Posts Tagged ‘Delta Division’

Liam Roberts was tired of hearing his own voice. He could only imagine what his students felt like. He droned his way through the chemistry equations for the millionth time, his brain not even registering the words he said anymore; he heard the squeak of the chalk on the board more than he heard the list of noble gasses.

The door in the back of the classroom clicked open. Jemma Swanson he thought. A chronically late senior who’d belatedly taken his grade eleven class to make up a missing science credit. Liam wasn’t sure he was going to give it to her.

Instead of the peppy redhead, however, he saw an older man with Asian features, whose thick hair had long since given way to the whiter end of salt-and-pepper. A sparse, neatly trimmed goatee framed a knowing smirk—an expression the man had permanently plastered on his face. Donald Kazuki. The hell was he doing here?

Liam finished up the rest of his class in a daze, all too aware of the other man’s piercing gaze on the back of his coppery head. Liam’s hair had long since given up keeping the grays at bay, but he still retained most of his youthful luster. More than one class room girl had described him as a teacher they’d like to fuck. He still wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

When the hour was over, he dismissed the class a little early, and they all ran past the older man. A few gave him weird glances. They weren’t all so ignorant that they’d ignore an interloper. Teenagers were all too aware of their own little world, and unaccepting of anything that tried to invade it.

Liam took a breath and walked the few steps down the aisles created by the desks. He planted his fingers on one. He could feel the anxiety well up in him, and he was mildly surprised that the lacquer didn’t dissolve beneath his touch. More than one desk around here had his fingerprints permanently and inexplicably burned into the wood. He was usually careful, however, to take measures to make sure that didn’t happen. He hadn’t let his powers go to their full potential in years.

“What?” It wasn’t like him to be brusque, but Donald brought back memories better left buried.

“Had a visit from a teen paragon lately?”

“Teens yes, paragons, I hope the fuck not. I don’t do that shit, you know that.”

Donald’s smirk became smirkier than usual. “There’s a whole meta community here in Montreal. I would think you’d want to connect yourself with your own people. Help them out and whatnot.”

“I’m not a hero, and I’m done pretending to be. I just want to be left the hell alone. Figured you of all people would understand that.”

“Yeah, well, old habits die hard. Turns out I’m no good at not meddling.”

“Well, you don’t need to meddle any more in mine.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, I’m sorry.”

“Someone hasn’t been taking their meds.”

“Your snark isn’t helping,” he snapped. “And yes, in fact, I have. There’s ten to one odds you’d be a scorch mark on the wall, and I’d be out of a job if I wasn’t taking my meds.” Liam was used to the half-dead fuzzy feeling of having his powers buried under a chemical concoction. He was on a medication that didn’t quell his mental imbalance, but at least mitigated the symptoms, and quenched the fire that so often threatened to burn more than just his surroundings.

“You and I both know that wouldn’t happen.” Donald gave him a knowing look that made Liam want to slap him. He sighed. So maybe he wouldn’t get that far. Donald was one of the most powerful gravity controllers that mankind had ever seen. Liam didn’t want to get on his bad side, not if he could help it.

“Whatever. Look, what do you want?”

“I want to know if you’ve seen Lindsay White. I know she headed this way. I directed her to you.”

“Yeah well, teenagers are so good at listening.”

“Never known a single one that did. Just wanted to see if this was par for the course, or if she’d be different.”

“Not even a little. And I say that without knowing a damn thing about her.”

Donald gave him a scowling look that managed still to look smug. “You’re cynical.”

“I’m a high school teacher. And look who’s talking.”

“Fair point. Regardless. This kid’s liable to get herself in a pack of trouble.”

“Still missing why I should care.”

Donald shrugged. “Look, I don’t care if you care or not.” He paused a moment, twitched his fingers as if going over that sentence in his head. “Yeah, sounds about right. I don’t care. That’s about what it boils down to. Who really cares if some kid loses her way and tumbles into a world of hurt that’ll spiral her down into a series of poor choices that leads her to become super powerful and ends the world as we know it?”

Liam made a face. “Now who’s cynical?”

“Am I wrong?”

Liam sighed. He wasn’t.

“Each of these kids has so much potential,” Donald continued. “Sure, right now they’re not much. You’re teaching a bunch of know-nothing, snot-nosed youngsters how to paint the town red.”

“I’m teaching chemistry, not art.”

“Because kids need to know about hydrogen and oxygen and what not. Do you honestly feel like you’re helping them? How many of these kids are going to go on and become great? Five? Ten? One? You’re lucky if that happens. But the one that does become great could take over the world with the knowledge you give them. Now multiply that by super powers.

“You think I’ve been watching over the Delta Division because of some cranked up mothering issues that makes me want to babysit a bunch of freak show kidlets? I watch them because I know if they turn out as half as messed as me, this world is going to have problems. I’ve been stopped on more than one occasion. Those kids that are running Delta now? They stopped me. And that was a good thing because frankly, I was probably going to destroy the world.”

He was serious. The smirk was gone, and there was something so deadly in his tone that it made Liam take a step back.

