Fisher paced around his tiny kitchen, left to right and back again, and Jack followed him with his eyes. He hadn’t said a word since Jack had explained the whole situation to him. When Jack had stopped talking, Fisher had stood up, crossed the tiny space to his coffee maker, and made himself a cup of coffee.
He hadn’t even asked either of them if they wanted a mug. The older man was operating entirely on autopilot. Now he paced, steam rising from the untouched mug in his hand. Tiger was slumped on the couch, and Jack caught her glancing to him in the corner of his eye.
Right. Should probably say something.
Jack opened his mouth to say something, but Fisher got there first. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Jesus Christ.” Not satisfied with blasphemy, he launched into a quiet stream of Polish invectives. Funny. Jack’d never heard him even speak in his home language before.
But, all things considered, Jack figured he was taking it pretty well.
Finally, Fisher took a sip. Then, exhaling, he actually looked at him. “So, let me guess why you’re here: you want my help.”
“Basically,” Jack admitted. “We didn’t know where else to go.”
“Did you ever think that’s the problem, Jack? That of the billions of people on this planet, I’m the only one you two haven’t managed to piss off?”
Jack nodded, unsure of what to say. “Okay, admittedly, you have a point. But this isn’t about helping us. It’s about Sabra. We can’t let her rot away in some Neo-American prison camp.”
Something flickered across Fisher’s face. “You think I can help with that? You think I can jailbreak her? With what? With goddamn lesson plans and fucking pens?!”
Fisher hurled his mug across the room and into the sink. Shards of black ceramic bounced across the floor. Coffee splashed against the glass backboard. It reminded Jack of arterial spray.
“We can think of something,” Jack said. “We’ve got an aeroshuttle.”
“You have one aircraft, Jack. One. They have the most heavily fortified stretch of real estate in the world. What’s your plan for dealing with that?”
Jack opened his mouth, closed it again. Everything was hot. Fight or flight was drying out his mouth, clenching his fists. “There has to be a way. If we put our heads together, we can think of something. Just like with Elias.”
Fisher laughed, shaking his head. “Elias… We almost died bringing him down, Jack. All of us almost died. And that was just one man who had alienated just about as many people as you had. We got lucky, that’s all.”
Fisher left that statement hanging in the air as he stepped over to his sink, wiped up the coffee and fragments. “Do you know why we ended up teaming up together in the first place, Jack?”
“Honestly, no. You didn’t tell me, and I never asked.”
“It was because I wanted to do the right thing. It was because I acted without thinking because I was so sure I was making the right decisions. I was the one who gave up Sabra’s identity. Because I thought I could help her.”
“Does she know?”
Fisher nodded. “Yeah. Now, what if I hadn’t? Well, Sabra wouldn’t have been arrested, and myself with her. You probably still would’ve been kicked out of the Animals. But everything lined up in just the right way that we all met, and then we all won and survived. What is that but luck?”
Fate, maybe. In that moment, Jack was flailing in the dark. This was not what he was good at, this talking.
“I don’t even know why I’m bringing it up,” Fisher continued. “Maybe it’s because I’m trying to make some point about guilt. Doing this one good thing isn’t going to make up for everything else, Jack.”
“Pavel, look. I understand what you’re feeling.”
Fisher drew himself up, slowly. “What did you say?” His tone struck a chord with the part of Jack’s mind that recognized the glimmer of a knife being pulled from a boot.
“I said that I understand what you-”
Fisher slammed into him, carried him into the wall, stunned him. But that jarring sensation had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been smashed into a wall — hell, he’d had worse — and more to do with the fact that it was Fisher who had done it.
Fisher put his forearm to Jack’s throat and leaned in. Jack struggled to take in a breath, so he could say Pavel. In the corner of his eye, Sam had tilted forward, watching them, eyes flinty. But she didn’t move.
“You understand?!” Fisher seethed. “What the fuck do you understand? Of all the nights to think you can wander in and fuck up my life, you just had to pick tonight!”
Fisher relented, relaxed his grip. “Get the fuck out.”
Jack sucked in a breath, and another, and said the first thing that came to mind.
“Pavel,” he growled, “When did you become such a fucking coward?”
