Archive for April, 2015

If one more person asked Meryl how she was doing, she was going to bloody well punch them in the face. Her brother was dead, how did they think she was doing? He was the last remaining link she had to their life in Arlethae, the only blood she had left. How could someone just take him away from her?

I’m not going to cry, she told herself. They were, after all, going to come face to face with the creatures that her people revered as celestial beings. Besides, she’d cried enough. In her culture, it was understood that one would mourn a family member for a year; two if it was your twin. And she would. She would honor her brother’s memory. He deserved that much. But after she caught the chrztipaka beltahthtor, the defiled creature who had made the call to end her brother’s life.

Jayson squeezed her hand. Every time she looked at him, she almost forgot her vow not to cry. He was worn out and utterly beaten, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do for him. This hero business had already asked too much of him. Why would the Father ask more?

Instantly, she felt ashamed of her profane thoughts. The Father had a plan. He had to. She remembered when Jayson first came to Arlethae. He had faith, but it was conflicted and confused. He could not understand why God would strand him in a world so far away from home and make him a cripple. Even after he was manufactured a leg to stand on, and even after they fell in love, those were feelings he merely suppressed. He told himself God had a reason and a plan. But it wasn’t until they were standing face to face with Kronos that he’d truly been stripped of everything that gave him doubt. Then, he stood with them to bind the god of time with the power of faith alone. “It’s all I’ve got left,” he’d said, and it was true.

In that moment, the God of gods had won his soul forever. Why, in the name of all the heavens would he need to break it anymore?

She knew she’d probably be better off to will away the anger, but it kept her from bursting into tears and crumbling to the ground. So she let it nest away in her soul for the moment and gripped her husband’s hand so he could take them to Olympus.

When the First Created had broken ties with the Second Created, they found another world to inhabit. There they existed in relative fulfillment. Oh, there was still war among them, and factional disagreement, but they usually kept it confined to their own plane of existence. There were occasional border disputes between Olympus and the neighboring country of Asgard, who were currently in the middle of—rather ineffectual—diplomatic talks with the country of the Aztec gods. It was all very political and complicated, and Meryl didn’t much care so long as somebody could tell her if her brother’s killer was among them.

Mount Olympus was a sprawling city-state with stunning architecture set on a magnificent mountain range. From the peak on which they appeared, Meryl could see out over nearly the entire city. The First Created existed in a natural form that was pure, timeless energy; but it amused them to live out their lives in the manner of mortals. To glory in the fact that they were not bound by it, Meryl often thought. But whatever the reason, the going to and fro made the place feel alive and added only to its splendor. It was beautiful. There was no denying that; and for a second upon their arrival, Meryl was so taken in by its ineffable tranquility, she nearly forgot her inner turmoil. But only for a second.

Regardless, she now had a job to do. She approached one of the guards. She didn’t have complete familiarity with the local tongue, but fortunately her Gifted abilities allowed her to comprehend and mimic a being’s use of language. “Excuse me, my good sir, but I am looking for a woman named Miriam. She is not a First Created, but immortal nonetheless. She serves as a bodyguard for a man name Rai, known to some as Fate, the consort of Aphrodite, or Destiny as she is known to some.”

The guard looked startled. “How did you find your way to this place? You are Second, not First Created, and your companion…” He trailed off confused. “I don’t know what he is.”

“My husband is of Earth. He possesses abilities which allow him to travel between realms. He once knew the woman that I spoke of.”

The man gave a long suffering sigh. “Oh, very well. I know the woman of whom you speak. I will escort you there.” He led the way, muttering something about mortals who didn’t know their place popping in unexpectedly, and there goes the neighborhood. Meryl ignored him. She had no reason to be afraid of him. She wasn’t a fighter, but if push came to shove, she could mimic his abilities and defend herself. Also, the First Created may have existed beyond the boundaries of time and space in their natural forms, but they were bound to their current plane of existence. Jayson was not. He’d get them out fast.

The opulence of the city was astounding. The guard led them to a manse that had a portico the size of her and Jayson’s house, surrounded by twenty-foot marble pillars engraved with gold. The manse itself was three storeys high; small, by Olympus standards.

Meryl thanked the guard for his time. The way he hesitated, she had the feeling he was asking for a small monetary compensation, but seeing as she didn’t have the realm’s currency, she ignored it. Besides, he’d been rude. There was no sense in encouraging that kind of behavior. After a moment, he turned on his heel with a huff and walked away.

Jay looked amused. “Why do I get the feeling we just annoyed the hotel bellhop?”

“Oh, he’s just annoyed we didn’t act the mortal among gods.”

“Ah, so we offended his delicate celestial feelings.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”

She hesitated on the threshold of the manse, uncertain where to go or what to do. She intended on letting Jayson lead the way, but he was being the gentleman and showing deference by letting her lead. How many years had they been together, and he hadn’t yet got how much she hated when he did that? She was a follower by nature; it was not by accident that her Gifts were mimicry of both powers and appearance, as well as invisibility. Sometimes she felt jealous of strong, confident women like Sam or Charity.

The thought of her best friend in a coma was another punch to her stomach. She was counting on Charity to help her through the loss of her brother. Without her, what was she going to do?

“Well, are you going to stand out there gawking like a couple of adolescent boys, or are you going to come in?” A gravelly, ethereal voice interrupted Meryl’s reverie. She jumped. “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

“Well, vampires usually have to wait to be invited into a place of residence, so we figured we’d return you the favor,” Jayson quipped.

“Hilarious. Is that any way to greet a soul-sucking immortal?” Miriam’s voice sounded like it was echoed through a large room, and then distorted into a low, raspy pitch. She wasn’t much more than a spirit herself, held to the mortal plane by the souls she consumed.

“Miriam! Buddy! Pal!” Jay returned, only slightly sarcastic. “It’s good to see you again.” That he meant sincerely.

“I’d say the same about you. Except, you know, I don’t actually care.”

Jay chuckled. “I missed you too.”

“Right. So, as lovely as this not-really-family reunion is, what brings you to the realm of the gods? Not exactly your usual stomping grounds.”

“There’s been a disturbingly active Fae incursion on Earth. If it’s one thing we’ve learned is that Fae like being told what to do. We pretty much castrated Kronos, so there goes their previous beloved leader. Now we’re just trying to find if any other First Created’s gone and taken up the torch.”

Miriam nodded. “I see. So, hey, where’s your other better half? You two were joined at the hip almost more than the actual twin.” She glanced at Meryl.

I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Meryl felt like she shouldn’t leave the burden of the question to Jay, but if she opened her mouth, that self-promise was going to dissipate so fast.

