tanks.”

Aisha wasn’t sure how long Rhys could hold everything still. “He’s just a little boy—”

“Time is stopped, Mommy,” Rhys said. “It won’t start until I say so.”

Will directed Mass to the portal on Market, just a few feet away. Once through, he could send someone with the coordinates; he would jump George first, and then James, and hope to hell that the post didn’t settle once George was no longer under it.

This is freaking eerie.

“Understatement of the century.” Will scooted on his knees to Rhys. “Is this hard? Don’t hurt yourself.”

Rhys stuck out his pointy finger on both hands, and poked Will’s cheeks until he was puckering. “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s not hard.”

“Do you know how you’re doing it?”

“Nope.”

Will had a hundred questions spinning through his head, but Rod bolted from the portal, computer tablet in hand. He had the exact coordinates for two life support tanks two hundred years in the future; they expected George first, and Will needed to be prepared to wind up in the tank with him.

“Take a deep breath and then hold it before you jump,” he told Will. “These are massive tanks, so there will be room. But you’ll be under the gel, so try to not breathe.”

He tapped the coordinates into his jump bracelet, told Vicat to head through the portal with Rod, and he would see her there.

“Make it quick, Bilbo,” Aisha said. “It might be harder than he thinks.”

He grabbed George’s hand, tapped the bracelet, and was gone.

“One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” Rhys muttered. Before he got to three, Will was back, coated in orange surgical goo. He grabbed James by the foot, and in a blink was gone again.

“Okay. JayJay, you gotta come over here. I’m gonna start everything again.”

Jay did as he was told. He got up and stood near Rhys, who again had his arms out, fingers curled over his palms. “No one’s gonna remember they were here, okay?”

Before they answered, he flicked his fingers, and the world began to breathe again.

~

Aisha wasn’t sure where to go. Once time restarted, the lamp post settled to the ground and the EMTs went about their business as if nothing were missing. The police officer asked Jay if he were looking for anyone, if we needed help, and once assured that all was fine, he sighed and said, “Damndest thing. Near as we can tell, it was a buildup of natural gas under the building. Who uses gas these days? Never heard of it in my lifetime. This is old-movie kind of stuff. Go figure.”

Or someone was cooking drugs in the burger joint.

My money is on the drugs.


He shrugged and wandered off to help someone else, far calmer than the situation called for.

“I have no idea if I should go through the portal or if I should take Rhys home,” Aisha said to Jay, who was clearly going to run through the portal when no one was looking. “Both? Take him home, then—”

Will, hair wet, barefoot, and dressed in a borrowed set of Mass’s professional pajamas, was suddenly there. He grabbed Jay by the wrist, then Aisha, and answered her question for her. In the time it took to draw a breath, we were in the hallway by Mass’s office door, bathed in blueish light that bounced off the brushed metal walls.

“How long?” Aisha asked before Will let go of them.

“Half an hour,” he answered. “I wanted them both intubated and well under before bringing you here. Their hearts aren’t beating yet. They’re still…frozen.”

Rhys flicked his fingers, and then reached for Will. “I unsticked them. Did we save them, Daddy?”

“I think so.” Will hugged him, then leaned his head back to get a better look at Rhys. “How did you know about the tanks, cowboy? We’ve never discussed them.”

Rhys pointed at Jay. “I saw them in his head.” Before anyone could chastise him for snooping, he added, “I didn’t mean to. He told Navi about getting a surgery and I was on his lap and I just see’d it.”

Jay exhaled hard. “Damn. Rhys, do you understand what the surgery was?”

Rhys whispered, “You had to get your wiener fixed.”

“Kind of. When I was your age, I was a girl—”

“Nuh-uh.”

“I was—”

Rhys shook his head sharply. “Hyrum says people aren’t always the same inside as they are outside and it’s the inside that counts.”

“Fuck, I love Hyrum,” Jay murmured.

Rhys leaned away from Will and whispered to Jay, “He loves you, too, he telled that to me.”

“Sweetheart, did you tell Hyrum about Jay’s surgery?” Aisha asked.

“Nuh-uh. He doesn’t want to see anyone’s wiener so he pro’lly doesn’t wanna talk about it either.” He stretched to look over Will’s shoulder. “Is Isaac’s daddy in there? Is he okay now?”

