Fire fills the lobby, the offices, and my lungs with smog. I crouch down to try and get out of the smoke screen, and search for the stairs. Heat crawls along my hands and face, the exposed skin that my thermal clothes won’t protect. Waves of hot air roil over a reception desk toward me and scald my cheeks, and sting my eyes.
God damn, this is a really bad time to not have my power.
The worst thing is that fire rises, and heat, and smoke do, too, which means the second floor is probably in a worse condition than the downstairs. But that’s where this guy is, so I bear crawl my way to the foot of the stairs. Flames swarm the steps and the landing above me. How am I ever going to get through that without-
A man screams somewhere on the second floor.
Nut up or shut up, Gabe, let’s fucking do this. I’d rather burn my hands than my face, so I cover everything but my glasses, and take a deep breath before covering my mouth.
I sprint up the stairs, into the blistering second floor.
Fire swallows me, smothers me with energy I have no say over, and sears the outside of my hands with heat I can’t stop. Nothing has ever felt like this before. Not even that shower back then, when I tried to burn away my own body, can compare.The air itself peels my skin from my fingers.
I never realized how much my power did for me.
I charge up the stairs, and scream through my burning fingers, “WHERE ARE YOU?”
“HELP!” a man screams back to my right.
The fire flows along the ceiling like an unearthly liquid above my head as I chase down this guy to one of the conference rooms.
The trapped man is an elderly boss looking type, with a horseshoe ring of silver hair going ear to ear, and liver spots on his exposed scalp. A fallen section of AC vent pins him in place. Jagged metal sticks out of his leg above the ankle, and blood slicks the floor beneath him.
The look of a dead man waiting execution doesn’t leave even as he sees me rushing to his side. All he’s got right now is panic, and so he clings to my jacket as I get close.
“Take it easy,” I shout. “What’s your name?”
“Jake- Jacob Potter!” he says.
“You look like the boss man, are you the boss man?” I look at the metal cutting into his ankle. It’s not a bad cut, and the real problem looks like the weight of the vent snapped his shin.
He nods, still terrified.
I pull the vent off of him as fast as I can, and help him to his feet. “Alright, boss man, let’s get you out of here.”
“I know you, you’re Gabe,” he says.
“Yeah.” I guide him out of the room. I look back over my shoulder and see fire slinking down the walls to where he was just trapped. “I am.”
“T-thank God,” Jacob says.
We hobble toward the stairs, when a portion of the ceiling crumbles, rupturing the stairwell landing and smothering the way down with flame, too much for us both to get through.
“Fuck! Is there a window?”
In half whimper, half screech, Jacob says, “The break room!”
I pull him that way, down the hall. I can barely see or open my mouth, the air itself is cooking me alive. I make it to the door Jacob pointed me to, and it won’t open.
I slam my shoulder into it. Jacob screams as the fire chases us down the hallways. I kick the door. Something blocks the other side.
Shit. Bedevil is going to be so mad at me.
I kick again. I have no power. The fire is spreading so fast.
I kick one more time, and the door rips off its hinges. Both Jacob and I tip forward with the momentum. The door catches us, supports our weight, and to my shock, carries us through a massive hole in the building. We fly down to the parking lot below, and a woman in a red costume sets us down.
She’s a real old school looking hero, red spandex, and a long, flowing golden cape. Looks to be in her early thirties. She stares at me and Jacob clutching the door, and shakes her head. “What in the world?”
I get to my feet and look back at the burning office building. This woman tore out a hole in the wall and ripped the door free. Super strength and flight, at least. “Thanks.”
“You’re the guy. Gabe.” She holds her hand out. “I’m Spark.”
Hesitantly, I shake her hand. “I’m G- UH!”
Spark’s grip tightens around my palm, holding me in a vise grip. Definitely super strength.
“I have orders to bring you to OPI tower.” Spark’s eyes narrow. “I’m guessing you don’t want to go.”
I can’t let her know I don’t have my power.
I guess she’d realize that already, though, considering I couldn’t even get through a door. “Look. I can’t go there.” I need to get back to the property. To Bedevil and Doc. “Please, people need me.”
Her steely expression softens. “I can’t. I have orders.”
Remise pounces into my field of vision, kicking Spark hard in the jaw. Spark rebounds from the blow pretty fast, but not as fast as I’d expect someone who can rip holes through buildings.
Remise slashes Spark with her saber, cutting into her skin, but Spark grabs the blade and snaps it with her hands before Remise can recover. Remise is too fast for Spark to get a hold of, but if she makes one misstep, Spark will demolish her.
Sorry, lady. You seem okay, but I can’t go back to Cynic. I grab the shattered steel of Remise’s saber and jam it into Spark’s hamstring. I kick her between the shoulder blades while Remise trips her, and she stumbles to the ground. Super strength and flight, but not invincible.
Remise scowls at her broken sword and grabs my arm, and we book it to the van, idling at the end of the parking lot. We peel out before Spark can recover and chase us.
“Fookin’ idiot!” Remise laughs. “Oh shit, your hands!”
