Blood trailed down the shattered windowpane, around bits of unidentified matter and coagulated on the sharp tip of a piece of glass. Jayson’s eyes followed it to the end, where the blood dripped into nothing. What must it feel like? He wondered. To reach the end of the glass and fall into an abyss?
This was the end.
His mind couldn’t comprehend the motion of the crowd around him, people running scared, the throng pressing against themselves away from the dead body that lay on the ground. He couldn’t understand so many lives that would just keep on going when the one before him had just been shattered.
Instinct kicked in, the only thing that could possibly carry him through this. His phone was by his ear before he knew why. He didn’t remember taking it out of his pocket or dialing the number to Sam’s office.
“John’s dead.” He could scarcely believe the word’s came so easily. With them came a horrifying reality. “Oh, dear god, John’s dead.”
“What happened, Mr. Allison?”
Her question was calming. The tone the words came in make him believe even for just a second that things were going to be okay.
“Gun shot. How it happened, I have no idea. It just…oh, God…I j—I just—he’s…John, he’s…” He was blithering now, incapable of finishing a sentence.
“It’s okay, Mr Allison. We’ll talk about this later. Get to a safe place. I’m sending people over.”
She might have said more, but Jay dropped the phone. It clattered into a pool of blood. For a second, he imagined the communication device giving voice to the dead, a voice that was lost to the concrete as the blood soaked into the sidewalk.
Jayson tore the mask from his head, understanding in some vague sense that some low-life, bottom feeding paparazzi was going to take a picture of this moment of vulnerability, and his identity would likely be on some blog tomorrow.
He couldn’t give less of a shit right now. He wanted the damn thing off his face. It was covered in blood.
His hands were slick with it, the red sticky liquid from John’s body. Oh, dear god. He’s dead.
He couldn’t deny it. John lay half supported by the shattered glass window where he’d fallen. His arm looked incredibly uncomfortable, twisted underneath him like a rag doll. Jay resisted the urge to move it.
You should be used to this by now, a voice in his head taunted him.
No shit. This was not the first person he’d seen dead. Ceil, their Arlethaen friend, dead at the hands of the Old Order. The man he’d called Dad, killed by a purposeful strike from an angry god.
His mother had never recovered. To make matters worse, shortly after that Jay found out that the tactical call he’d made cost the lives of three people they were ill equipped to lose. He’d failed the team.
He’d failed John. They were partners. They were friends. He was supposed to protect him.
He couldn’t protect anything after it had half a head shattered all over the sidewalk.
The world shifted as his knees hit the ground, then kissed the palms of his hands. Jayson threw up.
Uniformed Delta Division officers showed up and spread out, pushing back the crowd and ascertaining any immediate danger. One began roping off the area while another snapped pictures.
“Sir?” A hand rested on his shoulder, and he turned to see the face of one of Delta’s investigators. Jayson couldn’t remember the man’s name, or anything about him, which was unfortunate because he was sure he’d interviewed the detective himself. He hoped to hell the guy was competent. If he was on the scene to do a preliminary investigation now, his notes had better be thorough and comprehensible for when Drake took over, or there would be hell to pay. And Drake would take over. He’d be by after the PSO mission to be sure. He wasn’t going to let something like this go to just anybody.
“I…I’m going to take him to the infirmary.” He shouldn’t be making that call, not yet, and not when his judgement was compromised. No one stopped him. Half a second later, they were in the infirmary.
Dr. Elizabeth Franks was there. She wasn’t supposed to be on duty tonight, but in a case like this, Sam had pulled in the best. Liz didn’t often work as a mortician, but she was more than capable. And she was personally invested. Tears pooled in her eyes, and her pale skin was nearly translucent. She was shaken. Jay hadn’t been kidding when he’s said the good doctor had more than a little bit of a crush on the paragon.
Of course, all that mattered exactly nothing now.
“He…hm…He—I think the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head.”
It was an incredibly poor attempt at humor that wasn’t all that funny anyway.
Dr. Franks nodded and didn’t look at him.
Jay gripped his mask and ran his hands through his hair. “I…this isn’t supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be invincible. Invulnerable to anything people could throw at him.”
