Archive for May, 2015

Lindsay was starving. She had the constitution of a paragon, but she wasn’t immune to hunger. In fact, with an exceedingly high metabolism, she burned through calories faster than most. Right now, she regretted that.

She was currently halfway through her third truck stop breakfast special at a greasy diner between Alliance City and Montreal. After speeding across the border faster than most equipment could record, she’d stopped at a bus station. Swallowing the intense guilt, she’d pilfered a heavy gray sweatshirt with a deep hood, large sunglasses, and a watch to keep time. Pickpocketing was easy, though she made sure only to steal from people who looked like they could afford it. Then she bought a bus ticket. It would be faster if she flew—her speed topped out somewhere beyond the sound barrier, after all—but if she did that, Delta would be on her ass so fast.

She felt bad for what she’d done. Marcus was hurting, and she knew it, but she had to get out of there. She just couldn’t be around other heroes right now. Tears in her eyes blurred the eggs and bacon in front of her. What was she going to do now? She had no direction, no reason to keep being the hero. I’m not a hero. Not anymore.

What was she thinking? When she joined Delta, it was all she wanted to be. She wanted to be loved, she wanted people to pay attention to her. Where had that gotten her? For that matter, what difference did it make? Stryker always taught her to fight for something, to have a reason for every battle.

One time before Stryker’s assassination, she’d gotten bored and donned a disguise similar to what she wore now so she could wander through the group of anti-metahuman protesters that gathered around the lake on the mainland shore overlooking the Delta HQ. It was a memory that was hard to forget. The air was thick with cannabis and body odor as a throng of people pressed together singing tunelessly to a street rat with a guitar playing along with a group that gave a decent rendition of songs that were decades old. Some raised their hands, passionate in their passivity, taken in by the rush of euphoria provided either by being part of a crowd or heavy substance abuse. Probably both. After that, it became a common place for her to go when she wanted to get her hate on. They pissed her off so much. But the last time she was there, she’d realized that these people had something she didn’t.

A reason.

It was a stupid thing to envy them for. They were small, impotent people, screaming obscenities at anyone who was different. It was distilled stupidity, like reading the comments on an Internet forum.

And yet.

They had passion, a cause, a purpose for their voice. Granted, it was without credibility or anything that made them actually worth listening to, but in the end, did that matter? Stryker would have fought for them. He would have died for them, if someone hadn’t gotten the jump on him.

Delta was spinning its tires trying to find someone to blame, someone to hurt. Lindsay didn’t care anymore.

“Anything else, hon?” the waitress’ voice startled her. She didn’t look up at the woman, shielding her face behind the voluminous hood.

“No. No, that’s fine. Just the check, please.” It was kind of silly asking for it because she had no intention of paying. She could zip out faster than the security cameras could see, and certainly faster than anyone could catch.

What are you doing? From hero to common thief in a matter of days.

She shook away the voice. She’d saved the world a time or two, right? Taking a little food wouldn’t hurt.

“You know, sweetcheeks, you’d do a lot better job of being invisible if you hung out at fast food places where tiny teenage girls actually hung out, instead of a restaurant mostly populated by trucker caps and flannel.”

Lindsay nearly hit the roof at the sudden presence of a strange man. Ignoring her discomfort, he slid into the booth across from her. “Oh, hi, by the way.”

Lindsay blinked. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Who was this guy? If he was going to hurt her, he’d find his man parts crushed so fast he’d never come down from the girlish scream. “Who are you?”

“Your worst nightmare?” He voiced the statement as a question and winked, which made his words either a joke or the truest thing ever. “I’m Donald Kazuki. You might know me as ‘that rat bastard’ or ‘the old man’ or more likely by just plain nothing because my kid doesn’t ever talk to anyone about me. Unless he likes you, then he probably won’t ever shut up about the angst in his life. Have you heard the story about how he was a Fae host for a year?”

Well, that was something at least. “You’re Drake’s dad.”

“The one and only. At least I would presume so. Last I checked, he wasn’t conceived in a bizarre mating ritual that involved multiple men donating their genetic material.”

Lindsay made a face. “That’s…really gross.”

Donald grinned again. “Sweetie, flattery will get you everywhere.”

Lindsay didn’t say anything for a moment. “I’m not going back with you.”

Donald shook his head. “Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay, didn’t your mother every teach you not to make assumptions?”

“Well, I never knew my real mother, so I’m gonna go with no.”

“Condolences.” He didn’t sound very sympathetic. “Well, did your mother ever reach through time, space, and reality and teach you not to make assumptions?” Lindsay made a face and confused noises. “Don’t be surprised, that happens more than you might think.”

“You…don’t plan on taking me back, do you?”

“That depends.” His voice softened, and Lindsay could swear he lost the crazy eye. “Why did you run away?”

Lindsay gaped at him for a moment, then glanced away. “I…I don’t know. I just…there wasn’t anything left for me. I mean, when I started with Delta, I just wanted to be a hero, I wanted people to notice me. And they did, and they loved me, but he still died, and the only thing that’s left is this stupid little girl who—“ She started crying. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks. Then she glared at Donald. “And why am I telling you this anyway, it’s none of your damn business.”

He was playing the quiet old man now, so he didn’t say anything to that. He seemed entirely unperturbed by her tears. She continued babbling in spite of herself. “Stryker always had a reason to fight, something that always kept him going. He said that’s what made him strong. But I don’t think he ever knew that he was mine. I wanted to prove myself to him, wanted to show him I could be worthy of all the attention I got. But it doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”

She sniffed and wiped her runny nose against her sleeve. “Maybe that’s why I ran away. To find something to fight for.”

“And finding the mastermind behind the assassination? That’s not it?”

“You know, I thought about it? I spent a whole night dreaming of tearing whoever it was apart. But the thing is, even if I could figure it out, even if I tracked down the evil son of a bitch and murdered him, it won’t bring him back. And in that hunt, more people are going to die, and more and more, and I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to kill people. I just want it all to stop.” She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be fighting for. To make the fighting stop.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know, I don’t even know if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Donald gave her an exasperated sigh. “Listen, dumpling, do you think your boy saved the world because of some freaky alien powers?” He put on a thinking face for a moment. “Actually, that’s exactly how he did it. But let me tell you something. You know that fight with Kronos that everyone’s so impressed about? I was there. You know what he did in that fight? Not a damn thing. Now don’t look so outraged,” he said, because that’s exactly what she looked like. “He didn’t need to do anything. He and his sister, and I daresay puppy dog Jayson willed Kronos to be beaten. Now, I don’t know if it was God, or metaphysical connection that the wonder twins had to mister high-and-mighty titan of time, but I do know this. Kronos is buried because they believed it to be so.

“You want the fighting to stop? Believe it. Will it. Because that will is all you’ll have left when your world starts crumbling before your eyes. It’s that will that your enemy is trying to break, to manipulate, to bend. So if you have to walk away for now, then so be it. Find your center, or Zen, or whatever you hippy kids are calling it these days.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, you seem like a nice kid and all. A little, you know, teenage girl, but aren’t we all. When you’re in Montreal, look up a pal of mine. Name’s Liam. He got a little tired of Delta’s whole ‘work for us or else’ shtick. Think you can handle that?”

Lindsay nodded. She really wasn’t sure about this guy, but it wouldn’t hurt to look the man up, right?

The old man insisted on paying the bill, though the credit card he used had an obvious alias, so Lindsay wasn’t quite sure how that was different from outright stealing the food, but whatever.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. She took Donald’s advice and started getting her stolen food in places where no one would look at her twice. She never did look up Liam once her bus stopped in Montreal, determined to fend for herself. She didn’t need another adult telling her what to do.

