Posts Tagged ‘Friendship’

Chapter 2: Mind Games (Part1)

Posted: October 13, 2015 in Book 2
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Mitch shifted uncomfortably as he slid off Lindsay’s shoulders when they touched down on Delta’s island headquarters. “Look, I hate to be the cliche guy who says the obvious expositional line in the movies, but…are you sure about this?”

Lindsay spun around to look at him. “Look, you want to go up against the Fae, right? How do you plan on doing that?”

Mitch backed away from her intensity and shifted his gaze away from her. He shrugged wordlessly.

“Exactly. We don’t know the first thing about these little buggers, but we know someone who does. Look, Drake taught us everything we know, so he’s the obvious person to ask—but we don’t exactly have his personal phone number, all communication between Delta members has been restricted, and last I checked, the Legendary Mister X wasn’t listed in the phone book. If we can’t find him here, chances are we’ll find someone who can.”

She crossed her arms. “Look, we can do this the easier way. Marcus’ sister is basically best friends with—”

“No,” Mitch stated flatly. She wasn’t wrong, it would be easier. But whether it was stubbornness or pride—probably both, if he was honest with himself—he didn’t want anyone else to know he’d been taken by a fucking fairy. In a perfect world, Drake wouldn’t know about it either, but at least he could count on the man to be discrete. Hell, in a perfect world he wouldn’t have misplaced two people like they were gaming console remotes.

Lindsay gave him a look that said she clearly disagreed with his decision, but before she could protest, they were approached by a security guard who looked like a reject from a military movie aimed at fifty-something men going through a mid-life crisis. He had the kind of powerful physique that would translate well to an action figure, only this real-life version was easily six-foot-two. He was fully decked out in combat gear and armed with a large gun that he cradled like a particularly deadly child. Mitch reflected that he might have been intimidated if he wasn’t capable of lighting the man’s flak jacket on fire with his mind. As it was, he felt annoyed, both by the man’s very presence, and by the fact that he seemed to be barring them from a place that had been their home not even a month ago.

“This area is restricted. I would advise you to leave.”

“Kiss my ass,” Mitch snapped before he could help myself.

Lindsay shot him a look. “What he means is, I’m sure we have some kind of authorization. Delta might have been disbanded, but the names Spryte and Inferno have got to mean something.”

The talking department store toy was not impressed. “While your previous services are appreciated, it does not grant you access to this area. Leave or appropriate action will be taken.”

Mitch clenched his fists. “You gonna make me, bitch?” Heat surged through him, and he would have ignited into a flaming ball of fury, except that Lindsay grabbed hold of his arm.

“If you light up, Mitch, so help me god,” she snapped. “You’re not stupid. Don’t act like it. It doesn’t matter what powers you have, don’t threaten the police.”

It took all of Mitch’s willpower not to lash out in fury, his rage combated by the tiny voice in his head that said she was right, you fucking tool. For all intents and purposes, his fire was a weapon, and all of his training pointed out the obvious fact that you never pointed a weapon at someone unless you intended to shoot. Besides, anybody with a child’s understanding of logic could point out that he was a volatile mess, and he should let Lindsay do the talking.

He shut his mouth and took a step away. Anger gave away to self-loathing. How could he lash out like that against the one person willing to help him? Lindsay didn’t need to get involved. She had every reason to walk away and leave him to hack out his own miserable attempt at finding the family he knew he had but didn’t even remember. “Sorry,” he mumbled, feeling like an asshole.

Lindsay gave him a smile he didn’t deserve and put a gentle hand on his shoulder before turning back to the action movie prop. “Look, we’re just looking for Drake.” She gave a charismatic grin. “If you have a way to reach him, tell him we need help with ‘Little Miss Muffet’.

Mitch did a double take at her before he got the reference. When Drake was training them to keep a Fae out of their heads, he gave them the advice to find a nursery rhyme to focus on and repeat. Ideally, if a Fae was going to skim for surface thoughts, all they would get was an obnoxious ditty. Lindsay had once told him that hers was Little Miss Muffet, so that had to be her way of surreptitiously letting the omniscient legend know that they were dealing with his arch-nemesis.

“We’ll be good and stay right here if you can deliver that message,” Lindsay said with her most charming smile.

