I started playing #guitar in college. Some of my friends back home played, so I thought I'd learn. It's been years since I kept up with it. With no job and an empty house, I had time. Plus, I could crank up my amp. Ava would have hated it. All the more reason to do it.
Strumming a few chords or playing a riff through a loud amp usually makes me feel better. It's more of a distraction this time. My amp is a little old. Even a #ragpicker might pass on it. "If you're not going to play it, sell it," Ava nagged. Life always got in the way.
Or I got in the way. Not even ten years ago I kept getting sick all the time. Painful stomach cramps would radiate weakness throughout my body. I learned how to wash it away like healing #rainwater. That's when I really started to figure out who I was and what I could do.
I made myself better mentally and physically. That built my confidence and helped me see the light. I #quit being a prisoner in my own room, hung out with friends, and checked out every cool bar and restaurant I could. My lack of drinking is what made Ava talk with me.
I was sitting at the bar barely sipping on a terrible drink my friends thought I'd like when up she walked. Five feet tall, green eyes, dark reddish hair, she had a smile that felt so warm. "Not getting #baked with your friends and not drinking? Okay. What's your story?"
I smiled and said, "I like the atmosphere and being around people, but I've never liked these enhancements. What's yours?"

"You're a living example of #bathos."

"I'm David.

"Ava." She shook my hand. "My friends dared me to talk to you."

That gave me a brilliant idea.
"You wouldn't want to disappoint them," I said.

"I'm not a big risk taker. You can ask me out to dinner. We'll have all that #argle-bargle talk later," she said while giving me a strangely intense look. "Kiss me."

I didn't have time to think before she pulled me to her.
#vss365 #horses
The kiss was deliberately slow and sensual. She pulled back and smiled. I was in shock, but quickly managed to compose myself.

"That was nice. Are your friends impressed, Ava?"

She kept smiling.

"Let's get dinner. Or are you going to gallop away like a #horse?"
"I did this for me not them."

"You take a lot of risks for someone who said she doesn't."

"It's going to be hard to take me to dinner with your #shoelaces untied, David."

I glanced down and saw they weren't.

"Stop doubting. It doesn't matter why. Where are we going?"
Who walks up to a stranger, kisses them, and has me ask her to dinner? Or did she ask me? She certainly grabbed my attention. It was a good move. I faded away the #chimeras of my mind so I could go with the flow instead of my usual modus operandi. Would sushi impress her?
We had a fantastic meal at Ishi. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. On date #nine, she told me her friends meant for her to talk with the guy next to me. I was "cuter." Even though she was stone sober, she still has no idea why she kissed me. Lucky me.
Things didn't stay ordinary. She asked me to #open up about my work. I didn't sugar coat much.

"I work for a government contracted agency that deals with powered people and events related to them. I'm not just an employee; I'm also a client."

"So, is that your hair?"
"Yes. My #mother had the same color," I answered.

She asked every question about my powers in her own special ribbing way.

"Did your parents have powers? Which one do you take after more? Can you fly? Cuz what good is it if you can't? Oh does it make you better in bed?"
I smiled and answered each one as she rubbed my shoulders with a #petrissage massage.

"No. Maybe my dad. Not yet. And thanks for the compliment, I think."

I told her how I could alter my body and mind. I could be blonde, make my skin hard as metal, or lessen my stress.
Ava moved to look in my eyes. "Show me."

My eyes shifted from blue to emerald green and my hair brightened from dark brown to dandelion blonde.

"Holy shit! You're serious! Do something else!"

"I need a snack first." My powers were a #quisling always stealing my energy.
Ava twisted her lips. "What? Why?"

"When I do...this, I need more fuel."

A look of realization hit her with bright eyed joy. "That's why you have an entire #village's grocery store in your pantry. What if you don't eat enough?"

"I spent a lot of my youth in bathrooms."
Her face was ready to explode from stifling her laughter.

"Not that," I clarified. "I was sick."

"Oh sure. Sure. Yeah."

"You are so bad!"

She touched my hand. "No. Go on. Where did your powers come from? Is it like an #orenda?"

"It just started when I was a teen."
"Ooo tell me about your first time," she said flirtatiously.

I rolled my eyes. "It was in middle school. A bully held me against the lockers. I felt strength #transfer to my arms. My push knocked the wind out of him. I ran off, felt weak, and got the worst stomach ache."
As I grabbed an apple, Ava's tone was empathetic. "Aw, I didn't know you were bullied."

"Dont worry. I worked through that. No one bothered me after that," I said after taking a bite. "You want a snack?"

"Later. How did you go from weak and full of #ennui to superhero?"
I looked at her over the apple. "I am not a superhero."

"Didn't they #approach you because of your powers?" she asked.

"And my education."

"Don't you use your abilities to help people at your job?"

"Sometimes," I hesitated, "but it doesn't always work like that."
Ava's brow crinkled with concern. "David, please tell me you're not beating people up or burning down #churches at work."

"No, I'm not setting any fires," I said while smiling. "But if someone is dangerous, then yeah. I might have to you know."

"Kill them?"

"What? No!"
She had a dead serious look and pointed her finger at me. Did she think I was a black ops enforcer? Her lips did a dance from a frown to a smile.

"Got you!"

"Oh come on!"

"You're full of #ubuntu. You'd never do that!"

"No?" I said playfully as I started tickling her.
We shared ourselves, she made her silly banter, and we made out. When it came to passion, we were not #skint. It stayed interesting and hot. We were happy and confident about the future. It didn't stay that way. Like a failed guitar chord change, we had harmony issues.
End of chapter one.
Start of chapter 2.
I didn't have to feel sad unless I chose to be. Negative emotions could be turned off temporarily. I could also quicken the grieving process. Imagine thoughts speeding through your brain and being processed as quick as a #bee swarm. While handy, it created complications.
Friends thought I was in denial. I had blasted through all grief stages like a #silver bullet. Aspects and ramifications were pondered until acceptance was reached.

Constant high-speed thought meant continual snacking and answering awkward questions about my health.
I wanted to get over Ava leaving me, but I wanted to make sure I processed it slowly. One day per each step. That would make for a very #queer week. It's why I mostly stayed at home and kept to myself during my emotional healing.

