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City of Heroes

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This story was written by Troy A. Stanton, and has been posted here with his kind permission.

[From the journal of Cale Westmarch]
[September 2006]

It would be an absolute injustice to describe my life in Paragon City as a hero, first as a spell-blasting archmage and later as a fused human-Nictus Warshade, without turning the conversation at some point to go into rather significant detail about the person who has undeniably had the greatest impact on the course of my life and career. I know I have mentioned the demonesss Azazela before in past entries, but as with all significant moments in life it sometimes becomes apropos to revisit the topic with far more background and in far greater detail.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that I was first introduced to the towering woman by her half-sister, a respected empath who was only known to others as Vudu Dawl. Both were demonic hybrids, sharing the same demonic father who had sired his bloodline on different human women. I had never sought any sort of detailed history of their respective genesis, and after spending enough time dealing with the horrors of all things demonic I came to the quiet conclusion that it was often best not to ask.

In any regard, I had been in need of an ally to deal with a modest but pervasive problem of some Nemesis forces, and for a reason that my memory saw no need to retain Dawl was unable to assist me as I had initially requested. Feeling a small measure of sympathy for my plight, Dawl instead asked Azazela if she would join me in order to end the Nemesis threat, as Azazela likewise possessed some measure of the life-sustaining empathy magic that I had sought. While I understand that there was some 'behind the scenes' discussion between the two sisters while I waited out on the balcony, I had no reason to believe that Azazela had accepted my plea for help under any sort of compunction or other impairment to her free-will.

Our initial mission together went as well as could be expected for two heroes working together for the first time, which is a polite way of saying it was one step removed from an absolute disaster while still somehow getting the job done without irreparable harm being inflicted on either of us. Witnessing my 'macabre' powers as a Warshade was quite the unsettling experience for her, and I have to privately confess to being less-than-impressed with the initial results of her illusionary phantasms and magical tricks of the mind that she was able to cast with the same ease I had once been able to employ magic with. Despite our differences and our own natural ineptness at working together, however, the invading Nemesis forces were dealt with and the threat to Paragon City eliminated for the day.

Somehow we wound up as a team, she and I. Not right away, of course, as we went our separate ways after the day's events had played out to their quiet conclusion, but as the weeks and months progressed we often found ourselves working together for one reason or another. If asked, I would have to confess that our mission to defeat the Praetorian version of Infernal had been the defining moment, the point in which we finally realized that we were far more effective working together as a duo instead of working alone or randomly with other Paragon City heroes to achieve our goals.

To say we worked well together would be an understatement on par with referring to a tropical storm as merely bit of wind and rain. Words are few and far between that can adequately describe the kind of synergy we developed together, my dark Nictus powers complimenting her magical illusions and spells to blow through virtually any opposition laid before us. That is not to say we were constantly on 'Easy Street' in our efforts, as we routinely faced very serious threats that were overcome only after a substantial amount of energy was expended and no small measure of blood shed for the cause. We got along as well as partners do, usually smoothly with the occasional rough moment that occurs between any two sentient beings at various points in time for various reasons.

At least, that's how it used to be.

* * * *

I swam up to the ledge of the apartment tower where Azazela lived with Dawl and her partner Keres, using the term 'swim' loosely as I was in Nova form which essentially equated with swimming through the air to reach my destination. Having evolved in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet, Novae had been integrated into the Kheldian mindset countless aeons ago, giving the quantum-based aliens a physical form to assume when needed. It was this form that most people think of when referring to Kheldians, seeming to be little more than a gaseous, flying squid-like entity capable of flinging bolts of heavily-ionized energy to stun their prey.

My first clue that something was amiss was the presence of a large gaping hole in the massive pane of glass that provided the apartment's occupants a sweeping view of the east side of Talos Island. Finding such broken glass was not an altogether too uncommon event in that household, given Dawl's tendency to seriously lose her temper when being paid a visit by certain rambunctious members of her family, but one could usually hear her by this point if that was the case. The sounds I did hear, however, certainly did not sound like this was simply yet another case of minor domestic violence.

I landed on the ledge and assumed my human form, pausing a few moments to see if I could discern the exact nature of the situation before barging in to 'save the day'. There was a minor amount of commotion inside which sounded suspiciously like a fight was indeed going on, but one that had a rather heavy metallic undertone to it. While I understood that Keres was a skilled warrior who had the curious ability to expel quill-like spines from his body when in battle, I truly doubted he would have ever considered trying to employ that power while indoors.

The proverbial picture suddenly became a lot clearer when I heard a loud yell a bare instant before a whirling mechanical device darted out through the hole in the window. The realization that it was one of the Clockwork machines had barely sunk into my mind when a jagged bolt of electricity darted out from within the apartment, catching the Clockwork minion squarely in the center.

"Take THAT, you flying rust-bucket!" an obviously irritated female voice yelled in triumph as the Clockwork's body erupted in a shower of sparks before promptly plummeting down towards the ground below.

I leaned over the edge of the landing to follow the passage of the still- sparking ruins of the mechanical minion, wincing slightly as it landed on the pavement hard enough to leave a small crack behind. A pair of civilians who had been walking along the sidewalk nearly leapt out of their skin in shock, quickly scurrying away before anything else could rain down on them without warning. In a normal city this might have resulted in a media frenzy about the hazards of randomly falling debris, but in this so-called City of Heroes such an event was, sad to say, disturbingly commonplace.

"Did I come at a bad time, Vu?" I called out as I carefully stepped back from the edge and even more carefully peered inside the broken window.

"Whuzzat?" a short redhead with the curled horns of a ram jutting from her skull blurted out as she whirled around. "Cale?"

"Busy?" I inquired warily.

"Gimme a sec, we're almost finished flushing the bastards out," Vudu Dawl growled as she whirled back around and darted into an inner room. "How many more are left?" she roared, presumably at someone else inside the residence. There was a moment of almost stifling silence before Dawl stormed back into the room, her alluring features marred by a truly dark scowl. She gave me a rueful shake of her head before continuing on her way into the kitchen, no doubt seeking the comfort of a stiff drink. "I'll tell Az that you're here," she added as an after-thought.

