Mr. Gold returns the next morning, around 9 AM. I’m already up, making a pot of coffee.
Mr. Gold holds a white box in his arms. “Morning. I brought donuts.” He looks into my living room at the pile of people asleep there: Epione is on the couch, Drone is on a blow up mattress we had to move the oak table for, and Remise is buried in a bunch of blankets behind the couch. Saw Off and Bedevil are splitting my bed, as it was made for me, and two women half my size can split it easy. I’ve been on the floor by my desk, with Pawpaw to keep me company.
We’re dangerously low on blankets and pillows. Doc decided to check into a hotel for a few days while we figured out the living situation.
Mr. Gold places the box on the counter.
“Sprinkles?” I ask.
In a monotone voice, he asks, “What kind of LEO do you take me for?”
Unsure of where that puts us on the position of sprinkles, I open the box.
There are sprinkles.
“You mostly work with females,” Mr. Gold observes, looking into the living room. He’s wearing a bullet proof vest underneath his button up, and a chest holster for his golden gun. His eyes are sharp, clear, absorbing all the details of my life.
“Just how it shook down, I guess. Flashfire’s in your Gallery somewhere, Lugs is… disarmed, Doc doesn’t fight, and neither does Iso.” Asperity, too, but doesn’t bear mentioning. I feel a flash of guilt for his death. “Then there’s you.”
“On that note. Have you reviewed the files?”
I shake my head. “No. I was waiting for this morning, for everyone to rest from the battle. I have a feeling we’ll need it.”
“Not a bad call.” Mr. Gold looks at the coffee. “Spare some?”
“Of course.” I open the cupboard and pull out some mugs. “Cream, sugar?”
Mr. Gold holds a hand up. “For heathens.”
“Look, this isn’t nice coffee, I got it for three bucks at a grocery store.”
“All the same,” Mr. Gold says. “I take it black.”
The door to my room opens, and Saw Off steps out. She’s wearing pajamas with piranhas all over them. She yawns and walks into the kitchen, and sees Mr. Gold for the first time. “You’re that fish from the port.”
Mr. Gold’s face does not change, but his eyes narrow. “You’re a dangerous terrorist.”
Saw Off grins. “Got a name?”
“Agent Javier Aguellar,” Mr. Gold says.
Saw Off purrs, and I feel the enormous weight of her affections shift from my shoulders.
“Coffee?” I ask her.
“Yes. Lots of cream and sugar.” Saw Off investigates the donuts. “All sprinkles? Really?”
Mr. Gold eyes her suspiciously.
The room to Doc’s door opens, and Mil-dot emerges from the dark, her eyes red, her face haggard as if she’d gotten zero hours of sleep. Considering Lugs, I bet that was the case.
“Mil! Is… is Lugs okay?” I ask.
Mil-dot frowns. “No. He’ll live, but he isn’t okay.”
Saw Off’s piranha grin fades into a tight frown, and her voice is heavy as she says, “He lost his power.”
I don’t know what to say. It’s my fault that he lost his arm. It was my mission that all these people got hurt on.
Everyone else wakes up at our conversation. Epione, Remise, and Drone stretch and groan as they stir from their slumber, but Bedevil doesn’t come out of my room. She’s probably still recovering from the withdrawals. I’ll catch her up later.
Mr. Gold slaps the counter. “Have you figured out where Pandahead’s going?”
“No.” I pour him a cup of coffee. Maisa’s been on my mind all night. I checked the ear comm, but no one responded, so I gave it to Drone to look at it. “I have an idea, though. You have contacts in OPI. I want to get in touch with Snow Owl. She’s Tim Prince’s sister, and she may have a good idea of where he’ll go. I also want to get in touch with the Ministers. Lily and Empyreal both vouched for me after Sledge, and they’re Canis class. They can find anybody.”
“I can get you in touch with them,” Mr. Gold says.
“Alright, Mr. Gold.” I grab another donut. “Let’s look at your data.”
We gather in the living room while Mr. Gold connects his personal tablet to the TV, and then inserts the data drive. While he does that, I realize we’re missing someone.
“Remise, where’s Echo?” I ask.
Remise’s expression turns grim. “She left town for a little. While she heals up.”
“Will she be okay?”
Remise shrugs, and takes a sip of coffee. “Hope so, Gabe.”
I can’t help but feel guilty for it. They all joined because of me. Both teams were cut in two and we suffered no losses. The 2nd Amendment, too. Lugs, and before him, Vaquero. They all have every right to hate me.
A folder pops up on screen and Mr. Gold opens it up. There are only a handful of files inside, and he clicks the first one.
A PDF dossier opens up and he scrolls through that. “There have been six Fear incidents that we’re aware of.” He shows pictures of battlefields that are littered with the corpses of soldiers and superheroes, accompanied by a picture of a huge, shadowy, inky monster. “The entity that appeared last night is code named Rorschach, due to its resemblance to an ink blot.”
Epione gasps at the images. “That’s the one.”