“I’m not telling you to care because we have to nurture the brats. I’m not telling you to care at all. I’m not even going to say that your kid is with Delta right now, fired up and pissed off because his daddy fucked off and doesn’t care about him.”

Liam’s hands twitched at that.

“I’m telling you to watch and get your shit together because if we don’t, there’ll be hell to pay, and it’ll be one of our own creation.

Liam fixed him with a steady look. He turned on his heel and walked back to his desk.

“Fine. Ignore me.”

“Donald, for all your talk, you spend very little time paying attention. I’ve got duties here.” He sighed. “I need to lay out materials for a substitute. If I’m going to lay off my meds and let my powers emerge, I shouldn’t be around my students daily when I do it. Give me a while.”

He fixed him with an annoyed look. “You’ll have your enforcer. Or whatever the fuck it is that you want.”

* * * *

Allen had spent weeks going back and forth across the streets of Montreal, showing Lindsay’s smiling picture to anyone who would give him the time of day. That didn’t include many people. Those that actually spoke English turned away at his pleas, and few bothered too look at the picture, let alone be helpful.

Still, he refused to give up, no matter how many people turned him away. A promise was a promise. Though he’d rather be doing literally anything else, he wasn’t going to back out now, even though he wished mightily that he wasn’t a tongue-tied idiot. He hated going up to people he didn’t know, hated initiating conversation with people that made him so uncomfortable. He’d rather face Marcus a hundred times without the simulator between them than talk to people on the streets.

But he couldn’t face Marcus at all until he did his damnedest to find Lindsay. Marcus was stressed out beyond what anyone should have to endure. Charity had woken, that much was true, but Marcus’ sister wasn’t the same. The doctor was puzzled as to why; evidently the thing inside her head suppressed her mental functions and memory to the point that Charity felt and functioned like a twelve-year-old girl, with the memories to match. Charity was reliving her life as a pre-teen, just shortly after the death of her parents. Allen could only imagine that gut-wrenching sorrow.

Marcus needed support. No one should have to go through that kind of thing alone. His girlfriend should be beside him. For a moment, Allen imagined his life without Tracy, and gave up quickly because it made him sad beyond words. Any more of that, and he was going to curl in a ball in the dark, damp alleyway behind the nearby dumpster and cry.

This whole mission was making him upset. Lindsay had run off. Who would do that to the guy she professed to love? Who would abandon someone when they most needed you? Allen had to stop thinking about that too, because it just made him angry. Any more, and he would kick that dumpster into orbit.

Something caught his attention—or rather, he imagined it did. He stopped for a second and turned around. The alley was empty.

Nothing then. He shrugged and continued down the street, making his way to a nearby convenience store. It was a long shot checking out all these small shops, but he’d combed the malls and the big box store, and everywhere else he assumed an attention-seeking teenage girl would hang out.

He’d been unsuccessful, which puzzled him. He’d assumed that someone like Lindsay would be easy to find. It was no secret that she liked to be the center of attention, so it stood to reason that someone somewhere would have seen something. About the only clue that he got was a few witnesses to a quick skirmish that involved a girl with flight and super strength that was unfazed by assault rifles. That sounded like Lindsay, but that devolved into a dead end because no one could figure out where she’d gone after that.

Something wasn’t right. The alleyway was empty. Why was it empty? It hadn’t been ten minutes ago. There was a smoldering cigarette butt on the ground, and lived-in boxes were left with the battery operated plate warmer still sending heat waves into a can of baked beans. The alley was empty because people had cleared out. Why had they done that?

Allen turned around again. There was nothing there. What am I missing?

Then his brain turned inside out.

Wordless pain jabbed through his head like someone was scratching the inside of his skull with jagged fingernails. He let out a guttural cry and clutched his head. The ground rose up to meet him in what could only be a gentle embrace when compared to the agony he experienced. He wanted it to stop, but he had no idea how to make it so. He reached out his hand and flailed around for the unlikely chance it would grasp onto a solution.

No such luck. An animalistic roar sounded in his ears and clawed hands grasped his wrist, pinning it behind his back. An equally gnarled match to the hand grabbed him about the throat. Something hit the back of his knees. Under any other circumstances, it wouldn’t have been enough to bring him down, but he fell anyway because the nails in his head made him want to.

Through blurry vision, he saw shoes approach. They were white, with edges melted away at the bottom, and laces halfway eaten through. “That’s enough, Freakazoid. I want to talk, and he’s not going to be able to do that with a melted brain.”

The pain lessened. The speaker yanked his head up by the hair. He was late twenties, with a thick mohawk dyed like a green skunk. “I want to know why you’re after the paragon hero.”

Some instinct made Allen do what he did best and shut his mouth.

The mohawk man grinned. “Oh good. We get to do this the hard way.”

He clapped his hand on Allen’s jaw. Allen felt nothing but his touch at first, but then an itching, burning sensation bit into his skin. He bit back a groan. Fuck this. You’re stronger than this. He reached back and grabbed at his captor, his hand grasping some part of anatomy he couldn’t quite identify. With a twist and a flick of his powerful arms, he broke the grapple and threw his opponent over his shoulder.

