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A note from pwtucker

Thank you TheNorns, DonutDaddy, and Frankcastle747 for the great reviews. They're really appreciated!

33 Hours till Nemesis 2 Released

James groaned and draped his arm over his face. Clanging and voices came from downstairs. His head throbbed. How much had he drunk? Enough that he should have been useless till the Nemesis 2 arrived, but instead he only felt wretched.

His new powers were making him more resistant to hangovers, apparently.

Silver linings.

Memories came back. Herman’s bar had been packed to the gills. With resupply problems, Herman had started serving the good stuff at well prices, and the place had turned into a feeding frenzy.

“What the hell I gotta worry about my bottom line for?” Herman had yelled to James as he’d pushed a bottle of Patron across the bar. “World’s coming to an end! No sense in there being any booze left over when we’re all dead!”

People had clapped him on the shoulder, asked for selfies with him, kept shoving drinks into his hand. Serenity had been in her element. From somewhere she’d acquired a feather boa, and later had lit up like a live wire, reminding James of his favorite Kerouac quote: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles..."

James wasn’t sure if Kerouac had meant to include folks who did copious amounts of coke in that equation. Serenity kept disappearing into the bathroom, and eventually James had decided to call it a night. He kept hearing the Monitor’s words in the back of his mind, and they prevented him from just going all out, indulging in a smash fest which left his stomach as foul as an abandoned port-a-potty and his brain scoured of the ability to feel for days.

Guess he was growing up.

He’d bowed out. Serenity had been horrified, done everything to coax him back into the mood, but he’d fended her off and come back to crash on the couch.

Serenity.

The one thing this world was exceptionally good at was fucking up special people. He’d not asked about her life. Her past. What she did to scrape up cash. What had happened to her that made her so fixated on guns.

He didn’t need to know the details.

He’d met enough lost souls on the sidewalks and corners and abandoned parking lots of the East Coast to make an educated guess.

And in the end, the details didn’t matter. You weren’t what had happened to you. You weren’t your mistakes.

You were who showed up today. Who you chose to be. Sink or swim, everyone was doing their best, even the most self-destructive folks he’d met. Sometimes the only thing you could do when you’d been that fucked over by life and made so many mistakes in turn was self-destruct.

So he didn’t judge. He felt compassion. Felt remorse. Sadness. But also a burgeoning awareness that he had to be careful.

Life had fucked her up, sure. But he didn't want their friendship to turn bad. Wired into all her formidable strength and acidic wit was a mass of insecurity, pain, and need. If he didn’t watch it, their relationship could turn toxic.

But fuck if he could figure out how to course correct right now. Maybe he should get his own place. Boundaries worked for toddlers and coke heads alike.

An old, old memory resurfaced. His twin little girls at three, finally discovering that they sometimes didn’t want the same thing and becoming outraged at the other’s refusal to do as demanded. James had sat each one on his knee by the big bay window, the sun coming in, and -

James groaned and sat up.

Folded that memory, shoved it down deep, and locked it away.

He emerged from the shower to hear voices from the sidewalk. There was no sign of Serenity yet. He stepped to the window and saw Jessica with a cardboard carrier sporting two coffee cups. A business satchel over one shoulder, everything about her fresh and spotless, from her beige blazer over a white blouse to her skinny black pants and pumps.

He’d just stepped out of the god damn shower and she still made him feel grungy. Rubbing at his beard he moved over to the pitted mirror and wiped away the steam. A lined face stared back at him. As a rule he avoided his reflection, but this time he really looked. The beard was proper hobo-chic, coming down mid-chest and scraggly, its deep brown shot through with ropes of gray. His nose had grown, his eyes were sunken, and the hangover sure wasn’t helping.

But his body had improved. Going from 6 to 11 Strength had him feeling like Toby McGuire in that Spiderman movie. His chest was deep, his arms roped in muscle, his shoulders broad. His waist was still girdled by a thick belt of fat from years eating trash and pounding booze, but damn, it felt good to have his strength back.

He gripped the edge of the sink and stared down at the drain. He’d been proud of his looks, once. Had worked out four times a week, been part of the 1000 club, had shaved each morning, his wife had trimmed his hair each week. He used to turn heads when he’d walk by.

But now he looked closer to fifty-five than forty-one. His hands were large, the knuckles swollen, the whorls still pronounced by the dirt, his fingertips square, the nails like shovels. He needed some chemical cleaner. He needed nail clippers.

