Brickstown. April 1st, 2010.
Ready or not, here I come... Ani looked down at eir suit and realized how inappropriate it was to what lay ahead as the door behind em drifted closed, just in time to cut short a choked sob from inside the apartment. Definitely not ready, but eir Vanguard medallion hadn't been reactivated yet, so there wouldn't be any summoning of eir armor, and e didn't have time to return to the Citadel and suit up if e was going to help. Despite eir well-known flamboyance, the delight e took in the lack of wardrobe restrictions eir androgyny lent em, Ani didn't tend towards formal wear. Still, of the few suits e owned, this was one of the nicest, surpassed only by the Italian number Beth had given em for eir birthday last year. Coal black with a dark lavender silk shirt, it was loose-fitting but well-tailored to deaccentuate the hardest edges and softest curves of Ani's physique without committing eir silhouette too far in either direction.
The last time e'd worn the black and lavender suit had been 15 months and a week ago, the day e first set foot in the Citadel of Defiance, invited by Static Bolter when e was accepted for review with the Reciprocators. E'd wanted to put eir best foot forward, so put on eir finest and had eir hair cut short and neatly styled, thinking it made for more of a "good-guy" look. That night turned out to be the first time e met Margaret Lee Jesska, Cyberette. Today e'd donned it again in a fit of sentiment, a symbolic gesture of eir return to legality, the Sword, and the Reciprocators as of a few days prior. Instead, e found emself wearing the suit as a bookend, wearing it again as e closed the same chapter of eir life e'd never expected to have opened in the first place.
"They put these...these things in me." E kissed the backs of her fingers and pulled eir hands up, still clasping hers, to nudge aside eir shirt collar and show her one of the fine, recent scars near eir collarbone. Implanted near eir heart were remotely activated capsules that, if needed, would flood eir body with anti-mutagens to destroy eir powers. A failsafe in case e should ever go rogue again, it was Vanguard's most stringent condition before they would agree to back a renewal of eir first clemency. "To make sure I stay, but I don't even care about them, because I know: I'm not going anywhere. This is where I belong, where I want to be...for good. Forever." E meant it. It had all fallen into place as e lay on the table in Vanguard medical, drifting into an anesthetic haze, and e woke up knowing what e'd have to do.
The Reciprocators were far more than team-mates or friends, they were eir family now. E would not abandon them again; each one had made some impact on eir outlook oer the time e'd spent wearing their blue and black, each one had changed em somehow, fundamentally, from the destroyer e used to be and used to think e was born to be. None of them, though, to the extent and depth that Jess had. When e'd begun the transition through Vanguard the first time, being a hero was something e did as a lark. A test of eir control over eir abilities, just to further prove that e could be anything e wanted to be after abandoning Arachnos. That was how e and Jess had begun as well. A kiss at the stroke of midnight at the start of a New Year, another lark, an impulse that quickly spiralled out of eir control into something more real and meaningful than e ever knew e wanted.
Eir legs begged to run but Ani denied the urge as e stalked stiffly down the maroon-carpeted hallway, more focused on bringing eir quickened breathing back under control. E felt more tears beginning to escape and rather than raise a sleeve to wipe them away, e let eir eyes ignite with the sickly green shine of eir radiation, the heat it emanated causing the tears to evaporate before they spilled. The sight of eir powers elicited a gasp from a curious neighbor who must have been watching the hallway through their peephole, and Ani heard them stumble back behind their door. Had eir mind not been a swirling cyclone of regret and uncomforting relief, perhaps e would have noticed that despite the sounds of activity, no thread of fate twisted through the door to whoever was on the other side. Ani picked up speed as e neared the elevator, breaking into a jog as eir legs steadied, and snapped a hand forward to delve eir fingers into the mass of unknown threads in front of em and throw emself along them out into the night.
Ani had gone most of eir life knowing what it felt like to be loved, adored even, thanks to an upbringing by parents who thought of em as a blessing in spite of eir unique condition and raised em never to be ashamed of who and what e was. Even in eir darkest moments, e had their love and later, after their death, eir legal guardian's to hold on to until the last. Nevertheless, before eir relationship with Jess flourished Ani hadn't grasped what it meant to love another person back, to sustain emself on another's happiness, on their very existence. It was new, it was frightening, and it was glorious.