What he saw surprised him. The creature wasn’t human, or at least didn’t look like it. He was some bizarre combination of a dinosaur-like demon with obscured humanoid features. It crashed into the pavement, leaving spidered cracks as he skidded right into the dumpster.

“Get your ass up, Raptor. Don’t be giving me that bullshit.”

Raptor struggled to his feet with a snarl. “Fuck you, Corrosion. You never said he was this strong.”

“Oh, is the baby hatchling having problems? Grow the fuck up.”

Allen was pissed off and scared as hell. “Look, I don’t know who you guys are, but—”

“Fuck it,” Corrosion said. “Freakazoid…kill him.”

The pain lanced his head again. It was stronger this time, and Allen felt something warm trickle from his nose. He tried to move, but that was impossible. He took a staggering step forward and collapsed. No, Tracy…I can’t give up…I can’t go…not like this…

His body felt cold. He’d heard death described as an icy touch, and it crawled into him now, stealing his breath and making him long for the warmth of his best friend—his girlfriend’s—embrace.

Then everything got really, really hot.

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The door to Charity’s hospital room opened and closed with a click. Marcus didn’t look up until a paper bag waved in his face. “What’s this?”

“Vegetable soup.” Allen gave him a lopsided smile. “Tracy’s mom always makes it whenever she knows people are upset, so I thought maybe it would help if I got the chefs here to make it for you.”

In spite of himself, Marcus smiled. “Thanks. For everything. I mean it, Allen.” He sighed and ran his hands over his face. “Fuck, I hate this. It’s just so…” He trailed off, trying to find the right word.

“Hard?”

“Cliche. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of some goddamned soap opera. There’s nothing going on here that’s not an archetype of the difficulty a character goes through on television.”

“Are you telling me you’re pregnant?” Allen quipped.

Marcus smirked. “Funny. That would almost be par for the course, though. A month ago, I would have said that me birthing a child would be more likely than the Lost City of Atlantis reappearing.”

He opened the bag and took out the Styrofoam container. Opening the lid revealed a cornucopia of excellent smells and reminded him that he was actually hungry. He had half of it wolfed down before he realized what he was doing. “My God. That’s really good.”

“I know, right? Who could have guessed that something so healthy would be so amazing?”

“This is your girlfriend’s mom’s recipe?”

Allen laughed. “I don’t know if she would call it a recipe. She more or less throws whatever veggies she can find into to it. Also, bacon.”

“Bacon is a vegetable.”

“It totally is.”

Allen sat, then shifted in his chair. “Speaking of girlfriends, where’s Lindsay been?”

Marcus’ grin faded. “I don’t know. She, um… She quit.”

Allen blinked. “She what? Can you even do that?”

“Not really. Delta’s a little…totalitarian like that. I mean, people leave, but it’s usually with a kind of understanding that Delta’s always going to be watching them and they have to come in if duty calls. But like three weeks ago, she sent me a text saying she couldn’t be a hero anymore and took off to Quebec. Delta’s got no jurisdiction there.”

Allen was quiet for a moment. “Are you okay?”

“Honestly? Not really. I get that she’s having a rough time of it, I really do. She took Stryker’s death really hard, but… Dammit, Allen, I need her right now. I need my girl.”

The chair scraped and Allen stood up. “Well then, I’m just going to have to find her.”

Marcus blinked at him. “Wait, what? Dude, I appreciate it, but aren’t you kind of needed here?”

“Not really, no. I mean, think about it, I’m just sitting around on my ass waiting for something to hit. This way I’m actually doing something. Besides, I hear Montreal is nice this time of year.” He grinned and headed for the door. He turned. “Marcus, I promise. I’ll bring her back.”

* * * *

Eric was having a staring contest with his whiskey bottle. It didn’t blink. A small voice told him to give it up, that he had a mystery to solve. A much louder voice told him to drink and forget it. There was no way he could figure out what was going on.

He was still debating it when he realized he’d taken not one, but three more whiskey shots. Ah, well, I tried. He gave up on the glass, then, and soon passed out.

“Get in the car, Eric!” Charity screamed at him.

Eric did so, reflecting that it was a very weird time to go on a road trip when Charity was in the hospital in a deep coma, but if that’s what she wanted, then okay. They took off just as the first bomb hit. “You know, if we leave now, we’’ll never see the city like this again.”

“I know.” Charity gave him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Then whose was it? Eric felt like he knew the answer to that question, but he couldn’t quite pin it.

“Big Brother’s watching,” Drake said from the back seat. He pointed up. Sure enough, through the car roof, Eric could see a huge eye in the sky, open almost like a portal to another dimension. Through that portal came thousands of black objects, swirling and swimming around like a swarm of insects.

“A bomb’s coming,” Charity told him, much like she’d say that it was going to snow.

“Yeah,” Eric agreed. It was just the two of them, now. “Better get driving.”

