Chapter 152

                Christmas in the Daniels’ household was a hectic affair, with all of the cousins and extended family cramming into the Chicago house for a festive celebration. The additions of recent years were there as well, with Mr. Transport scooping up Vince that morning to join in the day’s revelry. The plan was to bring him back to Lander East the next day, meaning the trip would be a short one. Truthfully, Vince might have skipped it altogether, but Sally Daniels had put her foot down that no one should have to be alone on Christmas, and neither the aspiring Heroes nor the professional problem solver had the nerve to dispute the matter with her.

                Lunch was long finished and most of the extended family was watching television in the living room while Hershel, Vince, and Mr. Transport worked on kitchen clean-up. Conversation was light by necessity, as none of them wanted to discuss HCP matters with so many people in earshot, no matter how trustworthy they might be. In a world with telepaths, one didn’t have to speak to give away secrets, and after Lander’s attack it was commonly agreed that the less HCP information floating around in people’s minds, the better. Which meant that even though Hershel was dying to press Vince for more information about Lander East, they instead had to make due with talk about safer topics, like the upcoming fantasy movies Hershel was excited about.

                Midway through drying the dishes, Mr. Transport’s phone rang. Setting down a cloth, he picked up and listened to the other end. Slowly, his face shifted, becoming less festive and more solemn. By the end, he looked downright serious as he put the phone away and turned to both of them.

                “Hershel, if your mother asks, tell her I stepped out to grab another guest, please.”

                In a blink, he was gone. Vince and Hershel exchanged confused glances, but with so many mundane people in the next room they couldn’t very well openly speculate. So instead, they got back to work, making significant headway on the dishes even as their eyes darted continuously to the microwave’s clock. They were nearly done when Mr. Transport re-appeared with a familiar short figure standing a few feet away.

                “Mary?” Hershel nearly dropped his plate, then greeted his girlfriend with a big hug. “What’s going on? I love the surprise, don’t get me wrong, but won’t your family be mad you left on Christmas?”

                “She wasn’t with her family,” Mr. Transport said. “She wasn’t even in her home state.”

                “Wait, what?” Hershel took a step back, ending the embrace and looking at her in a new light. “Then where were you?”

                “Las Vegas,” Mary replied. “There was a situation I needed to keep an eye on, or a mental ear on, really. So I grabbed a bus, bought a cheap room near The Strip, and listened. All of which I’ll be happy to detail for you later on, but right now we need to find somewhere private to talk. The situation is… well it’s nearing the end. And I think we need to be ready when it happens. Mr. Transport, can you get us to a place where we can chat a little more freely? I think this is only making things more confusing.”

                “Sure.” He walked to the doorway and glanced into the living room, then went to the fridge and scrawled a quick note on the magnetic pad. “I’ll tell Sally we had to step out. One of you reach out to Alice and let her know I’d like to pick her up somewhere. Teleporting uninvited into her estate is a little too dangerous to undertake without good cause.”

                “What about Nick?” Vince asked.

                Mary looked at him for a moment before shaking her head. “I’ll explain in a second, Vince. But we don’t need to wait for Nick.”

                Mr. Transport finished his note and walked over to the group. A second later they were gone, leaving behind only an empty kitchen and a pile of nearly-finished dishes.

*              *              *

                Night had fallen, and most of the others were asleep. George was still tinkering, the man had a work ethic like few others, and Gerard paced the grounds on occasion. But in the main room, where they’d had their makeshift meal and celebration, only the man in the red coat remained. The hunted villain, the infamous traitor, the former Hero once known as Globe was sitting in an over-stuffed chair, reading a battered old book. So he alone was there to witness the crackle of light and the distinct scent of charred ozone as Clarissa stepped through the portal. She blinked, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, before she walked over and took a seat on the threadbare couch next to him.

                “How was everybody?” Globe asked.

                “Cheerful,” she said. “Better than they’ve been in a while, I think.”

                “Thank goodness. I’ve worried about that lot for a long time now.” Globe lowered his book, folding the page over to mark his spot. “And did you get to see Joshua’s son?”

                “I did indeed. Chad is growing up well. He looks a lot like his father, although he got some of Miriam’s more gentle features. He seemed like a good boy… sorry, I guess he’s more man than child now.” Clarissa blinked to better adjust to the light, and to clear the visions of the past away so they wouldn’t hamper her ability to see the present. It was hard, sometimes, not to think of everyone as they had been, to remember Chad as the baby in the crib that Joshua had been so radiantly proud of. “I’m glad I went, even if part of me was scared it would be a trap.”

                “You’re much too good at minding your thoughts to let anything slip to a telepath, and if they actually knew we were still in contact the DVA would have kicked down your door long ago.” Globe leaned forward, inching closer to Clarissa. “That said, the risk of discovery is still very real, and it only grows the closer we get to the end. If you’re willing to reconsider, it’s not too late to get you out of this. Shims, I don’t want anyone else to get hurt by what we’re doing. Especially not you.”

                She laughed, a delicate sound that echoed through the nearly empty room. “Never going to happen. I was a Hero too, remember? I don’t turn away from what’s right just because the path isn’t easy. I’m in this with you, Phil. All the way, to the very end, you and me. If we have to march through the gates of hell, then I’m going to open up a portal so we can get there faster.”

                Slowly, Phil sank back into his chair. “Part of me dearly wishes you would listen to reason, but at the same time I’m selfishly glad you don’t. I couldn’t have made it this far, lasted this long, without you.”

                “You are pretty useless on your own.” Whether it was the season, the wine, or the glow of being around old friends, Clarissa found herself feeling more daring than usual. She rose from her couch and took a seat on the armrest of Globe’s chair, leaning over and wrapping her arms around him in a hug that was, while technically friendly, a little too close to be truly platonic. “Good thing you’ve got all of us around to keep you on the right track.”

                “Friendship and love, truly the best gifts anyone can ever hope to receive.” He leaned over slightly, into the embrace, and Clarissa felt her heart speed up by several beats. “Merry Christmas, Clarissa.”

                “Merry Christmas, Phil.”