Malls were her comfort zone anyway. She got good at finding cameras so she could avoid any direct visual contact, occasionally super-speed stealing a different set of clothing so she’d never be identified by her hoodie. Always from big corporations though, and she’d donate her discarded clothing to some charity for homeless people. She rotated food courts on a non-regular basis, moving all over the city. No one ever bothered her, and she got really good at people-watching.

She had her favorites, though. The one she stopped in an afternoon weeks after her arrival was one she frequented. It was huge, with three food courts, hundreds of clothing and novelty stores, and a shoe selection enough to make her dreams come true. She was sitting in the middle of the crowd at a lone table when the machine gun fire started. Glass shattered overhead and people screamed.

Her training kicked in. Identify the villain, disarm him. She darted toward the first gunman and grabbed his gun, making sure it was smashed. She felt bullets pelt her back, but ignored them in the split second it took to take that gun away too. Then engage to discover the nature of the threat.

“Boys, boys, boys, can’t we all just get along?”

They were the strong, silent type, and didn’t respond. But one of them glanced quickly up to the roof. What would he be looking there for? Lindsay followed his gaze. Positioned by the skylight was another armed gunman. He pulled the trigger, but not before Lindsay shot into the sky, leaving crumbled tile in her wake, and then got her hand on the end of the barrel. The gun backfired, exploding in his face.

Lindsay sighed. “Here, I thought I was doing so well staying under the radar.”

The boys below took advantage of Lindsay’s divided attention and made a running dash for a young redheaded girl. Lindsay wasn’t as distracted as she seemed to be, though. Before the man could reach his target, Lindsay dashed in front of him and grabbed his weapon from his hand, a long combat knife.

Security was starting to crowd the place. It was time to book. Lindsay took off into the sky. Damn, and I really liked that mall. She couldn’t go back, that was for sure.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. So much for laying low, and not fighting until she found something to fight for. What were you going to do? Let people die?

She landed on the roof of the abandoned building she was using as a shelter for the moment. In a fit of anger, she wound up and gave a soccer kick to an archaic stovepipe. It sailed into the sky, probably to startle some poor, unsuspecting sunbather in the next county. Lindsay didn’t care. How could she be so stupid?

Well, she was just going to have to really lay low now. No more of this hanging around people, not if she was going to get into the nasty habit of saving them. She’d have to work on grabbing food and running before she ate.

Calm down, she told herself. You’re overreacting. She took a breath. Her inner voice was probably right. She needed to relax. She ran through a few calisthenics to mend her shattered nerves. She was sitting in a calm, meditative position, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Hell of a view, huh? Nice rooftop, if you’re into the whole brooding thing.”

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

Lindsay jumped to her feet to see someone standing behind her. She was a blonde girl, perhaps a few years older than Lindsay. She was petite and well-proportioned, and drop dead sexy. Lindsay had no interest in girls, but she suddenly understood why some chicks went through a collage experimental phase. She took a defensive posture. “Who the hell are you?”

She spoke with a thick accent which somehow made her hotter and didn’t impede understanding at all. “My name’s Lyndria. And I think I owe you a thank you.”

Lindsay blinked. “At the mall. Those people were after you. Wait, didn’t you have red hair?”

Lyndria shrugged. “There’s people that want me dead. And my bodyguards are clearly doing a stellar job of making sure that doesn’t happen.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway. It would be kinda nice to have someone on the payroll who can take a bullet without flinching.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Wait. You want to hire me? You don’t even know who I am, and you want to give me a position where I have to protect you?”

Lyndria looked at her. “Your name is Lindsay White. You’re one of three adopted children in your family, along with three other natural born to your parents. Of all your siblings, you’re the only one with powers. Three years ago, you signed up with the Delta Division under the name Spryte, and you’ve been making waves as a hero ever since.” She smiled. “I think it would be rather cool to have a hero at my back, actually.”

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

“I have my sources. Why don’t you come down to my daddy’s place of business, and we’ll talk? I’m sure you’re going to want to know a thing or two about me if you’re going to be working for me, right?”

Lindsay nodded mutely. Then it occurred to her what she was agreeing to. “I, uh…I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, come now. Is there anything we could do that could seriously hurt you? Tell you what, I’ll answer your other question that you seem to have forgotten you had.” Before Lindsay’s eyes, the other girl shifted. Her hair went from blond to the red color she’d seen earlier. Her body changed too, went from buxom and sexy to a hot, girl-next-door appeal.

“See, I’m a meta too. There are a few of us in Quebec. It’s where we can go to make sure Delta can’t tell us what to do. No one in America can tell us what to do.”

“Yeah, Delta’s got partners in a few different countries around the world, but Quebec wasn’t one of them. I figured I wouldn’t have been the only one smart enough to figure that I had a certain amount of autonomy here.”

“Yeah, my mom left there a long time ago. My brothers have some shapeshifting abilities too.”

Lindsay nodded. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Fine. I’ll come. But that’s not a yes, you still have to convince me.”

Lyndria smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The drive was beautiful. The long, black limousine went to parts of Montreal that Lindsay never knew existed. She tended to avoid the places with big corporate offices anyway. They were of no use to her. Finally, they pulled up to a large office building. Huge buildings didn’t normally impress Lindsay, considering the Delta Division HQ was bigger and more impressive than most other buildings. Still, this was something else.

Lyndria got out of the car and Lindsay slid out after her. She watched the other girl stride into the building as if she owned it. Which, in a way, she did.

“My father’s in the import and export business,” Lyndria said as she nodded to the security guards. She stopped short by one of them and slipped a card in his pocket before caressing his forearm. She gave him a smile. “Call me, hm? It’ll be a night you won’t forget.”

The guard looked flustered. “Is…is that an order, miss?”

“I can make it one if that’s your thing. I just want to see that ass of yours put to good use.” She winked. “Barring that, you can do me a favor and let Santoro and Braden know I’m here.” They continued into the elevator and up to the top floor.

“I’ve been slipping my guards since I could walk,” she told Lindsay, “so you’ll have to watch for that. Though, you I like. You seem like you might actually be some fun.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Lindsay said. “You have people that want to kill you, but you give you bodyguards the slip? That makes no sense.”

“Well, if I can get past them, then a killer’s going to be able to as well, right?”

Lindsay couldn’t argue with that logic. “You never said why people want to kill you.”

“Well, see, it’s like this. A few weeks ago, I woke up and my father and brothers were gone. Dunno why, and police and private investigators are absolutely useless in finding anything out. Now, in the event of my father’s death, everything was supposed to fall into my big brother’s lap, so I was cool being the one that never took responsibility for nothin’. Except that my brothers disappeared too, and so everything’s gonna go to me—if they’re found dead. Until then everything’s basically in some sort of limbo. I can’t make my claim, and there’s people who want to keep it that way.”

She made her statement as if family suddenly disappearing was the most natural thing in the world. Lindsay gaped at her, overcome with sympathy.

“If you say you’re sorry for my loss, you’re fired.”

Lindsay shut her mouth.

“I’ll pay you plenty. Room and board, plus a good salary. You in?”

There was something she should be asking, Lindsay was pretty sure. There was something going on here that she didn’t see, but this actually sounded like something decent. Maybe she just shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

Advertisements

It’s so…broken. That was the only thing Lindsay could think of when she touched down on the devastated shores of what was left of New Brunswick. There hadn’t been a shore there yesterday. Now the earth was cracked, washed away by a tidal wave, origin unknown. Lindsay was no scientist, but she was pretty sure a city as developed and cultured as Fredericton shouldn’t—couldn’t—be washed away like it was nothing for no reason. There has to be a reason. Tears welled in her eyes, and she almost screamed, why is this happening?