“John is… He’s gone.”

“As in…”

“Dead. Gone.”

Meryl felt guilty for making Jayson say it. She felt her eyes burning, and she knew tears were starting to show.

“Aw…geez… You’re not going to cry, are you?” Miriam didn’t sound mocking so much as she did sound very uncomfortable. She’s been human once, though Meryl hadn’t had the chance to meet her before she died and was raised to and undead existence by an alien necromancer. That said, to here Charity describe her, she hadn’t possessed much of a soul before her unfortunate demise either.

“It’s been rough on all of us,” Jay continued. “I know the whole ‘team’ concept was never something you were big on, but—”

“Hey. I get it.”

“Charity’s been affected too. She’s alive, more or less, but in a coma. Doc’s not entirely sure when she’s going to wake up.” He didn’t add the ‘if ever.’

“Wow. They really hit you hard didn’t they?”

Jay shrugged. “So if you know anything about any of the First Created who might be behind this, that would be helpful. You know. For old time’s sake.”

Miriam regarded them silently for a moment, her face a blank. Meryl found herself wishing the other woman would take a breath, something to make her more…human, anything to indicate she would be willing to help them.

“I have not heard anything. Most of the gods washed their hands of Kronos and his doings within Myrathelle, pretending he didn’t exist. Only Aphrodite really made much of an effort to stop him, and you saw where that got her. But you know I’ll keep my ears out. If I find anything out, I’ll let you know. And hey, look. About John…I’m sorry.”

Jay gave a half smile. “Thanks. So are we.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway. Wasn’t sure you had your old communication device, and besides we’ve upgraded our system. Because, you know, Drake doesn’t get the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ principle. So, here.” He fished in his pocket for a phone. “That should reach across the dimensions. So, if you need anything, call, all right?”

Miriam took it. “Sure. Whatever.”

“I mean it. Look…despite what happened, you’re still part of my team. Call any time if you need anything.” He gave a smile, and his warm hand gripped Meryl’s. “See ya around, Miriam. Don’t forget us, eh?”

And then Olympus faded from sight, its ostentatious surroundings replaced by the warm familiar feeling of a home she’d given up on ever seeing again.

They teleported into the realm just outside the city of Arlethae, a place that was generally deserted; a wise choice considering the Old Order would see any display of power as confirmation of one who was Gifted and immediately dispatch a team to capture or kill them. Putting that distance between them and the city also gave Meryl the widest view possible of her childhood home. It brought forth a rush of overwhelming emotions. She couldn’t fight them anymore.

“It’s okay to cry,” Jayson said in a gentle voice. He wrapped his warm, strong arms around her. His fingers scratched her back in a soothing motion. She burst into tears.

“It’s just…I never thought…”

“Never thought you’d be back again?”

“And without… How can… I shouldn’t be…” She wasn’t even making any sense anymore, even to herself.

“I know.”

Of course he did. Jayson always knew her heart. Her tears got the better of her, and she couldn’t even manage her incoherent babble. She lost herself for a moment, overcome with so many feelings, some of them identifiable, others ineffable. A small part of her, the survivor, found a singles solid thought to dwell on. Of all things, it regarded the practicality of their outfits. Before embarking on their transdimensional journey, they’d dressed in clothing designed by Delta’s tailor at Meryl’s guidance so they would fit in here. That single practical thought devoid of the conflicting emotions finally acted as a foundation for Meryl to rebuild herself into the moment. They were here. In a city that she knew and understood. And they had a job to do.

“Well, you’re the one who knows where she’s going, so you’d better lead the way.” Jayson somehow knew exactly when to try to speak to her again, when she was ready to be pulled back to reality.

“Yes. We will have to start by speaking to one of the Gifted. You remember our secret symbol, right?” Jayson nodded. It was much the same as the human’s abstract heart shape. Joleon had gotten it tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He covered it with bracers as Stryker, and even people who knew him outside Delta as just John wouldn’t understand him to be Gifted. To them it was just a heart.

Anyone who did know him as Stryker found the presence of his tattoos to be a bit baffling. After all, his skin couldn’t be broken by an ordinary needle. But Jayson had come up with a plan to get past that.

“Hey, buddy, we need to get tattoos,” Jay told Joleon one day. “It’s like a best friend ritual on Earth.”

Joleon raised an eyebrow with some amusement at Jayson. “The practice of marking one’s body isn’t strange to me, but I’m a little confused about how you plan to make that happen. I’m supposed to be hiding my powers even here, right? So how do we explain to them their needles breaking on my skin?”

“Well, heh…” Jayson gave a nervous laugh. “Actually, I’m the only one who’s going to be putting up with a thousand tiny needles viciously puncturing my tender dermis. But for you, my friend, I will put up with the pain even though you won’t be sharing it.” Joleon still looked confused. “Meryl can imitate my teleportation powers and just warp time and space so the ink appears in your skin. No needle involved. She’s a fantastic artist, after all. Clearly, she absorbed all your creative talent in the womb.” He grinned and punched John in the shoulder.

Meryl shook off the memory. Right now, it would only serve to cloud her judgment, and here, that was the last thing she needed. The two of them were silent on their short walk into the city. As the approached the outlying border of the city, they saw flying overhead one of the Old Order’s suited patrols, which served as a reminder of exactly how dangerous it was here.

Once inside the gates, the familiar smell of many people and animals bustled around her, and made it all feel like a dream. She could hear the hawkers cry their wares, and a group of women gossiping about the latest holographic show. The debate seemed to be gauging the attractiveness of the actors versus their actual talent and off-stage private lives. Meryl couldn’t help but smile. After spending so much time on Earth, she’d come to appreciate how very similar the two different cultures were.

Meryl led the way to a jewelry stall she hoped was still run by one of the Gifted. Sure enough, etched into the wood was the symbol, though she didn’t recognize the young girl at the booth. She approached the booth and traced the carved wood with her finger. She spoke in Arlethaen, “The Changer sends his love to us all, and to each of us.”

The girl smiled. “And from each of us we spread his love to us all, which glorifies the Changer.” It was the standard phrase, the concept behind the symbol. “Greetings, Sister.”

“And to you.” Meryl took another look at her. “Carelos? I did not recognize you. It has been years, and you’ve grown into a beautiful girl! Your mata and fater must be proud.”

Carelos smiled. “I thank you for your kind words. I don’t think I remember…” She stared at Meryl for a moment. “Meralese? By the Father, we all thought you were dead!”

“If not for my husband of a year, we would have been. But our departure from Arlethae was rather…abrupt indeed after the Old Order attacked and burned down our inn.”