I simply nodded and took a cautious step back, trying not to imagine what had happened that would have drawn the Clockwork to her apartment like this. While Dawl's strongest magical powers were her wide array of healing spells, she also had a penchant for electrical magic that every so often caught the wandering attention of near-by Clockwork when employed. Of course, such odd encounters usually only happened down on the city streets in locations where the mechanical minions were known to conglomerate, and it was almost unheard of for them to venture into an occupied residence like this.

A heavy rasping sound caused me to refocus my attention, looking up to find Keres calmly carrying a struggling Clockwork robot towards the now-open window. "Cale," he said simply by way of greeting before casually pitching the frantic robot into the open air and letting gravity handle the rest.

"Please tell me they're not door-to-door salesmen," I spoke up as I kept one eye on the falling Clockwork. It was almost impossible not to make a face as the hapless minion impacted the sidewalk below and promptly exploded in all directions, sending countless metal fragments pinging off of near-by cars and trucks.

"They're not," Dawl growled as she stalked back into the room with a tall, slender glass filled to the brim with some unknown vibrant orange fluid. "*SOMEBODY* brought home a new TV today that they SUPPOSEDLY picked up at a flea market, only to discover that a couple of gearheads were nestled inside like freakin' Trojan horses and went wild when the box was plugged in."

Keres just rolled his eyes and went back towards the living room without comment, leaving Dawl alone to fume to herself and her drink. The redhead made a truly heinous face at Keres' back before she sighed heavily and took a somewhat protracted sip of her still-unidentified drink. "What a mess," she muttered.

"Dawl?" Azazela's soft voice drifted up as she padded into the room. She came to an abrupt halt as she saw me standing outside on the ledge. "Cale," she added, seeming to be both surprised and uneasy to see me.

"What's up?" Dawl said before I could speak, tilting her head back to look up at her younger sister. Most who knew the sisters found the height difference between them to be a source of idle amusement, with Dawl measuring in at the low end of five-foot-something to provide a very stark contrast to Azazela's seven-foot and highly imposing stature.

"Both bathrooms are unusable," Azazela pointed out as she absently tugged her fairly modest bathrobe even closer around her. It appeared to me that she had been preparing to take an evening shower in the moments before the chaos had erupted, which would explain why my usually modest partner was wandering around barefoot and seemingly dressed in only a terry-cloth robe. "There are breeches in the water lines. I shut off the main, but the pipes will need to be repaired before it can be turned back on."

"WHAT?" Dawl bellowed, almost sloshing her drink on the carpet. "Are you kidding me? I told Keres not to.... oh, screw it," she snarled before tipping her head back and downing fully half of her drink in one gulp.

"Dawl!" Azazela gasped in astonishment, her cheeks taking on a pale blush of embarrassment at her sister's lack of etiquette or manners.

Dawl let her breath out with a soft 'pah!' before taking in a truly deep breath to bellow, "KERES!!" with a truly wall-shaking force of volume. "YOU PORCUPINED THE WATER PIPES AGAIN!"

Knowing a tense and delicate situation when I saw one, I decided it was best for me to return another day when tempers had calmed down and peace had been restored. Or at least until the window was fixed, which should only take a day or two. "Perhaps I should drop by when things are not so hectic," I suggested as I started to back away from the window.

"Sorry, squid, it's one of those days," Dawl muttered as she indulged in another deep quaff of whatever it was she was drinking. "Hey, waitasec," she added as I turned away. "You can probably grab Cale's shower if you need it," she said to Azazela as she gestured in my direction with her glass. "In fact, if you play your cards right while you're over there, you can probably also get away with discreetly grabbing his...."

"Dawl!" Azazela blurted out, giving her sister a genuinely shocked look as she feared another 'inappropriate' suggestion was about to be made.

"Washing machine," Dawl growled in a flat tone. "Damn, you really need to quit over-reacting, sis."

"Oh," the white-haired demoness replied softly with a pale blush, casting a brief glance in my direction before looking away. It was hardly unexpected for her to 'over-react' to some of Dawl's commentary, given its often quite suggestive if not outright explicit nature. It was no secret that Dawl had been trying to get Azazela and I to 'hook up' together as an intimate couple for some time now, although recently I had been led to believe that we had finally gotten the redhead to realize that our relationship, while being close in many senses of the word, did not extend into the realm of intimacy.

I simply shook my head in idle resignation. "If my leading lady is in need of a shower," I said in a mock-purring tone, "You know that I will not deny her one. Especially if she can stun a Rikti at ten paces," I added with an audible note of humor. I suppose there was a twinkle of humor in my eyes as well, but the constant and pervasive glow of dark Nictus energy from my corneas made it all but impossible to discern anything from looking in my eyes aside from the fact that I was a Warshade.

"Baby, don't go there," Dawl grumbled quietly to me as she cast a dour look at her sibling. "You should have caught a whiff of the smell before I spritzed her with Lysol. Oh, don't give me that look, sis, I'm just giving you a hard time. Well, sort of," she amended. "You really do need a shower to finish washing all that goop off."

"Sorry," Azazela murmured as she glanced away from the both of us, her pale cheeks almost glowing crimson with shame. "I.... will be with you in a few moments, Cale," she added as she started to depart the room. "I must change into something suitable for travel first."

"Az?" I spoke up, causing her to pause and glance over her shoulder with what seemed to be a vaguely suspicious look. "Just grab some clean clothes to wear for when you're done with your shower, there's no need to change."

That caused the demoness to blink in surprise. "What? But I can't fly across the city in just a bathrobe!" she protested.

"Why not?" Dawl muttered into her drink. "I do it all the time...."

"Sis...." Azazela moaned quietly in resignation.

"Who said you'll be flying?" I reminded her as I made a gesture with my hands. It was called by some as a Reception gesture, a fairly common movement of the hands that virtually every practitioner of the Arcane who had access to teleportation magic used when completing the incantation of a 'from there to here' spell of relocation. The simple fact that my Warshade power of quantum teleportation was a result of Nictus science meant I didn't truly need to make such a gesture when Shadow Recalling someone to my side, but old habits are hard to break and so I still make the gesture whenever I employ that power. It was a gesture Azazela herself made use of, which made it all the easier to drive my point home about how she didn't have to fly if she didn't want to.

"Oh," she said very quietly as she realized what I was implying. "I.... shall gather my clothes and await your summons, then," she said before turning and leaving the room in a slightly uncharacteristic haste.

