Archimedes, Linear, and Maisa arrive a few seconds after I lie to Epione, finding me squatting down, my hands on my knees. Archimedes squints his eyes and stares at Nero’s corpse. “I could recommend a great therapist.”
I flip him the bird and breathe in gulps, still trying to catch my breath.
Someone shouts down the hall, beyond the edge of my goggles’ night vision capability. A huge patch of light fills the right side of my vision where I hear the elevator burning. Metal squeals and groans, and a cable snaps. “Where do we go now?” I ask.
“There’s a pavilion on both sides of the tower.” Archimedes waggles a key card. “Follow me.” We escape the soldiers stumbling around between the elevator bonfire and the dark, running down a short hallway that ends in double doors shuttered by steel guards, likely a security measure that Archimedes tripped.
“Gabe,” Epione says. “Are you sure you’re okay? I can see your colors and they’re all… dim.”
I can think of a good number of reasons why that’s the case. “I’ll be okay. Can we talk about it when we get out of here?”
Epione tilts her head. “You’ve never been this dark before.”
Linear works the door over before I can reply. We rush out onto the pavilion.
We rush right into Templar, flanked by two soldiers who instinctively raise their rifles at us. We are frozen in the amber of morning sunlight, no one dares to move, only to breathe. The balcony pavilion is large enough that I couldn’t get to her and her goons before they got a few rounds off. There’s dozens of tables and chairs in my way.
Templar gawks at us, her platinum-silver hair a shining halo, and she almost looks radiant. I catch a glimpse of the woman she must have been six years ago when she was Megajoule’s sidekick. No armor, she’s only in casual clothing.
Templar holds her hand palm out at me. Her eyebrows knit, and I see in her ice blue eyes the wish for peace.
One of us has to say something, so I call out to her. “I can’t go back in there, and I don’t know how you can, either.” Might as well go for the throat.
The two soldiers eye each other and Templar. I could take one with an air blast and be on top of the other before he had time to finish squeezing the trigger, but I don’t want to risk my friends getting caught in the crossfire.
“Nero’s gone, Templar. Just let us walk away.” I’m actually a little bit nervous about fighting her. The slightest touch of her skin would be enough to set off her power and I’ve got no defense against her.
“He’ll get back up again,” Templar says. “And he’ll hunt you down.”
“Not this time,” I say.
Templar’s eyes dart to Epione and back to me. “She only borrows powers.”
“Templar, I’m either leaving or dying,” I say. Now that I’m out, I know I can’t go back in.
“Then…” Templar falters. She closes her eyes. “Then that’s how it is.”
“If I die,” I say, “Will you send Bedevil a text, too?”
Templar’s eyes open in shock.
Just as those words leave my mouth, the railing off the balcony groans and gives way, and the pavement cracks, and a gargantuan white aircraft crests over the edge, wings as long as a house, the rear doors turned to us and opened. Bedevil stands proud with an intense look of concentration on her face. I’ve never been happier to see her, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so turned on.
“Who’s piloting…” Linear trails off. The damn aircraft isn’t even on. The VTOL engines on the wings make no sound, there’s no telltale hum of electronics or power.
She’s lifting the entire White Shark with her telekinesis.
One of the guards turns and opens fire on Bedevil. I kick off, the other guard takes shots at our group. I leap over to the one shooting at my girlfriend and conk him on the head, and whirl around, ready to dance out Templar’s grip.
Templar’s got her hands on the other soldier. His arms and legs are bent back at broken, awkward angles, and she sets him on the ground. “It’ll wear off, soldier. I apologize.”
“Ep-Epione is hit!” Maisa shouts. “She’s-”
I look up just in time to see Archimedes snatch her away from Epione’s crumpled form. Linear dives away.
An explosion scatters the expensive tables and chairs, and sends smoking pieces of cement and plastic flying at us. I form a kinetic shield and stand in front of Templar, shielding her from the lion’s share of the debris.
Before the dust settles, I rush over to Epione. She’s alive, and wherever that soldier tagged her, I can’t tell. But her face is locked in an expression of horror, and she gazes up with wide, green eyes at the morning sky, her mouth working but no sound coming out. I don’t touch her, I know she hates that. “Are you okay? Nero’s power. It must have worked.”
She’s not glowing, though. There’s no fire in her eyes, her skin isn’t glowing like his did right after he resurrected.
