Belle fixed her hair in the mirror, carefully tucking away any stray strands of wiry grey that had escaped her hair clips and pins. She had had such beautiful hair once, but the years had been far from kind. Still, what girl wouldn’t have a few grey hairs after a lifetime of deathtraps, alien invasions, mad scientists, would be global dictators, time travellers, and other assorted supervillians? No, the years had not been kind, but they had been magnificent.
The wheelchair, of course, was an inconvenience from time to time, but she refused to let anyone do anything about it. She’d lost her legs the day she’d lost Him, and by comparison the wound barely even registered. She had been the secret wife of the world’s greatest superhero, its first superhero, and she felt his death as keenly today as the day that she had cradled his shattered body in her arms and lulled him softly into the endless sleep.
Belle sniffed, and held back a tear from her good eye. She wouldn’t cry. Not today.
A breeze passed across the roof and Belle heard the familiar sound of heavy booted feet landing on her balcony. She remembered how her heart had skipped a beat the first time she had heard that sound, the first time that he had visited her in the dead of night. There was no death that night, no tragedy, no battle to fight. There was a just a man, a glorious and impossible man, and the woman who had captured his alien heart.
Belle turned and smiled. “Hello, Able. It’s good to see you.”
Able was almost identical in appearance to his father, a quirk of his father’s alien DNA she suspected. Belle wished that there had been something more of her in the boy, but he was undoubtedly his father’s son, at least in appearance.
“Come on in,” she scolded, “You’ll catch your death out there.”
Able stepped gingerly into his mother’s cramped apartment, closing the balcony door behind him.
“Mom, I’ve been to Pluto …”
“So have I,” Belle replied, “And it’s got nothing on a New York winter. Now, sit down there, and I’ll get the tea things. Everything’s ready for you.”
Able squeezed himself into an armchair, his massive frame straining the wood and fabric. His cape bunched up around the small of his back. “Don’t know how Dad ever sat down in this …” he muttered. “This whole place is too small”
Belle shook her head and headed out to her small kitchen, her wheelchair creaking noisily. “I saw you on the news yesterday,” she called back.
“Oh,” said Able. On the wall nearest to him were hung row after row framed photographs of his parents, others of his father with various superheroes, world leaders, and celebrities. Interspersed amongst them were newspaper clippings, recording Able’s father’s greatest exploits, and his mother’s most famous headlines. Despite having eyes that could have read a newspaper across the solar system, he scanned the wall from top to bottom five times before resigning himself to the fact that there wasn’t a single photo or newspaper clipping about him. His, of course, was a different kind of super-heroing. It lent itself less to headlines that a mother would want to pin up on her wall.
Belle put the tea tray down on the coffee table. Able recognised the pale blue china and green glass combinations, a wedding gift to his parents from the King of Atlantis. His mother loved the set, but to Able it made everything taste of the sea. Slices of Battenberg sat on plates shaped like seashells that no doubt made everything taste of fish.
Belle poured two cups of tea. “You want to talk about it?” she asked.
“No,” Able replied, looking down at his boots.
Belle slid a cup of tea across the table to her son. “Well, I do, Able. I need to talk about it. I need you to tell me what the hell you think you’re playing at.” Her good eye was fixed on Able in a way he hadn’t experienced since he was a child. A full grown man now, he understood why world leaders had trembled more at his mother’s name than at his father’s. Once a journalist, always a journalist, that’s what she said. She had a nose that was only ever comfortable where it wasn’t wanted.
“What do you mean?” replied Able, defensively. He picked up his cup and slurped tea. As he had expected, all he could taste was brine and salt.
Belle clinked her cup down noisily. “You know exactly what I’m talking about Able. I’m talking about you bulldozing shanty towns and refugee settlements. I’m talking about you walking ahead of tanks instead of standing between them and innocent people. I’m talking about you taking sides, and the wrong sides at that. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Sides?” said Able angrily. “Come on, Mom. All Dad ever did was pick sides. You can’t have truth, justice, and the American way without America, and these people are America’s enemies.”
“Who says?” Belle spat back. “Who says that their our enemy?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Able sarcastically, “How about the President?”
“The President? Oh please, Able, I thought I raised you better than that. You’re the Government’s whipping boy now?”
“Mom, Dad worked for the President all the time. It’s up on the wall, right there!”
Able stabbed a finger at the wall, sending a tiny wave of pressure out that rattled the pictures on their hooks. Belle frowned. Able had never had the control over his powers that his father had had. There was something reckless about him, like a child playing with a gun without understanding what it is and what it could do, without realising that real guns kill people for real, and nobody gets back up to carry on playing. Perhaps that was the problem; Able’s father had died and come back to life so many times when Able was growing up, all of their friends had at least once too … Belle wondered if Able had a real understanding of what death was even now. Growing up around superheroes, perhaps it was natural to think that death was something that only happened to other people.