“It is so comforting to know you are alive.” Carelos turned her head to the cloth covered doorway behind her. “Mata! Come quick! There is someone you must see!”

A woman quickly walked through the doorway with a swoosh of skirts and door cover. She was of an attractive middle age, vibrant with youthful features. “What is it, child—oh!” A smile broke out on her face as she saw Meryl. “My dear girl, it does my heart good to see you alive!” The woman reined in her excitement. It would not do to have Old Order authorities questioning their reunion too closely. “We must talk in more private quarters. Do come in, the both of you.” She encircled Meryl’s wrist with her thumb and forefinger and guided her around to the opposite side of the booth and in through the doorway. Jayson obediently followed.

“Tell me, my dear, where have you been these past few years? Did any others of your family escape the fire?”

“We were in another world, Felika. It’s utterly fantastic, but true. There are realities, planes of existence beyond ours. This is my husband Jayson.” It felt odd, referring to him in such a mature and grown-up manner. Here, she was a little girl, and far too young to consider such things. She half expected Mata to come and pick her up to take her home to help with dinner preparations.

“He is from a world they call Earth. In their world, people do not share the same connection to the Changer as we do, but some are born with something like Gifts, regardless of their faith. Jayson has the ability to move instantly through space. He can also move through dimensions. It is he that rescued me and my brother from the fire.”

Felika put a hand on Jayson’s. “Then we owe you a debt of gratitude. I remember you from the year before the fire; I admit, I wondered at your unusual coloring.” Arlethaens tended to be blond with fair skin and golden eyes. Jayson’s wildly curly, dark red-blond hair; green eyes; and freckles had confused them. Most Arlethaens didn’t travel out of their country, however. It was a convenient truth to say he was from far away, and let them believe he was simply from another continent.

“The debt is paid in full, good lady,” Jayson replied politely. “Joleon was like a brother to me, and Merelese is the woman of my heart. I would walk a thousand fires to hold her close to me.”

Even after knowing each other for a few years, Jay still made Meryl’s heart flutter when he waxed poetic. He had a talent for songwriting; that was how he’d wooed her in the first place.

The older woman was sharp. Jayson spoke the language well, so the past tense with regard to Joleon did not go unnoticed. She smiled at Jayson’s words, but that faded to a look of concern. “What do you mean, ‘was’?”

Tears threatened to flood Meryl’s eyes again. “On Earth they are far more accepting of different beliefs, tongues, and people. We can freely use our Gifts to benefit the people; and yet it still is not as safe as we believed. He is dead, shot by a projectile built on Earth in a design inspired by the technology of the Old Order. As of yet, we know not why or who.”

Felika eyes softened with sympathy and understanding. “That is a pain I know all too well.” She pulled up the hem of her sleeve so Meryl could see the band of intertwined pink and green threads around her forearm. “The Old Order captured my husband. I have little hope I will see him again.” She replaced her sleeve. “Carelos has not given up that hope, and so I hide my mourning from her. I do not see your colors of morning, though.”

“I have work I need to do. I will find the one who killed my brother, or put forth a valiant effort. Then will I begin my two years of mourning.”

Felika nodded. “I see. And so you have returned to see if your enemy lies within the Old Order.”

“Yes. To commit this murder, it is possible that one would have to travel or at least communicate across the dimensional boundaries. Is this something that people of the Old Order has developed?”

“Not to my knowledge. If the evidence was not so clear, I would not believe these other realms exist. This is something you were wise to keep secret. I am glad you trusted me with it.”

“For your kindness you deserve the truth. I would go further and invite you to come back to Earth with us, but given recent circumstances, I cannot see it to be any safer than here, even under the watchful eye of the Old Order.”

“Your concern is touching, my young friend, but I would wish to stay here. If there is ever confirmation of the death of my beloved, I want to be here to receive it.”

Meryl nodded. “I understand.”

“I will make your request for information known, however. I have contacts whose Gifts allow them to hear through the walls of the Old Order. Will you stay for a few days? We have a bed you are welcome to use. And given your recent tragedy, it will do you good to remember your childhood days.”

Meryl took a quick glance at Jayson, who nodded. She looked back at Felika. “We are not needed back on Earth for a few days. It would be gratifying to accept your offer. You are right, the chance to relive past memories will be most welcome. I wish only that the circumstances of my return were different.”

Felika squeezed Meryl’s hand with her own left hand, and Jaysons with her right. “We question not the path that the Father has built for us; only the way to walk it. There is a reason for our pain. Simply trust.”

Meryl nodded and forced a smile. Trusting was the last thing she wanted to do.

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The memorial service was well attended. The courtyard in front of the Delta Division headquarters was set up with hundreds of white wicker chairs in front of a large podium which sat against a backdrop of shifting holographic images of Stryker. In some he seemed to turn and smile. Others made it look like he still flew the skies if you looked up at them at the right angle. The chairs were quickly filled, and more kept coming. All day, the ferries worked, running back and forth between the island and the mainland, carrying in civilians from all over the city. People took seats on the grass around Delta’s massive skyscraper. If Stryker was still alive, he’d be able to look down on the island headquarters and see the people covering the small acreage and walkways like ants on a hill.

Marcus kept casting concerned glances at Lindsay. He put his hand on hers, but she stiffened. After a moment, she pulled away. She’d said maybe about five words to him since Stryker’s death. She’d been really affected by it, hardly leaving her room in the Delta Headquarters unless she had to. He wanted to be sure she was okay, but he felt a little pissed too. What made her think he was so unaffected? Stryker wasn’t just her hero; she wasn’t the only one who looked up to him. The entire city did too.

His anger flared, but he quickly stuffed it inside. It’s not about you.

Granted, it wasn’t about her either, but now wasn’t the time to point that out.

He barely heard the speeches. Sam turned hers into a subtle recruitment drive. That’s not exploitative at all, he thought sarcastically. He would have been annoyed at her, except even Sam the Robot couldn’t hide how angry she was at this. Someone had attacked her people. She was pissed.

Jayson got up on the platform. He looked so worn out. His limp was so pronounced, he could barely make it up the steps. Marcus had heard the story of how he’d lost his leg. The stress he was under must be making the pain of the injury flair up. He could have teleported up to the platform, but he walked anyway. Guess no phantom pain could hurt as bad as he’s hurting inside right now.

The audience quieted. Everyone knew Blink and Stryker were best friends. So out of respect of the dead and the living, they fell silent. Someone coughed. The silence stretched.

Jay started speaking, talking about how he and Stryker had met—at least as much as wasn’t classified. He talked about what kind of man he was, how he needed something to fight for. About how the people of the city were his inspiration, as much as he was theirs.

