Leo is one of the last customers out of the coffee shop. Aria wants to talk to Summer, and will wait outside while she helps close up. There's someone else - the new roommate, Leo thinks - who will give them a ride home. The others are gone. Otto is waiting at the curb. Leo got out of his armor in the restroom, and now lugs the storage case to the car and chucks it in the trunk. The helmet follows. He climbs into the driver's seat and leans into the comfortable, if still charred, interior. But he doesn't ask Otto to take him home. "Highway 94," he says. The car pulls out into the darkness. The lights of Halcyon City are still on, but this neighborhood isn't near downtown. They drive, and drive. Leo looks out the window. In the sky, he sees blasts of plasma, interspersed with what look like butterflies of light. A hero and villain are fighting. Not my problem, not right now , Leo thinks. The sign flashes past in the rear-view mirror: "Welcome to Halcyon City". "Where are we goin', boss?" Otto finally asks. Leo doesn't know. Instead, he tries a question of his own. "What was up with the teddy bear?" "Oh yeah! That was cool! Summer got it from Jason. Some kinda gizmo from his dad's warehouse, they were either tryin' to kill people or educate kids, or maybe both, I'm not sure. But it was articulated, and I could access it remotely through the G3 virtual console." Otto sounds enthusiastic. Leo smiles. But he's not quite done. "Well that's cool. So.. how did it feel? Did you like hopping into that body?" Are you ready for a new shell? Are you feeling it out? Or was this just to humor Summer and her enthusiasm for Jason's weird shit? Otto doesn't speak for long enough that Leo starts to worry. His voice is quieter when he does. "Nah, not for me. It was kinda fun, being passed around and hugged by a bunch of giant girls, though!" Leo smiles, and pats the dash. But it seems Otto isn't done, either. "Hey, boss. I think we're all pretty okay these days. But when they asked about toys, I admit I felt a twinge, just for a second. You were still thinkin' of us, even now. I'm grateful for that. I'd feel weird about an Otto toy. A little me. Doesn't feel right, does it." Leo knows Otto wants him to validate that opinion, wants him to say, "yeah, who wants to be tiny and pathetic, you're the big guy, all the way". Wants him to say.. something. Leo knows, too, that he wants to bring up the topic again, ask about helping Otto mesh better with human-scale people. He settles for a compromise. "I'd feel awkward about a Leo Snow action figure too. Hey, listen. School's coming up. They don't have drive-in classrooms, so you'll have to keep reading my textbooks if you want to educate yourself. I've been meaning to ask, are you going for a GED? You can't really get a diploma without going to classes, but there's no reason you shouldn't be recognized for your education. And.. I mean, I'd love to go to school with you, big guy. But I'll just have to make up that time when I'm not in classes." It's as diplomatic an answer as he can manage right now. It's agreement - Otto's situation will continue - but objection - and on valid grounds, that of education. Otto seems to accept it. The pair drive in silence. --- "Pull over here," Leo directs. "What's here, boss?" "Nothing." That's the point. The North Carolina night is dark. Heaven is crowned by the billions of stars in the Milky Way. The night air is cold - Leo can see his breath in the shine of Otto's headlights. Next to the road is a deep ravine. The nearest human dwelling is a farmhouse a mile away. Leo directs Otto to use one of his grapples, playing out the line. He grabs hold of the cable and rappels down the ravine. At the bottom, he surveys the scene. There's a tiny thread of water here, a remnant of the river or stream that carved out the stone. How fitting. A steady flow can wear down even the hardest substance. Leo takes a breath, watches himself exhale, takes it in, feels the pain in his cheeks, the burn in his lungs. He thinks back. Congress. 