Posts Tagged ‘Montreal’

Samantha Clive looked up at her closed office door. The noise outside meant that Mr. Davis had just arrived to work. She glanced out the window behind her. The sun was rising. The dawn of a new day. A smile drifted across her lips. How poetic and utterly appropriate. Just last night, the Prime Minister of Montreal had signed the papers bringing her country under the banner of the Delta Division. It would take some work yet to set up a chapter in Quebec and assign someone to oversee the operations within the country in the Eastern part of America, but that was just details. The bulk of the work was finished.

Still, that was one battle. One more battle won in her war for peace.

She crossed the room to the large bay window and stood to the side that allowed her a view of the shore. The protesters were out in force today, berating her ‘hostile takeover’ of Montreal. Already social media was calling her out on the “gestapo-like force with which she strong-arms the metahuman race into submission.” But they were ignorant fools who missed the point. Metas needed to be heroes, because if the world didn’t see them as heroes, they would treat them as villains. When a race of the most powerful people on the planet become vilified, Sam knew that it was a matter of time before that fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result would be a catastrophic loss of life that could potentially devastate the planet and leave their very existence teetering on the brink of destruction. This wasn’t about a hostile takeover of the planet. It was about protecting her people—those who had power and those who didn’t.

Newscasters, bloggers, and others not so embedded in the media were beginning to ask if she meant to reverse the secession of Montreal from Canada—and by extension the North American Amalgamated States. Truthfully, she had enough political power that she could make that happen, but that move would be shortsighted at best; at worst it would indulge ignorance. Her goal was unity, but it did not matter which flag brought them together unless it had triangles of different colors. Without autonomy granted by their individual countries, Delta’s influence would be nothing more than a dictatorship—and dictatorships always fell. Each country had something that made them unique, but it was their differences that made them strong. It would be unbearably myopic to take that away.

It would not be a flag that would unite Asia. Russia notoriously balked at outside political influence. Montreal, America’s redheaded stepchild, would not be coaxed into family dinners by parliamentary persuasion. But what each country across the world shared—what each person experienced—was being human.

And everyone, young and old, rich or poor, they all had one thing in common. They loved a hero. And they hated a villain.

The real challenge was the Elves. Their new neighbors to the north had so long kept themselves isolated from humanity, even in their own world, that they were inclined to remain secluded in their bottled city. Still, their knowledge and resources would be invaluable to the world peace that Samantha Clive sought. The Elves also hated a villain, but to them, the human race fell into that catagory. Betrayed by them once, the Elves were reluctant to believe that the ‘Earthborn’ were capable of anything but unmitigated ignorance. She and other world leaders had been in talks with the Elves, trying to convince them to trust them again. After all, they had a common enemy. The Shadow Fae threatened them both, and humanity was helpless against an organized onslaught of their reality-bending power. If there was a people the Elves hated more than humans it was Fae. Sam was confident that their mutual hatred would be enough.

Sam had just finished the speech she intended to present to the Elves later that afternoon. Her heart swelled as she read over it, filled with the sensation that she stood at the brink of a watershed moment. These words would win the Elves over. They would fight the threat of the Shadow Fae together, of that she was sure.

She saved the document she was working on and copied it to her personal device, then exited the room. “Good morning, Mr. Davis.”

“Good morning, Ma’am.” He didn’t ask what she’d been doing in the office so early, nor any other useless question, like if she’d slept at all. Of course she hadn’t.

Davis was at the kitchenette, not too far from his desk. Without asking, he fixed her a bag of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea, placed it in a large teacup and filled to a quarter of an inch from the top with water just below boiling, then steamed some milk and filled the rest of the cup, topping it up with just a hint of foam. Most of the time she preferred her tea black, but just on special occasions, she liked the tea latte. This was one of those, and Mr. Davis knew it. That was the way he was: he didn’t ask her needs, he anticipated them.

She savored the foam and the sweet milk. “Thank you, Mr. Davis. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned recently that I quite appreciate your excellence.”

Davis looked surprised. Sam didn’t lavish praise unnecessarily, and so the compliment was unexpected. “Thank you. I must say, I enjoy the job. Director, you seem to be quite in a good mood today.”

