This year I'm not doing a marathon posting of buttloads of stuff like I did last year (32 posts in one day). But in addition to the short "To Duel the Gorgon", I'll also post a couple of chapters of a new story that I will finish one day, if I get to write the OTHER material in the universe. Because yes, this DOES take place in the Digital Knight universe... but some years later (about 15 total, I think).
The Stuff of Legends
"I think today's session went well, Mr. Thompson," Jennifer Hsui said in her best professional tone. It was important to conclude each appointment on time, but not to make the patient – or client, as some people preferred – feel pressured or cut off.
Thompson, a man with a weather-beaten face and graying hair that showed it had once been dark, managed a smile that creased his cheeks with wrinkles that had not been there so often when first he had come to her – was it a year and a half ago? "I guess so, Jen. Still hard to talk about some of this… but it's all getting easier now."
"Good to hear. Same time next week?"
The door closed behind him and Jen sat back with a whoosh. The hardest thing about being a therapist sometimes was trying to figure out the right direction for the patient, and then get him to move himself along it. Some people came looking for a quick cure – no, most of them do, let's be honest with ourselves, Jenny – but even when they accepted that this wasn't an option, they still had their own expectations of direction. And sometimes – maybe even usually – the direction they expected wasn't the right direction to go in.
Day's not quite over yet, not time for woolgathering, as my mother used to say. She stood and moved over to the attached bathroom, checked herself in the mirror; straight long black hair parted just so, touch up the makeup a bit, but nothing major.
She checked the schedule; a new patient was due in, a David Helten. He had a late appointment – 5:30.
What ever possessed me to take another patient at that hour?
She knew the answer; instinct. When Mr. Helten had called, his approach had been very professional, matter-of-fact… but there was just something about the tone of voice that made her feel there was something important there.
It was always important for the patient, once they made the step of calling… but somehow it had rung out strongly in the way he spoke, and she'd felt it.
Fifteen minutes before he gets here. She picked up the phone and dialed, waited. A few minutes later, a high-pitched child's voice answered, "Hsui residence, Yukari speaking." The words were enunciated with careful pride.
"It certainly is Yukari speaking!" Jen said.
"Mommy! Are you coming home now?"
"Not tonight, Yuki. That's why Gran is still there with you. I have a new patient tonight." She looked out her window idly as she spoke; from her tenth-floor window in the newly-constructed Grume Building the view was spectacular. Today, the sun was hanging low, shining across Albany and making long shadows from the buildings, throwing the Memorial Square into sharp relief. The new structures around it did not rise nearly as high as the old South Mall had, even though it had been … what, nearly ten years now? Had to be; Yukari hadn't even been born then. But there were also so many more buildings…
"You're going to help him?"
Bless you for being so understanding. I don't know if I would have been at your age. "I'll at least find out if I can, sweetie. I just wanted to call and say I love you."
"I love you too, Mommy!" A pause, during which Jen thought she saw tiny, distant shapes moving fast against the sky. They twirled together, a flash, a streak of light, and they were gone. I still have a hard time realizing that I'm really seeing this. "Mommy, it's Thursday…"
She laughed. "Oh, I see. Put Gran on."
Her mother came on the line a moment later. "I've already got dinner on, Jenny. Yukari's finished all her spelling words and showed me her other homework, which she was perfect on." The eternal pride of the grandmother echoed in her mother's tones.
"It's only third grade, mother. I think we'll wait to declare genius until the fourth."
"If you insist. Now, I was going to read her a book later, but she insists—"
"Mom, you know she's going to watch her show tonight. There's a two-hour marathon ending with a new episode. It'll make her really easy to sit for – just make sure she showers first and she can go straight to bed after, if I'm not back. I should be back long before then, though."
"But that show is so –"
Yes, yes, I know. But she loves it, and it's not that bad. And I've had this argument with Mom so many times. "I know, Mom, you think it's lowbrow, boy's adventure with nothing to recommend it. And I admit I don't know why this grabbed her attention, but it has, and she doesn't just sit and watch."
"I'm sorry, Jen. I really should stop questioning you. You've been doing fine on your own. I'll get her fed and washed up and with luck you'll be back… when, seven?"
