Fandom: Black Cat mangaverse
Prompt: 91) To have a good enemy, choose a friend; he knows where to strike. -- Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), French courtier and favorite mistress of Henri II of France. — Prompt unused
Summary: Kyoko is a good mother, if an unconventional one. She gets the important things right.
Notes: You shouldn't need much familiarity with the Black Cat universe to understand this story; all you really need to know is that "Sweeper" is another name for "bounty hunter," the Apostles of the Stars were a very small organization of superpowered terrorists, and that Chronos is the shadowy world government, who enforce their ideals of peace with an elite cadre of 13 assassins.
My Mother, Kyoko
I loved my mother dearly, but I didn’t always understand her. She was flaky, frivolous and prone to temper tantrums. Unlike my classmates’ mothers, she was a terrible cook and she never did get the hang of sewing or laundry. When my siblings or I ripped our clothes or got them dirty, she’d throw them out or shrink them three sizes smaller in the wash. My baby brother, Jack, got to wear all the best outfits because once Mother had tried to fix (or wash) something, he was usually the only person in the family who could still fit into it.
Mother was also utterly transparent. If she didn’t like you, you definitely knew about it. She was incapable of faking friendliness or even polite interest. It took her four years of living next door to the head of the PTA before she managed to remember the man’s name.
On the other hand, when she was happy she practically radiated joy. Her enthusiasm for whatever caught her attention was infectious. She could make anyone in my family laugh just by walking into a room while waving her hands excitedly.
She wasn’t afraid of anything, either. One day when I was coming home from the grocery store with her, this guy tried to mug us. He probably saw us and thought we’d be an easy target: a slight, wide-eyed woman with her arms full of grocery bags being trailed by a clingy kid. He pulled out a knife and started flipping it between his hands. I still remember how it caught the light. It terrified me, especially because somehow the rest of the man remained hidden in shadow.
Instead of screaming or pushing me behind her or behaving in any other way like a normal woman being threatened, Mother’s eyes widened the way they always did when she was delighted.
“Wow!” she said. “That’s a really nice blade! Where did you get it? Can I see it? I promise I won’t hurt it!” She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Our erstwhile mugger looked uncertain. This was not an uncommon reaction from people meeting my mother for the first time.
“Pretty please?” Mother begged. “With sugar and a cherry on top? I promise I’ll give it back. I promise, I promise!” She pouted. This, for her, was the big guns: my father never once managed to refuse her when she pouted and meant it. Our mugger proved to be no stronger; he handed the knife over. His face indicated disbelief that this was actually happening. Mother dropped the grocery bags in her eagerness to examine the blade, and I heard the eggs smash. She didn’t even notice, too busy chortling with glee over the knife’s sharpness.
“This is so cool!” she gushed, after inspecting the weapon from every angle. “Thanks, Mr. Mugger!” She handed it back to him. “We have to be getting home now, though,” she told him apologetically, “I have to make dinner. Otherwise I’d love to stay and chat. But it was real nice meeting you! I hope you have a good day.” Then Mother bent over, collected the groceries and headed off. I ran after her, leaving the dumbstruck mugger behind.
Mother really was willing to make friends with anyone.
* * *
However, most of Mother’s friends were old schoolmates. None of them were quite as flaky as she was, but a few came close. They’d get together once a week to play card games while gossiping about clothes, men, their children and whoever was foolish enough to be absent. They weren’t intentionally mean, but they had no concept of privacy and few of decency. Dad couldn’t stand them. Whenever they met at our house, Dad made sure to be somewhere else and, if possible, he’d arrange to take us kids with him. The fact that he wasn’t always successful led to my siblings and I growing up to be pretty decent card sharks.
Dad didn’t care much for my Uncle Sheldon, either. He never said anything against Uncle Sheldon, but I got the impression that the two had never gotten along. As I got older, I realized how odd this was. Uncle Sheldon was Kimiko’s godparent (Kimiko was my oldest sibling), and a child’s parents have to agree in order to pick one, so Dad must have trusted Uncle Sheldon on some level, but he always acted like he didn’t. He wouldn’t leave us alone with our favorite uncle if he could help it and he was always tense during his visits.