The guard gave her a wary look, but he passed the message through his comms. This turned out to be the most effective idea Lindsay had come up with yet, because of course Drake was monitoring the security guards’ communication. He blinked into existence with a teleportation device in hand, gave the guard an unimpressed look, and clapped a hand on Mitch’s shoulder. Apparently he was in one of his taciturn moods, because he teleported both Mitch and Lindsay away without a word. They ended up in an underground bunker god only knew where.

Mitch resisted the urge to run for the nearest toilet, his stomach violently protesting the sudden shift in location. Mitch rather agreed with his stomach’s assessment. Fuck if he knew if he was still in the same goddamn country. “What the fucking shit?” He exploded.

“You tell me,” Drake said evenly. “You’re the ones who chanted my name three times in front of a mirror, metaphorically speaking.”

Lindsay was busy straining her neck to look around at the computer set-up with multiple monitors, piles upon piles of unfinished gadgets, and a dark hallway lined with locker-like compartments as high as the ceiling, which Mitch could only assume hid a robot army. “Whoa. This isn’t just something you built in the last week or so.”

“Of course not. Do you honestly think I’d keep all my important stuff in a giant tower that practically begs for some insane villain to plunder? Not to mention, it was just a matter of time before bureaucratic bullshit happened, like, I dunno, our fearless leader perpetuating a Bond villain cliche and sending the government into a tailspin of paranoia.”

Mitch rolled his eyes. It was hard to argue with that.

Lindsay nudged him and shifted her gaze pointedly toward Drake. “Tell him.”

Mitch crossed his arms and shuffled from one foot to the other. He didn’t want to say it out loud, afraid that in the sifting reality that had become his life, speaking the truth would make it real. If he didn’t say anything, he could just pretend it was all just some fucked up dream. He’d been fine for fuck knew how long without realizing a family existed. He could go his entire life just believing that everything was normal.

But even though he couldn’t actually remember these people, he felt a strange attachment to them. Every time he thought of that empty, too-big house, his heart ached as if something was missing. “A Fae took my family,” he mumbled.

The effect was instantaneous. Drake stilled like a predator on the hunt, and Mitch could feel the gravity shift, making the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. “I don’t even remember them. I guess I have a mom and a sister, but I don’t know their names or how old my sister is, or—or my mom’s birthday. I should know that. I should know that, right?” His jaw quivered, and he hated himself for it. “They—they could be dead and I don’t even have any memories of them. I mean, that’s supposed to be the consolation when you lose somebody, right? Your sister’s laugh, or your mom feeding you chicken soup or some bullshit, but i-it’s all blank!”

Mitch ran his fingers through his hair. “I can’t take this,” he muttered. “I’m going insane.”

Drake’s hands on his shoulders steadied Mitch. “You’re not going insane. What happened to you isn’t right, and it isn’t fair. I’ll do what I can to help, but I won’t bullshit you, it may not have a happy ending. Can you accept that?”

Dull hatred burned in Mitch’s eyes. “Do I have a choice?”

Drake sighed. “You really don’t. That’s what sucks the most. Well, except for just curling into a ball and ignoring it, but then the little bastards win, and that’s not really an option, now is it?”

Mitch felt his lip curl. Disgust rose in him so powerful that a shudder ran down his spine. “Those little shits aren’t getting away with anything.”

“Attaboy.”

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Marcus London woke with a start at the sound of a clatter. His hero’s instinct went into overdrive for a moment as he tried to figure out what made such an ungodly noise, but then it was followed by a series of mild curses. He smiled sleepily. His girlfriend never could bring herself to utter words that were truly profane. All was right with the world. He pulled the covers closer to his chin and snuggled deeper into the soft bed.

His eyes flew open. All was not right with the world.

He pushed himself out of bed and hastily pulled on his clothing that lay scattered on the floor. It took him a second to find his shirt wedged into the drywall where Lindsay had fired it with excited force. He tugged on it to no avail, so he left it embedded in the wall. Lindsay could pull it out herself later.

Shirtless, he wandered into the large room that function as a kitchen on one side and a living room on the other. Lindsay had her recording equipment set up in one corner—the one she kept spotless so that her podcast viewers couldn’t see the mess she usually lived in. She wasn’t recording yet, though. Her blue eyes were fixed on her laptop as she sat at the kitchen counter, delicate eyebrows drawn together. Her short hair fell over her face, and small fingers rubbed the stress from her neck.