"If it all goes smoothly. I'd hope eight at the latest." She glanced at the clock. "Gotta go, mom, put Yukari back on." When her daughter was back, Jennifer said, "Love you, Yuki. Gran knows you'll be watching your show, so that's all set. I should be home at least in time to watch the new episode with you."
She ended the conversation with a kiss and hung up. She looked up at the monitor over her desk. No one in the outer office yet – her part-time office manager had gone home, and the patient wasn't there yet. I hope he's not late. The green telltale showed that the CryWolf unit was in good operation, not that she was really worried; the number of Wolf incidents in Albany was very low, even compared with other cities. Still, it was good for peace of mind.
It struck her anew how incongruously bizarre it was that she accepted the presence of a werewolf detector in her office as a completely normal thing, like having a smoke alarm in your house. That was when the world really started to change, I guess. Though even then we could never have imagined what the world would become.
The Transformation, the Awakening – people called it different things… but suddenly there were new sorts of creatures appearing, some like men, some… not. And they, and some of the people, wielding powers that had just been fiction, stories in paper and film brought now to impossible life. The law, science, even political realities shifted, and the world was still far, far from adjusting fully.
The last minutes ticked by as the sun almost touched the horizon. No one there. He's late.
There was a rap at her window.
Jennifer jumped in startlement and whirled from the monitor.
Standing impossibly outside her window was a man, a tall young man with wild-flowing black hair, bound back with a silver band, wearing strange, impractically styled armor that showed a physique like an Olympic swimmer, finished off with a flowing silvery cape.
She felt her mouth drop open as she stared, but for a moment she simply couldn't do anything other than stare.
"Dr. Hsui," he said in a voice that somehow penetrated the thick glass without being either diminished or shouted, "I'm your five-thirty appointment." He flashed an apologetic grin. "Sorry about the unorthodox arrival."
And at last she spoke with the only word she could think of. "…Legend?"
He smiled and nodded, the trademark confident smile that had been the symbol of the world's final transformation. He was not the only being of his type – not the only Super, as most would call them – but he was the first.
He was Legend.
She broke her momentary paralysis and yanked open the window – it took a moment for her to figure out how to unlock the sash, since there were safety features to prevent that being easy. Legend dropped through and landed lightly, making it look trivially easy to do the impossible.
"Why didn't you… use the regular door?"
"Didn't want to be recorded on the cameras. No one was watching this part of your building from the outside, not this high up." She noted that the cape somehow moved with him, avoiding getting in his way, as though it knew what he was doing, where he was going.
"All right." She could understand that. It must be very hard to have anything private when you were like… well, like that. And you'd have to go to extraordinary lengths to assure privacy. "So… what can I do for you?"
His smile was suddenly less confident, and just as suddenly more familiar.
"You have… problems?" She failed to keep the increduity out of her voice, and kicked herself for it.
Fortunately he laughed, and the laugh itself told her a great deal. It was a laugh edged with uncertainty, nervousness, even a ragged tone that might be unshed tears. "Problems? Yes, Doctor… I have a number of problems. And I did a lot of searching to decide what I should do… who I could talk to. You ended up being highly recommended." He sat down in one of the chairs and leaned back, trying to look like he was relaxed – and failing miserably. "So how about doing some headshrinking on a superhero, Doctor Hsui?"
She was still in something of a state of shock, but she heard herself respond, "I… will have to think about it for a few minutes."
He looked suddenly chagrined. "Look at me, coming in here with a clear plan as to what I was going to say, and then messing it up already."
She blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Well, obviously you'll have to think about it. There's … a lot of issues. And I wanted to make sure you knew them up front. And I was going to talk about those first."
"It's not that, Mr… Legend," she said slowly, finally starting to come to grips with the situation. "I may realize the potential pitfalls better than you realize. But that's because of a rather personal set of events."
He waited, but she didn't elaborate; just leaned back and started thinking. Very personal, and my job isn't to discuss my personal life with you, just to decide if I can keep most of it out of the job.
There was nothing more personal than the death of your husband, and Stephen Hsui had died five years ago as a bystander in a battle between an inexperienced hero and a vicious Empowered psychopath. The hero, named simply the Rat, had won, and – she did not hesitate to admit – had probably saved many lives by stopping the one calling himself Fenris; but in the battle three people had died, one of them her Stephen. His quick smile would never brighten her door again, his hands had never come back to pick up Yuki or touch her face, and she could not see one of these costumed heroes without – fairly or unfairly – feeling a moment of anger.
