Posts Tagged ‘Heroes’

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!”

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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.”

Allen’s vision cleared in time to see the whole alleyway bathed in fire. Two men emerged. One was untouched like a messianic figure in an ancient story. The other was wreathed in the flames as if he was born of them. In his hand was a charred lump, and he tossed it against the pavement. It shattered. A piece of the object looked up at him with half an eye socket, empty and starring, and Allen jumped, scrambling onto his ass. The world tilted and he threw up.

Raptor charged. He took two long steps before his animalistic body was thrown back by an unseen force much like a child would toss a cheap plastic action figure. He dug his claws in and came skidding to a stop just before his thick tail came in contact with the wall of fire that surrounded them.

“You son of a bitch!” Corrosion looked beyond terrified. The words were probably supposed to sound threatening and angry, but his voice shook. “Freakazoid! Waste these guys! Freak!”

There was no answer, and it dawned on Allen with increasing horror that the shattered, burnt skull on the ground belonged to the guy who’d been trying to turn his brain inside out. His mind refused to connect that knowledge with any form of reality.

Raptor let out a low whimper of fear, cowering where his great body had landed. Corrosion was equally frozen in place. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said, as if declaring it would bend reality to his will. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The frantic tone in his voice increased with every word. “Y-you’re retired. Everyone said Inferno was retired!”

Inferno? It nagged in the back of his head, trying to make him remember where he’d heard it before, but Allen’s entire world had become focused on the blackened skull fragment. Why is it so familiar?

An appropriate name for a fire controller, to be sure. It sufficiently described the intense heat that licked at Allen’s hands and danced across the side of his face. He moved instinctively away. The fire wouldn’t burn him—Corrosion’s touch was the first time he’d felt anything of the sort since he was thirteen—but he didn’t want his jacket to burn. For some reason his custom-made leather jacket became of the utmost importance. It defined him as a hero. With the Delta Division symbol emblazoned in its full-colored glory across his back, it broadcasted him as one of the good guys. One of those people that believed in justice and the good of all mankind. This encounter—he didn’t even know what that was. This was not how heroes were supposed to act.

“Why are you here?” Corrosion’s tone had become pitiful now. He was so paralyzed his knees wouldn’t even bend to drop him to the ground in fear.

“I have a better question.” Inferno stepped forward and grasped Corrosion about the wrist. Corrosion screamed and his flesh began to blush around a prominent tattoo of a red dragon with black eyes. “Why’s the Scarlet Dragon gang beating up on a kid? A meta, too. Not your style.”

Now Corroision’s knees buckled. He screamed. “He-he was asking around after the Wilson bitch’s new bodyguard!” His eyes went wide. “Fuck! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have said that!”

Bodyguard?

“Maybe not. But keep talking anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in prison for the rest of your life. If not…well, how do you feel about cremation?”

Another scream came out of Corrosion’s mouth. “S-stop!” Allen heard himself say. “Y-you can’t do this!” This is so wrong! “Please just stop!”

Inferno glanced his way. Was it his imagination, or did the fire controller’s eyes grow soft? He released the thug. “Let’s make one thing clear. You and your gang are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood. Retired life is boring. Never know when I’m going to show up again, and if I see your face again, I will turn it into a flesh mask of pustulating blisters. Got it?”

Corrosion nodded. The fire vanished. “Go.” Inferno pointed a single finger down the alley and away from them. Both Corrosion and Raptor took off like a shot.

“The skull was a nice touch,” the other man commented. Allen regarded him with a stunned expression. What kind psychopaths were they?

“I thought so. Though I’m going to have a terrible time explaining to the rest of the science department where the hell their prop went.”

What? “W-wait, th-that wasn’t—”

“Really the mind freak gangbanger that was about to explode your brain?” The other man smirked. “Naw, Liam only burns people to a crisp on accident. Your friendly neighborhood mind murderer is quite unconscious at the moment.”

“Oh.”

“Allen Gray, if I’m not mistaken,” the man said. “I’m Donald Kazuki. This is Liam Roberts.”

“Oh!” Relief, reason, and realization struck Allen all at once. Inferno was the name Mitch used. This man was Mitch’s father. He was a scary son of a bitch with a wicked temper, but he wasn’t a murderer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, apparently. “Oh.”