“You got my shirt stuck in the wall,” Marcus teased, hoping to break the tension.

Lindsay looked up and smiled. “I’d apologize, but I’m pretty sure I more than made up for it last night.”

Marcus grinned. “I’d agree with you, but I know I gave as good as I got.”

“Maybe.”

“You liked it.”

She gave a shy smirk. “Yeah, that’s true.”

Marcus ducked behind the counter and wrapped his arms around Lindsay, the bar stool she sat on still only bringing the top of her head to his chin. He kissed her neck, willing himself not to look at the screen. He didn’t want to know what he would find there.

“Marcus.” He could feel his name vibrating beneath her skin. “They made the announcement.”

“Sh, that can wait.” He squeezed his shut eyes tighter still and teased her jaw with his lips. His hands slid down her hips, and he forced his mind to recall the night before, instead of focusing on the present concern.

“Marcus, I need to make a podcast of this. It’s too important. People need to know.”

He sighed. He couldn’t put it off anymore, so he opened his eyes and rested his chin on Lindsay’s shoulder. His hand folded over Lindsay’s and directed her to scroll back to the top of the page so he could see the title of the article.

Delta Division Disbanded by UN Committee Vote

“Marcus, this is a good thing. Maybe people will stop looking at us like a threat. If people aren’t scared of us, then we’ll be—you know—normal. We can live normal lives free to pursue hopes and dreams just like everybody else. Without the Delta Division to put us on a pedestal above your average citizen, we can be one of them.”

“Lindsay, how many collages rejected your application?”

Her gaze shifted away. “All of them.”

“It’s not your grades. They’re good. It’s not your community involvement, because lord knows you’ve saved more people in three years than most do in a lifetime. You’re a hero for crissakes.”

“Well. Except for that time when I was a bodyguard for a mafia princess.” She picked at her manicured nails.

“Okay, officially, that didn’t happen. Besides, we’re not talking Ivy League schools, here. Not to mention the first five apartments you applied to wouldn’t let you live in their building.” He took her hands. “Because you’re meta. The whole world knows it. They don’t care that we’re human beings with a complex set of motivations that have nothing to do with powers. All they care about is that we’re freaks.”

“Hey, you got into university.”

“Well, Eric’s money goes a long way.” He glanced to the side, embarrassed. It had taken some convincing to get him to allow that. He didn’t like the idea of taking advantage of his brother-in-law. “Besides, my identity is still retroactively protected, though God only knows how long that’ll last now that Delta’s over. There might have been some tabloid rumors, but that’s the only thing connecting me to the name of Spark Plug. You’ve always been open about your real name. Which is something you should be free to do without this kind of backlash. It should not be affecting you like this.” He let out an angry breath.

Lindsay smiled. “Aw, sweetie. You’re so cute when you get worked up like that.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Loosing the Delta Division means we’ve lost the legitimacy for our community. Which means we’re just one more ‘protected’ class.” He pulled away to look at her. “And historically, society hasn’t done well with those.”

She laughed. “Since when do you have so little faith in humanity?”

Marcus sighed and rested his forehead against Lindsay’s. “Since I found out that the person who was supposed to save us all was willing to bet our lives in a bid for control.”

He kissed her quickly and walked backward toward his backpack with a lopsided grin forced onto his face. “Anyway, honey-lyn, if you wouldn’t mind retrieving my shirt, I shall be off and let you record in peace.”

She moved back toward him. “You’re not that interruptive. I don’t need to kick you out. You practically live here anyway.” She grabbed onto his belt loops. “You know we could make that official.” Her lips grazed his.

He pulled back, but not away. “I love you.” He kissed her. “But I think that’s a discussion for a time when our world didn’t just get turned upside down. One thing at a time, honey-lyn.”

* * * *

It took an hour for Lindsay to figure out what she wanted to say. She tried to muster some anger, but it was useless. She wasn’t angry.

She sat in front of her deskstop and turned on her equipment.

“The metahuman community, I’m sure, wants me to be outraged. How dare some faceless government take away our right to organization and purpose? But they haven’t. I’m not outraged. Just tired. Tired of being pigeon-holed, of being told I can only be this one thing, only be a hero. The Delta Division might be over, but heroism is not. Community heroes have existed since the dawn of time. You don’t need super strength to be a good person.”