Partway through he broke down. In front of the whole city, he started crying. Unable to hold back the tears any longer, unable to be strong, he buckled under the weight of his sorrow. His arms curled up on the podium on top of his written speech, and he sobbed.

Charity got up and walked up the steps. She put an arm about Jayson and gently tugged at the piece of paper he was hiding. In a soft voice, she continued the speech.

“Being a hero isn’t about being strong. It’s not about fighting for justice, it’s not even about protecting the weak. It’s about fighting for something. Stryker taught us that. And so, in his memory, I will find something to fight for, something that keeps me strong. I call each of you to do the same. Because so long as each of us fight for what we believe in, Stryker will be fighting within us.”

Jayson turned around and buried his face in Charity’s shoulder. She held him there for a moment and let him cry. Then gently, she turned him around and gave him a small shove in the direction of his seat. He returned there and sat down.

Charity pulled out her own speech. She smiled a little. “How do I follow that?” She chuckled a little. No one laughed. Tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Here at Delta I’m one of the school teachers. I get to watch young minds being shaped by the world around us, and I sometimes wonder if we’re doing right by them. I look at you all today. Some of you are here out of curiosity, wondering how we deal with the loss of one of our own. Some of you are hurting as badly as we are. Some of you are here because you’ve been inspired. And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask.

“Ultimately, Stryker was a soldier. Like Blink said, he fought for something, like our soldiers fought throughout history, for freedom, for justice, peace. Stryker fought to show that there was something worth fighting for. Those of you who are here to honor his memory, that’s what I want you to take away from this day. Find that something and fight for it.”

Marcus’ thoughts drifted. What was he fighting for? What was his purpose? Why was he here? He’d joined for one reason, and that was more or less to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. But if he was going to be a fully realized hero, there would have to be something more.

That went on for a bit before Charity wrapped up and started back down the stairs. Marcus watched her descend. What was she fighting for? He’d seen her fight. Moreover, he’d heard of everything she’d gone through. The memory of the look on her face when they were in the PSO lab was burned into his brain. It could have crippled her; perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally. And yet, she was a hero. Like Stryker, the city looked up to her. She was driven. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he admired that.

He couldn’t shake the image of her battling the people who had threatened to kill him, couldn’t escape the thought that she’d nearly died for him. Her eyes met his, and in that moment, he understood. She’s fighting for you, idiot.

In that moment, she collapsed to the ground.

* * * *

A bullet fired from a gun couldn’t have gotten out of his seat faster than Eric. This is what he was terrified of, what he was positive was going to happen, what he never allowed himself to admit he feared. The head of Delta attacked, the Division’s inspiration assassinated, of course Charity would be a target. The people of the city loved her, almost as much as he did.

He couldn’t blame them. She was beautiful. Even now, lying prone on the steps, he found himself taken aback by her perfect form. Her chin-length hair framed her masked face. She smiled all the time, but there was always something behind that smile, something sad. He was only just beginning to understand why, and someone was trying to take her from him.

He knelt on the red carpeted steps. His suit shifted away from his hand so he could touch her face, feel her breath, know that she was okay. Her face was at rest, the most peaceful he’d seen her…well, ever. He felt something warm and wet on his face, and he realized he was crying. “You’re okay, Charity, please tell me you’re okay, you have to be okay.”

She was breathing. Maybe she was just exhausted, tired from playing the supportive friend, tired of being strong. The rise and fall of her chest was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Move.” Dr. Franks was there now, demanding he let her do her job. He complied, too stunned to do anything else.

“Wait, she’s okay, right? She’ll be okay?” Marcus stood there now, pale faced and just as baffled as Eric was.

He gripped the boy on the shoulder. “Let the doctor do her job.”

Marcus might have nodded, but he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t particularly care. Dr. Franks waved Jay over and instructed him to get Charity to the infirmary now. The three of them disappeared, leaving Marcus and Eric to find their own way into the building and up the stairs.

Not that it took very long, and the length of time it did take gave Eric the chance to process.

“I’m going to kill the bastard. Why is he doing this? Stryker, now Charity? Why? How is she still alive?” Marcus mused out loud.

“We don’t know that this is an attack,” Eric said reasonably.

“What else could it be?” Marcus nearly screamed at him. He looked nearly ready to faint himself. “How the hell can you be so calm?”

“I’m not,” Eric said honestly. “I’m going insane. God, Charity, she…” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “But we’re not going to fall apart, do you hear me?” He turned and faced Marcus. The rest of his suit melted away to a chest piece underneath his buttoned shirt. He gripped the boy’s shoulders. “We are not going to fall apart. We are going to work together and we are going to figure this out, and that is a promise.”

God, the kid was seventeen. He was hardly yet a man, and yet he was dealing with a loss no one should. Seeing the boy’s tears nearly brought back his own. “We’re going to be okay, I promise.” It felt emptier the more he said it.

It felt like forever before the doctor came out of the examination room. She was pale as death. Eric was on his feet before he noticed it. Marcus sat perfectly still, elbows resting on his knees. He barely breathed. Allen sat beside him, wordlessly.

“It…it’s my fault,” the doctor said quietly. Eric shook his head, confused. “There’s a…a black tar-like substance coating her—her brain. I-I can’t touch it with my abilities, and it’s far too intertwined within her cells for me to even think of attempting surgery.”

“What?” Marcus’ abject confusion radiated from the boy. “How? How would something like that—it couldn’t have come from nowhere.”

Something clicked in Eric’s head. “A bug. One of those bugs in PSO bit her.”

The doctor nodded. “I wondered as much. There’s a mark on her neck, it looked like it might have been some sort of delivery system.”

“But what do you mean it’s your fault, I hardly think—”

“Delta protocol suggests a full examination after missions, especially ones to Ptah-Setker-Osiris. I should have known. I should have checked. If I’d checked, I would have found the bug bite and maybe done something about it. But John—” She cut off and covered her mouth. That was the night of the assassination. Everyone had something on their mind other than a damned protocol.

“When will she wake up?” Marcus’ voice was surprisingly steady.

Dr. Franks hesitated. “I…I don’t know. I don’t know if she will.”

“Can I see her?”

The doctor nodded. “She is still unconscious.” A redundant bit of information.

Marcus just nodded and walked past them into the room. Eric followed. Doctor Franks didn’t stop them.

It was quiet in the room. Too quiet. Charity was in a hospital gown now, mask gone, sparkles still dancing on her cheeks. She dusted them on any time she used the Thundra costume. She was supposed to represent the use of energy, so being flashy was important. Eric had never really understood till now what it meant to her to be in the spotlight. She didn’t like the attention so much, so why did she go out of the way to draw others’ eyes to her? It was being a hero. It was meaning something. Eric just hoped she knew how much she meant to him.

