Category Archives: Inheritors

EPISODE FIFTY

I catch a few hours of sleep after Templar leaves. If it’s manipulation on Cynic’s part, it’s a damn good one. The best one she’s put up. I still pocket the idea of suicide, even if I’m pretty certain I don’t have it in me. Yet I can’t imagine my spirit breaking and living with OPI’s leash.

Both ways are impossible to me. There must be a third way that I can move forward, save my friends, and oppose Cynic. I refuse to be beaten into suicide or submission.

The world needs me. It doesn’t need my corpse and it doesn’t need me cowed. I could accept Cynic’s offer, to stay alive, and then break free as soon as I saw the opportunity.

She probably knows I’m thinking that, and has plans for it. So, I have to plan that she’s planning for it.

Plans upon plans upon plans. She’d see every single one and dash them. Like being able to see through your opponent’s cards. That mind-reading is awful. You’d need some sort of power to block that. I wonder if there are any counters to her telepathy.

I gaze out the window of my prison. The tiles would freeze to my feet if I was anyone else, the glass would stick to my hand like a tongue on an ice pole. I think this place was a research lab re-purposed into a holding cell. It’s a good counter. I could draw from gravity, but I bet the slightest shift in the energy I store would set the sensors off. I wonder if I could use my power on myself? Disintegrate my body with kinetic energy? I’ve never tried.

The sun dawns over Houston and swallows the skyscraper neon signs in early morning light. This city loves me, according to Templar. The world loves me. I’m a hero in their eyes.

Flashfire once said that Megajoule was the last good hero, and maybe he was the only one. Could I ever be like that?

If Flashfire ever looked at me like that, I’d feel like a real hero.

“One thing about that,” Megajoule says, standing next to me. “You should be wary of hero worship.”

“Where have you been?” I whisper. I don’t want to draw Nero’s attention by having a full blown conversation with Mega right now. “Actually, no, how do I get out of here?”

“Have you seriously been considering suicide?” Megajoule asks. “Would you really spit on my legacy like that?”

“I… I wasn’t trying to be selfish. But Cynic could use me to take superpowers away from people.”

“She could use Epione, too. And that girl does not have the ability to kill herself, trust me,” Megajoule says. He rolls his eyes. “No, you just need to think around the problem a little harder. You’ll figure it out.”

God damn it, old man, give me something to work with. “Don’t you have any advice? Any pointers?”

“You just need to drive forward a little harder. You think Nero got to where he was by easing up on the throttle? You need that same tenacity that drives the man beyond death.”

“That’s his power,” I say. “That’s not fair.”

“Does the power shape the person or the person shape the power?” Megajoule asks me, parroting Epione’s words.

He’s right. I need to think. I sit down on the bed and find that I’m alone again.

The speaker buzzes again. “Got a bit of cabin fever, eh? Talking to yourself?” Nero asks.

“Fuck off.” I stand up and stretch, and drop to the ground to do some push-ups. Might as well stay sharp and keep my blood flowing. I’ve got to think around this. The trigger will kill my friends if Cynic is to be believed, and I don’t see what I could do to stop that. Unless there’s a way to fritz the whole system. The problem would be disrupting the signal without setting it off, first. If I could draw electromagnetic energy, I could stop that, but I can’t.

“Working out?” Nero asks.

“Fuck off.”

Nero chuckles. “You seem to be getting more defiant. That’ll get your friends killed.”

“But maybe we’ll get another go,” I say in between reps. “Isn’t that what you want?”

Nero laughs.

I move to do crunches. The exercise clears away all my doubts and negative thoughts. My sweat freezes the instant it hits my skin. Very weird effect.

The speaker buzzes after a few minutes, while I work on my handstand. “Hey, you’ve got another-” Nero cuts off, the speaker dies. The door opens with a loud hiss.

I fall to my feet. Curious, I walk over to the door. I haven’t been able to get a good look at the hallway beyond without my glasses. I press my face against the window and try to peer to the right, where I think Nero is stationed.

I see two people standing over a slumped body. They pry at the fallen one’s form but I can’t tell what they’re doing beyond that.

One of them leaves the other to their work and I recognize him as he approaches.

Archimedes. He carries a bundle in the crook of his arm and quietly passes by the door, standing just to the side. He fiddles with something I can’t see.

“What is this?” I ask.

I can barely make out Archimedes chewing on his mustache as he fiddles with a panel. “An escape attempt, doofus.”

The other person walks over, pieces of black metal in their hands. They’re much smaller than Archimedes, and as far as I can tell, are wearing the same outfit. “I broke it.”

“Ah, well, Cynic can send us the bill,” Archimedes says. “If she can find us.”
Oh shit. Oh, shit! “You’re trying to spring me?”

“Good, your eyes work,” Archimedes says. “Though probably not well without your glasses.”

I glance over at the slumped body. My heart’s pounding. A chance, a real chance. “Nero, is he-”

“Nope,” the small guy says. “I sedated him. He won’t get up for a while.”

“When we open the door, we’ll need to hurry.” Archimedes pulls a panel plate away from the wall. “Sorry to rush you.”

“How am I supposed to trust you?” I don’t want to get led by the nose into a trap.

Archimedes stops his work and stares at me, and I make out that he’s actually an expressive guy in that he’s looking at me like I’m an idiot. “I just knocked out your jailer.”

Admittedly, this would be a very weird manipulation. Even so, I’m going to look this gift horse in the mouth. “Tell me.”

“We were sent to rescue you. We’ve organized a resistance against Cynic, one that she can’t detect.” Archimedes shakes his head. “Linear, get the girl out.”

The other person, I’m assuming Linear, nods. Linear drops the pieces of Nero’s armor and trots away to Maisa’s prison.

“How can she not know about this?” I ask.

Archimedes resumes his work. “Cynic’s power extends over visual feeds and pictures. If she has a recording she can read your surface thoughts during the video. Pictures give her your thoughts at exactly the second the picture was taken, but that’s useless for the most part, since people concentrate on posing for pictures typically.” Archimedes maneuvers wires and circuitry as he talks to me. At least, I think those little blobs in his hands are wires. “There’s a limit to it, though. If she can’t see your face, she can’t read your thoughts. Ever wonder why ‘heroes don’t wear masks?’”

Holy shit. That explains all the insane CCTV stuff in the last decade and the rule. Cynic became director during all that stuff. I wouldn’t doubt she’s the source. “You’re not wearing a mask, though.” I squint at him to bring his face into more focus. “I don’t think.”

“No. The other way I know around her power is to forget what you don’t want her to know.”

“How could you just forget?” I ask.

“The leader of our little resistance has the power to make people forget,” Archimedes says. “I’m sure you’re familiar with her. Use your brain.”

There’s only one person I know who could manipulate memories. The woman who put Megajoule in my head. “Oracle? She died!” I read the articles. But that would be perfect, wouldn’t it?

“That’s what the people who were there remember, anyway,” Archimedes says. “It’s what I usually remember until certain dates where we’ve arranged to meet her. She’s very careful about masking herself from Cynic, and she’s waited this long to put her plan into motion. Step one is getting you out of here. So, are you in? Or should I even bother?”

If Oracle is behind this, I need to meet her. “I’m in. What about my friends?”

“The Underground isn’t in the tower, so there’s not a lot I can do about that,” Archimedes says. “The only reason I was able to get Bedevil away was that Cynic held her here. I hope you understand that was a considerable extra risk on my part.”

I push against the window. “Where is she? Can I talk to her?”

Archimedes taps his watch, and says, “Bedevil, could you talk to your boyfriend for a moment?”

“Gabe?” Bedevil shouts over the watch. “You’re okay!”

“Oh, thank fuck.” Relief floods through me. “How are you? Did they hurt you?”

Bedevil starts to sob over the comm. “No. I’m okay. I’m hiding in one of the White Sharks in the hangar.”

“I’ll be there soon. Which floor are we on?” I ask Archimedes.

“28th,” Archimedes says. “Once I get you out, get this suit on. I made it to help us escape and to enhance your power a little. It’s only a prototype so it won’t be perfect.” He taps the bundle in his arms.

I wait, heat gathering in my heels. I bounce and pace, just waiting for the door to open.”What about my friends? Isn’t this place wired to kill them?”

Archimedes pumps his fist. “It was, until just now. Now the signal will set them free, instead. We can change the temperature now. Cynic will still know you’ve been busted out, but hopefully, we’ll be gone before she sends anyone our way.”

“We’ll be at the hangar by then,” I say.

“No, we actually have to go up first. Epione is on the 29th floor. We absolutely can’t leave her. You’ll have to deal with her guards. Neither Linear nor I are fighters.” Archimedes taps something and the temperature around me shifts. The panel blocking me from escape slides back. “Get out, that’s dangerously cold for us.”

I jump out and the panel door slides shut. Archimedes shoves the bundle in my arm.

“Just strip down and slide into it. It will fit itself to you.” Archimedes fishes in his pocket and hands me one more thing: my goggles from my mask. “That should remedy the eyes thing.”

The suit is a gray and black leather suit. The material is sturdy and porous, but thin, almost like a second layer of skin. I strip and jump into the suit from the back, like a pair of long john pajamas. Once I pull the suit up to my shoulders, the material vibrates and shrinks to my form, almost so tight it resembles a class spandex superhero costume, except for the collar, which is thick and armored, and projects a holographic display of my current temperature. I start to absorb heat and watch that number climb.

“No need to be careful,” Archimedes says. “The suit is a thermal material that can store a good amount of heat itself, so you don’t do that thing where you light up.”

The suit moves exactly like another layer of skin, so much so that I can barely tell I’m wearing anything. I draw in as much heat as I can take without lighting my skin up, and fill the suit at the same time. The material fills with energy, and the thermometer reaches the tens of thousands of degrees. “How long did this take you?”

“About six hours, but I had preliminary designs done for weeks,” Archimedes says. “I just needed your measurements.”

“While you were needling me about Bedevil?” I ask.

“That was actually on purpose, I swear I’m not just a dick.” Archimedes coughs. “I needed to know how likely you were to escape without her. According to Linear’s power, she drops our chances of escape by about 10%.”

“Still kinda sounds like you’re a dick,” I say.

“Do not be rude to your rescuers,” Archimedes replies.

Linear returns with Maisa, who cries out, “Gabe!” as she sees me.

I smile for her. “It’s going to be okay.” We still need to be careful. Archimedes handed me a key, but I’ve got to bust through the door myself.

I slide the goggles on and the world snaps into sharp focus at last. Once I have my vision back, I take stock of the people around me. Maisa is unhurt, dressed as she was right before Echo’s property was raided. She rubs tears from her eyes.

Archimedes wears an extremely unkempt beard and looks as if, once, long ago, he had an extremely enlightening realization about the average intelligence of the people around him and stuck with the expression that followed ever since. That said, he’s taller than I am and about 250 pounds, not all of which is muscle.

