Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Twenty: "Who Are They, Vincent?"

The third story on the news that night was that various medieval weapons, expertly stolen from across the city, had been recovered. It was officially chalked up to enthusiasts committing criminal mischief, as the weapons had apparently been used for fighting with each other.
A few people thought it was strange that such expert thieves would use them for such juvenile purposes, but since the goods had been recovered, the police were off the hook. The security companies blamed the owners, the owners blamed their security, and everyone quickly forgot the whole matter.
The fourth story on the news that night was that a member of the City Planners Office had spoken out against environmental inaction. The Press were not kind to Gill, annoyed that he had brought them out on such short notice for such a non-story, when they were expecting something bigger.
Davidson was stunned that Gill had reacted that strongly to a Green-Group being overlooked again, when nobody thought he cared that much. Davidson shook Gill's hand and told him what a pleasant surprise it was to see him caring so much about such a worthy cause. Then he told Gill to clear out his desk immediately, as he'd just been fired.
Below the surface, it wasn't quite so easy.
Yasi was the only one of the original ruling council still alive and visible, and the one least familiar with leadership over the Lostkind. Part of her was more comfortable as a prisoner than a leader, but she knew damage control, and organization. The clean-up from the war had just been completed when the Shinobi struck back, and the repairs had to start over.
The matter that disturbed Keeper and Yasi the most, was how easily the Lostkind had slipped into living under Vandark's Rule, and how things had changed. The Healers had refused to release Keeper from her convalescence, and she'd had to share her worries with Yasi, who grudgingly admitted that Vandark had been very active in looking after his conquered subjects. The standard of living had raised significantly in the week that Vandark had been in charge, and getting things back to the way they were was going to be difficult at best, but keeping things as Vandark made them would require a dramatic change in how the Lostkind operated.
For better or worse, the Underside would never be the same again.
The Riverfolk had retreated back to the River, and had not been seen since. Owen was collected from the Labyrinth, and woke up in the Oubliette, once again.
It had taken longer than usual for word to get around with the Whisper Gallery damaged, and the Shinobi survivors had to go across the Underside, telling the story of what happened, and who it was that saved them.
Yasi's injuries were light, as were Dorcan's. One or two Shinobi were hurt seriously, but Dorcan had ordered them to keep the Wildmen away from Vincent, and so they hadn't been taking any chances in their final battle. The last of Vandark's loyalist supporters had surrendered to the last man, and each of them had an opportunity to see their Captain's body, leaving no doubt that he was dead.
Dorcan had made some offhand remark that the fight would go down in the history books of the Lostkind, and Yasi had shaken her head, telling him that the Archivists were the ones that kept the history, and the Underside didn't have one at the moment.
Above the surface, Vincent's friends gathered around the projector, to get the story from Vincent, and found only Yasi's projection, growling out a warning to dismantle their transmitter at once.
Davidson had tried to call Vincent and tell him what had happened with Gill, but Vincent's cell phone was switched off, and his home phone went unanswered.
Connie told her brother the whole story over again as they took the equipment apart, leaving nothing behind once they were done. Drew believed, blown away by how much bigger the world was than he had known.
Connie went home as soon as they would let her, but Tecca wasn't there. She knew the truth about what he'd done, and cared not at all. She had wanted to give him a home and had little to no investment in the Underside. If he needed somewhere to go, so much the better. She waited for him until late the next morning, but he didn't show.
"Martha Cameron?" A voice called through the door.
Martha opened the door a little, but only as far as the chain would allow. "Yes?"
"We were never officially introduced. My name is Connie Harnell?" The woman outside her door introduced herself. "I work at the Free Clinic on Lilac street?"
"Oh, yes." Recognition flooded Martha's face. "Is there something wrong?"
"I'm... looking for Tecca." Connie said carefully.
Martha swallowed. "Is... is there a problem?"
Connie glanced up and down the hallway. "May I come in, please?"
Martha tensed and shut the door swiftly.
Connie knocked again, leaning closer to the door so she didn't have to shout. "Martha, I know that Tecca is not really your son. I know that you bring him to the Clinic for his check-ups, and that he pays you not to ask questions."
The door opened again, only as far as the chain. Martha looked out at Connie, a little scared. "How do you know that?"
Connie looked at her sympathetically. "Because he told me." She said softly. "I need to find Tecca. Do you... when he needs a mother, does he call you? Do you know how to reach him?"
Martha's face softened. "I have four kids of my own in here... and I can't afford half of them. Not in New York. And I can't afford to move. Tecca keeps me in groceries. Every time he calls me, my kids eat. You think I'm going to make that harder?"
