Karl discovers how difficult it can be to close to a woman like Edna Mode. Will make more sense if you've read "War Stories" first.
Karl was not a telepath himself, and relied heavily on Edna to pick up his otherwise silent mental communications. He could think back and forth to her, but only if she opened a connection for him. If she did not answer his ping, then there would be no conversation. He could not do it on his own. Driving home in the dark winter evening, E slumped in the passenger seat, he wasn't sure he dared to reach out to touch her mind.
He had witnessed this only twice before, and only the aftermath at that. Having seen the thing done for himself had left him rattled. Severing was not common among the Super community, but that did not mean the situation did not occasionally call for so extreme an action. Such had been the case with Hypershock. It was a punishment Karl would not wish on anyone. And yet Hypershock had crossed the line. Once that was done, there was little one could do to take it back or make amends. Usually, those who made that decision had little desire to go back anyway. He sighed deeply. It was worse when it was someone you knew.
There were fates worse than death. He ought to know, he had witnessed them first-hand. There was no such thing as the death penalty to the Super community. That was the easy way out. To kill a Super, to truly kill a Super, they had to be removed of their powers. And that was why E had been summoned. Only a handful of incredibly powerful telepaths possessed the necessary skill and power to perform such a procedure. E was one of them. Why she in particular had been summoned, he would never know. Perhaps the condemned had asked for her, perhaps she had been closest geographically, perhaps it had simply been her turn. How she had even received the summons Karl would never know, but when she told him, grim-faced, that they had to take a trip he had not said a word but had gone to collect his things. The look on her face was one he remembered far too well.
The drive had not been far, a little under three hours upstate in the chill dusk of February. Edna, snuggled deeply into the thick fur collar of her coat, said nothing the entire trip. Neither did he. Whey they reached it, the compound looked like any other government building: utilitarian and rather ugly. Karl swallowed briefly as the unpainted cinderblock sent his memories spiraling but he quickly reigned them in. Edna was not one to project, but the way she carried herself stiff and perfectly straight-backed into the building belied her unease. Taking her hand, he tucked it under his elbow and smiled for her. She returned it weakly, gripping his arm tightly. The distress radiating from her was palpable and Karl wondered if the condemned himself faced his judgment seat with as much regret? She didn't want to do this, but such feelings were a necessary fail-safe, otherwise that power would be abused. Few people could strike such a delicate balance.
It was not a long walk to the small, bare, heavily shielded and reinforced room. The impulse to let out a low whistle at all the security was strong, but Karl held it in check. Several NSA officers were already gathered and waiting, stone-faced. The guards- each roughly the size of young Alex- loomed imperiously near the four corners of the single wooden chair. In it, sat a man Karl had not expected to see ever again. Apparently, neither had he.
His shock and confusion must have been as sharp and unexpected to Edna as it was to him, for she turned and raised an eyebrow at him, wafting her own confusion. Unable to explain in words he left her glimpse the memories playing through his head: a freckle-faced boy pushing a rifle barrel against Karl's temples; the same boy cursing a blue streak as Karl dug a bullet out of his arm, set it, and wrapped it in a bandage; finally a cleaner version of that same boy presenting a small wrapped box, there was a white clay pipe inside.
MacDonnell... the name shivered unspoken in the air between them. Had she known? No, she hadn't; or at least she had not put two and two together until this moment. The knowledge made her heart ache doubly; not only for his condemned friend, but for him as well. Karl squeezed her hand in reassurance. His pain was not important right now, no matter the memories, this man who had once been his friend had brought this on himself. Unpleasant as it might be, that was the way it was.
All this in less than a single heartbeat.
"Doc!" MacDonnell exclaimed, the old crooked smile lighting his face.
"So you made it out alive did you?" he asked jovially. "Glad to see it, mate; glad to see it."
Karl nodded and did his level best to return the smile but felt the effect ruined by his dismayed confusion.
"Come on," MacDonnell grinned, though the expression had taken on a tinge of some darker emotion, "you knew I'd get my hand caught in the jar one of these days."
Karl couldn't help smiling at that and his friend returned it, perhaps as glad for the brief moment of levity as he was. The horror in Edna's heart, however, had not lessened. Karl gently smoothed his fingers over hers, nudging her back into focus.
"Your missus?" MacDonnell nodded at E.
"Yes," Karl managed, drawing her forward a step. "This is Edna."
"Ah, a pleasure then," MacDonnell answered, inclining his head politely. "A pleasure, though I can't say it's entirely mine. Perhaps under better circumstances."
"Indeed," Edna answered rather blankly. Karl doubted anyone noticed besides him. MacDonnell's attention suddenly swung back to Karl.
"Still got it?" he asked; a hopeful eyebrow quirked. Not bothering to open his mouth, Karl dug in his jacket pocket with his free hand and pulled a well-used clay pipe halfway out. MacDonnell's smile warmed.