250 miles away, a bunch of old white guys just declared his entire team to be traitors, should they pursue the path of peace. And if they do, which they must, Leo will have to be in the lead. Fuck you, Jason. You made me think that this 'leader of the Menagerie' thing mattered. Now I'm even competing with Ghost Girl. The Dread Queen herself, the single most formidable combatant Leo can imagine. He could have sworn he was going to die, then and there, buying time for Concord to move the Keynome and disrupt Vyortovia's plans to blow up the world again. But Adam came through. At what cost? Sol. In another world, a Concord told a Link that to move the Keynome would require Otto's help. Another Otto goes to help, and succeeds, but in the process is crushed into a tiny dead car by cosmic energies, with time only for a last cheerful goodbye message over the radio. Leo knows what that other Link would feel. He would hate the guy who gave that goddamn order, and he doesn't know what would make him stop. I need Adam to hate me too. I need him to come and get in my face, tell me I murdered his friend. What's taking him so long? Vyortovia. It's another trick. Unless they really are down to the wire, and can't afford to be beat a third time. But if we fight... Alycia Chin. At least she's safely in AEGIS custody. Then again, so was Rossum. How soon until Rosa Rook finagles access to the daughter of a mad scientist? Can I really get her into a lab, get her and Jason fixed up, before that happens? Do I want to? Or is this just another scheme of hers - get access to my equipment, go sell it to the highest bidder or whatever? If she and Jason grew up chasing each other, in the shadows of their fathers, with symmetrical histories and similar training, why is she like a fucking goddamn ninja commando Delta Force operator, and Jason is a mopey asshole with a nice house and a fetish for virtual people? On that note, Summer. Well, good job, Jason. You could have fallen for one of the best girls in the world, you could have given her a good life, made her happy. And then Aria told me what Summer texted her. Now she's slinging Justice Chai and blintzes at a coffee house. You bet your ass I will correct whatever is in your fucking skull. Leo knows his own feelings are muddled, but he at least got to say what he knows he felt. That he'd rather have Summer happy than have Summer, and that he'll take whatever she wants to offer. If Aria gave the slightest inclination of disapproval, he'd back off. But quite the contrary. She seems even more impatient for Summer to make up her mind than he is. Silver Streak. The guy was a veteran hero, then a fallen icon, now... a fallen hero? He's in the hospital, anyway. Mercury will visit him when he can. Leo can't do a thing. He's not a doctor, not a healer. He just punches stuff. What a goddamn useless excuse. The weight of it all presses down on him. Like a diesel engine in his chest, the compression ignites a fire, lights the fuel. He feels anger. He's sweating. He takes off his jacket, almost ripping it, and throws it at the ravine wall. And he lets out the loudest scream he has probably ever uttered. It's just a wordless howl of pain and frustration, the voice of his anxiety and anger. He doesn't remember the rest very clearly. He's punching the rock wall, punching until the skin of his knuckles bruises, then tears. The skin is mottled, the clean red of his blood washing over the grainy dust of the rock that clings to his skin. He shouts himself hoarse and still shouts, until his voice is raw and every cold breath feels like agony. He kicks, feeling something in his foot give as it strikes unyielding stone. And he crumples to the ravine, crying, unable to stop his body from shaking. He can't feel the cold any more. Sweat has purged his skin of sensation. He sobs, like a little child, like he remembers doing when his dad would come for him, when he was taken away. He curls tightly into a ball, shutting everything out. He's still shivering, but now due to the cold, when a giant robot hand reaches down into the ravine and scoops him up. Otto, in robot mode, carefully packs him into the crook of one arm, then drapes the discarded jacket over him. "I can't do it. I can't do it." "You don't have to, Leo," comes Otto's voice, distant through the hiccups that follow a bout of crying. Leo can't form words. He doesn't want to do anything. He just wants to stay here, forget everything. "I can't put ya in the back seat myself," Otto says gently. He waits, until Leo acknowledges him, then sets the boy down and resumes car mode. Leo stumbles into the back, still using his jacket as a blanket. The drive back isn't as silent as the drive out. The thing Leo remembers is Otto's choice of music. It's unaccountably soft, for a hard-rocking, rough-and-tumble 80's-loving car robot. You're changing too, big brother. You're growing up. When your day is long And the night The night is yours alone When you're sure you've had enough Of this life Well hang on Don't let yourself go 'Cause everybody cries And everybody hurts sometimes
Nice. The parallels (and differences) in what Leo and Jason shake their fists at, feel helpless about, worry over, are always interesting. I'm glad he has Otto (and vice versa). I could have sworn the teddy bear was something Leo built as a gift for Aria, but now that you mention it, there was that other story of the equipment that was scrounged for Summer.
