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Benediction

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Xavier stared at the empty platform of the trigger, still picturing the figures that had stood there a moment before. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head to dispel the afterimage.

He could still feel the ghost of Issac’s lips on his own. Xavier could hardly believe he was at last allowed to kiss those lips. How could he bear it if he never got another chance?

He crossed his arms tightly across his chest, his whole body tense with the fear he was trying desperately to tamp down. He couldn’t lose Issac now, not after everything it had taken for them to find each other again, not after Issac had just blindsided him with talk about things like the future and settling down. Surely fate, or the Infinite Spark, or whatever was responsible for choosing Issac and the others to be the champions of the multiverse wouldn’t be so cruel.

(Xavier hadn’t been chosen, so, ironically, faith in whatever force hadn’t seen fit to choose him was all he had.)

He hated feeling powerless. He’d hoped (foolishly, he now saw) that with this second chance at life, he was done feeling powerless.

A hand on his shoulder startled him out of his reverie. Xavier turned to see Copernicus standing beside him, looking haggard with a furrowed brow and dark circles under his eyes. Xavier supposed they all looked as rough; he had no idea how long it had been since he had last slept. Certainly it had been before he had left Thayne’s world, and it seemed like a lifetime had passed since then.

“They will be okay,” Copernicus said in his heavily accented voice. “I have never met four people so determined, other than myself, of course. They can do this. I have to believe that.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” said Xavier. It took all his willpower to keep his voice from quavering.

Copernicus squeezed his shoulder, then let go. “Xavier, isn’t it?” he asked. “We have not been formally introduced. You are Hondo’s brother, yes?”

“That’s right, I’m Xavier Hondo,” Xavier said, and he offered his hand to shake.

Copernicus took it, his large hand gripping firmly. “Dr. Copernicus Stratt.”

“Yes, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m mighty glad to finally meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” said Copernicus, and Xavier got the impression he meant it more genuinely than a simple pleasantry. The man’s other hand joined the clasp, enveloping Xavier’s hand in warmth before Copernicus finally dropped the contact.

Copernicus glanced back to where Grandiferate and their other colleague, the blonde woman, were working. Xavier was unsure of the woman’s identity, but she seemed familiar, somehow. She peered intently at a screen, her fingers typing furiously as though they operated with autonomy. He wondered why Copernicus wasn’t manning the equipment too.

As if in answer to Xavier’s unspoken question, Copernicus said, “Unfortunately, there is little we can do now other than to monitor and to wait. As a younger man, I was never very good at waiting, but I have had to learn. Still, I do not like to feel powerless.”

Xavier gawked to hear his own earlier thought echoed back at him, and understanding passed between the two men. “Me neither,” he agreed.

“But I wanted a chance to speak with you,” Copernicus continued. “I have heard about you too, you see, and I believe I owe you my thanks for saving Issac.”

“I—I couldn’t have acted any other way,” Xavier stuttered, at a loss for any other appropriate response.

“Nevertheless, you have my gratitude,” Copernicus said. “He is my grandson, did you know? Well, not biologically, but he is the son of my son in all ways that matter.”

“Yeah, he told me all about it. You must be mighty glad to have found him.”

“I am glad indeed. He is the best thing to have happened to me in . . . I have lost count of the years, but it is a long time.”

Xavier studied the other man curiously. Copernicus looked nothing like Issac, and no one would ever mistake them for biological relatives. Where Issac was fair and freckled, Copernicus’s complexion was several shades darker with olive undertones; where Issac had that bright, striking hair, Copernicus’s hair, now sprinkled with gray, had once been a rich black. Issac had boyishly handsome features, elegantly angled but with enough roundness to soften them and maintain that youthful appearance; but Copernicus had strong, masculine features, including a square jaw, a prominent nose, and deep-set eyes under a heavy brow.

Still, there was an intangible something the two shared, despite how physically unlike each other they were. Perhaps it was a certain spark of intelligence and quick-thinking in their eyes, or perhaps it was a certain eagerness to move and to discover that seemed to vibrate just beneath the surface of their skin—even in Copernicus, despite all the weary years of his toil.

After a pause, Copernicus cleared his throat. “Judging by that, shall we say, amorous display earlier, am I to understand that you and Issac are together now?”

Xavier wasn’t in his own world any longer, and he knew things were different here (and in many other places), but his insides still clenched. Years of dreading being found out were hard to shake, and the idea that someone would just approve of a relationship like his—with no hesitation, no hidden disgust, no condemnation—was still so strange. “Y—yeah, we, uh, we are,” Xavier answered with a nervous exhalation. “It’s still kinda new, but he did say ‘boyfriend’ just now, so I guess you could say it’s official.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said Copernicus. “He was . . . different, after you died. More solemn, more focused, harder, although he tried to mask it. I might have wondered about it if I hadn’t heard him speak at your funeral. He wouldn’t talk about it afterwards, but I heard bits and pieces from the others, and I could put two and two together.”