“Of course I am, Mr. Davis. Today, I save the world. Please contact Rio’kir of Atlantis. There is a matter of great importance we must speak of. Tell him it concerns the presence of the Shadow Fae and the threat it poses to Elf and Earthborn alike. Impress upon him the necessity that we speak today. I will meet him in Atlantis, or he is welcome to discuss things in my office, wherever he feels most comfortable.”

“As you wish, Miz Clive.”

“Now, I will be leaving for the morning. I have a short meeting with an old colleague, but it shan’t take long. Let me know when you receive word back from Rio’kir.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Will you be needing an escort?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

He nodded and returned to his desk to begin his morning work. He didn’t argue her decision to go alone, didn’t remind her that it had only been a short time ago that someone had tried to kill her under their very noses. Of course he didn’t. He knew quite well that she was too intelligent to let herself be caught in a compromising position.

Teleportation technology wasn’t widespread, but as the Director of the Delta Division, Sam allowed herself the occasional luxury, and instant transportation was one of them. Accessing the app on her personal device, she left the Delta HQ and teleported to Central Park in New York City. There sat an older gentleman of Asian descent behind a checkered stone table with a full set of chess pieces.

She gave the man an amused smile. “Playing chess in Central Park? Really, Mr. Kasuki? Isn’t that a little anachronistic?”

Donald returned the smile. “I felt it was appropriate. Through time and fantasy, past, present, and future, this location has seen the intersection of lives, stories, history.”

“So, which is this, then?”

“Why, Samantha, you are among the foremost thinkers of our generation.” He moved a pawn. “Surely you of all people can see there is no difference. I’m sure you are aware that in a few months, it will be exactly fifty years that the people of our nation sat glued to the television watching the aftershocks of a disaster that struck without warning so close to where your Delta Division headquarters are today. I wasn’t very old then but I do remember my mother telling me, ‘‘Watch, Donald. This is history in the making.’

“She was right you know. That’s when the Amalgamated States truly became one country. Oh, sure, the papers were all drawn and notarized a few years earlier, but that’s when its people stopped thinking of themselves as American or Canadian and just became people. But you already know all that, don’t you?”

“A child learns that lesson in high school, Mr. Kazuki. I hardly think we met to discuss our state public school curriculum. But I see your point. Our past influences the present which creates the future. To define these as different is to embrace the illusion of time.” She moved a knight out in front of the pawns.

“Yes. Well…we must all embrace an illusion for the sake of coexistence. Do you remember what it was like, Samantha? Living within that illusion? Oh, don’t look so surprised. I know you didn’t have your abilities when you were a young child. In fact, it wasn’t until the medical intervention of Dr. Derek Danesfield in your mid-teens that you began to exhibit them, am I correct?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be entirely shocked to find out you have that information. After all, you are the father of the Legendary Mister X. Allow me to express my condolences on his arrest.”

He glanced up and for a brief moment anger and hatred flickered across his face before his neutral, enigmatic half-smile slid back into place. “Estranged father, but yes. The similarities to my son are not limited to our power. Though I suppose you are familiar with the concept of distant parents, as I understand.”

Sam nodded. “My parents’ marriage was that of societal convenience. They bolstered each other’s proverbial coffers and political influence. My father’s financial support won my mother the state election and so forth. Emotionally, they were strangers living in the same house. Where passion existed, it was brief. I was the only child of that union. I tell you this, of course, not to garner sympathy, because I wish for none. I find it rather nauseating, actually.”

They were several moves into the game now, no pieces lost, and no clear winner. “You needn’t worry on that account, Miz Clive. I have to say, for one who has no capabilities for empathy, you’re quite adept at mimicking it.”

Sam didn’t take offense at that. In fact, she smiled. “That trait is what makes me such a good politician. There is no room for bleeding hearts in the field; though you’ll never get votes without them. Check.”

Donald moved a piece in front of the king. “Emotional vulnerability as a practicality. I can respect that. Which reminds me, I hear congratulations are in order for winning the hearts and minds of the powers that be in Montreal.”

A smile pulled at her thin lips. “It must have been thrilling indeed to witness my moment of triumph. The preceding fight was juvenile, though, wouldn’t you say? Though you can’t have been too offended. You and your fire-breathing dragon did nothing to stop the children.”