Uncle Sheldon looked nothing like Mother. Sure, they were both too skinny, but he was tall and fair and Mother was small and dark. They didn’t act anything alike, either. Uncle Sheldon was a serious, often unsmiling guy with an intense outlook on life. (In fact, the only things I ever saw him smile at were Mother, my siblings and I.) He was very focused and very practical. Mother was none of these things.
The one way Uncle Sheldon was like Mother was that he always showed up unannounced, and always when we least expected it.
“Kyoko,” he’d say, “you’re looking well. How have you been?” And Mother would beam at him and babble on about inconsequential things in her usual incomprehensible manner, and he would listen carefully and occasionally nod gravely.
After that, Uncle Sheldon would turn to us children. Kimiko would tell him the latest news more slowly and understandably, and he’d finally smile at the lot of us. Then Uncle Sheldon would perform magic tricks, pulling rabbits out of hats, creating shimmery bubbles that would burst in midair, and making spirits appear in colored smokes. We’d all squeal with delight, and he’d pass out presents from his travels. He usually saved the best for Mother and Kimiko, but once he gave me a clockwork windup dragon that breathed real fire. I played with it constantly until the striker wore out and the dragon only made sparks.
Uncle Sheldon’d stay for an hour or a week – once for a whole glorious month – and then vanish as unexpectedly as he’d arrived. Dad would always heave a sigh of relief but continue looking over his shoulders for the next couple of days.
During one of his visits, Mother turned my favorite white shirt pink the wash. I was devastated and furious by turns, and Mother was near tears. I knew if she actually did cry I’d stop being mad at her, so I went outside to sulk. Uncle Sheldon came after me and waited silently until I was ready to talk.
“Why does she always do that?” I whined eventually. “I told her not to mix the whites and the colors. I told her I’d do it later, and she should just leave it alone!” Despite myself, I sniffled. “Why can’t she be like other kids’ moms?”
Uncle Sheldon considered me from behind his sunglasses. “Kyoko is terrible about remembering details,” he said. “She isn’t stupid, but her mind... it doesn’t always work the same as everyone else's. In spite of that, I wouldn’t change her for the world. She never gives up, and she keeps her promises. She has the best heart I’ve ever encountered.”
I was not entirely consoled. Perhaps sensing this, Uncle Sheldon continued. “Mitsu, your mother stood by me when anyone else would have abandoned me. She has never once been too busy to help me when I needed it, and she will never be too busy for you. Kyoko may not be any good at the little things, but when it matters she comes through.”
Uncle Sheldon was right about Mother, but it took me a few more years before I truly understood what he meant.
* * *
The year Kimiko turned seventeen, she did the typical rebellious teenager thing. She listened to loud music, wore make-up and came home late smelling of smoke and boys. Then, as if that was not bad enough, she announced her intention to become a Sweeper.
Dad, the unflappable bedrock of our family, freaked out. The boys and the make-up had made him uneasy, but the Sweeper thing sent him through the roof. He wanted to ground Kimiko for a month. Mother pulled him aside and they talked for over an hour before he came back. Dad apologized for overreacting, but still would not give Kimiko his approval. For the most part, things settled down in our house. Sometimes, though, when he thought no one was looking, I would catch Dad staring at Kimiko as if he didn’t know what to make of her and he was angry about that. He smiled at her less.
In contrast to Dad, Mother didn’t seem to mind at all. She treated Kyoko exactly the same as always. I was surprised by this; all the other parents I knew would be upset enough about the boys and loud music. Their displeasure at those things would pale in comparison to their distress at the idea of their child becoming a Sweeper. Yet Mother was unfazed. Mother, who needed help to swat an insect. Mother, who cried at the scene when Bambi dies, didn’t seem to care that her baby girl wanted to embark on a life of violence, destruction and death.
This made no sense to me, so I asked her about it.
“Kimiko,” Mother said, “is no different from before. She is trying new things and meeting new people, but she is still the same person. Why should I be upset? If she is happy,” and Kimiko was happy, radiantly so, “why shouldn’t I be? And why should I try to stop her?”
“But aren’t you scared for her?” I asked.
Mother smiled a little sadly. “Of course I am,” she said. “But life isn’t safe. Kimiko could die tomorrow in an accident, and it wouldn’t be better than if she died as a Sweeper protecting people. It might even be worse. Everyone takes a risk just getting up in the morning. It’s worth it to take the risks that truly matter instead of spending your life trying to be something you’re not in order to be safe.”