“It was a different time,” said Belle, lowering her tone. “We’d just come out of a war, things were … simpler.”
“We’re at war now, Mom,” replied Able. “There might not be bombs falling on Pearl Harbour, but we are at war.”
“And those people, in that village?” asked Belle, “Were those people at war too?”
Able stood up and unclipped his cape. A patch of damp sweat had stained it dark red around his neck and between his shoulder blades.
“Is it hot in here?” he asked, catching his breath.
“Heating’s on full,” Belle replied. “New York winter, can’t afford a chill at my age.”
Able slumped back down into his chair, the wood cracking under his weight. He ran a hand through his dark hair and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Don’t change the subject,” pressed Belle. “I want to understand what you thought you were doing, why you did it Able? The whole world saw you. The whole world. It’s been on every news station, every channel, for days.”
Able looked up, his eyes rimmed red. “Is that what this is about? Your precious pride? Your reputation?”
“Of course not,” replied Belle. “It’s about you, and what you did.”
“Rubbish!” spat Able. “This is about you, and about him, just like everything else in my life. You don’t mind people knowing your my Mom when I’m pulling cats out of trees and stopping bank robberies, but the minute I try to do something that’s going to make a real difference, the minute I try to do something that might actually change things …”
“It’s not your job to change things. It’s not your job to decide who wins a war, who runs a country.”
“But I can decide who doesn’t? How many would be dictators have I stopped? How many people with plans for world domination? Who says that one of them, just one of them, might not have actually made things better? Maybe one of them might have made the world work. I have to make decisions every day on who to save, who to stop. Who wins, who loses, it all comes down to me.”
“Your father could always tell right from wrong. He always knew the right thing to do.”
“And so do I!” Able shouted, rattling the windows of the apartment. “But you know what? You’re right. Why should I help a President win a war, when I could win it for myself. Maybe that’s the mistake that Dad made, for all those years. Instead of spending all his time stopping one supervillian or another from taking over the world, maybe he should have just taken it all from himself! You think that this was the first time that I had to do something like that? You think that I haven’t done that before? How do you think those cameras were there in the first place? I can hear atoms rubbing together, you think I can’t hear someone switch on a camera? We’ve been doing it for years, Mom. We just decided that it was time people saw what they’re really up against when they mess with America. It’s me, Mom. They’re up against me!”
Able slumped in his chair, as if his rant had sucked all the air out lungs that could hold enough air to carry him across space. His hands were trembling.
Belle shook her head sadly. “Oh, Able. I wish you hadn’t said all that. I’m so, so sorry.”
Able’s head drooped forward for a moment. “Sorry?” he said, the word slurring as his lips suddenly started to puff up. He raised a hand weakly to his throat, trying to pull his close fitting uniform away from his neck.
“Yes, baby, I’m sorry,” said Belle. “I’m sorry for whatever it was I did, or didn’t do, that let you grow up this way. I’m sorry that you can’t see that what you did was wrong, so very wrong. I’m sorry that you’re already so far down this path, that I don’t think you can come back. I’m sorry that I have to stop you.”
Able tried to stand, his legs trembling and weak. Collapsing forward, he smashed through the coffee table, sending Atlantean crockery flying up into the air. Belle wheeled herself gingerly backwards, until her eye met his.
“Those people weren’t supervillians, son. They weren’t even criminals. They were just people. Men, women, children. People who were looking for somewhere to live, people who believed that the land they were standing on was theirs. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but is it really for someone a thousand miles away to decide where their borders are? Is it your right to kill them, just because of where they were standing?”
“What did you … do?” croaked Able. His eyes had all but closed up, and he relied on his flickering and quickly fading X-Ray vision to see his mother. Her skeleton looked down at him from her wheelchair. He’d never realised that she had so many broken bones, so many injuries.
“I poisoned you,” Belle replied. “An obscure radioactive isotope from your father’s home-world. We cleaned up the last of it on Earth years ago, before you were even born. Your father gave me some, for emergencies. In case he ever …”
“Flattened a village?” quipped Able. With the last of his dying vision, he thought he saw the skeleton smile.
“You have your father’s sense of humour,” Belle said. “I’ll miss that.”
Belle rolled herself closer, until her wheelchair was butting up against Able’s powerful frame. Carefully, she lowered herself down onto the floor, and positioned herself next to him. She stroked his hair gently.
“It will be alright, son,” she whispered softly. “It won’t hurt, your father promised. He said that I had to watch you, just in case. He said that you might grow up with a little too much human in you, that the power might be more than you could understand.”
Able groped with a quivering hand until his fingers found his mother’s hand.
“I’m frightened, Mom,” he croaked. “I’ve never died before.”
“Me neither sweetheart.”
Blind and paralysed, Able lay on the floor and listened with the last of his super-hearing to his mother’s heart stop, just a beat before his own.