She did what she was told and pushed the pedal as close to the floor as it would go. The car rocked with the world around him as the ground was struck with a nuclear missile. In the distance, Eric could see the mushroom cloud of dust. “Go, go, we have to go, and pray to God we can outrun it.”

“Okay.”

“Here! Here! The underpass. We’ll hide there until the storm passes.”

Charity drove right by that underpass and stuck to the road for some distance, the dust cloud on her tail, but then she careened off the highway through a guardrail. Eric watched as they plummeted past one layer of the intersecting overpass, and then another. Finally, after falling for what seemed like thousands of feet, they landed on the road. With a screech of the tires, Charity brought the car underneath the bridge.

The two of them tumbled out of the car and ducked under the low bridge. Eric buried his face in his knees. He could feel the roof closing in.

And then the blast hit. He could feel the wind rushing through the concrete thousands of feet above him. The air grew hot and heavy. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs gasped for air, burning with the heat of the nuclear ash and lack of oxygen.
Then it was over. Eric heard footsteps on the grated stairs from the upper level. They echoed through the deserted stairwell that had become his and Charity’s shelter.

An old Asian man popped his head and stared at them upside down through the stairs. “Oh. You need help? I help you, yes?” He had the voice of an old mentor from a badly done foreign film.

Eric just nodded. “I have to find the one who threw the bomb, though.”

“Okay, I help.”

The old Asian man pointed at the bomb casing. The dust wafted across the open field where Eric stood alone. “Move that so you can see who’s behind it.”

That seemed legit. Eric grasped it with both arms and lifted. His suit wrapped around his body to assist. He would know who was behind it all, and that knowledge would get him killed. He did a half turn and set down the bomb. His eyes opened wide with shock and recognition.

Eric woke to a painful neck cramp from sleeping on the table, the evidence of last night’s binge drinking on the table in front of him. For a second he considered trying to force himself back into slumber. He’d figured it out, he was sure. In his dream, he’’d seen the mastermind. All the pieces had fallen into place, and everything made sense. If only he could get that back!

He’d come back to his apartment for a change of scenery, but that was absolutely no help, so he made his way back to Delta’s Island. The moment he set foot in the high-rise, he could feel Charity’s presence in an inexplicable way. Just knowing she was here made his heart twist. Yet, he couldn’t bear to go to the infirmary. Charity was out cold and out of reach. For a second he thought that at this rate, she might as well be dead. He quickly put a lid on it. So long as she was breathing, there was hope. But he still couldn’t bring himself to go see her.

Instead, he sat in the common room at the Delta Division headquarters with his tablet and a latte. For the hundredth time, he went over the evidence and everything else he knew. Point one: the Fae were back in town. Mischievous and disorganized, they operated with fear, rallying only when a powerful person gave them direction. They seemed to have infiltrated the entire planet. Ferreting them out would likely require an alliance with the Elves of Atlantis. Point two: Stryker was assassinated with a method that nullified his powers. Usually the first suspect would be Solstice in this instance, but they were equally confused and desperate to find out how it was done so they could duplicate it.

That list threatened to get long as each point branched off into interconnecting sub points. He’d have to ask Sam for a war room where he could spread everything out evenly. While he was making mental lists, he decided instead to focus on a list of the attacks.

First, there was Stryker. No, that wasn’t right. Technically, Charity had been attacked first, it just hadn’t become evident until much later. So, in a reaction to what seemed like a global infiltration of Shadow Fae, they’d gone to investigate the only other god-like being they’d heard of on this planet. That had more or less been a bust, especially since they’d been pulled early.

Eric thought a minute. They’d been pulled just as Stryker was assassinated. He flipped his tablet to his records to see exactly the time that the shot was fired, then checked the time that Charity got bit. He allowed himself to theorize for a second. What if the assassin was waiting for the attack on Charity? What if Charity was the target and Stryker was just a distraction to make sure no one noticed she had been infected?

Then there was Sam. Still alive, but was it coincidence that she’d been poisoned on the same night as Stryker’s assassination? For that matter, why poison? It was such an archaic, unreliable method of killing, especially with someone like Dr. Franks in the building. Why would anyone even attempt such a thing? Unless it was meant to fail.

“Hello, Mr. Harrington. How are you holding up?” Sam slid into the chair across from him, the picture of dignity.

Eric looked up from his tablet. “Evening, Director. As well as can be expected, I guess. I keep hoping I’ll drink myself into a lucid dream that’ll reveal it all.”” He smiled, and Sam chuckled.

“We can only hope, I suppose. But until they discover a reliable method for substance-induced dreamscape fortunetelling, perhaps it would be better for you to remain sober. Especially when on the job.” Her smile scolded him gently, and without judgment.

Eric nodded to his latte beside him. “Just coffee and milk. Not even a hint of cream liqueur.”

“Pity.” She smiled.

“Right?” He drawled it the way the kids did. His smile faded. “If you’re looking for a report, I’m afraid I haven’t got much beyond what we already know. I keep asking myself why? Why would anyone want to do this?”