Linear, Arch’s diminutive counterpart, runs around Nero’s body like a chicken with its head cut off, hands knitting his shirt in worry. They both wear the same blue polo and gray slacks like they came from the same retail store or something.

Archimedes grabs my arm and fiddles with the fabric around the wrists. I noticed the gloves are padded in a circular pattern in my palm. “One last thing. These gloves are inspired by the dead man walking over there. If you channel energy through the glove, it’ll shoot off a beam.”

“How?” I ask.

“My power lets me mimic other powers in tech,” Archimedes replies. “That’s incredibly unscientific, I know, but again, that man over there can come back from the dead.” He points at the sedated Nero. “Now, come on. Let’s go extract Epione.”

Before I can reply, an elevator dings behind us.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-NINE

The last words I said to Doc were cruel. We never fixed the brokenness between us and now I have to carry that with me until I die. Which might not be long, mercifully, but I’d prefer not to die in here.

My cheeks are covered in frozen tears and I dare not take anything from the air or from gravity. The sensors are wired to kill my friends if I do. They have the perfect leverage on me. I recognize that I could win if I didn’t care about the Underground, but I do. I’m not capable of turning myself into a sociopath just to win.

Which might be why I’ll lose, I think.

I still have 48 hours to think this over, though, and maybe I’ll find a grip somewhere.

“You look hard at work,” Nero says over the comm.

I can’t muster anything besides a weak: “Fuck you.”

Nero’s voice is full of glee. “What are you cooking up in there?”

“Fuck you,” I say. I wrap the pillow around my head.

Unfortunately it’s not enough to block his bullying out. “Tough day, huh?”

My head pounds, I see red, and I scream and throw the pillow at the door.

“Glad to let that out?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I shout. “Are you really gonna spend the next two days bothering the shit out of me? Was killing my friend not enough for you?”

“Ah, sorry. Wasn’t aware that Doc was your friend. Considering what he did.” Nero takes on a tone of genuine regret. I get the feeling he might be insane.

“You were part of that same group,” I say.

“And we’re not friends, are we?”

I flip off the ceiling, just in case there’s a camera up there.

Nero laughs over the speaker. “Well, if you could be friends with Doc, maybe you can be friends with me.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Yes. I’m the monster that fights other monsters.”

I shake my head. I guess I can see why he’d be off his door hinges if he can only regenerate from death. “Your power.”

“Equal parts awesome and terrifying,” Nero says. “Can’t imagine what it’s like on the other end.”

“How did you even find out?”

“I was mugged in college. Talking a walk with a sweetheart, things were headed back to my place. We’re walking, grabbing, kissing, you know. Four dudes armed with pistols come up and one of them was apparently itching or blood, because he plugged me right between the eyes.” Nero snickers. “You should have seen the look on their faces when I got up, steaming and screaming.”

I don’t want to, but I end up imaging a ghoulish Nero rising with fire licking off his body as he scares the shit out of a few common thieves. “Do you really die every time?”

“Yes,” Nero says.

I shudder. “How do you get to that point? Where your own armor kills you?”

“You get to that point when the world needs you to keep your power turned on all the time. Not all of us can be so lucky as Megajoule, who could just turn it on when he wanted to.”

“Is that why you killed him?”

Nero doesn’t reply immediately, but when he does, I can practically hear his smile. “I killed him for a couple of reasons. I got to the point where I craved death. Where I craved something that could really kill me. Like scratching an itch.”

I can’t resist a barb. “I’m happy to scratch it for you.”

“Trust me, nothing would make me happier. I’m dying for round two. Jules was a scientist but you’re a fighter. I’m not gonna count round one since you had a pretty big handicap.” Nero huffs. “We won’t get a round two if you agree to her demands, though.”

I grunt and roll over, turning my face out to window overlooking Houston.

“What’s your favorite music?” Nero asks.

“Fuck you, we’re not doing this,” I say. “We’re not friends. We’re not pals. You killed Doc, you helped capture my friends, and you just told me you’d love a second chance to beat the shit out of me.”

“Presumably you would also beat me up,” Nero says. “Just a couple of guys beating the shit out of each other.”

“We’re not doing this.”

Nero sighs. “Look, I have to watch you for the next 48 hours or until you agree. From the looks of things, I’ve got at least a day sitting here watching you waffle back and forth until you finally surrender to reason. I’m bored.”

“Be bored,” I say.

“You’re no fun.”

“You’re an evil despot that kidnaps kids.”

“For Queen and Country.”

God damn it. I turn back around. “Really, you’re taking the patriot angle?”

“No, that was a joke. I know what I am. This is where I can be the most useful without ending up like Carnality. It was either serve Cynic or get locked in a tiny concrete box and put on ice until they figured out how to take my powers from me. Instead, I eat the finest food and fuck models, and I have a guinea pig named Jeffery.”

“I took you for a sociopath that killed pets for fun,” I say.

“How dare you? We can’t be friends anymore.” The speaker dies out with a high pitched whine.

I snort. I roll onto my back and put my arm over my eyes, and doze off.

I drift in and out of sleep until Nero buzzes back in on the speaker comm. “You’ve got a guest.”

The door shifts open and I make out a tall dude stooping just to be seen through the glass on the other side. When I get closer I see that he has a beard that desperately needs his attention and he’s built like a linebacker beneath his blue polo and gray slacks. As I approach, he pulls out what looks like a little notepad and starts scribbling stuff down.

“Okay,” I say.

“Archimedes,” he says, his voice almost as flat as Epione’s when her mask is off.

I know that name. Archimedes is the tech guy behind most of the major OPI gear. I read that he designed Danger Close’s suits and the ceramic armor that most OPI front-line heroes wear, as well as the Swordfish. From weapons to aircraft, he’s made it all.

“Gabe,” I reply.

“I know. Would you mind turning around?”

I comply. “What’s this for?”

“Taking measurements for your suit,” he says.

“I haven’t agreed.”

His pen scratches on the paper. “You will.”

I cough and stand there, feeling like a wallflower at a party.

“So, you and Bedevil.”

What the fuck? “Um.”

“Cynic told me.”

Right, mind-reading. She’d know that Bedevil and I knocked boots. “I don’t really want to talk about that.”

“Sure. You haven’t asked about her, though. Do you not care about her?”

Is everyone here just trying to piss me off? It’s like they want me to say no out of spite! I whirl around and jab my finger at the glass. “Listen, I don’t care what you want from me, fuck off.”

Archimedes clicks his pen and puts the pad back in his pocket. “I got what I needed.” He turns to someone I can’t see and nods his head. The door closes.

I stand there, unable to move. Tremors of rage radiate out from my chest until my vision is white hot. I scream and pound the door in anger.

“Take a step back from the door, or I’ll trigger the kill-switch on your friends,” Nero orders.

I retreat and slump to my knees. “Is she okay?”

“Bedevil? Sedated, missing a few fingers, but she’s okay. Waiting like a sleeping beauty for someone to kiss her awake. If you don’t hurry, I just might.” I can hear Nero leering at me in his stupid smug voice alone.

I realize that he’s trying to needle me closer to agreeing to Cynic. He’s just here to give me someone to rail against, someone to take the heat off Cynic and make her offer seem reasonable. Another manipulation. None of what she’s asking is reasonable, though.

To recap: she made me and a large batch of my brothers just to research Megajoule’s weakness. To do this, she killed all of my fellow clones except for me. The only reason I’m still alive is because my superpower turned out slightly different, so now she wants to keep me on a leash so she can research superpowers and how to take them away. All on the promise that she’ll keep my friends safe. For the rest of my life I do Cynic’s bidding, a hound the same as Nero, and let her shape the world to her will.

For a brief second, I consider drawing all of the energy I can and rupturing this tower, and letting the wreckage kill me. A suicide of the grandest order.

However, if I do that, what happens to Maisa, Bedevil, Epione, all of my friends? Cynic could kill them. Make their lives a living hell. At the very least I’d indirectly endanger Maisa just by proximity. Nero would be on me faster than I could finish the job. And even if I do manage to off myself, would Epione be able to, as well? That plan hinges not on one suicide but two, and I couldn’t ask Ep to do that.

I’m not done here, yet. There has to be another way. I’ll find it.

I trudge over to the porthole Maisa spoke to me through. “Maisa?”

“She can’t hear you, not if I don’t want her to,” Nero says over the speaker.

“Can I talk to her?”

“Nope.” Nero sounds pleased as punch.

“Why not?” I ask.

“You’ll get to talk to her when you agree to Cynic’s offer.” Nero pauses. “Wow, look at you, being all popular. You’ve got another guest.”

I almost ask who it is when I realize it doesn’t matter. They’ll make me talk to them anyway, they’ll make me dance on the end of their strings.

Templar is my new guest. I can’t read her expression without my glasses, and when she speaks, her voice is monotone. She rides her vocal fry hard. “Gabe. How are you feeling?”

I stare at her, unable to muster any quips or responses.

“You should agree to Cynic’s offer,” Templar says.

“Right out the gate, huh?” I tap my chin. “They did say you weren’t a very good face for the Inheritors.”

Templar doesn’t reply to my barb. Instead, she lifts her hand and taps her chin, too. “He used to do that a lot. I picked it up as well. It’s difficult to think about the mark he left on the world and all the people around him.”

My body is so heavy I’m going to fall on my ass. I place my hand on the glass to support my weight.

“Hands off,” Nero growls over the speaker.

“Let him,” Templar says. “I still outrank you, Nero.”

“You know that doesn’t mean anything,” Nero replies, but he shuts up after that.

Templar puts her hand on the glass against mine. I can’t make out the detail of her face but I can see that she’s frowning. “I’m not a very good face. For OPI, for Inheritors, for anything. I do my job. That’s it. But they keep wanting me to represent this golden age that’s gone by. I can’t.” Her hands falls away from the glass. “But you can. They already love you. The news is a constant cycle of your deeds.”

“I only saved a man from a burning building,” I say.

“No, I mean, all of them. As Home Run, too. And from before. FIS dug through the Underground’s history. Do you know what they’re saying?” Templar’s shoulders lift, her whole body swells up just a bit, I suppose with something like pride. “Gabe saves children. Gabe protects the poor. Gabe is a hero.”

I am moved. The black hole closes. A hero. They think I’m a hero.

“It could be another manipulation,” Megajoule whispers in my ear, the first he’s said since I woke up. I ignore him for now.

I clear my throat. “Do they know I’m here?”

Templar shakes her head.

“So, what happens if I agree? In your opinion,” I say.

“I don’t know all of Cynic’s plans for you. I believe she’d let you do good work. Bust up trafficking organizations. Fight villains using their powers to profit on oppression. Very visible hero work.”

“That’s not what I’m after.” That sounds like an endless parade of chores.

“What are you after?” Templar asks.

“A world where we don’t have to do very visible hero work.”

Templar stands silent for a second or two. She coughs, and says, “I don’t disagree. We should work for that. I think that you could do what you want by becoming OPI’s new face. The world needs you.” She pauses again, taps her chin. “I wouldn’t dare let Cynic harm you. I wouldn’t let her lock you up. You’re too important, now.”