She took a deep breath. “I spent most of my time in Delta trying to figure out what my purpose was. Why I was fighting. The truth is, I still don’t know. Perhaps…well, maybe that’s because we shouldn’t be fighting. We’re people, not soldiers. And today marks the day where we can no longer be asked to be soldiers just because we have powers.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for those I’ve worked for—well, most of them. There are notable exceptions, obviously. But on that note, I think it’s important to point out that Samantha Clive hurt all of us—human and metahuman. There’s no us versus them there, so please don’t pretend that there is.

“But back to my original point—and I’m sure I’m going to lose viewers with this, but I’m tired of pretending this isn’t true. The very concept behind the Delta Division is fundamentally flawed. We don’t need organization because we don’t need to be a force. To date, Delta has been a farce, a magician’s trick, a-a distraction. Pay no attention to the man—or woman—behind the curtain, ladies and gentlemen, because she’s trying to take over the world.

“Well, you know what? I’m not going to be used anymore. And neither should you.”

No sooner had Lindsay put down their recording equipment than her cell phone buzzed on the desk. She frowned. Usually she turned it off while recording, but she must have forgotten. This news shook her more than she cared to admit.

The caller ID displayed Mitch’s name. Her head tilted in confusion. They’d kept in touch since Sam’s execution. Marcus thought he was an asshole, and Lindsay didn’t disagree, but she felt that he was the kind of person you didn’t mind being an asshole, because at least he was honest about it. They’d become friends who tagged each other in pictures on social media and messaged each other to see how their days were going, but this was way beyond that. Why would he be calling her?

Only one way to find out. She swiped the phone to answer.

“Lindsay!” The panic in his voice made her leap to her feet, and even hover a little. “There’s something…can—can you come over? To my house. There’s something wrong with the house.”

“What? Y-yeah, I’ll be right there, are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m going crazy.”

“All right, well just hang in there, okay? I’ll be right there.”

A selling feature of the apartment was the small balcony accessible by double doors. She shut them behind her and took off into the sky. She’d been by his place once or twice, mostly to trade borrowed DVDs, so she had little trouble finding it. She lit in front of his door. It opened before she could knock.

He grabbed her arm, and she went along, letting him drag her inside. “There’s too many rooms.”

“H-how many—”

“Bedrooms. Three bedrooms. Why?”

“No, that makes sense, one for you, and—”

“I didn’t even notice—well, I did, but I didn’t—not ‘til those stupid government assholes said they were repossessing the house because it belonged to the Delta Division—and I swear to fucking God, I will fucking torch their fucking mansions with them inside. They can’t fuck with me like that.”

“Mitch, you’re not making any sense!” She grabbed him about the shoulders. She’d never felt someone so hot—temperature-wise, of course. “Please, just calm down.”

“I’m calm!” he screamed, then said it quieter. “I’m calm. There’s too many bedrooms.”

“No, three makes sense. One for you, one for your mom, and one for your sister.”

Terror, fury, and abject confusion raced through his green eyes as he looked at her. Tears filled his eyes. “I…I have a sister?”

Lindsay’s eyes widened. “Oh God, no…” She licked her lips. “Mitch, why did you call me?”

He shook his head and looked away. His whole body trembled. “I-I don’t know. I just thought—” He looked at her. “Was there a reason?”

“Do you remember what you told me? About the Shadow Fae?”

He looked at her now, eyes wide. Another shake of his head. Then something else crossed his eyes and he glanced at the ceiling. “Wait. I-I…a Fae…I told you…” His gaze focused on her again. “A Fae has my family.”

He sat down heavily, barely making it to the living room couch. Lindsay sat beside him. “I forgot. I had a mother, a sister…and I forgot.” He buried his face in large hands, and great sobs shook his shoulders.

Tears sprung to Lindsay’s eyes. This was the worst possible thing that could happen to him, and her short-tempered friend wasn’t even angry. Mitch looked utterly defeated. Sam had been brought down, the Fae scattered. The battle was won. Why were their still casualties? It wasn’t fair. “I’m sorry.” Unable to help herself, she embraced him, her small frame encircling him, desperate to comfort him. “I’m so sorry.”

“I have to find them, Lindsay. They’re my family.”

“I know. We’ll find them somehow.”