Sam just looked at him for a moment. “You know Mr. Hacherobei wouldn’t need a reason beyond ‘because I can’.”

“Oh, that’s right. You still like Drake for the mastermind.” He shook his head. “I have to say something just doesn’t fit. Sure, there are some points that are so perfectly timed and executed that only someone with his level of skill could pull it off; yet there are others that are downright sloppy.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, why would the most paranoid man on the face of the planet walk into a trap, especially where mindreading was involved?”

“If you’ll remember, he balked like a stubborn mule against that. He threatened to walk away before they pinned him down.”
“Yeah, why go at all? If he was that worried about getting caught—and if he was guilty, he would be—why take the chance an Elf is going to poke around in his brain? He’s clever. I’m quite certain he could have gotten out of going if he wanted to.”

“You make a fair point,” she conceded.

“I think it far more likely his issue is just one more attack. Think about it. This has been all about spreading fear. Stryker and Thundra are prominent public figures. Stryker was publicly executed. Charity…” His voice caught. “Thousands of people saw her fall, and then millions more on social media. Alliance City is on edge. The rather loud arrival of Atlantis just exacerbated that fear. People have always feared Mister X, so how will they react when they find out he’s done what they’ve always expected him to do? Their fears will be confirmed.”

“Why would someone want to spread so much unnecessary fear, though?”

“A means to an end. What end, I haven’t the faintest idea.” Eric sighed and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “We don’t have a damn thing to counter the Fae. We don’t know how to fight them.” He paused. “But the Elves do.”

Sam just smiled. “And that’s where I come in.”

Eric shrugged. “You’re the best damn political negotiator I’ve ever seen. If anyone can do it, you can.”

“Well, it seems I have a speech to prepare,” Sam said as she stood. “You have a good evening, Mr. Harrington. Get some sleep. Come at the case with a fresh mind in the morning.”

“Sure.” He rose as well, out of respect and they exchanged a respectful nod as she left the common room for her office.
It wasn’t until an hour later that Eric got the distinct feeling he’d missed something in that conversation. Like déjà vu, but different, a thought that teetered on the edge of his metaphorical tongue that refused to solidify itself. As he curled into bed that night, he realized it was the same feeling he’d gotten the night of his strange dream where he’d seen the face of the mastermind, but had forgotten it by the time he woke.

It’s your imagination, he told himself. You’re overthinking it. Sam’s right. You need to get some sleep.

He found, to his surprise, that sleep wasn’t far off. Then the phone rang. Briefly, he considered ignoring it, but then decided it might be important, so he rolled over and checked the call display. It was Marcus. His heart gave one loud thump before he felt like it stopped completely. He answered.

“Hey.”

“She’s awake.”

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.

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.

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.”

Allen and Marcus found the training room to be deserted. This time of day, most people were either on patrol, missions, or home for the day. There was an expansive gym with equipment most places only dreamed of. Three boxing rings were set up for hand-to-hand sparring. A myriad of martial arts weapons were stacked neatly against the wall. Other exercise equipment was easily accessible, but stored and maintained with great care. Two doors were on one side of the room, one to a small office, and the other to an equally well-maintained virtual reality room.

Allen only sort of paid attention to what Marcus was saying about the place as the energy controller steered him into the VR room. Dark thoughts rolled around in his head, a helpless sort of fury that made him want to break something.

“The previous Director Daniel Jones had the capabilities of making a pocket dimension outside of time and space, and he used that to create a place of infinite space for them to train,” Marcus intoned. “They also had a healer readily available in Dr. Derek Danesfield, so serious accidents like broken limbs were never a real issue.

“Now, powered combat that could potentially break the building is done in a complex virtual reality run by the most sentient artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen. He goes by the name Chip—not terribly original for a computer generated program to be sure, but evidently there’s a story behind that.”

Marcus handed a helmet to Allen and sat in one of the specially designed chairs. “When you put it on, it’ll connect you to the matrix. When you joined and got your powers evaluated, Drake programmed them into the VR, so when you open your eyes in there, your virtual representation will be able to do everything you can do.”

Allen nodded and offered a cursory smile. “That’s really cool.”

“Right? This whole thing’s Drake’s brainchild, though even he won’t take credit for the AI. Apparently, it’s an offshoot of a technopath’s personality.”

He blinked. “Really? That’s a thing?”

Marcus shrugged. “Normally they’re not so developed. Sometimes when a technopath connects to the cloud, parts of their…will, for lack of a better word, will break off and float out in virtual space, sometimes affecting other connected programs.”

“Ah, like a virus or something.”

“Exactly. Only this particular technopath had dissociative identity disorder. Along with a laundry list of other mental health issues. So when a bit of him broke off, it was a full-grown personality. And that person runs the games we play here.”

“Hunh. That’s way cool.” Despite himself, Allen found his interest piqued.

“Yeah, he’s kinda a cool guy too.”

They put the helmets on and their minds were instantly transported into a completely black room. Somehow they had no trouble seeing each other, as if the phantom source of light shone only on them. A man stood there. He was dressed in tailored evening wear, somewhat reminiscent of the nineteen twenties. He tipped his fedora. “Greetings, gentlemen.”