“How could you prevent her from doing anything to me?” I ask.

“Cynic may be a proud woman. But I am also a proud woman.”

“Fair enough.” I stick my hands in my pockets, unsure of what else to do with them.
Templar opens her mouth to say something, but doesn’t.

“What?” I ask.

“It’s… invasive.”

I can imagine what she’s going to ask me about. “Bedevil?”

Templar nods.

“What about?”

“Is she happy?”

I don’t really know how to answer that question. I stammer, struggling to put the words together.

Templar also doesn’t reply, also stammers, and so we stand here, two awkward goons stuttering for words.

Finally, I muster some response. “Right before you raided our hideout, she celebrated a week of sobriety by watching her favorite movie, eating a jar of jelly beans, and falling asleep against my chest.”

Templar turns her face away.

“She was happy. I was happy.”

“I’ll make sure that Cynic lets you two work together, then.” Templar takes another glance at me and bows her head slightly. “I’m sure you know about her past with Wind Rider.”

I nod. A vein throbs in my forehead.

Templar stammers some more. She composes herself, and says, “You know her favorite movie.”

“I’m making a guess, actually. She wept through the whole thing. But if I hadn’t watched Les Mis with her I’d have guessed a shark documentary was her favorite movie.” I miss her. I want her back. That’s almost enough to get me to surrender right now, if every cell in my body didn’t cry out to reject Cynic.

“You’re a better partner than Jamie, then,” Templar says. “And you’re a better friend than I was.”

“Templar. You still have a chance to be that friend. You’re talking like it’s over, like she’ll never accept that from you.”

Templar shudders. “She never forgave me for how I told the team about Megajoule’s death. I had no idea how to face them. So I sent a text message.”

“I know,” I say. “I don’t blame you. That was hard.”

“Please, take Cynic’s offer. We need you.”

I hear it in her voice:

I need you.

And I think about that night I fought Sledge in the Second Ward, trapped between Sledge’s horrible power and the people that needed me. I think about chasing after Maisa and wrenching her from the Fear’s clutches.

And I realize that Templar may have just convinced me to agree to Cynic’s offer.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-EIGHT

I wake in sips, not gulps, drifting between sedation and awareness. I regain my sense of touch first, which tells me that the room around me is deathly cold, so cold a normal human would die in seconds. Abrasive bedsheets scrape on my skin as I shift. Then comes smell: and I only smell a sterile lab, and taste bleach in the air.

I can taste. My mouth is open. I wiggle my right hand and my fingers move freely. A bad dream? Is Bedevil still slumbering on me?

I manage to open my eyes, struggling against their heavy weight. My blood feels like molasses in my body and my muscles lag behind my commands.

Bedevil’s not asleep on my chest and I’m not in that lovely cabin. I’m in a cavern of a room tiled by metal plates and walled by dull steel. There’s an iron-clad door locked down to my right and to my left is a swirl of color I can’t quite make out. I blink and realize it’s because I’m not wearing glasses. I fumble around the bed searching for them but they’re nowhere to be found.

My legs are asleep but I need to figure out where I am and where the others went, so I force myself through the pins and needles prickling my muscles and get to my feet. I half-limp on soles cramping and burning as nerves waken. I make it to the window and peer out, trying to get a sense of where I am.

The colors sharpen as I squint just enough to make out skyscrapers and neon signs many stories tall on the sides of towers. Flashing imagery of products, of heroes, of heroes endorsing those products. I can tell that I’m very high up myself from the size of blobs that must be cars driving around the roads below.

I’m in Downtown Houston. If I had to guess, it’s close to midnight and I’m in the OPI Heroics Tower, judging both by the other skyscrapers looming over me — the Tower is not the tallest building in Houston — and by the way that battle went.

I shouldn’t dwell on that. I check my surroundings, looking for some kind of out. Fluorescent lights buzz behind thin glass panels that are wrapped by metal bars.

Maybe I can get some heat.

I absorb some of the scant temperature in the air, and a pale blue liquid develops on my arms out of nowhere. I gasp and return the degrees I stole, and the liquid vanishes near as quick as it forms.

“Gabe, please don’t do that.”

Maisa. I frantically search for the source of her voice, and find her staring at me through a small porthole on the opposite side of the room. “Maisa! Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she whimpers. I can’t make out her expression. She’s not okay at all. “You need to listen to me. They told me to tell you this so you won’t hurt yourself now that you’re awake.”

I press my hand against the glass of the porthole. Maisa copies me. The glass separating our hands is inches think, almost half a foot. “Okay. Just tell me if they’ve hurt you.”

Maisa shakes her head. “They hurt you.”

I nod. “Seem to be in one piece.”

“They said not to try absorbing heat because the air is very close to the temperature it… it liquefies. Sorry, the words were very technical.” Maisa swallows. “They said that if you try to absorb anything, they have sensors that will detect… flux… and will… kill our friends.”

I bump my head against the glass and close my eyes. My face scrunches of its own accord and tears freeze on my cheeks. “Damn.”

“She said that she will speak to you when you wake up,” Maisa says.

“She.” Cynic, fairly certain.

My powers of intuition are rewarded when the reinforced door on the other side of the room slides open. I glance over and see a short blurry woman shrouded in shadow and outlined by the door frame. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

Maisa nods.

I approach the door and find that there’s another thick barrier of glass separating me from the woman I really want to kill. Since I can’t do that and since she can read my mind, I think that from where I’m standing she looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy in her white pantsuit. I can’t make out her expression either but I do see her eyebrows raise as I’m sure she sees that thought.

Still, she doesn’t say anything, so I ask, “How did you find us?”

“I cast a very expensive net,” Cynic replies. Her voice buzzes in on a comm above the door. “You helped triangulate your position, too. Shouldn’t have gone out on the town.”

I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to let her guide me by the nose to her narrative. “I know what triangulate means. You saw me twice and nowhere near where I was staying.”

“Take or leave the explanation I gave you.” Cynic crosses her arms, draws her own height up from 4’8 to 4’10 maybe, and from the furrow of her brow, glares at me.

“Can I at least have my glasses?” I ask.

“No.”

“Cool,” I reply. “Eat shit and die.” I turn around to go back to Maisa, knowing that she’s not gonna let this conversation end here. If she wanted me dead, I’d already be. The fact that my friends’ lives hang on what I do means she wants me alive and she wants to control my next actions.

Cynic’s voice is chilly as she calls out. “Gabe. We’re not done. I don’t have to explain that refusing to cooperate endangers the Underground.”

“Should’ve opened with that.” I turn back around to face her. “What exactly am I supposed to be cooperating with?” God, I still haven’t even got my bearings. I don’t know how the fight ended, I don’t even know if she’s being truthful about capturing the Underground. I’ve got no ground to stand on and she likely knows it, judging by the blurry smirk that just crossed her face.

“The same offer as before. Take up the mantle of Megajoule. Submit yourself to studies that could save the world.”

“How does turning me into a lab rat slash dog on a presumably tight leash save the world?” I ask.

“We control powers,” Cynic says. “You would appreciate that some people do not deserve their powers or use them to the benefit of others around them. Unlike yourself, some people are quite selfish with their powers.”

“Case in point.” I turn my nose up at her.

“Everything I do is for others,” Cynic says.

“How does threatening an innocent kid from another country fit into that?” I ask.

“Maisa is under no threat,” Cynic says. “Only the Underground.”

“Oh, only them. Okay. Got it.”

Cynic’s sigh is weapons-grade bitchy. She rubs her temples. “Gabe. Grow up.”

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“I said, Grow. Up. Do you think the world we live in is pretty, or perfect?”

I scoff at her. Sledge said much the same thing.

“No, not even like that. Sledge was a fanatic. I’m a realist. We share a world with the Youxia. Do you know what that’s like? I know of at least three hundred threats in the East that are more powerful than you, on the same level as Carnality, Megajoule, and Nero. Not even considering the threat of the Fear, our own world has enough monsters that controlling superpowers is not just a good idea, it’s necessary. Through you and Epione, we can control the realm of the Fear, and we can control superpowers. We can bestow powers on only the worthy.”

The worthy. “What does that mean, Cynic? Who’s worthy?”

“You are.” Cynic slides one of her dress heels across the floor outside, resulting in a scratchy rasp over the comms. She paces across the glass separating us.

“My brothers weren’t?” I ask. “The ones you killed?”

“Megajoule was a threat, Gabe. He believed OPI was his enemy.”

“Maybe it is,” I say.

“If you actually believed that, this conversation would end, and I’d flood the room with neuro-toxins. You don’t, though, and so there’s still a deal on the table. Because you want to save the world, Gabe, and I think you know you can’t do it alone.” Cynic stops pacing and looks down at the floor. “No one can do life alone.”

My vision goes red. Those were some of Doc’s last words to me. She’s dredging up my old memories to play with me. “You killed him.”

“Blame Nero, not me. I didn’t give that order,” Cynic says. “You’re right, I am trying to manipulate you, though. How about we lay our cards on the table, as few as yours might be. I’ll admit that my life would be much easier if you agreed. Your friends will be released and returned to you, to act as your team if you wish. They’ll be free to go if not. Of course, I’ll monitor them, but they’ll be able to live normal lives if they wish. Bedevil and Maisa are free to accompany you. No manipulation about it, those are the terms. If you refuse, well, your friends will die, Bedevil will go to rehab in more ways than one, and you’ll live out your days in a sedated haze until we have what we need.”

I stammer. That’s one hell of a royal flush.

“Yes,” Cynic says. “The cards are stacked in my favor. I spent a very long time ensuring they would be.”

I don’t have a response to that. I want to ask her about… about Megajoule… something about him, something on the tip of my tongue that I can’t remember… Finally, I manage to ask, “How did you kill him? Why did you kill him?” That’s not quite what I wanted to ask.

Cynic pauses. She waits a few seconds before speaking, and her words are like she’s tiptoeing around a bear. “To the first question, I can’t answer that. To the second, he threatened OPI.”

“That’s the only reason?” I ask.

“Yes. OPI must be protected. We coordinate the UWC’s most powerful heroes and we’re all that stands between the world and chaos. Between the world and the Fear.”

This is as good a time as any to get my honest questions in. “Why keep the Fear a secret?”

“The world wasn’t ready.”

“They seem to be handling it fine right now.”

Cynic clicks her tongue like a disapproving schoolmaster. “Until last week, we had no idea one of them could be killed. Megajoule never killed one. Each incident had death tolls that Carnality would envy, that if they’d ever been able to coordinate would have put the time of anarchy to shame. The world wasn’t ready for an enemy that ate their emotions, stole their powers, and couldn’t be killed. When you scratched that last one off the list, telling the world became a non-issue. The Fear’s just another monster, now.”

“Hence why you need me,” I say.

“And Epione. She’ll fold if you do,” Cynic says.