“Speakin’ of my funeral, I almost ruined things after we were reunited,” Xavier found himself confessing. “I asked if he’d cried—I was just tryin’ to break the ice, since everything was so weird and tense. But boy, that was the wrong thing to say. I could have kicked myself. I should have realized how different things had been from his perspective. I mean, he was actin’ like a right jackass, but I was too angry to stop and think about why, so we just kept on fightin’.”

“Yes, I can see how that would be the wrong thing to say,” Copernicus chuckled, but not unkindly. “But the important thing is, you worked out your differences, and you are together now.”

“You’re right,” Xavier said with a wry smile. “It seems mighty silly now, us squabblin’ like a couple of damned fools.”

“A little fighting is normal when two people care for one another,” Copernicus said, waving a dismissive hand. “Just don’t let your pride get in the way of making amends. But something tells me you have both learned that lesson already.”

“It’s a work in progress.”

“We are all works in progress. If we reach perfection, we cease to be human.”

Xavier considered those words for a moment. “That’s a fine piece of wisdom,” he commented sincerely.

“What can I say? I am wise,” said Copernicus, a twinkle in his eye.

Xavier laughed aloud. “When you say things like that, I know for sure you’re Issac’s granddaddy.”

“Confidence does run in the family,” Copernicus conceded with a laugh of his own, “or, at least, the affectation of it.”

“It sure does.”

Copernicus leveled Xavier with a scrutinizing look then, and Xavier couldn’t help but feel he was being assessed. He met the other man’s gaze steadily. If this was a test, and Issac’s grandfather was the proctor, then Xavier was determined not to fail.

“You love him.”

The words had been a statement, not a question, but Xavier knew they still required an answer. “We haven’t said those words yet, but yes, sir, I do. A powerful lot.”

Copernicus nodded, satisfied. “I can see that. And I can see that he feels much the same. Even under the circumstances, I could tell that he is happy.”

“I hope he is. I sure am.”

“I want you to know that you have my blessing. You don’t need it, but you have it, along with my wishes for every future happiness.”

Xavier’s throat tightened, and the threat of tears prickled the corners of his eyes. The freedom to love whomever he wanted had once seemed out of his reach, and having the blessing of a parental figure was beyond the scope of anything he’d ever thought possible. “That means . . . that means a lot, to be honest. Thank you.”

“You are with my grandson, so you are my grandson too,” Copernicus declared in a tone that brooked no argument. “Come, we hug.”

Xavier was so surprised by this command that for a moment, he froze. But Copernicus was already moving in, arms wide and welcoming, so Xavier stepped forward into the embrace. It seemed like the easiest thing in the world.

From the tightness of the arms around him, Xavier realized Copernicus meant business with his hugs, but he also realized he didn’t mind. He squeezed back as best he could while crushed against the burlier man. If one of those tears that had been stinging his eyes finally made its escape, no one would be the wiser.

Copernicus released him after what must have been at least twenty seconds, and almost as if on cue, a series of beeps sounded from the nearby equipment. “You might want to see this,” the woman called without looking away from the screen.

“I am glad we had this talk,” Copernicus said in a rush, and he patted Xavier on the back. “Listen, if something happens to—well, you just take care of him, okay?”

Xavier nodded earnestly. “For as long as he’ll let me.”

“Good man,” Copernicus said, already turning away and hurrying to rejoin his colleagues.

 

Minutes passed, or they might have been years. Copernicus stayed glued to his equipment, the furrow in his brow growing deeper with every blink of light on the control panel, every beep of an electronic alert. Xavier stood nearby, out of the way but close enough that he would know immediately if anything happened. He tried not to pace, but his nails dug crescents into his palms.

Suddenly static broke the surreal spell, and Xavier heard Issac’s voice, tinny and garbled by ambient noise that sounded worryingly like a battle. He was calling for help.

Xavier barely registered Copernicus’s response, but when the connection broke off, he stepped forward. Issac needed help. Chuck needed help. Their friends, their family, the multiverse, everyone needed help, and Xavier could—

But Copernicus held up a hand to stop him. “This is not your task,” he said, and there was something so final, so immovable about his tone that Xavier just closed his mouth and nodded.

He backed out of the way again and watched—powerlessly and with a knot in his chest—as Copernicus bustled, first prepping his equipment and then stepping onto the trigger. Grandiferate took over at the controls as the woman moved to join Copernicus.

But just before they disappeared, Xavier was surprised to hear that gruff, accented voice call out to him one more time.

“If you and Issac ever decide you want a child, Copernicus is good, strong name, don’t you think?”

Xavier chuckled, even though he had a suspicion that the words were akin to a farewell. “It’s a mighty fine name,” he agreed.

They smiled at each other, and then in a blink, Copernicus was gone. Xavier knew, somehow, that he wouldn’t be coming back.

A mighty fine name, Xavier thought, just like the fella it belongs to.