"Got your money's worth then."
"I did," Karl affirmed, sadness discoloring his smile. He couldn't help the words that followed. "Did you?"
At that MacDonnell grew silent, contemplating the empty air before him.
"I can't take it back, so why be sorry for it?" he said at length, voice gone hard. "I don't regret my decision, only the consequence. I'm not sorry." A pause, and a sardonic smile. "I never was."
"No," Karl agreed, smirking despite himself, "you weren't."
"I'd offer a smoke, just for old time sake, but these blokes wouldn't hear of it. Dangerous criminal and all, no fire for me. Have one for me then, would you? For an old pal in the army?"
He never would understand MacDonnell's ability to make a joke out pretty much anything. It was a talent he envied.
One of the NSA officers cleared his throat and eyed MacDonnell imperiously. The condemned man nodded to himself, taking the hint and smiling.
"Right then, time to take me medicine." Straightening in his chair, MacDonnell turned to face Edna. "Mrs. Straussen, the floor is yours. Have a care, if you please, I'm a bit ticklish just here." He indicated a spot on his neck just above his collar. Amazingly, a sad smile tugged at the edges of Edna's mouth. Few went so quietly. Karl wondered what had happened and supposed he always would. MacDonnell would never say, and Karl would never have the brass to ask him.
At the officer's prompting Edna released his arm and stepped forward. She looked so small, suddenly, facing MacDonnell and his captors as if it were she who stood condemned. In Karl's eyes, Edna's size had never registered. Now as she gathered both strength and resolve, she seemed to diminish in stature as her psyche roared with power, swelling her power so she seemed to dwarf everyone else in the room. It took a moment, but she managed to assume her role: matriarch, sage, judge. Karl found himself taking a step back as MacDonnell steeled himself against what had to come.
"Keith MacDonnell," she began, taking a breath before proceeding into the liturgy. "You have been found guilty of crimes against your fellow man; both Super and non. Innocent people, through your intentions, have been hurt and killed. Because of this, the community has decreed your powers shall be revoked."
This was not a punishment given lightly. In the back of his mind, Karl wondered if it should not be him seated in that hard, wooden chair, about to have an integral part of his life force severed forever. And some supers, depending on genetic makeup, did not survive. It took a brief but profound amount of will power to keep from looking deep into MacDonnell's cellular structure. He did not, he decided, really want to know if his wife was about to indirectly kill his friend or not.
MacDonnell made no comment, only nodded grimly.
"Are you prepared to accept this punishment?" Edna's voice was cold and grave, echoing off the bare cement walls. Everyone else seemed to have vanished. It was only Edna and MacDonnell. Even Karl did not exist.
He didn't nod, only lowered his head as Edna approached and stood before him. Seated as he was, their eyes were level and he lowered his as a chastened child before a parent. It was difficult to tell whose heart held more regret; though the motivations behind the otherwise identical feelings were painfully polar.
Without so much as a sigh, MacDonnell closed his eyes and rested his head on Edna's small shoulder. She put her arms around him, and he around her. If at no other time in their lives, the condemned men in Edna's grim embrace would know they were loved. The feeling squeezed her heart to suffocation with the knowledge of what had to be done. Of what she had to do.
Her right hand, resting on the back of MacDonnell's neck, clenched into a fist briefly, the knotted fingers trembling with tension. They released abruptly, flesh and bone no different, and yet the image on long, scythe-like claws presented itself strongly in Karl's mind. MacDonnell's thick swallow was evident in his entire body and he clutched Edna just a bit more tightly.
Only a moment's hesitation, a held breath, a single heartbeat and then...
No more than a stray thread plucked from his collar; that was what it would look like to the casual observer. Karl could not see it, but felt it clearly enough, his entire body flinching and bile rising in his throat. It was done. MacDonnell shuddered, appearing on the verge of vomiting himself. His arms fell limply away, forcing Edna to take a half-step back as he collapsed forward, unexpectedly forcing his weight upon her. Hands reached to pull him back and re-seat him in the chair. The moment faded, the NSA agents returning to focus along with the guards who held him not ungently where he sat, panting for breath.
Karl found he had crossed the floor and taken Edna's arm. She said nothing. He said nothing. All was silent as they turned and walked back to the car.
That had been about five hours ago.