He took a breath and wiped at the tears that fell down his cheeks. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”

“I won’t I promise. It’ll just be you and me. We’ll find a way to beat this Fae, to find your family.” She grasped his hands. “We can do this, Mitch.” She smiled a little. “We’re super heroes, remember?”

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!”

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!”

While Liam polled his network of informants for information on Lyndria, Allen found himself curled up on an easy chair in the high school teacher’s condo. The small living space wasn’t meant for entertaining—Liam avoided people. With the three of them gathered there, the space was well beyond occupied. Donald was theoretically crashing on the couch, though Allen had yet to see the man sleep, which left Allen the floor space. He was more than happy with that, and would probably end up falling asleep on the chair anyway. If he slept at all. The day’s events kept racing through his mind. He tried to focus on the plans Liam and Donald were discussing, but every time he blinked he could feel the soul-crushing darkness of Freakazoid’s mental attacks.

He felt suffocated. The room was too small, there were too many people in an apartment meant for one, and why did his shirt collar suddenly seem so tight? He pulled at the cotton, but that just made it worse. Iron claws couldn’t scratch his skin, but somehow the simple material felt like the roughest sandpaper.

He couldn’t breathe here. It was too hot. He pushed himself off the chair, floating because he trusted his flight to bear him better than his legs. “I need to get some air,” he muttered. If the two men tried to stop him, he didn’t notice.

The door clicked softly behind him as he stepped out onto the blue-carpeted hallway that smelled of cleaner and middle-aged living. He didn’t remember making his way to the rooftops, and he could not honestly say if he’d climbed the stairs or opened a window and flew. One way or the other, he found himself pacing the gravel by an ancient air conditioner in its death throes, phone in hand.

“Hello?”

His heart thudded faster at the sound of Tracy’s voice, though it was somehow a more comforting, natural rhythm. “Hey.” He wondered if he could fully communicate the scope of his relief into the single syllable.

“Hey yourself. How are things in Montreal?”

“Oh. You know.” I almost died today.

I almost died. How in the world am I supposed to tell her that?

“Well not really, silly, that’s why I asked.” He could hear her smile. “How’s the hunt? Find anything yet?”

“Not yet. Been kind of an interesting experience, meeting all kinds of different people and stuff.”

“Man, you must be hating your life right now.” She laughed.

“Well, there are worst things.” Like having a freaky psionic metacriminal making scrambled eggs out of your brains.

“I suppose. Well, it’s good to know my little hero boy is surviving his first solo mission.”

“Yeah, about that. I think I accidentally teamed up with Mitch’s dad. Him and this weird old guy who were apparently looking out for Lindsay too.”

“Wow, small world.”

Allen nodded in agreement. “Yeah,” he blurted, after realizing that she couldn’t see his head movement. The silence fell. Allen felt like he could hear the stars screaming at him from the night sky.

“Allen? Are you okay?”

“Huh?” No. “Why?”

“I dunno, I just…I’d say you seem quiet, but that’s normal behavior for you. I just have this feeling that something’s up.”

Allen breathed into the phone. “I, ah…” No secrets, Allen. You promised. “I almost died today.” He put his hand to his forehead and his back to the dying air conditioner. “Oh God…” He slid to the ground, neither his flight nor his strength enough to hold him up anymore. “I almost died today.”

More silence.

“I’d ask you how you’re feeling about that, but I think the answer’s self-evident. Allen, do you need to come home?”

Allen took a breath and looked up at the sky. The moon was waning; it had been full a week ago. He closed his eyes and imagined Tracy’s arms around him, the scent of her hair embracing him. “No.” His hands shook, and he felt a tear itch down the side of his face. He took a deep, determined breath. “Tracy, if I come home now, I’m not going to be able to come back out here again. I have to find Lindsay. I have to. I made a promise to Marcus, and I’m going to keep it.”

“Allen…you know I’m proud of you?”

Tears pooled in his eyes now, cooled by the breeze that stirred. Despite himself, he smiled.

“You’ve taken on this task that’s so completely out of your element in ways I only know of because I’ve been your best friend for forever. And despite the difficulty, despite all the dangers and the fear you’re feeling right now, you’re not giving up. I can’t even tell you how enormously proud of you that makes me. Now, I can’t actually be there, so you’re going to have to imagine me hugging you. Will that be enough?”

He nodded again.

