Whenever I write terrible things with Corbin, I have to even it out with Times When Corbin Underwood’s Life Did Not Suck. I thought you might enjoy this one. ~2k, set roughly thirty years before the beginning of Origins.
The door to the superintendent’s apartment opened before John even had a chance to knock. The owner of the Crow’s Nest, Corbin Underwood, squeezed past him and started walking toward the stairwell without so much as a backward glance or a nod in greeting.
“Pizza just got here,” Corbin explained, disappearing down the stairs. “Keep an eye on him while I get it.”
John hadn’t been expecting a big production with hugs and I’ve-missed-you-mans, but he had been hoping that his first and best friend would at least take the time to say hello. Corbin had always been prickly, but he was at his worse when he was tired. Judging by the dark semi-circles beneath his eyes—-and the fact that he was too tired to shift them away—-it’d been a chunk of months since he’d gotten a decent night’s sleep.
John stood in the open doorway for a few seconds, talking himself out of being flustered. Corbin didn’t mean to be short with him. He was tired, and he had other things on his mind. It was official: John had been replaced in Corbin’s life. It’d been a year and a half, now—-a year and a half since Corbin had quit the team and settled down with someone new. He’d decided that John didn’t need him as much anymore, and while he couldn’t argue that, it didn’t make him miss him any less.
He’d accepted the displacement, or at least told himself that he had. Earlier, at his first solo photoshoot as the Commander, the empty, Corbin-shaped space at his side had clawed at him to the point of being unbearable. He’d started thinking about how long it’d been since he’d had his picture taken with Corbin, and that’d started him dwelling on the unhappy truth that the Knight and the Rook would never stand side by side again.
The photographers had taken an early lunch, because John hadn’t been able to smile right after that. Lunch with Roy had cheered him up enough to make the second attempt at publicity shots successful, fortunately. It was a good thing that Roy had come with him, because the kid had a knack for settling him down. Roy attributed it to a childhood around big, skittish farm animals—-always with a grin, letting his Texan drawl come back out of hiding. John wasn’t sure what he would have done if he hadn’t found Roy, but he wasn’t Corbin. Roy was a good friend, but not his best one.
John’s replacement was sitting in the living room. He had red-brown hair, some of the biggest blue eyes John had ever seen, and permanently rosy cheeks. He was thoroughly gumming the sodden foot of a stuffed bear in his mouth. His name was Marshal Micah Underwood, he was a chunky thirty pounds, and he was just shy of a year old. As far as wrecking balls went, he was cute as hell.
Marshal was the reason that when John managed to set his selfishness aside, he was glad Corbin had left him and Amira.
Sitting down on the carpet next to Marshal, John unzipped his leather jacket. The toddler crawled into his lap and made himself at home.
“I swear, you put weeds to shame. You’ve gotta be twice the size you were the last time I saw you, baby bird,” he said, passing his hand over Marshal’s fine, rust-colored curls. He’d inherited Doris’ beautiful hair color, bright as pennies in the sunlight. The way Corbin told it, Doris was out of his life for good, so it was something nice for them to remember her by, John supposed.
“Caa-caa!” Marshal babbled in greeting, spitting out the gooey bear paw. He reached up for him, miming grabby hands with an impatient whine. “Caa-caaaa!”
John looked for Corbin, even going so far as to listen for him coming back up the stairs to save him, but he had no backup on this one. It was their monthly pizza-and-a-movie night, so Corbin had gone downstairs to buzz the delivery guy in and pay him. The ol’ bird had asked him to watch his son, so he’d have to handle this one on his own. He should have known that Marshal wouldn’t be content to sit on his blanket and play with his bear. Nah, that’d be too easy.
John always got a little flustered whenever the baby tried to get his demands across. Marshal’s demands were, well, demanding, and if he didn’t piece together what he needed quickly enough, he’d start screaming. John’s sensitive ears didn’t take well to shrieking babies.
“Caa-caaa!” Marshal repeated insistently, his tiny chest fluttering as he started getting himself all worked up. His face was turning an alarming shade of red, his chin trembling.
“D’you need changed, pal? You smell fine to me. A baa-baa, maybe?”
That was baby-speak for bottle, wasn’t it? He was pretty sure that it was, though the kid didn’t confirm or deny it.
“C-caa…aaaaaa,” Marshal whimpered, sounding so betrayed and distraught, it broke John’s heart.
And then he started crying. Wailing, really. His tomato-red face scrunched up, and he started sobbing, tears and all. John considered bouncing Marshal in his arms—-something that he’d seen Amira do to soothe him when he was fussing—-but he didn’t want to jostle him too much. Regular baseliners had to be careful with babies, so John had to show unspeakable restraint. He never felt like he was being careful enough.
“Shhh. Shhh. C’mon, little buddy. Don’t cry. You’re gonna get us both in trouble with your daddy,” John whispered, frantically trying to remember the other ways to get a baby to quit crying.
He picked him up, thinking that maybe he’d calm down if he held him, but Marshal went for his goggles as soon as they were within grabbing range. John had ridden up from Foundation on his bike, so he still had his leather jacket on, his aviator-style motorcycle goggles hanging around his neck. Marshal yanked on the strap like he was trying to use it as baby’s first garrote, angrily scolding him with additional caa-caas.