“Isaac’s father is in that room.” Will pointed to the closest door. “And Jay’s father is in the one next to it. They’re going to be in there for a while, so you won’t be able to see them until they’re at home.”

“Days and days?” Rhys asked.

“Probably.”

“Where’s Isaac going to sleep?”

Aisha reached for him and then passed me over to Will. “Isaac will sleep in your room until his daddy is ready to come home, all right?” When Jay opened his mouth to protest—he could move back into his apartment, Isaac was his responsibility—she wagged her pointy finger at him. “I love that little boy, Jay. He’s welcome in our home for as long as it takes, and he’ll need to be surrounded by people who care about him.”

“But George—”

“Was truthful,” Will said. “We’ve become friends, of a sort. He won’t mind if his son stays with us.”

“You need to tell him where Isaac is, Daddy,” Rhys said. “So he doesn’t worry.”

“I’ll find a way,” he promised.

Just stick your arm in the tank and plant it in his head.

“Stay as long as you need,” Aisha said to Jay and Will. “I’ll get Isaac from Zed’s.”

Rhys wanted to know about the cats. There were three waiting at home, probably hungry, and they’d be lonely, too. Will didn’t want to bring them over; he wasn’t sure how well they would fare if taken from their home, but he promised Rhys someone would see to them several times a day.

Once she was through the portal, Will led Jay into the surgical suite where James floated in the tank. He was surrounded by orange surgical gel, thousands of nanobots scurrying over his skin, and he twinkled under the bright lights. There was a medical technician seated near the head of the tank, and she glanced up when she heard the door open.

“Heart started a minute ago,” she said. “Everything looks good. Slight delay in starting the procedure but progressing as usual now.”

“What caused the delay?” Jay asked.

“He was frozen in time,” Will reminded him. “They were able to intubate and then inject the nano-serum, but once in his body they froze as well.”

“Bit of a traffic jam at the insertion point,” the tech said, pointing to a monitor over the tank. “It resolved quickly.”

James’s injuries were, Will said, significant though not life threatening. His legs had been crushed. His left arm badly broken. There was minor internal bleeding and a ruptured organ or two. He needed to stay in the tank for five to seven days, and this time Will didn’t think Mass had fudged on the estimate. It would be a week, and he would require physical therapy once the surgery was done.

“Why? I thought the way things were done here, it would be fine.”

“You were in significant pain following your surgery,” Will reminded him. “His knee and hip joints are being rebuilt. He’ll be weak.”

Before we went in to see George, Will warned him that he was worse off than James; even his face was bruised. Vicat was already there with her toes at the blue line, back ramrod straight, hands clasped behind her, and she didn’t budge when she heard the door slide open.

There was a surgical sheet covering most of the front of the tank, hiding the worst of George’s injuries.

“I wasn’t sure if Rhys needed to be in here to restart things,” Will explained. “I didn’t want him to see how badly George is injured.”

“Or you, for that matter,” Vicat said. “It’s brutal. I’m not sure how he didn’t bleed to death, even with Rhys freezing him.”

“Nanoplugging,” the tech at George’s head said. “Frozen or not, the second he was in the tank they formed a film that prevented the worst from happening and had half an hour to cover the tips of blood vessels before his heart started beating again.”

“How bad?” Jay asked.

The tech looked to Will first. “He was basically torn in half. The only thing holding his lower half onto his upper half was a crushed spine and a few ligaments.”

It would take, Mass had told Will before we got there, several weeks to repair George’s body. Because of his own schedule, cases here and there, this would be a linear time hop. If it took a month, that meant George would not return home until a month had passed.

“Their jobs—” Jay blurted.

“I’ll take care of it.”

Vicat finally moved. She took a step back and turned to Will, folding her arms at her stomach. “I need—”

“Consider yourself on leave for the duration,” Will said. “I’ll handle that, as well.”

“Rhys begins school soon. He’ll need his guard on hand, and frankly, I don’t trust anyone else to be as careful with him. George has told me about the things he did to you, Emperor. He also worried that Rhys would suffer from someone just like him. His other guards won’t understand.”