“Did you just nod?” she asked.

He laughed, his voice shaking a little. “How’d you know?”

“Knowing you is my super power. I’m sending you hugs in my mind, so hopefully that’ll be enough to tide you over for now. I’ll give you, like, a million when you get home. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“So…do you want to talk about it? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“To be honest, not really. I want to hear your voice right now. How are things back home?”

“Oh! I had an interview yesterday with the people from Mapleview Long Term Care Facility. I think I might be able to get a job there this summer.”

“Tracy, that’s amazing!”

“I know! I mean, it’s not my preferred demographic. I’ve always wanted to work with teenagers. But this is going to look great on a resume, and I talked to some of the residents there, and they seem like really nice people.” She laughed. “This one old guy asked my name, so I gave it and asked him his, and he took my hand and said, ‘I’m your knight in shining armor. You can hate me, break me, shake me, but baby, you cannot forsake me.’ And then he kissed me hand. It was adorable.”

Allen laughed. “Do I have a challenger for your affections?”

“Oh, I think you can take him. He’s a frail man. Blink too hard in his direction and he’ll fall over.”

“I’ll be really careful with my eyelids if I ever meet him then.”

“Your eyelids are very powerful, sweetheart.”

Allen laughed out loud at that one. By the time he stopped laughing, his heart felt lighter. Pushing off into the sky, he sat cross-legged, leaning his elbows on his knees. He smiled.

“You’re smiling now, aren’t you?”

That made him grin wider. “You know I love you, Tracy?”

“Yeah. I love you too.”

“I kinda want to kiss you right now.”

“Me too. Guess I’ll have to pack a few of those in with the hugs, huh?”

“Guess so. Oh God, what time is it? Man, I totally called you in the middle of the night, didn’t I?”

“Allen, relax, it’s okay. I was up with a good book anyway.”

“Aw man, now I feel really bad for interrupting you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She yawned. “I should sleep anyway. You sure you’re feeling better, though? Because I will literally stay up all night if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine.” He smiled. “I am feeling better. Much better. Hey, Tracy?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime, sweetheart. I mean that. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night.”

“Not just that. For saying yes.”

“I’m glad I did, Allen. I love you. So very much.”

“And I love you. Now get some sleep.”

Chapter 15: Lost

Posted: June 9, 2015 in Book 1
Tags: , , , ,

Charity felt like she was falling. The small motorboat wasn’t supposed to tip that way, but it was. And then she was flying. She lost the fiberglass floor of the boat somewhere in the air, and then she was falling. The water was a shock to her system. It was cold and wet. For a moment, she forgot how to breathe, and then she wished she’d kept forgetting because she couldn’t breathe in the water. She coughed and spluttered, which just made it worse. Panic set in, and her lungs screamed. Her mouth opened to join them, and more water flowed in. Her arms thrashed around and she grabbed for something—anything. Her fingers tingled. Heat burned in her body, and it felt like every cell was vibrating. She’d just learned about cells this year at school. Briefly she imagined them doing what they were supposed to be doing, growing and dividing, making more, except that they were trying to make so much energy. More energy than she could control.

Something in the water lit up and it got really warm in spots. She clawed her way in the direction she desperately hoped was the surface, except that she was positive all she was doing was going farther down. Down so far, that Daddy would never find her. She would die at the bottom of the lake, her body resting on the mud and weeds, and they would never find her.

Then she broke the surface, and gasped the life-giving air. The second breath brought more water into her lungs, and she nearly gave up then. The water wanted her to die. The second she thought of that, she got angry. Well, if that’s what it wanted, it was going to be disappointed. She knew where the surface was now, so she scrambled for it again.

Another wave smashed into her, and she swallowed half of it. She coughed. Her whole body shook. Her stomach rolled, and all of the sudden she wasn’t just coughing up water, but everything else that was in her stomach too.

The water was really fast, and by now, it had taken the boat so far away, she’d never get to it. “Daddy!” she screamed, but there was no answer. She was alone. The terror set in again. “Daddy!”

The current was so strong that it threatened to pull her under. That scared her even more. It whipped her past a small island. She began to claw at the water, fighting and struggling with everything she had to get back to it. She had to get to land. It seemed so far away. After what seemed like hours—though it was probably only minutes—she was almost ready to give up. Exhaustion set in. Her arms ached and her chest burned. She wanted so badly to give up.