Shattered rooftops and felled trees thickened the water as it spread out at her feet. The smell was awful. Sewage floated in the gaps between shingles, siding, and two-by-fours. The water was a murky brown not just from the dirt uprooted in the flood. Among the neutral whites, grays, and browns of the refuse, something blue floated, like a bit of the sky had broken too, and had fallen into the shit-stained river. Lindsay hovered into the air and floated closer, examining it.

It was a body of a little girl, her blue dress twisted around her, halfway covering her face, leaving blank eyes staring into death.

Lindsay shrieked.

“Spryte!” The mission supervisor picked his way toward her. Lindsay could not remember his name if she tried, only that he was cute with his wavy dark hair and adorkable hipster glasses. She couldn’t even look at that right now as she screamed indecipherable words with her finger pointing at the body of the girl. She must have flown away, because the world blanked out for a minute, and suddenly she was up against a broken church building with her lunch sprayed on the red brick. Half a statue of the Divine Mother stared up at her, eyes as cold as the dead. She screamed again.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

She must have run much farther than she’d intended, because her super speed had carried her farther inland than she’d anticipated. Far in the distance, she stared at the border crossing between New Brunswick and Quebec. Decades ago, Canada and the United States of American had merged to become the North American Amalgamated States—at least most of it. Quebec’s separatists had become loud and influential during that time, and as the majority of the country embraced the new union, the former Canadian province took steps to become its own dominion. Now under its own governance, the small French-speaking country was determined to separate itself from its parent country in any way possible. When they had been approached by the Delta Division with the offer of cooperation with the agency, Quebec had refused to have anything to do with it. They would take care of their own ‘super heroes’.

This had the unintended effect of making the country act like a refuge to any meta who didn’t want to be part of the Delta Division. Lindsay had heard about such deserters. The Delta Division had a government mandate that allowed them to pressure any meta into joining—for the sake of safety, of course. It was a bit Big Brother, but Lindsay hadn’t considered it a problem until right this second. After all, who didn’t want to be a hero? If people with super powers couldn’t handle the idea of working in an organized group, well that just made them villains. If they aren’t for us, they’re against us.

Suddenly, it didn’t seem so simple. She’d read about people who ran away to Montreal where Delta couldn’t legally touch them—at least not overtly. There was some big political deal about it, and Lindsay didn’t fully understand exactly what was involved in the escape to Quebec, but at that moment, there was nothing she wanted more.

Her gaze traveled back East, where the rest of the cleanup crew were surely still dredging the water for more dead bodies. You’re supposed to be a hero. A hero wouldn’t run away. What would Stryker do?

“Stryker is dead!” she screamed. The words hung out over the deserted highway. “Stryker is dead!” It was almost therapeutic. She filled her lungs again and let out a long, primal scream. “Stryker’s dead.” It came out like a whisper. Her legs crumbled beneath her, and she collapsed onto the grassy lawn. Sobs shook her small shoulders. What’s the point in being a hero now?

She pulled out her phone. You do this, there’s no turning back. You can’t undo this. She scrolled through her messages to find the conversation that went on between her and Marcus. It was mostly cutesy pictures of kisses and cartoon figures with hearts. Her thumb pressed on the text box to send a message.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

She dropped her phone in the grass and shot into the sky.

* * * *

Marcus was exhausted as he stumbled back into the medical ward. It should have been an exhilarating experience of the conversation with the Elves. He should have been awed, thrilled even, but all he could think of was how much Charity would have wanted to be there.

And they’d lost someone else.

It made him sick to his stomach. Drake was a close friend of Charity’s, a mentor, someone Marcus had trusted. Could he really have done all those things they said? Was he the one to hurt Charity? The one to kill Stryker?

No, Jayson was right. Drake wouldn’t—couldn’t do this. Charity, John, Jay, Meryl—they were all his friends. Drake was bat fucking shit nuts, but he was loyal.

Wasn’t he? “A few deaths mean nothing.” The chilling words played over and over in Marcus’ head. He’s in love with Charity…which is why she is still alive.

His head spun, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising as the air charged around him.

Charity was still deep in her coma, her chest rising and falling with each breath. He supposed he should be grateful she could do that on her own. He sat by her bed, alone. Almost always alone. As the days had passed, Eric had stopped in every now and then, but he always smelled of whiskey and wasn’t much for conversation. He couldn’t comfort Marcus, though he’d occasionally attempted a sort of fatherly pat on the shoulder. At least Marcus assumed it was a fatherly gesture. Charity had been mother and father to him for so long.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the empty room with humming machines. It sounded strange, a harsh break in the rhythm of the mechanical beeps and clicks. His voice implied a life that didn’t really exist within the boundaries of those four walls.

He wasn’t sure what he was sorry for. For not protecting her in Ptah-Setker-Osiris? That was ridiculous, and she’d be the first to say it. For being her burden for so many years? He had been kind of a dick. He always resented her, rebelling at the place she had in his life. He never truly valued her care for him. Oh, sure, a bit of teenage rebellion was natural; but if he was going to be so anal about how she wasn’t his mom, why did he treat her like an overprotective mother? She was still just a kid herself when she was raising him. She was his sister, for God’s sake. Why couldn’t they have been closer?

That’s what he was sorry for. Here he had a sister that cared so much for him, would do anything, even give up her own life for him, and he’d taken that for granted. He’d resented her, believed her to be nothing more than a chain around his neck. Then she’d gotten stabbed.

He should have told her. He got now why Charity had never told him about her abilities; technically it was the same reason she’d not told Eric—it was considered treason. Besides, that would have been a super awkward ‘The Talk’. “Sit down, young man, let me tell you of the changes you’ll experience with your body. Your voice is going to drop, you’ll grow hair in strange places, feel weird urges, and start absorbing large quantities of electricity.”

Yeah, that would have gone well.

He missed her. He was already starting to forget what it sounded like when she laughed. She always had a nice laugh. Whenever she did that, he felt safe, like everything was going to be all right. Despite himself, he started crying.

“Hey, bro, how’s it going?” Allen poked his head into the room. He probably noticed the tears, but he politely ignored it.

Allen had been an awesome friend. Somehow beating the crap out of each other had been a bonding experience; and besides, he got the feeling that the other boy was lonely. The girl he was always hanging around with was his only friend.

“Oh, you know.” He shrugged, and left the sentence hanging.

“Yeah.”

“How about you?”

Allen shrugged. “Just got back from filling out the paperwork for the…heh…the Atlantis mission.”

Marcus quirked a smile. “You totally can’t even believe we went to the Lost City of Atlantis, can you?”

“Uh uh. You?”

Marcus shrugged.

“You…have other things on your mind.”

He nodded. “I’m having a little trouble embracing the whole ‘wonder’ thing right now.”

“Understandable.”

The silence stretched. Marcus finally broke it. “So…Drake. Do…do you think—”

“Not in a million years. Look, I get that I haven’t been around as much as some of the others, but I’ve talked with Drake. Gotten to know him a little.”

“No one ever gets to know Drake.”

“I know enough. I feel like he wouldn’t do this.”

A brick clip clop of fashionable heels sounded on the linoleum outside, a herald to the sharp rap on the hospital room door that interrupted their conversation. Samantha Clive opened the door. “Mr. London? Might I have a moment?”