I'm also bitter because it was only a few months later that the Shelters started construction; Stephen would have lived if they'd already been in place. And the Shelters themselves couldn't have existed without the unique powers that had appeared; it was a combination of the group called the Five and one of the more secretive government organizations which had designed and built them, first in Albany (which had, for some reason, been the epicenter for the initial changes) and then in other cities around the world.
Seeing that she was lost in her own thoughts, Legend was wandering quietly around the room, looking at the pictures, certificates, and other things she had scattered around the office. She noted the way he moved, while somehow surrounded by that aura of power and impressiveness, carried also the nervousness of a new patient. He bent down and studied something on her desk, a faint smile crossing his face, then looking over to a picture tacked to the wall, a rough but painstakingly executed scene in the bright colors that were favored by small would-be artists everywhere.
"You have a fan at home, I see," he said quietly.
"You like having fans?" she asked. Yes, I'm always a therapist even when I haven't made up my mind.
"Those aren't my fans," he protested.
"Densetsu is an awfully obvious pastiche of Legend. The name even means 'legend', doesn't it?"
He looked embarrassed. "Well… yes, I can't argue that, given that they've hardly even tweaked the costume design. They actually asked me for permission to do the show."
And you gave it. Which would indicate … what? "You obviously didn't say no."
"Well, people would make some kind of show about us sooner or later. More than one, actually, as you probably know. I said yes, but on a few conditions. They had to keep Densetsu a hero. No temporary falls to the Dark Side, no Batman-esque antiheroics. But they also had to show him as a PERSON outside of the hero-antics."
She wanted to pursue that line of questioning, but now she was starting to act as a therapist and she hadn't even accepted him as a patient yet. "Can I ask how you chose me?"
He noticed the shift of conversation but didn't question it; one thing that was clear to her was that he was a very controlled man, one who liked to keep anyone from telling whether he was rattled or not. "Can I ask you if what we're saying is confidential?" he countered.
She considered briefly. "Yes, it is. Unless you tell me about something that I am required to report – which means generally suicidal tendencies or certain criminal activities, which shouldn't include anything you're likely to tell me."
He nodded. "I asked around my… peer group. While none of us – until now – have been going to anyone in our heroic identities, some of us have had issues we were seeing therapists for in our regular guises, for purely mundane problems. One of your old patients… highly recommended you."
It was suddenly blindingly obvious. "J--!" She stopped before actually saying the name. Jack Morriman. He mentioned his hobby often, and that it took time, and was dangerous, and somehow I'd decided he was probably a mountain-climber. He led me to that conclusion deliberately!
"Morriman, yes," he said with a grin. "Jack said that if you were everything he thought you were, as soon as I gave you the hint, you'd figure it out. You pass."
Do I? "I'm still trying to decide if I'm the right person for you, Legend."
He sat down quietly, but stiffly, nervously waiting for her decision, and she suddenly had an insight. The way he talks, moves, acts… the way I've seen him act on television… he's young. Very young, much younger than he looks.
That, really, was what decided her. That and the memory of the most important little voice in the world asking "You're going to help him?". A young man asking for help with what had to be an almost impossible problem. I can't let what happened to Stephen get in my way. That's not what he would have wanted. And it's certainly not what Yuki would want.
"All right, Legend. I'll take you as a client." He relaxed visibly. "I understand there are some risks inherent in this job; I will expect you to do everything possible to minimize those risks.
"In return, I will do my best to help you. Understand that therapy isn't a miracle. In the real end analysis, I, personally, can't help you. All I can do is help you to help yourself."
"Everything said in this office is confidential, unless I think you present a major danger to yourself or others, or have committed certain crimes that I'm required to report. I also recognize your… unique legal status and will take that into account." When he nodded again, she leaned back. "All right, Legend. What brings you here?"
He instantly went tense, with a tension that was completely familiar to any therapist. He knew there was a problem, he wanted to address it, but it scared him, worried him in several ways. He'll approach it obliquely at first. I'm guessing …
"Well… what do you know about how we… super-types work?"
Exactly right. "Not very much. What I've seen on the news. I don't think anyone knows much about how you work. You hide it for the most part, after all, and I presume that's to protect yourselves and people you feel responsible for."
