Posts Tagged ‘Family’

Meryl hadn’t known what to expect when she looked into the eyes of the one who killed her brother—the one who sentenced him to die. Even after Donald Kazuki’s video said it was Sam—even after Meryl knew the truth—she could not equate the evil of the mastermind’s conspiracy to the poise and grace of Samantha Clive.

Until now.

Arlethaens had legends of demons, creatures with twisted horns on their heads and spikes on their bodies meant to lacerate their prey. Some were large and grotesque; others possessed a terrible beauty. Regardless, they had one thing in common—evil radiated off them like the toxic fumes from a river of industrial waste.

Sam had neither horns nor spikes, and her beauty was that of a classic European; but how had Meryl missed the unrelenting evil that spilled from her eyes, the set of her jaw and body posture? From childhood, Meryl could recognize the evil of those who wished her and her family harm. It was a matter of survival as the Gifted hid from the Old Order. It translated to her talents both as an artist and a therapist.

How had she missed an evil so vile?

This woman had sat across from Meryl in countless sessions, both mandated by Delta policy, and voluntarily as Sam had insisted she wanted to maintain a mental competency to run the most powerful agency in the country. Meryl had judged her to be motivated, cerebral, and surprisingly balanced. She’d never once questioned the woman’s mental stability. Somehow, in some gross lack of judgment, Meryl had missed the glaring psychopathy.

In an effort to determine the mastermind’s identity, Meryl had crafted a psych profile: highly intelligent, adept in social situations, charismatic. Sam used public appearance as a strategy—and evidently reputation as a weapon. Meryl’s small hands shook at her sides, and her stomach flopped. Why had she not seen it?

Because she’d never wanted to. In retrospect, that was likely at least in part to Sam’s mental influence. Even now, Meryl tried to consider the idea of mimicking Sam’s powers, and then she’d know. She’d know for sure that Samantha Clive was as powerful as Donald said, powerful enough to attract the Fae. The Fae had mind powers. They were ideal partners in crime. Like drew toward like. Of course the Fae would follow Sam. She was one of them. Rage boiled in her. You’re such an idiot. How could anyone be so stupid? This is your fault, you know. Joleon is dead because of you, because you couldn’t lift your eyes and see the truth that stared you in the face.

And you’re still not mimicking her powers.

It was with shock that she realized her mind had wandered away from the concept.

“Sam,” Jayson said with a deadly calm. “We’d like to have some words with you.”

His arm shifted. In his hand was the vial of nullifier. With a snap it shattered. Jay cried out and shook his hand, blood dripping onto the iridescent mother-of-pearl floor. “Shit.” He held out his hand, the blue formula mingling with the scarlet blood on his skin.

“Certainly, Mr. Allison,” Sam replied with a small smile born of the knowledge that she’d just caused Jayson’s power play to backfire. Meryl’s heart pounded. Instead of taking out her powers, Sam had taken out his, removing from play their most powerful teleporter. If this went badly, they had no quick exit.

There was a shout, and a blinding light flashed all around them. Fae had invaded the Elves’ territory and they reacted accordingly. The fuzziness in Meryl’s mind vanished—the Elves’ magic, no doubt. Instantly, Meryl copied Sam’s powers. All of them.

It took her breath away. Never had she felt so much knowledge and power compacted into one pocket of consciousness. She understood in that moment that reality hinged on a shared perception of every living being in existence. It was a collection of mental power that was innate in every creature that could observe the world around them. In most, it was so latent that they were unaware, content with a mundane life of their own. Mankind’s very awareness held reality together, each mind a single molecule of water in a sea awash with power; but each thought they were alone, each so far away from the particles around them that they were unaware of the bonds that held them all together.

But for those who could recognize the metaphysics of that reality, who could seize control of that collective consciousness—the power that it granted! It was the power of a god.

Sam looked at her. “You understand, don’t you? Mankind is a collective, and that must be protected at any cost. The organism of humanity is a being that must survive—but we are cancerous to ourselves. That cancer must be destroyed.

“I truly am sorry for what you suffered. It is a tragedy that, with the bad, one must cut into the good. Power such as this must come with benevolence, with mercy, but also with purpose. Your brother believed that—believes it still, for mankind’s power extends beyond this mortal coil. Don’t let the greater purpose of his sacrifice go unfulfilled.”

Meryl took a step back. Her resolve faltered.

“Our world and yours are capitulating inevitably to entropy. Our world will end. My actions will not stay that forever. But perhaps it will buy a few years. There will be peace, and in that peace, who knows how many lives will be saved? A billion? A hundred billion?”

No more than a heartbeat of time had passed, but with their minds connected, Meryl felt she knew more about Samantha than what would come in a hundred hour-long conversations.

“Tell them, Merelise. They no longer trust me, and that’s fine. ‘Hero’ and ‘villain’, they’re just titles, a means to accomplish my goal. You are their counselor and friend. Tell them the truth.”

“Wait,” Meryl heard herself say. She looked around. Electricity arched over both Charity and Marcus London. Eric Herrington had fully suited up, and his sound blasters whined with their charge. Liam and Mitch Roberts were twin flames, ready to engulf Samantha Clive. Allen Gray’s fist was clenched, ready to fly with rage at the woman who’d murdered his mentor, and Lindsay White wasn’t far behind him. She stopped them all with that single word, and they looked to her for guidance. Sam was right. They would listen. They trusted her.

“Meryl.” Drake called her name. Her head swiveled in his direction.

Drake was the most closed off person she knew. He showed up—late—for his mandatory psychiatric evaluation, but spent the entire time talking about his pet goldfish, which she was almost certain never existed. He hated the Fae. In the last few years, he’d gone out of his way to make sure that nothing was able to get in his head, and she wasn’t sure that even the mind powers of Mythos—Sam—would have gotten through the mental barriers he’d trained in his mind. Yet, she slipped easily into his thoughts. He let her in.

“I see your hesitation. I understand. Sam’s good, she doesn’t need powers to persuade others to come around to her point of view. What’s she telling you—that if we beat her, your brother’s death has no purpose? But you can’t let her win. Meryl, we don’t do what’s right because it makes the world a better place, we do it because doing the right thing is what separates us from the evil we face every day. She killed your brother. It’s not on you to make that death mean something. It’s on you to avenge it.”

“Well, we gonna kick her ass or what?” Mitch snarled.

“I said ‘wait’, Mitchell,” Meryl snapped. “Get in line.”

She let Drake’s power wash over her. He may have been dampened past the point of using them, but she could still mimic them fully. Her long blonde hair twisted around her, and her body levitated into the humming air. Her fists clenched and her eyes flashed gold. She may have been using others’ powers, but she would beat this woman as an Arlethaen, as Gifted. She would not mimic another’s appearance. “Thanks, Drake. I needed that. This one’s for you.”

She thrust her hands forward and blasted a wave of magnetic energy at Sam. It whooshed past her, an invisible attack against Sam’s invisible defense. The woman took a step back, but otherwise remained unperturbed. The marble around Sam’s psionic shield cracked, leaving a shallow, crescent shaped crater in the floor. The wall behind her began to crumble.