Liam chuckled. “I think we need to work on your vocabulary, kid.”

Allen shot him an unimpressed look. Like he hadn’t heard that one his entire life.

“So, you were looking for Lindsay White?” Donald asked.

Allen nodded.

Liam frowned. “Who is apparently working as a bodyguard for a mafia princess. Fantastic.”

Allen blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

Liam smirked. “Well, there’s a couple more words.” Allen’s nonplussed look returned. “The Wilson family is the unofficially and intrinsically involved in a disturbing amount of crime in this city. They’re in a bit of an upheaval right now. The patriarch of the family and every single one of his older boys has inexplicably vanished, leaving Lyndria as heir apparent. Makes sense that she’d want somebody like Spryte working for her.”

Allen shook his head. “Lindsay’s a hero. She might be a little…” He trailed off. ‘Unstable’ was the word that immediately came to mind. “She’s a hero,” he repeated. “She was trained by Stryker, just like I was.”

Donald raised his eyebrow. “Right. Because two people training side by side under the same mentor never end up at odds or anything.”

Allen had nothing to say to that.

Liam frowned. “I’m concerned that Delta would send a kid to look for one of their lost sheep. Especially someone who’s not exactly trained in the art of a manhunt. Not very surprised, mind you. The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

Allen shook his head. “No! It’s not like that. And they don’t. I’m not.”

“Those shit disturbers came close to killing you, kid.” Liam’s eyes darkened. “Delta’s like every other branch of the government. They strip the people they should be protecting of basic human rights, using fear-mongering tactics to justify it.”

A million arguments against that welled in Allen’s mind, but they refused to congeal into words. He stammered for a moment until he shut his mouth and forced himself to calm down. “Lindsay’s important, okay? Or at least she is to my friend. I don’t know what she’s doing here, or why she’s gotten involved with the mob, but I know that my friend is hurting and he needs her. I promised I’d bring her back. I’m not going to give that up.”

“And what if she doesn’t want to come back?”

“Well, I won’t know until I try.”

“No, no, by all means,” Donald interjected. “Let’s keep arguing about whether or not Allen should pack Lindsay in his bags on the way back to America. I mean, it’ll be hell in customs, sure.”

Allen blinked at him. “I-I…what? We can both fly, I don’t—”

“That’s the joke, kid. Try to keep up.”

Liam flashed him an annoyed look. “You have a point buried under there, I can tell. Why don’t you just get to it instead of telling jokes that only make sense inside your own head?”

“Two points, actually. Much like two prongs on a fork. Actually, that would be a terrible fork. Unless it’s for pickles, then it’s fine.”

Liam slapped his large palm against his forehead. “For the love of crap, will you just—”

“Isn’t anyone going to ask the obvious? What the bloody hell happened to the don and his family? And why are both students of a martyred hero here in Montreal, getting involved one way or another with crime syndicate drama?” His face took on a distant look as his mind appeared to wander off once again. “Ooh, that’d be a hell of a show. Your typical family drama, but they’re the mafia in a big city. But you still end up loving the characters, because even if they’re all criminals, they’re still human.”

Allen was beginning to consider that this man has long since lost his marbles. “Well, I don’t really know why Lindsay left. She just told Marcus…” He trailed off and frowned. She’d told him she couldn’t be a hero anymore. But would she really go against everything that Stryker had taught her and start working for the mob? “But I’m here looking for her. So it kinda makes sense that we’re both in the same place. I doubt it’s some kind of big conspiracy.”

Donald leaned over and hissed in his ear. “That’s what they want you to think.”

Liam cast him a scathing look. “Well, that was about as helpful as an Internet forum. You gonna start spouting out cat GIFs as well, or are you just gonna stick to nonsensical and overworked arguments?”

Allen thought that was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but he said nothing.

“See, the thing about nonsensical and overworked arguments is that they’re used so many times that just by sheer probability they’re going to be right at some point. Only problem is that, by the time they get around to being right, nobody believes them anymore. But someday the sky will fall and Chicken Little will be vindicated.”

Liam pressed his lips together. “Okay, you know what? While you’re getting around to making sense, let’s actually do something productive. Lyndria’s been making headlines since she was born, so she’s going to be dead easy to track. I’ve still got some contacts left over from my vigilante days. I’ll see if I can get some eyes around the city to find out which club she’s hitting up tonight. We’ll be able to find Lindsay by proxy. C’mon. Let’s head over to my place in the mean time.” He turned and began walking away.

