Chapter 10 – Homecoming

“Ah, what a night…”

Perched on the edge of a tall apartment building roof, Pierce looked down contentedly at the city bathed in nighttime darkness below and mused over his day. The call with Phoenix and Kestrel lasted for about half an hour as Pierce and Phoenix switched between recounting the previous week and bantering, with Conrad occasionally butting in to restore the peace or comment on the events that occurred on Ainminthalus. Eventually, Phoenix had to leave to board her flight, at which point Kestrel left the call as well, leaving Pierce and Conrad to hang out on their own — which they proceeded to do for the entire afternoon, despite Conrad’s scheduled classes. Pierce knew that hanging out with Conrad usually meant sitting on a couch and playing video games, and today had been no different; Pierce was content with the arrangement, in part due to the fact that trying to get Conrad to do more than play games or take lethargic walks was like pulling teeth, but he was prone to grow restless after more than a couple hours of sitting around. When Conrad kicked him out around sunset, Pierce gladly took the opportunity to stretch his legs… and also try out his superspeed.

Taking advantage of the low light of twilight and dusk, Pierce decided to test some of the limits of his powers. He knew well what he was capable of in dire situations, thanks to dealing with the skyfall on Ainminthalus — but now, he wanted to see what he could do with a more subdued usage of his speed. Before long, he found himself crossing the city by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, the raw power afforded to his legs by his superspeed also allowing for a variety of jumping and leaping-based movement options. In fact, when crossing relatively short distances, he found it far easier to simply leap the distance instead of trying to run it — as his speed produced awkwardly large strides that made it difficult to actually run at high speeds for short distances. Not that it mattered; even his leaps were easily supersonic.

After one such leap, Pierce found himself perched atop one of the many apartment buildings that dotted the city of Oakland. For just a moment, he ceased testing his superspeed and stopped to watch the lamp-lit streets from on high, and the variety of car and pedestrian traffic that passed by a mere six floors below him — none of whom seemed to even consider looking skyward as they went about their evening business. I’d heard that people don’t usually look up, but… damn. I don’t think a single person has seen me.

At the thought of ‘looking up’, Pierce glanced skyward himself, just in time to spot the lights of a passing aircraft. He eyed it for a moment before tracing its expected path through the air to the south, in the direction of the Oakland airport. The airport wasn’t an exceptionally large facility, though Pierce had heard that it was once an international airport. Rising sea levels, combined with a hard-hitting earthquake forty years ago, had almost completely destroyed the original airport — just as it had destroyed much of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area. He passed an idle glance out to the west, at the San Francisco peninsula; though the skies were dark, he could still see the hills across the bay, and the waters that ran right up to them. From what he was told, large swaths of the peninsula had been permanently flooded or otherwise destroyed during the disastrous year of 2088; he found it hard to believe that there were once major thoroughfares east of highway 280, and yet both of his parents insisted it was true.

As he was looking out west, he noticed another set of distant lights, these ones arranged in a flat horizontal line over the mouth of the bay. The lights belonged to a massive, under-construction dam, officially known as the “San Francisco Bay Area Reclamation Project”, or simply “BARP”, as the locals called it. The project was an attempt to drain the bay back to its early twenty-first century water levels, which would allow thousands of acres of land to be reclaimed. Additionally, the dam was supposed to supply hydrodynamic power to the entire Bay Area, even post-land reclamation. Pierce himself felt ambivalent about the project; its proponents claimed that it would allow the bay to claw its way back into financial and cultural relevancy, but as far as Pierce was concerned, it was already far too late for that. All of the good jobs had long since fled to other parts of the country, and it seemed silly to try to bring them back with a massive dam that could end up just harming the environment instead.