With that, Will let out a deep breath. “I’m no longer certain he’ll enter preschool this year.”

“No, Will. He’ll be crushed,” Jay said.

“I am aware,” Will said, looking at George.

Zed needs to finish building the castle and open his school. Not just for Rhys, but all the kids. Because Rhys might just be the beginning.

~

“Homeschooling.” Aubrey made the declaration while Rhys, Isaac, and Marco rolled back and forth on her living room floor. There was a purpose to their action, a winner would be declared, but after five minutes I was still unsure what the point was or how victory would be decided. “There’s no hard and fast rule about the start of preschool, and no reason we can’t begin here instead of sending him into the public-school system.”

“Between the four us, we have the bases covered,” Aisha said. “Rhys and Isaac already read far beyond the average four-year-old. Marco lags behind them a bit, but he’s ahead for his age. They’re ahead of anything they would learn in a formal setting.”

Will’s concerns weren’t about how well they could be taught at home. He worried that they would feel slighted, and worried more about losing the social aspects of school.

Aubrey held firm. “Half the children in San Francisco are home schooled through grade six, and there are social groups specifically tailored to their needs. The boys will get over the disappointment of not going to school once they see how much fun we’ll make it for them.”

“Zed and Sophia might not want Marco to stay home,” Jax said.

“What won’t I want?” Zed asked from the kitchen.

“If we homeschool all the kids,” Jax said.

Zed came into the living room carrying Jonathan and a baby bottle. “Yeah, sure, it would be awful to send Marco upstairs to Grandma’s instead of having to get up early and go halfway across town for a freaking total of four hours a day. Home schooling would make my life a lot easier if it’s really what you want to do.”

“How disappointed will he be?” Will asked.

“Don’t know. Don’t care. He’ll get over it.”

Ask them. Stop assuming and ask them.

“This isn’t a choice to be given, Wick,” Will said. “The issues are complex—”

I didn’t care. I pounced from the coffee table to the middle of the mayhem and landed near Rhys.

Dude, do you want to have school here at home with Marco and Isaac, or go to preschool where no one but you can read big books like Harry Potter? With Aubrey as your teacher?

“We can have a school here?” He sat up and looked at Will. “Really?”

“We’re discussing it.”

“Can Isaac do school with us?”

“Until his father comes home, yes.”

“Can we have a classroom like on TV? With desks and tablets on them and a big board that Aunt Aubrey writes on?”

There was plenty of space to create one, Aubrey pointed out. They could turn the old staff kitchen into a classroom, and the filled bookcases Will stored there could be lined along the back wall. It was only a matter of getting some appropriately sized tables and chairs, an interactive monitor, tablets, and a copy of the state approved multi-grade curriculum.

“I’m still a licensed teacher,” she reminded Will. “Jax never let his license lapse. This is doable.”

“Drew has a valid license,” Aisha pointed out. “I could brush up on teaching math to children, and I know of a dozen professors who would proctor any testing required by the state.”

Will reminded her of Rhys’s excitement over attending school with others his own age. He needed friends and needed to learn to deal with others.

“And that’s what the social groups are for,” Aubrey said. “We’ll have trips to the museums, the science center, play groups in the park—”

“Daddy, please?” Rhys stepped over Isaac and put his hands on Will’s knees. “I like it when I get to sit with Hyrum when Aunt Aubrey teaches him stuff. Last week was rhyming words. It was fun.”

“What about meeting new kids?” Will asked him.

Rhys held a hand up, sparks dancing at his fingertips. “What if they see? I don’t know how to stop it sometimes. Marco and Isaac already know but they don’t care. Other kids might make fun of me or be mean to me. I get tummy aches when I think about it.”

He grasps why this is necessary, Will.

He’ll make friends when it’s time.


He still wasn’t convinced, not until Aisha leaned against him and said, “Bilbo, do we really want him discovering a new gift during naptime at school? You saw what he did today. No one saw that coming.”

It matters more to you than it does to him. You want him to have the childhood you didn’t, but dude, it’s not possible.

“Wick—”

He openly understands me now, Will. Did you notice that? I don’t think he has yet. He can root around in someone’s head. What if he doesn’t realize when he’s hearing someone’s private thoughts?