Finally. A plan. A smile spread over Allen’s face. It felt good to be making progress after endless days of asking random people and getting nowhere except in deep shit. “Oh!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from using the same interjection that Liam had teased him about. “I wanted to say. I think I know your son. Mitch. Mitch Roberts. He controls fire too.”

Liam stopped, but he didn’t turn around. There was something about the set of his shoulders that made Allen regret saying anything.

“Yeah, we don’t say anything about his kid,” Donald said.

“Oh.”

Donald continued as if the uncomfortable incident hadn’t happened. “Let’s not forget ask Lyndria where she put her family,” Donald interjected. “I remember the last time I couldn’t find something, I’d accidentally put it in the cupboard.”

By Liam’s face, Allen could tell that he was so done. “We’re not going to find them in the cupboard. They’re not a set of dishes, Donald, will you please shut the fuck up.”

“The freezer, then. People accidentally put things in the freezer all the time. Though that raises the question, would they hypothetically be dead before or after?”

“Well, that got dark quickly.”

“Says the guy who chucked a severed head that looked like a giant lump of charcoal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Had a visit from a teen paragon lately?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone hasn’t been taking their meds.”

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

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

“Whatever. Look, what do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still missing why I should care.”

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

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

“Am I wrong?”

Liam sighed. He wasn’t.

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

“I’m teaching chemistry, not art.”

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

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

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

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

Liam’s hands twitched at that.

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

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

“Fine. Ignore me.”

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then his brain turned inside out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then everything got really, really hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the last time they’d talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lyndria, I’m serious.”

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

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

Lyndria grinned. “Damn right I would.”

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

Her smile disappeared. “You what?”

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

“But, Daddy, I—”

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

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

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

“You mean you’re not—”

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

“But I—”

“Dismissed.”

“But—”

“Dismissed, young lady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A slut?” Lyndria smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t get drunk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah, fine. You got money?”

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

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

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.”

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

Mitch hated that feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch wanted to burn that goddamn cap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch blinked. “W-well, sure. But—“

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

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

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

Mitch tried again. “We fight—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will burn you in your sleep.”

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay laughed. “Humpty Dumpty? Really?”

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

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

Shit.

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

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason, Mitch believed her.

The memorial service was well attended. The courtyard in front of the Delta Division headquarters was set up with hundreds of white wicker chairs in front of a large podium which sat against a backdrop of shifting holographic images of Stryker. In some he seemed to turn and smile. Others made it look like he still flew the skies if you looked up at them at the right angle. The chairs were quickly filled, and more kept coming. All day, the ferries worked, running back and forth between the island and the mainland, carrying in civilians from all over the city. People took seats on the grass around Delta’s massive skyscraper. If Stryker was still alive, he’d be able to look down on the island headquarters and see the people covering the small acreage and walkways like ants on a hill.

Marcus kept casting concerned glances at Lindsay. He put his hand on hers, but she stiffened. After a moment, she pulled away. She’d said maybe about five words to him since Stryker’s death. She’d been really affected by it, hardly leaving her room in the Delta Headquarters unless she had to. He wanted to be sure she was okay, but he felt a little pissed too. What made her think he was so unaffected? Stryker wasn’t just her hero; she wasn’t the only one who looked up to him. The entire city did too.

His anger flared, but he quickly stuffed it inside. It’s not about you.

Granted, it wasn’t about her either, but now wasn’t the time to point that out.

He barely heard the speeches. Sam turned hers into a subtle recruitment drive. That’s not exploitative at all, he thought sarcastically. He would have been annoyed at her, except even Sam the Robot couldn’t hide how angry she was at this. Someone had attacked her people. She was pissed.

Jayson got up on the platform. He looked so worn out. His limp was so pronounced, he could barely make it up the steps. Marcus had heard the story of how he’d lost his leg. The stress he was under must be making the pain of the injury flair up. He could have teleported up to the platform, but he walked anyway. Guess no phantom pain could hurt as bad as he’s hurting inside right now.

The audience quieted. Everyone knew Blink and Stryker were best friends. So out of respect of the dead and the living, they fell silent. Someone coughed. The silence stretched.