However, what interested Pierce the most about the BARP — damn, I fucking hate that name — was the fact that the project was setup, funded, and run by none other than SERRCom. He hadn’t the slightest idea why SERRCom would bother wasting time and resources to help out a city in a country that barely liked them, and yet, here they were, doing just that. What do they hope to gain out of this? They’re a fucking interstellar military, it doesn’t make any sense for them to put a bunch of money into building a dam. Hmm…

After a glance downward at the streets below, Pierce shook his head to clear his thoughts. Pondering SERRCom’s motivations could wait for another day; for now, he decided that it was finally time for him to return to the one place he had yet to visit since leaving for Ainminthalus three months ago: home. He had technically dropped by briefly earlier in the day to stash his suitcase, but at the time, no one was present or awake to greet him. Now that sunset was long past, he was certain that someone was home.

“Though if I’m lucky, not everyone will be…” he muttered to himself. His gaze drifted to an apartment building barely two blocks away from the one he was standing on — his family’s apartment was on the third floor, of five. With a sigh, he prepared to jump down from the top of the six-story building he currently stood on top of, but just before he did, something caught his eye a little bit to the east. He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see what was going on… and then snorted in irritation. It looked like a handful of people had gotten into a fight just off of the street; judging by their sizes, they couldn’t have been any older than high schoolers. Fucking idiots. I guess I’ll have to step in and save the day, huh? What’s even going on? It looks like… shit, a two-on-one? Wait, is that—?!

An annoyed scowl found its way onto Pierce’s face as he jumped down to the ground, landing quietly on his feet. He then jogged toward the fight, quickly taking account of everyone present. Off to the side was a small young girl, cowering away from the fight; the fight itself consisted of two lanky boys, neither of them appearing all that athletic as they tried to fend off a young girl with short dirty blond hair. All four of them appeared to be around 16 years old, but only one of them was recognizable to Pierce. “Damn it, Riley…” he muttered under his breath, and then raised his voice into an angry shout. “Hey! HEY!”

The two boys glanced his way, but just as they did, the blond girl decked one of them across the face and sent him sprawling into the street. The second boy turned toward the girl in fury and prepared to hit back, but Pierce quickly inserted himself between the two, his hands out. “Cut it out!” he demanded, as he glanced between the girl and the boy. “Seriously, guys? The hell is this?”

“They started it!” the girl snapped.

“You threw the first punch, bitch!” the boy shot back, as the one who had been hit in the face scrambled to his feet and began fronting on Pierce.

“And who the fuck are you, huh?” the boy spat, in what was clearly an attempt to be intimidating — but Pierce couldn’t help but chuckle. Both boys were nearly a match for him in height, but between their skinny builds and wholly unimpressive teenaged voices, Pierce found it impossible to take them seriously.

And now I have superpowers, too, he mused, …though I guess using them here would be a bad idea. Not to mention overkill.

“What do you got to say, huh?!”

“Damn, you two are annoying,” Pierce countered airily. “Look, if you run now, I won’t have to kick your asses, alright?”

The two boys glared at him, with one of them seeming to get ready to throw a punch, but then Pierce noticed their attention shift slightly to his right — where, out the corner of his eye, he could see the blond girl standing next to him with her arms crossed.

“We… we’ll be back, you bitch!” One of the boys spat at the girl as they both turned around and ran off.

“Yeah, you’ll pay for this!” the other shouted over his shoulder.

Pierce simply pursed his lips and shook his head as he watched the two disappear around a building corner. He then glanced down at the girl beside him, and then at the other girl who hadn’t been involved in the fight. Now that he was closer to her, he could see that her eyes were red, and her cheeks were slightly damp.

“So you really are still alive, huh?”

Pierce returned his attention to the girl beside him, who stared up at him with an unamused expression. At this close distance, it was easy for him to see that she was bruised all over. “And I see you’ve still got attitude,” he replied. “Seriously, Riley, what the hell happened here?”

The girl, Riley, snorted in response before turning around and approaching the other girl. “Are you okay?” she questioned softly as she gently placed her hand on her shoulder.

“…Y-yeah… for now,” the other girl responded quietly in between sniffles. “…Thanks, Riley… but…” Pierce noticed the girl’s gaze fall on him as she shied away. “…Who…?”