"I'm not Protective Services, I'm not the police." Connie promised swiftly. "I just need to talk to Tecca. Do you ever, for any reason, contact him?"
"No." Martha said after a moment. "He comes to me. I have no idea where he goes after that."
Connie sighed, not surprised. "Fine. Thank you for your time."
She turned to go, and the door opened fully behind her. Martha stepped out into the hallway. "My youngest found a cat in a dumpster once." She said suddenly. "Poor thing was frozen, nearly dead. He brought it into the house, fed it, kept it warm, nursed it back to health."
Connie had paused, giving Martha her full attention. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. After six months of living in this house, eating food from my kids fingers, sleeping in our laps, curling up with them on stormy nights... my kid decided to make it official. He bought a collar, and tried to put it around kitty's neck. That cat drew blood in so many places it wasn't funny, and dove out the window. We didn't see it again for a month."
Connie nodded to show she understood, but didn't get the point.
"Ferals are like that." Martha said. "They survive that way. There ain't never been a hand offering them a treat, without the other hand waiting with a knife or a collar. You can't change that, and you try, you get clawed." Martha spread her hands wide, honestly trying to break the bad news to her gently. "You can try, but a Feral will eat your food, sleep in your home, accept your love, but they will never let you keep them."
Connie swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. "Tecca's not Feral. He's just... lost."
"Ain't nothing unusual about that." Martha said simply. "Good luck to you."
Connie turned to go, then looked back. "Miss Cameron?" She asked. "You said you didn't see the cat for a month. What happened after that? Did it ever come back?"
"Yep. Tecca traded us a solid gold money clip for the little hairball. He said he would give it a good home with someone he knew."
Merlin. Connie thought lightly, and nodded a goodbye.
Keeper was smiling, but so still that Yasi thought she was sleeping. As she crept over to kneel beside her mothers cot, Keeper spoke up warmly. "I can hear the celebration from in here." She commented.
"We have a lot to celebrate." Yasi agreed.
"How bad was it?"
"Some of the ropelines are cut; some more of the doorways were busted up. The Bazaar is a mess, but our casualties in the rebellion were fairly light. Neither side really wanted to damage the place, just each other."
"Dorcan tells me that there's a bunch of Shinobi looking for the hero of the hour." Keeper challenged. "You sent Vincent away?"
"For his protection." Yasi defended. "He threatened to expose the Underside. It wasn't a bluff like everyone thinks, and if you've spoken to Dorcan, you know that."
"Over a dozen trained swordsmen know he was going to do it!" Yasi insisted.
Keeper looked calmly at her daughter. "Those people? They keep bigger secrets than this, and you know it." She paused to let that sink in. "Vincent's involvement in Vandark's plans were minimal. He told Vincent his entire strategy. Put me in a position where I had to make an impossible choice over the protection of my Lostkind, which he did. Put Archivist in a position to choose between himself and the history of the place, which worked exactly as planned. And then challenge you directly, which is exactly what he did. We knew his plan, start to finish, and it still played out exactly the way Vandark intended it. The one thing he didn't plan for was Vincent McCall."
"No." Yasi smiled softly, conceding that.
"You're smiling!" Keeper pounced.
Yasi wiped the smirk off her face, far too late. "I..." She hesitated. "Keep, he broke the rules."
"You saying that because that's the end of it, or because you don't want to admit you might be a little too inflexible about it?"
"If I was going to start making exceptions, I should have started long before Vincent."
"I know. I know. Yasi, you've protected this place a long time. But for someone born in a Secret World, you are disturbingly Black and White." Keeper reached out and gripped her daughter's wrist. "If you were that sure, why'd you let him leave?"
Yasi was silent, unable to answer that.
Keeper nodded. "You tipped your hand, Yasi. You never hesitate, and now you're hesitating." The older woman paused. "Yasi... You're a great fighter, a great tactician, a great teacher. But you don't let people in, and that tends to put people off you. Sometimes that's good for your reputation as a warrior. But sometimes, it gives your best warriors a reason to abandon their posts when they hear trouble is coming. That kind of detachment makes you able to accuse your oldest friend after many years of allegiance. You want loyalty? You have to show loyalty. Vincent McCall had less reason to be on your side than anyone, and he came back anyway."
Yasi looked down at that. "Yeah. Yeah, he did."
Keeper sighed. "So if you wanted to keep the secrets in the family and make it all nice and neat, I suppose we could just recruit him."