“He has control.”

He’s four. He doesn’t. And what if there’s a George in his future? A more ruthless George. The George that finishes what he couldn’t. Even George worried about that.

“Perhaps, but—”

The boy at the bottom of the pool, Will.

Aisha patted Will’s knee. “Listen to the cat, Bilbo. Whatever he’s telling you, he’s usually right.”

He sighed, and then looked to Zed. “Get that castle finished. These kids? They may be the first graduating class of Blackshear Academy.”

~

They lingered in the doorway of the children’s bedroom, listening for the soft sounds of sleep, resisting the urge to pick Rhys up from where he slept on an air mattress with Isaac and place him in his own bed. Isaac had woken up crying; Rhys wanted to comfort him. Charlie’s legs jutted through the slats of his crib, and Alex had turned around on the mattress, her feet on her pillow.

“Time for real beds,” Aisha whispered.

“So we keep telling ourselves, yet neither of us has done anything about it.”

They didn’t want to. They wanted their babies, and instead had full-fledged toddlers.

She tugged him away from the door and down the hall, not letting go of his hand until they were cuddled together on the sofa. He was still uncertain, still wanted to send Rhys to school, and the conflict was drawn in tight lines at the corners of his mouth and his eyes. Aisha let him wallow in the feeling; nothing she said would change it, and he was entitled to want for Rhys what he hadn’t had.

“Every parent wants more for their children,” she’d said earlier. “His life will be better, Will. He won’t be isolated. We’ll make sure of it.”

It wasn’t just the isolation. It was the overwhelming sense of being Other, something different, something others were afraid of once they discovered what he could do.

He acknowledged, though, that by allowing him to stay home and to be educated by his aunt that he would never be the little boy wrapped in plastic at the bottom of a swimming pool, using what few breaths he had left crying out for his mother.

Rhys would not suffer at the hands of another George.

They sat in silence until Jay came home. Vicat was staying there for the duration; she would keep watch over her brother, the same way Will and Aisha had kept watch over Jay. She waged her own internal battle, regret of years lost that could have been spent with him, and she wondered out loud if their parents should know that he was there and so profoundly injured. There was no guarantee that he would survive the overall shock once removed from the tank, and she knew her aunt had made sure they were aware he was alive and lived part time in his birth When.

She was far less certain that they knew she was reunited with the brother who had been told she was dead and that he was responsible.

“I might do it just to see if one of them drops from the heart attack they deserve when they realize who I am,” she told Jay.

“Yeah, she’s not leaving the hospital,” Jay said. “Mass set up a bed for her in the lounge attached to his office. But she’s worried about Rhys. I think she feels like she’s leaving him to the wolves by not being here.”

“There are other guards,” Aisha said. “How’s your dad?”

Mass assured Jay that James was already progressing nicely and had then practically shoved him through the portal. If anything went wrong, he would send word. “He knows he can’t do anything about Vicat but doesn’t really want me there all the time. And there’s Isaac. I promised I would watch him.”

“Isaac is fine,” Will said.

“Does he know?”

“He is aware that George and James were injured and needed to return home to recover. He does not, however, realize how badly they were hurt. As far as he’s concerned, he’s staying here to play with Rhys and be with you while his parents enjoy their recovery.”

“He has nightmares every now and then,” Jay said. “I—”

Aisha knew about his nightmares, and promised Jay that if he had one, he would either crawl into bed with him, or he would wake Rhys up. If that happened, Wick would get someone.

“I do know a thing or two about caring for little boys,” she reminded him.

“I know. He’s just so…fragile. I know that’s why George named me as his guardian. Isaac feels broken so much of the time, and Dad would eventually fall back into old habits.”

Isaac did not need to live with someone whose bedroom had a revolving door. Jay knew that; he didn’t want that for his little brother. If it meant stepping up and raising him, he was ready to do that.

Aisha wanted to know why Jay had been there on Market Street, and if he had been there when the building exploded.

“I was meeting them for dinner,” he answered. “I was late. Like five fucking minutes late, and they waited outside for me. If I had gotten there on time…Jesus.”

