Chapter 22

Nate could hear Alley pounding on his bedroom door, demanding his presence for dinner. For the first time, he disobeyed by rolling over in his bed. Eventually, she stopped knocking.

Finally everyone left him alone to curl up into a ball in peace. Minutes passed, maybe hours. Pain didn't really have a sense of time. The image of that poster board burned behind his eyes. The pictures of the soldiers killed by the Ringmaster swirled like the photoslide on his smartphone. All it took was a single command, a demand they kill themselves.

He could do that. It would be so easy.

Claws stabbed him in the back. Flinching as real pain broke through the emotional miasma inside, Nate rolled over in time to see Perpugilliam hop off the bed and make her way over to his chair. The cat climbed up onto his computer desk and crouched over the second keyboard he left up there for her to use. Then she started typing. Nate groaned and rolled out of bed. It seemed like he'd get no peace today after all.

Found a leaked mini episode of Doctor Who. You'll never guess who's in it.

"Really?" Nate slid into his chair as he watched his cat continue typing with her big paws.

Check your torrent folder, it's titled the Night of the Doctor.

Perpugilliam was true to her word. Nate clicked on the video and loaded it up. For a blissful few minutes, the rest of the world went away. The thrill of Paul McGann, back in full character as the Doctor after all these years. That spunky companion who died so soon. Just how bad was the Time War, that she'd rather die than be saved by a Time Lord?

The ending left him curiously depressed. Of course, he'd been depressed since the confrontation by the High Five Club yesterday followed by the poster board today. But usually his favorite Time Lord could brighten his spirits. Tonight, even the Doctor had succumbed to darker urges, the need to take action to stop so much suffering. Physician, heal thyself indeed.

Sighing, Nate pushed away from the desk and stood back up to face the wall. Downstairs, his friends probably worried about him. Julie must be worried because she could actually read his mind even from here. No privacy. Though it was somehow easy with her. She saw everything and didn't judge him.

Even now, when the temptation was to just make the world march to his tune.

Nate sighed and pulled on his coat. "I'm going out for a walk," he called to Perpugilliam. Not that his cat cared. She was back to Netflixing the new Battlestar Galactica series from, like, five feet away. "You're going to go blind sitting that close you know."

Swiveling her head towards him, Perpugilliam yawned. Then she typed on the keyboard, writing to the second monitor while the first queued up the episode. I told you, ever since I became a cat, I can't see that far. Get some tuna for me for later.


Outside the bedroom, he could hear a myriad of voices downstairs. Full house tonight. He closed the bedroom door and peeked into Alley's room. Still barren with only a single set of pictures on the nightstand.

Knowing she was downstairs, Nate followed the sudden urge to take a look in Alley's room. The frame held a series of three pictures. Her parents were first, a stern man with a crew-cut accompanied by a blonde who was, sad to say, prettier than her daughter. Below, Nate grinned at the big family photo including the parents as well as Alley and her apparently two brothers.

Interesting how daughters could take after mothers. Though the resemblance was plain, Alley didn't look much like her brothers. Nate rubbed his chin and wondered which parent he looked like the most.

The last picture was of Alley and another girl, arms wrapped around each other. Though the pretty redhead was the unfamiliar one, Nate's eyes kept drifting back to Alley in the photo. There was something sublimely beautiful about her smile. Something...peaceful. Contented. Words he'd never imagined using to describe his volatile roommate.

Suddenly self-conscious, Nate scrambled away from the picture and headed back to the door.

Downstairs, he found Finn and Amara on the center couch, Jia and Julie sitting on the couch closest to the door, leaving the last couch unoccupied. Alley was in the kitchen making something as usual. He tried to remember the last time the girl had just sat down for any length of time outside of class and came up empty.

Nate waved his way through the various greetings and pointed towards the door. They seemed to catch his mood and let him be. He had his hand on the door knob when an ice cube flew out of the kitchen to land perfectly on the back of his neck, just in time to slide under his shirt collar. Yelping, he endured the laughter of his roommates as he glared across the distance. Alley leaned against the refrigerator, accepting the applause of her audience like a gracious host.

Then, when they went back to watching the TV, she held up a finger and waved it side to side at him while shaking her head. In that moment, Nate realized she knew. She knew he'd been in her room, had looked at her pictures and she wasn't happy about it. There was a chilling flatness to Alley's expression, an utter lack of the warmth he'd seen in the photo.

Swallowing hard, Nate pushed his way outside. As the screen door swung close, he spread his arms and took in the humid night air. Florida held in the heat of the day even when it was dark. The sounds of wildlife and bugs and all sorts of things rustled beneath the unceasing swish of tree branches swaying in the evening wind. He couldn't see a damn thing.