Mr. Gold continues: “Rorschach was the first entity to appear, in Norway. The government requested OPI aid and we handled it, but it was unknown what happened to the creature until Syria, where it appeared again.”
“Does that have anything to do with the Syrian Supers war?” I ask.
“Everything,” Mr. Gold says. “Our presence there was ostensibly to shut down an international villain group, but really we were investigating the second Fear event. After Syria, Rorschach disappeared. Until last night, when it appeared in the hands of Pandahead.”
“They were connected,” Epione says. “Does your file say anything about there being other people connected to Rorschach?”
“No,” Mr. Gold says. “Unfortunately that was beyond what I was able to gather.”
“What about the other two entities?” I ask.
“One is code named Sapiens, because it takes on a humanoid form.” He opens one of the videos. The clip looks like it’s somewhere in urban ruins, and the signs look Mandarin. I’m guessing this is somewhere in China, but I can’t say for sure. “It appeared in the Hellpact, twice. From the data I have, I’m unaware of where it went after this event.” The clip shows a team of heroes moving toward a floating figure, wrapped in shadow like Rorschach. Half the heroes falter and scream, giving into the psychic attack, but the rest continue on to fight. The camera feed cuts out as Sapiens blurs out of focus.
“That’s connected to a person,” Epione says. “I can see the real form.”
Mr. Gold raises an eyebrow. “What’s her power?”
I shrug. “Learning more about it every day.”
“The last one is called Subsume.” Mr. Gold plays the last video in his folder. “This took place in Africa.”
The clip shows another humanoid inky figure teleporting through a group of African soldiers. One of the frontliners is shooting fire from his hands, and another generates some kind of dark aura. Subsume grabs both of them and absorbs them into their body, and generates a flaming aura around their body. The clip cuts off as Subsume attacks the person wearing the camera.
“Each one of the entities could manipulate powers in some way. Subsume absorbs and combines the powers in new ways, Rorschach copies powers along each of its limbs, and no one could use their powers near Sapiens.” Mr. Gold sighs.
“Wait,” Epione says. “Go back to the clip of Subsume. Pause it right before it kills the cameraman.”
Mr. Gold rewinds the clip to the point Epione’s talking about.
I see what she saw. The face is a human, and the body is the Fear. The person trapped inside screams, their eyes wide.
Pandahead, and these people. Each of these Fear entities is tied to a person. “They’re parasites.”
“They feed off negative emotion,” Epione says. “I saw Rorschach fueling itself by drawing on everyone’s fear. It made new limbs with those emotions.”
“So, wha, they’re aliens?” Remise asks.
“The files are inconclusive on that,” Mr. Gold says. “As far as I know they are unsure of the Fear’s origins.”
“Let’s not assume anything about where they came from,” I say. “The only thing we know for sure is one has latched itself onto Pandahead. Judging from what Epione told us, he might not be in control anymore. He didn’t become that ink blot thing at Parlor, and only did so last night after he was wounded.”
“That means his next actions are unpredictable,” says Mr. Gold. “We can’t assume the Fear will do the same things Pandahead would do if he were in control.”
“No, we can’t. Still, Snow Owl might shed some light on where he went last night, if he could make his own decisions.”
Mr. Gold nods. “I’ll get you in touch with her. Last I heard, she and her surviving teammates were in the hospital, but I can get you into her room if we play our cards right. It’s risky, but it’s the best way to talk with her without getting recorded somehow.”
“Yeesh, nice to know they’re always listening, Big Brother,” I say. Remise snickers at my comment.
“That’s the world we live in.” Mr. Gold disconnects his tablet from the TV. “You know how hard it is to manage an entire nation of people with powers? You should try it sometime. You need accurate, up to date intel.”
He’s not wrong. A big factor of the Underground’s effectiveness is Drone, sitting behind the scenes, digging up all the info she can. Parlor went as well as it did because we had eyes all over the place. I shrug. “Let me get dressed, we can go see if Snow Owl’s got an idea.”
I step into my room carefully, trying not to wake Bedevil, but I notice she’s not in bed. Pawpaw looks out the open window, wagging his tail. I poke my head out, but I can’t tell if she’s in the alley from here. Bedevil’s cats mew from various corners of my room. I set out the new bowls I got for them last night, and fill them with Bedevil’s preferred brand of pet foods.
I put on some walking around clothes, and head back out to the living room. “Hey, Gold, gimme a sec. I gotta go check something.”
Mr. Gold nods.
I head out my apartment and descend to the street, and run over to the alley below my bedroom window.
Bedevil is sitting against a dumpster, a third-empty bottle of whiskey in her hands. She takes a sip and spits it out. She gasps as I approach, and a brief flash of grief betrays her stoic expression. She turns her face away from me.
“You okay?” I ask.
Bedevil doesn’t say anything.
I approach where she’s sitting, hands in my pockets. I don’t want to spook her or make her mad. But, what the heck do I say? She told me she was trying to quit, and here she is, giving up on that. Should I be mad? Should I tell her it’s okay? I stammer.
