The changes seemed unrelenting right now. English countryside to US urban sprawl, family life to this madness, Hitman's home to this re-imagining of what had been team headquarters in a life that I'd walked away from with good reason but that had somehow yanked on the bungee chord of life and pulled me right back into the chaos. And that was before Bitter, Dispatch and Spire. The adrenaline surge of arrival had turned into the broken sleep of the cortisol addict as every message to the phone or knock on the door had me wondering what was coming next.
I'd boarded a plane with a little girl who had fallen into my life and had to take precedence over a cityscape that seemed to be centred around a lightening rod for insanity. I'd wanted to protect her from a life that bounced from one Defcon-2 event to the next, to let her grow and breathe and just be a regular kid. And if I was honest with myself, I'd grown tired of checking under the bed for monsters and constantly watching who was following me had worn me thin.
We'd managed to carve out seven years of calm, to learn to function as a family as Naomi grew from preschooler to almost teen. We'd both grown, learning how to live and love as we went and the one thing that brought me the most joy was being her papa. And now my pride and joy was here, holed up in something that was a cross between some sort of subversive GCHQ, paramilitary complex and a school for "gifted youngsters".
I stood outside the classroom, waiting for the day to finish so we could walk home together. It wasn't really necessary - we were a couple of hundred paces from the apartment blocks that everyone called home, all of it secure under the bubble of force fields that kept us sealed away from the rest of the world, but the seeming normality of it provided a link back to the life we had left behind. I wasn't sure if Naomi needed it, but I sure as hell did.
Right on cue, the telltale scraping of chairs signalled the closing of the days activities. The volume increased to the burble of joy familiar to any home time playground and the door burst open to disperse the hurricane of youthful energy back into the world.
I reached out to take her coat and books, but instead both her hands wrapped around mine. She patted the back of my hand as she entwined the fingers of her other hand with mine.
"Dad, I need to talk to you. Can we get some coffee or something?"
I looked at her face, there was a calmness to her voice that said I didn't need to worry but I'd been on edge since the moment we had landed. I nodded and let her lead the way.
I wish I'd kept count of the number of times I'd sat down with a caffeinated beverage and a sugary baked treat to listen. That's what the majority of my working life was; the art of listening. Allowing someone to share their experience and concerns and in doing so process and usually resolve their own anxieties just by coaching them to talk through and process their thoughts and feelings.
Except this time it was me sat with yet another crappy attempt at a English tea in a paper cup and a jam doughnut whilst my kid was playing the therapist. We sat in the garden, and after a few minutes small talk whilst the sugar was consumed she took my hands in hers and as our eyes met, she spoke with the same calmness as before.
"Close your eyes Dad, and just chill for a minute. Then I want to show you something."
I gave her hands a gentle squeeze, a smile and nodded then shut my eyes. Ok, breathe. In through the nose, count to 10. Slowly out, counting to 20. And again.
Another nod. Her hands slid from mine
"Ok, you can look now."
The garden was gone. Everything was gone, apart from Naomi. She was sat about 12 feet in front of me at a table, a plain grey box sat open to her left hand and a picture was at the table in front of her, where her focus lay.
She didn't look up from the picture, her mouth didn't move but I heard her voice.
"It's ok Daddy, I'm here. Go to the table please"
The Naomi at the table remained transfixed by the picture, apart from her left hand that held a small piece of something, spinning between her fingers. I stepped closer, looking closer at the vision of my daughter and realised that what she had in her hands was a jigsaw piece, and the picture was the jigsaw that she was attempting to assemble.
"I should have told you Daddy, I should have told you before but when we were in England it just seemed odd and I thought it might go away and then we arrived here and I was scared and you were so stressed and then the others started to turn up and....."
"The jigsaw Daddy, look at the jigsaw. At first there was just a corner, then the next night there were a couple more pieces. There was you, then a few nights later I had the pieces of a woman I didn't recognise who turned out to be Morningstar, then another few nights for Terra then Hitman. I don't understand Dad, I need you to help me make sense of it. I recognise some of those other faces too, but I don't know who they are."
I stood opposite her at the table, stretched out between us on the table a storyboard. Or at least one under construction. The two of us where there in the forest, Hitman and the boys playing hide and seek, Terra on some other world, three phones with one message, a solid white square, Naomi and the other four children - Xavier and Ashton and Kara and Chase all sat in a circle.
From there, the puzzle was incomplete. Morningstar in the van picking up an incomplete Dispatch - his outline and his face were complete but that was all, Hitman with one half of Spire - his face and arms were there but his torso was missing, Bitter on a building site with shadows but no builders.
"OK Naomi, I know who they are. You knew some of these folks when we were here before, before we went home. Do you know where the rest of the pieces are?"
"Just what's in the box. But my hands don't want to move, its been like this for a week - like the next pieces don't want to go together yet."
I looked into the box - and began to explore the pieces. A grey frame seemed to form the next frame so I started from there, then piecing the picture together. It was a fight, an outline of a mans suit and fist slamming into a chest and arm surrounded by electricity. I reached into the box for the next piece but there were no more.
"Do you know whats on the piece you are holding? Can I take it from your hand?"
"I don't know, Dad. Its been there for so long I forgot."
"OK, lets see"
As soon as my hand touched the jigsaw piece, the room shattered. We were sat in the garden, my heart racing and Naomi looking at me perplexed.
I didn't know, but I needed to go and see our guests. That much was certain.