“You might have been inside, seated near the windows, which took the brunt of the explosion,” Will said. “You might all be dead.”

“Lots of might haves,” Jay sighed. “But no, I don’t blame myself. I’m just damned grateful that Rhys discovered that particular gift when we needed it. George had no time left, did he?”

“Literally only seconds,” Will said.

“To think that just a few years ago we would have let him die.”

“You would not have,” Will said. “No matter what he did and said throughout your life, you would have done whatever you could have to help him.”

“I just wish I’d understood better when I was younger. George wasn’t deliberately mean. He was terrified.”

“But you did grasp that.” Will reminded him of his post-surgical musings. Late one night, in pain and unable to sleep, he’d sleepily told Will that George was scared all the time, from the moment he woke up until he was asleep at night. “You knew it, but there wasn’t anything you could have done about it. For that matter, had I known when George and I were children, I couldn’t have done anything, either.”

“Yeah, but I keep thinking if I had known it when I was little, and known how much he loved me, it would have made a difference, you know? I see how he is with Isaac. He’s gentle and affectionate, and sometimes I catch glimpses of the way he was with me. He wasn’t a dick twenty-four hours a day.”

“He’s less of one now,” Aisha said, “but don’t diminish the damage he did.”

“I don’t. Hell, he won’t let me. He admits what an asshole he can be. Wait, what about the cats? Was anyone able to go over to feed them?”

The cats were downstairs in Eli’s apartment. Will had not wanted to move them, concerned for their comfort and stress, but upon hearing that Isaac had pets that functioned as his anchor, Eli declared they would stay with him, where the little boy could visit and play with them however many times a day he needed. The cat flap by the door was secured to keep them inside and I was banned from entering, lest I upset them. He sent his administrative assistant to buy food and fresh litter, and declared he was working from home for the duration.

“If Isaac needs to go forward for a bit, we’ll take him,” Will said.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s an issue. Isaac doesn’t get sick, not like that. He only gets sick when it’s time for George to go back for a while. He prefers living here, in this When.”

Here, Isaac had his big brother. James was also happier here and he could feel it. And he had Rhys, whom Jay was certain was his only friend.

“No little brothers and sisters and cousins running around his apartment,” Jay said. “When they go forward, he’s lonely. When they stay here, I see him, I bring him over to play. He’d stay here forever if he could.”

Rhys would like that, too.

He has a friend, Will. That’s what you wanted for him the most, right?


“I was hoping for friends that weren’t family,” Will said. “Isaac is, through Jay.”

“Well,” Jay snorted. “I’m not really related to him. He is George’s clone, after all. It’s not like he and Dad managed to figure out a way to reproduce.”

Your best friend is your great, great grandfather. Family. So maybe Rhys never has a George. Maybe he already has a Jax.

“Indeed,” Will said softly.

He’s going to be all right.

“I know.”

And maybe Jo will compile all that data and figure out what other gifts he might have, so you can be prepared for it.

“I don’t think it works that way,” Will said. “All she can do is see what parts of his brain activate when he does things, and predict future activities based on those patterns.”

Too bad. I was hoping for warning when he figures out how to levitate.

“Wick.”

That would make Jax wet himself. Who doesn’t want to see that happen?

“That would defy physics.”

And stopping time doesn’t? Face it, Will, your kids might redefine the whole thing and change how we understand the universe.

I might have been wrong, but at least now he was thinking about something other than Rhys not going to school and missing out on forming social groups.

No, now he could worry that his kids might fly off the balcony without the aid of a jetpack.

You’re welcome.

~

The things Jo most wanted Will to see were side-by-side-by-side comparisons of his brain, Drew’s brain, and Rhys’s brain. She had tracked specific sections of each, over-laid one on top of the other, and had re-sized each image to scale so that their brains were the same size, lobes aligning as closely as she could get them.

There were hundreds of pictures to look at, but the most prominent ones were taken during conversations with me.

“Right here.” She used a laser pointer to track a specific line she wanted him to see and warned me to not attack the monitor. “This is Drew. He has a line running from his transponder that neither you nor Rhys have, and it goes right to the language center of his brain.”

“As previously noted,” Will said.