This was the first time I sort of understood what Uncle Sheldon had tried to tell me.
* * *
Three years later, I was fourteen and Kimiko had continued pursuing her dreams of becoming a Sweeper diligently. To my astonishment, Uncle Sheldon knew who to talk to to ensure that Kimiko got the proper training. She’d been studying under a sharpshooter named Kevin for most of that time, and had only graduated to fieldwork in the last year. Dad was still a little awkward around her when she came home, but he had calmed down drastically once it became clear that Kuroro, my next older sister, would much rather be an accountant than follow in Kimiko's footsteps.
Kimiko was away on a job the day that Uncle Sheldon arrived at our front door. He greeted me with the words, “I need to talk to Kyoko,” which was only one of several signs that something was wrong. Uncle Sheldon was unfailingly courteous, and he’d barely acknowledged me. In addition, his clothes were rumpled and he looked tired. Uncle Sheldon was justifiably proud of his appearance, and I knew from experience he could wear out me and all three of my siblings without even trying.
Uncle Sheldon put up with my staring for a moment, then said “Now.” I left the door swinging in my haste to find Mother.
Mother’s face lit up like always when she saw Uncle Sheldon, but her smile faded quickly when she took in the details of his appearance. It left a watchful, protective expression behind. To my surprise, for once Mother stayed quiet and waited for my uncle to talk.
“Hello, Kyoko,” he said, managing a strained smile. “I’m afraid there’s trouble.”
“Were you followed?” she asked.
“No, no,” Uncle Sheldon said, shaking his head hastily to reassure her. “Nothing like that. I would never bring anyone here.”
Mother smiled faintly. “I know. It’s just...”
Uncle Sheldon smiled back, for real this time. “...that’s the first question you ask when a plan goes sour.” His expression fell back into the tired lines he’d worn when he arrived.
“You know about the Hands of the Hours?” Mother shook her head, looking puzzled, so Uncle Sheldon continued. “Well, after the Apostles of the Stars disbanded there was a big power vacuum. One of the groups that stepped up is the Hands of Hours. They’re big in the organized crime world. Early on, their first leader was murdered by Chronos, and they’ve carried a grudge ever since. They don’t care how much they have to destroy or who they have to kill to get even with Chronos.”
Mother may not have heard of them, but I had. Kimiko had mentioned them last time she was home, and I couldn’t fully suppress a shudder.
Mother considered this for a moment, then tipped her head sideways. “So?”
“Two days ago,” Sheldon replied, “I came across a list of nineteen cities that the Hands of Hours is planning to flatten three days from now. It’s an attempt to annoy Chronos. New Chalsarus is on it.”
I gasped. New Chalsarus was the city we lived in. Mother just nodded, eyes wide and serious. “How?” she asked. I thought she was asking how Uncle Sheldon found out but,
“They have almost thirty super-powered fighters,” he replied. “Most of them aren’t world class, but they’re more than a match for ordinary police.” He snorted. “They’re more than a match for most Sweepers. The Hands of the Hours intend to split their army up, then send them out individually to eliminate as many people and buildings as possible.”
“And you think they won’t stop until the listed cities are rubble?” Mother asked.
“Yes,” Uncle Sheldon replied. He paused. His next words sounded choked. “I called Chronos and told them what I discovered, and they’re actually going to do their self-proclaimed job and protect the targets.”
I didn’t know his history, but I could see that going to Chronos had cost him somehow. His next admission came much easier.
“I also called the Black Cat and told him to put out the word to his contacts. Train and his cohorts will be doing their best to protect people, too.” He paused again, then said bluntly, “There aren’t enough of us to defend everywhere. The Black Cat’s on the other side of the world and even if he would abandon the cities there, he couldn’t make it back in time. Chronos has written New Chalsarus off; it isn’t as densely populated as some of the other sites on the list and they simply don’t have the personnel to cover every city.”
“I understand,” Mother told him. She turned to me. “Go get your siblings, then pack your bags. Don’t forget to get the money from the safe, and dress warm.”
“Wha—?” I started to ask.
“Go,” Mother repeated. There was a note in her voice that I’d never heard before. I went.
Rounding up my siblings was easy enough. It was Dad who was the sticking point, so Mother called him herself.