“Oh, don’t mind him,” Riley responded; her back was to Pierce, but he could tell just from the tone of her voice alone that she was rolling her eyes. “That’s just my good-for-nothing brother.”

“And who was it who stopped the fight just now?” Pierce interjected incredulously.

“Listen,” Riley continued, ignoring Pierce as she addressed the other girl, “if those dumbasses bother you again, come straight to me, okay? I’ll make sure they regret it!”

“Ah… okay…” The girl nodded.

“Do you need me to walk you home? You don’t live far from here, right?”

“Just next door…” The girl took a deep breath before nodding again. “I’ll, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Riley.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Riley responded as the girl turned around and approached the apartment building just next door. Riley and Pierce both watched until the girl entered the building, at which point Pierce stepped up alongside his sister.

“Still trying to play the schoolyard hero, huh?” he quipped.

Someone has to,” she retorted.

“Sure, but you still need to be careful. You didn’t honestly expect to win a two-on-one fight, did you?”

“Oh c’mon, like you can lecture me about fighting. You literally run away as a sport!”

“Track isn’t about running away, dumbass.”

“Sure it isn’t.”

“What are you even doing out, right now?” Pierce questioned as he looked around at the lamp-lit street. “Isn’t it kinda late to be out? Especially on a school night.”

“Yeah, like you were always home at 9 when you were in high school,” Riley shot back.

“What about Mom and Dad? Do they know you’re out?”

“Mom’s asleep and Dad’s at work, just like always. Don’t tell me you already forgot.”

“Don’t snap at me. I was just hoping things had gotten better since I moved out.”

“Oh yeah? Well maybe you should call home more often, if you’re that concerned.”

“…Fair point.” Pierce looked up at the apartment building that the other girl had disappeared into before turning around. “We probably should head home now, though.”

Riley passed him an incredulous glance. “Wow, I can’t believe you just suggested that. I guess it really is the end of the world.”

“Oh shut the hell up.” Pierce then passed her a questioning look as they began walking down the block toward their apartment building. “Wait, end of the world? I thought nothing happened here last week.”

“Not here, no. But there’s all kinds of news on the Relaynet about shit that happened in the galaxy last week.”

“What? Since when did you care about the rest of the galaxy?”

“…That’s none of your business,” Riley retorted, though Pierce couldn’t help but notice that she looked away as she did so.

“Aw, you were worried about your big brother, weren’t you?” he pressed, with a giant, self-satisfied smirk plastered across his face.

“…I just wanted to see if I could finally get rid of all the shit you left behind, is all,” Riley muttered, and then turned to give Pierce an accusatory glare. “Mom’s been really worried about you, though. Like, really worried.”

“Worried like she always gets when I was late getting home after a track meet? Or worried like she was when I broke my leg?”

“Worried like that time a serial killer was on the news and we both just happened to be late getting home from school.”

“Oh…” Pierce grimaced. “Well, shit.”

“Yeah.” Riley shook her head and returned her attention forward. “Now that you’re here, you should really talk to her.”

“Uh huh. Or, I can just pack my shit, crash at Conrad’s place, and then call her later, when she can’t sob all over me.”

“And leave me to keep dealing with that? Hell no! If you aren’t going to talk to her now then I’ll go tell her that you’re home myself.”

“…Don’t you have homework to do, or something?”

“I already did it, since I’m a responsible person. Unlike a certain someone I know.”

“Whatever you say,” Pierce retorted as they stepped into the small, run-down lobby of their apartment building. He glanced around briefly to take in the dim lighting, the deflated couch, the cracked floor tiles, and the walls that smelled of cigarette smoke.

“I bet your dorm doesn’t look like this, huh?”

Pierce glanced down at his sister, who returned the glance with a blank expression. He then sighed and shook his head as he approached the stairs. “It smells, uh… stronger, than when I was last here.”

“Probably just ‘cause you don’t live with it everyday,” Riley replied. “Lucky you.”

