Jia Sun’s whisper to her son was fiercely happy. Firmly ensconced in the Sun Family manor, she’d woken early, with the sky out her bedroom suite windows only pinking. But rather than sneak downstairs to the presents, she instead snuck down the family wing corridor to the nursery. Jake had complained when she lifted him from his crib but now he slept contentedly against her as she curled up with him on a nursery bed.
This was Jake’s first Christmas, given he’d been born over the summer. He still slept so blissfully and rarely fussed much when he was awake. Of course, he was due to start teething anytime now so Jia was determined to enjoy the quiet as much as she could.
“Are you excited to see your father?” she asked her sleeping son. “He’ll be visiting this afternoon. He’s just like you, you know. Strong. Gentle. A great heart. You’ll love him, I promise.”
Jia lifted her contented gaze from Jake to stare out the window at the sun threatening to rise. Snow covered the manor lawn, illuminated by garden lightning into a kind of winter wonderland. She smiled, remembering the days of her youth, when she’d been young enough to scamper through that snow with a new sled or toy.
In a few years, that would be Jake. And she might be a Hero by then. He’d be four when she graduated. Six by the time she finished with her internship.
“I wish I had time to give you a brother or sister,” Jia said, softly stroking her son’s cheek. She felt wistful, regretting the terrible timing of it all even on this most magical of days with the most magical person in the world lying against her breast. “But Mama’s going to be pretty busy for the next few years.”
The sound of those words surprised her more than the content, once she recognized the source. Jia looked away from the window towards the nursery door and the distinguished Chinese man standing in the frame. Even at home, before dawn, Dave Sun wore a tie. After all, he was a pastor of regional if not national fame and there might be a million or more Christians waiting for his morning holiday broadcast.
His golden eyes, so much like hers, drifted down to the sleeping Jake. The signature golden Sun eyes had mingled with the famous Wyngarde white to produce a pale kind of goldenrod. Of course, his eyes might darken to the traditional Sun color over the next few years, it was hard to say. Jia hoped not. She liked the color and all it implied.
“I’m not planning on getting married anytime soon, no,” Jia responded to her father’s question at last.
“I’m looking forward to meeting Jason again, under better circumstances this time.” Dad coughed once, straightened his tie and rounded the crib so he could sit beside the bed his daughter lay on. “You two are getting along now?”
“We are, Bàba.” Jia managed a bit of a smile but it was an effort in the face of parental expectations. “But we’re not together and not getting back together. I’m…well, I’m with Eli now. You met him, remember?”
“Yes I did.” The unspoken disapproval in his voice hung like a weight.
“He’s a good boy, Bàba. He’s a good Christian, better than I am.”
“I’m sure that he is.” Dave sighed, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temples. “He’s not in the HCP, though. Think about how much of your life you have to keep from him. Do you really think you can have a relationship with someone who can’t know what you’re doing?”
“He makes me happy.” Jia was pinned, of course. Eli actually knew she was enrolled in the HCP but if that knowledge got out, she could be booted from the program. “And I’m not looking to get married this second. I want a degree first before I even think about that.”
“Good. I just wish you’d focus all of your time and energy on West Private and its HCP. Being a Hero is a noble calling but a demanding one. As 1 Corinthians 7:29 says, the time is short. Those with spouses should live as if they had none. The world in its present form is passing away, Jia. Don’t get distracted.”
“Bàba, it’s fine. I’m fine. He’s fine. It’s not like I invited him to Christmas. He’s probably with his family.”
Her father brooded for a moment, then stood and walked to the door. Something about the conversation clearly bothered him. However, he only looked back at her over his shoulder and said in a gentle tone, “Come down when you’re ready and we’ll do presents.”
Alone again, Jia looked longingly towards the window and the freedom beyond. She thumbed her smartphone on and quickly took a selfie with her sleeping son before sending it on. A minute later, she got a selfie of Eli back. He had a mug of hot chocolate in one hand and the morning devotional they both enjoyed in his other hand. That smile of his warmed her. It looked like he was still in his dorm bedroom, though. Had he not gone home for Christmas?
She’d have to ask him when Christmas break was over. Not everyone had an ideal home life, after all.
“Merry Christmas!” Alley yelled as she whipped open her bedroom door and shot her younger brother in the face with a supersoaker water pistol.
Little bastard. Hank Junior had snuck up a few minutes earlier to set an ambush for her. Of course, that left Rich unaccounted for but he was usually too grown up to bother. As the middle child, Alley often felt caught between the seriousness and discipline of her enlisted older brother Rich and the playful antics of her younger teenage brother. She’d always felt like she was the perfect mix of the two, that their qualities helped her understand her own. Blood was like that.
Now that she knew she wasn’t biologically related to Hank Amherst, Alley had to throw all that thinking out the window.