Secure now in the knowledge that like it or not e could now never turn back, Ani had taken a mad, hopeful gamble. If this was going to be the life e chose, then e would try to make it the life e truly wanted, no more patience, no more caution, no more uncertainty. E had to know if this was ever going to be what e now realized e wanted it to be. "It maybe...doesn't make sense, or I don't, with...with what I am, with how you...I know that love isn't an...exclusive thing for you, and I understand that now. I...feel it, why it's right to you and maybe even for me. I understand it and I love you for it. I'm not asking for that to change, but I know that this is where I'm going to be, what I'm going to do the rest of my life, and I...always want you there, in my life, by my..."
E trailed off, staring at the jackhammer resting against the refrigerator. E took a step to the side around Jess, turning to put it out of eir field of vision before its special attachment, crafted for the delight of the shock in eir expression when Jess had strutted out of the bedroom with the machine hefted over her shoulder, could set em giggling again. E had more words, but e swallowed them to jump to the point, knowing if e kept rambling eir words would wend back until e'd managed to change the subject entirely.
Hand over hand the Androgyne flung emself due north along a mass of threads that invited em skyward. E guessed the newly manifested rope of intertwined threads represented eir connection to the Rikti in one of the dropships now piercing the barriers over Galaxy City. Glimpses of the city flashed around the edges of eir perception as e drew emself in instantaneous slides ever closer to them, that oppressive awareness of the Zig that always stayed with em in Brickstown giving way in a flash to the industrial sights and smells of the lower Row, the comforting familiar brick and iron of eir home, High Park, the warehouses and clean streets of Galaxy, now littered with the debris of the Rikti's bombing run. Here, the sky churned a hideous green, poisoned by the exhaust of the Rikti's invasion fleet.
Eir hand came out of eir pocket and shakily thumbed open the small box e produced from it to reveal a white gold ring set with a modestly sized green diamond. "Jess, will you marry me?"
E drew emself into the heart of Galaxy without even thinking about it, and was only brought back to conscious awareness of eir surroundings when the threads in eir hand abruptly fanned apart into a broad cone pointing down towards Freedom Corps headquarters. The Rikti had launched their ground assault against the heroes beginning to gather to meet the invasion, and Ani realized e had threaded to within only a hundred feet of the dropship that had been carrying this squadron. The dropship noticed em as well, and their gunner was quick enough on the trigger to launch a plasma burst from their cannons into Ani with such force that e felt half the skin on eir body seared away and lost nearly all sensation in eir left side. E plummeted, too dumbstruck by the pain to scream, and slammed into the ground in the middle of the battle beginning below with a wet crunch e heard from within over the screams of blaster fire.
Jess blinked and put a hand to her chest. She stammered, slumping slowly and touching the sides of her face as her mind reeled. "Uhm. I uhm...I don't...uhm. Wow, I mean...really?" Ani nodded once and waited, kneeling and gazing up at her patiently, hope and wariness vying for purchase in eir expression, steeling emself. In fact, the expression e wore as e waited was little different from that upon eir face whenever e hurled emself towards the heart of the mothership: thrilling at the risk though grimly conscious of the danger e hurtled towards.
Finally she shivered, closed her eyes and spoke. "I care and love you very deeply, Ani. I do. Very much, I hope you know that...and...I will always be very happy, eager, and proud to be a part of your life, but I don't think...I can...right now." Rubbing her temples and frowning at herself, she continued, "I'm uhm. I don't think that's what I...want, right now. I'm...sorry. It's... Uhm. Complicated, and... Jeepers. Uhm."
Lying in a broken heap on the ground as battle raged around em, the glow in eir eyes extinguished, Ani stared at the flickering of the threads of fate binding em to the Rikti troops all around em. Though eir right arm could barely move, eir fingers curled, and by eir will more than the physical effort several of the threads drifted into eir grasping fist. Eir arm spasmed as e drew on the threads to haul emself upright, moving the state of eir body an instant backwards in time in relation to those e would face this night, and surged up from the ground whole and unhurt as the effort tore to tatters the threads of the Rikti surrounding em, freeing interdimensional detritus that wreaked havoc on their senses and left them staggering in a daze. The heroes into whose midst Ani had fallen took advantage of the resurrection's after-effects to down several of he Rikti, but already the whine of teleporters indicated more reinforcements were coming. Ani's eyes reignited, and e took a look down at emself. E was nearly literally half-naked, the left side of eir suit reduced to charred ribbons.