Dad wasn’t pleased to be summoned back from the office. Mother called him home once every month or so for reasons varying from needing his opinion on which color balloons she should bring to a party to wanting him to chase off a spider she found in the bathtub. She made him come back for serious reasons, too, like the time Jack broke both his legs falling out of a tree and refused to take pain medication, so Dad was never quite comfortable just ignoring her calls, but he was always annoyed by them.
The annoyed expression slid right off his face as soon as he caught sight of Uncle Sheldon slumped on the front step with Mother, then glanced over to my siblings and I standing bewildered by the door with our suitcases. I can’t really describe the look on his face right then; it was a little like when he was angry at Kimiko, but also sort of stunned and horrified. Not quite betrayed, but... Dad looked like his worst nightmare had come to life, only he couldn’t act surprised because it had simply been a matter of time.
Uncle Sheldon regarded him with sympathy. It was probably fortunate that Dad didn’t know Uncle Sheldon well enough to distinguish that expression from his normal one, because if Dad had understood I think he would have blown up.
“So it’s finally happening, then,” Dad said.
“What’s happening? Where?” Mother asked.
Dad sighed. “Sheldon,” he said in the patient tone he used when Mother simply couldn’t follow something obvious, “has come to our house to ask you for help with something. And you’re going to up and give it to him. Just like that!” Dad didn’t raise his voice, but I got the impression he wanted to.
“Well, yeah,” Mother said. “We are partners, after all.”
I’ve seen art critics look at priceless paintings the way Uncle Sheldon looked at Mother then. Uncle Sheldon shook it off quickly, though, and turned his attention to Dad. Dad might not be able to yell at Mother, but he sure could yell at Sheldon.
“You have no right to ask anything of her,” Dad shouted. “You have no right to try and drag her back into your world!”
“I’m not,” Uncle Sheldon replied coolly.
“Dear,” Mother said calmly, “stop being an idiot. Sheldon’s not dragging me into anything; I’ve got the right to defend my own home. Now take the children and go visit your mother for a few days. The kids have already packed your suitcase.”
“But...” Dad sounded lost.
“We’ll call you when it’s safe,” Mother continued blithely. “Tell your mother I said hello, and ask her to write down that muffin recipe again. The last copy she gave me got charred and I can’t read it anymore.”
Dad squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them again. “I can stay, too,” he offered. “We’ll send the kids to Mom’s, and I’ll help you and Sheldon do... whatever it is that you’re planning to do.”
Mother sighed. “I need you to be safe,” she said in the serious tone she’d used on me earlier. “I need you to look after our children somewhere where I won’t have to worry about you. Sheldon and I can handle ourselves.”
Dad looked into her eyes for a heartbeat, then bowed his head in defeat. “Be careful, all right?” he said finally. “Don’t... don’t get hurt. We need you whole. And you,” he added to Sheldon, “take good care of our girl.”
“I swear she’ll come to no harm as long as I’m breathing,” Uncle Sheldon told Dad. Dad nodded almost gratefully. It was the closest I’d ever seen the two of them come to agreeing on anything.
Mother, on the other hand, dismissed Dad’s fears with a wave. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “And you know I keep my promises.” She smiled tenderly at him. “I love you too,” she added. Mother and Uncle Sheldon said good-bye to us kids, and then faster than I could believe we were in the car headed out of New Chalsarus.
* * *
As soon as we were in the car, Jack started asking questions. He’d refrained earlier, first because we were too busy packing everything up and then later because I’d snuck up behind him and gagged him. Usually Kuroro would have had something nasty to say to me about picking on my baby brother, but she also saw how serious Uncle Sheldon was and recognized that now was not the time for Jack to be causing trouble. She actually stepped on Jack’s foot herself when Jack tried to ask Uncle Sheldon to do some magic tricks. Fortunately, by the time Dad got home even Jack had picked up on the fact that something was really wrong, so the two of us could stop sitting on him.
This time when Jack started talking, Kuroro and I didn’t stop him. We wanted to know, too.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“You tell me,” Dad said in a voice that would have been snarky from anyone else. “I don’t even know why we’re leaving or who’s attacking.”
The three of us blurted out what we knew. Dad asked us some questions to fill in the details, then drove without talking for as long as Jack let him. This was about thirty seconds.