"Vu, is she okay?" I asked Dawl quietly. There was something about my partner's demeanor that was starting to bother me, a feeling that I couldn't quite put my finger on. She had always been a reserved individual, jokingly referred to as 'Ice Princess' by Dawl on occasion, but she had largely warmed to my presence once we began teaming with one another on a regular basis. She seemed to be a little uneasy tonight with my unexpected arrival, however, but perhaps that was simply a result of being caught in a delicate situation.

"Eh, who knows," Dawl sighed as she tipped her head back again and downed the last dregs of her roadcone-orange-colored drink. "Probably still has her panties in a knot over what happened to her cape earlier today. Something put a few tears in it," she added before I could inquire further.

"Ah," I said in understanding. The signature capes worn by heroes of a certain stature were almost always unique, tailor-made by hand to suit the whims and fancies of the individual. As such, they were also fairly expensive to both manufacture and maintain. The glassy-purple design of my own cape was not prohibitively expensive despite the design's rarity, but the cost was not one I wished to have to incur on a regular basis. No doubt that Azazela, who tended to share the rewards of her deeds with others instead of spending it on a more personal need, would likewise prefer that nothing untoward happens to the delicate expanse of fabric that she favored to adorn her back.

"But then again," Dawl continued casually with a dismissive gesture of the now-empty glass, "She could be on the rag this week for all I know. Don't ask me, I can barely keep track of my own personal issues."

I gave the petite demoness a somewhat disturbed look before shaking my head. "Right," I said slowly. "In any case, I wish you luck on the speed of any repairs you might need to make. Hopefully it won't be too costly this time...."

"Errrgh," Dawl growled as she turned to cast a dark look towards the den where she suspected Keres was holed up. "What sick puppy decides to stick a few Clockwork in a TV set, anyway? Crazy bastards...."

"Let's hope it's not a new and insidious plot by the Clockwork King," I quipped as I took a few steps back from the window.

"Don't even go there," Dawl said, giving me a truly unamused look.

I simply smiled at her before backing up even further, taking one step too many and suddenly finding myself in free-fall. To most people this would have been a very significant problem worthy of full-blown panic. To one such as I, however, it was merely an inconvenient discovery. With a simple thought I turned my body into a cloud of low-temperature quantum plasma that just as quickly recondensed into the physical form of a Nova. From there it was only a matter of reorienting myself with respects to where 'down' was and heading in a new direction, swimming through the sky with a few flicks of my tail as easily as a fish would swim through the water.

The building where my own apartment was lay only a block away from the building where Dawl and Keres lived, the terrain below consisting of a pair of streets and a large earthen mound. Why such a dirt-hill hadn't been turned into a parkland or even developed like the rest of Talos Island was a minor mystery to me, but one that was hardly worth the effort it would take for me to research the answer.

As with most residential buildings these days, there was a flat section on the roof near a stairwell entrance that flight-capable heroes could make convenient use of. The door was usually locked or restricted in some fashion to keep non-residents out, although that only tended to deter casual visitors from attempting to enter unbidden. Most heroes respected that, of course, but there was a disturbing trend in recent days for visits to be paid to Paragon City by the criminals and exiles based in the Rogue Isles, and a few of them paid only scant attention to such things as locks and barriers.

It was a simple, almost reflexive matter for me to tap in my access code to the reader, waiting an extra second for the lock to flash green before opening the door and heading inside. My apartment was located only a few floors down from the roof, making it more convenient for me to use the roof as a venue of entry and exit instead of taking the elevator down twenty-three floors to the ground-level lobby. As with the roof hatch, the door to my one-bedroom apartment was locked with a keypad instead of a more conventional mechanism. While perhaps being more vulnerable to electronic 'picking' from certain devices, the cipher lock had the advantage of not requiring a physical key for entry, a very important detail to some heroes who tended to alter or otherwise reshape their physical bodies for various needs and couldn't always carry keys around.

Like Dawl's apartment, my modest demesne also faced east towards the rising sun to offer a rather panoramic view. As the building was situated on the far eastern end of Talos Island, I was able to see across the rocky coast and the usually calm sea beyond. The vista was not as pristine as one might imagine, however, for looming in the distance was the ever-present blue glow of the War Walls that protected the various districts of Paragon City from external threats. It was easy to ignore the War Walls after awhile, once you truly got used to them, and so the view still remained worth the price I was paying to rent the apartment.

A simple glance in the bathroom showed that nothing was out-of-place or otherwise unsuited for use by guests. Okay, so perhaps the decor could use a little improvement, but when one is a bachelor who lives a somewhat chaotic life of danger there isn't often any spare 'idle time' in which to redecorate to keep up with the latest trendy styles. I doubted Azazela would voice any disapproval if she found it failed to compare to her usual tastes, as beggars can't exactly be choosers. Not that it was her suggestion to ask to borrow my shower in the first place, nor did she actually ask to make use of it, but the premise is still largely valid.

Brushing aside my idle thoughts of aesthetic inadequacy, I turned my mind inward and began to manipulate the fabric of space-time on a quantum and very localized scale. Wispy tendrils blue-purple energy began to writhe around my fingertips as I parted and rewove the intricate and multidimensional strands of reality, reaching out as I sought the unique energy signature of my demonic partner in justice. Even with as many times as I had done this before, it still took a few cosmic moments to finally 'lock on' to her life-force and get a secure hold on her. Once she was in my quantum grasp, however, it was an almost trivial effort to invert the artificial weave I had constructed and teleport her from her sister's apartment to my own in a flash of dark purple Nictus energy.

"Thank you," Azazela said quietly as the glow faded from her body. She was still wearing the dark blue terry-cloth bathrobe and was hugging a small bundle of clothing to her chest. She paused and looked around the room with a cautious eye, acutely aware of the fact that she had only been inside my apartment twice before.

"A pleasure as always," I murmured absently in reply.

"I should hope," she said, seeming to be speaking more to herself than to me. The soft-spoken words sounded a little out-of-place to my ear, prompting a faintly curious and uncertain look from me before putting it out of my mind.

"The shower is all yours," I spoke up, making a gesture to the open door of the bathroom in front of us. "Just try to leave some hot water for me, as I too have had one of those days and probably also need to be disinfected."

Azazela gave me a somewhat unamused look for a number of moments before her expression abruptly changed. She seemed to test the air briefly for a few seconds before the corners of her mouth twitched down in a frown. "What is that smell?" she inquired in a flat tone.