Donald’s black eyes were like ice, though he still smiled. “One might overtake a creature’s lair, but a dragon cannot be controlled, m’lady.”

It was a bit disconcerting that, after that night, Liam Roberts had vanished off the face of the earth, no doubt due to Donald Kazuki’s resourcefulness.

He continued his questions. Sam might have found them intolerable, but his interrogation was providing more information than the older man realized. “So, tell me of this medical intervention. Why was it so necessary?”

“I was brilliant, even as a child. By the time I was six years old, my parents were taking me to social functions so I could impress their small-minded colleagues with the precocious tongue of a baby expounding on the philosophies of Plato and John Milton. I always found it a dull affair. These men and women of society’s center stage had experience without wisdom, knowledge without intelligence. It was in my eleventh year that the headaches began. They were debilitating, rendering me incapable of leaving my bed for days at a time. My parents feared for my life, though I do believe that sentiment was born of a fear of losing their trophy child. You see, they were nothing extraordinary without me, and they knew it.

“In my early teens, they were approached by Dr. Danesfield, as you alluded to. He examined me and took several tests before he told my parents he could save my life and stop the headaches. Then he took me aside and told me there was a special power inside me waiting to be let out. It didn’t take him very long to find out he needn’t talk to me like a child, so he proceeded to tell me that I was a metahuman, and that the headaches were a symptom of a limited physiology trying to use an unlimited power. Then he described in detail the procedure that would rectify that.”

“Were you disappointed, my dear, to find your ‘unlimited’ power was only to know the past?”

“On the contrary. As you pointed out, the difference between the past and future is only an illusion. A chess game, for example, has limited moves. It’s been said that there are three hundred eighteen billion, nine hundred seventy-nine million, five hundred sixty-four thousand possible way to play the first four moves of chess. That is a large number to be sure, but not unlimited. That number grows the more moves that are played, but it still remains, ultimately, finite.

“Now imagine one chess game being played by billions of people worldwide throughout history, each move a rippling effect across time. This game ebbs and flows, its complexity staggering in its scope, incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. And yet, mankind’s moves are limited.”

“Even when new players join the board, Miz Clive? Check.”

Sam smiled. “Why, Mr. Kazuki, that’s just another move. But I think you knew that already.” She stood. “I’m sure you realize that I’ll checkmate you within three moves. There is no possible move you can make that will prevent that. Thank you for the game. And the chat.” She nodded politely and teleported back to HQ.

* * * *

Donald smiled. He rubbed his thumb on his upper lip as warm blood began to run from his nose. Only knowing the past, my clever behind. He had suspected—known—she had the power to kill him with her mind when he walked into this confrontation. “You’re wrong, Samantha,” he said to the empty air. Not about the chess game. That he’d lost. He reached out and knocked his king over. His vision blurred and blood oozed from his eyes, and he knew then that he’d won the game he’d truly been playing. “Heh. Checkmate.”

His lifeless body was found a couple of hours later by park officials.

* * * *

Deep within the heart of the prisons of Atlantis, Drake thought. That wouldn’t seem like a big deal to some—after all, billions of people thought every day; though some more than others. They thought about breakfast, whether to have scrambled eggs or a bagel or both; they thought about their daily work, whether to take their usual mail delivery route, or deliver to the pretty girl first; they thought about the cute boy in math class, and whether he would break up with his tramp of a girlfriend.

Drake’s mind didn’t work like everyone else’s. Drake thought about the past. We never should have been on that mission. Jayson’s words still bothered him, though he didn’t know why. Consciously, Drake didn’t see a connection, but he trusted that if his mind wouldn’t give up the thought, there was a reason. But damn it all, he couldn’t suss out what it was.

He tried to settle his breathing, in and out, making it the only sound in his mind. Except that hum. Good gods almighty, that hum was mind numbing.

That was the point, of course. Within the walls of the prison, there were hidden Darkness and Light Magic runes, their effects combining to dull his mind and make him unable to think, as well as nullifying any effects his powers might have. Chains bolted him to the wall, but that was irrelevant.

This cell was designed to hold people with astounding mental capabilities, to reduce them to nothing. He had been here for…well, he couldn’t tell how long. Days, weeks, months, it had all lost context and meaning. He’d started counting days from the time that the Elves brought food and water, but it soon became clear that they did that at irregular intervals, so he gave that up. With no anchor to hold on to, he knew he was going to go mad.