Meryl clenched her fists. To her magnetic senses, she could feel lines of power begin to form. They’d be gone in no time once she released her power over the magnetism in the air, but she only needed a moment. She switched powers. Her whole being became engulfed in electric energy. “This is for screwing with my best friend!” With a loud crack, a powerful lightning bolt snapped at Sam. It wrapped around her shield, but under the electric assault, it began to shrink.

The energy faded to a deafening silence. Meryl didn’t let it ride for long. She dashed forward with blinding speed. Her hand punctured what was left of the psionic shield and grabbed Sam’s neck. With powerful, strengthened arms, she flew her captive into the air. In a loud voice, she screamed, “And this is for my brother!” She flung Sam down at the ground, obliterating the crescent crevasse, and decimating the marble wall.

As the dust settled, Samantha Clive stood to her feet. She brushed the powdered marble from her business suit and shook out the pieces of her broken hair clip, letting her brown hair fall in waves. “That was surprisingly aggressive, Mrs. Allison. I was hoping we’d resolve this peacefully. You’re no fighter, Meryl.”

Meryl smiled as she landed beside her husband and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a good thing the rest of them are.”

Jayson smirked. “Mitch, Liam, Charity, back the Elves up and thin the Fae’s ranks. Drake, support Rio’kir in getting the city’s defenses back online. The rest of you…let’s all give her a piece of our mind.”

Marcus flashed a grin at his girlfriend, then at his best friend. All three smiled, but it was the smiles of pent-up aggression and rage. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do it!”

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Charity’s heart pounded so hard that it hurt. Marcus reached for her hand, and she jerked away, all too aware of the static electricity that built up in her fingers. He may not have been the brother she remembered, but he was her brother nonetheless, and they’d grown so close. With him around, she felt much less like she was going to fall apart. The last thing she wanted was him to fall over from a heart attack caused by a surge of electricity, especially now when they were about to head into the most terrifying encounter of her young life.

That’s not true, a voice in her head whispered. That’s right. She was a hero, and an adult. She must have had worse experiences, even if she couldn’t remember them. Bile rose in her throat. If those experiences were worse than waking up in a hospital bed after a nightmare-inducing, near-death experience, then she didn’t want to remember. If they were worse than knowing that the only family you had left was a halfway grown-up teenage brother that was only five the last time you saw him, she’d rather they stay buried in the past.

He’s got the electricity power too, she reminded herself. With relief, she held onto his hand. “Sorry, I forgot—I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“It’s all right.” Marcus smiled at her, but she could see his attention was on Jayson Allison, who was trying to contact Atlantis via his phone. A communication relay had been set up between Delta and the ancient magical city when the Elves had first arrived, but that did little to dispel the political red tape and language barrier.

Charity clutched Marcus’ hand even harder. Maybe it would be better if I could remember going through something worse. Then I’d at least know I got through it.

“Just find me someone who speaks English!” Jayson yelled into the phone. Jay had more patience than anyone Charity had ever seen, but even he was at the end of it. She was reminded of her mother every time Anna London had to deal with an overseas customer service representative.

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Charity knew that if she started, the tears would never stop. She couldn’t afford to break down and cry right now, not when she was supposed to be saving the world.

Why am I the one who’s supposed to be a hero? I’m just a kid!

Except that wasn’t entirely true. She was an adult, and people depended on her. She looked herself up on the Internet one time, and nearly lost a whole day researching Thundra. The woman was an icon. The work she did, the people that she saved, the little girls who wanted to grow up and be heroes just like her—was she really that person? Charity couldn’t reconcile the helplessness she felt with the hero that the blogs and social media referred to as “the heart of Delta”. Yet, there was that face, sans mask, looking back at her every time she glanced in a mirror.

“Finally! Thank God, Rio’kir, I was worried that all of man and elf-kind would be lost to the power of stonewalling. Look, long story short, Samantha Clive’s behind all this. You want proof, then I’ve got it, but you need to let your anti-teleportation fields down so I can port my party in. I’ve got a handful of people that I trust, and you know you can trust me. We’ll put our heads together and figure this out.”

Charity’s heart sank, and then she instantly felt guilty. Part of her had been hoping that Jay wouldn’t make contact, that this horrible  battle ahead wouldn’t happen, that she wouldn’t have to fight. No, Sam needs to be fought. She’s evil.

But you don’t have to fight her. You can walk away. You’re just a kid, you don’t have to fight. Just say ‘no’. Let go of Marcus’ hand, say you’re staying. No one would blame you.

I would blame me.

She clenched her fist that was unoccupied with holding onto her brother, her lifeline. Images of this strong, powerful woman flashed in her mind, short, wavy hair and a silver cape tossed in the breeze. I am an icon. An inspiration. I make girls around the world believe in their own strength, make them want to stand up and fight for what’s right. People believe in heroes—believe in me. I have to believe in me too.

“The shields will be powered as soon as the Elves’ Dark Mages temporarily dispel them,” Jayson said. “About ten minutes.”

“Good,” Charity said. Everyone turned to look at her. “That gives me enough time.”

Charity had never changed so fast in her life, but at the end, the face of Thundra stared back at her. It was hidden behind a sky-blue masquerade mask with gold and silver filigree edging. Her black leather gloves edged in the same blue protected her hands, while the metal rivets conducted her electricity. Black pants were tucked into black, lace-up, heeled leather boots; her waist was encircled by a black leather belt with the symbol of the Delta Division functioning as a buckle. Her silver cape was fastened to the inch-wide straps of her electric blue, sleeveless shirt.

Her breath caught as she saw the hero in the mirror and realized it was her—but she didn’t have time to gaze. She dashed back out to meet with everyone.

She wasn’t the only one who’d taken the time to suit up. Allen was already dressed—he rarely took off his leather jacket with Delta’s symbol emblazoned on the back—and the rest of his costume consisted of a pair of blue jeans and a red t-shirt. Eric’s chitinous suit hugged him, leaving his face exposed for the moment. Meryl had donned her brother’s golden flak jacket. It didn’t suit her—the shoulders didn’t quite fit her narrow frame, and the way the bulky jacket sat around her petite shoulders made her head look much smaller than it was. Nothing could hide the fierce anger in her eyes. The assassinated hero’s jacket may not have fit her, but she bore it well and with pride as they left to face her brother’s killer.

Jayson put a hand on her shoulder, and Charity almost jumped until she saw the smile and the tears in his eyes. “You know, there’s something John told me before…before he was…you know. You’d gone to fight PSO, and I was worried about you.”

Charity swallowed. “Not entirely unfounded, as it turns out.”

Jay chuckled. “Well, no, but he was right too. He said that when we see horrible, terrible things, we have two choices.” He looked up to include the group. “One is to buckle under the weight of the horror we have witnessed, to take a knee to evil. The other is to stand and fight.” He looked back at her. “He also said that when it came time for you to make that choice, you would stand. Again and again. That you were a hero.”

Tears itched under Charity’s mask.

Jay turned to the rest of them. “That goes for all of you too. We’ve lost a mentor. A brother. A friend. We’ve been toyed with and manipulated and broken, but we will stand.