"Essence du Cirque du Soleil," I replied dryly, realizing that the quick dip I took in the ocean by the shipyards of Peregrine Island probably hadn't washed off all of the cheap perfume as I had initially hoped.

As expected, my confession of what I had been doing earlier drew a fairly sharp look of rebuke from her. "More Carnies?" she demanded, referring to the minions of Vanessa DeVore who styled themselves the Carnival of Shadows. They were a fairly flamboyant group who had earned themselves a reputation for very wild parties and no small amount of casual debauchery. The fact that they were a very dangerous group of wildcards running around creating all sorts of problems for the unwary tended to be overlooked with disturbing regularity by my partner, who was more than a little stiff in her senses of propriety.

"They were holding another block-party in a warehouse in Peregrine," I replied in quiet resignation. "The PPD asked for help in delivering a cease- and-desist order for disturbing the peace."

"That's the third time this week," Azazela pointed out in a flat tone.

"Blame the full moon," I countered with a faint smirk. "Az, just admit you're jealous of something, okay? Keeping all that vitrol inside is no good for your liver."

If her expression was moody before, it was positively glacial now. "You are imagining things," she growled. "I am not jealous of anything, least of all those psychic harlots. If you wish to cavort with them, that is entirely your concern and not mine."

"Cavort," I mimicked as I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall. "Honestly, Az, when have I *ever* cavorted with the Carnies?"

"You've commented on how they taste several times," she pointed out.

I simply rolled my eyes at the reminder. Being a Warshade meant that I was somewhat 'in tune' with the life-energies of those around me, even drawing tiny measures of energy from near-by entities to augment my own quantum energy balance. It would be entirely fair to compare it to 'sipping' the souls of others, though neither I nor the Nictus consciousness merged with my own has any control over that instinctive act. Even now I could feel the thinnest of threads that was being drawn away from Azazela's spirit as she stood within arm's-reach of me, allowing me to tap into her nature as a controller of magic illusions to fortify myself against the illusions cast by others.

In combat, I am able to briefly increase the siphoning effects and focus them upon my enemies. Usually that entails miring them in a field of negative energy to sap their strength and bolster my own, but in dire moments I am able to increase the stygian effects to encompass their very life-force, although my foes must be vastly weakened or otherwise be unconscious beforehand for the restorative results to be truly tangible. When doing so I am exposed to the unique energy signatures of my victims, essentially 'tasting' their souls. I had commented on the experience to Azazela the first few times I had occasion to employ that power against the minions of the Carnival of Shadows, drawing a truly disturbed look from her after admitting I found that their psychic link to Vanessa DeVore resulted in a most pleasing sensation of energy when it was absorbed.

"We've been through this one how many times?" I sighed, briefly rubbing the bridge of my nose. "I was merely commenting on how exotic their psychic energy was at the time, nothing more. Although speaking of exotic energy," I added slowly as I looked back up at her, "What exactly were you exposed to earlier that offended Vu's far-from-delicate sensibilities?"

I knew in an instant that I had touched on something awkward given the brief look of guilt that crossed her face like a momentary spasm of pain. She immediately glanced away, further confirming my unease that something was not quite right with the situation. "I was called to assist with a situation," she replied in a neutral tone that I suppose she felt adequately masked her sudden discomfort. After dealing with her for so long, however, I had long ago picked up on the fact that she only used that particular tone when she was speaking about something she would rather not be speaking of. "I was splashed with a substance that was.... offensive to the sense of smell."

"You weren't hunting Vahzilok zombies in the sewers, were you?" I asked her in a guarded tone, having the sinking feeling I already knew the answer.

Azazela looked at me in stony silence for a number of moments before her lips finally parted. "No, I was called in to quell a large Shivan uprising in Bloody Bay," she said in a flat tone, referring to one of the outermost Rogue Isles where the alien beings were gathered together. Appearing to be skeletal creatures encased in a layer of what is best described as irridated lime-green gelatin, Shivans posed a significant radiological hazard to the vast majority of the local populace.

"Third time this week," I said, echoing her earlier words back at her. The Rogue Isles were well and truly a dangerous place for heroes like she and I to visit even for the briefest of moments, for they were the home of the criminal mastermind Lord Recluse and his Arachnos organization. There was no love lost between Arachnos and those of us who believe in the twin virutes of freedom and justice, and more often than not any encounter between the two sides incurred lethal results for somebody in the process. While Bloody Bay was technically outside the internationally-recognized boundaries of the Rogue Isles, it was tacitly understood that the so-called Border Isles of Siren's Call, Bloody Bay, and Warburg were 'no-man's zones' where the hands of justice were not encouraged to linger for too long.

"Blame the full moon," Azazela retorted in a muted voice that carried a soft but still distinct undertone of frost.

I couldn't help but smile at the verbal jujitsu. "I'd rather blame those radioactive meteorite fragments that they keep collecting, but I'm sure the full moon isn't helping them either," I commented casually. "And Az? We've had this conversation before, so kindly turn off the arctic charm. You know I would rather you not patrol the Border Isles given the risks they pose, but I'm just a friend when you need a little extra help with matters and certainly nobody who has any right to try to tell you where you can't go or what you can't do. Just try to dodge a little faster next time so they don't put more tears in your cape, okay?" I said as I pushed myself off of the wall and moved to walk past her towards my bedroom.

Azazela sighed quietly and hugged her bundle of clothes even tighter for several moments before taking in a gentle breath. "Cale," she said quietly.

"Nobody's perfect, Az," I murmured without looking at her. "You have your reasons for spending so much time in the Border Isles which I don't care for, I have my reasons for 'cavorting' with the Carnival of Shadows which you don't care for. The way I see it, we're actually pretty even. Like I said, please try to leave me some hot water so I can wash this essence of Carnie off of me before it peels the tattoos off my arms. Enjoy," I added with a small measure of sincerity as I entered my bedroom and three-quarters closed the door behind me.