We never should have been on that mission.

Someone had sent them there. To die? No. If the powers that be wanted the four of them dead, there were much easier ways to do it.

They are heroes.

That was Sam’s words in her address to the public as she revealed the existence of the Delta Division.

Why are we heroes? What made us heroes?

That mission made them heroes. Not to the public, of course. That would come later. Drake played it back in his head. They teleported into a busy mall. A group of kids hung out at the electronic store. A teenage girl talked her best friend into buying an overpriced tee shirt. A child ran excitedly around Drake and his friends to meet his mother. Something wasn’t right. Something about this bothered Drake. It had bothered him even then. He was surprised that they just appeared out of nowhere and no one noticed.

People are so stupid.

Well, that was true. On the edge of madness, Drake let out a laugh. Man, he’d been an angsty kid then. Bitter and angry at the world—no, that wasn’t true, he was angry at his father. The father he’d kicked the crap out of a couple of times now.

For some reason, thinking of his father gave him pause. A bad feeling twisted in his gut, but he dismissed it as irrelevant. He’d analyze it later.

They didn’t notice us appearing out of nowhere. People are so stupid.

Why was he coming back to that?

As the Legendary Mister X, he’d trained himself to see from others’ eyes. To understand and calculate their range of perception, attention span, movements, and memory capacity. People were often actually that stupid, oblivious to a crime going on right under their noses. But sometimes, they surprised you. Those who went unnoticed, the homeless man begging on the street, the children playing hopscotch, the disgruntled businessman out for a smoke between drinks, these people noticed things, often without realizing it.

In a crowded mall, bored children hanging onto their mother’s hand, a teenage boy looking to escape an awkward conversation, a shoplifter keeping an eye out for security…not one person saw them?

Man, I would kill for some strawberries right now. The thought of the cool, red juice distracted him for a moment. He could almost feel the sticky sweetness running down his tongue and out of the corners of his mouth, the tangy taste rippling over his taste buds, the scent catching in his nose and providing a pleasurable feedback between taste and smell.

Focus, dumbass. Remember their faces. Where were their eyes looking?

He brought himself back to the mall. Everyone laughing, talking all at once. He willed them to look in his direction, to see where their eyes were.

We shouldn’t have been on that mission. Jones like screwing with us, but not at the expense of protocol. Shouldn’t have been on that mission. Someone made Jones break protocol. Someone inside Delta made Jones break protocol.

Drake looked the mall walkers in the eyes again. And now, instead of countless faces, he saw one. One who manipulated them all. It was impossible. No, it was improbable. And with all possibilities eliminated, it had to be true.

Every man woman and child in that mall had been manipulated. Every man woman and child in Delta had been manipulated. For years.

Goddamn son of a bitch.

He’d figured it out.

Advertisements

The couch broke against Lindsay’s arms as she brought them up to cover her face. With superhuman speed, she grabbed a broken two-by-four left from the shattered pieces and flung it like a small javelin at Allen. He caught it, the friction warming his impervious skin. The force nearly pulled him back, but he steeled himself, then took off so fast it left spider cracks in the marble floor. Lindsay dashed forward in the air at speeds that produced a sonic wave that shattered the glassware at the bar. She went in for a right cross, which cracked Allen’s cheekbone and drew blood that spilled from his nose and mouth. It left her open for his attack, a powerful kick to the side. A crippling pain spread through her lower back, and she doubled over, bile rising in her mouth. Allen followed through with a swift kick to her face, but she glanced up just in time. She caught his leg in a vice grip, gathered her wits out of sheer determination, and launched a counter attack. She spun and flung him bodily at the floor.

Allen picked himself up unsteadily and glanced over his shoulder in time to see Lindsay dash in for a body slam. He jumped to the side, then twisted, taking a boxer’s stance with his hands protecting his face. As she recovered, she was met with Allen’s fist when he jabbed it at her. She dodged once, twice, three times before she blocked it and offered a counter-jab of her own. He twisted, letting her fist skid across his face without doing much damage. He missed her follow-through. Her left fist connected with the bottom of his jaw, and he rocketed into the air, smashed into the ceiling, and regained control before slamming his right food, left knee, and a single fist into the floor amid a hail of tiles and plaster. He left the debris as a trail in his wake as he darted back into close combat. His face throbbed. Lindsay was fast, but Allen was tougher. He wasn’t even close to being out of this fight.