That was the story they told anyway. There was one thing John was vulnerable to. The machines in his world that stole powers. Maybe that had something to do with it.
It wasn’t doing any good to try to figure it out. Jay felt nauseous again.
“I’m sorry.” he didn’t even know why he was apologizing.
“Yeah. Um. I’ll be a bit, okay?”
“Okay. Hey, doc?”
“Where’s my wife?”
He didn’t really need to ask. He knew where she usually was—in her office, more often than not—and seeing that he’d given Sam sufficient time to do something, she probably knew something was up now, and was heading down here.
With that thought in mind, he ran outside of the morgue and caught her.
“Where is he?” Her voice was panicked. “Sam said something was wrong. What happened? You’re okay, thank God you’re okay. Joleon, is he…”
How in every hell that existed was he going to tell her?
“Merelise…” The use of her Alethaen given name interrupted her small rant.
“Oh, God, no…”
“Meryl…Joleon is dead.”
She caught her breath. Everything in her body just sank, and she collapsed to the floor with a sob. “No, no, no, God no, please, no!”
Jay caught her around the arms and held her to him. He just let her cry, because that’s all he wanted to do himself. The aching, sickening feeling in his stomach tightened, and he was pretty sure he’d never eat again.
He didn’t want to. He didn’t care anymore. There was nothing left.
Once, he’d stood toe to toe with Kronos and told the angry god that he had nothing left to lose, so bring it on. Idiot, idiot, idiot! Did he honestly think he was going to sneak around the god of time? Just because he was imprisoned, that didn’t mean the world was out of his reach.
Oh, dear God, please tell me John isn’t dead because of me.
Stop jumping to conclusions, another voice said, this one of reason. You don’t yet know the how our why or what happened. Blaming yourself will just blind you with guilt, and then you’ll never see the truth.
The suits from Arlethae was the only thing Jay could think of that would nullify a Gifted’s abilities, but he hadn’t seen one in the alleyway. What the hell was happening? Who would do something like this, and why? He just didn’t understand.
For a moment, he was angry. Not that this unspeakable thing happened, but that right now, he would have to be the strong one. Why me? Why is it my responsibility all the time to make sure everyone else is okay? When is it my turn to fall apart?
That lasted hardly for a moment. This was his wife. He would hold her up, and he would support her as much as she needed.
Even though right now, he didn’t have a dammed clue how.
* * * *
“Delta HQ to Thundra, abort mission.”
Charity exchanged a confused look with Drake. “Say again, HQ?”
“Abort mission. Return to base. Immediately.”
Drake shrugged. He’s gotten the data he needed, and besides, the computers were now destroyed. He’d go through the information later in his own lab.
“Okay, kids, back to the van, we’re taking off.” In the Maverick, she did a headcount. “Drake, let’s port back.” She’d saved the teleportation for an emergency, and there was an urgency in Sam’s voice that make her think this was the time for that.
They appeared back at HQ and piled into the hanger. Sam stood waiting for them, a dark, angry look on her face. Instantly Charity’s mind jumped to the conclusion that Sam was angry with them. Why, she had no idea, and it didn’t matter at all. It didn’t occur to her to ask. Her mind just raced to find a justification for every action she’d directed that night.
But that was unnecessary.
“Stryker is dead.”
For some reason Charity had the bizarre impression that Sam was talking about her favorite reality show character, which made no sense because that wasn’t the character’s name, and Sam didn’t watch television anyway, and even if she did, why would she be this upset about it?
Stryker is dead. This time it hit her like a slap to the face. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God.”
“What happened?” she heard Eric ask.
“Details are still under investigation. What we do know at this time is that he was assassinated, shot at long range. Mr. Hachirobei, I assume you will be—”
Drake was gone. He didn’t even stick around to ask where it happened, but this was Drake. He’d find out. The streets were Mister X’s domain. Not a damn thing happened out there without him knowing about it. Except this.
“Miss London.” Charity’s head jerked up at Sam, pulling her out of her stunned stillness. “Mr. and Mrs. Allison are just outside the infirmary. I expect you’ll want to be there for them.”
“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.”
She didn’t even remember covering the distance between the hanger and the door, but she was suddenly a few hallways down, on the floor sobbing. John was dead. He was gone. The one they all looked up to, the dependable one, the one they counted on to be there. He was gone.
