December 26, 1999
Where have all the good men gone
and where are all the Gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night, I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need…
“I need a hero!” Natalie Kyros belted at the top of her lungs while drumming the beat on the steering wheel of her car. An enormous, older man with a walrus mustache glared at her from the next car over and yelled something indistinct which could not be heard over the music.
As she drove, she played idly with the small silver cross that hung around her neck, secured with a leather thong that looked quite ancient. She had worn it for as long as she could remember, which was odd because she didn’t even really believe in God in the first place. It gave her a distant sense of comfort, though. It reminded her of someone, somehow, something precious that was lost to her, but she could never quite put her finger on it.
It took longer than usual to find parking that day, given that someone had parked in her usual spot. She hurried past the rows of offices, placed her things down at her desk, and grabbed her teacup, an delicate, fussy golden little thing that she held an unnatural fondness for.
As she waited for the kettle in the break room, she noticed that one of the offices that was typically empty had its lights on. She poked her head in and watched as a tall man with Asiatic features unpacked his things from a box. His hair was cropped short, but still retained a bit of curl, and he looked up at Natalie just as she realized she was gawking.
Well, he was handsome! She couldn’t be blamed for staring. “New here?”
“Yeah. Research and Development. Cell phones, radio waves… boring stuff, really. You?”
Her eyes lit up a bit. “That’s my department! I mean, not my department like it’s mine, but that’s where I work. Natalie Kyros.” She held out her hand.
“Constantine Atreides. A pleasure.” He smiled at her.
“The pleasure is mine.” She realized that sounded much smoother in her head than it came out. She decided to quickly shift the focus of the conversation. “That’s an… interesting sculpture you’ve got there,” she remarked, pointing to a ceramic statue of a frog sitting on top of a chicken egg.
“Yeah, I found it in an old store a few years back in my hometown. A small little place in Greece. You from there, too?”
“Are you Greek, too? Your last name,” he offered awkwardly.
“Oh! I thought you meant… nevermind. Yeah. Moved here a while back though.” As she spoke, she twirled her teacup around on her finger.
“That’s a cute teacup you have there.”
She laughed, but then stopped – “Ah, damnit. The kettle’s boiling! Well, it was nice to meet you! I’m sure I’ll see you around, Gus.”
“Yeah… no one calls me that,” he called after her as she disappeared around the corner.
“Well, I do now!”
Michael and Petunia Verres sipped their tea in silence. The holidays were always the hardest. Ever since they lost their son almost eight years ago, the holidays did little except remind them of what once was.
They had tried to start over, build a family anew, but things never seemed to work out, and it was difficult at times to not blame the other. If only Michael spent less time at work, if only Petunia spent less time stressing over the little things, maybe things would be different.
But Petunia was 41, and although it was certainly possible to have children, and she and her husband were still intimate, at times, but the frequency of such encounters and the chances of them bearing fruit dwindled further each year.
“I reckon we ought to get going, no? The Grangers and Masons will be expecting us soon,” Michael spoke, distantly.
Petunia nodded. The Grangers, and the Masons to a lesser extent, were perhaps the only people in their lives who had any modicum of understanding of their pain. Roberta had been struggling with conception for longer than Petunia and had on more than one occasion offered a comforting shoulder to cry on.
And Lucius Mason was a victim of the same tragic accident that claimed the life of the Evans-Verres adopted son, having slipped into a years-long coma. The Masons were quite financially comfortable (or as Michael would say, “filthy rich”) and Nancy Mason had seen to it that her husband had the best of the best when it came to medical care, trying numerous treatments that could be considered “experimental” at best. One of those treatments, however, bore fruit, and Lucius had emerged from the coma a year or two prior.
Before they knew it, they were seated around the Granger’s dining room table; a large, sturdy sort of thing whose stolid simplicity belied its unreasonably high price. The Grangers had purchased it in anticipation of many large family gatherings for many years to come; both Leo and Roberta had always wanted a large family, and many, many grandchildren.
“England qualified for Euro 2000, you see that?” Leo offered, breaking the silence.
“Mm? Oh, yes. I did see that. Football, right?” Michael offered.
Leo nodded, and noting the clear lack of interest, didn’t push the topic further.