Pierce simply grunted in response. A mere few moments later, he found himself standing in front of the door to their apartment. The short hallway they currently stood in was just as dimly lit as the lobby, and smelled just as much of smoke.

“Mom, we’re home!”

His attention snapped to the now-open doorway as Riley strode into the apartment and announced their presence. With a sigh, he stepped in after her and closed the door before stopping for a moment to look over the apartment. It wasn’t large — in fact it had nearly the same layout as the apartment he shared with Phoenix on Ainminthalus, with a living room, a small kitchen and dining area, and only two bedrooms. That was where the similarities ended, however, as the apartment Pierce now stood in felt exceedingly crowded. A large, old couch filled the tiny living room, with what space was left being filled by a tiny desk topped by a computer and a monitor. Beside the desk was an empty dog kennel, and strewn across the floor were dirty clothes and books of all kinds. Pierce didn’t need to look into his parents’ bedroom to know that it looked much the same; the bedroom that he had once shared with Riley had been their only respite from the mess while he still lived there, and with most of his stuff now packed in storage, he was certain that his sister’s bedroom was picture-perfect.

As Riley disappeared into her bedroom, a quick bark brought Pierce’s attention to the closed door to his parents’ bedroom, followed by the sound of paws scraping against the door and muffled whining. He could hear a groggy female voice as well, but couldn’t quite tell what was being said. Sounds like Mom’s awake, then—

His thought was cut short as the door opened and a beagle bounded out of the room and leaped over the floor debris before stopping at Pierce’s feet. It stared up at him and barked once.

“Aw, hey there, Cooper.” Pierce knelt down to scratch the dog’s head, only to recoil as it began trying to lick his face. “Whoa, hold it, buddy! Not the face, not the face!”

“Cooper, settle down! Where did you—?”

As Pierce continued playing with the dog, he glanced toward the entrance to his parents’ bedroom, where an older woman now stood. Her posture was slightly slouched over and her short blond hair was unkempt, as though she had just climbed out of bed. The clothes she wore supported that conclusion, as loose, dark-colored pajamas covered her short and mildly overweight body.

She stared at Pierce for a second, her eyes slowly growing wide. “…Pierce?”

“Hey, Mom,” he replied with a smirk. “How’s it—?”

“Oh, Pierce! You’re home!!” His mother rushed up and virtually collapsed into a hug around him, barely giving Cooper time to jump out of the way. “You’re— you’re alive!!”

“Uh… yeah, Mom, I’m fine,” he responded uneasily. He awkwardly pat his mother’s back as she continued to hold him. “You didn’t think I was dead, did you?”

“I… I had no way of knowing!” She pulled away to look at his face, at which point Pierce noticed that her eyes were welling with tears. “I just, I heard that a new Chaos Quake had happened, and then— and then we couldn’t contact you, for a whole week, and then, when it ended— there was news of, of falling debris on the planet where you were staying! And, when we didn’t hear from you, I, I thought…!”

Pierce’s expression hardened for a second, his thoughts turning momentarily to the past week’s events. A dull throbbing sensation passed through his torso, but he quickly forced the feeling out of his mind. “It’s… it’s okay, Mom. As you can see, I’m as good as ever,” he eventually replied, doing his best to muster up a confident smile while also extricating himself from his mother’s grasp. “So, you know, you don’t need to cry over me, okay? I’m fine!”

“I know!” His mom pulled him into another hug, her face practically buried in his shoulder. “I’m just, I’m so happy, I could cry!”

“That’s… you really don’t need to, though. Don’t cry, okay? Don’t— don’t cry on me, please—” Pierce looked down as his mother began sobbing into his shoulder. “…Well. Okay then.” He simply sat there awkwardly, and then looked over at Cooper as the dog dropped a tennis ball by his side and looked up at him expectantly. With a sigh, Pierce grabbed the ball and tossed it across the living room, watching Cooper leap over the couch to chase it as his mother continued hugging him. I guess there really is no place like home…

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