“You have an affinity for languages,” she said, not asking. “You’ve always been able to at least discern intent, if not what others are saying.”

“To a degree,” he said. “My understanding follows a considerable amount of study, but you wouldn’t want me to attempt to speak with any degree of eloquence.”

I’ve heard you speak German. Totally not eloquent.

His brain and Rhys’s were active in the same areas, and she suspected he would have the same aptitude to pick a language apart and learn it well enough to get by. “My gut says that if not for your resistance to your abilities, you might have a wider range of understanding. This isn’t simply grasping the language.” She circled other spots in their brains. “This is what highlights when searching someone else’s mind. It’s much like watching a computer-generated animation of data exchange. Drew doesn’t have this, and neither does Hyrum.”

“Then it’s genetic.”

She didn’t know if it was genetics or chance. No one else in the family had that gift; Will was the first. “It could simply be an evolution of sorts, building on Aubrey’s empathy. It would help if I knew more about Eli and his siblings.”

“I will inquire when I visit him.”

She had one more for him to see, imaging obtained while Rhys was sitting on Hyrum’s lap, half asleep, waiting for the next test to begin. While relaxed but fighting slumber, his brain was lit, and there were few quiet spots.

“Does he resist bedtime?” she asked. “And naps?”

“No more than the average four-year-old.”

He’s scared a lot when he’s alone in the dark. After Charlie and Alex are asleep, he fidgets and tosses and turns.

Will thought he simply needed a later bedtime and his own room.

Maybe. But maybe he can’t get his brain to shut up. You were like that sometimes. You couldn’t sleep because of all the things spinning in your head, and then when you grew up?

“I could barely sleep at all,” he said with a sigh.

“What fixed it?” Jo asked.

With a snort, he answered, “Sex.”

“Oh. Well, that won’t work for a few more years.”

It wasn’t the sex. It was Aisha. That connection you couldn’t have with anyone else. You know what you have to do, Will. And do it before he really does levitate right off the balcony.

~

Rhys turned four with all the fanfare that stepping out of toddlerhood and into boyhood deserves. There was cake and ice cream, balloons and streamers and noisy things that made the kids all giggle and had Jax reaching for the scotch. He played with Isaac, Marco, and his little brother and sister most of the day, and after he’d been presented with his shiny new blue bicycle, he solemnly passed along his trike to Charlie and Alex with the reminder that they had to share. At least, he added in a loud whisper intended to be overheard, until Mommy got fed up and bought a second one.

No one floated away during his day-long party and no stray sparks set anything on fire.

During a lull, when the toddlers were napping and the older boys were hanging on every word of a story Hyrum read to them, Will slipped away for an hour. He would only say that he had an errand to run, which wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow until Aisha told him to play nice. After that, Jax wanted to know, but she refused to say anything.

“Later, after the kids are in bed for the night.”

Bed turned out to be a blanket fort in the living room, with Hyrum teasing them with a flashlight. There was also scotch to be sipped on the balcony; Hyrum promised to watch them and not scare anyone too much, and then warned them against getting drunk. No one likes a hangover when excited kids get up at six in the morning.

I sat on Will’s lap, wanting to see Jax’s face when Will explained why he’d left his own son’s birthday celebration. I’d hoped to see confusion and then a bit of upset, but he dropped my hopes over the side of the balcony like pigeons torturing a cat. Up, over, and then splat.

Sometimes, you people are too reasonable.

Will waited a week, long enough for the rush of having a big-boy bike and no longer being a toddler had worn off. On a warm afternoon, he and Aisha took Rhys to the bakery on Union Square with the promise of a donut and chocolate milk, and they waited in anxious quiet until Scotty came up the steps with Strider by his side, and a puppy in his arms.

Rhys squealed when he spotted them, and jumped up, wiping chocolate from his face with his arm. “Strider had a puppy! I thought he was a boy!”

Scotty set the wiggling ball of fur down carefully and let the leash out enough that he could sniff Rhys’s feet and knees. “Strider is a boy,” he said. “He’s also a daddy, and this is one of his sons.”

“What’s his name?” Rhys sat down to allow the puppy to crawl onto his lap. “He’s soft.”

“He doesn’t have a name yet.”