I waited until I heard the sounds of the bathroom door closing and the vent fan starting up before breathing a silent sigh of relief. As in all friendships, there was the occasional moment of tension or roughness that had to be dealt with, preferably as amicably as possible. While she rarely made any secret of her disdain for the Carnival of Shadows, viewing them as very scantily-clad wantons deserving only of contempt, it wasn't often that she took me to task for dispersing or otherwise quelling their deadly gatherings. Perhaps Dawl had been correct in her casual theorization of what was bothering the white-haired demoness and that her current moodiness was nothing more than a transient case of feminine curses, but something in the back of my mind was warning me that the situation wasn't going to be something that simple.

Que sera, sera, I thought as I started to unbuckle the clasps on my dark purple outfit. Whatever will be, will be. Like most casual disagreements, I fully expected that it would resolve itself in due time without experiencing any undue pain on either of our parts. And even in the unlikely event that it didn't, that somehow things would snowball into a degenerative spiral, that too was simply a natural outcome as relationships are forged and broken all the time. Not that I had any desire for my partnership with Azazela to fall apart, mind you, far from it, but only that it would not unduly weigh upon my conscience for any great length of time if it should come to that.

Significant progress had been made in stripping my Carnie-perfume-tainted clothes off in preparation for a richly-needed shower when I suddenly realized that, unlike my demonic associate, I didn't have a bathrobe to lounge around in until the shower was made available. It was just one of those things that never struck me as being necessary, being a single guy living alone in a small apartment, and thus not needing to worry about being seen parading into the bathroom wearing only a towel that was casually slung over my shoulder.

I briefly pondered my options as I stood there with my pants around my ankles and only a sweat-dampened pair of briefs preserving my modesty from the proverbial prying eyes of others. I suppose I could defer undressing until I was actually in the shower with the door closed, but the bathroom was fairly cramped in terms of space which made it just difficult enough to change out of my costume to be annoying. Meandering down the hall as usual was simply not an option, even if I employed my Shadow Cloak ability to shroud my body in darkness. While I knew that Azazela's visual acuity was no sharper than the average individual's, her illusionary magics still had a way to 'pierce the veil' as it were when cast just right.

Glancing around the room in search of options, my gaze fell on the small hamper of dirty laundry. Deciding it wouldn't hurt, I briefly rooted through it to come up with a pair of gym shorts that would suffice for my needs. The underwear I was wearing was promptly stripped off and exchanged for the gym shorts, as I saw no need to dirty up something new for something as simple as a brief jaunt to and from the shower. The elastic waistband was tight enough to prevent any casual slippage from movement but did not pull the fabric so taut that my lack of underwear would be highlighted in any fashion. Feeling at ease with the situation now, I tossed the rest of my outfit into the hamper and picked up a clean towel.

The realization shot through me in an instant like a lightning bolt. As accustomed to my routines as I was and not used to hosting guests in personal ways such as letting them borrow my shower, I was not in the habit of keeping any 'spare' towels in the bathroom for casual use. The sound of running water told me that Azazela was already in the middle of her shower, and a part of me was dearly hoping that she had the paranoid instinct to have brought her own towel with her. A quick review of my short-term memories didn't result in any recollection of her having done so, however, leading me to believe she was now a distinctly wet demoness without a dry towel at hand to remedy her situation.

"Brilliant," I muttered to myself, knowing that she would probably be all sorts of defensively self-conscious the instant she realized her plight. In an ideal world she would have only herself to blame, as she apparently didn't look to see if one was available before leaping into the shower, but as her host it was ultimately my responsibility to see that she had been properly provided for in the first place.

A quick and almost frantic search of my closet finally came up with a fairly large, if slightly garish, beach towel that a friend had gifted me with some time ago. "Life's a beach (and then you fry)" the towel proclaimed, a tongue-in-cheek commentary about the tendency for sunburns to be acquired at the beach. While I had never put the towel to use, either to dry myself after a shower or as a place to lie along any of Paragon City's beaches, I figured it would be enough to suffice for Azazela's needs. Indeed, given her rather imposing height, a normal towel might be too small to be of effective use.

The sudden cessation of sound in the water pipes seemed to almost echo as I became aware of it, warning me that she had shut off the shower. A quick glance at the clock on my nightstand revealed that she had only been in there a few minutes, suggesting that she either truly hadn't needed the shower as bad as Dawl had implied or that she was simply expediting her own ablutions so as to minimize her imposition on me. Perhaps it was a combination of both, but in any regard it was essentially an academic matter now.

I stopped only long enough to make sure that my gym shorts were where they were supposed to be and that nothing else was where it wasn't supposed to be before quickly making my way down the hall with the beach towel in tow. I tried not to imagine how I was going to handle this one, as no matter which way the situation was looked at, it was going to be a fairly delicate one to navigate.

To some, the idea of having the bathroom door opened and being greeted by a woman who was both naked and dripping water was a tantalizing one. Indeed, for all the tension between Azazela and I over my focus on the activities of the Carnival of Shadows, had it been the lithe figure of a Harlequin Fencer outlined in profile like that I would have given very serious consideration to offering to dry her off myself. However, this was not some loose woman I was liable to encounter but my partner, a self-conscious and noble-minded woman whom I knew beyond all doubts did not harbor any inappropriate thoughts about the nature of our working relationship. She had her own expectations of me, and I saw no reason not to strive to live up to them as best I could.

I stopped when I reached the bathroom door and was poised to knock when I heard the faintest of noises inside, almost as if something was being said in a very hushed tone. Deciding that Azazela had just realized that she was in a minor bind, I leaned against the wall and held my arm out so that the first thing that would be seen upon opening the bathroom door would be a fairly wide expanse of dark blue towel.

Just as expected, there was the faintest of creaking noises as the door was very carefully opened a fraction of an inch. The gap was just enough to let some of the heat and steam escape, casting a line of wet warmth across my wrist. "C-Cale?" Azazela started to call out, her tone audibly shaking.

"My sincere apologies," I murmured as I closed my eyes. Not that I had any reason to believe I would have seen anything or otherwise be in a position to catch even the briefest of glimpses of her in a state of undress, but the gesture was both polite and respectful. "I didn't realize until a moment ago that I had failed to keep up with the laundry. This should suffice," I added as I wiggled my wrist just enough to set the towel into swaying motion.

"Thank you," she said in a muted tone as the door opened further. Had I been able to see for myself I would have guessed that the gap between the door and the frame was no wider than absolutely necessary, just enough to let her gently take the offered towel from me. "Excuse me," she added as the door was understandably closed with a measure of both haste and force.