“Sorry, Leo. Sports has never been my strong suit. I can barely run a kilometer without getting winded,” Michael quipped dryly.
“You’re telling me. Not many opportunities for physical activity in the world of dentistry… Unless you count moving my hands fast enough to dodge little Robbie Fenwick’s teeth.”
Petunia chuckled, “He’s still biting, then?”
Roberta smiled. “He’s still biting, then. Gave Leo ten stitches in the hand a few years back.”
“I wondered what those were from. I assumed it was some sort of tragic footballing accident.” Michael laughed.
Petunia hesitated for just a moment, briefly surveying the reaction of the Masons, but they did not seem to be unaffected. It did not seem too long ago that simply the word “accident” was enough to send the lot of them into morose silence.
The Grangers, for their part, secretly conducted a similar survey and were content to see that the Evans-Verres and Masons were similarly unimpacted. Time, it seemed, had softened that, at least.
Leo raised his glass. “Well, here’s to the good times.”
Michael inclined his glass in turn, completing the toast, “And to better times to come.”
They looked in silence for a moment at the lavishly prepared feast.
“Sod this. Want to go to the pub?” Nancy abruptly asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Petunia nodded. “Michael?”
“Misery loves company, eh? Lucius?”
Lucius, who had been staring distantly out the window, nodded softly. His doctors had said that he would recover all function, but there still seemed to be something missing. Like he was living in the memory of someone else’s life, in another world. “Yes, I suppose a pint would do some good.”
Vernon and Marjorie Dursley both grimaced simultaneously as they heard the music blaring from the car next to them, staring distastefully at the young woman singing exuberantly along with the radio.
“Turn that ruddy music DOWN!” Vernon shouted, purple-faced.
“Vernon, Vernon. You musn’t get your druthers up. Your collywobbles will start acting up again. Besides, you’re frightening little Rippy-poo,” Vernon’s sister Marjorie stroked the head of the forlorn-looking English Bulldog that sat on her lap, drooling lazily.
“Vernon, pay attention to the road! With so many hoodlums about, you can’t afford to be casting your eyes about.” Marjorie chastised.
“Hoodlums, in Hampstead Garden? Don’t be absurd, Marge.”
“This isn’t Thatcher’s England anymore, Vernon. You can never be too careful. Why, just the other week, some hooligans vandalized Colonel Fubster’s estate.”
Vernon suspected that no such thing had occurred. It was true that the comically large bulldog statue in Colonel Fubster’s lawn had been knocked over and cracked in two. However, the very same day of the supposed vandalism, a suspiciously bulldog-shaped dent had appeared in the front fender of the Colonel’s brand new Land Rover. And the drink was one of the few things that Fubster truly loved in this life.
“How can he afford such a thing on a military pension, anyway?” Vernon muttered, half to himself.
“What was that, Vern?” Marge barked.
“Nothing, Marge. Well, this is us. The Old Bull and Bush.”
Marge eyed the public house skeptically. “Mmm. It’s not still dodgy, is it? I ate a funny whelk here nigh on a decade ago, I still haven’t forgotten the turn it gave me! Rippy-poo pined for days, didn’t know what was going to happen to me!” She lifted Ripper’s considerable girth from the seat. At an astonishingly-old age of nineteen years, Ripper could barely walk anywhere, and so the elder Dursley carried him around everywhere.
Vernon opened the door for her, and immediately his walrus moustache bristled in displeasure as his sensibilities were terribly affronted by a pack of adults, roughly his age, clearly several rounds in, who were singing loudly along with some awful namby-pamby pop song.
“You’ve got your mother in a whirl!
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl!
Hey babe, your hair’s alright!
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight!
You like me, and I like it all….”
Marge muttered something under her breath as they were led to a table. Vernon however, had stopped and his small, beady eyes had widened.
“Petunia Evans?” he stammered.
Petunia Evans-Verres stopped singing. Being on her third round, it took a few moments for her memory to catch up. “Vernon Dursley? Wow. Yes, it is you, isn’t it?”
“You look… well. You look quite well,” he said, but what he really meant was, you look much prettier than when we were dating.