He rooted around Serenity’s mess of bathroom shit, found some clippers, and grimaced as he pared his nails down. His fingertips looked weird, after, but he felt better. Considered trimming his beard, but had nothing at hand.

James stopped. What the fuck was he doing? How weird would it look if he opened the door to Jessica all gussied up and clean?

What was he trying to prove?

James inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. What did he want? Jessica’s approval? Not really. For her to be attracted to him? He hesitated, then realized that no, he didn’t want that either.

This wasn’t about Jessica, not the real person down below chatting with Mancini. This was about what she symbolized to him. A world he’d lost. Smart, elegant, with a whole future before her. A future that has been brutally stolen away from him.

He wasn’t trying to impress her. He was fumbling toward some reconciliation with his own losses.

But the things about losses was that they usually stayed lost. He could never be that James again, with his EMT shirt tight across the shoulders, full of energy and good will, a family he adored at home and a bright future before him.

That James died when - well. Never mind.

He looked into the mirror again. He was this James. Not the best timeline version, but hell. It was all he had to work with.

And with that realization his shoulders relaxed a fraction. Tension he’d not realized he’d been carrying fell away.

Maybe once he’d been something special. But now? Now he was just himself, alone. Broken and old and worn out.

He’d just keep on keeping on, same as he’d always done.

When Jessica knocked on the door he was dressed in the last outfit Serenity’s ex had left behind; green corduroy pants, mustard yellow button-up shirt, orange socks.

“Good morning,” said Jessica brightly, managing not to look taken aback. “I don’t know how you like your coffee, so I guessed black.”

“Good guess.” He stepped aside, rolling up the sleeves. “Serenity’s out, but make yourself at home.”

Jessica entered with some measure of hesitation. This was clearly her first time stepping into such an apartment.

“Look, let’s get something clear from the get-go,” said James, turning to sit on the sofa’s arm. “You didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for this. Neither of us know if this is a good idea, or if it will work. I’m willing to play nice with the mayor because there’s some kind of demonic invasion going on, but I’m happy to draw the line if it becomes obvious you’d be more useful somewhere else. Please do me the favor of telling me the same.”

Jessica had frozen as he spoke, eyes wide behind her rimless glasses, then resumed taking the coffees out as she digested his words. “I appreciate your honesty. I have to admit I was a little taken aback last night, but these past couple of days have highlighted the need to be flexible.”

“Ain’t that the truth. Thank you.”

Jessica stepped back after handing him his coffee. “But to be honest, Mr. Kelly -”

“James.”

She gave a tight smile. “James. To be honest, I think the mayor is right. There are, much as I hate to say it, dozens of assistants as capable as I am working for the NYCEM. There’s only one of you. If I can help expedite matters, help you navigate government bureaucracy, keep you in the loop with developments as they occur, then I think that’s a much more valuable use of my time.”

“If you say so.” James took a cautious sip. “I’m not much for staying in the loop.”

“Right. Which is why I could be useful. I know you have a direct line to Major Hackworth, but I can help you communicate priorities to City Hall, the EM, and other agencies. The way I see it, Nemesis 2 is such a variable that we’ll have hours to react and strategize. My job will be to ensure we use those hours as efficiently as possible, and communicate new lessons and intel to the right people at the right time.”

“Sure.” James took a bigger sip. “Good coffee.”

“Thanks. It’s from my favorite spot, Bean Works.” She rubbed her palms briskly on her hips. “Do you have a corner where I can set up? Does Serenity have Wi-Fi?”

“Wherever you like. I think Serenity uses the neighbor’s connection. You might have to wait for her to get back.”

“All right. Can we swap contact information?”

James pulled out the new phone Mancini had given him yesterday. “What are your thoughts on this Department of Ranking Citizens, or whatever it’s called?”

Jessie let her phone fall to one side for the moment and pursed her lips, seeming to give the question genuine consideration.

Here comes the sales pitch.

“I think it’s the inherent tendency of any government body to form departments, committees, and order studies when stressed. It’s almost reflexive. It’s a way to look productive and in charge while not having to make any executive decisions. So, what do I think? I think it’s predictable, for one, but also full of potential. Nobody’s stepped in yet to give it direction and purpose. Which means you would have an outsized impact if you took charge and owned it.”

“An outsized impact.” James stroked his beard. “Like I said to the mayor: to what end?”