It took a minute to sink in, but worse than hearing her decline was the crushing weight of all e realized in the instant following. Ani had watched, deciphered people eir whole life, but eir closeness to Jess made her more difficult to read than most, eir dissection of the motivations behind her movements always colored by eir confusion and doubt over what she really felt for em. Now, for once, e saw clearly: saw the hesitation and internal conflict churning inside of her as she tried to look everywhere but at the ring. A part of her, maybe even a large part, wanted to accept, e didn't doubt that much. Seeing that battle play out in her expression, hearing her stumble as uncertainly through her refusal as e had the asking, it was worse than a simple "no".
"...n-nobody's ever...uhm." She sighed, and e rose, and with eir thumb flicked the ring box closed again with a soft snap. Eir head tried to move on two axes at once and ended up bobbing in awkward circles. Part of it was trying to nod eir understanding, because for all e dared to hope for, e had never been able to convince emself to expect a yes. The rest was the regretful realization of eir own exhaustion.
With everything that had happened: the end of eir fugitive status, eir return to the Fist and reinstatement with the Sword; nearly everyone who'd been kidnapped, banished, or brainwashed was back, the Reciprocators' legal troubles were resolved, and Kings Arrow had retreated to little more than a grim-voiced color commentator in the back of eir mind. Ani knew what e wanted eir new life to be, and now e'd answered the last lingering question e'd been too afraid to seek an answer to until now.
A searing wave of radiation burst from Ani's skin and the drones providing suppressive fire scattered, some exploding in place while others careened away from the fight due to the scrambling of their targeting sensors. A conscript charged em and e simply stared at it as it raised its sword, intending to cleave em in two where e stood. Snapping eir wrist, e made a quick jump along its thread to behind it, and as it swung through suddenly empty space e wrapped eir hands around its head and released eir corruption into its face, through its skull and brain at full strength. It let out a high-pitched gurgling scream, then crumpled to the ground, wearing a crude incomplete mimicry of Ani's face where eir hands had pressed over its own face, distorted even further by the elongation of its skull. E didn't stop to admire eir handiwork as e often did, eir eyes fixed instead on the threads lashing around em and e turned away to seek the next invader e would ruin this night before that one had finished collapsing.
E pressed the box into Jess' hand and kissed her to interrupt her protest that she could not keep it, because neither could e, then draped eir arms around her neck and held fast to her. Her mouth was tight at first with the mingling of conflict and confusion tearing through her mind, but it melted away as she gave in to the kiss with her eyes watering. Ani lingered on that kiss, committing every detail to memory, even the subtle taste of the bratwurst and sauerkraut she'd been snacking on when e arrived. E drew back, teeth grazing over her lower lip, and just as their lips parted a shrill alarm blippered out from the comm unit in eir pocket.
DANGER!: Rikti invasion forces have been spotted in Galaxy City. Non-combatants are advised to seek cover.
Ani flinched and looked down as e drew the communicator out of eir pocket, a couple tears escaping and falling to the carpet while eir head was bowed. E pressed a button to acknowledge the alert and confirm eir response. E looked back up, to Jess' face, and gave eir head a bitter little shake. "...it's not complicated, Jess. I need to get to Galaxy." E left.
The skies cleared over Galaxy, the soft omnipresent hum of the War Wall forcefields returned as they were brought back online, the Rikti fled, teleporting away their dead and wounded. Ani and several less experienced heroes who had been swept up in the invasion response stood victorious. Though e had fought alongside them, most of them kept their distance, eyeing em warily after the radioactive hell e'd unleashed on the invaders. Ani turned eir face up to the once again black and starlit night above, ignoring the cold night air against eir skin where little remained of eir suit, chest heaving as e panted for breath. Staring at the quickly fading silhouettes of the fleeing dropships, Ani nodded to emself and for the first time silently thanked the Rikti. E'd never been more grateful for an interruption in eir life.