Marcus was crying again. He shed silent tears as he sat by her beside. He gripped his sister’s hand. “She’ll wake up. She will wake up.” He slipped off his goggles and laid them on the bed. “Please wake up.” He was just saying what Eric felt.

Eric couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t do the bedside vigil thing, staring uselessly at the monitors, waiting like a soap opera lover for his lady love’s eyes to open. He couldn’t wait for the long, agonizing beep that said the wait was over and the worst had come to pass.

He stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Drake was there and he gripped Eric on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, but Eric wasn’t listening. He shoved away Drake’s hand and made his way to the common room. He needed a goddamned drink.

* * * *

Jayson watched the utterly defeated look on Drake’s face as he tried to do the gentlemanly thing and give Eric the encouragement he needed. Unsurprisingly, Eric was having none of it. The two of them stood silently just outside the room, watching through the reinforced glass window as Marcus tried unsuccessfully to keep it together. The air was heavy. Jay felt the change in his pocket tear a hole through the thin fabric and fall to the floor with a shallow clatter. He picked up the coins. Almost no one used cash anymore, but Jayson liked keeping a bit of change in his pocket, just for the sake of fiddling with it as a nervous habit.

“Nickel for your thoughts?” It was a terrible joke, and Drake let him know with a dirty scowl. Jay didn’t regret the pun, though. They’d have to get through this somehow.

Drake continued to brood, his dark look nearly boring a hole in the glass in front of them. Three guesses what he’s thinking, and the first twenty don’t count. “That train of thought isn’t helping anyone, you know.”

Drake looked at him with a raised eyebrow, annoyed. He made no comment.

“The thought that you should have been able to protect her. Look, man, I get it. You think I haven’t been telling myself the same thing? I was right there when John was killed. I keep playing it over and over in my head, but every time it ends up the same. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You…you can’t change the past. All we can do it try to make things a little better going forward, you know?”

His little pep talk didn’t seem to have any effect. Drake just went back to staring through the window. “Hey, listen to me. Do I have to drag you to the gym myself and beat some sense into you, cause I will. I did it before, and I can do it again…ya scrawny punkass kid.”

This time when Drake looked at him, it was with just a hint of a ‘challenge accepted’ face. “You haven’t been able to beat me since Saskatchewan. I’d like to see you try.”

“Well, to be fair, you really were just a ninety pound tech dweeb then. But hey. We beat…what did you call him?”

“The Master of Mechanics, and I think that was your idea.”

“What? No… I’d never think of something that lame.” Drake rolled his eyes at him. “Okay, yeah I would. But I’m still pretty sure it was you.”

“Not a chance.”

“Yeah? Whatever.” Jayson fell silent, lost in thought for a moment. He remembered that mission well. You never forgot your first. That was when they’d really started bonding as a team, though God knew they certainly weren’t well-oiled for a while after that. But then again, they were just kids.

“Ya know,” Jayson said, “we shouldn’t have even been on that mission. Technically we were recon only. As soon as we found Clint Raison’s location and radioed it in, we should have been pulled. I studied some of Delta’s protocols when I was seriously considering taking position as Director. Delta never sends in an inexperienced team for capture and retrieval. We shouldn’t have been there, especially since the guy we were after was brother to Miriam, one of our team members. Conflict of interest, much?”

Drake shrugged. “I kind of assumed it was Jones just dicking with us. Um, no offence.”

“Hey, the dude pretty much refused to acknowledge me as his son for fifteen years. Granted it was to quote unquote ‘keep me safe,’ and yes, I’ve dealt with it, but I know damn well how he liked to make sure we learned a hard lesson or two. But not at the expense of protocol.”

Drake turned to him with a puzzled look. “Huh.”

Jayson shrugged and chuckled a little. “Maybe it was a Fae jerking him around.” Drake actually stopped a moment to think about it. “I’m kidding, dude, it was a joke. We know damn well the Fae were all in Myrathelle serving Kronos at the time. Unless Kronos had us pegged even then. He is the god of time, remember. Maybe he saw us coming and sent his Fae army to toy with us.”

Drake shook his head. “No, Kronos has been down the road enough times to know that he has to kill any threat to him, instead of making them grow up and be heroic enough to stand up to him.”

“Then who? You’d have to practically mind control Jones to get him to break protocol.”

“I don’t know,” Drake said in that voice that said he didn’t like knowing.

Jayson didn’t blame him. The thought of being screwed with didn’t sit well with him, and he didn’t take it nearly as personally as Drake did. He mentally shrugged. That was years ago. It didn’t matter now. There was no way it could.

Are you sure about that?

“Oh, hey, speaking of Miriam, Sam’s got me and Meryl heading to Olympus to see if she’s caught anything living among the gods that would be of any help.”

“Really? Well, I suppose if anyone could find that out, she’s as good as any.”

Jay laughed. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate your confidence.”

“Yeah, whatever. She was hardly the brains of our operation.”

“Well, now she has to survive among gods. I’d imagine having to exist among people so much powerful than you are, you’d have to find some way to keep up and stay alive.”

Drake just looked at him. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“Right. And then we’re heading to Arlethae to see if we can dig up any Old Order activity that would suggest they put the hit out on Stryker.”

“The bullet tech may have been programmed in Arlethaen style, but was still made with Earth materials, and likely here on Earth, you know.”

“Oh, I know. My money’s still on it being connected to the Fae and everything else that’s happening, but leave no stone unturned, right? Besides, knowledge of that tech had to have come from somewhere.”

Drake grunted in agreement. “Hey, Jayson?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Be careful.”

Jay nodded. “Whoever’s behind this…they’re not done are they?”

Drake shook his head. “And until I figure out their end-game…not one of us is safe.”

“So you’re taking point on the investigation.” Sam was a little stunned, and Eric couldn’t blame her.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I have to admit, I’m a little surprised.”

“No more than I.”

“Have you any background in investigation, Mr. Harrington? What qualifies you for this position?”

That was a damn good question. “I’m a fan of detective novels, does that count?” He meant it as a joke, but the woman didn’t even crack a smile. “To be honest, I’m not sure. All I know is that Drake asked me. The man’s incapable of leaving something this important in the hands of someone he doesn’t trust.”

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that assessment. I do think I should give this assignment to someone with more training.”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, I don’t believe that’s your call.” He found that he relished the look of surprise on her face. “Look, I get that you’re the one in the Director’s chair, and that’s fine. Your intellect and people skills are unparalleled. You may not think much of me because of the internal feud you’ve got going on with my girlfriend, but to be perfectly honest, that’s irrelevant.