“’Sup, Chip. This is Allen. Allen’s new, we’re going to run some combat training.”

“By all means. Where would you like to go?”

“Alliance City, midday. Average established traffic patterns.”

“Done.”

The floor dropped away and turned into a bird’s eye view of the sky scrapers of Alliance City. Instant vertigo hit Allen and he dropped a few feet before he got a hold of himself. He could fly, of course, but seeing the floor disappear was an entirely different matter than taking off into the air.

Marcus smirked. “You okay, there, buddy?” Floating in the air wasn’t an issue for him, as he had the rocket boots he usually wore into combat.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Good to go.” He gave Marcus a lopsided smile. “Hey, that Chip guy always dress like he just stepped out of a costume party?”

“That ‘guy’ can still here you.” Chip’s voice echoed in the air around the concrete jungle.

Allen blushed. “Oops.”

Marcus chuckled. “He switches up the era every now and then, but sometimes, yeah. Usually his outfits are pretty dapper, though. Anyway. That’s not important. So, rules are, we beat each other senseless until one of us taps out or goes unconscious. It will shut off automatically when that happens. The computer can monitor our pain tolerance, as it’s affected by adrenalin, fatigue, and other factors. Everything will feel real—the buildings, the people, the elements. At this altitude, I’m sure you can feel the wind.” At Allen’s nod, he grinned. “But mostly, you’ll be feeling my fist in your face.”

Allen grinned back. “In your dreams, Sparky.”

“Shut it before I make you eat it. We good to go?”

“Unless you want to back down now.”

“Not a chance. Why would I do that when I’m gonna cream your ass? Chip, start the simulation.”

Allen’s witty retort was cut short by a blinding flash as Marcus tossed a bright lightning strike at him. “Ah, you rat bastard.” When his vision cleared, Marcus was gone. “Where did—aha!” He spotted Marcus hidden around a building by a power line. “Shoulda put some more distance between us when you had the chance!” He charged straight for Marcus.

“Now, why would I do that? Then I couldn’t do this.” Marcus put his wrists together and channeled a huge blast of electricity, which slammed into Allen with the stunning force of a thousand volts.

Allen swore. “Holy shit, okay I admit that was a little more than I thought you could do.”

Marcus laughed. “Sometimes we do battles above our weight class, but I don’t usually pick fights I can’t win. I know I can beat you.”

“With that little laser beam? You couldn’t beat a moth to death with that.” Allen did his best to shake off the stun and charged after Marcus again. Marcus took advantage of the pause that Allen was forced to take, and put several blocks between them. Allen was the much faster flier, though, and caught up with him easily. Marcus ducked into a building, and Allen flew after him. He chased the electricity controller through three floors of an office building before they reached the roof where Marcus exited the proper way. Allen took a shortcut through the concrete and steel. He was met with another blinding flash. Marcus disappeared again.

“Son of a bitch, where’d you go this time?”

Marcus laughed. “Hey, if you want to give up now, I will accept your surrender.”

“Never surrender!” Allen crowed triumphantly. It occurred to him that something was happening that he never saw coming. He was having fun.

He spotted Marcus in the distance. “You’re not getting away this time!” He charged toward Marcus, who turned and fired his powered-up blast. Allen was ready for it this time, and ducked. “That trick’s not going to work more than once,” he said. “I figured it out. You gotta charge your blast before it’s big enough to hurt me, hence the keepaway game.”

“Aw, shucks, ya got me,” Marcus said unconvincingly. “While that’s true, I’ve found ways to compensate.”

Allen looked down. Too late, he realized they were nearby a power plant. Well, that was going to give all the energy Marcus needed. The lights went out around the plant for blocks around. Allen looked Marcus in the eye. “Aw, f—”

The electricity slammed him in the face, and the simulation was over.

Marcus grinned at Allen as they took off the helmets. “I’m sorry, I totally took advantage of my experience in the simulation. See, I know I’m pretty much unbeatable in the middle of a city where there’s so much power.”

“Jackass,” Allen said grumpily, but he couldn’t stop grinning. That was so much fun.

“I know.” Marcus grinned back. “Hey, tell you what. Because I’m such a good sport, we can do the next fight in the country. That’ll take away my city advantage.”

“Bring it.” Allen flashed a smile and put on the helmet.

He was amazed at the next setting. It was an expansive farmland, with a large barn and adorable farm house. A few animals populated the acreage. They floated over a large forested area about a half a mile away from the cow pasture. He took a deep breath, and to his surprise, the smell of manure hit his nose. “They can do virtual smells too?”

“Sort of. You can smell things in the same way you feel things. Basically, the simulation tricks your brain into sensing these things. Think about it, people with powers based on your sense of smell would be at a disadvantage in a VR sim that couldn’t replicate their abilities.”

“Got it—hey!” A bright light flashed in Allen’s face. He didn’t think he was going to fall for that again, but Marcus took advantage of his wonder to take the first shot. “Thought you were done with cheap tricks.”