By the time she got there, her fingers were so numb she couldn’t feel the rock she clung to. She’d lost a sneaker; funny that she hadn’t noticed that till now. Her feet were heavy, and the other shoe came off as she willed her legs to climb onto the bank. Her head hurt, and everything spun at a crazy angle. The ground hugged her, which was a little insane, but at least it wasn’t going to try to kill her.

She was going to sleep now. She could breathe, that was the important thing. Sleep. Daddy would find her.

Charity’s eyes opened as she woke to a slow, steady beep, beep, beep. She was in the hospital. The flannel sheets of the hospital bed were warm under her fingertips. And not water. That was the important thing. She never wanted to go near water again. But now it was over, and she was safe. She smiled a little. She knew Daddy would find her.

Her head moved a little and she saw someone sleeping awkwardly in the chair beside her bed. She noticed his sneakers first, for some reason. I’m going to need new sneakers. Hers were lying at the bottom of the lake. Even if someone found them, she didn’t want them back. They would be too wet.

The man seemed familiar. He wasn’t very old; Charity guessed maybe twenty. He was kind of cute, too, with dark hair and long eyelashes resting against his cheek. His lips were full. She imagined he might be a good kisser. She wondered who he was—and better question, what was he doing here? Watching her? That was kind of creepy.

He stirred a little and shifted in his seat. His brow furrowed. A second later, he started rubbing his neck, massaging out what must be a super bad cramp. His eyes blinked open. They were a really nice hazel color, just like Marcus’. Come to think of it, he looked an awful lot like Marcus would if he was all grown up. But that couldn’t be him. He was only five.

The man all of the sudden looked at her. He blinked, a little stunned. Then, for some reason, relieved. “Charity,” he gasped, and she wondered how he knew her name. He slid over to the bed and plunked beside her as he hit the intercom button. “Dr. Franks! She’s awake.” Then he grabbed her hand. “Oh, thank God, you’re awake.”

Charity frowned. Was he crying? “Who…” Her throat was so dry. That seemed weird to her, considering she’d nearly drowned, she almost thought her body would never want water again. Maybe she’d drank so much her body needed so much more water to feel normal, like building up a tolerance to drugs. They’d just learned about that in school too. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Who are you?”

The man looked confused. “It’s me, Marcus.”

Charity almost giggled a little, except she felt too tired to go through the motions. “Heh. That’s my brother’s name.”

He gripped her hand. “Charity. It’s me. Marcus.”

Well, he was rather persistent. “Yeah, you said that. Where’s my mom and dad?”

He didn’t answer right away, which made Charity get an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Charity, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I-I remember falling into the water. The boat turned over and then…” She hesitated. Her sparks had gone a little crazy, she was sure of that. But no one would believe her if she said she could make electricity come out of her hands. “…And then I got to shore, and I guess I blacked out.” Her bottom lip quivered and tears pooled in her eyes. The feeling that something terrible happened grew. “I want my mom and dad….where are my mom and dad?”

The doctor came in and started making notes on her data pad from the machines all around.

“Charity, how old are you?” Marcus asked.

“Twelve. Where’s my mom and dad?” She was feeling a little panicked right now, like she was drowning all over again.

“Charity…” Marcus looked like he didn’t know what to say. He looked to the doctor for some kind of cue. She didn’t say anything. Marcus finally just continued. “Charity, that accident happened twelve years ago.”

Charity’s eyes went wide, and she pulled away from him. “I-if this is some kind of joke, it isn’t funny. That…that can’t be true.” She hugged her arms to herself and sat up. Then she looked down. Her body wasn’t the body of a twelve-year-old. She put her hands to her face and felt her hair. It was stringy, like it hadn’t been washed properly, which tracked with a boating accident, but more to the point, it was short.

“My hair’s short. Why is my hair short?” Suddenly, trying to figure that out seemed very important. Her mind grappled with that question, focused entirely on it. There was so much going on, but if she just asked one question at a time, starting with the simple ones with simple answers she could piece everything together. And because if she asked that question, then she didn’t have to ask about Mom and Dad again. Because if she asked about them, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer. “Why is my hair short?” She nearly screamed it this time, trying to drown out the other questions.