“Thing is, I’ve learned you put your people in positions for a reason. You’re damn good at understanding people’s capabilities, at working with what they will and won’t do. Drake’s a good man. A little bat-crap crazy if you don’t mind me saying, but a good man nonetheless. There are reasons he’s your best investigator. And there are reasons he chose me to work where he can’t. Those reasons might baffle you and I, but frankly I’d rather trust him and trust his faith in me. I’ll do my damndest. All I ask is that you let me.”

Sam wasn’t the kind to be swayed by a pretty speech. She regarded him for a moment that seemed to take forever as she picked up the teacup from her desk. Sam had a weakness for Earl Grey tea, a habit shared by her predecessor to the Director’s office—and his girlfriend. Eric wondered what Charity would say if she knew her arch nemesis liked the same kind of tea she did.

“Frankly, Mr. Harrington, you haven’t the luxury of experience,” she said, just before taking a sip. “You’ve been here all of, what, four years now? I’m having difficulty with—”

She stopped short. In fact, she stopped breathing altogether. “With—” She coughed. The teacup rattled onto the desk. “Call the doc—”

That was all she managed before she collapsed.

Eric had no love for the woman either, but he wasn’t about to stand back and see her suffer. The fact that she could be dying didn’t occur to him, but he did have the presence of mind to hit the intercom as he dashed behind the desk to catch her as she fell. “Geoff, get Dr. Franks in immediately.”

Her lips were blue and she wasn’t breathing. A part of his mind noticed with some irony that Sam was possibly the only one who could give dignity to choking to death.

Sam’s secretary practically broke the door down with the doctor in his arms. Geoff found a corner to stand in and wring his hands, while Dr. Franks knelt beside Sam. “It’s okay, Ma’am, relax, I’m here.” She glanced at Eric. “Was she eating or drinking anything?”

“The tea,” Eric said, with a glance at the offending teacup.

The doctor nodded and dipped a finger in the liquid. The woman had control over the chemical composition of liquids. As soon as she understood the poison, she touched Sam’s face and broke down the chemical clawing its way inside.

Sam gasped and sat up. “Easy, easy, Director,” Dr. Franks said. “You’re okay.”

Eric got to his feet. “Dr. Franks, I’d like you to make sure an analysis is run on the tea. I want to know every molecule in it. Geoff, walk me through—”

“I can tell you what’s in it, Eric,” Dr. Franks interrupted, rather annoyed. “It’s composed of—”

“Thank you, Doctor, your mental analysis is quite accurate, I’m sure, but I’d like to get the evidence on paper if you don’t mind. Now, Geoff—”

“Hold on, who died and made you king?” Dr. Franks snapped.

Eric just looked at her. “I’m taking point on the investigation into Stryker’s death. One of our own has been murdered, and we just came damn close to making that two. Do you believe that’s a coincidence? Run the analysis. I want everything above board and by the book, understand?”

Dr. Franks looked at him with surprise. She glanced at Sam, who nodded. Then her gaze went back to Eric, clearly unimpressed. “Fine.”

Eric nodded. He took a breath and tried, again, to question Geoff. “Can you walk me through the process of making the tea?”

It took two hours to go through the ten-minute process of brewing the tea. The poor secretary was terrified he was a suspect, despite the fact that it took the first two moments for Eric’s gut feeling to eliminate him. He was completely devoted to Sam, and furthermore, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Gentle and built like a beanpole, the man was entirely uninterested in violence, let alone murdering someone.

The strange thing was that Sam habitually scanned with her retrocognition ability. She could read into the past of objects and people. As a security measure, she always read the past of anything she ate or drank. Of course she was a target. She’d been a target since she sat in the most powerful chair in the country—arguably the most powerful organization on the planet.

But it didn’t take very long for that avenue of investigation to run its course. Geoff had nothing to do with it; simply an unwitting pawn. The nearest they could figure out brought them full circle.

The Fae. Already they were massing together in a gathering unprecedented. The investigation into Ptah-Setker-Osiris proved fruitless, so either the little creatures were not involved with another god, or the Egyptian composite deity was doing a damned good job of hiding their tracks. Eric wasn’t sure which option he disliked more.

So that led him to an avenue of investigation that made him feel more than a little uncomfortable.

* * * *

The bell rang above the door of the Eyre’s Eye. Music nearly a century old played in the background, drowning out the voices of the sizable crowd in the bar. A few flicked their gaze over to his entrance, but most seemed entirely unaware of his presence. Eric wasn’t sure how he felt about this crowd. On the one hand, his meeting would hopefully go unnoticed; on the other, anyone who would go about noticing would also be lost in the mass of people.

He’d dressed down for the occasion, with a comfortable pair of jeans and a plaid shirt left unbuttoned over a white t-shirt. This was so not his usual crowd. College kids and blue-collar workers made up most of the customer base, which made sense considering the slightly shady part of town. It wasn’t that he felt distain for anyone who regularly lived paycheck to paycheck—after all, he’d deliberately gone to a public high school and subsequently met the love of his life there. He knew he was privileged. The problem was that they all did too and treated him often with contempt.

Charity was different. She kept him grounded and loved him for what was in his heart. He had more to give than money, and she saw that without a hint of a sarcastic ‘oh, poor little rich boy’. That alone was worth more than all the money he had.

He wasn’t entirely without street smarts. He knew not to ask for his favorite imported whiskey. The place wasn’t a dive, exactly, but they certainly didn’t have the budget for his regular drink. Instead he went with what they had. He ordered a bottle of the cheap stuff. He wouldn’t make such a ridiculous statement like “whiskey is whiskey”, but for the sake of not drawing attention, he’d be satisfied with something made of alcohol.

He was about halfway through the bottle when his contact finally showed. “You’re late,” he said.

“Not at all. I’ve been in the bar for an hour, arriving precisely at the time I said I would. Not my issue you didn’t see me.”

Eric didn’t rise to the bait. The man went by the handle the Spyder. No one really seemed to know his real name; frankly it didn’t matter. According to Delta’s file, he had super hearing and invisibility—and was one heck of an informant. He wore a black overcoat and a fedora that fit comfortably just over his eyes.

He smiled as he saw that Eric made no response. “I understand you and I have a transaction to make.”

Eric gave him the same smile: suspicious and without mirth. “Ah, yes. I’ve been told you see this as business. I suppose that’s fair. Knowledge is power, after all, and people will pay a great deal of money for power.”