No answer came. By the time Allen’s vision cleared, Marcus was nowhere to be seen. “Well fine, if you want to play it that way.” He glanced around. It was a fairly good tactic, actually. Marcus would have to hide a hell of a lot longer if he was going to draw in enough energy to give him a knock-out blast. In the canopy of trees, he’d have plenty of places to hide.

He didn’t think Marcus had made it any farther than that. He didn’t have Allen’s speed. There was no rustling in the trees to give away his position, so for a moment, Allen was stymied. Then a grin flashed as an idea occurred to him. He grabbed his shoe and flung it with all his might at the ground. It hit the forest with all the force of a meteorite, sending the trees flying back and shaking the ground.

“Shit!” Allen’s ears caught the sound of Marcus’ voice, and he dashed in that direction. He barreled in for a grapple, but Marcus rolled out of the way. Allen ended up with nothing more than a face full of dirt and twigs as his momentum carried him into a summersault. He didn’t bother going right side up, so it was in an upside-down world he saw his quarry dart away.

As Allen rose with a flip into the air, he felt the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun at his back. That gave him another thought. Marcus liked blinding him? Two could play at that game.

“Hey, jackass! Heads up!” He grabbed his other shoe and fired it by Marcus’ head. Marcus turned around and was instantly blinded by the sun directly behind Allen. In that moment’s hesitation, Allen attacked.

His fist slammed against the side of Marcus’ face. Marcus flipped end over end and crashed into an evergreen. The simulation flickered and faded away.

“Round two is mine!” Allen pumped his fists into the air.

“Having fun?”

Allen spun around at the sound of the voice that didn’t come from Marcus. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Tracy standing in the VR room. Happiness flashed over his face and he leaped up to grasp her hands. “Tracy! What are you doing here?”

Her blue eyes were so full of sorrow, it was an instant reminder of the thing he’d actually forgotten. His hero was dead.

“I heard what happened. It’s all over social media. Allen, I—I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around him, and it was her eyes that filled with tears. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Allen held her close. “I’ll be okay. I’m a little shaken. But I’ll be all right.”

Marcus stood and walked over to the couple. With a great deal of reluctance, Allen pulled away so he could introduce the two. “Uh, Marcus, this is Tracy. My, ah…” And despite the weight that hung in his heart, he actually felt it give a happy leap. “My girlfriend.”

Marcus extended his hand. “Marcus. Good to meet you.”

Tracy shook the offered hand. Allen could see her gaze travel the length of the other boy. The two of them were still in costume, and Tracy was familiar enough with Delta’s heroes to recognize the outfit. There may have been some who would have fangirled over the male half of Delta Division’s star couple—Marcus and Lindsay were frequently featured in fan webzines and blogs—but Tracy had a remarkable gift for accepting a person for their own intrinsic value. Allen’s reclusive nature hadn’t stopped her from making friends with him, and the fame of Marcus’ alter ego wouldn’t either.

She smiled. “Well, I’m glad to see Allen’s hitting it off with someone here.” The thought seemed to genuinely please her. Allen blushed.

“We were just blowing off a little steam,” Marcus said. “Seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. We both kinda felt the need to punch something really hard. I mean, in Allen’s case, he tends to miss if he tries to hit the ground with his feet, so I’m not sure of his actual threat to humanity. I, however, might drain the city’s power supply.”

Allen couldn’t let that one slide. “I don’t need to hit the ground with my feet. I’ll just use your face.”

Tracy looked at him in surprise. “Well, look at you, with the snappy comebacks and stuff. Way to go, hero boy.”

Allen’s color deepened. That had been Tracy’s name for him since they were kids and he stood up to a playground bully that was picking on a younger kid. Allen had been all of a powerless sixty pounds then, and as mute as a mime, so of course he’d gotten his ass kicked, but it had impressed a young Tracy who insisted on being his best friend.

Marcus chuckled. “Care for another round?” He flicked a switch, and a giant wall-sized screen lit up with an aerial view of Alliance City. “We can play the sim as a broadcast on here so you can show off to your girl.”

“Oh! I’d love to see that!” Tracy’s face lit up.

“Can’t promise I won’t clean up the city with your sorry ass in front of your girlfriend, though.” Marcus flashed a cheeky grin.

Allen hesitated. The screen was showing the cityscape, and he’d lost badly there. He wanted to put on a good show in front of Tracy. But he also didn’t want to protest and complain that the challenge was too hard.

Marcus caught his shifting gaze. “I know, I know, okay, look. I’ll set the controls for a non-collateral damage exercise. It’ll handicap me enough to give you a fighting chance, cause it means I gotta avoid brownouts. On the other hand, you can’t drop a building on me. Fair?”

Allen glanced at Tracy’s smiling face. She really was excited to see this, and those terms did sound reasonable. “You’re on.”

“Wait.” Tracy caught his arm as he sat back down and planted a kiss on his cheek. “For luck.”

Marcus smirked. “Yup, he’s gonna need it.”