“We walk into this battle, and our head is going to be filled with so many lies. I know what that’s like, to face an enemy so incomprehensively powerful—”

“Incomprehensibly,” Charity interrupted, then quailed at the look of astonishment that Jay gave her. “I-I’m sorry, I—”

Jayson grinned. Marcus laughed, under his breath at first, then when Eric snickered, it seemed he couldn’t help himself anymore. His low chuckle turned into a belly laugh, and he wrapped his arms around Charity. “God, sis. I’m so glad you’re still in there somewhere.”

Jay laughed. “Aw, to hell with the inspirational speech. Just remember this. We’re heroes. Don’t forget that, and we’ll win for sure.”

Tracy piped up with a smile. “Well, if anyone can do it, I know it’s my hero boy.” She kissed Allen on the cheek, and he blushed.

“Actually, I have a job for you,” Jayson responded. “You and Geoff.” He handed the girl the tablet with Donald’s video. “I’ve already sent a copy to the Elf leader so he can watch it while we waited. Make sure this one stays safe. With or without powers, you’re one of us. Combat capabilities or no, you can still protect the world.” He glanced at Geoff. “Stick together. Hold onto this and get as far away from here until the dust settles. You’re our backup plan in case anything happens. It’s up to you two to safeguard the truth. Understood?”

Geoff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Tracy also moved her head up and down, blue eyes wide. Then she turned to embrace Allen. “Promise you’ll come back to me,” Charity heard her say in a quiet voice that made her heart break. She stole a glance at Eric. Was it true that he loved her just as much? She had no memory of him beyond the last few weeks, but something inside her stirred every time she looked at him. Was that love? Eric was looking at her, and for the first time since she woke up, she didn’t shy away from his gaze.

“I promise,” Allen said, and Charity smiled at Eric. She would find a way back to him too.

The world around them shifted and resolved into a marble city, the glory of which took Charity’s breath away. It was huge. They stood in the city square, around an oval metal framework. Its purpose was unclear. Elven art? It made Charity think of a gateway.

Every surface glowed with an iridescent light, making Charity’s eyes cross. It was almost like a world made of LED screens, except with the brightness and contrast turned down low. The light was comforting and warm, but Charity also noticed something beyond the convenience of having the world illuminated. Their shadows were non-existent.

Jayson shook the Elf leader’s hand, and Charity couldn’t stop staring. Oh. My god. An actual Elf. Her hands shook. Somewhere a science fiction and a fantasy story had intersected and sucked her in. I’m a super hero standing in an ancient futuristic city watching one of my friends shake hands with an Elf—an actual real-life alien from another dimension. Giddiness welled inside her. She had to bite the inside of her cheek from laughing out loud and hugging herself with excitement.

“I’m going to assume you watched the video,” Jayson stated flatly. Charity’s excitement dampened a little. She’d almost forgotten the terrible reason why they were here.

The Elf leader—what was his name again? Jayson had said it, but Charity couldn’t remember. Rio-something? The Elf gave a curt nod. “Enough to release your companion,” he intoned.

Across the way, two Elven guards half-dragged a man across the glowing cobblestones. “Drake,” Jayson breathed. He gave a small smile of relief. “Glad to see you’re all right.”

“Took ya long enough, ya rat bastard,” Drake slurred.

“Drake, we found out who the mastermind was. It’s—”

“Sam, I know.”

Jay made a face. “I thought the Elves’ prisons were supposed to make you slow.”

“They did. And I still figured it out before you did.”

Jayson rolled his eyes.

The shadowless place grew dim. Dark tendrils wisped across the floor, cutting off Jay’s cheeky reply, then resolved into small creatures about two feet tall. Hundreds—thousands—of them scrambled through the city and converged on the group. Charity bit back a strangled cry. What are those things! She wanted to scream the words, but they stuck in her throat. All she knew was that one look in their beady, soulless eyes, and she was afraid—no, terrified.

“I was hoping to do this without a show of force,” a woman’s voice said. Charity jerked around with the rest of them to see Samantha Clive. “I would much rather not leave a mess.” She smiled. “But I’m nothing if not adaptable.”

Tom Carter was an opportunist. Some months ago, Jacob Wilson, self-styled patriarch of the Montreal metahuman mafia had hired him as muscle in a deal with an ambitious, rapidly growing gang of metas. The bartering collateral in question was a piece of technology that would revolutionize meta warfare. Powers were always an interesting element in a meta mob war, especially since no one really wanted the general population to know who had powers and who didn’t. Tom wasn’t a meta. He had no investment in the meta community’s continued existence, except that some of them happened to pay his exorbitant fees.

Some tinkerer from this new meta gang had invented a small device the size of one’s thumb that would instantly nullify a target’s powers. There was some risk involved–one wrong move, and both parties would find themselves temporarily without their special abilities. Still, a number of these devices in the right hands could change the outcome of the war.

And it was something Solstice would pay dearly for.

The Jacob Wilson had no intention of such a thing falling into Solstice hands, and of course he had no love for his opposition. With metas inexplicably on the rise in the last decade, a few had joined forces with more than one rival mob family. The man didn’t have powers himself, but his boys and his precious little princess had been born with meta abilities. Jacob didn’t want to see his family put in harms way.

Tom, on the other hand, would sell his own grandmother if it would make him a buck.

He appeared to be a nice enough fellow, if not a bit gruff. He was ugly and snarling, but the heart of gold underneath all that was a double bluff. He gave exactly zero fucks about anyone but himself. With the old Jacob dead, Tom  was the only person who knew the technology existed, save for leadership of the splinter group. A bit of money in the right hands, and that gang was eliminated, narrowing even further the list of people aware of the tech.

With the death of Jacob Wilson, it was time to make some real money. Solstice had unbelievable connections, and they were willing to do anything to get them a leg up in what they considered to be a crucial war for the sake of mankind. Metas, as far as they were concerned, were a diseased form of humanity that had to be purged before they plunged the whole world into entropy. It was all a bit high-minded, but as far as he was concerned, they could believe in a goddamned fish Jesus if it meant they’d pay him for bait and tackle.

Lyndria’s club was busy. Tom threaded his way through partiers gyrating to the music under a canopy of smoke and light shows. Lyndria was wasted. A man of greater conscience would be troubled by stealing from her a device that threatened her very existence when the girl was dealing with the death of her whole family, but it was this death that gave Tom the opportunity. He wasn’t about to pass it off.

Once in the old man’s study, he opened the safe with the combination that he’d long since memorized. He might have been surprised that Lyndria hadn’t changed it, but the girl didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. Prototype acquired, he walked downstairs with his small cargo centered in the palm of his hand. He looked across the crowded room and gave a subtle nod to a man dressed in khaki pants and a fitted, long-sleeve black shirt. He had a close-shaved beard, with the rest of his face shrouded by the fedora he wore. A subtle tip of the hat was the non-verbal agreement Tom was looking for.

Lyndria deserved to be stolen from. She was so far gone now, Tom was certain she had no capabilities of noticing this deal going down under her own nose in her own club. Tom allowed himself a small smirk.

Something made him glance over to the door. For a reason he couldn’t adequately explain, his attention was arrested by three people that joined the undulating crowd. One was a kid, barely of age, with brown hair and a leather jacket over a red t-shirt and jeans. Two were older men; one of them Asian, the other with a shock of flaming red hair. Tom shook his head. They were inconsequential. As he glanced away, he vaguely beheld them make their way to Lyndria. Maybe the kid was looking to lose his virginity. He wouldn’t be the first dumb cluck to hit up the easiest chick in the country.