Fisher’s expression blanked out. Violence twisted through him, and lashed out in his right fist, straight into Jack’s eye socket. He lurched away, instincts flaring as he kicked out, dropped Fisher to the floor. Was this a fight? He didn’t want to fight, but he didn’t know what else to do.
Fisher rolled clear, came up swinging, blows raining off Jack’s forearms. One slipped through, hit his cheek, edges of his artificial hands splitting the skin. Jack reached for Fisher’s arm — to stop him, to disable him, to maim him; in the frenzy to act, he didn’t know what he was planning.
His fingers slipped through nothing but air, as if Fisher’s arm had transposed itself to the other side of the kitchen. Jack stumbled a step, off-balance, inner-ear screaming that something was wrong, instincts shouting that he was exposed and open.
Oh, Jack remembered, distantly, he got his powers back.
Then Fisher kicked him in the groin, and the pain surged up through his belly, blotting out everything else. Jack went down to one knee, roaring incoherence, and surged upward to catch him with his shoulder. He ran Fisher into the kitchen cabinets behind him, and they rattled with every blow he rained down on Fisher, striking again and again, hitting him wherever he could.
He had to stop. He had to stop this. He had to stop it, or one of them would die. Maybe both of them. Maybe just him. Maybe that’d be okay.
Fisher slipped away from him, hammered him in the gut. Wrestled his arm around Jack’s neck, bending him downward, squeezing his throat tight. Jack struggled for breath, struck out on instinct. Found a rib, hit the same one over and over.
Fisher held firm. All around Jack, the tiny kitchen faded into monochrome from the outside in. Still he struggled and fought. Grunting, gasping, like a dying animal. That’s all he was, really, even after all this time. Take the mask away. Take Elias away. Didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
The floor slammed into him, cold but inviting. Jack shuddered, fighting for every breath. His whole body hurt. His mind throbbed. He curled around his belly, tried to find words. He settled for rolling onto his back and saying nothing.
Fisher sat on the other side of the kitchen, as short a distance as it was, elbows on his knees, chest heaving. Blood dribbled from his bottom lip. He held his side, grimacing.
Sam’s shadow fell over them both. “So,” she said. “Are you done? Because that was some pathetic shit.”
Fisher wiped at his lip. “You didn’t help him.”
She shrugged. “Well, yeah. I would’ve stepped in if it looked like you were going to kill each other. But boys will be boys. So are you done? You both good? Get all this out of your system?”
Jack’s eyes were stinging. He hoped it was from one of Fisher’s punches. “Pavel, I’m not a good person.”
“No, listen to me. Please. I know I’m not. I know I’m not normal. I never have been, not even when I was a kid. I’m not making an excuse. The only thing I know how to do is survive. I don’t know how to want anything else. I wanted to be normal, but I only feel normal like… this.”
“But I came here because I want something else, you understand? I want to get Sabra out of that prison. She’s there because of me and Sam — you’re right. But it’s not fair that she got caught. I have to put it right.”
Fisher banged his head against the drawers behind him. “Jack, Jesus. Of all the good deeds you could start with…”
Jack pushed himself to sit upright. Something throbbed deep in his side. Hopefully a bruise and not a fractured rib. “You don’t have to come with us. But this… this fucking crystal thing. If you could just take care of that for us, then at least this whole visit wasn’t a total clusterfuck.”
“I’m a teacher, Jack. Somehow, the Academy doesn’t have a class on weird psyche-destroying crystals.”
“I’ve done a few psyche-destroying crystals in my time,” Sam offered.
Fisher chuckled. Despite it all, after a moment, Jack did too. It hurt.
“You don’t know anyone here though who might?” Jack asked.
Fisher sighed. “Yeah, I might,” he admitted. “There’s a teacher here who’s ex-SOLAR. I’ll ask her about it tomorrow morning. Please tell me you didn’t bring it into the middle of a school.”
“Left it on the aeroshuttle in a secure compartment.”
“So you’re not as stupid as you appear to be. Great.”
They sat there for a few minutes in silence and in pain. Jack sucked the blood from his cut knuckles. Fisher’s fat cat wandered in and hopped atop the table, stared down at them both. Sam fetched ice from the freezer, wrapped cubes in teatowels, and passed one out to him and then another to Fisher.