Yasi looked up at her mother swiftly, hope in her eyes. "Yeah?" It was the perfect solution, making him part of the tribe, bringing all their secrets back into their own fold. "Was this... Dorcan's idea, or yours?"
"Dorcan... is a quality human being." Keeper said seriously. "And he doesn't need you to tell him that any more."
Yasi bit her lip, tempted. "What about Vincent's friends?"
"Who's to say he told them anything?" Keeper coughed a little. "All this is assuming, of course, that Vincent would say yes."
Her mother was giving her blessing and permission, without actually saying it, like she always did. Yasi fought to hide her smile. "Hey, I guess I could ask him?"
Keeper snorted. "Mm."
Vincent had made it as far as the subway. He had slipped onto the platform from a maintenance closet. The payphones were the first thing he'd seen, and he called Connie to tell her the rest of the story. She agreed it was a great tale, but she was in the middle of a mission of her own, so the conversation was brief. He didn't have a ticket, but he knew he'd never be able to sit still at home. So without even looking to see where he was going, he boarded the first train that stopped.
After a while, he gave up on wandering the city and checked the subway map, figuring out which stop was his... and how he would get out of the station without a ticket; or money to buy one.
He turned away from the map… and felt his jaw drop open.
In the same long coat she was wearing the night they had met, Yasi was waiting, leaning against the pole without holding it, and she was having no trouble balancing as the subway train sped them through New York. She tilted her chin to the subway map. "What are you working on?" She asked softly, with the sound of whiskey and promise in her voice. "Whatever it is, it must be far too interesting if you hadn't noticed me trying to make eye contact for the whole ride." She had a small smile on her face.
Vincent didn't hesitate to stride up the length of the almost-empty carriage, and they both leaned in for a passionate kiss. It was a kiss that had been building off and on for three years. It was long and slow and sweet and said all the things neither of them could find words for, until the need for oxygen made them break. They stayed close together, arms around each other. For the first time, Vincent realized she was actually a tiny bit taller than him, but she rested her chin on his shoulder a moment, facing into his neck.
One or two people on the train looked over at them, smirking a little, but most barely noticed. To them, it was just one of the millions of stories that began and ended every day in New York City.
Owen looked up as the hatch to the Oubliette was raised, revealing a familiar face looking down at him. "Vincent."
Vincent wasn't smiling. "Owen."
"Well." Owen said finally. "Here we are again."
Vincent nodded. "Vandark is dead."
"I figured." Owen said without emotion. "It… He's not the sort of person that you can picture as actually being defeated. He's just too… big. Know what I mean?"
"I do." Vincent confirmed. "That why you followed him?"
Owen shook his head. "I… stumbled onto the Lostkind on a vacation in Europe. Vandark brought me in and explained the facts of the real world to me; like Yasi did for you. I've said it how many times? I wasn't a warrior, or a big time hero. But this place… This place can make heroes out of invisible men. People like us don't get noticed. We go through our world without anyone being aware of us, and we are glad for that… Vandark made an offer: Work for him, be invisible, rule like a king and have nobody know."
Vincent nodded. "A certain appeal, I must admit. But it's the wrong way to be."
"Is it?" Owen challenged. "It worked for you. You're like me: Not a warrior, not famous, just making your way in the world and going unnoticed, and you never minded that fact. Look at you now: Hero of the New York Underside. You got the result I had hoped to get for myself."
Vincent smirked a bit. "Guess I did."
Owen's head tilted. "Why did you come here?"
"To save the Underside."
"No, not that: Why'd you come to see me?"
"Oh." Vincent rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I never really… I rehearsed this plan in my head a thousand times, but I don't have a clue what to do now. I planned it out, but never thought about what to do after saving the day."
"You could make a really nice gesture and let me out of here?" Owen suggested hopefully.
"I think not."
"What's going to happen to me?" Owen asked finally.
Vincent shook his head. "I talked to Yasi. She had a few interesting ideas."
Owen let out a mirthless, doomed laugh. "I think I can guess."
"I managed to convince her that Vandark was the real enemy, and as it happens… He had enemies in many places."
Owen was confused for a moment before it hit him. "Berlin."
"Yasi's working on having you and the others shipped there, but it'll probably take a while to organize."
Owen looked up at him sharply. "Others?"
"A few of the Wildmen decided to go down swinging rather than surrender. They got their wish. The rest are in the Dungeons like you. Nobody's seen the Riverfolk since the battle ended. Some bright spark had the good sense to drop the razor nets back into place before they realized there was nobody coming from Above."