Templar’s words reverberate. She only borrows power.
“Armor… broken…” Epione wheezes. She locks my wrist in a death grip. “Power… back… to Nero.”
I’m not ready for another rematch with Nero. “I’m gonna carry you,” I tell her. “Arch, get that White Shark started!”
“He’s already on it,” Linear says behind me.
I scoop Epione up into my arms. A horrendous shriek tears from her lips the second I touch her. She writhes, trying to squirm out of my arm. Her composed expression and model beauty devolves into a feral snarl, and for my efforts to carry her I am rewarded with full handed slaps and a knee in my chin. Please, I think, forgive me, Ep.
I haul her over to the edge of the balcony while the White Shark’s engines roar to life. Bedevil pulls Linear and Templar into the White Shark and then her tendrils wrap around me and Epione, and lift us to the rear doors. There’s a brief moment of vertigo as I look down and see Houston’s streets a thousand feet down, and then my feet touch down on metal.
The inside of the White Shark makes me feel like I’m a bottle of beer on the inside of a cooler. There’s very little in the way of comfort, only a bench along each wall, broken only by a side door on the right side and a gun rack on the left.
The door to the cockpit hangs open, and Archimedes and Templar sit next to each other. They seem to have an uneasy camaraderie already, as if neither of them can believe the other is involved in this jailbreak, but now that they are, they’re in it together.
Bedevil floats Epione over to one of the benches and lays her down there. She’s got a look of relief, her lips tremble and her eyes glisten. Her hair dangles in her face and she reaches up with her right hand to brush it out of her face.
The fingers of her right hand are gone, along with a chunk of her thumb. The skin isn’t scarred, though, and almost looks newborn. Healing of some kind.
The pavilion explodes. Glass shrapnel pelts my back before Bedevil covers me in her tendrils.
A gaping, burning hole has replaced the doors to the balcony, and Nero emerges from the dark, awash in his unholy fire, muscles swollen with light. He roars and points his finger at the aircraft.
“Punch it!” Linear shouts.
The OPI tower shrinks rapidly as we soar into the and g-forces threaten to pull me out of the ship. If it weren’t for Bedevil’s tendrils I would have tumbled out of the White Shark. My stomach turns with the huge acceleration. The wind shrieks louder than Bedevil, shouting for me in my ear.
The balcony erupts with fire. Nero shoots at us with everything he’s got: his fire goes out and the light in his body dies like he ran out of energy, but he flies so fast that I can hear his furious roar in seconds. He reaches a hand out for the edge of the rear door.
And falls past it, missing his target by mere feet. The rear doors close, shutting off the wind’s howl and replacing it with a pleasant hum from the White Shark’s engines.
I need to make sure she’s okay, that she’s alive, and that this isn’t a trick. I rush to her and bear hug her. Bedevil sobs into my shoulder and squeezes onto me — the fingers on her right hand, is she mimicking them with telekinesis? — and we hold each other for a moment.
“Are you okay?” I don’t let her go but I stroke her hair.
Bedevil sniffs and clears her throat. “I’ll have to learn how to sign my own name again.” She rubs my back. “Nice suit.”
“They didn’t hurt you?” I ask. I step back and get a good look at her. Outside of her hand, she’s unhurt. They dressed her in a black t-shirt and some sweatpants, but she doesn’t have any shoes on.
“I don’t know. I woke up when Archimedes came for me.” Bedevil shudders as she regains herself from sobbing. “They didn’t hurt you?”
“A little, but you know me. Doesn’t stick.” I see Archimedes and Templar arguing for a second in the cockpit, Linear peering over their shoulders. “Do you trust them?”
“Isn’t it a little late for that?” Bedevil asks.
“We could jump out the back door,” I joke. Maisa watches us. When she sees me looking, she averts her eyes. Epione — Poor Epione — is catatonic on the bench. I need to check on her.
Bedevil snorts a laugh.
“I can kinda fly, we’d probably stick the landing.” I smile. I can’t bring myself to let go of her yet; like if I do, she’ll vanish. “We could go anywhere. We could be anyone.”
Her nose wrinkles up, her eyes flood. “I could help you live a normal life. We could go camping. We could sail on a boat, you don’t even have to do anything, I can just use my power to work the rigging. I’d show you my home, you could meet my mom, we could drive up the west coast. Have you ever been?” She can hardly talk anymore, it’s slurred with tears.