Jack pressed it to his eye. “Just when my last black eye was starting to fade.”
Fisher pressed the improvised pack to his lip. “Next time you want someone to kick your ass,” he said around it, “Please just ask Sam. I’m getting too old for this.”
“Look, Jack. Sab was like a daughter to me. I don’t like the idea of her being someone’s prisoner any more than you do. But I’m not like you. I’ve got a job, obligations, responsibilities. A duty to my students and to my fat cat over there.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
“So, I’ll do what I can. But I’m done with feeling like I have to throw my life away on some foolish crusade because it’s the right thing to do.”
Jack took the pack away from his eye and rose to his feet. He stepped over to Fisher and extended his hand, helped him up. “You okay?”
“I’ve had worse.”
“Yeah, me too.”
For a time they stood there, awkwardness creeping up Jack’s spine.
“But you’re still going to need to get out of my apartment,” Fisher said. “Not because I’m angry, mind you, but just because I don’t have the space to bunk the two of you.”
“Did I fuck that up?” Jack asked, later, as they walked down a New York street. Snow drifted around them. It felt like it could have been romantic. But that was one of the many parts of life that were beyond Jack, and imagining Sam as someone romantic was bizarre.
She walked a pace behind him, hands in her pockets. “Nope.”
“Because I feel like I fucked that up.”
“You didn’t. Pavel was never going to drop everything and help us break into the most well-defended country on the planet. He’s not as stupid as us.”
Jack snorted out half a laugh. “Guess so.”
They walked further, turned a corner. “But do you think maybe he’s right?” Jack asked. “That we should leave this alone? Sabra’s SOLAR. They won’t let her rot in a prison camp, right?”
“Hmm,” Sam said. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Real question is whether her bosses are prepared to risk provoking the Empire over a single person, cape or not. Could reignite the whole war.”
“Do you think they would?”
“Which part? The rescue or the war?”
“Honestly?” Sam replied. “Nope.”
Jack halted, turned to look at Sam. “Why not?”
“Because the whole thing feels off. Look, when you want something reconned or secured, you send a whole squad. Maybe even a platoon. What you don’t do is send two people under a cover identity, you get me?”
“Unless you want to try to avoid attention.”
“Yeah, because a six-foot-tall woman in power armor and her killbot girlfriend who couldn’t lead a horse to water are just great at that. Really inconspicuous.”
Jack frowned. “Point taken.”
“There’d be so many other capes to send. Who could turn invisible or mess with someone’s mind or whatever weird shit it is that SOLAR types can do.”
“But they’d all be more obvious choices. Either way, I think the Director-General didn’t want the Empire knowing that they were sniffing around.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, “And that’s the part I don’t get.”
He chewed on that thought, poked at it. “But SOLAR has to know that they’ll crack the identities eventually, right? Something won’t add up. Then suddenly they look like spies. Isn’t that worse?”
Sam shrugged. “Hell if I know. Look, do we have to have this conversation out here, Jack? I’m freezing my tits off.”
He started walking again, asked: “So, what do we do?”
“You really want to go through with this?”
“If it were us, she’d come for us.”
“Guess so. And, hey, I won’t say no to an opportunity like this. We need to get past the border first — that’s going to be the hard part. Then we need to track down where she is and find some way of breaking her out. Then just get back over the border, all the while managing to do this without kicking off a shooting war.”
Jack nodded, slowly. “Right. Well, let’s start with the first part.”
“Probably the hardest part, really.” Sam made a low noise in her throat, thinking. Then she hummed, a few bars from a song Jack didn’t recognize. “But I might have something.”
“We can’t go over the border, can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it.”
“That’s a fair assessment, yes.”
“So,” Sam said, “we go through it.”
Jack squinted over his shoulder at Sam. Bad idea, it sent a painful throb through his eye. “I know you’ve never seen a fight you didn’t like, Sam, but I don’t like our chances at storming their fortifications by ourselves.”
Sam stared back at him, looking incredulous. “What? Who said anything about attacking them?”
“You said we would go through the border.”
“I did,” she said. “Because there’s an easy way through that border, as distasteful as it is.”
Sam grinned a shark’s smile. “It’s called joining the Neo-American Empire, baby.”