“SNOWMAN is active.”
The word spread through the Newman social fabric instantly. Summer told Aria, who told Leo and Otto. Otto, in turn, told Big Bill and Mo. Of all the products of Leo’s inventive mind, only the Phoenixes had no part in what came next. What did they care?
Nono Rodriguez was located, accosted, and debriefed. She didn’t say much, but she said enough.
Otto pulls up in front of the old house in Warrenton. Leo looked it up along the way. It used to belong to a cabinet maker named Thomas Reynolds. Now it’s under new ownership.
Ted Waters - no longer “Agent” - steps out of the front door. He’s wearing coveralls, gloves, and goggles. There’s a circular saw in his hand, but he sets it down out of the way and strips off some of the other protective material when he sees who’s arrived.
Leo is out of the car in a flash. Aria and Summer hop out behind him. Even Otto transforms, and kneels down outside the house. The old AEGIS agent looks from face to face, all sporting the same basic expression. Frustration, fear, confusion, but mostly anger.
“I’d invite ya in, but uh…” He glances up at Otto. “I’d have to start renovations all over again.”
“SNOWMAN.” Leo gets directly to the point. “What’s the deal here, Waters?”
The retired agent lets out a long sigh and makes a knowing nod. “Let me get a chair. Just a second.”
He returns with a fold-out chair and a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. “Guessing Otto’s driving and can’t partake, but the rest of you are welcome.”
Leo’s eyes are steely. Waters shrugs, unfolds the chair, and sits down with deliberate patience.
“I know what you want to know. So I’ll get to it. Yes, AEGIS reactivated SNOWMAN. They - we - I guess we, since we’re talking about past events here - made the call. He was equipped with an EMP package that would allow us to capture Rossum. He wasn’t aware of that.”
Leo’s voice is taut like wire. “You were the agent in charge.”
Waters draws back a bit, feeling the sting of the implication. But he finally nods, accepting what he must say next. “It wasn’t my idea. But I signed off on it. I remembered what you said, about not building weapons. I don’t think I honored that in the spirit, but I tried in the letter. SNOWMAN wasn’t used to disable Rossum, or hurt him, except maybe emotionally. He was the key that unlocked the lair’s defenses for us, and AEGIS personnel took care of the apprehension.”
Leo’s fists are clenched. He doesn’t speak, so Aria takes over for him, laying a hand on his shoulder to signal her presence. “Why did Nono Rodriguez say she saw him active?”
“When we busted your dad out, you, Leo, were technically in violation of your parole agreement with us. Department 42 decided they’d take the opportunity. Dismantle the prototype, learn more about your tech.”
Waters goes on, not sure how to read the silence or the forbidding faces. “I sent a note to the agent then in charge of monitoring the Menagerie as a whole. Agent 1337. They’d already taken charge of SNOWMAN. They were already learning how to hack our bureaucracy pretty efficiently, and they did something or other to move SNOWMAN out of being an asset within your file, and into being an activated agent. Sort of like how we processed Alycia Chin. ‘Willing former enemy asset’ kind of deal. That kept him out of Department 42’s hands.”
Aria tries to process this aloud. “Like my citizenship filing, in reverse. To keep SNOWMAN intact, they declared him a person. The way you kept me under covers, to keep me from separating from Leo.”
Waters nods. “That’s exactly right.”
“That doesn’t excuse what you did!” Leo shouts.
Waters doesn’t smile, so much as quirk his mouth in a weird way. “No, it doesn’t, Leo.”
The boy is silent in the moment, and Waters pushes onward. “You’re angry. I get why. You don’t have to explain that part. You feel betrayed. Hurt. If you got to yell at me, go ahead, yell at me. I’ll get you some water when your mouth runs dry. Do I deserve it? Sure. Will I try to justify or defend it? I think you and me are past that.”
Otto holds a robotic hand outward, just in time for Leo to angrily punch it. Waters doesn’t show it, but that level of rapport, an understanding two people have for each other’s needs, brings back a career’s worth of feelings.
“Leo. AEGIS was wrong. I was wrong. We asked you to do something wrong - to build SNOWMAN to begin with. That wrong compounded, brought about other wrongs. I say this not to ask for some kinda forgiveness, but maybe just to be an old man giving advice to a young man. Which is this.”
Waters leans forward in his chair, eyes intent. “Sometimes it’s too late to do the right thing. Sometimes, you just gotta try to do the next best thing, or the okay thing, or the least worst thing. You folks have been busy these last several months. If you haven’t experienced that yet, I think you will sooner or later. And when you do it, sometimes there’s no redemption or recovery. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling you’re gonna have to learn to live with.”
“I… I know that feeling. I don’t like it,” he says at last.
“Yeah. You never will.” Waters leans back. “It becomes part of you anyway. Like it’s part of me.”
“How do we get in touch with SNOWMAN?” asks Summer.
Waters seems ready for that. “I’ll give you a phone number. I ain’t saying it’s Agent 1337’s, I ain’t saying it’s not, just that it’s someone who can help you.”
Otto revs up and drives out, the Newman clan inside. Waters gets up from his chair, folds it up and leans it against the porch railing, and starts slipping his gloves and goggles back on.
There’s a lot of work to do on the old house. It’s pretty beat up, and isn’t what it used to be. But maybe there’s still something useful it can do, for the people who depend on it.