John started apologizing the second the front door opened again. Corbin had started wearing his natural form almost exclusively since he’d stopped working, so John couldn’t see his face behind the tower of pizza boxes he was carrying, but he was sure that he was scowling. He had to have heard his son screaming all the way down the hall. Heck, the whole Pearl district had to have heard him bawling his little lungs out.
“I’m sorry!” John blurted out, holding the baby as far from him as the strap of his goggles would allow. “He didn’t hurt himself or nothing. You know I wouldn’t let him get hurt on my watch!”
“Of course I know that. I swear to fuck, Johnny,” Corbin said with an explosive sigh, borderline slamming the door shut behind him. “Two minutes. I leave him alone with you for two fucking minutes and you manage to set him off? You’re hopeless.”
John’s face heated with embarrassment. He tried to gently untangle Marshal from his goggles, but he had a deathgrip on the strap. It was like he was trying to get him to lean down so that he could scream directly into his ear.
“I—-I’m sorry, Cory, I really am! He kept saying ‘caa-caa’, and I thought that maybe he’d messed himself, but—-”
Corbin put the pizza boxes down on the kitchen counter, finally getting a good look at him. He started laughing, loud and unselfconscious, and Marshal quieted down a few decibels. Corbin laughed a lot more, nowadays. Happiness was something that he’d had to work at, before—-something made fleeting by the guilt that chased in after it. If putting the Rook in a box was what it took to make Corbin let himself be happy, John couldn’t hold it against him.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said, still chuckling. “S’not your fault. It’s your riding goggles. I’ve been playing this game with him to get him used to facial gear, and—-y’know what, gimme a sec. I think it’ll be easier to show you.”
His goggles? Oh. So the baby hadn’t been trying to strangle him, then. That made John feel a tiny bit better. He knew that he was clueless when it came to babies, but he didn’t want his best friend’s kid to hate him. He didn’t need any reason for Corbin to see less of him. There was enough distance between Portland and Foundation—-enough distance between them—-already.
“Facial gear?” John echoed, hoping that he didn’t mean what he thought he meant. Corbin had resigned. He’d retired. He’d promised them that he wasn’t going to go back to patrolling off the books. “And I thought ‘Mira said you need to stop swearing so much around him. You don’t really want his first word to be a four-lettered one, do you?”
“If you know what’s good for you, John Wright, you won’t mention the cleanliness of my mouth to ‘Mira,” Corbin said, shooting him a glare before he went into his bedroom. “But really, I hope his first word’s fuck. I’ve yet to encounter a sentence or a situation where a fuck won’t fit.”
Though Amira was younger than both of them, and not exactly the model maternal figure, they defaulted to her wisdom in close to all things. There was something strangely freeing about having a person in his life that they trusted so easily, but the Queen had never turned them wrong. Meeting her had been a gift. Once she’d won Corbin’s trust, the three had been a well-oiled machine of a team. They’d been good. So good.
Corbin came back with something that made John squeeze the toddler to his chest a little tighter.
His goggles. The Rook uniform’s mask was like a balaclava, fully covering his head, save for his eyes and mouth. He’d worn his goggles overtop, intimidating as hell when they glowed electric blue from a shadowy alleyway. They were pretty sophisticated, as night vision goggles went. Corbin had only been active for five years before the whole Marshal situation had forced him into retirement, but that’d been plenty of time to line his pockets. His philosophy had always been that heroism didn’t need to be a nonprofit gig. In his line of work, each job he took meant one less scumbag in the world and on the street. If someone was willing to hire him to do it, he didn’t turn down the paycheck.
As soon as Corbin switched out his glasses for goggles, Marshal quit crying. He blew a snot bubble, his round cheeks flushed, and looked at his father hopefully.
“Pass the spawn over here,” Corbin said, taking his son. He pulled the cuff of his long-sleeved shirt up over his hand, using it to mop the snot and tears from Marshal’s face. John never got over how easy the baby stuff had come to him. They’d all been worried about that, but Corbin was better with kids than anyone had assumed—-including him. “Hey, wise guy. What sound does a bird make?”
“Caa-caa!” Marshal shrieked ecstatically, reaching up to explore the frames of the goggles. His chubby fingers stumbled over the button on the side that made them glow bright blue.
“You hear that, Johnny? My kid’s a genius. Caw, caw!” He tossed the baby into the air—-John tensed up in kneejerk horror as he hung in the air for a split second, his mind reeling through the terrible what ifs of throwing a toddler like pizza dough—-carefully flipping him upside down as he caught him. Gravity tugged his t-shirt down, so Corbin planted a wet raspberry on the curve of Marshal’s bare stomach. His shrieks turned from tearful to gleeful.
The sound was hard on John’s already-ringing ears, but he still grinned at them until his cheeks hurt. Corbin would deny it fiercely if anyone accused him of being the type of person who needed someone to take care of and protect, but he was. He needed someone to need him, and there wasn’t anyone needier than a baby without any other family but him. John needed the Rook—-or had told himself that he still needed him, anyway—-but Marshal needed Corbin a whole heck of a lot more.
John had been replaced, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.