Whatever their reason, it had nothing to do with him. Tom made his way to the man at the bar.

* * * *

Allen’s heart sat in his throat. He was so nervous, he couldn’t rightly tell if his palms were sweaty from the humidity or the fact that even his paragon endurance was put to the test with his excessive heart rate. He wiped them on his jeans. That didn’t help.

He spotted Lindsay the second they walked in. She hadn’t changed a lot, though she’d traded her simple trendy outfit to something that involved more leather and buckles. For some reason he half expected an emo makeup on her, though she didn’t seem given to that cliche. He took a breath and walked forward. The plan was for the older men to engage this Lyndria person with questions about her family, but that wasn’t Allen’s main concern. Their conversation would free him up to talk to Lindsay. Donald was sure that the Wilson’s family’s disappearance was somehow connected to the shit that had been going on with Delta, and Allen couldn’t come up with a reason for why that wasn’t so; still he was singular-minded in his objective. Lindsay was the one person in this situation who mattered to him.

He weaved his way through the crowd until he stood by her. She didn’t notice until he spoke. “Hey, Lindsay.”

She nearly hit the roof. “Allen! What the hell? What are you doing here?”

Allen shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Looking for you.” It sounded cliche, like wooden dialog from a movie he and Tracy would watch together in a bad movie marathon.

Lindsay wasn’t helping. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Well, you found me. Now you can turn around and just walk away.”

Allen sighed. “Lindsay…don’t be like that. Look, do you know what you left behind?”

She said nothing, refusing to make eye contact.

“Marcus is–”

“Don’t. Okay? I don’t…I don’t want to know.”

“Why not? Lindsay, he loves you!”

“Don’t you think I know that? God, he–” She glanced at Allen, and her eyes glistened with tears in the flashing purple and blue lights. “Just go. Okay? I just…I need some space.”

“A whole country of space? God damn it, Lindsay! This isn’t–”

“This isn’t what? What a hero is supposed to do?”

“No, it’s not. It’s not what a hero would do.”

She looked at him, and her eyes seemed sad. “That’s fine then. Allen…I’m not a hero.”

“Yes, Lindsay, you are. Okay, I know we never really got along that well, but you’re a hero because Stryker said–”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!”

Allen stepped back, startled by the vehemence with which she spat the words at him. For a moment, he was angry. He took a deep breath as the anger welled inside him, choking him like someone had just shoved a fist down his throat. “Linsday, I have had enough of your shit! You have no right to tell me what I should and shouldn’t feel, and right now I am hurting because I lost someone I care about, and you can’t say I’m not allowed to feel broken. Furthermore, I’ve got a best friend who’s in pieces because his girlfriend abandoned him. I can’t fix the first one, but I am not going to stand by and let the second one slide. I will do everything I can to help him because that’s what friends do!”

Lindsay opened her mouth and shut it again, which was just as well, because Allen wasn’t done talking.

“Do you honestly have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into? Stryker trained you to be a hero, but you’re not acting like it. I know you’re in pain. I know that sometimes you just gotta do stupid things, but this? Do you even know?”

He glanced around. The girl Lindsay had been with had now vanished. For the life of him, Allen couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he certainly couldn’t pick her out of a crowd this size. But she wasn’t there, and that was the important thing to drop this bombshell. “Your boss, the girl you’ve been guarding? Do you actually know who she is? She’s Lyndria Wilson. Of the mafia family.”

Lindsay’s eyes went wide. Then it was her turn to get angry. “You know what? Fuck you. You come in here being all high and mighty, fucking mister perfect telling me how to live my life–”

“I’m not–”

“No! You’re not! You’re not perfect so stop fucking acting like it! You tell me that I have no right to tell you how to feel, well how about taking some of your own goddamn advice. You don’t have the right either to tell me how to live my life.”

“So you’re just going to throw away everything you’ve been taught? Lindsay, don’t you see? When you’re with her–maybe you’re right. When you’re with her you’re not a hero, or at least not acting like it. You’re acting like a villain.”

The words leaped from his mouth before he could stop them. Her eyes widened, and he wanted more than anything to stuff them back into his mouth. She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Well, maybe I am.”

Allen sighed. “No, Lindsay, you’re not, forget I said that. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t change one simple fact. This?” He waved his arm across the floor. “This is not what Stryker would have wanted.”

Nothing prepared him for the fist that flew in his face. With a loud crack, Lindsay’s fist sailed across his face. His neck jerked back, and he stumbled. The copper taste of blood coated his teeth. “Now I’ve had enough,” she snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Allen’s fists clenched at his side. “I’m a hero. I’m Stryker’s protege, and though I always believe that title could be shared by both of us, clearly I was wrong!” He smirked. “I guess if you’re going to throw the first punch, that means there’s only one thing left to do.” He rose into the air. “I’m going to show you how a hero fights. How Stryker showed me to fight!”

He dashed toward her, but she slipped to the side. Allen noticed just in time to correct his course, though his countering punch lost a lot of its force. His fist slammed into her shoulder, and she rolled with it, unharmed. She brought her leg up to knee him in the kidneys, and he jerked his arm downward to block her with his elbow. His funny bone tingled as he slammed into her kneecap, following through with a right cross to her face. It landed with a smack. Color leaped to her cheek.

She pushed him away and picked up a lamp stand. With a feral scream, she broke it against his back as he turned to grab the nearby couch.

People screamed and scattered, which was just as well. They were going to have it out, that much was certain. The only question was, how much collateral damage was there going to be?

Allen didn’t care. So long as there were no people inside, he would level the whole goddamn club if it meant he could convince Lindsay to come home. To come to terms with the loss they shared. Donald and Liam cleared the area, though a few stayed to watch. This was the most exciting thing to happen in their lives, and they weren’t going to miss it.

It occurred to Allen that he was giving them a show. Every person that stayed behind had their phones out, and this was going to go up on the Internet right beside the video of his table throw in his high school cafeteria. That should have made him uncomfortable, but he was so far past caring. He flung the couch. “I will win this fight, Lindsay. Then we’ll see who’s really ready to carry on Stryker’s legacy!”

Bel’kethel was having the time of his life. Up until now, Earth had rarely been spoken of above hushed tones, a mere step away from Forbidden knowledge. It had not been written out of the annals of Elven history only because it would have been ignorance indeed to ignore the Earthborn population of about three million on Myrathelle. Ignorance was the only thing more uncomfortable than the knowledge that they had once had contact with the ancient people of Earth many centuries ago.

The existence of Earth, of course, was empirical. As a child, it had fascinated the young Elf; he’d even imagined a version of his name that the average Earthborn tongue would be able to pronounce. It had caused his father great consternation when he’d gone through a brief period of only answering to ‘Keth’. It had been a disappointing time indeed after Keth was told repeatedly under no uncertain terms that Elves did not concern themselves with Earthborn. Atlantis held itself aloof from the affairs of the rest of Myrathelle.

