They sat alone in the great, comfortable study, the two of them, as they often did in the quiet hours of the night. The older one, in his deeply upholstered chair, looked weary in all ways save one: his eyes, bright and watchful as always. The young man perched on the edge of the settee opposite, across the low wooden table between them. An unassuming fire burned persistently in the fireplace, beneath the mantle with its few mementos, meaningful only to the man in the chair.
“Are you really retiring?” asked the younger one. His dark hair, never quite in order, framed the earnest inquisitive directness of his expression. The man looked away for a moment, and answered simply, “yes”.
“Hmmm. So, then you have selected a successor? A new Protector?”
“Ah, well. No, I don’t exactly select the Protector. But really, you know this; how it works.”
In answer the younger man rose gracefully, and walked over to a small, round table nearby. There was a plant on the table, and a framed picture, the only picture of an actual person in the room. He touched nothing, but looked at the pretty woman in the picture. She was sitting on a blanket, apparently on a beach, and wore large-lensed sunglasses, a floppy hat under which spilled dark tresses and a childlike, uninhibited smile. A smile uniquely for the photographer. He gazed at the face in the photograph.
“Yes”, he said, a murmur to himself.
Turning to face The Protector, the young man said, “but it has been a long road.” A statement that nevertheless was a question, or more precisely, an invitation. The older man grunted acknowledgement. The other remained standing, waiting.
“It is a great responsibility”, said The Protector. “I can’t ask it of anyone. I can’t appoint it. One of them rises to it, always, and he becomes the new Protector. It is a matter of ability and duty, and if it has taken a while, then it has taken a while.”
“And of course“, said the young man, a lopsided grin hinting at the corner of his mouth, “there is the power that goes with it.”
The older man looked intently at the other. Like himself, he wore mostly black.
“It is what one needs to do the job. Nothing more.”
“You know what they say about power…”
The Protector grunted, and said, “it is hardly absolute. Or are you saying I am corrupt?”
“You? No. No, not corrupt, but perhaps not… undamaged?”
“Nobody remains undamaged for long. We are all a little broken.” And The Protector smiled as he said this, a wide smile that somehow did not quite extend to his eyes, which remained on his friend.
The standing man looked back at the picture, and after a moment, asked, “Did you ever consider what, exactly, you protect them from?”
“Yes, of course, but in the end, there is no answer. One just knows when it is needed. One does what one must. That is the talent, after all.”
“Well, now that you’re passing the mantle, I suppose it isn’t very important, eh?”
The Protector thought a moment.
“I wouldn’t say that”, he said, almost to himself.
The young man passed a hand close to the picture, as if caressing the face it showed, but not quite touching it.
“And the people you protect?”
“How do they feel about it?”
The older man frowned, and answered.
“Does it matter? Isn’t it enough that they are spared? What are you getting at?”
“Just that things could have been very different. I sometimes wish they had been. That you had failed just once.”
The Protector looked down, and when he looked back up, he was alone.
The room was comfortable, and in his chair The Protector sat, safe as he ever was. Safe as always.
Los Angeles, October 17, 2012