On day four, someone rang my doorbell.
I looked at the mess of empty food containers. Ava would think I've turned into a slob.

I opened the door and saw my former boss. Any hope that was on my face drifted away.

"David! I thought I'd take a #detour. How ya holding up? I heard about Ava." He peeked inside.
My face laden with days old scruff, I stared at him contemplating slamming the door in his face. He wasn't alone. A six foot tall muscular man stood near his car.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"Cal's gonna stay right there. You #know why he's here."

"Why are you, Jack?"
He grinned and looked at me over the top of his #sapphire glasses. His gray blue eyes somehow belied his age.

"You gonna let me in?" Jack said.

"Fine." I gestured for him to enter.

He surveyed the room, pausing at the mess on the sofa.

"Looks like day four, right?"
I shut the door hard. "Yeah."

Jack gestured gently with his hand. "David, just because you can get over Ava and our disagreement quicker doesn't mean you should. There's no mental #dreamcatcher if you miss something."

"I've done this enough. It works."

"Then what?"
"Then I'll be ready for whatever comes next," I answered with a quick grin.

"No matter what #drops in your lap?" Jack asked.

"Excuse me?" He always had a way with words.

"Well, she isn't here. What'd you-"

I furrowed my brow and growled. "I don't need you to test me."
Jack pushed more. "You look like a bum! Scruffy face. Clothes from ten years ago. Wrappers all over the place. No job. No girlfriend. Plucking on your little #mandolin."

"Don't insult my guitar," I said. "Everything else was my choice. Are you done?"

"I had to be sure."
Jack tapped the screen on his phone and held it to his ear.

"You haven't used your powers outside, right?" he asked. I shook my head. "Cal, everything's good. 8765 alpha. No, it'll be a few."

He hung up and grinned. "I got something that'll put some #verve back in ya."
I knew where this was going the moment I had opened the door.

"Wait. Did she tell you to check on me?" I asked.

"I'd bet the #farm you know that answer and why I'm here," Jack said.

"You need me for a case. And you know I don't want to come back. So let's hear it."
When you know how a conversation will go, waiting for others to play their parts feels like trudging through #longuers. If he apologizes, then he's desperate.

"Look, David." Here it comes. "I shouldn't have asked ya to take someone out. I won't again."

Close enough.
"I know you won't. Case?" Curiosity can sometimes #create possibility.

Jack wiped his brow. "Someone's harassing powered kids and posted a video threatening to expose 'em on social media. It's technically not illegal. The high ups don't like bullies."

"Neither do I."
"You're back?" Jack asked.

"I want a raise. A big one. I can remove myself from any case. I'm not crossing any lines." I said knowing I'd get it all before day turned to #gloaming.

"I'm glad ya never did. Whatever ya want, I'll make it happen. But ya need to clean up."
"Why? It's not that ba-. Nevermind," I said.

Jack laughed and handed me a credit card. "You smell like the fishery in the #littoral area. Get some new clothes, a haircut, and a proper meal. See ya Monday."

As he headed for the door, I had to ask, "What's Cal's power?"
In the doorway, Jack turned his head. Looking over the rim of his glasses, he said, "It's a beautiful day." He sniffed. "What is that? #Hydrangea?"

I put my hand in the air in disbelief.

"Monday," he said as he went to his car.

Cal scratched his nose with his wrist.
After they drove off, my nerves stirred. What will people say when I walk into the facility? What if they test me and dislike my answers?

Some #potvalor could give me confidence if I could stand the taste. Instead, a couple avocados as brain food helped me quiet my mind.
After I finished my healing, the company card went to good use. A few pricey outfits, a short haircut, and a straight razor shave had me feeling like a million bucks.

Still, questions about the case hit me like a #buckshot. Who would want to out powered kids? And why?
End of chapter 2.
Start of Chapter 3.
Damage to my body can be fixed. Bullets expelled. Cuts sealed up. Burns #sloughed off as new skin generates. If I didn't turn my pain off, it would be excruciating.

As I entered the giant facility on Monday, I tried to surmise which of my abilities Jack needed the most.
The building had an open floor plan like a giant hangar. Huge bulkheads supported the arched ceiling. The air inside was cool, but had a slightly stale scent to it. Someone's old breakfast perhaps?

A hand touched my shoulder which made every #sinew in my back tighten.
I turned and saw a familiar youthful face. Alice from security grinned and removed her hand.

"Name and ID," she said.

I handed her my license. "David Anders."

"Glad you're not an #illusion. Good to see you."

"You're looking good for 80. You've still got the touch."
"You damn right I got it, baby," Alice said as she curled her lips. "I always look good."

She could control her tissue, and with a touch, other people's. Charlie Horse was her nickname. No one ever got past her.

"Jack and #Aurora ain't gonna make it easy for you, Dave."
"You know he came to my house to get me to come back, right?" I asked.

"Yeah I heard. They're not gonna let you go back in the field right away after you were sitting on your ass soaking in #languor for four months."

"I know. They have to make sure I've still got it."
Charlie Horse put her hand on my back and led me past her work console. She tapped a button on it as my muscles tightened sharply.

"Do you have to do that?"

"Sorry, I do." Her #effervescent tone flattened.

She led me past the analysts' stations and inquisitive eyes.
On the far left wall was a white door with keycard access. Jack stood near it and typed on his phone. Next to him was Aurora. If there was a #panacea for stress and anxiety, one look from her would render it useless. She was stern, always looked annoyed, and disliked me.
As Alice and I approached, Aurora clicked her tongue. Jack quickly pocketed his cell. Alice finally let my back relax.

"The bosses want you here," Aurora said as she pointed at me. "I don't. You are a problem. We're about to make you more #sapid to them. Best of luck."
I was no model employee, but I came a long way in ten years. While I'm #inured to her constant disdain, she typically let Jack handle my supervision. Which transgression was on her mind? Was this punishment?

Aurora grinned coolly, scanned a card, and held open the door.
As Jack and I entered the white hallway beyond the door, Aurora excused Alice.

"I hope I see you later," Alice said as the door shut behind Aurora.

Jack handed an energy bar to me.

"I know it's more like cardboard than #ambrosia, but you're gonna need that," he said.
I ate the bar as we walked down the corridor.

"The bosses want me to give them a show, huh?" I asked.