But now at last his fixation on Earth would bear fruit. Sadly, his knowledge of the Common language of Myrathelle’s Earthborn was useless. It was a dialect of a dead language that few on Earth actually spoke. He’d have been better off learning English, but those that spoke it on Myrathelle numbered in the hundreds. Nonetheless, Keth expended great effort making up for lost time. He was a savant, even by Elven standards, having mastered four out of the six schools of elemental magic, where most struggled to master two. A charmingly idiosyncratic language like English was a refreshing change from the rigid specificity of spellcasting.

The Elven leaders were reluctant to work with the Earthborn. It was a hotly debated issue discussed at great length within the senate; a conclusion had yet to be reached. Even with all the knowledge of the Elves, few had yet found the courage to state the obvious: the Elves must find peace with the Earthborn because Earth would be their home for the foreseeable future. Not one of them could state with certainty that they would ever again be home.

Keth was one of three Elves sent to explore the chilly tundra that was the new resting place of their fair city. They weren’t all spellcasters. Magic was not the only form of knowledge the pursuit of which brought glory to the All. Ken’hir was a warrior. His knowledge of combat was surpassed only by his mentor, the woman in charge of the Elven army. Myran had not mastered any forms of magic, but observed and recorded its effects and the functions of the natural world. Keth frequently felt the woman’s increased frustration with him. Myran believed in the practical over the theoretical, and delighted in pointing out the importance of her work, implying that it was greater than Keth’s academics. For his part, Keth found their discussions stimulating.

The group skimmed over the snow and ice in an air bubble, insulated against the biting cold with a combination of Air and Fire spells. Myran wasn’t speaking to him, and Ken’hir maintained his stoic affect, so that left Keth to carry the conversation all by himself. It was dreadfully one-sided and only exacerbated Myran’s aggravation. “Will you cease your endless prattle, Bel’kethel!” she commanded about halfway through a lengthy description of a particular television show the Earthborn called a “sit-com” that he’d been watching in his effort to learn English.

But something had already caused Keth’s monologue to come to a screeching halt. “What is that?” He pointed at half a dozen prone figures frozen so fast they were nearly part of the landscape. Snow had blown up around the bumps in the ice, but Keth could still make out four limbs and a face for each. “They look like humans!”

“Dead,” commented the taciturn Ken’hir.

“The best kind,” Myran muttered.

Keth cast her a dark look. With a word, he directed the air bubble over to the frigid corpses. “The Earthborn send expeditions to explore this area,” he supplied, though the others didn’t ask. “Though they tend to be better prepared than this. These men are scarcely dressed for temperate weather, let alone an environment such as this.”

“It is not our concern,” Myran said, but Keth ignored her.

“There’s a mystery here,” he stated. “Six men dead in the middle of the Antarctic for no apparent reason.”

“The only mystery is why you care, Bel’kethel.”

“We must go back! Inform the Earthborn that men of their kind have perished here.” He touched his thumb and forefinger to his forehead in a gesture of mourning. Myran rolled her eyes.

Let her be disinterested. An Earthborn mystery! What could be better?

Sadly, it was resolved too quickly for Keth’s taste. The thrill of discovery came to an end when the appropriate authorities arrived to remove the bodies. Keth never did find out who they were.

* * * *

Lyndria was pleasantly buzzed. The night had barely begun, and she was looking forward to the wildly intoxicated stage. She grinned in anticipation. Good thing she had a bodyguard capable of lifting her bodily into bed. Idly the thought wandered across her mind to bring Lindsay into the bed with her. The petite paragon was well on the path to corruption, and that would make a most pleasant point in progression. Lyndria had a preference for cock, and the bigger the better, but that was a bit like picking a favorite food. One might say they preferred pizza, but tacos were equally as satisfying. She would quite enjoy eating out Lindsay.

Through somewhat foggy vision she saw two men in business suits approaching, bearing the exact definition of dull and uninteresting. Her lovely brow furrowed for a brief moment before her face cleared. She didn’t want her skin getting any ridiculous ideas about frown lines. Where have I seen them before?

Lindsay started turning them away before they could get to Lyndria and destroy her buzz, but that exact second Lyndria remembered where she’d seen them. “Hey,” she slurred and waved them forward. “You’re Daddy’s lawyers, right? You find a way I can get my money?”

They exchanged a look that she was sure meant something, but she was far too inebriated to interpret. “Miss Wilson, we have a private business matter to discuss. Is there a place we can talk?”

“Here’s fine. Anything you can tell me you can tell Lindsay too.” She was just drunk enough that her suggestion seemed like a good idea.  Besides, she wasn’t positive she’d make it across the room right this second.

She nodded through the series of “Are you sure” until they got to the point. “Miss Wilson…your father and brothers have been found. I’m afraid…I’m afraid all six of them are dead.”

Lyndria had never sobered so quickly in her life. She sat up so quickly the room spun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lindsay move closer, heard her soft, sympathetic gasp. It annoyed Lyndria. “I see.”

“An Elf uncovered their bodies in Antarctica. As you can imagine, authorities are looking into the unusual set of circumstances.”

She nodded as if that made sense. Elves were always finding things, right?

“There’s a number of legal hoops you’ll have to jump through in order to take control of the estate,” the one man continued. Lyndria couldn’t remember his name, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out of her memory at this moment.

“Of course,” she said with curious calm. She was calmly curious about how serene she was being. “I believe that can be taken care of in the morning.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson. Uh—on behalf of—”

“Sir. This is a business transaction. Sympathy is misplaced, and false empathy is distasteful. I’d appreciate a display of neither.”

“Of course, miss.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

They nodded and scuttled off.

Lyndria must have been more intoxicated than she estimated, because she was across the threshold of her bedroom before she realized how she got there.

Lindsay followed her. “Lyndria, I…look, if there’s anything I can—”

“There’s an object behind you called a door, Lindsay. I’m sure you understand its function. See to it you’re on the other side.”

Lindsay opened her mouth and closed it several times like a gaping fish. “All right,” she said finally with a nod. “Call if you need anything.”

The door clicked shut.

It’s customary to cry right now, Lyndria told herself. She evidently didn’t listen. Her eyes remained dry.

It’s all mine now. The words meant nothing. Her brain tried and failed to attach some sort of reason to care about them.

All his money, all his business. Hey! I’m in charge! Something about that made her laugh out loud. The idea that she was in charge of anything was amusing. She could barely keep gerbils alive.

The thought was exciting, though. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She had actual real live responsibility. People actually thought she was responsible. It was hilarious. She laughed again. “Oh my god,” she told the empty room. “That’s a laugh. I’ve gotta tell—”

Alex. The youngest of her six older brothers, they were closest in age and almost passed for actual friends. He’s dead.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. Her voice echoed loudly, like it bounced off the walls of the empty house.

That was when she began to cry.

Lindsay stared at the small, clear blue, crystal-shaped pill, still encased in the plastic baggy. Her heart pounded and she licked her lips. Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, her mom would always say. That was one of her many rules. No drugs, no alcohol, and no sex until you got married, and even then only to breed a litter. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, she’d quote, So are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. That was her entire reason for adopting so many kids, or at least the excuse she’d give when asked. No one could argue with a Bible verse.

Lindsay hated it. You’re chosen! You’re special, dear. It was hard to believe that when she was one of three ‘chosen’. You just want to tell everyone you have lots of kids. You don’t actually care. If you did, you wouldn’t ignore me all the time. Her fist clenched around the small bag. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not your stupid rules or your stupid God.