Clad only in pajamas, Alley bounded down the stairwell after Junior who fled from her whooping as she fired and just barely missed him. He scampered over the railing and landed on the couch next to Rich before jumping out and spinning around to fire on the approaching Alley. Immediately, the living room exploded in an uproar of objection. Hank Senior yelled about them fighting while he was reading the paper. Mom yelled about them not knocking over the Christmas tree. And Rich just yelled that they needed to grow up and settle down, not necessarily in that order.
Junior gave his brother a salute, which Rich returned with a playful shove. Alley took a seat next to her older brother while her younger followed Mom back into the kitchen. The Amherst family dynamic had never played quite the way one would expect. After all, daughters usually followed mothers, especially when they were the only Supers. But Alley had always found more in common with her father, just as Rich did, whereas Junior was less reserved, more curious and as of this semester more studious. She’d been surprised at how many school books he’d brought home with him for the break…and even more surprised at how much time he spent reading them. But then, she’d always known Junior wouldn’t follow his older siblings into service.
“Sleep well, Alley?” Hank asked.
“Yeah, I slept alright. Am I the last one up?”
“Obviously,” Rich said, nudging her for more space on the couch as he and his father went back to watching Good Morning America.
“Hey, you bringing Clare over?”
“Nah, she’s visiting grandparents in Ohio or somewhere.”
“Planning to marry that girl someday?”
“Eventually.” Rich finally tore his eyes away from the television and his face briefly softened. “What about you, Sis, you seeing anyone?”
He didn’t say anything but he did put a supportive arm around her shoulders. Dad acted like he didn’t know about Alley’s orientation and Mom pretended not to notice. But Rich and Junior knew. And Rich had been old enough to understand Alley’s loss when Iris died. He sighed and it felt like her own, full of wistful regret.
Bored with the TV, Alley launched herself out of the couch and headed into the kitchen for breakfast. Junior promptly wooted in triumph as he successfully shot her in the stomach with his own supersoaker from over the kitchen counter. Rather than return fire, Alley dropped her gun, put both hands to her belly and collapsed with a theatric death rattle.
Peeking one eye back into the living room, she saw her father and older brother frowning at her. They didn’t like it when she made war into play. Not surprising given the tradition of Amherst military history. But she knew something they didn’t; Junior was never going to join the army. It didn’t matter as much if he glorified it or even just found it fun. Not to her, anyway.
“Come and get some waffles, Alley.”
Alley lifted her head back towards the kitchen and saw Mom standing there, looking a bit exasperated at the ridiculousness of her children. There was even a hint of a smile. Maybe because, for once, Alley wasn’t getting in Mom’s face.
Rolling to her feet, Alley ambled into the kitchen and took a seat behind the kitchen counter after giving Junior a swift boot to go harass the other men of the house. She helped herself to a thick stack of waffles and added enough syrup to make her own lake. Digging in, she made satisfied noises and chomping sounds until Mom actually giggled and batted her for being indelicate.
Alley watched Dr. Sarah Amherst for a moment while finishing her mouthful. Then she said “Merry Christmas, Mom.”
Surprise gave way to gratitude so strong it brought tears to the eyes of that face so like hers. Mom’s ability seemed to slow down her aging enough that they looked more like sisters than mother/daughter and they looked astonishingly similar. Hair, eyes, bone structure, all the same. Alley’s skin was darker, especially when she tanned, but her Hispanic biological father was probably responsible for that. Otherwise, even their physiques were similar. Motherhood had softened Sarah’s figure but she was the product of HCP training too and she’d kept a phenomenal fitness as if she was still actively Heroing it up out there.
“Merry Christmas, Alley.” She tolerated Mom when the older Amherst came up and hugged her. Alley even returned it.
“Maybe we’re on opposite sides,” Alley murmured softly to her mother. “Maybe not. But it’s Christmas. Truce?”
Sarah just hugged her tighter and held on, gently rocking the daughter she’d never been able to bond with. In a thick voice, she said “Truce.”
“Merry Christmas! Time for a nap!”
Rick Campbell patted a full stomach and made a great show of rising with effort from the dinner table and waddling out of the room. Susan Campbell rolled her eyes at her departing husband and looked fondly at her youngest daughter, Julie. Then she reached for a pitcher of juice and said “Would you like a little more to drink, Nathan?”
“No, thank you.”
Nate Insley shifted uncomfortably as he sat next to his…girlfriend? Part of that discomfort came from not knowing exactly what they were. It seemed like they were on the way to being a couple before the shocking revelation of the Ringmaster’s control over Julie had come out. But whether Nate using his ability to show the truth to her helped, or whether the sheer tragedy of the Gym Final had softened her, the end result was she’d invited him to come home with her for Christmas. Not having any family to spend it with, Nate had cautiously agreed.