Aurora scoffed and didn't stop leading us. "Always on a #quest to be impatient. In a manner of speaking, yes, it's a show, but it's more of a friendly competition."
Ava and I had an on-going rivalry, but it was always flirtatious. Aurora was more like a soured instructor who lost her passion and took it out on the students. As I trekked to the #penetralia of the agency, I wondered if she was jealous. As far as I knew, she didn't have powers.
We entered a key carded area. It was an enormous square room with thick, metal support beams from floor to ceiling: four in a perfect square at the center of the room. Another four angled outward next to each. Sat in a green #carrel in the corner perusing a novel was Cal.
"You two haven't officially met," said Jack as Cal approached. "Cal, meet David."

He was six feet tall, African American, probably around 30, and seemed surprisingly relaxed. A #zephyr carried his body wash to my nose.

"Hey, what's up, man?" he said as he shook my hand.
He was muscular and had a strong, firm grip, but nothing to suggest he had enhanced strength. His shower gel was masking a seafood scent. #Benthos On The Shore? Jack used to take me there before I quit. Was Cal my replacement?

"Yeah. Great to meet you, too," I said.
Several employees came into the room and #constellated around the dark gray walls. Apparently, we had an audience.

I moved near Jack and spoke lowly. "What the hell is this?"

Jack shook his head and spoke like a surgeon delivering bad news. "You're sparring with Cal."
As if she had just #ingurgitated the most delectably satisfying morsel, Aurora grinned widely at the shocked look on my face.

"Gentlemen. Three rounds. Powers only. No physical attacks. And David," she turned and looked giddy. "You get one use per round. Cal has two."
I glared at Aurora. Jack couldn't help. She was his superior and managed all things related to powered employees.

"He has one ability. Your body can do nearly anything you can imagine. I'm sure you'll manage," she clarified while toying with her lanyard like a #periapt.
"You can go first if you want. Age before beauty," Cal said.

I tilted my head and gave him a #quizzical look. "No thanks. Pretty sure we're the same age. You want to tell me what your power is?"

He gestured to the square in the middle of the room. "I'll show you."
We stepped to the center of the room. The pylons signified the corners of the ring and LEDs along the floor highlighted each side.

One hundred pairs of eyes were on us, some from an upper level. I was a #submontane mouse surrounded by wolves. The alpha sized up his prey.
Cal sneered. "You ready?"

I had the #velleity to give him a witty comeback. "Yeah" was all I could muster.

After cracking his neck and stretching his arms, he scrunched his nose and grimaced momentarily.


He grinned.

My eyes watered and I coughed violently.
The smell of a bag of onions chopped inches from my nose while in a sulfuric, #tellurian volcanic zone overwhelmed me.

I had to breathe. I forced my lungs to absorb the air around me. Like a balloon deflating, I blew it all out.

The smell was gone. So was my turn. Shit.
Did he create the scents or an illusion of them? I'd have to suffer to know.

Closing his eyes, Cal turned his head to the side, rubbed his forehead, and concentrated.

The malodor of a crime scene hit me. Memories flashed of #rubiginous, partly dried blood and a victim.
As I winced from the specific stench, I examined the onlookers. No one else was reacting.

"You've been in the evidence room," I said. "Looked at my file. Trying to get to me?"

"Your face says it worked," said Cal.

"Next time, how about a #verdant field of flowers?"
"You should have finished him when you had the chance," Cal said attempting to #slather the guilt about that case onto me.

"The round's over. Save the psychological warfare for the next one."

"I didn't hear it end. How was it seeing all that blood? Mmm that poor girl!"
No trace of #viridity was in his words. I could play his game just as well.

I took a long, exaggerated inhale. "That's your power? You make smells?" I said with heavy sarcasm. "What do they call you: The Stink? BO? Grandma's Musk?"

He rubbed his goatee. "Naw. Just Cal."
Jack interjected and did a chopping motion between us, "All right, you two. Round's over."

Aurora raised her hand as if exhibiting an #elegant prize on a game show. "It's no surprise. First round goes to Cal."

Murmurs from the crowd filled the room with white noise.
Listening to her black cellphone and holding a finger up, Aurora announced, "The bosses want more action in the next round. Remember, your alloted power usage can be used anytime."

What painful #escapade through my past did Cal have in store for me? How could I beat him?
The next bout began. Cal wasted no time. I wondered if my words had struck a nerve.

He contorted his face and moved his arms back as if rowing a #scull. Each of his fists were thrust forward and opened towards me. A maelstrom of vomit and diarrhea invaded my nostrils.
I reeled and threw my face into my sleeve to #nix the stench. People on the walls waved their hands and covered their noses. They smelled it, too!

I grabbed the sides of my unzipped hoodie, spun with hyper speed, stopped an inch from Cal, and flapped the fabric at him.
The defouled air rushed into his face as the sound of my movements reverberated like a belt smacking against itself.

Cal jumped back from the #chaos of my motion. His necklace fell out of his shirt. Disgusted, he yelled and held a knuckle to his nose.

"Nice," he nodded.
Jack spoke lowly in Aurora's ear as she shook her head and listened to her phone.

"Neither of you are a perfect #angel, are you? David, this one's yours by an inch." She gestured. "Apparently, air doesn't count as a physical attack. And I expect much more from you, Cal."
I pointed at some friends on the upper level and gave them a thumbs up.

"They think you're a god because of your powers," said Cal with disdain. "Time to send the #demogorgon back where he came from."

"What?" I said with shock. "I'm just a guy. Like you. I'm not a god."
Tied for our final match in the square, Cal said, "You don't initiate. Just react. That's all right. I'll cause the #mischief."

He looked calm and satisfied. He licked his lips. Tropical flowers mixed with citrus swirled in my olfactory. I saw a soft, fair neck. Ava!
Memories dashed.

I swept her hair back to caress her neck. We kissed.

"Isn't this better than the #Patriots game?" she asked.

"I don't watch sports."


She screamed as I playfully pulled her on top of me.

"I have to tell you something."

"God! I'm leaving!"
In a split-second, my mind had run through our relationship. With rageful eyes, I looked at Cal.

"How did-" I started to ask, but realized the answer. "You went with Jack to talk to her."