“Why all this secrecy and manipulation?” OPI is a supposed to be an organization of superheroes. They were founded out of Foundation, the world’s closest thing to the Justice League, for God’s sake.

“Do you honestly believe Foundation didn’t do the same thing? Do you think that any government ever has clean hands?” Cynic asks. She shakes her head. “You know, this is a waste of time. You and I won’t see eye to eye on matters of governance. That doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ll give you time to mull my offer over.”

“You wouldn’t ask if you weren’t sure I’d say yes,” I say.

“You aren’t sure. But there’s a chance. That’s enough.” The door slides shut, cutting me off from Cynic. Her voice sounds on the speaker one last time before she leaves. “You have 48 hours.”

I retreat from the door, back to Maisa, but the porthole’s covered up, too. I guess they don’t want me to talk to her right now, not while I have this offer to consider. How the fuck do I even know that was her?

The weird thing is, I believe Cynic. She strikes me as a very targeted liar. All she’d need is one specific lie amid all the truth. I don’t even know if she needs to lie at all, so much as not tell the whole truth. Which leads me to wonder what she might be leaving out.

I wonder how a deal with the devil would cost me my soul.

I sit down on the bed they’ve provided. Everything about my quarters looks stripped down, and I can see scuff marks on the floor from furniture being moved. Normal rooms can’t hit the temperature just above where air turns to liquid, so I’m guessing this was some kind of research facility.

I hug my knees. I remembered what I wanted to ask her, about Oracle putting Megajoule inside my head. “Megajoule, are you there?”

Only the buzzing lights and quiet groans of the building answer me.

“I got Doc killed,” I say. “If you’re listening.”

A black hole rips open inside my chest. Tears freeze under my eyes.

“All my friends. Maisa. Bedevil. My fault.” I bury my head in my arms as sobs take me. “It’s… my… fault…”

No reply from Megajoule.

“Are you mad at me?”

Not a word.

“I’m a disappointment.”

Not a peep.

“Why don’t you ever talk to me when I need you to?” I ask.

Still, nothing.

I wipe my eyes and lie down. I don’t know how to begin making up for what I did wrong, and I don’t know how to get out of this. I’m well and truly fucked.
The speaker buzzes to life. “You know, maybe if you dance a little bit, he might crawl out of your brain.”

Nero.

I restrain my anger, knowing it won’t help me at all. “What the fuck do you want?”

“Nothing,” Nero says. “I’m your personal jailer.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, as if that will help keep this hell from me. As if I can ignore the monster prowling outside my cell.

I am well and truly fucked.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-SEVEN

Wind Rider and Templar hold a little ways off from us. I step between them and my friends.

Templar frowns at me. No, not a frown, she just looks like that. With dour expression, she says, “Gabe, I have to ask you to stand down. I know this is not what we’d hoped, but if you surrender, no one else has to get hurt.”

“No one else?” I ask. “Doc’s already dead! Bedevil’s had a seizure, and you threw a fucking lightning bolt at us!” I have a guess that Meltdown, Wind Rider’s wife, is the one that threw it, considering he’s here.

“We can help her,” Wind Rider says, hovering above us. “We have medics on site. Everyone can be cared for, immediately. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be, Gabe.”

I know what Cynic has in store for both Epione and me if we surrender. We’ll become lab rats so she can control superpowers. What I don’t know is what happens to the others. Prison or death. Maybe both. I can’t trust these two, even if they used to be his sidekicks.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Templar says. “We don’t want anyone else to die.”

Cynic sent them to manipulate me. Worse, she probably thought they’d hurt Bedevil’s resolve. It’s a good thing Bedevil’s not conscious right now, because I’d bet she’d turn Wind Rider into pulled pork if she got the chance.

“Why are you even here? You don’t know me. Worse,” I say as I point at Wind Rider. “You were a scumbag to Bedevil.”

Wind Rider scowls at me. “You don’t know us either. You don’t know her.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Templar says.

“It does.” Wind Rider doesn’t look like he wants this fight to end here. I’ve struck a nerve.

Templar’s stone face softens with desperation, just a bit. “Please.”

I nod to Echo. “I can’t.”

Echo books it, dragging Maisa and Bedevil with her. Drone runs as fasts as she can after them while carrying Epione.

Wind Rider holds his hand out and invisible cords wrap around my arms, not unlike Bedevil’s telekinetic tendrils. I wonder for a brief second if he got the idea from her, in between becoming her teammate and breaking her heart.

It’s odd to see them both rushing at me from the brush of swamp wood, the early morning sun at their backs. Wind Rider’s dark form is outlined in brilliant jade by the light, and Templar’s platinum-gold hair whips and glows like fire with the same light. Her black armor drinks in the light.

Templar shouts, “Stand down!”

I always expected to see them on TV, or if I ever got the chance to see them in real life, from the audience. Maybe, just maybe, shaking hands on a stage or something.
I snap free of Wind Rider’s coils the same as Bedevil’s tendrils, gaining a boost of energy in the process. His power isn’t as effective on me, but it can harry my friends as they flee. Still, the worse threat is Templar, with her biological manipulation. She needs to go first.

I come in jabbing, hoping to knock her out in one hit, but she leans out of my swing. My knuckles only just graze her cheek.

My fist feels like someone dunked it in warm water. I recoil from her, bounce back far enough that she can’t reach me without sprinting, and see that the fist is fused together so I can’t unfurl it. There are no fingers, just a lump of bone and flesh. Which means I can’t use my right hand to do anything but attack.

Fucking yikes.

New plan: get her as far away as possible without making direct contact.

Torrents of wind swallow me again as Wind Rider dive bombs right by me. With the energy I got bursting through his coils, I slip my non-fused hand through and grab Wind Rider by the ankle.

“Let go!” he shouts, flailing and flying, spinning me round and round like a tornado.

I grit my teeth and try to slow him by absorbing the energy of him revolving me over and over. We come to a stop, but Templar clocks me with a naked fist, and my face tingles, the skin around my mouth shifting. Templar hooks her fingers on my cheeks, and more of my skin shifts, but I knee her hard and then use Wind Rider as a bat when her guard is down. They connect, I release. The two of them fly over the tree line and out into the woods somewhere.

My mouth is sealed shut. Shit. I don’t know how to reverse her changes right now, but I can still fight. Echo’s already led the others into the woods on the opposite side of the property, so maybe they can get away.

We’re split up. Remise, Mil-dot, and Saw Off are in the woods. The woods light up with strange colors. An explosion and more gunfire. How did they find us?

No time to think right now. Deal with it, retreat, and regroup. We’ll figure it out.
I rush into the forest with my fused hand and mouth, warping between the trees when I have enough clearance to finesse, running and stumbling on underbrush when I can’t. I chase the strange lights and find Mil-dot and Saw Off retreating from one of those heroes in white armor, like the kind around Cynic at the airport. I’m guessing they’re some kind of elite OPI soldier.

The OPI soldier manipulates blobs of light from his hand, flashing and shifting color so fast they could trigger another seizure, — is Bedevil okay? — and they dance around Mil-dot and Saw Off. The effect is obvious: Saw Off bumbles into trees, Mil-dot covers her eyes and runs blindly.

From the other side come more FIS elite operatives and another pair of the OPI soldiers in white armor. I can’t call out to Saw Off or Mil-dot, so I have to make a choice: take out the guy dazing them with his lights, or take out the group coming in at them?

I make a call: Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I rush the OPI soldier waving his blobs of light. He meets me with a dazzling spray of colors. I wrench my eyes shut so I don’t get thrown off and try to fight him blind.

The OPI soldier bashes me in the face. I can absorb the energy but he’s getting a bunch of licks in, and the longer I dawdle the worse it gets for Mil-dot and Saw Off.

A shotgun sneeze reports from where I left Saw Off, followed by the distinct boom of a sniper rifle. The searing lights outside my eyelids vanish. I open my eyes and see that the OPI soldier is down, a bullet through his chest. Flashfire won’t be happy.

Saw Off grins proudly as she tears through the agents while Mil-dot surgically removes the enemies in Saw Off’s blind spots. They do make a really good team.

Templar rushes out of the woods and grabs Saw Off. Both of her legs rotate around the knee, and her arms bend backwards at inhumane angles. She shrieks in agony. Mil-dot aims her rifle but the gun rips from her hands as Wind Rider soars by her. Shit, I’ve got to-

Someone slams into me. I feel the prick of a needle in my arm. No.

An OPI soldier in white armor. Who the fuck are these guys? Flashfire always talked about OPI having a military branch, and that’s my only guess, but the armor they wear is crazy. Stronger than the armor Hasuji and Tachikaze wear, so that I can’t immediately shred through it with my fists.

Immediately.

The soldier unloads a beam of ice from his hands. I feel nothing, and the beam does not hinder me in any way. Sorry dude, luck of the draw. I kick up, hook my legs around his neck, and spin him into the woods with a burst of kinetic energy.
Chaos drenches the woods along with the morning sun. The haze is just enough that shadows mask all the movement, gunfire, and bodies, but I do make out someone fighting ahead of me. I rush to their aid, hoping I can make the difference.

Danger Close chases my fleeing friends. He’s in a different suit than the last time I saw him: this one is a sleek exoskeleton, a series of bars, gears, and servos that whir around his limbs. He vaults into the air using a grappling hook from his wrist, and jump jets in his heels. As he bounces off the trees, his gear transforms into a glide-suit, and he swoops in after Echo and the others. He flies back up into the air hauling Maisa in his grasp.

I sprint and launch into the air after him, draining the energy of gravity and fueling my flight with it. I don’t fly perfectly but I don’t need to. I shred through the trees I hit as if they were cardboard, losing no momentum as I rocket into Danger Close.

I nab Maisa with my free hand and tangle myself with Danger Close, wrapping my legs around his waist. We fall, the three of us, spinning around my center of gravity. I control the fall, drop Maisa into Echo’s arms, and then drag Danger Close back into the woods.

Danger Close slams another sedative into my thigh with one of those guns. I haven’t felt the first one yet, but I can’t imagine it will be long. Luckily I’m bigger than Epione, more muscular, and that buys me time.

Danger Close shoots a rocket into my chest from a launcher on his shoulder. The explosions separates us and I fall into the forest, somewhere near the parking lot.
My legs wobble, my arms are sluggish. My mind clouds. I fight to stand, but I don’t think I have a lot of fight left in me. Hopefully, Echo and the others swing back around, Bedevil can recover, she’s really strong, she could take Krater by herself. I’ve already removed the biggest threats, and I’m sure the others-

A deafening roar, a plume of fire and wood from the property. A screaming human bullet through the ranch house, immolating the grass beneath as it flies right at me.

Nero.

I try to dodge but I’m a hair too sluggish. Even conjuring kinetic energy is slow.

Nero meets me head-on, blazing hands around my neck. He brays laughter like the world’s deadliest donkey. Together we crunch into the van — we needed that to escape — and Nero lays into me, laughing all the way.