“Everyone needs a name.”

Will crouched next to Rhys. “Perhaps you could think of one.”

Rhys grunted. “Dogs and cats come with names. They have to tell you.”

“So far, he hasn’t said a word,” Scotty chuckled.

“Wick?” Rhys asked. “Can he tell you?”

The puppy wasn’t going to tell me a thing. I rubbed against Strider’s leg and asked him if he knew what his son wanted to be called.

Strider pushed his nose against the puppy’s backside and let loose a gentle woof.

Thor. His name is Thor.

“Thor,” Rhys repeated. “That’s a nice name. I like that.”

“God of lightning,” Will said softly.

They led Rhys and the puppy back to the table, but he wanted to stay on the ground with Thor, forgetting about the chocolate milk and half-eaten donut. Rhys paid no attention to the adults and their discussion about puppy food and Thor’s training. Instead, he collected puppy kisses and giggled loudly.

I’m surprised you answered me. I wasn’t sure we could communicate.

Strider grunted, with no clear answer.

Does Thor speak yet? Can he understand me, too?

He was a baby; he might come to understand me someday, but for now his brain was occupied with the little boy who already loved him.

Do you know what’s happening? Did they tell you he would go live with Rhys?

Strider understood. All his puppies moved away when it was time. If he showed any hesitation about the potential forever home his litters were headed for, Scotty would pick the puppy up, wish his friends well, and take Thor home. But Strider could already tell, Rhys was meant for this boy.

What came next was what Strider enjoyed the most, and he’d looked forward to it all morning.

“Rhys,” Will said, touching his shoulder to get his attention. “Do you think he likes you?”

“He’s the best! I hope he likes me. He’s too little to eat me, too.”

“He needs a good home,” Scotty said. “He doesn’t have a little boy of his own yet, and I think that’s what he wants more than anything.”

Rhys looked up at Will and Aisha with wide eyes. “I’m a little boy.”

“Really?” Will teased. “I thought you were a big boy now.”

“No, I’m not. I’m little. I’m puppy sized.”

Aisha nudged Will. “Stop teasing him.”

Will slid from the chair and crouched next to Rhys. “Puppies are a lot of work. They have to be fed and brushed and need to be taken for walks. Every day. Someone has to scoop their poop, and they don’t use a litter box.”

“That’s why puppies need little boys,” Rhys said, as if Will were missing the obvious.

“Wick? Are you sure?” Aisha asked.

I wiggled onto Rhys’s lap and got nose to nose with Thor. I wasn’t thrilled with his puppy breath and was especially unhappy with the tongue that lapped up the side of my head, but Rhys was overjoyed, and I felt the calm that settled and wrapped around him.

I can train a puppy.

Hell, I can make this work for me. He can be my noble steed and learn to carry me around. This could be fun.


Will tucked his hand under Rhys’s chin and made Rhys look up at him. “You are Thor’s little boy, Rhys. He clearly needs you. There will be rules about keeping your toys off the floor and helping to care for him, but I think you two belong together.”

“You mean it? You promise? I’m not ten.”

“I promise.”

“He won’t eat Wick?”

“Wick can take care of himself.” Will leaned close and whispered, “He swore to me that this was all right. Wick wants you to have a puppy as much as you want one, and he was the one who made me understand you shouldn’t wait until you’re ten. Think of this as his gift to you.”

Whispering back, Rhys asked, “Wick? For real?”

“He knows you’ll love Thor as much as he loves you. And I wanted you to have the kind of friend Wick was to me when I was your age.”

While he and Rhys continued to whisper to each other, Scotty gave Aisha a list of the foods Thor was used to, his walk schedule, and veterinary information. He slipped off when Rhys burst into tears, burying his face against his new best friend, and Strider trotted beside him, not looking back.

He’s okay, I told Thor, hoping he would understand. He’s crying because he’s happy. He’s never been this happy. You got yourself the best boy ever.

He must have agreed, because he wet himself with joy.

Right on Will’s foot.

Good boy.

3 comments:

  1. I love the image of Wick riding Thor.

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    Replies
    1. Wait'll you see what I do with the hover cart.

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  2. Can't wait to hear about the adventures of Wick and Thor!

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