"It was a hell of a bluff." Owen admitted. "I may have to rethink your prowess at the poker table."
Vincent was silent for a moment. "It wasn't a bluff." He confessed. "If I died down here, Gill would have exposed the whole place. If I couldn't save the Underside from Vandark, I could at least make sure he didn't play Kingmaker over all New York."
Owen couldn't help the glimmer of respect in his eye. "Well. Looks like you won." He said finally. "I think that if I had to do it over again, I would go to the West Side and pick up some dinner; and forget that I ever had a chance at aiming for more than normality."
There was a party in the Underground. Fire-Dancers and circus acrobats were swinging back and forth on the repaired ropelines. Musicians were playing merry dance tunes. The wonderful electric atmosphere of the Underside came back with full force, as though the excitement had been building up the entire time Vandark was there, now let loose again, unrestrained.
Everyone knew that Vincent was not one of the Lostkind, but they had all heard his voice coming from the Whisper Gallery, leaving him in a hard to define, but easy to appreciate position among the general population.
Here and there, a few party-goers were staggering their way along to the Labyrinth. The entire population was either shouting, smiling, singing, dancing or drinking.
"Feels good to have people happy again." Yasi let out a contented sigh, like the universe had been set right.
"I came through the Underside when Vandark was here, and I couldn't get over how quiet it was on the Steps." Vincent agreed. "When I heard about all the things that were disappearing up above, I started to worry. You guys never would have taken that sort of stuff if you weren't in a bad way."
Yasi nodded. "Gives me chills to think about how easily Vandark would have done it. For a little while there, I honestly thought he was going to buy our loyalty... with chocolates."
Vincent grinned. "Based on what I saw, they were just enjoying the treats, and biding their time."
Yasi smiled. "Harder to tell when you're chained to the Bad Guy's Throne."
Vincent peeked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Wish I'd shot him a third time, now."
Yasi bared her teeth. "It wasn't as bad as he could have made it. Of the three of us, you and me are the ones... not dead."
Vincent nodded. "Does Keeper think it was a bluff?"
Yasi rubbed her face. "Keeper figured it out. You weren't just protecting our city; you were protecting yours too. She's agreed to keep her mouth shut, as has everyone who knows the whole story."
"A lie?"
"An omission. We're Lostkind, Vincent. Such secrets are common."
Vincent's response was simplicity itself. "Thank you."
The Healers escorted him to the back of the Chapel, where Keeper's cot waited.
He made his way toward the old woman and settled next to her, when he suddenly noticed a new painting on the wall, in an out of the way spot. It was a drawing of him and Yasi, instantly recognizable as the moment they had reunited on the subway, arms around each other. He had no idea that the Gremlins were even close enough to see, but the drawing of them was sweet and honest and wonderful in the emotions it conveyed.
"Rule Three." Vincent said, quiet and victorious. "Be Beautiful."
Keeper's eyes opened slowly at the sound of his voice. "S'about time you got here." She creaked. "I'm an injured old woman, you know; it's not nice to keep me waiting this long."
"I'm sorry I took so long, but it's hard to push your way through a party that size." Vincent said, grinning as he knelt down next to her. "What are the Healers telling you?"
"They say I'll live, but I won't be pretty. At my age, I care less about that than I used to." She struggled. "Help me sit up."
Vincent came forward and did so, helping her upright.
"I've been hearing the stories, and I suppose I should be very impressed with you." Keeper grunted as she settled.
"Oh, please don't be." Vincent insisted. "We have such a comfortable relationship disliking each other. I'd hate to try and mess that up."
"I agree." Keeper nodded, pleased. "You got back fast. I think Yasi half expected you to be with Connie by now."
"And I half expected Yasi to be with Dorcan." Vincent shot back. "Dorcan stepped quite nicely into the role Yasi always wanted for him."
"So has Connie, by taking in young Tecca." Keeper nodded. "Timing, Vincent. Things come at their own time, and sometimes that means missing a chance you would have killed for in earlier days."
Vincent smirked, because it was true. A year before, Dorcan would have given anything for Yasi to respect and notice him the way she did now. A year before, Vincent would have given anything for Connie to be as accepting of all things Secret, the way she now accepted Tecca. But that passage of time had changed them all.
Her lightning quick eyes focused on him. "Now, one thing I'm not getting. You set up a connection between our Round Table Communicator, and your Archives Room at the Planner's Office? How did you do it?"
"I saw the set-up you have here, and the method is the same as stage magicians used to have for conjuring up fake ghosts." Vincent explained. "It wasn't that hard finding the secret of a hundred year old magic trick, so I was able to set it up."