I grab his shredded collar and flip us out of the wrecked car. Nero cackles, we blast off into the sky in an atomic explosion, so hot that the pavement and the van’s chassis melt into slag. The following burst of force breaks the earth and topples the trees in a ring around the driveway.

“I wish you could say something!” Nero’s eyes are the eyes of a man wearing no seat belt on the fastest roller coaster in the world. His face is completely free of wounds or scars, his skin is luminous like a newborn. “The look on your face now! You’ve got no idea!”

He’s right, I don’t. He was dead.

No. I do have an idea. Doc killed him. I killed him. Even his armor kills him. He didn’t heal from the wounds until now.

He regenerates from death.

I should have run when Doc told me to. He was trying to buy me time, his last gift to me. I threw it away.

My muscles don’t respond to my call anymore, so I use kinetic energy to swing weak haymakers at Nero. Nero laughs and laughs. It’s a cruel joke of a fight now.
The flaming demon throws me into the dirt with a thunderous boom. Fire fills the sky as he unleashes his full power on me. He falls like a meteor with a velocity that would turn a normal human into an ash stain. I use all of my available strength to keep myself alive by converting the energy downward. Even so, his strength bruises my broken body even more, and he laughs, and laughs, overtaken by shrill Satanic hysterics.

“Come on, come on!” Nero pulls me up to my feet. “Let’s be sporting!”

I scream behind my mouth muzzled by skin, as the sedatives worm exhausting fingers around my brain. My eyes can’t stay open. I can’t stay up.

And Nero waits for me, berserker’s grin splitting his face cheek to cheek, fists up, feet bouncing like this is a schoolyard game. A cruel joke of a fight.

I step forward into darkness.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-SIX

The fire rises higher and higher, swallowing the garden. I scream but I can’t hear my own voice.

In tandem with my cry, Hasuji shears through the door with a super-sonic swing of his sword, geared up in his military ceramics armor and visor. He brandishes his katana and takes a swing at the first person he sees: Bedevil.

Bedevil shrieks in agony, and Hasuji primes for another blow, aimed for center mass.

My body moves on its own and I warp in between them, catching his blade with my shoulder. All I can think is that I have to protect Bedevil. He’ll absolutely kill her, like he killed Vaquero. I summon all the energy I can and go in swinging with another Freezer Burn.

The next thing I know, Hasuji is laid out, his helmet caved into his face, and his jaw is in pieces. Blood pools beneath his head and he stares up at nothing.

I rush to Bedevil’s side. Hasuji sliced the fingers of her right hand off, right at the knuckle. Blood pours from each nub. Bedevil screams and weeps, but the blood stops flowing from her fingers as she stifles the wounds with a telekinetic tourniquet. She waves me off with her intact hand. “Go, Doc.”

Remise throws herself to the ground. “Watch out!”

The hairs on my arm stand up. Instinctively, I throw up a kinetic shield, freezing the air molecules into a disk in front of me.

Pain jolts through my body and my vision goes white. My muscles roar with flame, and I disconnect from my body for a second as if I’ve fallen into a pool of eternal light.

My vision pops back in, but I can’t hear anything over the ringing in my ears. Bedevil kicks and flails on the ground as another seizure grips her, and Pawpaw barks at her and nuzzles under her face. Saw Off screams and ducks for cover, and Remise shouts at me, but her voice is far away, muffled by a wall of sound in my ears.

“-bolt, they hit us with a god damn lightning bolt!” Mil-dot shouts from behind me.

I climb to my feet. Doc might still be alive. There’s something wrong with Bedevil, but I can’t remember what right now.

Megajoule screams in my ear: “Get the hell out of here!”

I stumble to the door, despite Remise screaming at me to stop, and warp off the porch toward the garden. Gunfire in the woods. Doesn’t matter. Doc might need my help. If he survived.

The fire is extinguished, but it completely destroyed the garden. The flowers have turned to ash, the bench scorched and twisted.

Nero stands over Doc’s body, rolling his shoulder. He spits blood out of his mouth. There isn’t a scratch on him. “Really thought he might have pulled it off, actually. The eggs always thought he’d be my weakness.” Nero sighs, his eyebrows knitted down in a predator’s pantomime of sorrow. “What a shame, Doc.”

I scream and launch at him with burning hands aimed for his throat. Heat floods into me as I absorb every scrap of energy around me, searing away the grief, the confusion, the doubt, and the fear roiling inside me, and all that is left is fury.

His skin lights up like mine does when I’m holding too much heat, and he grins as we meet fist to fist. The first strikes are instinct; they happen without my awareness, but as I push him back toward the cabins with a blazing assault of kicks and fists, I pick up his pattern. He favors a hard right haymaker, filled with so much strength the air pops as he swings his fist.

I smash his jaw. A shock-wave travels up my arm, counteracting the kinetic energy I infuse my strike with.

Nero howls with laughter. “Fuck yeah! I’ve been dying for this!” He tackles me, and we fly back with a sudden burst of destructive force. The garden ruptures under our flight, energy overwhelms me. I absorb all that I can, but I feel his power vibrating on my bones.

I hit the ranch house back first, exploding through the living room wall. I smash into the couch and roll into the dining room, destroying all the furniture in my wake.

Nero jumps through the hole I made, his arms shining, his eyes glowing and billowing with flame. Maisa screams and tries to flee up the stairs, Drone presses against the wall, stammering at the demon in front of us.

I get out from under the couch in time to see Saw Off sprint right at Nero.

“Who-” is all Nero gets out before Saw Off rocks a shotgun sneeze into his chest.

The point-blank shotgun blast shreds through part of his chest armor, exposing a painful contraption beneath — an iron maiden stabbing into Nero’s chest. Nero steps backs and thunks against the wall, clutching the gaping chest wound she just gave him. He cackles, and wheezes through blood. “You first, then.”

Nero warps toward her, blurring through the air, exploding the floor beneath him as he crosses the distance in the blink of an eye. I blast in between them, catching his blow on my face. Nero snarls and knees my gut with a kick that bursts through the sound barrier. I shoot up through the ceiling, crashing into Doc’s old room. There’s so much force behind the kick I have to redistribute it instead of absorbing it all.

I shoot back down, narrowly missing his skull with a kick. Before I can get another attack in, Nero pounces for Drone with blazing claws out for the kill, but blinding lights from Maisa send him off course, crashing into the wall beside Drone instead.

Epione reaches a hand out to take his power while he’s dazed. Yes!

Nero roars and fires erupt from his body. A wave of pure force pulses from his body, crunches the wood beneath him, and knocks Epione on her back before she can get her hands on him. He reaches to kill her.

I shoot a ball of wind at him by stimulating the molecules of air, knocking him into the wall.

Nero turns his smoldering gaze on me, and he lunges, trailing smoke and hot wind behind him.

He crashes into me and Saw Off flies into the nearby wall from the wind blast of our collision. The TV falls to pieces, the coffee table bursts apart, the floorboards disintegrate beneath us.

Nero’s got a huge well of power behind his attack. He pushes through my absorption, sweeping me off my feet, and we shoot like a bullet from hell back into the yard.

He never stops fucking laughing.

Nero’s hand sparks with flame, and a red laser washes over me from his palm, so hot the air around us steams. The heat doesn’t bother me, but there’s force behind the beam, and I can’t see through it worth a damn. I kick free, landing in the garden. Nero crashes into the cabin Epione stayed in.

I struggle to my feet. He’s got regeneration, clearly, and an energy release power a lot like mine. I don’t know the limits of his healing factor. Sledge could regenerate from any fatal wound, but I found the weak point through temperature. I just need to find the right angle on this son of a bitch and I’ll have him.

He’s still not up. Did I actually K.O. him already?

Nero rises in the shadows of the cabin, casting light on it from his molten arms.

The light of his skin is diminished. I hope that means he’s running out of gas. I don’t know how he gets more power yet, but I’ll figure it out.

Nero cracks his neck and steps up to the hole in the wall.

“WHY?!” I roar, drinking deep of the energy of Earth’s rotation. I rush him and plant my foot into his chest with all the force of a meteor.

Nero rips out the back of the cabin. He blurs back in, smiling as he hacks up blood. “Holy shit, kid, you’re good!”

I charge forward, screaming, and he meets me, laughing. Energy, heat, light, and sound pass between us as fast as our blows. I can’t see the rest of the world: it all boils down to his face, his smug laughter, the grin I’m going to rip from his teeth.

I conjure the energy of falling into the earth in time with my steps, removing the shackles of friction from my footwork. With that, I gain torrents of energy to blast Nero with, and each time his resistance weakens. His punches don’t pop in the air, his fists aren’t alight with energy.

I shatter his nose with a well-timed elbow strike.

Nero retreats from me, blood pouring from his face. He shows me a crimson smile. “Come on! Come on! At least you’re putting up a fight, not like Doc!”

My heart demands that he dies. “FUCK. YOU!”

I duck under his last attack, a haymaker so slow and weak a child could’ve dodged it, and utilizing every ounce of energy I drained from the gravity, the heat in the air, and the damage Nero dealt, I ram my fist through the armor around his chest and out the other side. The shock-wave of energy rips apart his entire torso and pulps him down into his suit, and the force carries through the air, blowing loose debris and half broken wood free of the cabin.

Nero goes down in a bloodied, trembling heap.

My lungs burn. I gulp air to cool them and count to ten while I wait for him to regenerate, ready to keep going if he gets back up.

After ten seconds, nothing’s happened. He’s a broken doll, nothing more.

Gunfire near the house finally breaks me out of the spell I’ve been under.

A squad of elite FIS agents storms the porch of the bed and breakfast. Gunfire and fighting, shouting and screaming. I can’t see Remise or Mil-dot, I don’t know where Echo or Lugs are, Bedevil’s having another seizure, Maisa and Drone can’t do anything about this. Epione’s the only one who stands a chance, and I don’t think she can take on that many agents by herself.

I spare one last glance at Nero to make sure he’s down and then shoot back across the lawn, through the hole in the living room wall.

I arrive in a hail of bullets and shrieks. The FIS agents retreat back from Saw Off’s shotgun sneeze, Maisa throws blinding lights at them, and Epione grapples with one closest to her. The agent’s arms drop as she gets a hold of his cheeks and his eyes glaze over like the nurses she stilled in the pharmacy.

“They don’t have powers!” Epione shouts at me.

Bad news for Epione, but perfect for me.

I’m still on murder-mode, and I carry heat and death in my wake as I waltz through the agents trying to kill my friends. My hands blaze with light, steaming the air, cauterizing the flesh as I cripple those in my path, removing hands and legs. I melt guns, I sear faces with light touches. In a few heartbeats, the agents are all down, either dead or unconscious, and I’m still standing.

I rush to Bedevil’s side. She’s no longer seizing up, and her breathing is normal again. She’s not okay, but she’s alive. Pawpaw isn’t in the house anymore, and I don’t see Bedevil’s cats. I hope they’re okay, wherever they’re hiding.