Bedevil stands up, using the wall, and stumbles a bit as she finds her feet. Out of nowhere, she chucks the bottle into the wall, shattering it and spilling alcohol all over the brick. She leans down and picks the DVD case hiding Jamie’s ring, and throws it at the ground. “You shoulda told me you saw it.”
I frown, and look at her. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t. Don’t do that.” Bedevil locks eyes with me. Her gaze is impassioned, bordering on furious. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Bedevil’s brow furrows. “Like you pity me.”
“I don’t pity you,” I say.
“Bullshit. Bullshit, I know that look. I’ve gotten it from every teammate I’ve had, I’ve gotten it from every director, from my mom, from my dad!” Bedevil kicks the DVD case. “They always look at me like I’m lost. Like I’ve got nothing since Megajoule died. Like I’m weak!” Her face twists, and her voice breaks as she says, “You’re disappointed in me.”
I think for a moment, and rub my chin. I’d rather phrase myself very carefully than say something stupid.
“Just… leave me alone,” Bedevil says. She turns back to the dumpster.
“Sledge almost killed me last night.”
Bedevil stops, and studies my scarred face. “Yeah.”
“The truth is, I almost let him.” I cross my arms, just the memory of that feels cold. I’m angry with myself that I let it get that far. “I went into the fight thinking that I could die to protect the other heroes. I went in thinking, ah, Sledge will beat me, but that’s okay because I didn’t die for nothing.” I frown. “That was stupid. It’s always been stupid, but that’s how I went to every fight. Thinking that if I die, it’s okay, because it was for a good cause.”
Bedevil’s face softens, and she turns her whole body to face me.
“I saw you cheering me on in my head while I was fighting. Telling me to live. I realized I couldn’t lose, I didn’t want to lose, I didn’t want to die. Your training, your lessons.” A lump forms in my throat, and tears well in my eyes. I didn’t even realize how emotional this made me. “They saved my life.”
Bedevil starts to cry, too. She squeaks, “Gabe.”
“You helped me,” I say. “Even though I had these walls, you tore them down. I want to help you the same way. You’re not weak because you need some help. In fact, you’re probably the strongest person that I know.”
Bedevil shakes her head, and her voice is choked up as she says, “No, I’m not. You know so many strong people.”
“I do.” I take a step toward her. “But you’re the strongest of my friends. You’ve done so much for me, I just wanted to thank you for all that. You’re probably one of the few real heroes in OPI. You went after Warspeed when you saw her on the street. You helped me train, you took me in. You stood up for me against Krater.”
Bedevil sniffs and rubs her eyes free of tears. She closes the gap between us, and picks up the movie case with Jamie’s ring, and then looks up at me.
“The truth is, after getting to know you, I realized that I adore you.” I pause. I meant to say admire.
Bedevil’s hazel eyes widen, and she stammers nonsense.
“Fuck it.” I lean forward and press my lips against hers. Bedevil falls into step in a heartbeat. I grab her by the waist and pull her into a fierce kiss, while my other hand entangles into the hair at the back of her neck. Bedevil claws into me, leaning into our embrace.
We part to breathe, and I kiss along her jaw, eliciting a hot gasp in my ear. I wrap my arms around her and hold her against my chest. She melts into me, sighing into my shoulder.
“Wanna go on a date, after this is over?” I ask.
Bedevil pulls free from me. “I do… but…” She looks away. “I hurt you.”
“Yes.” No point lying. “I don’t want to ride in on Mega’s coattails or something. I want to take it slow, I want you to like me because of me.”
Bedevil studies me for a second. “Gabe, I do. I’m not even thinking about him anymore. You’re not even like him, you know?”
I make a funny face at her.
“I mean it,” she says. “He was… he was always concerned with the bigger picture. He caught a building, yeah, but he didn’t stop to check in on the people inside, he let other people handle that.”
“He didn’t have a power geared for rescues.”
“So? You don’t either, and I could put money on you being the first one inside.” Bedevil puts her hand in mine. “You went and got my animals from my place. You thought of that, when I didn’t. You’re always so aware of people around you and you always get what they need.”
I close my hand around hers. We interlock our fingers.
Her eyes fall on the broken bottle. “I need help.”
“I know.” I stroke her cheek. “I’ll be there every step of the way, if you want.”
“Yeah.” Bedevil steps up onto her toes and kisses me.
“Gabe!” Drone shouts at the end of the alley.
“Ack!” Bedevil loses her balance and falls backward.
I catch her by her waist, making it incredibly obvious what position we were in.
Drone jogs toward us, Remise and Epione in tow. They don’t look happy at all. “I got Sledge’s ear piece working!” She thrusts her hand out, revealing the little device. A blue light blinks on the bottom side.
I help Bedevil find her feet, and then I pick the ear piece from Drone’s palm and put it in my ear. “Hello?”
There’s a few seconds of silence, and then Maisa says, “Gabe!”