It took a few moments for Petunia’s eyes to take in the entirety of Vernon’s considerable girth. “And you! You look… healthy!” she said, but what she really meant was, you look much larger than when we were dating.
“Excuse you!” they both exclaimed at once, interrupted by a young man, or maybe it was a young woman, with short-cropped hair wearing a green peacoat bumped into them as he (or possibly she) stormed out of the pub in something of a huff.
In truth, they were both thankful for the interruption, as this impromptu reunion was much more awkward than either of them had anticipated. They both muttered a few perfunctory goodbyes and returned to their tables, one of them drinking to remember the good times, and another one drinking to forget.
Max Koschey muttered a brief apology to the very large man and the very thin woman that she had bumped into. The Old Bull and Bush was usually a nice place to have a quiet drink and be alone with her thoughts, and one would think that the day after Christmas, of all days, it would be even quieter. But today, an increasingly loud (and intoxicated) group of forty-something couples had encroached upon her blissful oblivion with maudlin singing of old, depressing pub songs.
In her own little act of rebellion, she paid extra money into the jukebox to bring her own song to the front of the queue. But, rather than be dissuaded, it seemed to only fuel whatever bizarre emotions had led them to the pub in the first place, and they sang along with even greater gusto than they had the traditional songs.
They reminded her of little ants, scurrying around with their little emotions, guided by chemicals and pheromones and so easily moved from one path to another.
“It’s not right, you know.”
Max whipped her head around to the man who spoke to her. She recognized the man as the up-and-coming author, Robert Galbraith, who happened to also be a regular at the pub as well. He was smoking a cigarette and glowering at Max, as he always did whenever Max decided to present as male.
“Get stuffed,” Max spat. “But first, let me have one of those.”
Galbraith looked blankly for a moment, but obligingly fished out a cigarette from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. Max wasn’t really a smoker, but even since the days of primary school, Max recognized the social value of sharing a common vice with someone. In her experience, more minds have been changed over a quiet smoke or a quick drink than through words or well-reasoned arguments.
Not that Max had any particular interest in arguing about gender identity with an intransigent closet case, but Galbraith’s books were becoming rather popular, and accruing allies and influence was like second nature to Max. Sharing a common vice was one thing, but keeping a common secret… That was quite another.
She snuffed out the cigarette on the pavement, kicked it into a drain, and started to walk off.
“Thanks for the smoke.” she began, and then pointedly stopped walking and turned back. “See you round, Joanne.”
Galbraith practically choked on ‘his’ cigarette, and Max silently laughed. It was too easy, sometimes. But then again, people were easy in general. So easy that it was boring. Boring.
Everything was boring. She had tried things the normal way, by all definitions of ‘normal’. In her school days, she had the entire staff and student body twisted around her finger through a combination of academic prowess and selfless generosity. She even got the best professor of her generation sacked on what amounted to little more than a glorified bet.
Boring. So, she left school to pursue an internship at Plato, the megacorporation headed up by the teenage prodigy, John Merlin. She found it amusing, the absurd policy of Plato that all executives of the company were required to legally abandon their surnames and instead use their middle names. The rumor floating around was that John Merlin didn’t think “John Potter” was awesome-cool enough for a teenage CEO of a billion-dollar corporation and wanted a legitimate excuse to call himself by his much more dramatic-sounding middle name.
Maxine Koschey Dumarais had no particular attachment to her surname, and so she followed the path of others such as Kayla Rahl Granger or Janus Tucker Mason and renamed herself. She also took the opportunity to refer to herself with the more androgynous name of “Max”. Although some avenues of power were closed to her as a man, she found that many more doors were opened, and so she found herself presenting as male more and more frequently.
After rising quickly through the ranks and making a rather tidy sum of money in various business affairs, she found herself at something of a crossroads. She was a master of manipulation. Her intentions were pure; she legitimately wanted the best for those around her, and so it placed her above reproach. Yet, something was missing.
She had always assumed that by mastering both ends of the spectrum, the middle would come naturally. Logic, philosophy, and mathematics, she understood. People and their emotions and motivations, she understood.
But the bridge between the two? Physics, chemistry, biology, and everything in between? She was a dilettante. A neonate. In the realm of topics such as quantum physics, she was little more than an ant compared to even the lowest of entry-level scientists at Plato.