* * * *

“Quite the entertainment you have tonight,” Tom’s guest remarked.

Tom grunted. His opportunistic streak didn’t come built with snappy comebacks. “You got the money?”

The man smirked. “Down to business, then.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. With a few taps on the screen, he set up a money transfer. His thumb hovered over the button that would complete it. “Let’s see it first, hm?”

Tom’s expression didn’t budge as he slid his fist, palm down, across the bar, leaving the small, subtle device behind. “Does it work?” The man asked, “or is that the reason for this impressive display going on here?” His head twitched in the direction of the squabbling teens. “After all, I’d imagine Solstice would like to know what they’re buying. You planning on nullifying one of those kids’ powers? Do that and the victor’s fist will go through the other’s head.” A twisted lust for violence glinted in the man’s eyes.

“Uh. Sure,” Tom grunted. “You gotta get close, though. It has a short range.”

The corner of the man’s mouth twitched. “So, who’s gonna bell that cat?” he drawled, glancing over. “I didn’t even see that flurry of punches, dunno about you.”

Tom shifted in his seat. He had no idea how to answer that.

“This weapon is all about subtlety.” Tom nearly hit the cracking roof at the sound of Lyndria’s voice. His stern face nearly cracked. She slipped delicate fingers across the man’s bony shoulder, trailed them up the turtleneck, then teased at the edge of his ear. “The right tool for the right job.” A smile crossed her full lips. “Right?”

Tom gaped at her. For the first time in years, he felt his heart race with a foreign emotion that felt a lot like fear. Not the combat adrenalin rush, but the nauseating realization that you done fucked up and you were going to die like a coward for a stupid mistake. She smiled at him over top the man’s head. Did he imagine the gears clicking into place that spelled his unceremonious end?

“Thanks for getting this meeting started,” she told him. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.” She turned her charm on the Solstice contact. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Lyndria Wilson. I own that device. Tom has my authority to enact this business transaction. Don’t worry your very pretty little head about that.” Her fingers danced across his blond hair beneath his fedora.

“Then let me pose this question to you,” he said, shifting away from her touch. “Does the device work?” Tom wished that distancing himself would be that easy. Should he run? Perhaps he’d underestimated Lyndria’s ability to keep her family under control. Would she kill him for his betrayal?

Fear kept him glued to his seat, though all of his fighter’s instinct told him to run and never look back. No! If you run, you will be running for the rest of your life. With any luck, you can talk your way out of this. If that doesn’t work, you can always make the choice to take off again. He swallowed.

Lyndria smiled. “You want to see a display? I can arrange that. One of those fighters is my bodyguard. I’ve grown quite fond of her, and I do believe the feeling is mutual. I could go over there and tell them to stop fighting. She will listen to me. I can walk over there and shake the hand of her opponent, and his powers will instantly vanish.”

The man smirked, raising his eyebrow. “If you claim to exercise such control over your subordinates, why are you letting them trash this establishment? I hear you’re having cash flow issues. Why risk thousands upon thousands of damage? Not even using this fight to convince me to buy the device would be worth it.”

“Because this fight is amusing. I’m quite in suspense. I want to see if my bodyguard will actually win against an opponent like this. Besides, a trashed establishment doesn’t concern me. I imagine I’m not going to be able to make a lot of money off of this place after tonight. You see, there’s going to be a murder.”

Tom’s heart leaped into his throat. Run! She is going to kill you!

The man chuckled. “I thought you said your man had your authorization.”

“Oh, his isn’t the murder I’m talking about. You see, I just said that to keep the conversation going between you and I. Subtlety really is the best weapon sometimes. I was stalling while the poison I brushed on your skin soaked into your system.”

The man’s eyes went wide. His skin paled, and he clutched at his throat, suddenly unable to breathe. Lyndria smiled. “Like I said…right tool for the right job.”

The man jerked up off his seat, then collapsed, twice gave a full-bodied twitch, then stiffened, eyes glassy with death’s onset.

Lyndria’s gaze turned to Tom. Disappointment clouded her pouty face. “Oh, honey.”