Her fist opened. She’d accidentally halfway crushed the crystal pill into powder that shredded the bag. It was now chunks of dust in the palm of her hand. I’m not a hero anymore. And I don’t want to be. She shook the bag loose and tossed it. If she was going to do drugs and watch her new friend having sex on the couch, might as well add littering to her list of wrongdoings. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. With her thumb, she crushed the rest of the pill into powder and licked it off her hand.

It tasted sweet, like strawberries, dissolving instantly in her saliva. She let it swish around her mouth a little before swallowing, and it coated her tongue, teeth, and the back of her throat with a slick, waxy substance that lingered. Nothing happened. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect—a switch to flip that turned her into a wild and crazy party-goer or something? Or at the very least for God to strike her dead.

Lyndria plopped back on the couch beside her. She smelled funny. The air was thick with the cloying scent of something thick and salty. “Well? How do you feel?” Her voice was so loud.

Lindsay shrugged. “I dunno. No different, really.” The heavy bass of the music pumped in her veins and made her heart feel funny. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Fuck that guy because of me?” Wait, what did I just say?

“Sweetie, first thing you gotta learn about me. I fuck someone cause I want to. It just happens to be mutually beneficial a lot of the time. Believe me, there’s no better way to control someone than to give ‘em a good go of it and make them beg for more.”

“Does it hurt? To have sex. Mom always told me it would hurt.” Somebody had turned up the lights. It made her head ache.

“The first time, maybe. That turns some guys on, though. Some of ‘em like doing virgins. My brother was super in debt to a rival family, because he’s an idiot, so I went and slept with the boss’ number two, and he bankrolled the whole thing. Problem solved. Look, sweetie. Anyone, men or women, will pay for good sex, and I’m not just talking money. And there’s no better way to use someone. Nine times out of ten they don’t even realize it because they’re too busy to pay attention to what’s down here—” She pointed between her legs. “—To notice what’s going on in here.” She tapped her temple.

Lindsay nodded, as if that made sense. Wait, did she just say she lost her virginity to a mob boss? Isn’t that fucked up? “The lights,” she mumbled. “They’re all…” She searched for an appropriate word. “Flashy…ee.” That didn’t sound right. “What’s wrong with my mouth?”

“Oh, that’s just the drug. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Just relax a little and enjoy the high. Lean back, sweetie. You’ll feel like you’re flying in no time.”

“I can already fly. See? Look.” She stumbled to her feet. “I can fly.” She jumped, and the floor came crashing back at her with sudden and unexpected force. Her hand went out to catch herself, and she knocked over Lyndria’s martini glass. It shattered and pain shot up her arm. She pulled her hand away and looked at it, confused. “It’s red. Why’s my hand red?”

Lyndria said something, but her words were unclear. All Lindsay could hear was the thrumming of the bass. Lyndria took her hand, so Lindsay left it with her and wandered away because she thought she saw someone she knew. Something gold flashed in the undulating lights. Golden hair and eyes with a modern day flak jacket that looked like it was designed by the ancient Romans. “What are you doing?” The golden eyes asked. They looked so sad and disappointed. “I taught you better than this.”

“Well, you didn’t teach me the most important thing,” Lindsay said, but then realized that she was high, so she should be yelling things louder. “You didn’t teach me what to do after you were dead!

Yeah, that’ll teach him. Teach him to die on me.

“Sweetie, you’d better go to bed,” Lyndria said.

Lindsay looked at her hand. It wasn’t red anymore. It was white. “Why does my hand keep changing colors?” Something soft and feathery wrapped her body. “Mmm. Never mind. That feels nice. Hey, the music stopped.”

“We’re home now,” Marcus said. He took Lindsay’s hand.

“No, not that one,” she muttered. “It hurts. Hold my other hand.” She rolled over and it turned out she was wrong about which side of the bed he was on. At least now he could hold her hand that didn’t feel like it was on fire. She curled her fingers into his. His touch felt like pink satin sheets. “Your hands are expensive,” she said.

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know why you love me.” Her voice quivered and a sob caught in her throat. “I need you too much.  You’re sweet and kind and charming, and your sister’s really powerful, and people like me better when I’m with you. And I’m going to break your heart. I need you, Marcus. But I don’t love you.”

* * * *

Lyndria let the door swing shut behind her, leaving Lindsay to mumble at the wall in the empty room. Some foreign mothering instinct made her smile. She was a sweet kid. It would almost make her feel sad when Lindsay’s naivete was no longer a part of her. Sad, but not devastated. A paragon on their side was going to be useful.

After leaving her new baby bodyguard in a drug-induced sleep, Lyndria made a point of going to her own room, then proceeded to turn around and duck all the cameras on the way out the back door. Her own, untampered security would give her an alibi should she need one; though the night would have to turn out badly indeed to make that a possibility.

The downtown train terminal caught a mousy, forgettable brunette in a plain green sweatshirt catching the 4:37 AM train into the downtown core. It was possible the surveillance would catch her face, but Lyndria had adjusted her features enough to fool any facial recognition software. A few minutes later, and she walked into an all-night fast-food restaurant and took a seat with a number of men, all of them dwarfed by Tom Carter.

“You’re late,” he grumbled. “We were five minutes away from doing the job without you.” He scowled at her, though it didn’t change his face much.

“Aren’t you a lucky boy,” she cooed. “I showed up just five minutes before you ended up on somebody’s hit list.”

“I don’t appreciate threats, Princess.”

“Look, can we cut the arguments and get to the job?” Reece Smith grumbled.

Lyndria didn’t believe that was his real name for a second. She didn’t begrudge him his alias, though. He appeared to be the kind of person who blended into the background on purpose. He was five-foot-eight with an exceedingly average body type and facial features. Everything about him was instantly forgettable. It had actually taken Lyndria their first five jobs to remember his damn name, alias or not.

The fourth member of their team nodded. Tony Mendez was a small boy, hardly more than seventeen. His nervous demeanor would have given them away if he didn’t just look like the kind of kid who was constantly expecting some bully to sneak up behind him, throw him in a locker, and steal his lunch money. His red-rimmed eyes and glazed expression might have irked someone more professional, but Lindsay knew better than to throw stones, considering she was just getting off one hell of a buzz herself. Besides, the kid could hack faster when he was high than when he was stone cold sober.

Tom sighed and grumbled something about self-entitled…something she didn’t quite catch, but she was sure it was vulgar and insulting. She ignored the comment and he launched into a brief explanation. “With the meta community in our territory growing, the demand for Null’s getting higher, and the Salt Creek Gang is supplying.”

“They’re not on our payroll,” Lyndria interjected.

“No shit. They’re on Piroux’s. Which means they’re cutting into our business. The plan’s to cut them off at the knees, find out where they’re getting the shipments. It’s all coming through McClaine Imports/Exports, so their offices would be a good place to check out. That’s where we’re headed tonight. The opening manager’s in on it, and he grabs breakfast and a coffee here every morning, so we’ll follow him out.” He jutted his chin over to a man dressed in black, pressed pants and a blazer.