The experience so far had been a bit overwhelming. Julie’s older sister got married over the summer apparently and was spending Christmas with her in-laws, leaving Nate all alone with Julie and her parents. They’d been nothing but kind so far but it was still strange. For a guy who’d spent his teenage years in isolation, it was very strange.
“Did you get enough lunch?” Susan asked.
“I’m good, Mrs. Campbell.”
“We’re going for a walk, Mama,” Julie said, suddenly rising from the table. The pretty, dark-eyed brunette took Nate’s hand and tugged him to his feet. “Back in a while, okay?”
“Fine, dear, go and show him around town.”
Nate breathed a lungful of cool air as they escaped the house. Darien in Georgia was colder than Florida had been but not by much. The tiny town of less than 2,000 people was just off I-95 north of Brunswick, positioned right on the coast at the mouth of the Altamaha River. Julie had apparently grown up here on the big sprawling lawns, ample trees everywhere and two-lane roads everywhere. Despite it being Christmas, there wasn’t a trace of snow anywhere and Nate barely bothered with a windbreaker as the two of them headed down Wayne Street.
This was his first real outing, on his own. It’d taken the Dean writing a specific exemption to the Department of Variant Human Affairs to get permission, of course. It probably helped that he was going with someone who, at least on paper, was capable of stopping him from Dominating anyone. As for his personal protection, well, for all he knew there were Supers in town to keep an eye on him in case anyone made another go at him. That was over his head, though, so he didn’t really think about it much.
There really wasn’t much to do in Darien. He’d already been here a few weeks and they’d exhausted all of Julie’s old hangouts, starting with a really cool old fort and trail system over at Fort King George a few blocks away. Julie’s cousins had taken them boating and that’d been a lot of fun. He even had a chance to learn how to play basketball and try out tennis at a nearby court. Though Nate had never really played either before, the months of grueling physical training at the HCP had worn away his previously sedentary lifestyle. Much to his surprise, he outlasted pretty much everyone he came up against.
And now he was alone with Julie, walking hand in hand down the street. Almost as if they were an ordinary couple.
Julie cleared her throat. When Nate glanced over at her, he saw her blushing slightly.
“Sorry,” he said automatically, realizing the direction of his thoughts.
“We can be, you know. If you want to.”
Julie stopped him on the street and leaned into him, kissing him before he realized her intentions. He felt briefly nervous, given there was no sidewalk to walk on here but the lack of traffic and the beautiful girl distracting him quickly derailed Nate’s train of thought. When she pulled away at last, she shook her head and smiled teasingly.
“I like it when you’re like this.”
“Thinking about things like being a couple. Being with me. Being here. You needed this,” she said, her face losing its humor. “After what you went through, you definitely need this.”
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do when I get back.” Nate sighed. “Everyone else in our class is going to remember being crippled or beaten down by Alley or Jia. They’re going to remember what happened to Finn. I just don’t know how it can possibly be the same after this.”
“It won’t be the same.” Julie brushed a lock of brown hair out of her eyes when Nate looked at her. “Life is change, Nate. You’ve read a lot of the same books I have. This isn’t the worst attack we’ve ever had. You know that. Those people rose. You will too.”
“For encouragement? Anytime.”
“For encouragement,” Nate agreed, turning back into his girlfriend and, greatly daring, kissing her. “And this. Inviting me. Being with me.”
“For all that’s happened, Nate, there’s one fact that keeps getting proved to me, over and over and over again.” She put both of her hands on his face and bent close. “You are a good man.”
“I’m trying,” he mumbled.
“I heard from Jia, by the way,” Julie said, tugging him back along the street. “She’s doing good. Jason’s over at her place to see Jake, it’s their first time meeting.”
“I wonder how Alley’s doing,” Nate wondered aloud. “…Or Amara. Poor Amara. I just realized she doesn’t really get along with her family, right? She’s just lost Finn and she’s all alone for Christmas.”
“Don’t worry, Nate,” Julie said, tugging his arm until he put it around her shoulders. “She’s not alone.”
“Happy Christmas! Cheers!”
Amara laughed at the sight of Albus and Bridget Barnaby as they held out their Christmas cracker with their right and took hold of someone else’s cracker with their left. This year, the Barnabys had Bridget’s sister come over with her husband and two young children for extra company. With each family member adorned with a paper crown made of tissue from previous crackers, the newest jokes spilled from the just-popped crackers were exchanged with much eye-rolling and head shaking.
Topped with a crown, Amara laughed with the rest of them but mostly made herself busy helping Bridget in the kitchen while keeping the table clear and clean. Christmas tea was due after all. And at the very least, it’d be the last time for a very long time that she’d ever be in this house again.
It’d taken some very touching conversation and a lot of tears to build enough rapport with the Barnabys to be invited to their home for Christmas. Thankfully, a bit of experimentation with her new ability to turn into a solid beam of light had made travel miraculously easy. Being ‘home’ with the people who’d been her parents for two years had been entirely worth it.