“Remise and Mil-dot went out to the woods,” Drone says.

Saw Off trots out after them. “I’m going to go help. I’ll get Lugs.” She checks the porch and garden to make sure it’s clear, and then creeps out.

I roll Bedevil onto her side, in case she throws up again. “Epione, can you help Bedevil?”

Epione stumbles and falls against the wall.

“Are you okay?” I warp to her and help her stand.

Epione clings to me like an exhausted toddler. “..drug… needle… syringe…” She points at the ground, at the FIS agent she wrestled. He clutches a syringe gun. I check myself for any needles, but I’m in the clear.

“Maisa and Drone, you can still walk, right?” I ask. “Help me get Bedevil and Epione to the cars. I’ll cover you while you get out of here.”

Maisa helps Bedevil up to her feet and Drone gets Epione. Just as they get steady to walk, Echo comes down the stairs. “Jesus H. Christ,” she says, looking at the damage. “I’m going to have to apologize to Crane.”

“Echo, help us get to the cars. I’m going to back up the others in the woods.” I’m trying to keep it together, but Doc is dead, Bedevil’s hurt all over again, and Epione is drugged. “Once you get out of here, we can retreat and figure out what to do.”

Echo nods. She helps Maisa with Bedevil. I step out onto the porch to make sure they have a clear shot to the cars.

As I step out onto the lawn, a gale force wind swallows me. I absorb the energy of the force and search for the source.

I recognize the two people the come out of the woods, one flying and one on foot. The man hovers through the air with a flurry of wind, wearing a costume that invokes colors of wind and nature, while the woman runs toward me with the form of a linebacker, decked out in jet-black armor with a red sash across her waist. I recognize them from dozens of interviews, photo-ops, and videos of their missions.

Wind Rider and Templar. Bedevil’s old teammates, Megajoule’s sidekicks in life. The Inheritors.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-FIVE

I step out onto the cabin porch, fixing my joggers. Megajoule materializes at the edge of the porch, staring out at the stormy night. He holds his hand out to the pouring rain. The raindrops slip through his phantom fingers. He glowers at me as I join him.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Megajoule asks. “Falling into bed with her?”

I stammer. He’s got a severe look on, the expression of a disappointed father.

“She’s…” Megajoule shakes his head. “You remember what she did to you.”

“I forgave her,” I protest, weakly.

“You might have been a little quick on that,” Megajoule says. “The first thing she does when she meets you is fuck you, and then has the nerve to sneer at you when she calls you by my name. You can just let that go?”

I don’t really know what to say. My brain is so foggy about that night; I’ve blacked most of it out. “She’s proved herself.”

“Proved what, exactly?” Megajoule asks. “Proved that she’s willing to kill and attack her own team just to cling to my fleeting memory? She wants you to be someone you’re not.”

“You’re wrong,” I say.

Megajoule scoffs. “I’m wrong? I’m wrong about my own sidekick, a girl whose career in heroics I launched? You’ve known her about, what? A month? Less than that? And you’re already sleeping with her, you’re already acting like she’s your lover.”

I lean against the wall of the cabin. The storm is just enough to drown my voice out. I don’t want to wake Bedevil up. “We’re taking it slow.”

“Fucking her is taking it slow?” Megajoule asks.

“I… I don’t know! I don’t know how these things work! I like her, she’s funny, she’s passionate! I didn’t think I’d have to defend my taste in girls from you!”

Megajoule sighs. “No, no, you don’t. You’re an adult, a man in your own right, and I don’t want to tell you your business. But you should be careful. Ruby has a lot more experience than you, and I would hate for you to get hurt.”

We meet eyes, and I can see just how upset he is by this. I glance away, scared by the intensity behind his gaze.

“Promise me you will be careful,” Megajoule says.

I can’t meet his eyes, even though that probably doesn’t matter since he’s a figment of my memories. “I promise.”

“Good man.” Megajoule appears next to me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing great. You just can’t afford to get entangled with someone who’s going to hurt you like she already did.”

After everything Bedevil confessed to me, after the way she looked at me, that just rubs me the wrong way. “Why do you care so much?”

“Because I love you, Gabe. I’m the only one who doesn’t want you to be me. I’m the one who wants you to be Gabe. I’m the one who wants you to succeed on your own strength, and I’m the one who believes that you could really do that. I believe in you, so fiercely, so passionately. I gave my life for that, Gabe. I gave my life to save you from that lab.”

With that, he vanishes. The door to the cabin opens, and Bedevil steps out, wearing a huge white t-shirt and gym shorts.

Bedevil yawns, and rubs her eyes. “What’s going on?”

I usher her back inside. I turn the lamp on, and Bedevil sits on the edge of the bed, blinking at the warm light.

“Listen, do you remember how I told you that I used to hallucinate Megajoule?” I ask.

Bedevil’s sleepy face vanishes. She grabs my hand. “Is it happening again?”

I grip her fingers in mine. “It turns out it wasn’t just a hallucination. Do you know a hero named Oracle?”

Bedevil nods. “From Africa, she was one of the Sovereigns. I think she was a diplomat between the Union and UWC. Memory powers, right?” Bedevil gasps as she says that. “She did something to you, didn’t she?”

“Yeah. Apparently, she assembled some kind of… er, memory construct of Megajoule. Basically, she put his ghost inside my head so he can give me advice,” I say.

“You were talking to him on the porch? What did he want?” Bedevil stares at me, playing with her hair. “What’s he like, now?”

I rub the back of my neck. “He’s… mad. About us.”

Bedevil’s face falls flat. “Oh.”

“He says I should be careful because you’ve got a lot more experience than I do. And after what happened…” I shake my head. “He cares about us both, I think.”

“He’s right,” Bedevil says. She plays with her gym shorts, and a tear rolls down her cheek. “Did he say anything else? About me? About you? About all of this?”

“I told him to fuck off,” I say.

Bedevil gasps. She jabs an elbow into my ribs.

“Okay, okay, I told him I’d be careful. I don’t think he’s working off current memories,” I say. “His last impression of you when he was alive was as his sidekick, and you were just nineteen. If that’s the case, of course, he’d be worried about us. He doesn’t know who you are now.”

“I wish he could speak to me like that, though,” Bedevil says.

I’ll admit, I felt the same way. And his fatherly approach scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had. Still, I’ve been trying to be realistic about it. “It’s not even him, it’s like… a backup data file, or a copy of a book, I think.”

Bedevil rubs my thumb with hers. “…thank you, Gabe. Can you tell me if he says anything else?”

I nod. “It’s late.”

“Or early,” Bedevil replies. She leans against me. “What do we do after this? We can’t stay in Houston. I don’t even know if we can stay in the UWC.”

I adjust so that I’m sitting against the headboard of the bed, and Bedevil leans against me. “I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland with Remise, to be honest. She says it’s gorgeous there.”

“Why isn’t she a hero there? She’s incredible.”

“She actually made a personal enemy of one of the big teams there, I think.” Something about Remise’s training to become a full hero over there. “Her career got dumped down the toilet, so she moved to the UWC for a clean start.”

“That sucks,” Bedevil says, sounding very sleepy.

I chuckle, and stroke her hair, and we fall back asleep together.

The next thing I know, my phone is ringing in my jacket across the room. I check the time: 6:32 AM. Bedevil stirs and groans, and when I try to get up, she presses her hand against my chest to keep me down.

“My phone,” I protest.

“Call ‘em back,” Bedevil slurs.

I chuckle and try to get up again, and Bedevil uses telekinesis to reinforce her hold on me. She lifts her head and glares at me with killer’s eyes. “Call. ‘Em. Back.”

I almost laugh out loud at her tantrum.

Wait, that’s not my regular phone. “Bedevil, it’s Mr. Gold.”

Her eyes snap open and she floats up from me toward the ceiling of the cabin. “Sorry, sorry!”

I warp over to my jacket and fish the burner phone out before it stops ringing, answering it just in time. “Hello?”

“Gabe. I’ve got a way in,” Mr. Gold says. “Three days.”

“What’s the plan?” I ask. My heart soars; we finally have a chance at saving Flashfire. Once that’s done we can figure out what we’re doing next instead of staying stuck in limbo.

“We’ll talk about it in person,” Mr. Gold says. “I’ll call you. Keep your head down, by the way. I know you want to play the hero, and I don’t blame you, but we can’t afford any more incidents where you might get caught.”

I bow my head in apology, even though he can’t see. “Right.”

“I’ll be in touch.” Mr. Gold hangs up.

“What did he say?” Bedevil says.

“We’ll rescue Flashfire in three days.” I toss the burner phone in my hands.
Bedevil hovers in the air, the sundress rises to meet her from where we discarded it, and in a flash, she’s out of the gym shorts and the huge t-shirt, and into the sundress. She floats down to her feet, her arms crossed. At first, I think she’s looking at my abs, but I realize she’s looking at my hands. “Gabe, those burns.”

I’ve still got slight marks where I burned my fingers rescuing Jake the Boss Man from that fire. “It’s nothing.”

Bedevil walks up and traces the scars Sledge left me with her fingers. “I saw the news. Remember what I said about your corpse hurtling places?”

“What am I supposed to do?” I ask. “Just sit back when I can save people?”

“Epione told me you didn’t have your power,” Bedevil says.

I look away from her.

“I don’t want to lose you either.” Bedevil playfully pinches my ear. “I want you to grow old, and lose your abs to a beer gut, and be happy.”

“I was actually going to quit drinking.” I glance down at her again.

Bedevil’s lips part. Her eyes glisten. “You… please, be careful.”

I can’t get Megajoule’s words out of my head. I can’t rid myself of the doubt that she’s clinging to his memory. I suppose I’ll just have to learn to live with it. “I’ll try.”

After we talk a bit more about random nothings, Bedevil and I sneak into the main building. Saw Off snores on the couch, her hand on Pawpaw’s neck scruff. All five of Bedevil’s cats lounge on top of her, slumbering in peace. Pawpaw whines as he sees Bedevil and frees himself from her grasp.

The fresh scent of coffee draws me to the kitchen.

Doc stands there, coughing crap out of his lungs, pouring hot water from a kettle over a pour-over coffee carafe. He looks up. “Oh.”

Bedevil floats in behind me, Pawpaw at her heels.

Doc and Bedevil stare at each other for about seven of my panicked heartbeats.

Doc opens his mouth and only manages a stuttering, “Uh.”

Bedevil silently hovers to him and lands on her feet. Not a word passes from her lips and not a trace of emotion on her face as she studies his.

Doc, unnerved, returns to his pour-over. “Coffee?”

“No.” Bedevil doesn’t retreat from him. “I don’t like coffee.”

Meanwhile, I’m over here having heart palpitations, so don’t mind me. I cling to the column leading into the kitchen.

“I want you to tell me if it’s true,” Bedevil says. “About what you did to Gabe and his brothers.”

Doc nods once.