Marcus stood, confused. “W-wha? Sure. I-I know I’m not done the paperwork yet, but—”

“There is an unrelated issue I wish to discuss with you. My office, please.”

Marcus glanced at Allen, then back at the doorway. It was empty now, the director having left for her office. Dread settled into Marcus’ chest to go along with all the other uncertain feelings that already resided there. “Guess it’s hard to say no to that tone.”

He followed the woman, feeling a little like he was walking into his own execution.

He didn’t catch sight of Sam again until he got to the office and Geoffry Davis ushered him into the stately room. He slumped his shoulders and stuck his hands into his pockets, but then thought better of it and stood up straight. Sam sat at her desk as if she had always been there. “Have a seat, Mr. London.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He sat down in one of the plush chairs on the other side of her desk, a little harder than he intended. Again, he resisted the urge to slump. It occurred to ask what this was all about, but he sat there, tongue-tied.

“Mr. London, when was the last time you spoke to Lindsay White?”

“Huh? My girlfriend? Uh…this afternoon, I guess. Just before some of us got pulled to go to Atlantis. I assumed she’d been assigned to disaster relief.”

“She was. Her supervisor tells me she never reported back. Has Miss White talked to you at all since then?”

“Wha—uh…I don’t know. Let me check.” He pulled out his phone. He’d gotten used to being without the device, since his powers had been in the habit of frying them since he was fourteen. Even after he joined Delta and got access to surge protection technology, he forgot he had the damn thing half the time. He never checked it unless notified, and he’d been smart enough to turn off the ringer while they’d conversed with the Elves. A single message was waiting for him.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

He stared at the words as if his gaze would make the message make sense. “What?”

“We pinged her phone just outside the American and Quebec border. That location and your message leads me to believe Miss White no longer wishes to be part of us. Mr. London…Lindsay White has run away from the Delta Division.”

Allen hadn’t slept since Stryker was assassinated. He paced back and forth from his quarters to the infirmary and back again at least a dozen times an hour. Even the training room hadn’t given him any relief, now that Marcus was otherwise occupied.

He could feel Tracy’s eyes on him, full of sympathy. Her presence was the only thing that was keeping him from completely falling apart. He kept playing the raid on PSO over and over in his head, kicking himself for what happened to Charity. “I should have protected her,” he muttered into a plateful of mashed potatoes.

“From flies? What were you going to do, talk them to death?”

Allen rolled his eyes at her, but she had a point. They were sitting in the common room, pretending to eat something. Or rather, Tracy had eaten plenty, but Allen was still pushing food around on his plate from an hour ago. “I don’t know. Something.” Unable to sit still, he shoved away from the table and stood in front of the large bay windows overlooking the lake. This side of the building showed an expansive landscape of the city spread across the skyline. From here he could see the Skyway, a bridge that connected one part of Alliance City to another across a large canal. It was the perfect setting for an epic villain attack, if movies were any indication. In real life, that was a terrible idea. It was in full view of Delta’s headquarters. Evil couldn’t twitch its fingers on that bridge without someone noticing.

Of course, they’d been terrible at seeing every other threat coming.

“Allen, listen. You’re obviously up against someone who’s thought of everything. The whole point of what attacked Charity was that you wouldn’t know it happened. Hell, the timing was even on purpose. You all came back in a panicked rush to find the whole place turned upside down. Of course they’re going to forget to check for something as inconsequential as bug bites.”

He didn’t answer, and she made a face at him. “Allen, sit down.” He sat. He knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. She put a hand on his. “This is not your fault. Now stop beating yourself up, because if you wear yourself out with guilt, you’re not going to have anything left to kick the crap out of whoever’s behind this.” Tears filled his eyes despite himself. She was right, of course. She smiled at him. “You’ve always been stronger than even you ever knew.” Her hand stroked his cheek. “I love you, Allen.”

It thrilled him still to hear that. After so long of hiding his feelings, terrified of screwing up their friendship, it felt like a dream to hear it reciprocated. Somehow their chairs had gotten really close, and the way she leaned into him brought them closer still. Her blue eyes were so full of that ineffable emotion that Allen needed right now, and her lips were inches away from his. He leaned forward, entranced as she too closed the distance between them. “I love you too, Tracy,” he whispered just before their lips met.

That’s when the glass around them imploded into the building with an agonizing sonic scream.

* * * *

“Allen? Hey Allen, buddy, wake up.”

It was Jayson’s voice, Allen was pretty sure, but it sounded like he was underwater. He rolled over with a groan onto a bed made of shards of glass. Tracy. He sat up straight and his head jerked around as he tried to find his girl. She was with a medic, wincing as the woman pulled a shard of glass from her arm. She said something that Allen didn’t catch. “Sorry?” He scrambled over to her.

“I’m okay, Allen, really.” She didn’t look okay. She was bleeding from a myriad of cuts all over her body; however, the medic appeared to be a healer, so before Allen could get too worked up, the cuts disappeared.

Brusquely, the medic stood and touched Allen, and everything all of the sudden stopped sounding like it was so muffled. She was gone before Allen could thank her.

“The hell was that?” he asked Jay. “Also, weren’t you…somewhere else?” He wasn’t quite sure how to define that. ‘Out of the country’ didn’t seem to qualify. ‘Out of this world’ was accurate, but just sounded weird.

Jay shrugged. “Got me. I’m about to hit communications, maybe some satellite imagery will help. And my wife and I just got back an hour ago.”

Allen trotted along behind him. “Did you…did you find out anything?” He wasn’t really sure this was his business, but he would be damned if he was going to be shut out. Jay didn’t really seem to mind. Either that, or his mind was still in a fog. The man had lost his best friend. If he’’d ever lost Tracy…well, he was surprised Jay was still standing, truth be told.

Jayson stopped and looked at him. He looked so tired. “Nothing.”

Drake was in the communications room, which wasn’t a huge surprise, all things considered. Some of the others were there too, most notably Sam. “Are rescue efforts deployed over the city?” she asked Jayson.

He nodded. “What do we know?” Jayson asked Drake.

“It’s global, that’s for sure. Reports are coming in from all over the world.”

A technician called out, “We’re getting reports of combined earthquakes and floods from New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina.”

Sam nodded. “Let’s get coordinated with our headquarters in England, Australia, Japan…”

The list went on, and Allen tuned it out, instead watching with fascination as Drake flipped through the holographic satellite images. Jayson was going through the roster of Delta heroes, his hands flickering through the intangible billboards, putting together teams to deploy all over the world. Allen waited for his name to be called.

“What the…hell?” Drake stared at the display, puzzled. With all the uncertainty that was already plaguing them, that worried Allen. Drake was never puzzled about anything. “Jayson, look at this.”

Jay stopped mid-sentence and looked at the display. By the shape of the land mass displayed, it looked like Antarctica. His face echoed Drake’s puzzlement. “What the hell is Atlantis doing here?”

Allen blinked. Tracy asked the question before he could. “Wait, Atlantis? As in, Lost City of?”

Sam’s eyes flickered over to Tracy. “What’s she doing here? This is not a good time for a visit. We are in the middle of multiple deployments and it seems we will be initiating a highly classified mission. I do not have time to be lenient on this.”

Allen opened his mouth to protest, but Tracy just squeezed his hand. “Good luck, Hero Boy, she whispered, and then she was gone out the door. Allen felt a great emptiness at his side.

Drake looked at Jayson. “Atlantis appears in the middle of a widespread Fae attack? That’s not an coincidence.” Jay nodded.