“So why,” Jack demanded, “aren’t Mother and Uncle Sheldon with us on the way to Grandma’s? What can they possibly hope to accomplish? Are they staying to try and warn people or what? No one would believe them! I’m not sure I believe them.”
“My guess would be they’re planning on fighting off the Hands of the Hours,” Dad replied.
This stunned even Jack into silence. He recovered first, of course, but very quickly we were all going at once.
“What do you mean, they’ll be fighting the Hands of the Hours?” Jack screamed.
I was pretty hysterical, myself. “They’re only the most dangerous group of criminals on the face of the planet! We have to go back! They’ll be killed!”
“They’ll be massacred,” Kuroro said more calmly, though with no less feeling. “Mother’s a housewife and Uncle Sheldon is a magician. Neither of those are professions that exactly lend themselves to defeating organized crime syndicates!”
“Quiet!” Dad snapped. We were. Dad took a deep breath. “You know your mother was Sheldon’s partner, right?” he asked.
“‘Is’ seems like a better word choice,” Kuroro muttered, but softly enough that Dad could pretend he hadn’t heard.
“Well you may not know what they were partners in,” Dad said. His voiced trailed off again. We shifted impatiently in our seats. I had thought that Mother was Uncle Sheldon’s first magician’s assistant or his early financial backer when he was just starting out. Maybe a lab partner. Clearly, I was wrong.
“Your mother and uncle Sheldon are ex-Apostles of the Stars,” Dad said.
Oddly enough, my first thought was of how much money Kimiko could make off of our family. I learned later there was no bounty on Mother; she’d made her peace with Chronos, and they’d agreed to leave each other alone. The bounty on Uncle Sheldon more than made up for that: he was worth all the rest of the former Apostles put together, and that was saying something because even now, more than twenty-five years after they’d disbanded, their bounties were some of the highest ever offered.
“That’s bullshit!” Jack exclaimed. “Mother? An Apostle of the Stars? Get real! If you’re going to lie to us, you should at least make it believable.”
“It’s true,” Dad said, hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. “They recruited her while she was still in high school. I still don’t know why she joined; I think Creed dared her to drink his potion and then promised she wouldn’t be bored as long as she was with him.” I had no idea who Creed was, but as soon as I could get to a library I was going to look him up. “Kyoko met your Uncle Sheldon because they were assigned to each other as partners. When Sheldon lost faith in the Apostles’ cause and quit, Kyoko left with him.”
“What potion?” Kuroro asked after a moment.
“The leader of the Apostles of the Stars had this potion that killed everyone who drank it, except a select few who got stronger,” Dad said. “Your mother got stronger.” This almost made sense to me. Mother always was phenomenally lucky. Of course a potion that killed everyone wouldn’t get her.
“There! That proves you’re making this up,” Jack said. “Mother’s no giant fighter type.”
“No,” Dad said, “but she’s very, very tough. And she can breath fire.”
“Mother... can breath fire?” Kuroro repeated doubtfully.
“Yeah, right,” Jack said. “I think we would have noticed that.”
Dad snorted. “Well she doesn’t do it much anymore. She doesn’t have any reason to.”
“But Mother would have said something!” Jack insisted.
“Are you sure?” I asked slowly. “Maybe she forgot.” All of us were quiet, thinking of other things Mother had forgotten to mention. Like that time she hadn’t told us that she gave all our furniture away the day before Kuroro’s birthday party. Or how we didn’t know that Uncle Sheldon always saved half his earnings to give to Mother until the time Kimiko crashed her car into a National Park and had to pay a huge fine to avoid going to jail.
Okay, I could see Mother might not say anything. She probably considered it unimportant. But that didn’t explain Dad.
“So why didn’t you tell us, Dad?” I asked.
Dad didn’t reply for several moments. Jack shifted impatiently, then asked my question again but with more of a whine.
“It’s hard,” Dad said. “I’m trying to think how to explain.”
After about a minute, he told us, “At first, you were all too young. You wouldn’t have understood. You might have told someone, and there are a lot of people who want revenge on the Apostles.” Dad trailed off. Apparently, he was hoping we’d let this go.
Not likely. Kuroro was up next. Jack and I let her take over because, of the three of us, Kuroro is the best at extracting information from our parents. Jack may be more obnoxiously persistent, but Kuroro’s more patient (a necessity if you want to learn anything useful from Mother), and she always seems to know which questions to ask to illuminate the bigger picture. The second trait helps with Dad, because Dad’s a sucker for logic.