"Take your time, my dear," I murmured to the empty air, heaving a quiet sigh of relief at how well that had went. I suppose in retrospect I shouldn't have anticipated anything untoward from her, but awkward situations tended to produce equally awkward results. Especially where women and their often-times fragile emotions were concerned, but that was an entirely different issue that I had no desire to get remotely close to.

I had pushed myself off of the wall and was about to head over to make myself comfortable on the couch to let her tend to herself when I heard the unmistakable sound of an elbow meeting a wall somewhere inside the bathroom. I winced out of pure reflex, having bumped up against the walls myself on many an occasion when I was still adapting to the apartment's small size. Do not ask me who designed the bathroom so disturbingly compact, leaving an occupant barely enough room to use the toilet or shower in any comfort, but I suppose the architects had their reasons. I had long ago gotten used to it, knowing by simple instinct how not to move inside the bathroom, but judging from the sounds from within it seems that my partner was experiencing her own type of learning curve about the available range of motion.

"Az?" I said loudly as I tapped on the door, predictably causing all motion within to abruptly cease. "Perhaps it would be best if you and I were to trade spots. I know it's cramped in there, which might be posing a bit of a navigation hazard for you."

"I can manage," she called back in a somewhat uneasy tone. Her words were promptly accompanied by another dull thump and a soft hiss that I knew was either one of pain or an attempt at stilling on her tongue so as not to blaspheme my wallpaper with a demonic curse.

"You sure about that?" I spoke up carefully.

"Cale...." she replied in a clearly hesitant tone. The sound of silence persisted for several moments before I heard the faintest of whispers that suggested she had taken a deep breath. "Very well, one moment."

I stepped back from the door and moved to the side, giving her a fairly wide berth in which to move past me. The door opened several moments later to discharge a surprisingly large cloud of steam that briefly obscured my field of vision.

The cloud quickly dispersed in the far-cooler air of the rest of my small apartment, revealing a somewhat pink-skinned demoness wrapped in a dark blue towel as tightly as she could manage and still be able to breathe. Her mane of white hair continued to drip moisture onto the floor as she padded out, clutching both the robe and her clothes to her chest as if they were all that was preventing her from becoming vulnerable to something sinister.

As expected, she wasted no time in darting past me to leave a small trail of damp footprints on the cheap carpeting. Dismissing her haste as simple embarrassment, I waited until she had cleared the doorway before stepping into the still-warm bathroom and closing the door behind me. From there it was a simple matter of checking to see if the vent fan was still on, discarding my gyn shorts, and stepping into the bathtub to begin my own shower.

There are simply not enough words to truly describe the feeling one gets from taking a warm shower after a hard day of work. I could feel the stress almost literally melting off of my body as the heated water flowed over me, carrying away the traces of sweat and cheap Carnie perfume as I scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed again. The Nictus part of me likewise understood and enjoyed the feeling, although there was still a slight undercurrent of unease at being covered in water. That I simply attributed to the vestiges of the dark Nova mindset, which as a gaseous entity would have found liquid water to be extremely dangerous to play with in terms of pressure.

When immersed in relaxation like this, time takes on a different meaning. No longer measured in discrete increments, it becomes an entity that only flows based on the environment around you. I truly had no idea how long I remained beneath the showerhead, but I know it was time to end it when the temperature of the water started to drop as the hot water tank became empty. With a sigh the taps were turned off, ending the heated rain and returning time to a more conventionally-measured flow. A somewhat lamentable loss, granted, but one that I knew couldn't have lasted forever anyway.

The shower curtain had been pushed aside and a single step taken out of the tub when the icy chill of realization hit me yet again. In my haste of bringing the beach towel to Azazela for use after her shower, I had left my own bath towel in my bedroom and was now caught in the exact situation I had sought to avert for her earlier.

"Damn it," I murmured to the open air with just a faint hint of a smile on my face. The irony was amazing, and it took me a few moments to shake off the rueful feeling of mild reproachment. The humor left me for the most part a moment later as I realized that, unlike Azazela and her bathrobe, I only had a pair of gym shorts to hide behind while conversing through an open door.

I briefly pondered uprooting the floor mat in front of the tub, then thought better of it. I settled for pressing myself flat against the wall so that the door itself would hide my body, carefully easing it open just enough to permit sound to propagate freely in the air. "Az?" I called out.

"Yes?" I heard her voice drift back.

"You might find this amusing," I explained with a dry chuckle, "But it seems that I am having one of those days. Would you be so kind as to retrieve my towel from my bedroom, please? I seem to have forgotten it earlier."

"You.... what?" she replied. I couldn't see her expression, of course, but I could tell from the sound of her voice that her eyebrows were probably hitting the ceiling right now.

"I need a towel," I sighed.

"Oh. I.... here," she said as I heard the creaking of couch cushions. A mass of blue fabric was pressed to the door a few moments later, edging it open another inch or two.

"Thank you," I murmured as I reached around the door to grab the towel. I pulled it inside and carefully closed the door, making sure I wasn't going to bump her with it. The beach towel was more than a little damp, but it was still absorbant enough to let me dry off in fairly quick order.

I paused halfway through the process as something tickled my nose, not in a physical sense but rather a mental one. It took me a moment to realize that there was a rather soft scent wafting up from the towel, not the smell of a shampoo base or soap but something else entirely. After taking a cautious whiff I finally realized that it was her skin-scent that I was detecting, the natural smell a person gives off. It was something I rarely could pick up on in human-form, but it could be sensed rather readily by the Nova's far keener atmospheric detectors.

It's better than Carnie perfume, I finally decided as I resumed the very slow and careful process of drying off. Not that I was deliberately being casual about it, but rather moving carefully simply because I didn't have much room to move my arms around without encountering either a wall or the metal frame of the sink mirror. The mirror itself was still thoroughly fogged up, so I had to settle for briefly running a comb through my collar-length hair to put it into some semblance of order.

The gym shorts were every bit as dirty as they had been after their first extraction from the laundry hamper, but I didn't exactly have much choice in the matter. Well, I suppose I could have strolled down the hallway to my bedroom with just the towel wrapped around my waist, but that would have been just a bit rude in my view. That, and I'm sure Az would not have appreciated the mental image.