This time, Allen was prepared for Marcus’ blinding flair. He turned his face away, and glanced back in time to see Marcus take off for an alleyway. Allen reached out and snatched at his leg. His fingers closed around Marcus’ pant leg, but Marcus put his other boot to Allen’s face. Searing pain spiked into his forehead and cheek as Marcus turned his rocket boot propulsion system into a weapon. Allen let go.

He wasn’t going to give up now, though. Tracy was watching.

What is your reason for fighting? Stryker had asked him once. It wasn’t a difficult question. “To help people,” he’d said. “I don’t have a reason for it. I just want to make the world a better place.” But the truth of the matter was, most of all, he was fighting for her. And now he was fighting to get stronger. Somebody had to show the world what a hero was. Someone had to carry on Stryker’s legacy.

You were my hero. You’re the reason I became a hero. And now you’re one of the reasons I fight. This is my city, my home, my people. You fought to save them, and so will I.

He dashed after Marcus. With his greater speed, he caught up and flew around, cutting off Marcus’ retreat. Without giving him a second to fly the other way, Allen brought his knee up to smash the boy’s jaw. Marcus saw it coming and dodged—barely. The attack caught him in the cheekbone, giving him a hairline fracture. Allen followed through with a bash to his nose. Blood spurted out, covering Allen’s hand, but that was all he had time for before Marcus counterattacked with a powerful lightning blast. It wasn’t strong enough to knock him out, but it did knock him back. He stopped just short of colliding with a brick wall.

Marcus put some distance between the two of them, and Allen was treated to another rain of lightning. He shrugged it off, but not before Marcus took off.

Allen knew where he was going this time. That power plant was the greatest source of electricity. Even if he was avoiding a blackout, Marcus could draw enough energy if he was given enough time. Allen was determined that wouldn’t happen.

Allen made haste to the power plant. Somewhere along the way, he lost track of the energy controller, but he had a feeling he was around here somewhere. He scanned the horizon.

The sound of a slammed door made him look down. Marcus had taken to the pavement and made his way to the plant on foot. Allen caught sight of him just as he ran into the building. Dammit. Marcus’ words came back to him. “You can’t drop a building on me!” Cheeky bastard.

Allen was still faster. He dashed into the building after Marcus and watched him vanish around a corner. His speed was at least a little limited, weaving in and out of workers and factory equipment.

Marcus led him on a merry chase through the building, up the stairs, and through a window. For a second, it appeared Marcus was home free. As Allen exited the building into the air, he was met with the sun’s blinding glare. Marcus was learning from him, even as he was learning from Marcus. But Allen didn’t need to see to kick this kid’s ass. He dashed forward anyway.

The dark silhouette against the sun wasn’t moving. A brighter light shone from within the shadow. That confused Allen, even as he bolted forward, all his power focused behind his fist. He threw his most powerful super strength uppercut yet, and felt bones shatter beneath his fist. At the same time an incredible burning sensation filled his chest.

Aw, crap. Marcus had gathered enough energy.

The simulation shut down. Allen blinked as he opened his eyes to reality. The screen in front of them flashed with the word draw. He grinned.

Marcus laughed as he removed his own helmet. “One win, one loss, and one draw. I think that’s a good place to call it…for now.” He flashed Allen a grin. “Okay, I’m gonna make myself scarce, cause three’s a crowd.” He smiled at Tracy. “It was good to meet you. I’ll leave you to care for him.”

Tracy smiled. “Always do.”

He clapped Allen on the shoulder. “See you around, bro.”

The grin on Tracy’s face couldn’t have gotten any wider without splitting her face. “You made a friend! I’m so happy!” That was not something that came easy to Allen.

“Yeah.” Allen smiled. “I guess so.”

Her face sobered. “Seriously. How are you doing?”

Allen stopped smiling as well. The fun was over, and without reality of a virtual sort flashing in his face, he had no choice but to try come to terms with the thing that had happened. “Honestly? Angry. Scared. Stryker he was just…he was so big. Invincible. If he can go down then…” He shook his head. “But that doesn’t mean I should stop fighting. If anything, it just means I have to fight harder. I mean, I have some pretty big shoes to fill. Or throw.” He couldn’t resist adding that, even though Tracy wouldn’t have the first clue what he was talking about.

He held his girlfriend to his chest and took in a breath of her floral shampoo. “I’m glad you’re here, babe.”

She wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll get through this, I promise. And if anyone can follow in Stryker’s footsteps, it’s my hero boy.”

Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.

He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”

Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.

A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.

“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”

Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.

The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.

Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”

To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”

Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.

“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”

Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”

Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“

Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”

The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”

Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”

Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.

Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”

Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”

“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”

Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.

And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.

We can do it.

Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.

He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”

* * * *

Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.

They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.

The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.

Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.

It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.

And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?

Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.

Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.

“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”

“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.

For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.

“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”

He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.

He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.

When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”

The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.

“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”

Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.

That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”

Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”

“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.

“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”

The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.

Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.

“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”

The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”

Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”

“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”

The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.

“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.

Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.

“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”

He dismissed the flames and left them there.