So Kuroro took over. “If we accept that you didn’t tell us because you were afraid we’d spill to the wrong people,” Kuroro said, “which I don’t, that still doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell us now that we’re older.”
Dad sighed. “I guess I just wanted to forget the whole thing. I thought that if I didn’t say anything, it wouldn’t be true. You didn’t know, and it never seemed to hurt anything. I guess I just thought... I mean, everyone was happy. There was no need for you to know. It isn’t a part of her life anymore.”
This was too much for Jack. “You were wrong about that!” he shouted. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us! We had a right to know!” Jack continued yelling, saying things like “You should have trusted us,” “How could you hide something like that from us?” and finally, “I hate you!” Dad maintained his calm and tried to talk reasonably, but he never managed to get out more than “But Jack—” before my brother cut him off again.
I was developing a headache. I didn’t know how much of it was the result of Jack’s screaming and how much came from the frightening news about Mother and the fact that we’d left her behind with Uncle Sheldon to fight off an insane criminal posse.
Eventually, Kuroro had enough. “Shut up, Jack! Your screaming like a child is getting old. Dad should have told the rest of us, but it’s a good thing he didn’t let your big mouth in on it.”
For Kuroro, this was unexpectedly vicious. Kuroro had inherited Dad’s level temper. I think she knew she’d gone too far, because she turned white as soon as she finished speaking and made an abortive gesture toward Jack. Jack stared back at Kuroro for a moment, then turned to face out the window without a word. He was trembling slightly. From what I could see, Kuroro was no better off, too pale and still.
“Kuroro—” Dad started.
“You shut up, too,” Kuroro snapped, abruptly angry again. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say right now.”
“Let’s just take a break,” I said into the quiet Kuroro’s outburst had caused. “We’ve all got a lot to think about, and talking’s not getting us anywhere right now.”
I nursed my headache the rest of the way to Grandma’s in the car’s total silence.
* * *
Grandma was surprised to see us, and even more surprised to see us so upset with each other. Still, she welcomed us into the house and got us settled in without too many questions.
The next two days were tense. Grandma and Dad whispered together in the corners, Kuroro was talking only to me, and Jack was alternately raging and sulking. The only time we all got together without arguing was when we tried to call home. Mother wasn’t picking up, which didn’t help anyone’s nerves. I couldn’t even consult Kimiko for advice because she was out of reach for the next two months on a case.
The tension broke on the third day when Jack hollered from the living room, and we all rushed in to see what was wrong. Jack pointed mutely at Grandma’s grainy TV, and there was Mother, waving cheerfully at the camera. Her skirt looked a little singed, but overall she seemed fine. After the first surge of oh thank God she’s alive, I noticed the smoking ruins she was standing in front of.
“...city of New Chalsarus repelled a full-scale attack by the radical insurgent group, the Hands of the Hours,” a newscaster was saying. “The incident began at approximately 2:00 pm this afternoon, little more than two hours ago. Reports are still coming in, but at least nine other cities are confirmed under siege at this time and details are trickling in from another four.
“Here at New Chalsarus, local defenders took out the entire Hands of the Hours terrorist cell. This unknown woman single-handedly fought off five gunmen, and we at channel RV18 caught it all on tape.”
The clip that followed was one of the most exciting things I’d ever seen in my life. It was frightening, too, even if I had already seen the clip of Mother safe and whole and therefore knew she’d be fine.
It began with a shot of Town Square. The fight must have already begun by then, since the normally crowded Square was deserted except for three overturned cars. Mother and Uncle Sheldon stood near the edge of the plaza. Uncle Sheldon said something to Mother, she nodded agreement, and he vanished down an alley.
Mother stepped into the center of Town Square. Incredibly, she was sucking on a lollipop. “Come out, come out wherever you are,” she sang out with the same smile she and Jack shared when they were setting up practical jokes.
Three men in suits carrying machine guns popped up from behind one of the overturned cars and started firing wildly. In response, a circle of bright light flared out from Mother, briefly obscuring the Square. I later learned it was a blast of superheated air which melted the bullets in the air and left indelible scorch marks on the pavement.
“Now then,” Mother said, still smiling and chewing her snack, “that wasn’t very nice.”