The door was opened once I was positive everything was as squared away as I could make it, leaving the beach towel draped over my shoulder. Just as I had expected, the air temperature outside the bathroom felt dangerously cold in comparison to the heated environ I had just left, sending just the faintest of icy shivers through my body.

"Sorry about that," I apologized as I glanced towards the couch. I had intended to simply make a left turn and continue on down the hallway to get properly dressed, but seeing Az curled up in a ball on the end of my couch with a truly haunted look on her face caused me to stop in mid-motion.

She glanced up at me for a moment before looking away again, only the faintest traces of pink visible on her cheeks. Surprisingly, she was dressed in the terry-cloth robe again instead of the bundle of clothes she had brought with her. The pile of clothes were still neatly folded and being hugged to her chest in a distinctly protective embrace. Her feet were tucked beneath her body, set at an angle that revealed only the smoothness of her bare legs and nothing else.

"Az?" I spoke up as threads of ice started to filter into my blood.

"Yes?" she replied, her voice barely more than a soft whisper.

"Something on your mind?" I prodded cautiously. I knew she was quite the introspective woman at times, occasionally needed a subtle prod in the middle of a mission for her to refocus, but the look on her face was both new and deeply troublesome.

She glanced up at me before making a visible effort at rallying whatever mental energies she had at her disposal. "It is nothing, Cale, merely.... a passing thought or two."

I will not claim to have any sort of psychic powers, either as a legacy from my earlier career as an archmage or now as a Nictus-hosting Warshade, but something about her words left me with a feeling that she was lying to me. Perhaps it was simply because we had been together as a team for so long that I was more than a little in-tune with the natural energy rhythms of her body, or perhaps it was because of the lingering look in her eyes. Regardless of which, I knew that it was neither 'nothing' nor 'passing' anytime soon.

Her breath seemed to catch in her throat as I quietly walked over to the couch, stopping once I was beside her and reaching out to very gently lift up the tip of her chin. "Azazela?" I murmured very softly, pausing as I suddenly became aware of a faint tremble in her jaw. "What's wrong?"

She moved her head back slightly, just enough to break the light contact and allow her gaze to avoid my own. "It is.... nothing," she whispered.

"You're a rather poor liar for a demon, you know that?" I pointed out in a gentle tone, drawing a somewhat sharp look from her.

"I am not...." she started to say in her stern 'Ice Princess' tone before suddenly trailing away. She gazed back at me before her emotional armor began to crumble again, causing her to look back down at the couch cushions. "I.... have no desire to bother you with.... with unimportant and petty concerns," she finally said in a muted, almost broken voice.

"Humor me," I replied calmly, giving her a gentle look. "Something has you all rattled up inside like a Freakshow blasted into a power transformer. Just spit it out, Az, you know I won't give you any grief over it."

The horned demoness briefly gave me an unsettled look before she glanced away and seemed to draw even tighter into a ball. "Have.... have you read this morning's Paragon Times?" she asked me, studying the wrinkled folds of the pile of clothing she was still clutching to her chest in a death-grip.

"Only the headlines," I replied as I glanced down to what she was trying to crush in her hands. I blinked as I realized that I could see the edge of her undergarments tucked between her blouse and skirt, leaving me with the distinct impression that she had only bothered to don the bathrobe after she had dried herself off.

"Page three," Azazela said, her voice starting to audibly shake.

"And?" I prodded when she unexpectedly fell silent.

She glanced up at me before seeming to wilt and draw even further into her shell. "Overdrive is keeping her baby," she whispered before her voice completely failed her.

A distant part of my mind found it utterly fascinating how a few simple words, nine syllables in all, could unlock a mystery and explain a significant portion of the situation in an instant.

Overdrive was the 'street name' of a young heroine who worked with the Freedom Corp's Longbow security forces. An engineer by trade, she had come up with a form of power-augmenting armor that allowed her to stand against a vast number of mutant and super-powered thugs roaming Paragon City's streets. And like most of our Longbow forces, she is often called on to assist the PPD in subduing or arresting dangerous criminal elements.

Unfortunately, the good guys don't always win the fight. A villain from the Rogue Isles had somehow snuck into Talos Island one night in an attempt at raiding the vaults of the local branch of First Paragon National Bank. The on-site rent-a-cops quickly called for the real ones, and the situation turned fairly ugly in short order. Longbow were sent in, and it just happened that it was Overdrive's turn to answer the call for a hero.

To make a long story short, things did not go well and the thief escaped with a sizable amount of money. To add injury to insult, the villain somehow managed to temporarily disable Overdrive's mediport transponder after she was briefly rendered unconscious, giving him enough time to carry her back into the vault where her armor was stripped off and she was subsequently raped.

When the story got out there was an absolute uproar where the service of women in 'superheroism' was called into question by some. To a woman, the entire female population of the Freedom Corp told the critics to get stuffed in various polite ways, saying that they all understood the dangers associated with law-enforcement and that it was no different than what female police or soldiers had to face in times of danger.

Overdrive recovered from the ordeal and returned to duty, only to have the truly heinous experience of enduring the exact same trauma a few months later in Brickstown. As it turned out, she again again encountered the very same villain who had abused her the first time and tried to exact revenge, only to fall in battle a second time due to a malfunction in her armor's power supply. The thief took advantage of her defeat to force himself upon her yet again, only this time his actions resulted in far greater consequences.

I glanced up at Azazela, able to see the roiling emotions in her eyes that she was trying so hard to conceal. Overdrive was now pregnant by an act of rape, a crime she had been a victim of not once but twice, and apparently she had just decided that she would keep the child instead of undergoing an abortion. It was easy to understand why any woman would be more than a little distraught at the notion of another woman enduring such an ordeal only to end up pregnant with an unwanted child. However, I knew the true reason that this particular needle was piercing Az's heart so deeply.

Long before Azazela and I met, she herself had been raped by a demon and by the order of her father at that. She didn't discover until later that her situation was even more dire than she had thought, suddenly aware of the new life her womb that could only have been spawned by the demonic seed brutally spilled inside her. Distraught and alone, she hid herself away in the network of caves beneath the Galaxy City district of Paragon City and bore her child in secret, a daughter she named Naimah.

For reasons I have yet to ask for or she to explain, she left Naimah in the custody of a religious convent to be raised. The machinations of Az's father, however, continued to churn behind the scenes and the infant was soon kidnapped from the convent to be raised in the Rogue Isles. I privately felt that it was the real reason Az spent so much time patrolling the Border Isles despite the danger to her, possibly searching for any signs of her missing daughter or seeking the fiend who took her.