“I agree,” Sam said. “I’ll be taking a delegation with me to speak to the Elves. Mr. Herrington, presuming you’re still taking point on the Stryker investigation, you may want to be there. Mr. Allison, please get a hold of your wife. We’ll need her language comprehension. Mr. Hachirobei, you too. Spark Plug, Inferno, Spirit, you’’ll form a bodyguard for the delegation. Suit up, everyone, we leave in ten.”

Allen lost no time in donning his custom-made leather jacket over a red t-shirt. He slipped on a pair of black fingerless gloves as an added touch. He had no mask. A secret identity was a little useless after a video of you throwing a lunchroom table gets a few hundred thousand hits. He met the others in the briefing room.

“I get why I’m going, cause I’m awesome,” Mitch was saying, ““But why did they want bring a geek like you?” He poked Marcus in the side.

“Lay off, dick.” Marcus shoved him back. He glanced at Drake. “But really, shouldn’t I stay here? I mean, what if Charity wakes up?”

Drake snapped shut a cover on his gear. “When Charity wakes up, she’ll want to know that you’re doing your job. Besides, she’ll kill you herself for missing a chance to see the Lost City of Atlantis.”

“Yeah, about that,” Mitch said, “I thought that was all bullcrap. I mean, isn’t Atlantis supposed to be a myth or something?”

“Allegory,” Marcus interjected. “Strictly speaking, any text referencing Atlantis was written as a sort of fable to illustrate the fallacy of mankind’s hubris—what?” Everyone was staring at him now.

“You really are missing your sister aren’t you?” Drake said with amusement.

“Shut up.”

Jay raised his eyebrow at Mitch. “You control fire. With your mind. And you draw the line at an advanced city?”

Mitch shrugged. “Valid point.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s an actual reason Sam chose you two,” Jay continued. “The Elves wield elemental magic based around Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Light, and Darkness. That makes Mitch an obvious choice. Fire magic basically controls energy, so Marcus’ abilities count too. Sam wants to come into this diplomatic meeting with a position of strength. Both sides will be doing all kinds of political posturing. Don’t make a move unless you’re ordered to, is that understood?

Allen chorused his “Yes, Sir,” along with the other boys.

* * * *

Drake didn’t like not knowing what was going on. First the Fae showed themselves to be more organized than they had any right to be. Then they become convincing suspects in arranging the assassination of a prominent Delta member—twice if one counted Sam’s poisoning attempt. And then, coincidentally, Charity gets infected with a…something that kept her in a coma. If they hadn’t caused either incident, they were doing a damn good job of making sure no one could find out who did. As far as Drake was concerned, that made them equally responsible.

He was next.

He couldn’t shake that feeling. Jayson made fun of him for being paranoid all the time, but hell, he was still alive, wasn’t he? He admitted to being a overly cautious, but in the time that he was infected by the Fae, he’d learned what people were truly capable of. If he hadn’t been paranoid before, that would have been enough to push him over the edge.

He was positive the Fae was behind everything. Biased? A little. Having one of the buggers so deep inside him he still saw it when he blinked would do that to a man. Racist? Maybe. But he understood their nature better than anyone else’s.

As usual, he used the application programmed into his phone to teleport with the group to Atlantis. Jay was there for transport, but he never teleported with Jay. It made him sick to his stomach every time. They had an unspoken gentleman’s agreement between the two of them: Jay didn’t teleport Drake, and Drake didn’t use his magnetic abilities to affect Jay’s metal prosthetic. Both knew damn well that the enemy wouldn’t go so easy on them, but in their sparring matches they followed that rule to the letter.

Atlantis was unquestionably beautiful. Even in his disgruntled state, Drake couldn’t suppress his inner engineer as his gaze traveled over the marble spires. The material that built the city was of a shifting mother-of-pear color, with pinks, greens, and blues intertwining among each other beneath the surface. Runic carvings covered every square inch of the place, written in every element. Their purpose was as intricate as they were diverse; everything from breathable air to irrigation to lighting. A soft glow lit every square inch of the place. Not a shadow was in sight.

A delegation of Elves approached them. They were tall, their average height at about six feet five inches. Their hair ranged in color from a deep raven black to ice white, and everything in between. In that matter, they were much like humans. But it was their eyes that were different. For one thing, they were spaced just far enough apart to appear alien and give anyone used to human proportions a double-take. The eyes themselves were often pastel colors, the same pink, purple, and green seen in their home’s architecture. Their clothing reflected that as well. They were dressed traditionally, in a manner that hadn’t changed in the last few centuries, let alone in the few years since they’d crossed paths. Their robes flowed over the shoulders, loosely covering their arms and falling nearly to the floor.

There was six of them, with jewelry and tattoos that marked them as mages with their respective elements. Drake recognized Chancellor Rio’kir, the Elvin political leader. He had black hair and slate gray eyes and nearly met seven feet tall. On each wrist he wore metal bracers, engraved with the image of a solemn dwarf with his arms crossed over his chest in salute. With those markings, Drake would have known him to be an Earth mage, if he didn’t know that already.

There were others, some who had risen to rank within the last few years. A woman with red hair in an elaborate updo wore earrings shaped like dragons. She was a Light mage. Elaborate designs on her clothing in six different colors marked her as the Archmage. To Elves, who worshiped a god of knowledge, that made her the spiritual leader as well as the most knowledgeable mage. It was likely that she knew more magic than the rest of them put together.

Wispy tendrils of blue crawled up the Water Mage’s exposed leg, resolving in an ethereal female figure—a Nymph. The Air Mage wore a pendant of a highly stylized Gryphon. The Fire Mage’s ears were adorned with ear cuffs that depicted a squid-like creature called a Fi’chiar.

It was the Darkness Mage that gave Drake the willies. His eyes were purple and his hair a nearly translucent white. He hardly showed signs of age, except maybe around the eyes and mouth. He wore wristbands made of a blackened metal with depictions of children laughing and playing. A closer look would show the ‘children’ to be Fae. Of the six of them, he was the only one that was smiling, which would have been creepy enough even if the smile didn’t seem to carry a hint of twisted malice. He didn’t take his eyes off Drake, or so it felt. Maybe he really was being paranoid.

They were surrounded by armed guards, shields brought to bear, and all manner of weapons pointed at the delegation from Delta. This neither disturbed nor shocked Drake. They had, after all, teleported into Atlantis without warning. He would have been surprised if they were met without suspicion. And now it was Sam’s job to make sure they got to the ‘ask questions’ part without being shot at. He didn’t envy her. No love was lost between him and the woman, but he had to admit, she was damn good at her job.

She spoke in Elvin. “Greetings to the keepers of the knowledge of the All. We come not to impart violence, but to exchange our knowledge with yours. I am Samantha Clive, Director of the Delta Division, and I speak on behalf of the Earthborn.”

Rio’kir approached. “Greetings to you in the name and the knowledge of the All, Samantha Clive. I am Rio’kir, Chancellor and keeper of the knowledge of all diplomacy. Your Delta Division is known to me. We fought side by side with your people against the forces of Kronos.”

“The Shadow Fae provided a formidable enemy in that time, Chancellor Rio’kir. We are grateful for your knowledge that drove them back.”

“And for your assistance.” His gaze traveled to Jay. “Jayson Allison. Maralise. Drake Hachirobei. It gratifies me to see you are well. The knowledge of you and your party was instrumental in binding Kronos.” His eyes flickered. “I note absence of others who stood against the god.”

Meryl translated quickly for Jayson. “Charity London is bound in a deep sleep. My brother…” She swallowed and wrestled for composure. “My brother is dead.””