Lyndria glanced over. Her eyes met with the man’s. She suppressed a reaction and instead turned to Tom. “You mean to tell me,” she said evenly, “that you’re explaining our entire plan not ten feet away from our mark?” She smiled sweetly and put her hand on his large mitt. “You’re an idiot.” She leaned in. “Okay, guys, give me about half an hour and I’ll have us in. Track my phone, and don’t blow it.

She got up from there and headed to the bathroom where she hung up her sweatshirt, leaving a sleeveless dusty rose top with a lacy trip on its scoop neck. A bit of focus grew her breasts and altered her features into almost elf-like sharpness. Her hair turned a pretty burnt orange, and her eyes startlingly blue. A glance down showed her ass filling out her jeans just enough that her pink thong peeked out from the waist.

She left the sweatshirt in the bathroom. Some homeless kid was going to get a nice surprise. From there, she walked out and slid into the chair just across from their man. A charming smile played on her delicate lips. “Okay, so I know this is going to sound really forward, but I’ve been watching you come in every day. I work drive-through, so you probably don’t see me much, but I’ve always thought you were kinda cute.” She bit her lip and made a sweet blush appear on her cheeks. “You think we could hang out sometime?”

In about five minutes, she had him eating out of the palm of her hand, willing to take her anywhere. She subtly planted the idea that he wanted to show off his work…and maybe put his hitherto boring desk to good use.

It was shockingly easy keeping him there until the rest of her crew could get to the office. His sense of betrayal was palatable when she gagged him and tied him up on his computer chair. Her lips graced his neck and her hand slid down the inside of his thigh. “Oh, you know you like it.” She didn’t hear him argue.

It took Tony all of five minutes to hack into the files and grab the information they were looking for, while Tom and Reece stood guard. Together they cleaned the place when they were done.

“What do we do with him now?” Tony asked nervously, glancing over at the poor clerk. “He’s seen our faces.”

“Mind wipe him,” Reece suggested. “I know a guy in the city who’ll do it for a fee.”

“That’s unreliable,” Tom interjected. “Look, his service is useful, and I’ll bet we can pay more than the assclowns that think they own him.”

“Bought loyalty is about as useful as tits on an AK-47,” Reece grumbled.

“You want to say that to my face?” Tony took offense at that.

“Guys, chill,” Lyndria broke in, annoyed at their squabbles, and more so that they missed the obvious. She gave them a sly smile and slid up beside Reece. “Relax, boys. I got this.”

In a single swift motion, she yanked Reece’s sidearm out and put a bullet through the clerk’s head.

“Sorry, sweetie. Nothing personal. Just business. Tony, get the drawers open and take the cash. For all anyone knows, this was a simple robbery, and who’ll know the difference?” She smiled. “You know what they say: dead men tell no tales.”

Lyndria Wilson watched the body language of her newly-acquired bodyguard. The poor girl looked like a fish out of water. She was probably wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into. Lindsay White was refreshingly adorable, short of stature and slight of figure. The thought of corrupting her innocence brought a smile to Lyndria’s face.

So stinkin’ cute. She’s got go goddamn idea.

Lyndria was spending a few hours at the bar she’d been given as an eighteenth birthday present—and by ‘few hours’ she meant ‘all-night affair’. Erotic entertainment played on the stage to music as thick with bass as the air was with cigarette smoke and the scent of marijuana. The dancers sparkled in the flashing lights, exposing Lindsay to more glistening flesh exposed than the poor girl had ever seen in her entire lifetime. She stared open-mouthed at the gyrating muscles, having quite lost sight of Lyndria some time ago.

“Far be it from me to question your methods, ‘Princess’, but why the effing bloody hell did you bring a hero into this?” Tom Carter towered above her, even from his perch on a nearby stool at the bar. He was a massive man, with arms the size of tree trunks and shoulders that nearly swallowed his thick neck. His face wasn’t handsome to look at. His jaw was square and his chin was too big, and his forehead seemed determined to leap off its face and become sentient. To call him a friend was stretching it, but Tom was one of the very few people that Lyndria trusted, and they worked together—which was the sole reason she hadn’t fucked him yet. Everything about his physique was what her body constantly craved, but it was a bad idea to shit where you ate.

Lyndria ignored the sarcasm dripping off the title the man gave her. Daddy’s money bought a lot, and some people resented that. She didn’t care. They could resent it all the fuck they wanted, so long as they responded in a predictable manner. Tom liked money, and he knew what side his bread was buttered on. He wouldn’t screw her over. Which was more than she could say for most of the people she interacted with on a daily basis.

“You can always tell what a hero’s gonna do. They’re predictable. Almost more so than wise-ass, safe-cracking trolls that Daddy pays a lot of money to. She’ll be useful. She just needs a little corrupting.”

He glowered at her. “Your dad’s not around, now is he?”

“His money is, and that’s the important part, now isn’t it?” She put her hand on his arm. “Now, why don’t you be a good little troll and go get your gear. We got a job to do tonight. I’ll meet you in an hour.”

She wandered away, drink in hand, preferring to distract him with her swaying ass so he’d stop asking stupid questions. Questions that cut a little to close to the truth.

Daddy had been gone for months. Lyndria had a litany of older brothers that were supposed to pick up the slack on the family business should her father be incapacitated, but they’d vanished too. It left Lyndria holding the proverbial bag, but even she had to admit she was ill-equipped. She had no interest in the business—only the lifestyle it provided. Daddy had always indulged her.

Except for the last time they’d talked.

The conversation took place in the patriarch’s ostentatious study that she’d been dutifully sent to just days after a particularly interesting outing that involved the family estate of a local rising star politician. Somebody (Lyndria was way too high at the time to remember who) had set fire to the family’s heirlooms. The cops were called, and Lyndria barely escaped being busted for possession. She still had no idea where her clothes had vanished that night.

Lyndria chewed her lip in what she hoped was a contrite gesture, doing her best to fake an inability to look her father in the eye. In reality, she was barely holding back the laughter.

“Exactly what part of this do you find humorous, Lyndria?” Jacob Wilson wasn’t fooled. He spoke in a cool voice, his hands folded casually on his desk, the subtle tones in his rumbling baritone and ice in his eyes the only indication of his anger.

“Nothing, Daddy.” She glanced over to her brother, Glen, standing arms crossed over his barrel chest. With his jaw set and his piercing eyes staring at her, he looked the spitting image of their father.

No help from there, then. She was on her own. She shrugged innocently. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Several valuable tapestries in the Taylor estate library were burnt down.”

She couldn’t hold the grin anymore. “What can I say? Sexually repressed socialites know how to party once they really get going.”

Jacob sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “Lyndria, we’ve talked about this. You need to concern yourself with the family business. My stockholders need to know I can hold together the business, and you and your…indiscretions are putting doubts in their minds. The tabloids love a story like this, and the more they run with it, the more our stock goes down. After all, how can I be trusted with a company when I can’t even control my own daughter?”

Lyndria shrugged. “I fail to see how it is of their concern.”

“You should concern yourself with the paparazzi that photographed the entire event.”

“Oh, photos were taken? I hope they got my good side.” She snickered. “Who am I kidding? I don’t have a bad side. Besides, no one takes the tabloids seriously.”

“Seriously enough. Watch yourself, Lyndria. Blowing the story of a drunk little girl is their stock and trade.”