“Why?” Bedevil asks. I can’t really tell what she’s thinking, she’s got a stone face on right now. I’ve seen Epione more emotional.

“I wish I had an answer to that other than, ‘It was my job.’”

Bedevil turns to the counter and supports her weight with both hands. She stares at the granite, raps her fingers on them, and grimaces.

“I’m sorry,” Doc says.

“I want to be angry with you.” Bedevil stands up straight. “For staying silent when you knew they were trying to find a way to kill my hero.”

Doc cowers from her, staring at the coffee dripping out of the paper filter full of fresh grounds.

“That’s what you did. You stayed silent.” Bedevil’s hands ball up into fists. “Do you know what I got when he died? One of his capes and a text message from Templar. They brought us in for debriefing but Templar thought the best way to break the news to the rest of the team was to send us a text.” A cupboard opens above her head and a coffee mug descends, landing next to Doc’s carafe. “What did you get?”

“I got to share a studio apartment in Colorado with Gabe.” Doc pours some into the cup. “I’d been gone three days when I found out through social media. You’re sure?” he asks, offering Bedevil the mug.

Bedevil shakes her head.

Doc sips the coffee.

“I can’t coexist with you,” Bedevil says. “I’m sorry. Even more, because you did save Gabe, and you really deserve credit for that.”

“Kid,” Doc says. “I can’t coexist with me, either. The bottle was easier.”

Bedevil recoils from him, from the words that I know strike too close to home. “Y-you…”

“Did you tell her, Gabe?” Doc asks.

“No.” I can’t look at either of them so I settle for inspecting the kitchen’s tiling.

“I’ll let you do that, then,” Doc says, heading out for the door. “I’m gonna take a walk.”

“Aren’t you sick?” I ask.

“Getting better,” Doc says. “Need some fresh air, anyway. It’s a lovely day.” With that, Doc walks out the door, sipping his coffee.

Bedevil buries her head into her arms. “Tell me.”

I walk over to her and sit on the counter next to her. “When you almost died, you almost choked on your own vomit. He took some injuries to your lungs that might’ve killed you.”

Bedevil groans. “He saved me.”

“Yeah,” I say. “He didn’t want me to tell you, so I didn’t.”

“Why?” Bedevil’s voice gets shrill, and she stands up to glare at me. “You can’t hide that kinda shit from me.”

“It wasn’t my place to say anything if he didn’t want me to.”

We stare at each other for a tense second, and then Bedevil backs down, with her hand to her head. “Is that true, about Colorado?”

I nod. “I don’t remember much of that time.”

Pawpaw whines and presses his nose into Bedevil’s hand. She kneels down and smiles at him. “I’m glad you’re okay, old man.”

We share a couple of bowls of cereal in the dining room and take bets on when Saw Off will wake up, and a few moments into that, Remise comes down the stairs, dressed in her sparring outfit. Maisa and Epione are wearing athletic outfits, like they’ll be sparring, too, and Drone stumbles behind this entourage in her pajamas.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We’re gonna go get a few bouts in.” Remise grins. “They’re both pretty similar skill levels, so I’m gonna thrash ‘em for a while. Morning, Bedevs.”

Bedevil glowers at Remise from her cereal bowl. “It’s catching on.”

Epione smiles at us. “I’m glad you’re on the other side of it, Bedevil.”

“Thank you for helping me,” Bedevil says.

“We should have a cake later!” Epione says. “I’ll bake one!”

I glance over at Bedevil’s face and am worried for a brief second that her heart has been stolen away.

I smile, and say, “Mr. Gold called, by the way. He’s going to reach out soon about a plan to save Flash. We’ve got three days.”

Remise grins an evil grin at her two trainees. “You heard him. Three days to get you two ready for a mission.”

“Why don’t we follow?” I ask Bedevil.

Bedevil, only halfway through her bowl of cereal, nods. She trudges after me, carrying the bowl, spoon in mouth.

I bring my bowl to the sink and wash it out, and glance down the counter to the trash, where I see my jar of jelly beans.

Empty.

“W-where are the jelly beans?” I ask, as my world shatters around me. When I look back for Bedevil’s answer, she’s giving me the cold shoulder. “Bedevs, where are they?”

“I ate them, yesterday,” Bedevil says around the spoon. “They were there, on the counter, and I was hungry.”

“You ate them.”

Bedevil shows me a mock frown. In a deep, sarcastic voice, she says, “I’m sorry.”

“I thought the girlfriend eating your food thing was a myth,” I say, picking up the jelly bean jar that is as empty as my dreams.

“It is not,” Bedevil says. “Especially with me.”

“You!” I chase her out of the kitchen. Bedevil cackles as she flies to the porch.

Bedevil smacks right into Remise at the door. Epione, Maisa, and Drone all worm their way back into the living room, and Remise shuts the door behind her. “I heard heartbeats, in the woods. Dozens of them. We’re surrounded, Gabe.”

“Saw Off,” Drone hisses. “Get up!”

There’s no time to panic, no time to freak out. I drop into combat mode immediately. Advantages: We have a host of powerful people, we’re inside the house, and we’re very mobile even in rough terrain. Disadvantages: We’ve no idea what’s coming.

Wait, Doc is out there.

“Get down.” I warp over to the door with a quick exchange of gravitational energy to speed and glance out the window. The others follow my instructions, crouching behind the sofas. Bedevil slings right behind me.

As I make it to the door, a man screams out from the garden: “Hey! I found this old man wandering in the woods!”

“Gabe!” Doc shouts. “Don’t-”

The man cuts Doc off. “If you want him alive, I suggest you come to talk and surrender peaceably.”

I recognize that voice from Megajoule’s last video, from the video where he tried to tell me about the Fear. Nero.

I shift over to the living room and look out the window. Nero stands in the garden, one foot up on the bench like he’s a fucking pirate and his hand around the back of Doc’s neck. He grins as I try to get a peek in without tipping him off. “I see you there, Gabe!”

He’s in his mid-thirties, his black hair is slicked back, and he grins wide like this is the best day of his life. He wears a strange bodysuit with plating underneath the mesh and a thick chest piece. Blood trickles out from the seams of the armor, but Doc’s not armed, and he doesn’t have any visible injuries.

“Are you going to come out?” Nero pats Doc’s shoulder with his free hand.

I don’t know what to do. “L-let him go.”

“What was that?” Nero shouts. “I can’t hear you from behind that window.”

I could hit Nero through the window if I charged up enough energy into a projectile. Bedevil still has her spoon in her hands. That’ll make a suitable bullet. I point at the spoon and Bedevil floats it over to me.

“Well?” Nero asks

I start to suck in energy from the heat of the air and from gravity’s pull. “Promise me he’ll be safe.” I glance up and sneak a look at Doc, trying to tip him off that I’m about to try something.

He’s weeping. He mouths at me: “I love you. Run.”

Doc turns around and grabs Nero’s chest plate, shoving Nero back. Nero screams, and blood spills from the suit. Red fire licks from Nero’s hand as it lights up similar to my skin when I have too much heat.

Nero smashes his fist through Doc’s chest.

Doc’s face twists as if to scream, but he makes no sound. Instead, he grabs Nero’s face. The wound in his chest starts to close, but Nero opens another, and another, glowing brighter and brighter as Doc transfers the wounds back to him.

Nero’s form bursts with an explosion of fire, washing the garden in light and sound.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

EPISODE FORTY-FOUR

Drone and Maisa watch from the edge of the clearing we’ve made for sparring while Remise and I take stances opposite each other. Our fifth day of sparring, training, and testing our powers, which marks our eighth day overall being at Echo’s property.

Remise steps into a left leading strike aimed for my head. I warp to the side with my power, strafing out of her range of threat, and at the same time, I respond with a low fist to needle her elbow. I’m just a little too slow. Remise dances out of my jab and drives forward, trying to push her elbows into my torso.

I kick back with kinetic energy, warping left and right as she employs her one-two combo of choice. While I warp, I draw in energy from the heat in the air and from the force of gravity pulling me down toward earth.

I can cover more distance in a shorter time than she can, but up close and personal she’s faster than me. She attacks my guard, and I spin with the momentum to land a heel into her jaw, bounce off my back foot, and follow up with a hard kick into her side. Remise tumbles backward from the sudden flurry of kicks.

Oh, my god, I can win this one. Fifty fucking bouts of training and I can finally count one for me!

I warp after her, frantic at the prospect of victory.

Remise snarls, flips up and grapples my waist, and then bends back, tipping me over her.

No! I’m not losing this one! I follow her movement with energy, and push us further, landing on my feet. With a final burst, I stand up straight and hurl her into a nearby tree.

Remise falls to the ground with a dull thud and then doesn’t move.

Shit. I rush to Remise’s side.

Right before I try to see if she’s okay, I hear her cackling.

The next thing I know, I’m seeing stars, I’m on my back, and somebody in the forest is ringing bells.

Remise grins down at me. “I’ll count that one for you.”

“You fucking sucker punched me!” I jump up to my feet and smile. “But good, I really wanted to win that one.”

“I could tell. Gabe 1, Remise a bajillion. Mark it down, Drone!” Remise snaps her fingers at my work wife.

“I’d win more if you’d let me absorb kinetic energy from your attacks,” I say.

“You’re the one who wanted to train to fight without relying on it,” Remise retorts. “Gold contacted you, yet?”

“Nah. He’s probably too busy.” I have to admit, I’m a bit worried we haven’t heard from him all week, but Iso would have been able to warn us if Gold had gotten pinched. “He’ll get in touch when he knows how to get Flashfire.”

Remise turns her head, and says, “Ah. Thought I heard another heartbeat.”

Bedevil floats in from the edge of the clearing. She’s in a yellow, flowery sundress that stops just short of her knees, and flip-flops with cat faces on the thongs. Her eyes are bright and golden, her hair wild and free. She lands gracefully on one foot and immediately steps into a bouncing walk. Her face looks fuller, her skin not as sallow. She’s not nearly back to her former glory, but she made a significant step in the right direction.

I warp over to her. “You look great! How are you feeling?”

Bedevil smiles at me. “A lot better. Maybe a little queasy.”

“Good, I’m glad. Hey, do you want to see something?” I ask.

Bedevil nods.

I step back from her.

I close my eyes, and I try to focus in on all the forces pulling me around. Down, to my right. I tense my core and draw in the energy of falling, feed it back into itself, and lift a few feet into the air.

Bedevil gasps.

I laugh while I play with the energy of Earth’s spin so that I whip around the clearing, taking as much as I dare before the energy starts to overflow. Which it does, very fast. I waver in the air, shoot out all of the energy in a blast of hot air, and fall on my ass.

“You can fly!” Bedevil says. Her tendrils help me to my feet.

“I’d call it falling with style.” I chuckle and wipe my ass of dirt. “And check out what Maisa can do!”

Maisa squeaks when I bring her up, but Remise pushes her forward into the clearing. Maisa sighs, and closes her eyes to steady her breathing. She holds her hand out and shoots blindingly bright flashes of color from her fingers. Bedevil winces and looks away.