Channel RV18 censored the gunmen’s cursing reply. Mother just walked calmly forward, and after an uncertain look at each other, the gunmen screamed and charged her.
I couldn’t quite follow everything that happened next, but I saw Mother dodge a haymaker and then wrap her hand around the barrel of a machine gun that someone had swung at her head. The gun glowed where she grabbed it, and her attacker dropped it with a wail, smoke sizzling up from his palms where he’d held onto the gun.
Meanwhile, Mother kicked the legs out from under the third man and then clubbed him with the gun she’d stolen. The first attacker tried to run, but Mother exhaled flames and the back of his suit caught fire, leaving Mother as the last woman standing. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds, and she hadn’t removed her lollipop.
“You boys come on down too,” Mother called, and the camera panned to catch two shapes scrambling along the roof of City Hall on the opposite side of the plaza. Gunfire broke out again. This time, Mother’s protective light flared wide enough to cover her and the three men collapsed in front of her.
When the light faded and the scene became visible again, Mother was frowning. “Seriously, that is so rude,” she said, and then she breathed out a plume of orange fire that snaked across the Square to City Hall’s roof. The camera’s microphone picked up faint shrieks and then pleas for surrender.
Mother rolled her eyes. “Weaklings,” she muttered in the same tone she used to complain about the PTA. “That wasn’t nearly hot enough to kill; they can’t be more than singed! What on earth are they whining about?”
The roof caught fire. The two gunmen screamed louder and jumped for the fire escape. They made it to the ground intact, but they were charbroiled bright red like lobsters.
“Oops,” Mother said guiltily, and in spite of everything I couldn’t help laughing.
Mother hadn’t lingered long enough for the reporter to get an interview—after securing her prisoners in Town Square, reports indicated that Mother’d headed straight to the warehouse district, where another cell of gunmen was shooting up the dockyard. The camera crew hadn’t been quick enough to keep up with her, and by the time they’d arrived at the docks Mother was gone again.
Further Channel RV18 news reports claimed that a man matching Uncle Sheldon’s description had fought a running battle along Central Avenue against two Hands of the Hours agents strong enough to pick up cars and throw them before Uncle Sheldon finally pinned them down near the cinema, knocked out one and crippled the other. There was no video of Sheldon’s fight, though, because whenever a camera got close enough for a picture, it mysteriously shorted out.
My whole family stayed glued to the television screen as Channel RV18 showed us the devastated landscape of New Chalsarus, desperately hoping for another glimpse of Mother. They kept re-running the clip of Mother fighting in Town Square, probably because they had no other footage of fighting within our city. They did air images from fights in the other cities the Hands of the Hours had targeted, and some of those fights didn’t go nearly as well as Mother’s.
Every time we saw a city’s defender get hurt, the tension in the pit of my stomach ratcheted up a notch. Because even though Mother had promised she’d be all right, and she always kept her promises – what if something happened? What if this was the time she finally broke her word? And, I realized now, Uncle Sheldon had only promised to make sure Mother was okay; he hadn’t promised to look after himself.
I didn’t share my fears. I didn’t need to. Everyone had realized these possibilities on their own. Even Jack was chewing on a knuckle, and usually Jack was as mellow as they came.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” Kuroro said abruptly. “I shouldn’t have said that stuff before. I didn’t mean it.” The apology had been building for days. Actually, I was surprised it had taken Kuroro as long as it had.
Jack’s eyes left the TV for the first time since we’d caught sight of Mother.
“Yeah?” he said, cautiously.
“Yes,” Kuroro replied. “I am upset and worried about Mother, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I know you never blab about anything important. I was just being stupid, but this – ” Kuroro waved at the television, again showing Mother breathing fire onto the fleeing gunman, “ – this is no time to be stupid.”
“Yeah,” Jack said belligerently. “You were being stupid.” Jack watched Kuroro a moment. When Kuroro only nodded, Jack added, “I understand, though.” He smiled tentatively, and Kuroro smiled tentatively back. Then they stood in awkward silence until I sighed and pushed Kuroro into Jack. They were forced to grab onto each other to avoid falling over, and it ended with the two of them grinning in a real hug.
Kuroro pointedly didn’t look at Dad.