Nate stepped down off the wraparound porch and set off across the paved stone pathway between the rows of flowers. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the relative dark of the shadowed sky. After all, the lights from the Lambert Acres house illuminated whole swaths of the meadow in the midst of the woods. There was also a light on in the shop, pretty much 24/7.

Too much light. Nate shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he slouched his way up the driveway. The asphalt scrunched slightly underfoot as he stepped on stray rocks and debris. Inch by inch, the house and its light receded behind him. Sound dropped away. Soon, it was just him walking on the road, surrounded on both sides by an endless sea of trees.

Had he stepped foot on this driveway since move-in day? They always used the HCP lifts. Was there a light ahead normally?

Nate froze in the middle of the road when he realized a car was coming. The vehicle, a jeep of some kind, slowed to a stop when he didn't move. With a creak, the driver rolled the window down and stuck his head out.

"You okay there?"

"Can I help you?" Nate asked back.

"Jia asked me to come by." The engine idled a moment longer before the driver turned it, and his headlights, off. Darkness dropped back on top of Nate, much like the weight he felt pressing him down for days. "Hey, are you okay?"

"Fine. I'm fine."

The driver walked towards him slowly and stopped a few feet shy. Then he stuck his hand out and closed the remaining distance. "I'm Eli."

"Nate." And Nate accepted the hand, shaking as firmly as he could manage. "Right, you're the one who Jia had lunch with the other day."

"That's right. We had a nice time. I'm glad she asked me to visit. I don't know her all that well but she's had it pretty hard lately, hasn't she."

Nate turned around and looked back to the house he could only barely glimpse through the trees. Reality suddenly set in. Jia had it hard. Like, she had it seriously hard. She had a baby. They'd lived together for weeks and he'd barely heard the baby's name. Jia was a mother, one who couldn't be with her child if she was going to be a Hero.

Tears unexpectedly welled up in his eyes. Would Jake feel like he did someday? Would it be fair to? Eli was right, Jia had it hard. He could even say she suffered, for there was always a quiet of spirit that didn't seem entirely born of being introverted. Jia was shadowed by her sorrow. And here he'd been so absorbed carrying his own problems that he hadn't realized the burden someone else carried.

"Can I ask you a question?" Nate said, still absorbed in a house filled with people he hadn't taken the time to know.

"You can ask me anything, Nate."

"You know who the Ringmaster is, right? Sure you do. Why do you think she did it?"

"You mean...make all those people kill themselves? Make her old Hero team turn against a town and level it?" Eli scratched his blonde goatee. "Let me throw a question back: Do you think she got her kicks from killing?"

"Kicks? No. No one likes killing, no one sane. No one who made it to be a Hero would just kill people for no reason."

Eli made a thoughtful sound low in his throat. "So what's that mean?"

Nate squinted back into the darkness before returning his attention to the other man's face. "Are you trying to say she had a reason?"

"Wouldn't you?"

Silence fell between them. Nate let it stand a moment before he couldn't hold back. "But what? What reason? Why would she possibly think killing all those people had to happen?"

"Well, far be it for me to guess at the motives of a Dominator. But let me ask you a question no one's ever answered: Why do you think she captured the Russell Senate Office Building? If she wanted to kill everyone in it, just mind control an Air Force jet and hit the place with missiles. If she wanted to kill Heroes, why kill off all her mind controlled soldiers first? If she just wanted to kill soldiers, why do it in the Senate buildings? Why only kill the 325th Airborne when she could have wiped out the whole 82nd Airborne Division back at Fort Bragg?"

Nate was unable to do anything but stare Eli in the face. The visitor just shrugged, a man with a mystery he couldn't solve and content to set it aside a while longer. Not Nate, though. The conversation worried at the corner of his mind, a gnawing nagging feeling that he'd missed something all along.

"I don't know," he said at last, admitting defeat.

"Me either," Eli said with another shrug. "Maybe we'll never know what her reason was. The only thing I hold on to is that there was a reason for all of it. I mean, she was a Hero once. This is the woman who brought down the Berlin Wall. There has to be some explanation on how that Hero could become the Villain we know today."

The two men stood in companionable silence again. Then Nate grimaced, shook his head and said, "Thanks for the talk, Eli. Now I need you to forget that we had it."

"Okay." Eli blinked at him, then stuck out his hand and smiled. "Hi! I'm Eli Ansley. Jia invited me over."

"Sure, she's back at the house. Go on in."

With a cheerful acknowledgement, Eli climbed back into his jeep and started off down the driveway towards the carport. Nate watched him go as he rubbed the back of his neck.

"Why'd you do it, Mom?" he asked silently. Then Nate stiffened as part of the nagging feeling solidified into a concrete answer. "And how'd Eli know the Ringmaster was a woman?"