Part Four: Flashback, New York City, 1988
They’re both laughing, and they’re both a little drunk: Alex’s nose is red, CB weaves and staggers as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to prove how sober he is by walking a straight line. It rained at some point during the party. They hadn’t noticed, despite the holes in the skylight, but the asphalt is wet and water pools in puddles all over the uneven road. They’re taking a shortcut home in a neighborhood that, until very recently, would have been considered unsafe. It’s safe now, and the two of them have something to do with that.
It’s a good feeling.
“I just found another piece of glass,” Alex says, pulling it out of his sleeve. “I’ll probably keep finding them for the next month.”
CB thinks about it a moment, then snickers. “I can see it now. You’ll be fighting Terror Prime, and he’ll be giving one of his ‘now you will know the face of terror’ speeches, and then he’ll stop and say ‘Liberty, aren’t you LISTENING TO MY FIENDISH PLAN?’ And you’ll say ‘sorry. Found some glass. Bar Mitzvah. Long story.’”
Alex laughs, doubling over, and CB laughs with him. Everything is good again, and the relief of everything being good again makes everything funnier than it has a right to be. They turn down an alley and stumble through, still laughing, until they come to a pair of empty dumpsters where the alley opens up into a side road.
“Hey, CB hold on a minute.” Alex speaks easily, but there’s something in his voice that makes CB stop, turn, and squint. Alex is still smiling—he doesn’t look angry—but he also looks serious.
“What?” CB asks suspiciously.
“We need to clear the air, is all,” Alex says. “Tonight was bad. I’m sorry about that. It was my fault. But we can’t just leave it like that.”
Suddenly CB feels tired. “I don’t want to fight again, Alex.”
“I don’t want to fight either,” Alex says. “So let’s not. Let’s talk. Honestly. No dancing around words, just coming flat out and laying it all on the table. OK?”
CB smokes the rest of his cigarette as he decides whether or not to answer.
“Fine,” he says. “Look. Juliet… I really like Juliet. I mean, I don’t know how to explain it, but she does something to me and it’s not lust. You want to call it love, I could live with that.”
“Really?” Alex sounds surprised. “You don’t throw that word around much.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “I mean I get it, right? I’m not exactly a paragon of fidelity. But I do respect her, Alex. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s strong-willed, she doesn’t let people push her around… she’s her own person. I respect her, and I don’t want to hurt her.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Alex says.
“But I’m also not you,” CB continues. “I wasn’t raised by your parents. I don’t have your values. I’m not going to become a choirboy just because you think this is awkward. Which, to be fair, it is. I wish it weren’t. So what do you have to say about that?”
The end comes out as more of a challenge than he wants, but CB doesn’t back down from it.
Alex sighs. “Got another cigarette?”
“Do I have another cigarette,” CB mutters. “Who are you talking to?” He fishes through the pockets of his trenchcoat until he pulls out a pack, fishes one out, hands it to Alex, then tosses him his lighter.
Alex catches the lighter without looking, lights the cigarette, then holds it out for CB so he can light a new one as well. “Turns out I knew that kid’s grandfather.”
“What kid?” CB asks. “Oh, the Bar Mitzvah kid? Really? From the war I guess.”
Alex nods. “He was at Dachau when we came in.”
“Yeah. We’re the same age. Sixty-eight years old.”
CB shifts his weight uneasily. “You’re holding up better than he is.”
“I remember him, actually,” Alex says. “I talked to him, way back then. His name is Issac. He’s sixty-eight years old, and I’m sixty-eight years old.”
CB doesn’t reply. He never knows what to say when Alex gets like this.
“Did you ever meet Marie? I don’t think you ever did. She died of cancer before we met professionally.” Alex has a strange gleam in his eyes. It’s intense, and angry, and… desperate.
“No,” CB says. “Alex Junior told a few stories. I’ve seen her pictures on your wall. She was really pretty.”
“She was fifty-nine years old when she died. I was sixty-one. Alex Junior was thirty-eight. Juliet was fifteen. Alex is forty-five now. He’s forgetting names, dates. They tell me he has Alzheimer’s. He’s going to slowly lose his mind.”
CB just stares at the ground.
“Do you know what it’s like watching the woman you married—who is two years younger than you—grow old, while you don’t? Oh, I look older than I did when we got married. But only a little. And my body? Just as healthy. Healthier. Do you know what that does to a marriage?”
CB clears his throat. “I imagine it was pretty rough on you.”
“Forget about me!” Alex says. “Think about her! Every year she got older, and I didn’t. I was abandoning her! She had to deal with all the aches and pains and limitations that people just have to learn to accept… but I never did. She got sick and died from something that I will never, ever catch. I grew older, I guess, but I grew different. She died before I did, but she was already a widow.”
“She never said anything, though.” Alex is pacing now. “Not a word. She was an amazing lady, CB, and we kept pretenses up right until the very end, because damn it all we really did love each other. So we pretended I wasn’t different. We pretended. But at some point she stopped going out in public with me. She didn’t want people to see us together. I looked like I could be her grandson. It horrified her.”
CB leans against one of the dumpsters and waits.
“And Alex Junior… damn it. My own son looks like he could be my father. You know he told me once that when he turned thirty he considered blowing his brains out? The only reason he didn’t was because he couldn’t do that to Toby and Julie. But whenever anyone ever saw us in public, they always asked if he was my older brother. He was the baby, CB. His sister is two years older than he is.”