Except for all the reminders of Finn, of course. Not that she exactly minded them. Albus and Bridget made a point of touring the house with her, showing her all of Finn’s things and telling stories about the young man. Many of them she’d heard before or picked out of their minds when she’d actually been Finn. Some were real memories, though, won fairly from the last two years. And when she teared up, they assumed she just grieved for her boyfriend. At least it gave them a chance to talk about their son and come to terms with his passing.
Truth be told, she needed the chance to talk and come to terms too.
“You alright, dear?” Bridget asked, placing a hand on the small of Amara’s back as she looked out the kitchen window.
“…Yes,” she said slowly. “I’ll be fine.” But Amara’s eyes lingered on the garden outside the window, and the street beyond.
Two years ago, Ellis Insley had breathed his last on that street. He’d been in the body of Hafeez Shariff, a Pakistani-American Villain who’d gone by the moniker of the Crimson Savage, owing to his ability to tap into his adrenaline to achieve unearthly levels of strength and speed. An American expatriate who’d settled in Birmingham had been party to some high-level security documents Ellis had stumbled across regarding investigations into the Russell Senate Office Building of 2005. Rather than try beating the truth out of the man, Ellis had possessed a series of government officials until he found one that had access to Britain’s registry of Supers. After that, it was a simple matter of looking up an Advanced Mind who could innocuously probe the target’s mind.
Finn Barnaby was rated a strong telepath, if not a terribly good telekinetic. All he’d planned to do was stop by the sixteen year old’s house and borrow his body for a drive-by scan. Sadly, the Crimson Savage had made his share of enemies. To this day, she had no idea who’d shot him in the back and left him to perish. Probably an American Hero who’d popped over and taken him out illegally. That was the sort of thing they did, now and then. She’d done it herself a few times for that matter.
It’d been a stroke of luck that Finn caught sight of Hafeez’s collapse through the kitchen window and run out to help. Ellis hadn’t really looked forward to being a teenager again but it could have been worse. He’d been stranded in the body of an Advanced Mind and he certainly wasn’t up to intentionally killing himself to trigger the permanent jump to a better body. Well, not without a good tactical reason anyway.
“This must be so hard for you, sweetie. Here, have a seat, won’t you?”
Amara blinked for a moment, then let Bridget guide her to sit down in a chair in the kitchen. She just concentrated on breathing for a bit and gratefully accepted and swallowed down a cup of tea when it was put in her hand.
Ellis had possessed thousands of people over his Hero career. He’d had five permanent bodies, when the prior host perished. But Finn had been among his favorite.
“You know, dear, I was thinking that I might pack you up a box of some of Finn’s things to take home with you, shall I?” Bridget smiled fondly at her. They’d clicked immediately, though it’d helped that Amara knew the woman with the familiarity only a son could have. “Is there anything of his you’d especially like?”
“Oh, Mum, I couldn’t.” She cleared her throat. “Mrs. Barnaby, you’ve been so kind but I really couldn’t.”
“Nonsense. Anything you like.”
“…Well, he mentioned he had a guitar signed by the Rolling Stones. We’re both fans. Would it be too much to-”
“Of course, dear.” Bridget Barnaby dabbed at her eyes then and coughed. “You know, he used to sing and play O Holy Night for us. Every Christmas but this one. It was…it was-”
“A family tradition.” Amara nodded, eyes misting up as memory and reality met. “I’m a bit of a singer myself, you know. Could I? For Finn?”
Overcome by the offer, Bridget could only nod.
With a brief touch of Amara’s hand against the older woman’s shoulder, she turned and climbed the stairs to Finn’s loft. The bedroom was just as she’d left it, as they’d left it untouched since Finn’s death. Amara lifted the guitar out of its case and tuned it, the whole experience rather surreal. The strings felt strange to her uncallused fingers. It was the wrong size too, purchased for the much taller and broader body she’d worn until a few weeks ago. The strap was stiff and she had to pull hard to get it to adjust down in size to fit her neck, for it’d never been moved since Finn purchased it a few weeks after Ellis had taken him over.
What a strange thing. All this time and Ellis had rarely given much thought to the life, memory and soul of the boy he’d displaced. The real Finn had been gone for years now. He hadn’t meant to. Taking and overwriting Finn had been a desperate, reflexive lunge to survive, not premeditated murder. But now that Finn’s body was gone as well, Amara found herself mourning the boy who’d been erased as much as she’d miss being the boy herself.
Then she set aside her regrets and wishes, packing them away deep inside of herself. Finn was gone but his family remained. And if she’d wronged him by taking his life twice, the least she could do was honor his memory and give his family a bit of comfort.
With that settled, Amara English softly stepped downstairs with guitar in hand.