The Elves were stiff and formal and had a large stick wedged up their collective ass, but they were not without sympathy. Rio’kir approached her and clasped the woman’s hands in his. “May he rest in the knowledge of a life well lived,”” he said gently.

Meryl’s eyes filled with tears, but they didn’t fall. “Thank you.” It was all she could manage. Rio’kir stepped back.

“We believe that the Shadow Fae are involved in his death, if not directly, than in the attempt to cover it up,” Sam said. “Nor do we believe it a coincidence that our Charity London lies in a deep sleep at this point in time. There have also been numerous other incidents that indicate the Fae are amassing an army. Someone is again controlling them, just as Kronos once did.”

Rio’kir’s face darkened. “I may lend knowledge to your hypothesis, Samantha Clive. For it is the Fae that are responsible for our sudden and destructive appearance here in your world.”

The Darkness Mage stepped forward. “I recommend caution to add you to your knowledge, Chancellor. Let us not forget, these are Earthborn. Their motives remain unknown to us.”

Rio’kir turned to him. “These Earthborn are known to me. Their motives align with ours.”

The Darkness Mage fixed them all with that eerie stare. “The motives of Earthborn are complex and capable of deception like that of the Fae. For the sake of expounding our knowledge, let me examine their minds.”

“Oh, hell no.” Drake spoke for the first time. “I have no interest in anyone poking around in my head anymore.” He could have said it quite emphatically in Elvin, but he chose English. The thought of someone reading his mind made him feel ornery, so the more he could piss off any of them who didn’t speak English, the better.

The Elf raised his eyebrow. “I should think, Drake Hachirobei, someone with as much knowledge as you posses would wish all to know if it.” Still with that creepy smile.

“I got my reasons, jackass. Most of them have to do with a Fae using my head as a campground for a year.”

He chuckled this time, and Drake found himself really wishing he’d stop that. “All the more reason to examine the knowledge you poses.” He scanned the rest of the group. ““Our negotiations cannot continue until I have examined the knowledge of each one in the delegation.”

“Then I’m out.” Drake gave a casual two-fingered salute to Sam before he started thumbing through his phone for his teleportation application.

He never got that far. A whispered spell from the Darkness Mage brought forth black tentacles of shadow that wrapped around Drake’s arms. They knocked the phone out of his hand and pinned him to the ground. Jayson shouted in protest, Allen came damn close to punching an Elf in the face, and Marcus and Mitch flared with their energy.

“That’s enough.” Sam’s quiet command called them off. ““Mr. Hachirobei, this tantrum of yours is unnecessary.” She nodded at the Darkness mage. “If it would make you feel more secure, then by all means.”

Jayson made some useless protest, the words of which were lost in the sheer agony of the mind probe. It didn’t need to hurt this much, and Drake knew it, but the mage wasn’t going to go gentle now, not when he had Drake at his mercy.

Drake bit down on the pain. He wasn’t going to scream and give this dick the satisfaction. He could feel the oily fingers of the spell in his head, dredging up memories he was perfectly satisfied to keep hidden. The Mage went deep, right to his childhood. He watched his mother slip away from him over and over again, consumed by cancer. The Mage was doing it on purpose now.

When he finally got done with that memory, Drake relived the abandonment he felt when his dad was never around. By the time Delta got to him, he was already a bitter old man at sixteen. That only got worse when he found out that Delta only wanted him to hunt down his father. Well, joke was on them, he had no goddamn clue where the bastard was. But that whole thing ended up in a showdown or ten between him and his old man. More particularly the one where Drake was playing host to a Fae. It seemed like he lived another lifetime in that fight.

But more importantly, he understood their untapped power. He could rule the world. Stand at the top unchallenged. Oh, the world didn’t need to know he was in charge; after all, he worked better from the shadows. He worked better with the shadows.

A few deaths mean nothing,” he heard himself say to the Fae as he stood before them, their minds linked with his. “You have seen what I can do. Follow me, and together we will see both Earth and Myrathelle at our feet. We will stand above Earthborn and Elf alike.

Reality closed in on him. He was on his hands and knees, panting heavily, blood running from his nose. He probably shouldn’t have fought the inevitable, but he wasn’t just going to give in. It was the principle of the thing.

He saw their faces, a picture of disbelief. Drake said nothing. He found himself entirely unsurprised by the memories he’d just seen. There was a certain inevitability in them. He was a prominent member in Delta, the one person who could actually figure it all out. Of course this was going to happen. So that’’s how they’re going to do it.

Jayson looked at him, face inscrutable, a mask of nothing but pain. “John was my partner,” he said, his voice quiet. “He was my best friend, my brother. You have no idea how much I want—I need someone to blame for this.”

He paused, and in that moment, Drake knew he was a dead man. Jay would never believe in him, so blinded by grief. He didn’t blame him, Drake realized. Jayson had lost nearly everyone he cared about. Under the same circumstances, Drake would also believe that those left would betray him.

Jayson’s eyes were clouded with tears. He lifted a finger, and for a second Drake saw it as the hand of justice. He may not have done this, but there was plenty else he’d done that deserved death.

“But it’s not you. You are not responsible for this.”

It cost Jay to say that, Drake could tell. It meant that the search wasn’t over; that for a bit longer, John would go unavenged.

Sam broke in gently. “Mr. Allison, I know this is difficult, but the evidence suggests that—”

“Screw the evidence!” Jay yelled. “The evidence is wrong!”

“He had the means, Mr. Allison. For the past four years we’ve built an identity that would certainly impress the Fae’s bid for power. He uses fear as his weapon, the very same instrument wielded and admired by the Fae.”

Jay was shaking his head. “No. He wouldn’t hurt Charity, not in a million years. He’s in love with her, for God’s sake!”

“Which is why she is still alive.”

Jay opened his mouth to counter that, and found he couldn’t. Clever, Drake thought. It was an effective way to remove him as a piece from the board. And damn straight, he wouldn’t hurt Charity. His opponent—for he now thought of the mastermind as nothing but—had deftly figured out how to use that weakness as a strength in the case against him. Well, now it was personal.

Jay looked askance at the Elves. “Fine. Take him. On one condition. Keep him alive. Because you can be damned sure I will find out who is really involved, and trust me when I say this, you do not want to be responsible for the death of an innocent man, especially when he is one of us.””

Rio’kir raised an eyebrow. “We do not do well with threats, Jayson Allison.”

“Oh, this isn’t a threat. Except maybe when I point out the part that you’re stuck here with us.”

“In every way that matters, it has been proven that blame for our forced translocation rests on this man. You saw the evidence in his memories yourself.”

“What I saw was a mind trick, easily accomplished with the power of the Fae. Let’s not forget our enemy here.”

Rio’kir actually seemed to consider that for a moment, then continued. “Even if you did not offer him to us, we would insist he be remanded into our custody. We will deal with him as our law dictates. The penalty for this crime is death.”

“Well then, remember one thing: you owe us. All the might, all the knowledge of the Elves could not stand against Kronos. Even from his cage he wielded power. Earthborn died on your behalf, sacrificed their lives so we could fix your problem. Keep him locked up and powerless as you see fit, but do not end his life. I ask you, not as a threat, but as a favor in return for saving your world.”

Rio’kir regarded Jayson with a blank face for a moment. Drake could count his heartbeats as he waited.

“Very well. He will be kept in Atlantis with complete seclusion. But do not take forever to find more knowledge of this case. We are not in the habit of retaining prisoners indefinitely. And besides, the measures we must take to ensure he lacks his power will leave him but a shell of himself if you take too long.”