The Spyder chuckled. “I find it quite amusing how many people assume I am motivated by money.” He shrugged. “An effective means to an end, to be sure, and if you’d like to buy your information by the dollar, I am prepared for that as well. I understand you’re quite capable of providing.”

“Then you know that I too am a businessman. I understand the value of commodities beyond that of a dollar. I have come with the necessary currency.”

“Then, by all means, shall we begin our negotiations?”

“Of course. Let’s start with the value of your business. I’d like to know more. After all, before I buy a piece of property, I do my research. Sometimes months go by before the paperwork is drawn. I see no reason why our deal should be any different.”

“Then you should know that requests for any personal details will bring an end to our negotiations immediately.”

Eric waved his hands dismissively. “You misunderstand me. I have no interest in what hides behind the name you chose to show the streets. Your past is a closely guarded secret.” He smiled. “And therefore of greater value to any who might actually know it.” Eric had no idea who the man was, but he pretended he did. After all, if he could unnerve the guy, it might give him an advantage.

The Spyder didn’t seem to buy his bluff. “You know my terms. What is it you wish to know?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the assassination of Stryker.”

“Sounds like the title of a bad chick lit movie.” He shrugged. “I’d have to be deaf and blind not to notice. I see that Delta’s spinning its tires to figure out the meaning of it all.”

“Do you know anything about the assassin?”

“That’s information. I’ll need something in exchange?”

Despite himself, Eric’s lip twitched in annoyance. “If you have no information, I fail to see why I should pay the fee.”

Spyder gave that smarmy smile again. Eric’s attempt to control the situation wasn’t going well. “When you buy a box of pills from the pharmacy, you trust that the pills are in the box; because who cares if they work or not if they’re not there? I don’t do bad business, Mr. Herrington. Let’s see what you have to offer, and we can continue. Rest assured, if I don’t have the answers you are looking for, you’ll be reciprocated.”

Eric didn’t like it, but he figured he needed to give him something. “Our analysis of the scene show that the man was entirely and intentionally unremarkable. Even a post-cog scan of the place revealed no details of the assassin. He—or she, if we are to show due equality of the sexes—was a complete professional, cleaning the place thoroughly. The shot was at a distance that would provide a challenge for anyone untrained as a sniper, yet close enough that even the marksmanship itself was not overly notable.”

“So in other words, you don’t have a damn clue about your culprit.”

Eric shrugged. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What we know about the killer should be enough for me to know if you’ve got any information or not.”

He chuckled. “Indeed. As it happens, I know nothing about your assassin.”

That actually surprised Eric a little. “Among your entire network not one of your informants saw or heard anything? I was quite certain you had your eyes everywhere.”

When the Spyder hesitated to answer, Eric realized he finally had something of an advantage. It was his turn to give that deprecating chuckle. “If you’ll pardon a momentary science lesson, let me ask you: how do we know of the existence of black holes? Not because we can see them, certainly, but because we can’t. It is pure nothing.” He paused to let that sink in. “You’ve got a black hole in your information network, Spyder. Furthermore…I know why. So let me ask you…what is that information worth to you?”

The Spyder regarded him for a moment. “It’s not Solstice. They’re as baffled by this as you are. They haven’t the faintest idea how it was done. You’re just lucky your Mister X got to the bullet as fast as he did, or they’d be able to reverse engineer your fancy sonic scream that’s evidently brickhead’s weakness.” Eric stiffened at the insulting epithet for Stryker. “Oh, I’m sorry. The flying brickhead.”

Eric thought about that for a moment. Well, that was one suspect down. That was a bit of a relief, anyway. It meant they could focus on Fae involvement. Especially since it seemed their influence was more widespread than he first thought.

“What I’m about to tell you will seem like a crazy fantasy at best, but I assure you it’s true. There are creatures that live in this world that call themselves the Shadow Fae. They’re…not exactly from around here.” He held up his hand. “I am telling the truth, Stryker. After all, I know the necessities of quality of product as well. These creatures often take the image of small children. They have the ability to disguise themselves within the minds of others. They’ve even been known to fool technology. Frankly, the only reason why we generally know they exist is because they want us to.

“Infiltrating your information network would be…if you’ll pardon the pun…child’s play. They are masters of deception. And if they don’t want you to know something…then you won’t.”

The Spyder was quiet. “How does one counter such things?”

“You don’t. You get the hell out of dodge.”

Warning: Explicit sexual content

 

The house looked different to Jayson when he and Meryl arrived home. He couldn’t figure out why. Breakfast dishes still sat in the sink where they’d left them in a rush this morning, Meryl to her clients, and Jay to his patrol. The smell of bacon still lingered hours later. Everything was exactly the same. It wasn’t fair.

It was late. Jayson didn’t bother turning on the lights. He didn’t want to look at more of this house that was the same both before and after the death of his friend. He unlaced his combat boots, which reminded him he was still in his costume. Sans mask. Where the hell had he left it? He didn’t know, and he couldn’t summon the energy to care.

Meryl didn’t turn on the lights either. Without a word, she crossed the five feet to the carpeted stairway that lead to the upper level. It was a good-sized house. To the left was the sitting room that looked out onto their front porch and cobblestone pathway leading to the sidewalk. Opposite the room’s bay windows were a set of French doors that were closed between the sitting room and the dining room. Beside that, and just ahead of the foyer, was the kitchen. In the back of the house sat the family room where they did most of their living. Between the foyer and the kitchen, a closed door hid a stairway to the unfinished basement. He and John were supposed to be putting the drywall up together next weekend.

The two of them had bought the place in a developing residential area, watched it get built from the ground up. It was built of gray brick, with slate-gray shingles and gray-blue siding. They’d planted the garden together—the three of them. It was supposed to be a house built to raise a family.

Jay followed his wife up the stairs. His left leg screamed with every step like it did when it was about to rain. There was no rain forecasted for the next forty-eight hours. He could have teleported, saved himself the twinge that ran through his hip and into his lower back, but he didn’t. He couldn’t really say why. He just felt like he had to feel every footstep.

The master bedroom was the first door on the left when Jayson got to the top of the stairs. The door was open, and he could hear Meryl sobbing. She sat on the edge of the bed, arms curled around herself like she was trying to keep from falling apart. The mattress creaked as Jay sat down beside her and took her into his arms.

He could feel the tears burning in his eyes, and like a summer’s rain, it seemed to heighten his sense of smell. Her shampoo carried the scent of flowers. At that moment, he needed her more than ever. For his own sake, and to remind her that she still had him. Unable to help himself, he brushed back her long blonde hair and kissed her neck. His right hand traveled down the smooth silk of her blouse, then trailed on the skin of her lower back. His left fought with the buttons on the front.