Her senses dulled with grief, she hadn’t even realized that Eric was beside her, but then he wrapped his arms around her. She really lost it then, a small, internal voice expressing gratitude that she’d managed to put it off long enough not to cry in front of the younger kids.
“Gotta…gotta pull it together, she muttered finally. “Meryl and Jayson…they need me.”
Eric didn’t stop her, didn’t try to talk her out of it. Without a word, he helped her up, his arm around her waist. Her legs nearly gave out from underneath her, but he held her steadily. “I’m here,” he said, his voice gentle.
She nodded, and somehow the two of them made it to the infirmary doors. With a deep breath, she pulled away from Eric, and the two of them walked in.
The look on her friends’ faces was nearly her outdoing. Meryl was nearly prone, her whole body convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. This was her brother, her twin. Charity knew how terrified and angry she was when Marcus was threatened; she couldn’t possibly imagine how she’d feel to lose him. And that was only a fraction of the closeness that Arlathaen siblings felt. It was a trait of their race that every birth produced twins, a boy and a girl. They were meant to be together in everything, two halves of a whole.
Jayson held her. Thank God for him. The two of them were soulmates, and if anyone could pull Meryl through this, it would be Jay. But he was hurting too. He’d gone through too much. Charity could well remember the fear in his eyes when his mother nearly died a few years ago. She survived, but had never been the same. And then, just when Jayson was coming to terms with his adoption and deciding which of the two men in his life was his ‘real’ father, he’d lost them both.
If it wasn’t for that, he’d be running Delta, Charity was sure of it. She wished he was. Maybe then John wouldn’t have died. She never hated Sam more than she had at that moment. That makes no sense, she told herself. It’s not like Sam actually made this happen.
She pulled them both into her embrace. There were no words. The three of them just cried together. They would get through this, they had to.
If only she knew how.
* * * *
Allen followed Charity’s exit with his gaze until she made it through the doors; then his look of disbelief returned to Sam. “The four of you are dismissed. Please have your reports on the mission on my desk by morning. Thank you.”
Then she was gone.
Mitch spun on his heel and backed out through the hanger doors. “And, that’s my cue. Catch you jokers later, hm?”
Allen didn’t respond. He just stood there, his fingers clenched into a fist so hard that his knuckles were white and his fingernails dug into his skin. The sharp pain focused him. “What coward…what goddamn coward would do this? I’ll kill him. I swear to any god listening, I will kill him!”
Lindsay stared at him. “H-how dare you?” Allen glanced up at her in surprise. “How dare you?” She fairly screamed it now. “You have no right to be upset by this! You’ve been here for, what, three months? He was my mentor for three years! What the hell is Stryker to you? What could he possibly mean to you?”
“Lindsay, that’s enough,” Marcus said in a low voice, and tried to pull her away. He might as well have been tugging on a marble statue.
Allen could feel hot tears burning in his eyes. “He was my hero. That’s what he meant to me. And yeah, maybe you’re right. I should have joined Delta earlier, and maybe known him a little longer, but you know what? It doesn’t change a damn thing. We lost someone, and come hell or high water, we are going to make sure that he is avenged. So, are you going to stand there bitching at me about it, or are we going to work together to find out who is responsible? Because I can guarantee you I will find out. And God help him when I do.”
Lindsay had no response for that. She leaped into the air so fast, it left shatter marks on the concrete floor, and then took off into the night sky through the open roof.
Marcus shrugged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Lindsay gets a little…worked up over things. “
“I don’t really blame her.” Allen unclenched his fists. There was blood on them, collected under his fingernails. He laughed a little. “For all my big talk, there’s not a damn thing we can do right now, is there?”
Marcus sighed. “Come on. The training room’s open. Maybe there’s nothing we can really do, but I think we both need to blow off a little steam. How’s about we go dick around in there a bit.” He grinned. “Betcha I’ll kick your ass.”
Allen found himself with a half smile to return. The idea sounded like a good one. God only knew how much he needed something to hit right now. “Okay.” There. That was something he could do. He’d fight and he’d train, and when people a lot smarter than he was figured out what was going on, he’d kick this villain’s ass.