"Standard procedure," he said. "Man, what kind of #moron loses a girl like that?"
He knew my work and relationship history. He knew exactly how to push my buttons.

"For such a 'normal' guy with your power set," Cal said, pointing out the #oxymoron of my existence, "you just keep screwing up. Losing your girl because you were-"


He didn't.
"You were sucking energy directly out of people's cells like a vampire to feed your own abilities. Until you decided to stop 'cuz it made you feel bad,'" Cal said mockingly.

I was no longer a #skeptic about his skills.

"Even worse," he continued, "you hid it from Ava."
It was true. Shame led to anger as my fist clenched. Violence between employees, especially on the grounds, was strictly prohibited, but I considered being a #heretic.

Cal shook his head. "Must have killed her wondering if you stole any of hers. How could she trust you?"
His words hammered my soul. Didn't I heal? My eyes blinked to shore up the dam. I needed time, a plan, anything to use against him. My #aesthetic was gray and hopeless.

He pointed at himself. "Initiate." Then at me. "React."

A glint of light bounced of his necklace.
I had glanced at Cal when he was in my driveway. Could I analyze my memories? Was something there?

I shut my eyes and placed my fingers on my temple. Like a stampeding #pachyderm, chemicals thundered to my mind. The clear present became the white fuzzy past. I was there.
It was four days ago. I watched like a soul that had #orphaned its body. There was Jack's smile and blue eyes at my door.

"Who's that?" I heard my own voice echo. Wow, I looked like crap.

There was Cal leaning on the car. He looked staticky like a poor analog signal.
My head ached as I concentrated to bring him into focus. He was wearing the same white gold necklace. It had a ring at the end. Was he married?

His face was agitated as he looked over at me. His cellphone was in his hand, screen fully exposed. He wasn't #careful.
The throbbing in my brain pulsed as I made the screen clear. There we go. His text messages with Veronika were clear.

C: Don't be a #xenophobe.
V: Very funny. Is she black or white?
C: What?
V: Is she pretty?
C: It's for work.
V: If you got her scent, don't come home.
C: When a powered employee's relationship ends, we have to check on both people.
V: Uh huh. I'm sure you turned down the #charisma, right? Was she smiling before you left?
C: Why are you acting like this?

This was too rich. Questions remained, but I had threads to pull.
My consciousness pulled away from the screen. Cal shook his head and tapped frustrated thumbs on his phone. A small, black trickle of liquid oozed from under Jack's car.

I felt a push like #ocean waves forcing me to the shore as the past faded. My eyes opened. I smiled.
From across the square, I looked at Cal. There was no ring on his necklace. He raised his arms in disbelief, scoffed, and looked at Aurora. Was he trying to impress her like a #sycophant? It won't help.

"Was that supposed to do something?" Cal asked.

"Who's Veronika?"
Turning his head in disbelief and tightening his brow, Cal said, "How do you know that name? Did Jack #chronicle my relationship history for you?"

Jack grinned and shook his head.

"No, Cal. You texted her from my driveway."

Cal fumbled in his pocket for his smartphone.
He held it up for me to see the lock screen.

"There is no way on God's green earth you've been in my phone," Cal said.

"Right. Still, Veronika seemed really upset at the idea of you sniffing other girls."

It seemed having his dirty laundry aired was #anathema to Cal.
If a #pandemic of silence existed, this room was hardest hit. No one made a peep. Frustration built in Cal.

"Where's your ring?" I asked after I noticed it missing from his necklace. "It was hanging there the other day."

Cal pointed. "That's none of your damn business."
I had to point out the irony. "So you can tell everyone about my faults and how I lied, but if I ask about yours, oh it's private?"

The indignation on his face nearly offended me.

"You're invading my privacy!" Cal said.

"I am #astonished by your lack of insight."
"Me? You chose to quit and acted like you were #ostracized. You caused it all!" he yelled.

"The end of my relationship led to you catching Ava's scent. And that caused your wife's - girlfriend's - jealousy. You're not mad at me. You're mad that she doesn't trust you."
Cal too a breath. "That's why I dumped her."

"I'm confused. Is that why your ring is gone?" I asked.

He looked at Aurora. "You sure about that no physical thing?"

I raised a brow. "You'd lose."

Jack said to her, "Have some #empathy. Stop this before it goes too far."
Aurora grinned at Jack as she listened on her cell. Without looking, she hung up the call and pocketed the phone.

"It's a tie for the round and match. You both found weaknesses in the other. Neither got the upper hand. I hope you two can repair the #schism you created."
Cal looked at me sideways and folded his arms. I did the same to him.

"They're not keen on that idea," Jack said.

Aurora smirked, pointed a finger on each hand at Cal and me, and recited a terrible #poem. "The sky is blue. Blood is red. Cal's new partner? It's David!"
The realization struck. Partners had to experience each other's ability before being allowed in the field. I was upset.

"Are you done with the bullshit, Aurora?" I snapped, making my eyes look reptilian.

"#Dinosaur eyes don't impress me," she said, "but new powers do."
My mind was a #galaxy of confusion spiraling around a singular thought. Did Aurora just compliment me?

"How did you see Cal's phone?" she asked.

"I replayed my memory. I saw the screen."

"And that's new?"


"An analyst needs to document it. Oh and welcome back."
Why would she suddenly act nice? What's her agenda? With a tone that divulged my mistrust, I said, "Thank you? The bosses found me palatable?"

"Like #nectar." Her oddly pleasant tone changed back to dour. "No screw ups. Analyst now. Everyone, back to work! Show's over!"
Old co-workers and unfamiliar onlookers filed out of the room. Jack looked at us with concern.

"Don't care when or how, guys, but ya need to find common ground. She set ya up," he said as he led us back to the long hallway.

I wondered how our animosity would #shrink.
Cal seemed to have training in psychological tactics. It melded perfectly with his ability. He'd make a fantastic partner provided he wasn't a jerk.

I had #exorcised any residual hurt about Ava. Why did her scent affect me so much? Was Jack right? Did I miss something?
End of chapter 3
Start of chapter 4
Having a level of emotional control few had meant I hadn't felt crippling fear since I was young. Creeping anxieties, anger, jealousy, and frustration were all relatively easy to subdue.