This lecture was getting boring. Lyndria crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” The old man would get everything out of his system in a few hours and then they would move on.

“Lyndria, I’m serious.”

“What are you going to do? Ground me?  I think I’m a little old for that.”

“It wouldn’t work anyway. You’d just sneak out of the house.”

Lyndria grinned. “Damn right I would.”

“I’ve done something much more effective. I’ve called my bank and canceled your credit cards. I’ve had my lawyers draw up paperwork barring my entire financial network from allowing you access.”

Her smile disappeared. “You what?”

“I’m cutting you off, young lady. You want to make an ass of yourself, you do it on your own dime.”

“But, Daddy, I—”

“No buts. Get out there and make your own money. You’re a capable person if put your mind to it. Put aside your hedonistic tenancies for a while. Learn the real world.”

“But Sara Smith’s birthday party is next week, and I gotta have money for that. Everybody who’s anybody is going to be there. What are people going to think if I don’t show up?”

“Then you’d better earn fast. And if you want any goodwill with the Taylor’s, you’d better figure out how to pay for those tapestries.”

“You mean you’re not—”

“No, I’m not paying for them. From here on out, you rise and fall on your own merit.” He tapped the desk with his index finger for emphasis.

“But I—”

“Dismissed.”

“But—”

“Dismissed, young lady!”

Lyndria narrowed her eyes, allowing tears to pool up. “I hate you.” She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

One of her other brothers, Alex, stood outside the door. He smiled a bit and leaned down conspiratorially to her as they walked down the hallway. “The classic ‘I hate you’ line. Think it’ll work?”

She smiled at him. “I give it two days.”

“You go, girl.” He held up his hand and she slapped it in a high five.

She woke up the next morning to an empty house. She couldn’t really say how she knew it was empty, it just felt that way. She shook off the feeling and began to prepare for her Breakfast Manipulation Plan. It took her the better part of an hour and a half to get dressed, decide what face she was going to wear that day, then apply makeup to it. The best part about being a metamorph was that she could change her hair and eye color easier than most people changed their clothes. She waffled for a while between a conservative mousy brown hair approach, and the wild, blue hair rebellious method. Did she want to appear sorry for what she’d done, or reinforce how much she hated him?

In the end, she stuck with her original plan and added some green streaks to the blue. She applied a deep black lipstick and thick eyelashes to go along with a tight, lacy bodice barely appropriate outside of the bedroom, and a plaid short skirt that only pretended to cover her ass.

Her efforts were wasted. Jacob Wilson didn’t show up for breakfast. Or lunch. The staff all assumed he’d gone out for the day, but when Lyndria made her way to the office, he wasn’t there either. By the time dinner rolled around, Lyndria was worried. She’d never get her money back if he didn’t show soon.

The day ended and then stretched into weeks. Her father didn’t return. Worse, her brothers, who should have been running the estate in his absence, had also vanished. Every day drove her deeper and deeper into debt, borrowing money on her father’s good name, promising to repay it when she got a hold of her father’s estate. They were going to come back. They had to. Lyndria refused to be worried, because that was a waste of brainspace.

She grabbed another drink on her way back to her brand new, adorably cute bodyguard, grinning a little at the other girl’s enthralled look. Lyndria didn’t blame her. There were some fine specimens of humanity on-stage.

The loud music covered her approach as she snuck up behind Lindsay and spoke in her ear. “Oh, that’s a cute face.” Lindsay jumped.

Lindsay stammered and nearly tripped over the arm of the nearby couch. Only her flight ability saved her, and she ended up seated stiffly on the edge of the red plush piece of furniture. “I, uh, I…I—”

Lyndria slid in beside her. “Your mouth’s hanging open so wide it’s like it wants to devour the man-flesh on stage.” She grinned. “Want one?”

Lindsay shook her head, eyes wide. “I-I, uh…I have a boyfriend. Back home. I-I have a boyfriend.”

She chuckled. “That don’t mean anything. He’s there. You’re here. And it’s been how long? Seriously. How long’s it been since you had a guy hard inside you?”

Shock dropped Lindsay’s jaw and set her cheeks aflame. She clamped her mouth together so hard her teeth rattled. At a loss for words, she shook her head vigorously in the negative.

“Oh aren’t you adorable. Sweetie, it’s okay, I know a virgin when I see one. I won’t push.” The sigh of relief had barely exited out of Lindsay’s mouth before Lyndria continued, “Of course, the one in the blue thong is looking right at you.”

Lindsay shook her head. “No. No, I-I…I’m not…” She trailed off before she could say something that could potentially offend her libidinous employer.

“A slut?” Lyndria smirked.

“I didn’t say that.” It was written on her face, though.

“Relax, you’re hardly the first to say it. Whatever, I take it as a compliment. Sex is the most basic biological urge beyond eating, drinking, and breathing, and is equally as essential. Trust me when I say this, you got the ability to provide sex? You got something everybody wants.”

Lindsay crossed her legs and hugged her arms to her body. “I’m not sure I want boys looking at me that way.”

“Oh, it’s not about ‘boys’.” She raised her fingers in air quotes. “It’s about human experience. And what’s more human than sex?” She jerked her head toward the stage where two of the men locked lips while a third traced his mouth down the back of one of them.

“I guess…” She shrugged. “I dunno. My boyfriend and I are pretty close. Or…we were. I sort of left things hanging when I came here.”

It could have been a trick of the flashing lights, but it looked to Lyndria like the other girl was close to tears. “You think he might have found someone else?” she asked softly.

Lindsay shook her head vigorously. “No! Nothing like that. Believe me, he’s the last person who would ever do something like that. It’s just…I don’t know when I’m going home. Or even…even if I am.”

“Well, don’t think about it.” It seemed an obvious solution to Lyndria. “Look, if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. In the meantime…there’s booze.”

“I can’t get drunk.”

“Oh, come on. I’m your boss. You can get drunk if I say you can get drunk.”

“No, I mean I physically can’t. My metabolism processes the alcohol too fast.”

Lyndria shrugged. She tipped her head backward over the couch and bellowed, “Hey, Crystal!”

A mousy looking guy in a gray hoodie and baggy pants shambled over. “You still dealing?” Lyndria asked.

Crystal raised his eyebrow. “Since when do you do Null?”

“Since never. Don’t need to shit on my powers to get high. My friend here, however…”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. You got money?”

“You want money, or you want me to ride your cock for a bit?”

Lindsay made a sound of protest, but Lyndria waved her off. Crystal jumped over the back of the couch and fished a small package out of his pocket containing a single pill shaped like his namesake. Lyndria took it from him with one hand, while the other worked at his jeans. She handed the pill to Lindsay. “Here. Take it. Get high. Forget your life for a while.” She grinned. “Seriously? It’s not that fucking bad.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay chuckled. “I missed you too.”

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

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

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

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

“John is… He’s gone.”

“As in…”

“Dead. Gone.”

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

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

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

“Hey. I get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam took it. “Sure. Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s just…I never thought…”

“Never thought you’d be back again?”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl nodded. “I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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.”

Warning: Explicit sexual content

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

“I know. I just can’t. Not tonight.”

“That’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Make love to me, Jayson.”

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

“I changed my mind.”

He didn’t have to be told twice.

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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