He waved his hand dismissively, and the rest of the Elves began to walk away. “Leave this place, Earthborn. You now possess our same knowledge of this unfortunate happenstance. Keep us informed, and we shall do you the same courtesy.”

A few weeks passed, and no one bothered Mitch about his extracurricular activities. He wasn’t assigned Blink and Stryker’s route, but he still visited it every now and then. With Charity down for the count, there was a whole bunch of people who were left twisting in the wind in terms of training. She was the one who was supposed to be taking care of the energy controllers. It made sense. She was the one with the power that was tough to control. She understood what it was like to have something burning inside you, just waiting to be unleashed.

Mitch hated that feeling.

He never again saw the thugs he’d beaten up. That almost disappointed him. He was hoping they’d screw up again. However, they were but an early symptom of the boldness that seemed to overtake criminals in general. He followed a drug dealer home once, only to find the man was a meta too, with some kind of precognition ability. Mitch nearly got himself shot trying to get away from that one. He never reported the incident.

He came home one night after cracking a few skulls to find a car parked in the driveway—a beat-up pick-up truck that had to have been a hundred years old if it was a day. What paint hadn’t been eaten away by rust was covered in a thick layer of mud. The tires weren’t black anymore—they were dirt brown. His mother didn’t drive, but he recognized it as belonging to the guy his mother started dating about a month ago. Oh. Wonderful. The guy was a useless waste of space.

Michaela greeted him at the doorway with arms wide open. “Heyguesswhat!” She bounced with excitement, and flung her spindly arms around Mitch’s neck, only lingering for a second. “Vic’s here!”

“Yeah, I saw his car in the driveway.” Mitch wasn’t nearly as enthused. His sister loved the man, though he could never figure out why.

“Mom’s making spaghetti. I made her set a place for you, even though she wasn’t sure if you were going to be home for supper.”

Well, the spaghetti might make it worth his while to stick around. He just hoped Vic wasn’t going to be an ass tonight. He’d already burned most of his willpower not turning on his heel and walking away the moment he saw the car. If the guy was going to be a dick, he would put his fist through his nose. Or set the car on fire. Yeah, that would be awesome. Mitch let himself dwell on that image for a moment.

He was still imagining the vehicle’s hood buckling under the heat when he walked into the living room, which doubled as a dining room when they had company. Vic sat at the head of the table, chair tipped back and feet on the table. A worn baseball cap sat lopsided on his head, which he constantly adjusted. He’d stretch out his tall, lanky form, whip the cap off, twirl it in his fingers, bend the brim, and shake before finally putting it back in a position that made even less sense.

Mitch wanted to burn that goddamn cap.

“Mitchell! Sonny boy!” Vic waved the tips of his fingers at Mitch. “Glad you could make it.”

Mitch hated it when he called him that. “Whatever.” He plunked down at the table and slammed his elbows on the table and put his chin in his hand.

“Mitchell Robert, get your elbows off the table,” his mother scolded. “Go wash up, and for heaven’s sake, get out of that jacket.”

He was still wearing his Inferno outfit. He never bothered with the whole secret identity thing. If someone really wanted to do him harm, there wasn’t going to be a point in hiding because they could find out easily enough.

He was rather filthy. His hands were covered in soot, and his face was all smudged with the stuff. He complied with his mother’s orders. The jacket went on the hook by the door, and he’d gotten soap up to his elbows when Vic slapped his mother’s ass and she bent down to kiss him. Mitch’s mouth curled in a snarl, and the water on his hands evaporated from heat, leaving the soap as a dried crust.

Stow it, he reminded himself. He ran his hands under the water again, and splashed his face, running the droplets through his short, red hair before wiping the excess water off on a dishtowel. He took a seat again.

“So. Mitchell.” Vic drawled out his name into two distinct syllables in a mocking manner that set Mitch’s teeth on edge. “Your mother tells me you’re a hero.”

“Yup!” Michaela piped up. “He’s all, like ‘Bam!’ ‘Pow!’ And saving the world and stuff, right, Mitch?”

Mitch couldn’t help smiling at that. Michaela was eleven, and more than a little excitable. She pumped her tiny fists into the air at each exclamation, as if she was the one punching away imaginary bad guys. “Something like that, Kala.” That was his nickname for her, left over from when they were much younger, and he couldn’t quite pronounce her name.

“I see,” Vic said. “Saving the world from what, exactly? Disaster, famine, corrupt politicians?” He grinned. Mitch glowered. The man was deliberately trying to bait him.

“We do disaster relief, sure. I’d like to see you run into a burning building.” Literally. He would love to see the man run into a burning building. Coming back out was optional.

Vic took his time shaking parmesan cheese onto his pasta. “So, you provide public service. And do it better than trained professionals, how, exactly?”

Mitch hated that argument. He heard it way too much. “Look, we train. In fact, that’s most of what we do is train. So that’s kind of bullshit to say we don’t know what we’re doing. Delta wouldn’t let us out if we didn’t.”

“Oh, sure, sure.” Vic twirled his spaghetti in his spoon for a moment. “And beating up thugs in an alleyway? Is there training for that?” he glanced up at Mitch.

Shit. He knew. Mitch had no idea how the guy knew, but it didn’t even cross his mind to question if he knew or not. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. Like your little sister said, you beat up the bad guys, but tell me, Mitchell, how can you tell who the villains really are? You’re distracted by the appearance of evil, the obvious depravity of the ones who, say, steal money, or threaten to kill someone. But what of those who sit behind a desk and manipulate people’s lives, are they also evil?”

Mitch blinked. “W-well, sure. But—“

“And who says you’re the ones who get to define that evil? How do you get to say what is good and bad? To save a life, you might have to take another, is that the actions of a hero or a villain? You know who gets to say that? The one who writes the history books. The ones with the power. The ones who win. It seems to me you’re the ones who create villains.”

“There is an ultimate good and evil. We fight—“

“You sure about that? One man’s evil is another man’s truth. Are you sure you know evil when you see it?”

Mitch tried again. “We fight—“

“You fight against what you are told to fight. You trust those around you to know what’s right, but do you trust what they see? The criminal you beat up on the streets, or the one who gives you orders, which of these sentences a person to death? Who is the villain?”

Mitch was entirely confused by now. “I—I…”

“Look at me, Mitchell. Look me in the eye and tell me you can spot a true villain.”

Mitch looked at him. He couldn’t say why he did what he was told, but he did. He looked the man directly in the eye, and as he did, the man’s visage shifted just a little. His eyes went all black, and his skin turned slate gray. His ears extended just a little. Mitch paled. His jaw dropped and he felt nausea tightened in his stomach. Vic was a Fae.

He leaped to his feet so fast his chair hit the ground with a bang. He tightened his fists, and fire flared from his hands. “Get the hell out of my house, you—“

“Mitchell!” Mitch’s head swiveled at the sound of his mother’s voice, then back to Vic. The man looked normal now. Normal, unevenly tanned face, normal gray eyes, normal dirty blond hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. Normal ears poked out from underneath his dirty baseball cap.

Vic chuckled. “You see? If you can’t even sort out what reality you’re seeing, how are you going to see true evil?”

“If you hurt them, you son of a bitch, I swear to God…”

“Mitch, sit down, all right? Just sit down, and let’s eat.” Mitch’s mother was talking in her calm, pacifying voice—the one she always used to use when Dad was about to lose his temper.