"Yeah," he agreed, and shifted in his seat. "Understand, we're … ordinary people, or we were. And so far, there isn't really any clear pattern as to who gets these powers, or how. I know more about this stuff than just about anyone, except maybe Jason Wood and a few spook agencies, because I've met and talked with most of the Supers – and the bad guys, too, though usually there's a lot more fisticuffs involved."
Fisticuffs. The word was what her great-uncle Jeremy (on her father's side) used to call a 'ten-dollar word'. The fact he chose that word told her a fair amount about Legend. Compensating for nervousness with emphasized intelligence and faux formality.
Legend was continuing, not noticing her momentary thoughtfulness. "What I'm getting at is that what you see… really usually isn't what you get. Which is why most of us can have a private life at all."
"So… you don't look like Legend all the time?"
He grinned. "Not even close. And I'm not nearly the most extreme change. Well, you knew that, from people like Caracal and Coatl, but I know of at least one hero who isn't even technically alive when he's not out doing his stuff."
She nodded, just looking at him.
The smile faded and he was silent for a moment, looking back at her, clearly having realized he'd diverted himself from the subject. So how will he address it now?
"Well, that wasn't an entirely pointless diversion," he began, an undertone of defensiveness in his voice. He's used to being questioned and arguing his side. He sighed, flashed a nervous smile again, and shrugged. "That's part of the problem, really. I mean.. who am I? Who are the others? Now you know Jack's one of us, but is he more Jack, or… his other identity?
"It's one thing if you're just playing the role – if you're an actor, or even a spy or something. You're still not changing yourself. But when I go out to save someone, I go from…" he hesitated, then continued cautiously, "… from my normal self to a completely different body – different voice, hair, eyes, all of that – even different fingerprints, probably even different genetics, which means even the super-spy organizations haven't got a lot of ways to track us all down. But that's not the point, the point is I'm not the person I was born, most of us aren't, when we're Supers. It's not just a mask, it's a different EVERYTHING."
She hadn't thought about that before, but now that she was thinking of it, he was right; this was a problem that was almost completely new. "I see part of your problem, Legend, and I can understand that it must be difficult. You look in the mirror one moment and then another, and see completely different people looking back. And if I might take a guess, when you see Legend in the mirror I think part of you likes him a lot more than your original self."
He winced, but laughed at the same time. "Well, yeah, I guess. Legend… doesn't have to take my baggage with him." He rubbed the back of his neck as though to massage out a cramp. "It's… tougher than that, even. My colleagues – how am I supposed to think about them? When the face they use in my line of work isn't the one they wear at home, when it may not be the same age, the same race, hell, may not even be the same sex. Or even, as I said, the same species."
"So part of your problem has to do with how you should interact with your peers. Perhaps a particular set of those peers?"
He blinked, his eyes narrowed for a moment, and then he shook his head, chuckling. "Oh, my, my, you're good. I suppose I can sorta see where you got that, but it's not direct. You have to be getting a lot from nonverbal cues."
"I'll take that as a yes, then?"
"Hell yeah. Not sure I'm quite ready to go farther," he added, candidly.
"Well, Legend, that's entirely your choice. I can see this will be a very interesting relationship, especially if you keep having to avoid some of the more basic topics." Jennifer pulled out a clipboard. "I have to have you fill this out anyway, so since you're not feeling comfortable…?"
The sharp-planed face gave an exaggerated look of horror. "By the Five Elements! Not FORMS!"
She couldn't quite restrain a chuckle. He was very good at that; he had a sense of timing and dramatics that clearly served him well in his chosen avocation.
Then Legend chuckled.
"What is it?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to leave a lot of this blank," he said. "I can't give you my address or anything, and as for insurance… do you think there is ANY company on Earth that would take me as a policyholder?" He signed the bottom of the form Legend.
She had to admit… he had a point. "So how are you paying for your sessions?"
He reached into his armor, and pulled out a roll of paper bills. "Cash. I think you may have heard of it?"
"Without insurance, my sessions come to –" she broke off as she realized he'd just dropped the entire roll on her desk, and it was all one-hundred-dollar bills.
"Just let me know when that runs out," he said as he opened the window again and glanced out. "I'll bring more."
And with a flash and a gust of wind, he was gone.
Things change, and yet they stay much the same...