I reached out to gently lay my hand on Azazela's hand, not an overly easy gesture given the way she was still scrunched up in a tight ball. "Those kind of things happen, Az, you know that," I murmured, referring to Overdrive's decision to keep her baby. "She made her choice, a painful one granted, but one that we still need to respect."

"I know that," Az whispered back as she looked up at me. Perhaps it was simply my imagination, but for a moment I thought I saw tears forming at the corner of her eyes.

The slush in my veins suddenly turned to solid ice for some reason. "So remind me again what's the problem, Az?" I prodded carefully, getting the dark feeling that I probably wouldn't like the answer.

"Cale, I...." she tried to say, her throat almost visibly constricting as she tried to speak. She glanced down at the bundle of clothes she was still gripping and let out a ragged breath, very carefully uncurling her hand to take mine in an unusually tense grasp. "I.... w-want.... a child."

One of these days I am going to learn to listen to that little voice in the back of my head, the one that was screaming 'Run!' only ten seconds ago. "Is that all?" I managed to reply in a normal tone of conversation, or at least one that sounded normal to me.

Azazela blinked hard enough to be heard and looked up at me, her eyes filled with more emotions that I could possibly count. "What?" she said, her bottom lip quivering slightly. "How can you just...?"

"Az," I sighed as I reached out to gently press a fingertip to her lips, effectively stilling both them and her voice. "Don't get me wrong, I have a fair idea of how much heart-wrenching thought you've put into this and with a measure of deep soul-searching to boot. Just understand that as a guy, I'm not exactly imbued with the same kind of maternal instincts you seem to be suffering from all of a sudden. I've no desire for children myself, but I can understand why you may want to start a family of your own. Don't worry, I won't make too much fun of you looking like you ate a beach-ball," I purred as I brushed my fingers over her cheek and stepped back.

I had intended to be reassuring, to let her know that her partner still had her back while she tended to her own needs and desires as a woman to have a family. Indeed, I could see that my words had an immediate effect on her, causing some of the tension to leave her body and her death-grip on the pile of clothes to relax a few degrees. But at the same time, I could also see the level of confusion in her eyes increasing as her expression changed.

"Cale?" she said, her voice still wavering slightly. "I was.... hoping that.... that you would.... help me with this."

Run, the voice in the back of my mind started screaming rather loudly. Run far, run fast.

"How so?" I found myself asking in a suddenly wary tone. She gave me a slightly abashed look and a pale blush sprang to her cheeks, the usual and by now quite familiar sign that she was encroaching on a sensitive topic that her sense of propriety believed she shouldn't be speaking of. And with that very simple look, without a single word being spoken, I suddenly understood what she was asking of me and had the very unique experience of physically feeling my stomach perform a backflip.

"Azazela," I stated in a perfectly flat tone, trying not to openly gasp for air as an anxiety-attack started to grip my chest and make it awful hard to breathe for some reason. "You can't be serious.... wait, I didn't mean it like that," I blurted out as I saw her cringe away from me.

To this day I honestly and truly have no idea what happened, as it seems my mind simply disconnected itself from the short-term memory processes for a brief moment. All I know is that one moment she's turning away from me with a truly devastated look, and the next I'm carefully sitting down next to her on the couch holding her hand tightly.

"Az," I implored her gently as she tried to curl up into a tight ball again. "Listen to me. You don't know what you're asking of me, it's not that easy to give you an answer."

She refused to look at me, keeping her gaze down at the floor. "If.... if you do not desire.... to do so, Cale, I will certainly not force you to," she managed to say in a soft whisper. "I had simply felt that you.... that you.... would...."

"That I would what?" I prodded her. I let go of her hand and reached out to touch her face, very gently turning her around so that our eyes would meet.

It seemed to take an eternity for her lips to quit trembling and finally part to speak. "That you would be willing to be intimate with me," she said in a voice so soft I could barely hear her.

I closed my eyes for a brief moment, not believing that I was hearing her say such a thing to me. Not that I felt she was being dishonest with me, as the truth of her feelings was quite evident in the pain in her voice, the pain of opening up the deepest part of herself to me like this.

"Az, why me?" I inquired gently as I opened my eyes to look at her. "Of all the people you've met and dealt with in this city.... why me?"

"Who.... who else could I trust?" she whispered back, her face still a solid mask of haunted and violently roiling emotions. "With all that we've done together.... with as long as we've been together...."

"As partners, Az," I reminded her, still trying extremely hard to get the lead weight off of my chest and thaw the ice in my veins so my heart wouldn't have to throb so damn loudly in my ears to move my blood around. "There is a hell of a difference between being a team and being lovers, to say nothing of being parents."

Again she seemed to flinch from my words, and had I not been holding her arm I thought that she might have simply bolted from the couch. "Then.... you do not wish to...." she started to say as she closed her eyes, a solitary tear gliding down her cheek.

I can't say what it was that caused me to act as I did. Perhaps it was my subconscious mind paying closer attention to some signal that my conscious mind couldn't pick up on, or perhaps the unmelded personality fragment of the Nictus Balregu was acting in my stead as it had occasion to do before. Not that it mattered why, as once performed an action is done and beyond recall.

Time seemed to shift again as I leaned forward, very gently brushing my lips to hers in a light kiss. She seemed to freeze at the contact before very hesitantly returning the gesture, allowing her lips to soften and present far less resistance to my own. It was a gesture we had never done before, or at least not with one another, and so it was an experience for the both of us.

The flow of time continued to remain frozen until I leaned back just far enough to part our lips. "Az?" I murmured, suddenly acutely aware of how I was leaning over her and how she was pressed back against the couch cushions. "Now, as before, you are reading too much into what I am saying here. I will readily admit that we are bound together in ways that extend beyond friends, and to some degree, even family. There are rules to such things, however, and some lines once crossed can never be returned to their previous state."

She finally opened her eyes to look at me, still obviously confused and highly uncertain about the situation. She looked into the featureless blue expanse of my Nictus-tainted eyes before letting her gaze drop slightly to my lips, still only a few inches away from her own and lightly tingling from the taste of her kiss.

To be continued....
S: 01 October 2006
E: 585 - 896