“Look, Alex, I’m sorry,” CB says. “Really. I don’t know how to relate, but—”
“The thing is,” Alex interrupts, “is that when you’re this way, you watch the world change. And that’s hard. I thought World War II would be the war that made sure concentration camps never, ever happened again. We’d exposed it to the world, and we’d learned our lesson, and we’d make sure never again. And it didn’t happen. You see the world change, and you make the same mistakes, but it’s worse, because everyone stops being shocked about it. That’s hard to take. But that’s not even close to watching the people you love change in a way that you can’t… and you know eventually you’re going to lose them. Because you don’t change, CB, you stay the same. Maybe not forever, but long enough so that it doesn’t really matter…”
Alex stops talking. He’s staring at CB, eyes wet, breathing ragged, on edge in a way that CB has never seen him before.
“What does this have to do with me and Juliet?” CB asks.
“Because you’re like me, God damn it, CB you’re just like me!” Alex hits the side of the dumpster, hard. CB jumps away quickly; the side of the dumpster buckles under the blow. “You’re not getting older.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” CB demands. “Of course I’m getting older. I get older every year.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Alex snaps. “I first met you in 1976. You’ve aged since then, sure. But you’re twenty-eight now, and you look exactly the way you did four years ago.”
“Alex, that’s because it was four years ago,” CB says. “Most people don’t look much different between twenty-four and twenty-eight.”
“Most people don’t have your job,” Alex says. “Send a soldier off to war, he comes back home looking older. Put a boxer in the ring for four years, have his face smashed in non-stop, week in and week out, he looks older in four years. You know the average career length of a villain? Four months. Four months, then they’re in the Pit and they never come back.”
CB lets that slide.
“Two years is a long time in this business, CB. You were a veteran when you turned. Two years on that side, two years on this side, always running, fighting, planning, always on point, never able to let your guard down… I’ve seen you break both legs, four ribs, your left shoulder, your right wrist, you’ve had skull fractures, concussions, you were thrown through a windshield, run over by a truck, you’ve been shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, pummeled… and tonight you dropped through a glass skylight into a Bar Mitzvah, onto a marble floor.”
“But I got better,” CB says. “I’m fine now.”
“That’s the point,” Alex says. “Most guys don’t get better from all of that. Guys in the army who got even a piece of that would wind up getting sent home, and they’d probably have a limp if they were lucky. The guys I worked with in the old days, the ones who weren’t metahuman, or who were but didn’t have any physical boosts? They didn’t bounce back like you did. The guys who were just really good at what they did, they could last a few years—three or four—but then you’d see it wearing on them. They’d move like old men, even when they didn’t look it. And they looked it, eventually.”
CB doesn’t reply.
“You don’t have the right boosts to bounce back the way you do,” Alex says. “But you do anyway. You get hurt, break an arm, break a leg, the cast comes off and you’re fine. You still move like nothing ever happened to you before in your life—that’s not possible for someone who does what you do, CB. Not unless you’re invulnerable, like Regiment. Or unless you’ve been through Project Paragon. But somehow, there you are. You’re in the same boat I am, kid. In ten years you’re going to look exactly like you do now. In twenty, you’ll still mostly look like this. You’ll look a little older in the eyes, but you’ll still be carded whenever you try to buy beer. Thirty years, forty years…”
“Shut up!” CB shouts. “You’re fucking crazy! I’m only twenty-eight, for Christ’s sake!”
“And you’re going to stay that way!” Alex shouts back. A moment later his control is back, and he lowers his voice. “And what about Juliet? She’s twenty-two now. Six years doesn’t seem so bad, since you’re still basically a juvenile…”
There’s a hint of humor in Alex’s voice as he says it. CB smirks in spite of himself.
“But let’s say the two of you get serious and stay together for ten years, twenty years, thirty years. Think about everything I just said.”
CB shakes his head. “This is stupid.”
“Don’t hurt my granddaughter, CB.” Alex is pleading. “If you stay with her, you will. She won’t admit it, you won’t admit it, but eventually it’ll hurt her. A lot.”
CB laughs hollowly. “You’re making an awful lot of assumptions. How do you know we’re going to last that long?”
“I hope you don’t,” Alex says. “No, don’t get mad, CB. I don’t mean it like that. I just… I don’t want that to happen to you. It’s brutal, and it’s not fair, and it’s cold-blooded, but neither one of you deserves…”
Alex can’t finish. He turns away from CB, stares down the alley.
CB flicks the rest of his cigarette into a puddle, watching it drown. “You really think I’m going to age like you?”
“Call it a hunch,” Alex says. “Sorry kid. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“And that’s what’s been bothering you? Not the sex?”
“Well.” Alex laughs weakly. “She is my granddaughter. And it’s not like I’ve never heard you brag.”
“Fair enough,” CB says. “Yeah. Fair enough. But it’s not like that, Alex. I mean it. It really isn’t.”
“Part of me wishes it were,” Alex says.
They lapse into silence. A car alarm goes off in the distance. Alex finishes his cigarette and grinds it out on the street. “Sounds like someone is trying to steal a car.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “Or someone is standing too close to the door. Those things are obnoxious.”
“Well,” Alex says, “I was just thinking how surprised a car thief would be if Liberty and Curveball showed up.”
CB laughs. “Let’s go. If you think we’re sober enough.”
“I am,” Liberty says. “I burned it all off five minutes ago. As for you… well, some people think you’re drunk all the time anyway.”
CB laughs again. “Asshole. Let’s go arrest a bad guy.”