I wipe a tear from her cheek. “You had this fantasy before.”
Bedevil stares past me at something distant, but whether it’s a hopeful future or a golden past, I couldn’t say.
I want to hear something good right now. “Tell me.”
Bedevil exhales. “There’s the Golden Gate Park. We could go there. We could boat on the lake, or look at the flowers.” She sniffles, smiles, and looks a thousand miles away, to sunny California. “They have trails, I love trails. We could share earbuds and listen to songs while we walked.”
“We could go bowling. Eat hot dogs and bad nachos.” She laughs. “I’d cheat with my powers. They’d kick us out.”
I smile. I see the bowling alley in my mind’s eye, I see Bedevil grinning at me as she floats a bowling ball in the air toward the pins, and wiggles it around until she gets a strike.
“And there’s this awesome ramen place near my house. We could eat there.”
“I love ramen.”
“I lo-” Bedevil catches herself. She purses her lips and glances away. “I know.”
I know better than to press her if she doesn’t want to say something. Instead, I kiss her. Her lips are soft but salty from tears, and I’m reminded of our first kiss. The only missing ingredient is Everclear.
We part. “Ep needs us.”
Epione looks like she’s trying to recede into the bench while she stares at the ceiling of the fuselage. Her lips tremble, tears stream from eyes so wide they could pop out of her skull. I squat down next to her. “Epione?”
Epione makes a horrible sound, somewhere between a hiss and a scream.
“Is she okay?” Bedevil asks.
“She borrowed Nero’s power.” One of the soldiers actually shot her. I think she actually died. The realization strikes home, a hammer nailing an anvil. “God, she died, Bedevs.”
Epione’s eyes fix on me. Her face scrunches and she bangs her head on the bench. “G-G-G-Ga-Gabe. Hu-hu-hurts. Ev-Every…” she trails off, giving up on speech.
“I’m here. Is there a towel or cloth anywhere?” I ask.
Bedevil floats her shirt over to me. I glance back at my topless girlfriend, but I guess now’s not the time for modesty. I place the black cloth over Epione’s eyes. Bedevil starts to hum softly.
A wave of anxiety and panic washes over me. I can even feel it happen, like an actual wave, and I can tell it came from Epione. Unlike last time, the intensity of this emotion isn’t overwhelming me.
I turn to Bedevil. “She’s trying to hold it in.”
Bedevil squats down next to me. “Crap.”
Maisa brings the shirt I was wearing to Bedevil. “Here.”
Bedevil smiles. “Thanks.” The shirt nearly swallows her but it does the trick.
“What now?” Maisa asks.
“That’s a good question.” Templar emerges from the cockpit. She lingers on the threshold and her hand clings to the wall. She’s not looking at me, but Bedevil. “I…” Her words die in her throat.
“Six years,” Bedevil says, rising to her feet. “Six years.”
“I know,” Templar says.
Bedevil’s voice rises. “Six. Years. You stayed right where you were, but me they swept under the rug.”
“Not a god damn word from you in two years. Not a god damn card, not a god damn call, not even an email or a text.” Bedevil floats over to her ex-teammate and jabs her finger into Templar’s face. I’ve only ever seen her like this once; the night I saw those messages from the Houston Heroes after she tried to chase down Warspeed. “How fucking dare you?”
Templar raises no defense, no argument. I can only watch this unfold, watch Bedevil’s rage bubble to the surface. For a brief second, I worry that Bedevil will try to kill Templar from the darkness on her face.
“I spent years trying to drink myself to death because of what happened and you didn’t have the guts to try and stop me.”
“I know!” Templar shouts suddenly. Her face twists with fervent sorrow. “I’m sorry! I’m ashamed, is that what you want? I abandoned you and I wanted to reach out but I didn’t and that’s… that’s on me.”
Bedevil chokes on her next barb.
“That’s on me,” Templar repeats. She thunks her forehead against the door frame, sinks a little but stays standing. “It’s always been on me. I let you down, Ruby.”
Bedevil grimaces and retreats from her teammate. She speed walks into my arms and hides in my chest. I don’t know what to say, so I just wrap my arms around her, but even so, I don’t take my eyes off Templar.
“Why did you flip?” I ask.
“Really?” Templar raises her eyebrow. She’s not crying, but I don’t think she cries very often. Instead, her face just sort of sags. “You said the magic words.”
Will you send her a text, too?