Aria is still brooding when she hears Otto pull up. The flash of headlights disappears. A minute later, the car door closes. Leo limps up the stairs. Aria rises immediately. He's got blood on his hands, and he's leaning against the wall, favoring one leg. "What happened to you?" she demands. "Some asshole got in my way." He walks past her, flops down onto the roll-up mattress he's been given, and lets out an exhausted sigh. Even in the darkness, Aria can see that he's been crying - his eyes are puffy and red, and his cheeks are crimson from cold air and tension. "You didn't fight with Jason, did you?" Aria isn't quite sure what's going on, but she can't imagine Leo fighting any conventional enemy outside of his armor. Who's left? Leo laughs bitterly. Aria can tell that it hurts. "No… no, it's fine, don't worry about it." Don't worry about it? Don't worry about it? The dismissiveness of the words offends her. I've spent all evening worrying. About me, Summer, you, the team, my role in the world, my direction in life, my feelings, everything. The thoughts become words before she knows it, through the alchemy of stress. "I've done nothing but worry. What the hell?" The challenge gets Leo's attention. "You've worried? I've worried." Something about that statement gnaws at him, Aria can tell. She suspects it's the obvious - Vyortovia, AEGIS, Alycia. "Well hopefully you have a plan then." It's harsher than she intended, but the feeling is authentic. Leo's the one volunteering to fix all of Jason's problems. He's the one who challenged the Dread Queen. Aria remembers him saying "I don't have a plan", when he risked his life in that fight. Aria followed him at that time without hesitation. Now, after the fact, it feels like a bigger risk than it did at the time, maybe bigger than it had to be. Maybe when you stand up and volunteer to tackle these worries you feel, you need to plan for once. "Well, I'm sorry, I'm not smart like you are." Leo isn't shouting yet, but he's getting there. "Yes you are, dummy!" Aria is shouting, though she isn't aware of it, nor the contradiction in what she says. "You are so smart, and you run away from it, because you're afraid of being like your father!" She knows what he's going to say, and she's not disappointed. "I'm not my father!" Leo actually rises from the mattress, though it visibly costs him something. "You're trying too hard not to be your father, Leo! You just can't let things go, you have to jump in, have to be the guy who fixes everything, have to be the guy who saves the day--" "Well I'm so sorry for caring about people!" Aria lets out a frustrated sigh. "You can't care about everyone, all the time , or it's gonna destroy you." The realization - Leo and Otto leave, alone, and return hours later, Leo a physical and emotional mess - returns to her fresh. "Now tell me. Where did you two go?" "I told you, don't worry about it." "You went out and got in a fight, didn't you. You blew off steam. Did you hurt anyone, Leo?" "I didn't hurt anyone." The physical evidence is obvious. Leo got hurt, somehow. He's limping. His knuckles were bleeding. Aria can't believe anything he's saying. She just stares, in mute disbelief. "I…. I just went…" Leo is calming down, the fire flickering out in his eyes. The truth reaches her. "You just went out and vented stress," she finishes. "You hurt yourself . Have you done this before?" "Once before," he admits. "Why didn't you come to me?" Aria feels sick. She knows she can't be a carer and emotional support all the time, especially for someone with Leo's ambition to fix the world. But this has been her role, and she instinctively tries to guard it. "Because part of my worries are about you. Okay? You aren't causing me stress. But trying to protect you, figuring out where we're gonna live, all that shit?" Leo slumps back on his mattress, closing his eyes. His face finally reveals the pain he feels. A wave of guilt washes through Aria, leaving her shivering. "It's okay. Leo, it's okay. I'm sorry. What do you need?" The boy whimpers. "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry for yelling at you. I was wrong. I'm just…" Aria waits, tense. She feels something building in him, and is afraid of it. "You guys. I've made your lives so miserable. And my life is really shitty right now. There's no way out for me." Leo's breath is shallow. "I wish I'd never--" Aria's fear-flooded mind fills in the words she dreads most. I wish I'd never made you. "--been born." A sigh escapes Leo's lips. "You three would be happier without having to deal with my bullshit." Did he just… did he just forget he made us? Aria is stunned. How did this idiot even make that logical leap? How could we be anything, much less happy, if he didn't exist? The hurt overwhelms her, and the shouting suddenly feels like a horrible, awful thing, rather than a justifiable attempt to get him to see reason. The argument reveals itself as short-sighted misunderstanding, not one woman's valiant attempt to get through to a stubborn jerk. How could we be happy if we didn't have Leo? She throws herself down on the mattress next to him, pulling him roughly into her arms and hugging him as tightly as she dares. Even so, she hears a grunt of pain as Leo's bruised body moves faster than he'd like. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Leo, that was … you idiot, you stupid, dumb, idiot, you made us. You forgot. Am I that real to you? Please, please tell me I'm that real, that you think I'd be here without you." Leo's face registers a dim confusion. Then the light dawns. "Oh god. What? I'm a moron. Of course, Aria. You're as real as I am. I'm sorry for shouting, I really am, listen--" Aria doesn't think anything else will really convey what she wants to say. Words aren't working. So she kisses him fiercely, and doesn't stop until he signals that he understands completely. And probably not then either.
Hopefully this had the emotional impact I'd hoped. It brought together two threads of people worrying, and it's at least intended to leave Leo in a stable and happy emotional state before next session. The Vyortovia fight left him listless and drained, and was kind of exhausting on me too. So with this done, at least I feel better. :)
I thought it was marvelous. This whole week has been a treasure trove.
I'm sometimes reluctant to just plaster a "+10" on stuff with no further comment because my name shows as last commenter on too many things. But this entire thread was excellent. Jason would be relieved, abashed, and concerned to really grok that Leo doesn't have it nearly as together as it usually seems.
We will see what Alycia makes of him, and this once she learns it about him.