My greatest fear, nearly a #phobia, was losing my balance - becoming unrestrained.
It's difficult for me to feel #nostalgic. Sure, I love the music and movies that rocked my child imagination and still give my heart warm embraces. I just don't like to be reminded of my school days when my stomach ached and my body betrayed me. My present is far better.
Back in the open floor plan area near the entrance, sunlight came through the windowed front. Surfaces sparkled with an almost magical #iridescence, spreading golden warmth through the room.

Jack grabbed a fabric bundle off a counter. "David, welcome back to Agency 46."
Jack handed the company jacket, t-shirt, and ID badge to me. The ID used an old picture.

"Thanks," I said as I peered around the room. "It's good to be here."

"Yeah, welcome back #hero," Cal said sarcastically.

Jack put his hands up gently, "Just...give it a month."
Cal shook his head and frowned. "I don't know, Jack."

"Look, I get it. I do," said Jack. "A lot of us got that tough guy facade. It's really #paper. Sometimes, something punches a hole through it. He broke through yours, and ya broke through his. You're both the same.
"He's not perfect. Neither am I. Neither are you. I know ya trust me. Ya don't have to have some type of #agapε for him, but give him a chance. He's a good guy."

Jack smiled with his bright blues.

Cal gave in with a sigh. "All right. One month. We're gonna talk, David."
I nodded. "We will."

As we walked closer to Alice at the front kiosk, Cal's bodywash became slightly less subtle. Jack shook his head.

I sniffed and asked, "What are you doing?"

He tapped his nose. "If you want to be remembered, leave a #momemto. Smell is memory."
Jack let Cal walk ahead. He leaned over to me. "Let him have his fun."

Alice lit up as Cal approached her.

"He likes her?" I asked.

"Looks like."

"Does he know?"

"Doubt it."

"Hasn't he seen her file and done the #math?" I questioned.

"Maybe he likes older women."
Jack and I had a good laugh.

Alice, practically glowing, had her hand on Cal's arm and was sharing a smile with him. Her intercom beeped. She excused herself, hit a #number on her console, and looked to the glass double doors at the entrance.

"Not you again," she said.
A man at the doors flailed his arms wildly at us.

"You know him?" I asked Alice.

"This is the fifth time he's shown up here. You're gonna love this, Jack," she said as she hit a button. "Can I help you?"

"It's #calculus. Change. I can talk to animals!" yelled the man.
With an opened mouth, Jack adjusted his glasses. "You're a team, guys. Give me ideas."

I rubbed my temple bewildered by the yahoo. "How did he know to come here?"

Cal said, "Tell him to show us his power."

On the com, the man said, "Operation #epsilon, you lab rats."
Alice muted the mic. "He heard you. I have a #theorem: he's off his rocker!"

"He might have abilities," said a concerned Jack.

"He just mentioned an Allied Forces program," she said.

"He looks a bit young for World War II," I said.

She side smiled. "Hun, we all are."
Cal's eyes shifted from Alice to the man outside whose fashion choice of ripped khakis, t-shirt, and trench coat didn't help his cause. Neither did his wild eyes and lack of #logic.

"Good thinking, you two," said Jack, "but he needs help we can't offer. Alice, call 'em."
Jack only removed people from the site #iff a person was fired, trespassing, or a nuisance.

Seconds after Alice made the call, a team in black SWAT gear, a doctor, and a large man in a suit surrounded the interloper.

"Peter! Help!" he yelled as he was placed in a van.
As we walked away from the entrance, I thought about the #topology of Agency 46. Only people who had a history of demonstrating responsible use of abilities including those who work with them were hired. Jack had no powers, but he knew specials better than almost anyone.
A man incapable of rational thought can't be tested even if he might communicate with animals.

After Cal promised to stop by later and turned around, Alice grabbed my arm.

"So glad you're back, Dave. Let Cal find out on his own, okay? Remember what I did to #Lunar?"
In the 90s, Lunar was an agent. He made darkness overtake light. His power grew #manifold along with his self-importance. He lashed out when he was fired, causing temporary blindness to everyone in the room. Charlie smacked his head once. He nearly bit off his own tongue.
"Ouch, Charlie." I looked from her hand still on my arm to her brown eyes. "C'mon, I wouldn't do that to you."

Her lips moved sideways and formed a suspicious #torus. "You better not."

"I'm not going to steal him from you."

She laughed. "Ha! All right. I trust you."
I caught up with Jack who was telling Cal how he had never been Upstairs. The Agency classified people into a specific #genus. Jack and most analysts were the Foundation. Cal and I were First Floor. Upstairs were the heavy hitters - people that could knock over a redwood.
While I've never knowingly worked with anyone from up there, I have faced some with superior power sets. Once or twice, I saw someone exit a secure stairwell, which was at a #vector away from everyone, and head for Aurora's office. Whatever Upstairs did was top secret.
Four rows of ten computer desks near the front left of the hangar marked the Analysts Stations. Each had expertise in at least one #field such as forensics, psychology, or ability tracking.

Jack walked to the middle of the pairs of aisles. "New power here. Who wants it?"
I admired the analysts. Managing research, documentation, and live support for agents like me had to be extremely #complex.

A few heads popped up, and then returned to their monitors. One guy with dirty blonde hair and hazel green eyes waved.

"I'll do it. Come on over."
Holding the welcome back package under my arm, the three of us stood near the volunteer's messy desk. As a form of #protection, each station was bio-coded for one operator.

"David Anders," he said with his eyes locked on mine. "Do you remember me from high school?"
He knew me? I had nothing. #Zero. I couldn't place him. Reminiscing about my school days wasn't something I enjoyed. I wondered what he remembered. Other than connecting on social media, I didn't keep any friends from back then.

I winced. "I'm really sorry. I - I don't."
The poor guy looked disappointed as he nodded and sucked in his bottom lip. I felt bad. Everyone wanted to be remembered. Who was he? He seemed too small to be #one of the old bullies. Judging from the collectibles adorning his desk, he liked comic books and video games.
Since I was slight and had what doctors incorrectly diagnosed as a nervous stomach, I was not athletic at all in school. I bet he and I hung around the same #group.

"Well, that's refreshing," he said pleasantly.

Highly confused, I asked, "What? How is that refreshing?"
"Most people would say I looked familiar to them even if I didn't," he said, "but you told the truth. I respect that."