* * * *

Allen held himself in a defensive position as Lindsay sped around him. Few could keep track of her as she moved faster than the eye could see, but the ability to process such movement came hand in hand with Allen’s own super speed. She was slowing down. This fight was starting to wear on her. She was trying to use her speed to randomize the angle of attack, but that was becoming increasingly less likely. The tactic would have worked on just about anyone else, and even Allen had already taken a beating. He couldn’t see out of one eye, each breath pained him, and the match had turned into an aerial battle because he could no longer put weight on either of his legs. However, Allen may have lacked full vision, the superior speed, and the three years of training that Lindsay had, but there was something else Allen didn’t have.

He had no intention of giving up.

Allen could tell she was tiring, and patience was winning him this round. He watched closely. At the right moment, he stepped to the side, twisted, and jabbed his fist. Lindsay ran right into it. She flipped end over end, finally spilling onto a pile of broken tables. “Are you done yet?” Allen called.

She snarled at him. The dust spun into a whirling dervish as she sprung into the air after him, but the attack was lacking in conviction. Allen clamped his fists together and bashed them against her head. Lindsay hit the ground so hard it cratered. She staggered to her feet.

“Just stay down, Lindsay. Please.” Allen touched down beside her, then remembered his fractured ankle and floated just a few inches. “It’s over.”

She snarled at him, but she was too exhausted to argue. She sank to her knees.

“I don’t want to fight, Lindsay. I just want you to see what Stryker was really trying to tell us. There’s gotta be a reason to fight. You’re faster than me, you’ve been trained to fight longer, by all rights you’re the better fighter…but you’ve let go of what you’re fighting for.” He floated down and knelt gingerly. The adrenalin was wearing off, and his whole body ached. He extended his hand. “Will you let me help you find it again?”

“I believe you’ve made your point, Mr. Gray.”

Allen nearly toppled over in his haste to turn around. Samantha Clive stood at the doorway, now three times its size after a counter top had been thrown through it. She was the picture of poise, unsullied by the seedy filth of the destroyed bar. The raunchy music stopped, as if quailed by her arrival. Silence followed. Even the dust didn’t dare stir in her presence.

Allen gaped at her. Lindsay spoke first. “I thought you couldn’t be here! I-I mean, I thought Delta—”

“Until just a few minutes ago, Delta did not have jurisdiction in Quebec, it’s true. However, the authorities felt they were unequipped to deal with conflicts such as two super powered teenagers coming to blows in a downtown bar.” Her mouth tipped in a smile. “My thanks for your service, you two. You have been instrumental in bringing this country into our little family. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Something about that didn’t sit well with Allen. He glanced around for Donald and Liam; both had vanished. Donald seemed like an anarchist, and he didn’t think he’d be affected one way or another by this new development. Liam, on the other hand, had moved a full country away from his family for the sake of freedom. “The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.” The fire controller’s words rang in his ears.

Allen couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d just been used.

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

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

And it was something Solstice would pay dearly for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said nothing, refusing to make eye contact.

“Marcus is–”

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

“Why not? Lindsay, he loves you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare speak his name!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

“Hey yourself. How are things in Montreal?”

“Oh. You know.” I almost died today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, small world.”

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

“Allen? Are you okay?”

“Huh?” No. “Why?”

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

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

More silence.

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

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

“Allen…you know I’m proud of you?”

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

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

He nodded again.

“Did you just nod?” she asked.

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

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

“Deal.”

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

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

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

“Tracy, that’s amazing!”

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

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

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

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

“Your eyelids are very powerful, sweetheart.”

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

“You’re smiling now, aren’t you?”

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

“Yeah. I love you too.”

“I kinda want to kiss you right now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

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

“Not just that. For saying yes.”

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

“And I love you. Now get some sleep.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t appreciate threats, Princess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the last time they’d talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lyndria, I’m serious.”

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

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

Lyndria grinned. “Damn right I would.”

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

Her smile disappeared. “You what?”

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

“But, Daddy, I—”

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

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

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

“You mean you’re not—”

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

“But I—”

“Dismissed.”

“But—”

“Dismissed, young lady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A slut?” Lyndria smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t get drunk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah, fine. You got money?”

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

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

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.