I give Maisa a thumbs up, and she smiles politely.

“Soon as she’s all trained we can just forget about Flashfire,” Drone says. “Leave him in the icebox and start a new group in another country.”

I roll my eyes and turn back to Bedevil. “Hey… so… until Gold calls us, we have some downtime. Are you feeling up to that date?”

Bedevil tilts her head and makes a funny face. “I totally am, but aren’t we on lockdown?”

“I got Iso to bring the date to us.” Right as I say that, thunder growls across the sky. Storm clouds slowly advance toward us from the south. Shit, I forgot about the tropical depression. “Well, it’s fucked now.”

Bedevil’s face lights up. “You were going to take me on a picnic!”

I’m a little pissed about the storm but Bedevil’s smile melts that frustration away. It’s so good to see her walking around. “Yeah, I was. I guess it will have to wait.”

“Bull hock it will! We’re not gonna let a storm pooch this,” Bedevil says. She grabs my hand and pulls me into a jog, away from Remise, Drone, and Maisa. Remise grins at me, Drone rolls her eyes, and Maisa waves. She smiles, but it’s still tense.

Bedevil drags me back to the house. “Where’s the stuff?”

“It’s in the kitchen. I’ll grab it. What are you thinking?” I ask.

Bedevil skips away from me. “Meet me at the cabin!”

I retrieve the picnic basket Iso got for me. The basket carries the ingredients for peanut butter sandwiches, chips, a blanket, and a movie case for a Broadway recording of a musical called Les Miserables. Never heard of it. I bring all of this back to the cabin, plus my laptop so we can watch the movie, and start to wonder if I should have dressed up. I’m only in a t-shirt and some sweatpants, and Bedevil looked really pretty in her sundress.

Bedevil opens the cabin door as I approach. She vibrates with excitement, bouncing up and down on bare feet, though she still has the sundress on.

A confused smile worms its way to my face. “I kind of feel like you’ve commandeered my date idea.”

“I’ve only improved upon it.” Bedevil grins. “We’re having an indoor picnic.”

I step into the cabin and close the door behind me. “Okay. Are you sure you’re up for this? A lot’s happened, and you only just-”

“Spread the blanket out, loser,” Bedevil says.

I chuckle. “You’re awful chipper for someone who just had a week of bed rest.”

Bedevil bounces on her knees on the bed. “I haven’t felt this good in a long time. What are we eating?”

“Sandwiches?” I offer, opening the picnic basket.

“Ooo!” Bedevil floats to the bed. “How daring.”

I clear as much space as I can from the middle of the cabin and lay out the blanket. I make her a sandwich and hold it out for her. “My lady.”

Bedevil grins, and the sandwich floats over to her. “Hey, so about all those books on your desk. Do you like philosophy?”

“Yeah.” I smile as I make my own sandwich. “I like to read a lot, actually. It’s… it’s nice to read people’s ideas.”

“What’s your favorite book?” Bedevil asks.

I tap my chin. “That’s hard.”

“You really do like to read.” Bedevil bites into her sandwich. “People that like to read can never pick a favorite book.”

“Do you have a favorite book?” I ask.

“The Giver,” Bedevil says. “You’re really don’t have a favorite?”

I finish making my sandwich. “I really like philosophy. Maybe the Bible.”

“If you tell me the Bible is your favorite book I’m going to kill you,” Bedevil says.

I crack up. Then I remember, we have activities planned. “Ah, right, Iso brought us a movie, if you wanted to watch it. Technically not a movie, it’s a recording of a stage musical called Les Miser-”

“LES MIS?” Bedevil half shrieks. She practically pounces into the basket. “OH MY GOD, WE’RE GONNA WATCH LES MIS.”

“Big fan?”

“I was Cosette in my high school production!” Bedevil beams at me, holding the movie case up and pointing at a young woman in a blue dress singing with a handsome dude. “Just, shut up, and get on the bed. Settle in, because this is a long one.”

I crawl up to the bed, mumbling, “You’re aware of the words coming out of your mouth, right?”

We watch the musical together on my laptop, and as soon as the music starts she ugly sobs and doesn’t stop sobbing until the very end.

At the very end, Bedevil sings along with a line of music that I burn into my memory because I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle of Ruby Dawson:

And remember the truth that once was spoken. To love another person is to see the face of God.

After, we talk for hours. With each passing minute, it’s like someone takes a dropper and drips a little joy into my heart, and before long, my heart is full. I can’t recall the last time it ever felt more than half empty.

 

Another rumble of thunder peels my attention from her. Rain pours down on the garden outside. “Ah, the storm.”

“It’s been raining for a while, Gabe.” Bedevil smiles, and plays with her hair. “Losing track of time, huh?”

My cheeks flush. I cough, and say, “So, Basics?”

Bedevil chuckles. “Basics was wild. It’s where I first…” She shakes her head suddenly. “You don’t want to hear about that.”

I can feel my heartbeat in my fucking ears. “You mean sex.”

Bedevil tries to retract her head into her torso. “Yep. Yep. Yep.”

“Well…” My face feels like it’s gonna melt off. “You know.”

“It wasn’t anything special. Just so you know.” Bedevil tries to meet my gaze, and fails. Her attention falls on rain pattering against the window. “When did you first… you know?”

Oh, no. This is going to be a very awkward conversation. I stammer instead of replying.

Bedevil looks back at me, confused.

I manage to find my voice, and tell her the truth, “It was with you.”

Bedevil gasps, and her eyes widen. “I took your virginity?”

“Yeah.” Fuck, I’m screwing this up. We were having a really good time. “But, it’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t,” Bedevil says. “I ruined your first time.”

“No, I was stupid.”

Bedevil shakes her head. “Gabe, this… this doesn’t have to happen, okay? You don’t have to suffer through-”

“No!” My voice rises. “I don’t… I don’t want to lose you.”

Bedevil stares at me, her mouth agape. She swallows, and says, “Lose me?”

All I can see is her cold, unbreathing, lips blue. “You almost died.”

Bedevil recoils from me with a gasp. She holds a hand to her chest. She shivers like she’s cold, but I’ve been heating the room up so I know that can’t be the case.

I groan and rub my neck. “The night in the Second Ward, you had a seizure. Then you almost died. And I’m hurting you just by existing because I look like him. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to be another broken ring.”

Bedevil crawls toward me. “Can I?” she asks, holding her hand out.

I nod.

Bedevil rubs my cheek with her thumb. “That’s exactly how you end up with a broken ring. You don’t have to struggle for this. If you look at it that way, you’ll turn our relationship into a battlefield. And trust me, I know a lot about that.”

“Is that what this is?” I ask.

“If you want it to be,” Bedevil says. “We can take it day by day.”

I lightly trace her arm, afraid that my touch might break her. “I don’t know how to be in a relationship.”

“The rules are simple.” Bedevil stands up and goes to the door. She opens it. “I’ll teach you.”

The rain drenches the garden, and thunder grumbles every few seconds. I join her at the threshold, and we watch the downpour together for a moment. “I wonder how long it will last.”

“I don’t know,” Bedevil says. “I’m on birth control, by the way. Just so you…” she trails off.

We lock eyes.

The rain smells fresh and clean, and the downpour drowns the sound of my heartbeat with a relaxing wall of noise. The only light is the small lamp on her nightstand, outlining her in a golden halo.

She glances down at her sundress, and it shifts a little to expose her shoulder. The laces on the back untie themselves.

Bedevil looks back up at me. “Your move.”

A current arcs between our skin as I brush my fingers along her collar, jump-starting my heart. I tug her sundress down. The yellow dress slips right off her, revealing blue, lacey panties, and nothing else. Her body is small, almost frail, but she is warm and soft under my hands.

She traces a finger along my neck. “Rule one: appreciate the nice panties.”

“Appreciated.”

Her hands explore my arms and slowly lift up my shirt. “You’re so muscly.”

I chuckle. “You’re… really soft.”

That elicits a bashful smile, which becomes a taunting smirk. “Still your move.”

I strip out of my clothes, stumbling over my pants as I try to get out of them as fast as possible. Bedevil giggles, but that laughter becomes a tiny squeal when I stand up straight in front of her.

“You know, most heroes have abs sewn into their costume or something.” Bedevil traces my stomach with the tips of her fingers. “Gotta say the real deal is hella nice.”

Her skin is covered in goosebumps, and the air does feel a little chilly to me since we let a cold breeze in. She felt so cold while she was detoxing, she needs heat. My heat. I want to give my heat to her. I shift my body temperature around so it radiates from my skin.

Bedevil gasps. “That’s… that’s really nice.” She presses against me. “You’re like a human electric blanket.”

The pressure of her against my body turns me on. Bedevil lifts her head and grins slyly at me as she feels how hard I am.

Bedevil wraps her arms around me and holds me close for a few heartbeats. She whispers, “This is a really nice way to celebrate sobriety.”

She isn’t perfect. Hell, she just barely got sober. But Doc’s right. She can make me happy. I want her.

I kiss her and gently prod her toward the bed. Bedevil lies on her back, opens her legs, and reaches out for me to join her. I take her hand and press my hips against hers, just shy of sliding into her. “I don’t know what you really like.”

“We can figure it out,” Bedevil says. She grabs me and guides me to her entrance. “I don’t know what all you like, either.”

Her eyes widen as I thrust into her. I let myself feel how warm she is. She wraps her legs around me, pulling me in more.

“I like that,” I say.

Bedevil wraps her legs around me tighter. “Will you play with my nipples? I love that.”

I follow her guidance with my mouth and fingers, and Bedevil gasps.

We fuck the covers beneath us into a tangle. Bedevil suddenly tenses up, starts shaking, and her head rolls back. I worry for a fraction of a second that she’s had another seizure, but then she moans, “Cumming,” and moves again.

Bedevil gasps and stares at me with wide eyes, whispering my name over and over. She’s warm, sweating from the sex, and breathing in heavy gasps. Heat flows from her, a vibrant energy I could draw from if I wanted. She grabs my neck and looks at me with those hazel golden eyes, and I know she sees me. I finish with her legs wrapped around me, her arms pulling me into her embrace.

I never lost touch with my body, I never felt like I’m a ghost floating away. If anything, I feel the opposite, I feel more in tune with every inch of my skin. That same thrill of me that followed the fight with Sledge, that I’ve so rarely felt in my life.

We fall asleep kissing, snuggled together, our legs entangled. I drift off barely able to breathe over her wild, gold hair. I’ve never slept in the same bed as anyone, and it’s a little uncomfortable, crowded, and I love every second of it.

I wake up to a heavy thunderclap. Bedevil is out cold, it doesn’t disturb her at all. The clock says 3:09 AM. The storm still rages outside, so much that I’m worried the cabin might start taking on water.

“Gabe.”

I snap up.

Megajoule stands at the end of the bed, and he doesn’t look happy.

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