Jay started speaking, talking about how he and Stryker had met—at least as much as wasn’t classified. He talked about what kind of man he was, how he needed something to fight for. About how the people of the city were his inspiration, as much as he was theirs.

Partway through he broke down. In front of the whole city, he started crying. Unable to hold back the tears any longer, unable to be strong, he buckled under the weight of his sorrow. His arms curled up on the podium on top of his written speech, and he sobbed.

Charity got up and walked up the steps. She put an arm about Jayson and gently tugged at the piece of paper he was hiding. In a soft voice, she continued the speech.

“Being a hero isn’t about being strong. It’s not about fighting for justice, it’s not even about protecting the weak. It’s about fighting for something. Stryker taught us that. And so, in his memory, I will find something to fight for, something that keeps me strong. I call each of you to do the same. Because so long as each of us fight for what we believe in, Stryker will be fighting within us.”

Jayson turned around and buried his face in Charity’s shoulder. She held him there for a moment and let him cry. Then gently, she turned him around and gave him a small shove in the direction of his seat. He returned there and sat down.

Charity pulled out her own speech. She smiled a little. “How do I follow that?” She chuckled a little. No one laughed. Tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Here at Delta I’m one of the school teachers. I get to watch young minds being shaped by the world around us, and I sometimes wonder if we’re doing right by them. I look at you all today. Some of you are here out of curiosity, wondering how we deal with the loss of one of our own. Some of you are hurting as badly as we are. Some of you are here because you’ve been inspired. And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask.

“Ultimately, Stryker was a soldier. Like Blink said, he fought for something, like our soldiers fought throughout history, for freedom, for justice, peace. Stryker fought to show that there was something worth fighting for. Those of you who are here to honor his memory, that’s what I want you to take away from this day. Find that something and fight for it.”

Marcus’ thoughts drifted. What was he fighting for? What was his purpose? Why was he here? He’d joined for one reason, and that was more or less to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. But if he was going to be a fully realized hero, there would have to be something more.

That went on for a bit before Charity wrapped up and started back down the stairs. Marcus watched her descend. What was she fighting for? He’d seen her fight. Moreover, he’d heard of everything she’d gone through. The memory of the look on her face when they were in the PSO lab was burned into his brain. It could have crippled her; perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally. And yet, she was a hero. Like Stryker, the city looked up to her. She was driven. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he admired that.

He couldn’t shake the image of her battling the people who had threatened to kill him, couldn’t escape the thought that she’d nearly died for him. Her eyes met his, and in that moment, he understood. She’s fighting for you, idiot.

In that moment, she collapsed to the ground.

* * * *

A bullet fired from a gun couldn’t have gotten out of his seat faster than Eric. This is what he was terrified of, what he was positive was going to happen, what he never allowed himself to admit he feared. The head of Delta attacked, the Division’s inspiration assassinated, of course Charity would be a target. The people of the city loved her, almost as much as he did.

He couldn’t blame them. She was beautiful. Even now, lying prone on the steps, he found himself taken aback by her perfect form. Her chin-length hair framed her masked face. She smiled all the time, but there was always something behind that smile, something sad. He was only just beginning to understand why, and someone was trying to take her from him.

He knelt on the red carpeted steps. His suit shifted away from his hand so he could touch her face, feel her breath, know that she was okay. Her face was at rest, the most peaceful he’d seen her…well, ever. He felt something warm and wet on his face, and he realized he was crying. “You’re okay, Charity, please tell me you’re okay, you have to be okay.”

She was breathing. Maybe she was just exhausted, tired from playing the supportive friend, tired of being strong. The rise and fall of her chest was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Move.” Dr. Franks was there now, demanding he let her do her job. He complied, too stunned to do anything else.

“Wait, she’s okay, right? She’ll be okay?” Marcus stood there now, pale faced and just as baffled as Eric was.

He gripped the boy on the shoulder. “Let the doctor do her job.”

Marcus might have nodded, but he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t particularly care. Dr. Franks waved Jay over and instructed him to get Charity to the infirmary now. The three of them disappeared, leaving Marcus and Eric to find their own way into the building and up the stairs.

Not that it took very long, and the length of time it did take gave Eric the chance to process.