My brow scrunched. "Who are you?"

"Two people from the same class having this #morphism has to be rare." He put his hand on his chest. "Ethen Simon."
"Ha!" The familiarity of his name and face hit simultaneously. "When did you start here?"

He shook my hand. "Three months ago. Look at us now with our #contravariant powers."

His neighbor, a girl with glasses and a punky bob hairdo, glanced over and rolled her eyes.
In school, Ethen was the guy who said "#commute to school" instead of "took the bus." When you're young, being dorky and socially awkward is accepted. Not everyone has exuberant confidence. Post college, having an annoying quirk wouldn't get a free pass. Eyeroll indeed.
"This job is very you, Mr. Vocabulary." I smiled.

Ethen chortled once. He wore a polo shirt with the company logo - 46 in front of a long #triangle with a point at the top.

"You have a power now?" I asked.

"Ethen here's a lie detector," said Jack. "Damn good one, too."
"I'm your #vanguard of truth," he said excitedly.

I nodded, frowned, and raised my brow. His personality hadn't changed at all.

Cal held the back of Ethen's chair, leaned in, and spoke quietly. "Look man, we get it. It's exciting. But you need to calm that down."
Putting his hands up, Ethen said, "All right. I'll be serious. What's the new power?"

He opened the ability tracker on his computer. Everything one of us could do was quantized, documented, and tracked. I was an #integer instead of a person.

"I memory dived," I stated.
Ethen ran down the standard list of questions. "Are you positive it's new? How did you do it? Could you do it again?" There was a new one I hadn't previously heard: "what do you think triggered it?"

I wasn't sure. Desperation? The #quantity and vividness of Cal's scents?
Ethen was dissatisfied with my indecision. He pointed a finger. "No, I think you know. Don't lie to yourself, David. I can tell."

I've often pondered the #existential meaning of having special abilities. If only the universe was more picky about to whom it granted them.
"I didn't want to lose. I had to prove myself," I admitted.

Ethen nodded and typed. "There it is. Hopelessness was your motivator. #Transitive questions always help."

"Here's one for you," I said. "Why the new question?"

"I suggested it to Aurora. We're testing it."
"Great," I said joylessly.

"You don't like her much?" Ethen's eyes looked hungry to taste the lie my mind was preparing.

Quickly, I #permuted my response. "We have a strong mutual dislike. You saw the match, right? She did that."

He nodded. "Okay. Cal, any new powers?"
Cal looked at Ethen and paused a moment. He shook his head. "Just the usual #set."

"Are you sure?"

Jack, who had been working on his phone, shifted his eyes from Cal to Ethen.

"Yeah. Why?" Cal was annoyed.

Ethen did a similar pause and grinned. "Just being thorough."
As Cal gave me a "what's with this guy" look, Jack cleared his throat.

"Now that the #metrics are covered, gather 'round, boys," he said in a gruff tone. "Ethen, pull up the file."

Social media screen grabs and a video appeared on the monitor.

"Play it," Jack directed.
A middle-aged man with glasses adjusted the camera and composed himself.

"When it was revealed that some people had superpowers, I thought that was #magnificent. I was twelve and super heroes were real! Then I grew up. They're like Santa or the Easter Bunny. Fiction.
"I'm sure some specials are fairly normal, good people. You have enough #negative experiences with ones who use their abilities for selfish reasons and you start seeing the world differently. Just last week, I saw a young girl absorb clothes into her body to steal them.
"Who could I tell? I couldn't prove it. I bet she waited until she got home and-" He gestured exaggeratedly as if expelling things from his chest.

"There's no #finity to them. Some do extraordinary things. Some do terrible things. Others have a simple, harmless skill.
"There's a growing pattern - a #fractal in our society - of cruelty," he said as he stretched out his arms. "People are abusing us 'normals' because they can do things we can't. No matter your age, you should know better. Perhaps your parents didn't instill proper morals.
"Or perhaps you forgot the most basic form of kindness. But don't worry. Like old tools rediscovered in an #archaeological dig, I know how I can help you find yours."

Cal and I shared a glance. We dreaded whatever would come next.

"I'm not a parent, but I am a guardian.
"My niece is a good kid. Her parents made her that way, and she will not be soured by you. Some of her classmates don't like who and what she is. I've seen the texts, PMs, the #multifarious posts, and the videos. All of that, it's done. Why? Because I know who you are."
"It's not just your names. Every time you click, that was put online. I know which of you have powers and what they are. I've made a list. The next time one of you #obstreperous delinquents has a problem with my niece or family, your life will get a lot more complicated.
"I'll release the list. What good are your protections if it does nothing for the children and people you hurt? I don't care if it's illegal. My knowledge of that isn't #nudiustertian. It's not breaking any laws until I do it. Behave and I'll behave. Have a great day."
Cal, Ethen, and I looked at Jack as the video ended.

He composed himself and said, "This is your case. I had ethen #explore his background. Go."

"R-right!" Ethen stammered and broke down his profile.

Scott Iverson: male, 51, single, divorced, no kids, and one dog.
Without hesitation, Cal asked, "What kind of dog?"

Ethen smiled. "Please. A black lab. I had this guy down pat right after Friday's #jentacular meeting."

"I bet you did," I said while speed reading everything on the screen. "Who's financial middle management's niece?"
Ethen loaded her picture. "Lila Myers. 17. Junior. Solid student. #Ulotrichous hair. Power status unknown."

Cal waved his hand. "Wait. He has a problem with powered people, but she could be one?"

Jack tapped his temple.

"You want us to talk to both of them," I said.
"Yes," said Jack as his blues shot to the ceiling, "I'm not the only one. Iverson thinks he's outmaneuvered us with a loophole. Don't have #kakorrhaphiophobia. You'll trip him up."

Ethen's eyes widened.

"I'm all right. How 'bout you?" Cal asked me. "Any good with kids?"
"Uh, I have a little experience with them," I admitted.

"My nieces and nephews would eat you alive," said Cal. "Teenage attitudes are #erinaceous. You better not let their quills stab you too hard."

Did he forget what it was like to be young, angsty, and have powers?
"I'll find a way to relate to her," I said.