* * *
We were still watching the television four and a half hours later when Uncle Sheldon called. The news was reporting heavy casualties in Lubha, where a Sweeper team had tried and failed to herd the Hands agents into an ambush at the Lubha Zoo, but aside from that one city the Hands of the Hours’ attacks had been met successfully almost everywhere with minimal loss of life and only small to middling property damage.
Uncle Sheldon’s phone call interrupted an interview with a pair of civilians who’d been rescued by winged blonde woman from being crushed to death. Grandma muted the TV and put Sheldon on speaker as soon as she realized who was calling.
Uncle Sheldon sounded more tired than I’d ever heard him, but he assured us he was fine, and so was Mother. “She’s not with me now,” he said, “but I saw her not an hour ago. I decided I’d better call you, since I’m pretty sure her cell phone was destroyed in the fight by the warehouse and I doubt she remembers your phone number.”
“We haven’t heard from her,” Dad confirmed. “She’s really all right?”
“Yes,” Sheldon said. “I don’t think she got any worse than bruised.”
“Thank goodness,” Dad said, and Grandma laid a supportive hand on his shoulder.
“You’re all right, too?” I asked. “You don’t sound so good.”
“Just tired,” he said. “But I can’t rest yet; I’m leaving town tonight.” What Uncle Sheldon didn’t say was that he’d taken a huge risk, exposing himself in the battle of New Chalsarus – his numerous enemies now knew where to find him. He went deep undercover after that, and it was more than a year before we saw him again.
“All right,” Dad said. “Take care of yourself, Sheldon. This family needs you.” He paused. “Thank you for looking after Kyoko.”
“Any time,” Uncle Sheldon said hoarsely.
We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone, leaving us the most relaxed we’d been since we’d fled home. Now that we knew for sure that Mother was all right we could breathe again. Jack and I slumped against each other on the couch, making a thumping noise when we flopped over on the cushions. Grandma swatted at us affectionately.
Dad and Kuroro looked directly at each other for the first time in days. In an odd echo of the past, Kuroro was wearing the same expression as Dad that first year Kimiko was training to be a Sweeper.
“I’m still angry with you, Dad,” Kuroro said.
“I know, kiddo,” Dad said.
“Okay,” Kuroro said, and Dad reached out and embraced her. Kuroro stood stiff for a beat, and then leaned back into Dad.
The doorbell rang, breaking the moment.
“Who would be visiting at this hour?” Grandma wondered, and went to open the door.
“Hi guys!” Mother beamed from the front porch.
After we got over our shock and exclamations of joy, and after we’d all hugged Mother hard to make sure she was real, we started asking questions.
“Are you okay, Mother?” I began.
“Sure!” she chirped. “Although I may have burned down part of the city. Sorry.”
“How’d you even get here?” Jack demanded.
“Oh, I borrowed a motorcycle, but I got lost over by—”
“Did you kill anyone?” Dad interrupted apprehensively.
“Didn’t I promise I wouldn’t?” Mother said, exasperated. “And Sheldon and I made sure the Hands of the Hours didn’t kill anyone, either. No one in New Chalsarus died.”
Dad’s eyes sagged closed, and then he blinked them open into a proud, beaming smile. “Good work.”
“So that’s settled, then,” Mother said. “Dear, do you think could make me pancakes with gummy worms in them for dinner? I'm hungry, so I emptied all the vending machines still standing in New Chalsarus, but I don’t know if I bought enough.” She pointed behind her to a sack stamped POTATOES: 50 POUNDS which was stuffed to bursting with wriggly candy. She had no other luggage.
My eyes filled, and I grabbed Mother into another hug. She seemed puzzled by my strong reaction to the idea of gummy worm panakes for dinner, but she squeezed me back gamely. Mother really was fine – she was still her unchanged flaky, borderline-deranged self.
What a relief.
Uncle Sheldon was right: I wouldn’t have Mother any other way.
Author’s Note: Kyoko’s husband was worried that she’d killed someone for more than just moral reasons—Kyoko promised Chronos she’d never kill again, and if she breaks her word they’ll have her assassinated.
I made up Kyoko’s family and the terrorist group the Hands of the Hours. In the Black Cat ‘verse, ridiculous names are just how people roll, especially villains. Also, I thought there was no way Kyoko wouldn’t name one of her kids after Train.
I apologize for posting late; a plot thread twisted away from me at the last moment.