“I’m going to kill the bastard. Why is he doing this? Stryker, now Charity? Why? How is she still alive?” Marcus mused out loud.

“We don’t know that this is an attack,” Eric said reasonably.

“What else could it be?” Marcus nearly screamed at him. He looked nearly ready to faint himself. “How the hell can you be so calm?”

“I’m not,” Eric said honestly. “I’m going insane. God, Charity, she…” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “But we’re not going to fall apart, do you hear me?” He turned and faced Marcus. The rest of his suit melted away to a chest piece underneath his buttoned shirt. He gripped the boy’s shoulders. “We are not going to fall apart. We are going to work together and we are going to figure this out, and that is a promise.”

God, the kid was seventeen. He was hardly yet a man, and yet he was dealing with a loss no one should. Seeing the boy’s tears nearly brought back his own. “We’re going to be okay, I promise.” It felt emptier the more he said it.

It felt like forever before the doctor came out of the examination room. She was pale as death. Eric was on his feet before he noticed it. Marcus sat perfectly still, elbows resting on his knees. He barely breathed. Allen sat beside him, wordlessly.

“It…it’s my fault,” the doctor said quietly. Eric shook his head, confused. “There’s a…a black tar-like substance coating her—her brain. I-I can’t touch it with my abilities, and it’s far too intertwined within her cells for me to even think of attempting surgery.”

“What?” Marcus’ abject confusion radiated from the boy. “How? How would something like that—it couldn’t have come from nowhere.”

Something clicked in Eric’s head. “A bug. One of those bugs in PSO bit her.”

The doctor nodded. “I wondered as much. There’s a mark on her neck, it looked like it might have been some sort of delivery system.”

“But what do you mean it’s your fault, I hardly think—”

“Delta protocol suggests a full examination after missions, especially ones to Ptah-Setker-Osiris. I should have known. I should have checked. If I’d checked, I would have found the bug bite and maybe done something about it. But John—” She cut off and covered her mouth. That was the night of the assassination. Everyone had something on their mind other than a damned protocol.

“When will she wake up?” Marcus’ voice was surprisingly steady.

Dr. Franks hesitated. “I…I don’t know. I don’t know if she will.”

“Can I see her?”

The doctor nodded. “She is still unconscious.” A redundant bit of information.

Marcus just nodded and walked past them into the room. Eric followed. Doctor Franks didn’t stop them.

It was quiet in the room. Too quiet. Charity was in a hospital gown now, mask gone, sparkles still dancing on her cheeks. She dusted them on any time she used the Thundra costume. She was supposed to represent the use of energy, so being flashy was important. Eric had never really understood till now what it meant to her to be in the spotlight. She didn’t like the attention so much, so why did she go out of the way to draw others’ eyes to her? It was being a hero. It was meaning something. Eric just hoped she knew how much she meant to him.

Marcus was crying again. He shed silent tears as he sat by her beside. He gripped his sister’s hand. “She’ll wake up. She will wake up.” He slipped off his goggles and laid them on the bed. “Please wake up.” He was just saying what Eric felt.

Eric couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t do the bedside vigil thing, staring uselessly at the monitors, waiting like a soap opera lover for his lady love’s eyes to open. He couldn’t wait for the long, agonizing beep that said the wait was over and the worst had come to pass.

He stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Drake was there and he gripped Eric on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, but Eric wasn’t listening. He shoved away Drake’s hand and made his way to the common room. He needed a goddamned drink.

* * * *

Jayson watched the utterly defeated look on Drake’s face as he tried to do the gentlemanly thing and give Eric the encouragement he needed. Unsurprisingly, Eric was having none of it. The two of them stood silently just outside the room, watching through the reinforced glass window as Marcus tried unsuccessfully to keep it together. The air was heavy. Jay felt the change in his pocket tear a hole through the thin fabric and fall to the floor with a shallow clatter. He picked up the coins. Almost no one used cash anymore, but Jayson liked keeping a bit of change in his pocket, just for the sake of fiddling with it as a nervous habit.

“Nickel for your thoughts?” It was a terrible joke, and Drake let him know with a dirty scowl. Jay didn’t regret the pun, though. They’d have to get through this somehow.

Drake continued to brood, his dark look nearly boring a hole in the glass in front of them. Three guesses what he’s thinking, and the first twenty don’t count. “That train of thought isn’t helping anyone, you know.”