“Stop.” The word was a sob. “I-I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t like her to refuse him. But they’d never faced sorrow like this before, not in this way. He backed off.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I just want you to know that I’m here.”

“I know. I just can’t. Not tonight.”

“That’s okay.”

She stood. With gentle, almost painful motions, she took her pajamas out of the drawer and stared at them a moment. Her hair fell in front of her eyes, but not before Jay saw the tears fall down her face. “I don’t want to get ready for bed.”

He understood. “Because if you do, that means the day’s over.”

“And if it’s over, that means we just have to move on.”

He nodded. Her small fingers worked at her buttons. Jayson’s eyes fixed on the floor. He didn’t have to look to see her small, round breasts rising and falling with each sob. Her blouse fell to the floor.

Jayson’s jaw quivered. He hated seeing her like this. “What can I do?” His voice was thick.

“Make love to me, Jayson.”

He looked up. Even standing, she was only a head taller than him sitting down on the bed. Her hair hung past her waist, brushing the edges of her black dress pants, now half undone showing lacy green underwear. She undid her bra, and Jay’s breath caught. Two years of marriage, and Jayson was surer by the day that he would never get tired of seeing that. “I-I thought—”

“I changed my mind.”

He didn’t have to be told twice.

* * * *

Meryl gasped as Jayson’s hand cupped the base of her head while the other shook her bra the rest of the way to the floor. His mouth pressed against hers for a moment, and she responded until his lips moved away and over her cheeks and around her eyes. He kissed away her tears.

She occupied her hands by undoing his belt buckle, a metal plate in the shape of the Delta Division symbol. His pants were next. She opened them enough that she could get her hands in. He wanted her already, and she could feel him grow larger still.

His lips returned to her mouth and stayed there while he shrugged out of his leather jacket. They were only apart for the moment it took to remove his shirt.

Once the upper half of his Blink costume was on the ground, he continued his kisses along her jawline and down her neck. He bent down to take one of her nipples into his mouth, and she let out a moan. Encouraged, his strong, large hands slid down her waist until they tugged at her pants. Her hips had a womanly roundness, but not so much that they resisted his attempts to release her from the cloth.

As his hands moved down her hips, they grasped her ass for a moment before continuing to her thighs, his gentle touch exciting her. His mouth was no longer at her breast; it continued to her taut belly, planting a deliberate, teasing line of kisses to her nether regions. He kissed her womanhood. Then she could feel his tongue tasting her, pleasuring her. She cried out and willed herself to remain standing.

Then she was in his arms, and he lowered her onto the bed. She watched with anticipation as he removed the rest of his clothing. The artist in her might have fixated on the metal prosthetic that replaced his left leg with its abrupt line mid-thigh and contrasting colors—but the woman in her was far too distracted by Jayson’s manhood in all its glory.

He started kissing her on the inside of her left thigh as his hand ran from her bare foot, up her calf, and lingered with a gentle squeeze on her right thigh. His tongue returned to its place between her legs and worked at it. She cried out as the world spun.

The mattress caved in on one side as he put a knee beside her. One arm wrapped around her waist, and the other around her neck. His lips caressed hers, and she tasted of herself. In one smooth motion, he lifted her up further onto the bed. Then he lay down beside her.

Naked and nothing between them, Meryl took a moment to gaze into her husband’s eyes. Her people’s eyes were gold; this green color that she stared at wasn’t just unusual, it was unheard of. It was arresting. She ran her fingers down his arm and back up again, then over his chest. Jayson was fit and athletic, and not just because of his job. He’s thrown himself into physical therapy after his surgery. Since childhood, he’d played sports; and even now, his gym time was his way of relaxing.

His skin was dotted with freckles. They danced over his nose and down his neck. Meryl shifted and drew closer, planting a kiss on every one. She heard him sigh, and she knew that he needed this as much as she did. He’d watched his best friend die tonight. She felt her eyes well up, and as she squeezed them shut, hot tears fell from her face onto Jayson’s back. “I love you,” she whispered, because she couldn’t say anything else.

“And I love you.” His hands found her hips again and gently nudged her on to her back. His body followed hers.

He towered over her, and she loved it, his lips worshiping every inch of her skin on her neck and down to her breasts. He toyed with her nipple again as he positioned himself. Meryl moaned and shifted, her warm wetness inviting him.

He entered slowly, thicker and harder than she’d ever felt before. Meryl let out a cry. It was a moment that she wanted to last forever, though she knew it was but a preamble to something much greater.

He stopped once his full thickness was nestled inside. Their eyes lingered on one another, their breathing heavy, though they had barely just begun. His arm was circled around her waist, while the other hand held her head. He cradled her like he would something precious. And despite everything, Meryl smiled because she knew that, to him, she was.

She opened her mouth to tell him again that she loved him, but all that came out was a loud scream, because at that moment he pulled out almost to the tip before thrusting back in. Her hands clamped around his back and her fingers dug in as pleasure ricocheted through her body. He thrust again and again with desire and a desperate need only she could understand.

She cried out for more, and Jayson responded with an intensity that surprised her with every stroke. Her whole body began to shake. She knew what this was—Jayson was the kind of lover most women only dream of—but nothing they’d ever done had felt as good as this. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!”

Jay hesitated just a fraction of a second. His own cries had gone from mere grunts of pleasure to sounds that told her that he was enjoying this just as much as she was. He was close, and so was she.

“I need you, Jayson. I need you inside me. Don’t stop!”

He didn’t stop. He moved inside her with short, swift thrusts timed with her scream of exaltation. Then Meryl forgot how to breathe. Her body arced into the orgasm. She felt the hot rush of Jayson’s climax within her, and then she found her voice again. Her cries filled the house, cries of love and loss, of ineffable sorrow and unspeakable joy.

The world around her didn’t exist for a moment. Nothing existed except her and the man she loved. Yet, at her fingertips and in every inch of her skin, she felt the smallest detail as her whole body became a being of pure sensation. Her fingers clawed at the bedspread as if anchoring her to that plane of existence. In that moment, she understood. It didn’t make things better, and it didn’t make the pain go away, but she understood its reason, though afterward she could never recapture that feeling or articulate why.

She lost all concept of time. She had no idea how long she remained body and soul in that place of pure bliss. In another reality, it might have been forever. Eventually, however, she became aware of Jayson staring down at her. He was breathing as hard as she was.

Most nights, after that release, he’d smile and ask if she felt better. Tonight he didn’t. The chill of the night touched their naked bodies. Without a word, they burrowed beneath the covers and curled back in each other’s arms. At least, she reflected, I’m not crying myself to sleep. There would be tears enough in the morning.