“Mom, please, can’t you see he’s…he’s not…” Vic was grinning at him, even as tendrils of black shadow snaked around the table and chairs. They encircled his family’s wrist and neck. They didn’t see. They didn’t know. This…creature was threatening to kill them, and they didn’t even know it.

Mitch never felt so helpless in his life. With nothing left to do, he dismissed the fire and dropped his fists. He calmly picked up the chair and set it right before sitting down on it.

“That’s better.” Vic’s voice somehow sounded even more mocking now. “Let’s all sit down and have a nice meal like a nice, happy family.”

Mitch glared across the table at the Fae. “I know you can read my mind, you sick, demented creature. I will burn you from the inside out, do you hear me? I will fry every piece of you into twisted charcoal until you scream for mercy, except that I have none because you messed with my family.”

Vic smiled back. “Do that, and your little sister will be dribbling nose blood into her pasta sauce before you can spark. You want to be responsible for that? Look at her. Such pretty red curls. She’s going to grow up to be such a lovely young thing. It’ll be a pity if she has no mind. And your mother. I see her thoughts. I see how afraid she is of you. How do you feel about that, flamebrain? Your own mother is afraid of you. Afraid you will burn her and her house to the ground.”

“I will burn you in your sleep.”

“I don’t sleep. Tell me this, if we were to have this out right now, shadow and fire, who would your mother beg to stop?” Mitch could see it. Against his will, against his own mind, he saw his mother on her hands and knees, covered in flame and burning cotton, screaming. Michaela screamed too, her hair flaming, not with the color, but with his fire. Their skin was melting and running together into the carpet.

“Stop. Stop this. Goddamnit, stop!” Mitch couldn’t control the temperature in the room anymore. He could see the sweat beading on his mother’s forehead. At least, he thought he saw it. He didn’t know anymore, couldn’t tell the difference between reality and the illusion that Vic was pressing into his mind.

“Oh, I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop until you go mad, until you slaughter your family, burn them with your own fire, because then at least you’ll know they’re dead for real. And don’t think hounding the Delta Division for a solution will help either. Do that, and I’ll take them away, and you will never know if they’re alive or dead. Your own imagination will decide their fate. Your choice, Mitchell Roberts. Let them live in peace and happiness and ignorance, or tell the truth and watch the world burn.

“Now, tell me, Mitch…who is the villain now?”

* * * *

They trained with the Fae in mind now. Drake taught them to interpret the world around them a little differently, and introduced breathing and mental exercises to resist the Fae. Every day, Mitch would take what he learned and try to break Vic’s hold on his family. It never worked. Every day, he became more and more desperate. It showed.

There was combat training too. Drake paired Allen and Marcus together and pit them against Mitch and Lindsay. The two boys worked together like an oiled team, which pissed Mitch off. It wasn’t fair that they’d had time to practice. It was only when he got the drop on Marcus that he was able to eat into their advantage. He saw Marcus going for a generator and blew it up before he could get there.

Marcus went flying with pieces of shrapnel. Mitch’s boots hit the gravel and he yanked Marcus up by the collar. Marcus wasn’t unconscious yet, so it didn’t trigger the automatic shut-off for the simulation. Mitch didn’t give him a chance to tap out. Rage and fury took over him and he slammed his fist into Marcus’ face. Over and over again until he could feel the blood run over his knuckles until he didn’t know if it was his or the other boy’s. Marcus’ jaw cracked, and his eyes swelled up.

Then Allen dove in with a surprise attack knee to the face. Mitch felt a spike of pain, and the simulation shut down.

Marcus yanked the helmet off and grabbed Mitch. “What the hell, man? What is wrong with you?”

Mitch shoved him back. “Lay off, London.”

Marcus wasn’t going to give up. “Dude, you beat the crap out of me, and you’re telling me to lay off?”

“It’s a goddamn game, Marcus, why are you making such a big deal out of it?”

“I don’t know, you tell me. You’re the one who just caved my virtual face in. What is your problem?”

Instead of responding, Mitch slammed his fist into Marcus’ face—for real, this time. “I said, lay the hell off!

Marcus blinked in surprise, but only for a moment. He body tackled Mitch. They both went to the ground. Marcus got a good punch in, and Mitch a couple kicks, before Allen intervened. Mitch’s collar yanked into his throat, and part of him reflected that it was no joke when a guy with super strength pulled apart a fight. The rest of him was just pissed. “Screw off, Gray, this doesn’t concern you!” He threw in a heat wave with his shove because he was angry, and Allen could take it on the chin. Fire flared around them, hot enough to make the other boy flinch.

But he was persistent. Before Mitch could react, Allen had both his wrists pinned to his sides. “Seriously dude, you’re being a goddamned dick. Is there something going on? Because all we want to do is help.”

Mitch nearly threw up in his mouth from the sickly sweetness of the kid’s sympathy. “Get the hell offa me! I told you, it’s none of your goddamn business!” Allen let him go suddenly, and Mitch flew backward, nearly tripping over one of the chairs they sat in to play the VR simulations. He heard Allen apologize, which somehow made him more mad. He turned and ran from the room, praying that no one was going to follow him, and half hoping they would.

Somehow, he ended up stumbling through the labyrinth of the Delta Division Headquarters and up three flights of stairs before he finally stopped running. The area he was in didn’t get a lot of traffic. He didn’t have the faintest idea where he was, or what the area was used for, but he really didn’t care. He just wanted to be left alone. He could feel the madness creeping in, and all he wanted was for it to stop. A sob escaped his lips against his will. The plastic railing melted under his hands before he realized how hard he was gripping it. Furious at himself, he swiped viciously at the hot tears coming from his eyes.

“You know, they’re right. You are kind of being a dick.”

Mitch nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Lindsay’s voice. He’s forgotten she was there in the VR room. She hadn’t said anything when the fighting broke out. At least, he was pretty sure it was her, standing there now. It could be another illusion from the Fae, just one more thing to drive him mad. In lieu of the melted railing, he gripped onto the brick windowsill and closed his eyes. He forced his breathing to slow and his mind to quit racing. He muttered a nursery rhyme, concentrating on each syllable. It was a trick that Drake taught them to at least dissuade a Fae from getting in their heads. It wouldn’t stop them if they were determined enough, but it was all Mitch had.

Lindsay laughed. “Humpty Dumpty? Really?”

Mitch swallowed. He hadn’t realized he was saying it out loud.

“Well, I guess I can’t judge. Mine’s Little Miss Muffet. Dunno why. I think my dad used to call me that. You know, my real dad.” Oh, that’s right. She’d mentioned she was adopted. “So, why’d you think there was a Fae trying to get in your head?”

Shit.

“That’s what’s been going on, isn’t it? Why you’re always so worked up?”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Mitch. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Tell me. What’s going on?”

“A Fae’s got my family.” The words rushed past his lips before he could bury them. Dumbass! He slammed his fist into the brick wall so hard it bled.

“I see. And if you’ll tell anyone, blah, blah, blah, right?”

Mitch grabbed Lindsay by the shoulders. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t tell anyone. Not even Marcus. Please. He said he’ll make my sister disappear. Please.”

He could feel the tears starting to burn in his eyes again. She looked at him, eyes so big and blue. “Okay. I won’t tell anyone.” He let out a sigh of relief. “But you know, so long as you’re afraid of him, he’s going to keep doing this to you.”

“I…I don’t care. So long as Mom and Michaela are safe. I don’t give a damn.”

“Hey.” She hugged him. It wasn’t anything beyond platonic, but it was still somehow comforting. “We’ll figure something out, okay? I promise.”

For some reason, Mitch believed her.