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?”
“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.