Red blisters cover the backsides of my hands. First degree burns.
I’ve never been burned before.
“Damn,” Remise says.
I flex my fingers. I can move them. Only light burns. I will ask Echo if she has aloe vera or something. “Hey, how did you know that Bedevil and I…?”
“Your apartment smelled like sex,” Remise says. “Knew it weren’t Doc. Plus every time you two stood within twenty feet of t’ other, your hearts started hammering like a squirrel got a hold of your ventricles.”
“I’ve been rootin’ for you two,” Remise says.
I don’t know what to say to that, but I feel a smile creep on my face. “Thanks for saving me back there.”
“Oh, the pleasure was all mine.” Remise grins, but she never takes her eyes off the road.
We drive back to the property. I rush back to Bedevil’s cabin as soon as Remise parks the car.
Epione stands over Bedevil’s bed, her fingers to her forehead. “Ah, Gabe. You’re…” She turns and sees me approaching. “You’re hurt. Your hands.”
“I’ll be okay. Minor burns.”
Epione places her hand on my shoulder, and the world comes alive again. The molecules in the air bounce off my skin and each other, the little fridge chugs away, working to still the air’s chaotic life. I run my hand along the bed and I feel the warmth of Bedevil spreading through the blankets as a source of power to draw from.
I place my hand on her cheek, and rub her temple with my thumb. “No time for first dates.”
“What?” Epione asks.
She’s asleep, her lips are dry and cracked, her skin sallow and sweaty, but I still plant a kiss on her cheek, right at the corner of her mouth. Remise is right.
I sit up, and turn to Epione. “Doc?”
“We moved him to his room. He’s resting there, now. Did you get what you need?” Epione asks.
“I got the antibiotic, yeah. I better go see to him. Let me know if you need me.”
Doc’s room is small, just a bed, a night stand, and a lamp to go with it. He’s got his unpacked suitcase at the foot of the bed. He’s half asleep in his bed, but as I close the door behind me, he turns his head to look at me.
His face is half shrouded in darkness from falling night outside, half illuminated by the dim hallway light. The mix of shadow and light cast his wrinkles and the lines of his face in stark relief, and I see a map of his life in his skin.
“Why did you do that?” I ask. I set the antibiotic on the nightstand.
Doc coughs. He sits up and reaches over to turn on his lamp. He grabs the antibiotic bottle and reads the label. “Yeah, this’ll do.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” I say.
“There isn’t an answer.” Doc places the bottle back on the nightstand. He looks up at me, and again I feel the vast distance between us.
“Kid, I want you to be happy.”
I turn from him and head for the door.
“I want you to be happy,” Doc repeats. “I could never give you that.”
I stop short of opening the knob.
“She can make you happy.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“I know that you’re a young man. She’s a young woman.” Doc coughs into his hand. The cough is full of phlegm and pain.
“I don’t…” I rest my head against the door.
“She’s an equal to you.”
I sigh, and open the door. “Iso will be here with the other things you asked for soon.”
Doc grunts, and nods.
I retreat downstairs to the garden, where I find Maisa sitting alone in the bench, watching the twilight sun die out over the swamp woods. Not wanting to deal with anymore drama, I go and sit next to her, as quiet as I can.
Maisa acknowledges my presence with a glance, and folds her hands in her lap.
We sit in peace as the breeze rolls around us. The scent of salt and damp bark clings to the heat in the air, but it isn’t an unpleasant smell. One I’m not accustomed to, but not unpleasant.
I breathe with the wind. In, and out.
A meditation. A release.
“How are you?” I ask Maisa.
Only the wind between us.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” I say.
“When was the last time you took a break?” Maisa asks.
“I don’t remember.”
“You should rest.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Sorry. Don’t mean to be a bummer.”
“No.” She sighs. “I was short with you, even after you saved me.”
I raise an eyebrow at her, and then I remember: she was upset about Bedevil and me the other day. “It’s okay.”
“No. I’m…” She sniffs, and looks down at her folded hands. Her eyes scrunch together, but tears worm their way through and spill down her cheeks anyway. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Maisa wipes her eyes and looks out at the woods, but her gaze finds its way to Bedevil’s cabin. “I don’t know why it hurts me. It’s not jealousy.”
Oh. Oh. She’s… trauma. Trauma. I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. She’s a victim of sex trafficking.
“If it makes you uncomfortable, we can be more private about it.”
“No. No. That’s worse. I want…” Maisa sighs. “I want it to be normal around me.”
“Okay.” I turn toward her. “Do you want anything to eat?”
Maisa shakes her head.
We sit for another moment, before she adds, “I want a hug.”
I nod and open my arms.
Maisa embraces me, sniffling into my shoulder. After a few seconds, she squeezes me and lets go, so she can sit back. She wipes her eyes, and says, “I want to train with you and Remise.”
Stunned, my mouth drops open. “Are- are you sure?”
Maisa sets her jaw and stares at me. “I don’t want to be someone you need to protect all the time. I want to be useful.”
She has a minor illusion power. Maybe we can see what all she can do with it.
I grin. “Let’s rock.”