After returning home, he'd carried her inside to the small, cozy space of the den instead of the grandiose open space of the foyer. The warm glow the fishy "fireplace" aquarium and quiet of the tatami walls and soft carpet would be more comforting. Placing her on the couch, Karl went to fetch her some tea. When he returned she had managed to light a cigarette, sitting curled in on herself, the long stem of the ebony smoking wand clenched tightly between her teeth. Unable to sense her thoughts or feelings without help, he had to rely on expression and body language. Her whole body trembled on edge, the shock of the last few hours beginning to manifest. Taking a seat next to her, he drew her into his arms and held her. She relaxed somewhat, setting her cigarette aside and laying her head on his shoulder. Though her shoulders shook in silent sobs, no tears fell. Like him she had learned not to cry a long time ago, but that did not mean she didn't grieve or feel sorrow's cold sear. Indeed, she felt more deeply than most, and that was why she held her tears or else risk sobbing day and night for the injuries she felt one man inflict on another. The tears fell inside, the flood spilling over from her heart into his, the emotions soaking into his soul and filling his own eyes with tears. Closing his eyes on the welling salt water, he gathered her close and let her cry as best she could. She shivered in his arms with pent emotion, ill and exhausted. It would only get harder from here. Hefting her in his arms, Karl carried her upstairs.
It was not unlike treating a standard shock or post-traumatic-stress patient, if he kept his distance. But he couldn't. Not with her. This wasn't just a patient; this was E, his love, his wife. And her pain was making him dizzy, his steps stumbling slightly as he carried her into their room and set her down on the low double futon. A hot bath might have done her good, but she was too weak and too ill to enjoy it. Perhaps in the morning it might help to alleviate the splitting migraine she was sure to have. Instead, he helped her dress for bed and tucked the warm satin sheets and silk quilt around her slight shoulders. Joining her, he lay down and gathered her in his arms. She settled close gladly, knotting her fingers in the soft flannel of his pajama shirt. Her breath had become short and sharp, heaved in strangled gasps. MacDonnell's severed power was fighting with her, the foreign extra energy clinging around her like thick smoke, threatening to smother her. Karl held her tightly, willing himself around her while projecting, attempting to help her fend it off. She clung to him, pulling on his reserves for both strength and reassurance and he opened himself to her willingly. The act forced a sudden intake of breath from his own throat as her thoughts flowed into his mind and his into hers. No longer in their own bodies, but a mixed space between the two, they held each other. Karl did his best to provide calm and quiet, gentle reassurance. He was here. He wasn't going to leave her. She was safe.
The pain in her heart rent his own and he tried to hold her still more closely, both with his arms and with his thoughts. She made no attempt to resist, but pressed closer, as if she could bury herself in him to hide from the ghost of the man she'd had to metaphysically execute. There were areas that were each forbidden to the other (one didn't need to know ALL of the other's secrets) but besides that one small corner she opened herself to him. Reciprocating, Karl lowered his own shields and allowed his thoughts to blend with hers. The mental brush of thought against thought, the mind-to-mind embrace, always took his breath away. To be so close...closer, more intimate than even their bodies could be... The concept was such that his brain could never fully contain it. It didn't matter.
Hold me... it was not a conscious thought so much as an emotional plea as her arms tightened around him. Don't leave me...
I won't, he promised with both thoughts and body, hugging her as close as he could without hurting her. It's all right. I'm right here. I love you. I won't leave you.
She was still scared, pitiably frightened as the remaining energy fought to overwhelm her. Feeling his hackles rise defensively, Karl surrounded her essence with his own, sheltering her from what remained of MacDonnell. It diminished, but only a small degree.
Drive it away, her heart pounded, don't let it consume me...let me drown myself in you instead... He felt her lips searching for his in the darkness, the soft warmth falling first upon his goatee and then moustache. Tilting his face toward her, he met her lips, the kiss drawing each deeper into the other's psyche.
The sudden whirlpool of emotion left him breathless. Or perhaps it was the kiss. He wasn't sure. He'd test again to find out. They clung together longer this time, physical sensation blending dizzyingly with their mental union. Without their glasses, neither could see the other. It didn't matter. Physical sensation seemed a secondary detail, though not unpleasant, only distant as Edna sought to press herself somehow closer. He did his best to help her. The silk of her nightgown was tantalizingly soft in his fingers, but not half as much as the brilliant colors of her soul twining with his. The sudden blaze in her thoughts mirrored the warmth of her skin. If they tried hard enough, perhaps they could climb right into one another's souls. It always seemed to Karl that they always came close, so close, and then...
His breath came thick and heavy in his own ears, the warm flutter of Edna's heart pounding against his chest. He held her tightly, protectively, her arms likewise wrapped around him. All was quiet, all was still. There was nothing but the two of them. The smoke of MacDonnell's murdered power was gone. A soft sigh, deep and quiet, wafted near his ear. Edna was feeling better, or at the very least too tired to feel anything other than exhaustion. Shifting, he aligned himself next to her smaller body, fitting himself to her soft contours. She gladly settled within his own shape, finally relaxing and giving another wearied sigh.
My love, her breath seemed to whisper mistily, my knight...
Karl had never realized shining armor came in a petite. Then again, this was Edna.