Drake looked at him with a raised eyebrow, annoyed. He made no comment.

“The thought that you should have been able to protect her. Look, man, I get it. You think I haven’t been telling myself the same thing? I was right there when John was killed. I keep playing it over and over in my head, but every time it ends up the same. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You…you can’t change the past. All we can do it try to make things a little better going forward, you know?”

His little pep talk didn’t seem to have any effect. Drake just went back to staring through the window. “Hey, listen to me. Do I have to drag you to the gym myself and beat some sense into you, cause I will. I did it before, and I can do it again…ya scrawny punkass kid.”

This time when Drake looked at him, it was with just a hint of a ‘challenge accepted’ face. “You haven’t been able to beat me since Saskatchewan. I’d like to see you try.”

“Well, to be fair, you really were just a ninety pound tech dweeb then. But hey. We beat…what did you call him?”

“The Master of Mechanics, and I think that was your idea.”

“What? No… I’d never think of something that lame.” Drake rolled his eyes at him. “Okay, yeah I would. But I’m still pretty sure it was you.”

“Not a chance.”

“Yeah? Whatever.” Jayson fell silent, lost in thought for a moment. He remembered that mission well. You never forgot your first. That was when they’d really started bonding as a team, though God knew they certainly weren’t well-oiled for a while after that. But then again, they were just kids.

“Ya know,” Jayson said, “we shouldn’t have even been on that mission. Technically we were recon only. As soon as we found Clint Raison’s location and radioed it in, we should have been pulled. I studied some of Delta’s protocols when I was seriously considering taking position as Director. Delta never sends in an inexperienced team for capture and retrieval. We shouldn’t have been there, especially since the guy we were after was brother to Miriam, one of our team members. Conflict of interest, much?”

Drake shrugged. “I kind of assumed it was Jones just dicking with us. Um, no offence.”

“Hey, the dude pretty much refused to acknowledge me as his son for fifteen years. Granted it was to quote unquote ‘keep me safe,’ and yes, I’ve dealt with it, but I know damn well how he liked to make sure we learned a hard lesson or two. But not at the expense of protocol.”

Drake turned to him with a puzzled look. “Huh.”

Jayson shrugged and chuckled a little. “Maybe it was a Fae jerking him around.” Drake actually stopped a moment to think about it. “I’m kidding, dude, it was a joke. We know damn well the Fae were all in Myrathelle serving Kronos at the time. Unless Kronos had us pegged even then. He is the god of time, remember. Maybe he saw us coming and sent his Fae army to toy with us.”

Drake shook his head. “No, Kronos has been down the road enough times to know that he has to kill any threat to him, instead of making them grow up and be heroic enough to stand up to him.”

“Then who? You’d have to practically mind control Jones to get him to break protocol.”

“I don’t know,” Drake said in that voice that said he didn’t like knowing.

Jayson didn’t blame him. The thought of being screwed with didn’t sit well with him, and he didn’t take it nearly as personally as Drake did. He mentally shrugged. That was years ago. It didn’t matter now. There was no way it could.

Are you sure about that?

“Oh, hey, speaking of Miriam, Sam’s got me and Meryl heading to Olympus to see if she’s caught anything living among the gods that would be of any help.”

“Really? Well, I suppose if anyone could find that out, she’s as good as any.”

Jay laughed. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate your confidence.”

“Yeah, whatever. She was hardly the brains of our operation.”

“Well, now she has to survive among gods. I’d imagine having to exist among people so much powerful than you are, you’d have to find some way to keep up and stay alive.”

Drake just looked at him. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“Right. And then we’re heading to Arlethae to see if we can dig up any Old Order activity that would suggest they put the hit out on Stryker.”

“The bullet tech may have been programmed in Arlethaen style, but was still made with Earth materials, and likely here on Earth, you know.”

“Oh, I know. My money’s still on it being connected to the Fae and everything else that’s happening, but leave no stone unturned, right? Besides, knowledge of that tech had to have come from somewhere.”

Drake grunted in agreement. “Hey, Jayson?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Be careful.”

Jay nodded. “Whoever’s behind this…they’re not done are they?”

Drake shook his head. “And until I figure out their end-game…not one of us is safe.”