“I-I don’t know!” Marcus didn’t sound any calmer than she felt. “I think you just wanted to be different. Ask Meryl. She’s your best friend. She was there with you when you cut it.”

So much for a simpler question with a simpler answer.

“Besides, I think Eric liked it better that way anyway.”

“Who?”

“Your boyfriend.”

“I have a boyfriend?” Her voice sounded so small and far away, even to her own ears.

“Yeah. Pretty serious too. You almost broke up forever when you couldn’t tell him about your powers, but he ended up figuring out what was going on, so you’ve been doing all right since then.”

“Oh. Wait, you know about my…electricity thing?”

In answer, Marcus held up his hand. Electricity arced between his fingers.

“Oh. So…you’re actually my brother then, aren’t you?“

Marcus nodded.

“Marcus…”

“Yeah?”

“What happened to Mom and Dad?”

Marcus’ eyes filled with tears again, and Charity wanted to cover her ears before he answered the question. She didn’t want to know. He took her hand. “Charity…they didn’t survive that accident.”

She was expecting that answer, but somehow it still didn’t feel real. Her breath escaped in a strangled sob. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. Marcus put his arms around her, her little brother, now all grown up. All that was left.

“It’s just been you and me for a while,” he said. “But you’ve been the best big sister ever. I guess it’s my turn now to take care of you. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Well, that was fine, but she still wanted her Daddy. She was terrified and confused, and she wanted his big strong arms around her so bad it hurt. Yet she clung to this man like it was her last lifeline, because maybe it was. He was all she had left.

A man came in a little bit later and talked to the doctor, then said he was Eric. That was her boyfriend? He was so old. Of course, she reflected, she was old too. That bothered her more than she thought it should.

She learned a lot of things that night. She learned that her best friend was an alien. That was kind of cool. She was a super hero, even if she was really old, and she belonged to a team of super heroes. That team was under attack right now by some kind of fairy. And somehow that had something to do with the fact that she’d lost twelve years of her life. She hated that word, ‘lost’, like they were just misplaced behind the couch somewhere. One of her team mates was suspected for having caused this fairy attack, and even killing another team mate, but no one actually believed he did it. The guy who died was her best friend’s brother, which made her heart ache with empathy. It wasn’t fair. Why did all these people who were family have to die?

* * * *

Eric tried not to stare at her. He could see it made her uncomfortable, a little girl receiving undue attention from a much older guy. It took all his willpower not to wrap his arms around her, to kiss her, hold her like the first time they’d made love. “It’d have to be an inside job,” she told Eric.

He laughed, startling himself. He’d begun to think he’d never laugh again. “You’ve been watching too many political thrillers. It’s always an inside job. Life’s not made of tropes—we’ve had this discussion.” Not that she’d remember it. He resisted the urge to ruffle her hair in a patronizing motion.

“But it makes sense! No one else could get that close to you guys—to us. Nobody else would know how to hurt you as bad as they did.”

He was quiet after that, thinking.

Eric hated to admit it, but twelve-year-old Charity did have a point. These attacks were vicious and personal. It was more than just knowing intimate details of their lives. It was understanding them on a level deeper than they understood themselves. Sure, a Fae could read his mind, but were they capable of grasping the depth of his love for Charity? Did they get that, having lost her once, he would drive straight through hell and back before losing her again? Did they feel his growing insanity as she looked at him with those big, brown eyes and didn’t remember him in the slightest?
He considered Drake again, though he felt a little like he was committing some kind of betrayal by just thinking about it. “I need you to take point on this investigation.” The words replayed themselves in Eric’s mind. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the son of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest.”

Those were not the words of a man in control. They were not the words of a man pretending to lose control. If Drake was playing this game, and playing to win, that was not a move he’d make.

Which begged the question, who were the other players?

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

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

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

“Hard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bacon is a vegetable.”

“It totally is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pity.” She smiled.

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

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

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

“For instance?”

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

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

“You make a fair point,” she conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey.”

“She’s awake.”

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

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

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

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

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

A reason.

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how are you going to do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay shut her mouth.

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

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

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

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

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

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

Lindsay shrieked.

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

I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

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

* * * *

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

And they’d lost someone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that would have gone well.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“How about you?”

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

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

“Uh uh. You?”

Marcus shrugged.

“You…have other things on your mind.”

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

“Understandable.”

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

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

“No one ever gets to know Drake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

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

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