"How'd you find the frequency we use?" Keeper demanded.
"I work in the City Planners Office, remember? The television equipment in your Round Table Room is from the 1950's. Nobody's watching those channels, or those frequencies; not anymore. It wasn't hard to track the frequency down. All that information still exists, it's just completely forgotten. What do you think I've been doing for the last week?"
Keeper burst out laughing, before clasping at her chest, breaking down into a cough. When she settled, she looked up at him. "There was a time, when I was convinced you couldn't be trusted, just because you were an Upsider. Ironic, when you consider that I used to be one myself, back in the caveman days."
Vincent chuckled at that.
Keeper softened. "Now, that's the Chief of the Underside talking. Can I speak to you as Yasi's mother for a moment?"
Vincent took a deep breath, preparing himself. "Of course."
"Yasi told everyone that your plan was to bluff the Riverfolk, make them think this place was about to be exposed." She looked at him evenly. "As long as we all agree on the story, nobody need feel awkward about the facts."
Vincent looked down. "I heard some of the Shinobi talking about Yasi while we were setting up the counterattack... Do her own people really think of her that way? She's not like that."
"She's not like that with you. Yasi's only ever had two kinds of people in her life. The ones that needed her protection, and the ones she protected them from. You think like that long enough..." Keeper broke down coughing a moment. "It was nice to see her getting close to someone, but when we learned it was you, we were worried. We didn't know about you yet, except that you had all the keys to all the doors."
"Which is why you called me, back when we first met." Vincent pointed out.
"Yup. And if you decided to tell the world about us back then?" Keeper challenged. "What do you think would have happened?"
"The same thing I expected to happen a few hours ago." Vincent retorted.
Keeper settled. "Things are different now."
"I wonder." Vincent admitted.
"No, they are. Yasi has never accepted help with anything; not from anybody she wasn't related to." Keeper said. "I think it came from being an only child... And the child of the two people in charge of her whole world, no less. She never accepted the help of others; she had to do it all herself. It made her strong. It also made her isolated. The great truth of the Lostkind is that everything we have, and everything we are, is what your world has discarded or misplaced. We took that and made it beautiful, but without that, we are non-existent. You managed to prove the point quite nicely, because you were not of our world, but you were what was needed to save it. You followed the Three Rules, Vandark didn't, and you prevailed. It wasn't a Rambo plan, it was a Lostkind plan."
Vincent nodded. "I... am a bad liar, Keeper. Outside the Chapel, they're trying to figure out where to put the statue of me. I'm more the one that put the place in danger than the one that rescued it."
"You're both." Keeper said easily. "It is our way. We pass into legend. This whole place is a collection of secret stories that we agree to tell each other. Consider it part of your entrance."
"And Owen?" He asked lightly, almost afraid to ask.
"Owen will be seen to appropriately." Keeper dismissed. "You really want to get into all that again?"
"I suppose not." Vincent admitted. "But... I've never known Yasi to leave loose ends, and Owen's one of them..." He left the ending of the thought unspoken.
Keeper finished it for him. "And so are your friends. The ones who helped you do this." Keeper sighed, understanding his worry. "Yasi had an idea that might make things easier for all concerned."
Vincent nodded. "What is it?"
"Well, if you were Lostkind yourself, then your word would be enough to vouch for your friends, and of course, anything you did? It would be up to our security chief to decide if what you did was forgivable or not."
Vincent struggled not to lunge forward. "Yasi had this idea?"
Keeper laughed, and coughed. "Welcome to the Underside."
Vincent smiled, not pretending to be surprised. "I was hoping somebody would say that."
"There's a lot of work to do... And we need people we can trust." Keeper smirked wryly, painful though it was. "I think it's fair to say you weren't working for the bad guys."
"That I can vouch for." Yasi piped up from behind them, though neither of them turned as she came over to them and dropped immediately into a cross-legged squat on the floor. "We've managed to get word out that the war is won. Everyone's partying like it's okay to be alive again."
"Go enjoy the party." Keeper creaked. "You two earned it."
"I'm a responsible Leader now." Yasi protested. "I can't get drunk and go table-dancing like I used to."
"Oh please, just one more time." Vincent said immediately.
"Yasi, take him out there and let them throw a parade." Keeper ordered, running out of energy. "Keep an eye on him until we can figure out what to do with him that won't bother me too much."
"My mother's very first words to me when I was born." Vincent quipped.
Yasi kissed her mother's forehead, and led the way out.