“Honestly? It makes me think of the Avengers. A proto-version, if you will.” Her voice somehow remained clinical, her expression serious. “There’s rafts of data being produced by think tanks and international bodies on how one can extrapolate the personal statistics sheet, but one thing everyone agrees on is that there’s no obvious upper limit on where this could go. Three of the fields are labeled ‘miracles’, for example, and there’s footage of Level 6 people with maxed out speed sprinting faster than Usain Bolt, or breaking other kinds of Olympic records. You said yourself the Monitor indicated Level 500 was possible. Can you imagine what such an individual would look like after spending 2,500 points? And that’s not including new powers, such as your Benediction.”

James frowned. “Shit. That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about any of that.”

Jessica’s smile was pained. “If there’s one thing we have, it’s lots of people doing nothing but thinking about such things. Which is why I believe this new department could be instrumental to winning this war. The Avengers were stronger for presenting a unified front to the enemy, correct? We could stand to benefit from their example.”

“The Avengers.” James tried not to immediately dismiss the idea. “Get things organized early so that when we become more powerful, there’s a system in place.”

“Exactly.”

“And this would be open to only the folks in NYC?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “Those are the kinds of decisions that have yet to be formalized. I believe the mayor envisions this department primarily as a means to keep tabs on powerful individuals so that they can be called upon when needed. But it could be much, much more with the right kind of leadership.”

“Sounds like they should put you in charge.”

Jessica grimaced. “Alas, I don’t think I’m qualified. I’ve yet to receive a Nemesis 1 notification. It’ll either happen today with the Fourth Wave, or at a later date. And that’s if Nemesis 1 notifications continue after Nemesis 2 is deployed.”

“Huh. So you can’t see any of the gremlins.”

“And am ignored by them in turn. Yes. It has been a surreal few days.”

“I can imagine. But all right. Maybe there’s more to this department idea after all. I’m cautiously interested. What would I have to do to get involved?”

“Read and sign paperwork, mostly. Which I have here. The mayor is willing to make you a deputy commissioner under Commissioner Morgan - he leads the NYCEM - and you’d represent his interests in these matters. But Commissioner Morgan would be a figurehead at best. He’s already overwhelmed managing the NYCEM, much less taking an active interest in this nascent department.”

James nodded grudgingly. “Makes sense, I suppose. And I get the impression I’d have to answer most of my own questions.”

“There is practically no policy in place,” agreed Jessica. “I could help write-up your ideas in appropriate legalese. We’d submit it for approval, but I don’t see any difficulty on that end. Anything is a plus right now.”

“Fine.” James felt himself growing more detached from his old reality by the moment. “At the very least I’m willing to explore this further.”

“Great. I’ll - there’s no printer here. No matter, you can read it directly on my tablet. Shouldn’t take long. Nobody’s had a chance to generate much paperwork. And oh, here.”

She opened her satchel and drew out an envelope. “Your new debit card. It has $10,000 deposited in a checking account. Normally your expenses would be reviewed at the end of the month, and I’d urge caution, but with the demon apocalypse and all…”

James smiled. “Understood.”

“And inside is your apartment key. The unit is in Prospect Place. Great neighborhood. I know you weren’t interested, but it had already been assigned, so.”

He took the envelope. Felt a rectangular shape and key within.

And just like that he was no longer homeless or broke.

James was surprised by the strength of emotion that welled up within him. This was all temporary. He knew they could take everything away the moment he ceased to be useful. But after so long spent on the streets, scrounging and living on the very edge of society, to be so casually given such things was… overwhelming.

Jessica’s eyes widened as she registered his emotion, and quickly turned away. “I’ll find that corner and pull up the docs. Just let me know when you’re ready.”

James felt a quick flush of embarrassment. To Jessica $10k was probably a few months’ pay. She lived in a nice apartment close to a boutique Bean Works coffee shop. Her surprise at his own reaction said it all.

But it wasn’t her fault.

They were all nothing more than the products of their lives and circumstances.

“Thanks,” he said hoarsely, setting the envelope beside him on the couch back. “Appreciate it.”

Jessica found a chair, cleared away a corner of Serenity’s counter, and began setting up her laptop.

Nothing could have looked more incongruous.

James sipped his coffee. Gave himself time to adapt, to accept just how much things had changed, how much they were changing still.

A demon apocalypse, a new home, a debit card, and soon, maybe, deputy commissioner of the Avengers.

What a fucking crazy world.

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A note from pwtucker

Thanks everyone for giving this story a chance. I'm loving the comments and interest, and they're firing me up to the point where I'm leaving home at 5:30 am to hit my little office early and get to work. I'm even thinking of keeping the 3 chapters/day schedule going through to the end of next week. 

Cheers!


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pwtucker

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