Jack, who had stayed mostly #pauciloquent added, "Walk a fine line with Lila. If she has abilities, she'll have to choose to tell ya."

Super kids' powers weren't legally allowed to be revealed until their eighteenth birthday.
Like waking arms during #pandiculation, laws stretched to protect both normals and later people like me. The young and vulnerable could keep their secret. Anyone who revealed it faced stiff penalties.

"I can handle it." I told Jack.

"You all will," he said.

All? Oh no.
The epiphany came to Cal.

"Ethen'll be in your ears during this case," said Jack.

Cal's annoyance faded slightly. "You'll tell us who's lying."

"That and a myriad more. Don't get #wabbit," said Ethen. "People lie all the time."

"What happens if you do?" I inquired.
Ethen's brow raised. "Excellent question! Nothing. When others lie, I feel a black veil being laid over my mind. It works better in person, but a live feed works well."

"Did you have that in school?" I asked.

"Somewhat. The other kids #celebrated by pummeling me."
"We both had it bad back then."

Ethen shook his head. "At least you could defend yourself. Calling someone a liar didn't help me. Those jerks had the equivalent of #alexithymia when it came to my suffering. They had such dead, emotionless eyes as they sucker punched me."
Was he still upset about being bullied fifteen years later? I didn't like it either, but I grew past it naturally. I didn't know what to say. Luckily, Jack did.

"Ya can't let your mind go #widdershins to dwell in the past," he said. "You both have great jobs with perks."
A contemplative look was on Ethen's face. He perked up. "You're right. All this flashy tech, classified information, PTO, and insurance truly made all of that worth it."

Jack's pleasant expression morphed. He looked ready to #defenestrate Ethen. Cal sighed and grunted.
Jack didn't break eye contact. "Better watch that tone. Plenty of other people want to sit in that seat."

Ethen's mouth started to open, but Jack cut him off.

"You've said enough. Time to listen."

Cal and I were #grokes enjoying the sweet tidbits Jack served to Ethen.
"Because it's a recording, Mr. Simon can't be entirely sure Iverson's telling the truth about having the list," Jack said. "I need ya to find out. Mr. Zayne, use that #macrosmatic power to get him off balance. Anders, find out what besides Lila motivates him and use it.
"He'll talk or she'll talk. If he has a list, he better not have shared it and better hope no #biblioclept stole it. We don't need it out there. Securing it is your top priority. Gear up and head out."

Cal folded his arms and huffed. Jack raised a brow and nodded at me.
Ethen waved and spun his chair around to his station.

Cal and I headed toward the Armory on the other end of the hangar. #Chiliads of weapons, tech, and anything an agent would ever want was inside. Yet, of the myriad of items, all I needed was a laptop and an earpiece.
Picking up a handgun off a rack, Cal examined it and looked at me.

"You need one of these?" he asked.

"I never touch them. Why?"

He looked down the weapon's sights.

"Do I?" he asked.

Surprised, I didn't answer.

"For #basic protection. Never know who to trust."
"That's true," I said. "How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't," Cal said brusquely while putting back the gun. He sniffed, grabbed a tissue from a nearby dispenser, and wiped a small #meldrop off of his nose.

"We either work it out right now or in the car. Choose."
Cal put an earpiece in his left ear and glared through his lowered brow.

"Naw. I'm not here to placate you," he said. "You don't get to #absquatulate with all the pain you've caused."

"If you're going to act like that, I'll have to put the child locks on in the car."
Appearing nonplussed, Cal said, "Your buddy and you are as funny as the #colporteurs knocking on my door Sunday morning."

I failed to hide the slight joy I had from my quip. "No, I was witty," I replied. "Do you think my powers caused a decade to pass since I saw Ethen?"
"Maybe not." The wrinkles in Cal's perturbed brow formed #anfractuous paths across his forehead. "Are we sure being annoying isn't his real superpower?"

I snickered once through my nose. "Look at us talking."

Cal grabbed a laptop and case. "Save it for the car. Ready?"
Taking note that he chose the same equipment I did, I asked, "No weapons or armor?"

"If I have to kick some ass, I kick it," Cal said, "or they get it like you did." He pointed at his nose.

"You're confident. So why can't you handle our chat? Do you have #deipnophobia?"
"No," he replied. "It's a #barmecide offer. You want to work it out as if it'll all be water under the bridge just like that." He snapped. "That helps you, but I can't rush through healing."

He had a point. "I don't have to do it that way."

"Good. Don't. Can we go now?"
I hadn't meant to be #finifugal and delay departing on our first case. Still, I couldn't sit in a car for hours next to someone with a grudge against me. I had to see if I could cause even a tiny crack in Cal's walled off facade. He's cautious, but isn't made of stone.
In the parking lot, I momentarily wondered if Cal was an #agelast. After placing the bundle from Jack and the laptop in my car, he was smiling at me.

"Is that your car?" he asked and laughed once.

"Yeah. Let's go"

He laughed again. "We're not taking the family sedan."
My lips moved to the side as I looked over my car. It was reliable, could seat five, had great gas mileage, and - okay, it was a family sedan. I was planning for the future! Screwing things up with Ava rendered that #null and void.

"What do you drive?" I asked Cal.
He tried not to smirk as he pointed. "The green one."

Acoss the ailse was a Dodge Challenger Hellcat with dual carbon stripes and a black leather interior. It was beyond cool and made me wish I had made different vehicle decisions.

"Nice! How much gas does that #xertz?"
"You don't get a baby like this if you're worried about the mileage," Cal answered, slightly mocking my past #abnegation of sport.

"It will bring us undue attention," I said.

"It's authoritative. It demands respect. Yours says, 'Pay us no mind for we aren't unique."
"Sometimes it's good not to stand out. An #obstreperous engine roaring down the road has its places, and I hope this is one of them."

Cal pointed next to my car and jutted his head. "That makes me think it is."

A puddle of greasy fluid had formed. Was it from mine?
Enhancing my vision, I crouched down and peered under my Altima. No liquid residue was on its underside.

"It looks okay," I said as I retrieved the laptop from my car's backseat, "but we can take your, uh, baby."

Cal held up his key fob and hit the #octothorpe button.
With a low, impressive rumble, his Challenger started. I was jealous, but appreciated the fine piece of machinery.