"What about Tecca?" Vincent asked as they made their way back to the party.
Yasi reacted. "I haven't seen him since I sent him up to you. What about him?"
"Connie wants to adopt him." Vincent offered. "But I think he's worried you're going to come upstairs and seek revenge."
"What gave him that idea?"
"I might have told him that was exactly what you were going to do." Vincent admitted sheepishly.
"If he's found a place that ain't here, then speaking as head of Security, we don't much care." Yasi said with finality. "Ordinarily, we wouldn't let him go, but he's a child and he matters to someone who matters to you. As you have some pull with the Lostkind right now, that's the end of it as long as he behaves himself from now on."
Tecca came into Connie's apartment by the window. She was stretched out on the couch, dozing, but came awake when she heard him come in. She sat upright, and he sat next to her on the couch. They sat without looking at each other for a long time.
Tecca spoke first. "You're still here?"
Connie nodded. "I planned to get out of New York, because I knew if this didn't work, Vandark wouldn't give us a second chance. But I couldn't leave without you. I just couldn't."
"Did he tell you?" Tecca asked weakly. "Did Vincent tell you what I did?"
"He did." Connie confirmed.
"So when you said you wanted to… adopt me, you didn't know yet?" Tecca looked like he was expecting to get slapped down again. It was a look Connie had seen on many homeless and poverty-stricken children at the Clinic.
"Tecca, you made a mistake." Connie said simply. "You're not even ten years old, kids make mistakes. Grownups do too." She held her arms out to him and he slid over into the hug willingly. "Vincent called me. His plan worked. The bad guys are out of the picture now."
"If I'm still alive, then they've decided to let me go. I go back, or talk to any of them, they'll end me." He whispered. "You willing to protect me from them too?"
"With nothing but my teeth if I had to." Connie promised. "That's what moms are for."
With the terrified look in his eye starting to fade, Tecca steeled his courage and broke the hug. "You still got the papers?"
Weeks passed, and life slowly went back to normal. Connie was glad to hear that Vincent had made it back safely, and Vincent was glad to hear that Tecca had agreed to stay with her. Vincent had relayed the Shinobi's warning, that he never return to the Underside, or have anything to do with them. The decision to make Tecca part of her family had confirmed that Connie would never become part of the Underside herself, which did not dissuade her at all.
Vincent was happy for her. Connie had the life, the stability, and the family that she always wanted, and any lingering doubts or guilt she may have felt about the way she treated Vincent over the Underside had been resolved by time, and her support in the final confrontation.
Local radio shows had covered the rash of unusual thefts for a few hours, and talk radio had argued and debated the finer points of Gill's Press Conference for the better part of a day. Public Opinion was behind Gill's brave statement about the environment, and the news that he had been fired soon after had caused still more debate. The general assumption was that Gill had made such a suicidal gesture for that reason.
Gill landed on his feet. After his bold gesture cost him his job, a pro-environmental firm had offered him a position on the spot. They saw the benefits of hiring someone who understood the way the infrastructure worked, and Gill admitted that he enjoyed being around people who cared about things more than he did.
Drew and Connie were speaking again, the anger over long kept secrets fading quickly. Drew was a Banker by trade; discretion was his business, and he loved his sister too much to hold a grudge. Benji and Tony had gone on to another topic once something shiny went by, and nobody took them seriously anyway. To them, the Underside was just another place they knew about but never planned to visit.
Vincent wasn't sure how much damage there was to repair in the Secret City, but studied the newspapers. Here and there, a story mentioned a small catering business folding under sudden unexpected losses, or a mention of a sudden spate of petty thefts from chemists and hospitals.
Tecca was terrified, fidgeting constantly, pacing up and down the hallway. Connie was right beside him, and took her hand in his. "Last chance to back out."
Tecca shook his head and squeezed her hand. "You sure you want to do this? Without Vincent?"
Connie smiled warmly. "Vincent and I would have been great together, now that I've gotten over my fear. But I think you know that we both moved on a long time ago."
Tecca put on his most determined expression and pushed the door open. "This Family Court?" He said archly to the woman behind the reception counter.
"Yes, it is." The receptionist dutifully informed the boy.
The formerly Lost Boy set his jaw. "I'm Tecca, and this is my mom." He said it as though he was expecting her to argue the point with him.
"Connie Harnell." Connie stepped forward and said with a smile. "I have an appointment with Judge Lamar. We're here to apply for a petition to begin adoption proceedings."
Gill ordered a cup of coffee and a sandwich from the same place he'd bought lunch every day. He sat down on the same public bench to eat and watched the people walk by, going about their day.