There were problems she would have liked to see solved, but there was also a vast multitude of people in the world who were orders of magnitude more qualified than she was to solve those problems. For a brief time, she considered going back to school, but the whole affair seemed tremendously pointless.
At Plato, she felt, for the first time in her life, inadequate. And inadequacy was boring.
So she kept walking along down the boring road in this boring city in this boring country, idly wondering what, if anything, would have to change for this boring world to be of interest to her.
In a quiet corner of a quiet pub, Cid Gillory and Nicholas Nickleby sipped wine from glasses filled from an oversized bottle. They watched, amused, as the tremendously drunk pair of couples who had been singing and carrying on for the last few hours, stumbled over each other to settle their bill. Cid and Nicholas were getting there themselves, albeit not as overtly.
“This all still feels like a dream, Cid.”
“Well, here’s to never waking up then.”
They clinked glasses, shared a kiss, and smiled.
“All right, Weseltons! Let’s all sit down!” Martha Weselton tried her best to shout over the din of her seven adult children who had all made it home for Christmas for the first time in who-knows-how-long.
Frank and Jerry, the twins, were giving Reggie grief about the dismal performance of Coventry City so far this season. “Not a single home win this year, mate,” Frank said, somberly.
“It’s not looking good,” Jerry confirmed.
“Well… at least we’re beating Watford!”
“Ha! ‘At least we’re beating Watford’, he says!” Frank mocked.
“Our great-aunt Tessie would have a sporting chance of beating Watford.” Jerry nodded.
From across the room, the sing-song voice of Ben’s wife, Flora, called out to the door. “‘Zat wouldn’t be Nicky, would it?”
Frank and Jerry jumped up and stumbled over themselves to greet him.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, but my walk has become rather sillier recently,” Nicky quoted.
“How are your parents, then? Still at St. Michaels?” Paul asked courteously.
Frank and Jerry both murmured “Prat…” underneath their breath as Nicky replied. “Yeah. Still at St. Michaels.”
“I SAID, ALL RIGHT WESELTONS, LET’S ALL SIT DOWN!” Martha shouted at the top of her lungs, and all noise ceased immediately. She had spent what felt like half a decade preparing this meal, and she wasn’t about to let it get cold.
Janus Tucker rolled over in bed. He had slept in for the first time, in, he couldn’t remember how long. He still wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t all just a fantastic dream.
So he decided to double-check.
He ran his fingers through the thick, chestnut curls of his companion in the bed next to him. Kayla Rahl sleepily looked up at him. “Good morning, Janus,” she said and smiled.
Janus was tall, with sharp features and platinum blonde hair. Even in a state of undress, he still managed to look aristocratic. “You’re still here.”
“Of course I’m still here, where would I go?”
“I… I’m not sure. When I woke up this morning, I had this strange feeling, like I had lost something that was precious.” He wasn’t quite sure what had come over him. “I’m… I’m just glad you’re still here.”
She said nothing in return, and instead just smiled radiantly at him. He couldn’t help but think she looked like a Goddess, stretched decadently across the sheets of his exorbitantly expensive bed.
“We better get dressed and ready. I doubt John will allow a moment’s rest, even the day after Christmas.” As he spoke, he was already pulling on a fresh dress shirt and buttoning it up. “Do you think he’ll be surprised?”
“Oh, I think he’s known this was going to happen long before we did. And even if he didn’t, you know that he’d just say that he did.”
Janus smiled at that. “Clever little bastard.”
Kayla nodded. “Clever little bastard, indeed.”
The John Snow Center for Medicine at Plato
John Merlin waited dramatically at his desk, his back facing the entrance to his office. Someone was knocking at the door. He was deliberately waiting. The rapping grew more insistent.
“Enter,” he spoke.
The door opened, and Kayla walked inside with Janus close behind. “That’s a rather rude way to greet your guests, don’t you think?” she said.
John spun around in his office chair, grinning. “Hello, lovebirds.” His disheveled black hair fell across his green eyes which held a teasing, yet good-natured expression.
Kayla elbowed Janus, “Told you!”
Janus rolled his eyes. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”
“Oh, the same thing we do every day. Try to save the world.”