And then he looked up and found Vincent sitting casually on the other end of the bench.
Gill nearly gagged on his sandwich. "Vincent! My God!" He jumped up and took his friend in a fierce hug. "We waited around your apartment half the night waiting for you to come back."
"I know, and I'm sorry about that. Winning the fight was relatively quick, navigating the aftermath, that was hard." Vincent suddenly noticed the sandwich in his hand. "Ah! Food! I haven't eaten anything store-bought in days." He checked through his outfit, felt through the cloak… "I don't have any money."
Gill stood. "I'm buying."
Vincent followed him. "I hear you landed on your feet."
"You've spoken to Connie, then?"
Vincent smiled secretly. "Nope. But I hear things."
Gill handed him the sandwich and paid the vendor, oddly unsettled by that. "Well... It'll take my new employers a while to figure out what a cynic I really am."
"Mm. I went into the office when I got back." Vincent commented to Gill, eating quickly. "When they told me you'd been sacked I wasn't really surprised."
Gill blinked. "What made you go back to the office?"
"Well, they may have sacked you, but I still work there. Plus, I went down to the Archives Room to make sure you'd taken everything outta there." Vincent explained. "Plus, I had to get to work quickly to cover for the next week. The old food stores in the Underside were destroyed, and the new stuff is not going to stay edible for long. The bad guys weren't big on laying in long term provisions; they wanted the ritzy stuff. So there'll be a snap garbage strike tomorrow, but it'll only affect a few of the neighborhoods with too many supermarkets, and it'll only last a week." Vincent toasted with the cup. "But that became more my problem than yours, I guess."
Gill burst out laughing. "They fix a garbage strike so they can grab the stuff a supermarket throws out?"
"Supermarket fruit, veg, milk and bread all has to be fresh from day to day." Vincent explained like it was obvious. "They throw out tons of stuff that's still good."
"No, I'm not complaining, I'm just wondering… How often do you think this sort of thing goes on? What does the world beneath the world do?"
"A lot less than it could have, thanks to us." Vincent said with quiet victory.
"To us!" Gill toasted, and took a drink of his coffee. "I find I'm looking around the city… It's entirely different now. Except nothing really changed." Gill waved inarticulately. "I don't know how to say it."
Vincent chuckled. "I know exactly what you mean. Three years ago, I was you. The morning after I first met Yasi, we sat on this bench, you ordered that exact same sandwich, and I looked around the same way you're looking now. There was a Homeless woman on the other side of the street, asking for change. Who would have thought to look at that old beggar that the eyes of great ones were watching us? The only thing that changed is you. You have new eyes, Gill."
"I do." Gill agreed quietly, accepting the weight that knowledge had comfortably laid on his shoulders. For a time, the two old friends sat quietly, looking over this smallest section of the city. To their left a street musician was tapping out a song on an upturned paint tin. The other way, a small girl was feeding pigeons with bits of her sandwich.
Any one of them could have been something extraordinary. Any one of the could have had a secret knowledge of the world, the way Vincent and Gill now had.
"Who are they, Vincent?" Gill asked finally. "Have we made a mistake letting them keep the secret? Should we have shone a spotlight on them after all?"
"I asked myself that question over and over once. I don't any more." Vincent nodded, recalling the time he had first asked that question of Archivist and Yasi. Wearing his Lostkind gear, he even looked the part that they had played years before. "They are the ones that you have trained yourself not to see. The child that walks alone with purpose, so you assume he is not lost. The filthy beggar that offends your senses, so you turn your eyes away. The 'they' that people speak of in whispers, the Gremlins that flit away when you notice something move behind you, the Ghosts in the Machine. We are the Lostkind. We are not the enemy, we are not afraid."
Gill reacted. "We?"
Vincent didn't make a fuss of it, just acknowledged that he was indeed part of their world now. "Yup." He drained the last of his coffee. "I have to go, before I miss my own party."
"You should." Gill agreed as his friend rose to leave. "Hey, Vincent?"
Vincent paused and looked back over his shoulder without turning. "Yeah?"
"The things I know about this city now… I can't believe it's all been here all this time and I never noticed. I can't believe I know all about it now. I really can't believe Benji knows everything I do on the subject."
Vincent burst out laughing. "Thank you for everything, my friend."
He walked off, in no particular hurry. Gill tossed his empty coffee cup away, and looked back.
Vincent had vanished.
Feeling a chill, Gill started to make his way home, strangely doubtful that he would ever see his friend again.
"Can you spare some change, mister?"
Gill emerged from his thoughts and saw a homeless man nearby, holding out a hand beseechingly.
Gill hesitated… and promptly gave the man every cent he had with him.
The Throne Room had been restored to what it was, with the Three Thrones. Keeper had recovered enough that she could sit in the Centre Seat, Yasi at her right. The Chair to her left had a black ribbon laid over the back, in memory of Archivist.
Keeper spoke, and everyone quieted instantly to listen. "This is the first meeting we have held here since The Invasion, and the subsequent victory. Even so, our business here is unusual. Very rarely do we make this effort to honor an individual… but these are exceptional individuals."
The room burst into light applause. The mood was formal, but very relaxed, a traditional ceremony being carried out among close friends. The general feeling was one of celebration, not solemnity.
"First…" Keeper said. "I believe there's a small matter that needs to be seen to. In the last few weeks, my home has needed decisive leadership, and due to the… limited strength I have left to me after The Invasion… I was not equal to the task. It has been a demonstration of how capable my daughter is, and how ready she is to take my place, as head of the Triumvirate."
There was a sentimental moment from those assembled. It did not come as any great shock to anyone, given Keeper's age, her injuries, and her obvious heartbreak at the loss of her husband. She was making as little fuss about her retirement as possible; life was going on.
Yasi rose smoothly and stepped forward. "As my last act as Shinobi Captain, I must name my successor. The last few months have been extraordinary. For the most part, we are guardians of The Secret and peacekeepers in the Markets. Every now and then, the extraordinary happens. The Captain of the New York Ninja must be equal parts steady peacemaker, and tenacious warrior. Recent events have proven my trusted lieutenant more than equal to the task." Yasi unslung the sword from her back, and raised it up. "This sword has been held for generations by the Captain of the Shinobi. Of all the tools of our trade, it is the very best. It is the Lightning of the Lostkind." Yasi held it out, hilt first, to Dorcan. "Wield it with pride, Captain."
Dorcan took it solemnly, and slung it across his own spine.
"Salute!" Yasi barked, and every Shinobi in the room quickly drew their own swords, holding the blades vertically before their faces, as in a fencing salute. Dorcan snap-drew his new blade smoothly and returned it.
Keeper struggled a little, but rose to her feet and stepped down from her chair, coming over to shake his hand. The room applauded, cheering appreciatively for Dorcan. Yasi took her new seat, the Centre Chair that Keeper had stepped away from, and Dorcan sat at her right hand; the traditional seat for the Captain of the Shinobi.
"And now, we come to my last piece of business as Chief of the Underside." Keeper smirked. "Bring him in."
With anticipation, the crowds parted, making a path to the entrance. Vincent strode into the chamber, very aware that every eye was on him, and he paused before the Three Thrones.
Keeper spoke again, not taking her eyes off him. "You all know Vincent. The Upsider who became a familiar to the Triumvirate, then an ally to the Lostkind, then a friend to the Underside, and at last a Hero to us all. There are people who belong on the surface, walking through the world without seeing it, and then there are those that look closer, and find where and what they are meant to be. Vincent has proven to be far too valuable where he is Above, but nobody can deny where he truly belongs." She paused for a microsecond. "Not even me."
Yasi came forward, and stood by his side, as they faced the assembled members of the Underside. With a restrained smile, Vincent raised his left hand, and placed it over his chest; revealing a glyph tattooed where his wristwatch would normally be. It was the mark of the Lostkind; similar to Yasi's tribal inks.
Yasi smiled as the applause followed, and gave him a warm kiss on the corner of his mouth. He smiled at her and held her hand in return. The applause grew stronger.
"Vincent McCall will always walk in both worlds; the first and likely the only one ever to do so." Yasi called over the warm adulation. "But many things have changed in the last few years, and wherever he walks, we are glad to know that he'll always come back here, where he belongs… as one of us."
Dorcan held the sheathed sword high and cheered. His assembled forces did the same with a victory roar, and the party began in earnest. As the celebration began, Yasi sidled up to Vincent and gave his hand a squeeze. "Welcome home." She whispered in his ear.
Vincent couldn't restrain himself and kissed her soundly. She responded without hesitation, and the enthusiastic grin that threatened to split his lip when they broke made her laugh.
The Lostkind responded to their excitement with their own, embracing their new family member, letting the fears of the last few weeks, and the pain of what they had lost give way to what they had gained in return.
The Secret City celebrated being alive and being free, wild and glorious; safely away from the eyes of the world Above.



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