We threw our laptops in the backseat, shut the doors, and secured our seat belts. Cal revved the engine and shot out of the parking lot to our #debut case.
End of chapter 4
Start of chapter 5
A few miles down the road, I wondered if Cal planned to sit in silence the entire time. I thought some music might help.

"Mind if I put the radio on?" I asked.

"#Already?" said Cal, shaking his head. "No one can resist playing with the toys. Sure. No country or gospel."
I pressed the touchscreen display and put Deftones on the music stream. One of my favorites was playing: a subtle, almost jazzy tune with a rocking chorus. Cal bobbed his head until the discordant guitar rang out at the end of the bridge.

"Damn. That was #grotesque!"
I was about to tell him to #relax, but he started grooving to the drums again.

"Good song. Very moody," Cal said.

"I was worried for a second."

"Naw, that was nasty - in a good way."

"They're one of my main guitar influences. Do you play?"

" Bass, drums, and keys."
The idea of him being a multi-instrumentalist surprised me. There was a piano in my house growing up, but it never grabbed me. When I tried some synths a few years ago, I loved them, but my interest waned.

"Wow. Are you in a band?" I asked.

"Ever heard of #Satori Eyes?"
Struggling to recall, I apprehensively said, "No, but that's a clever name."

Cal nodded. "That's why we're not a band anymore. We were groovy, progressive rock - not what labels wanted. Picture me #back then with long dreadlocks behind the keys or head-banging on bass."
"That would be a sight. I'd love to hear your songs sometime."

"We'll see," Cal said while keeping his eyes on the road. "Do you still play guitar? Is that how you got that pretty #flower of a girlfriend?"

"Some yes. And was that not in my file?" I asked rhetorically.
He sighed and shook his head. "I flipped to the dirty pages. Must have missed that part."

"Right," I said through gritted teeth. "If you only look at the pictures, you'll miss the plot. She approached me in a bar."

"What?" Cal said with shock. "You are one lucky #cat!"
My thoughts about Ava were like a #nomad wandering from ecstacy to regret.

With a tainted sentimental tone, I said, "I was in the right place at the right time. Our first date was incredible. What about Veronika?"

"A friend thought she'd be good for me. She wasn't."
"I've had that happen. A friend thinks they're doing you a favor. Then you find out she's as clingy as velcro and isn't in a state to be out with anyone. Why was she texting you like that if you already broke up?"

Cal peered at his necklace. "#Because she has problems."
He was being evasive. I had to tread carefully.

"What sort of problems?"

"The jealous kind. You saw my phone, remember?" Cal said agitatedly.

"For a moment. I don't see why you have that look of #horror. She acted out of line. Not you."

Cal scratched his goatee.
"Okay," he relented. "Still don't like you seeing my texts."

A Muse song with fuzzy bass and syncopated drums began.

"You have a psychology background, right?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Aurora wants this. Let's break the spell she created. Otherwise, she won every #round."
The way Cal had used specific scents to trigger my memories clued me into his education. Still, I sensed a deeper issue causing him to stay silent and grip the steering wheel tightly. As a painfully sensual #joik flowed from the speakers, he kissed the ring on his chain.
Far too long passed before I decided to ask about it.

"So," I said, drawing out the word to fill the unease, "what's the deal with the ring?"

Cal pulled into a gas station and parked near a pump.

"Do you have to #chat all the time? You have not earned the ring story."
He used his company card and began filling the tank. I exited the car and asked if he wanted anything from the convenience store.

"A soda and a protein bar. Thanks," he said.

Would sugary snacks help expose the #naked, raw truth he carried around his neck? I doubted it.
Being trapped in a mire of painful memories was very familiar to me. Their #toxic fumes and stinging water can infect your life. Sometimes, a leech hangs on, feeding until it bursts. I ripped mine off years ago. Now there is only a palm tree swaying in the warm breeze.
A stream of the latest news played inside the store. A female reporter gave details about efforts to #pass a new law requiring the powered to be part of a national record.

"Supporters argue it would protect the public while detractors say it violates privacy rights."
On the aisle with the energy bars, I overheard a couple.

"If they're not dangerous, who cares what they do?" said the girl.

"They don't know who is," said the man.

Ten thousand #sunsets since the public was told of us hadn't changed enough minds. Alice had twice that.
Imagine the vitriol she'd witnessed throughout her life: World War II, the civil rights movement, and forty years of excuses why her rights should be limited.

As I grabbed a handful of bars and a couple Cheerwines, I considered giving the #creep a piece of my mind.
My thoughts were interrupted by a small boy excusing himself to run past me toward the checkout counter.

"Mom!" he shouted while holding up a brightly colored bag of candy.

"Sweetie," his mom said firmly, "that's way too big. You can't eat all that during the #movie."
"You said I could have it!" he whined while cradling the sack of treats like a #calyx protecting precious petals.

Without missing a beat, she said, "No, I said you could buy a treat with your allowance. Did you bring it?"

"Ugh," he said while patting his empty pockets.
His mom tilted her head in disappointment. "You forgot?"

"No, it's um-" the boy said as he slipped a hand into his back pocket and stared at the cash register in a most #curious way. He pulled out a handful of coins and bills - far more than could have been inside it.
They were in front of me in line. Behind was a young couple. The man's eyes were locked onto the boy. He saw and he didn't like it. I knew it was the bigot from a minute ago.

He was fidgeting with his phone. A video of this put #online was the last thing anyone needed.
The boy's mom squatted to be face to face with him and lowered his money filled hand.

"You didn't have that when we left the house," she whispered.

He had a blank expression #frozen on his face as he looked in her eyes.

"Hey! What's the hold up?" jerk behind me said.
"I'm so sorry," the mom pleaded. "Just give us a minute."

The cashier, a girl lounging in a stool with a leg up, barely glanced up from her cellphone.

"Sir, you're interrupting my #happiness," she stated. "No recording in here."

His phone was up. I had to intervene.
I turned to the man to appeal to his intellect, "Keep recording. You're gonna see somethin' real special."

A smile of yellow and brown stained teeth cut through his patchwork beard.

"Yeah! We got you!" he said.

"Trim a bit off the #head and the vid will be perfect."
I faded away a #malevolent sneer as I turned toward the boy and his mom. She had fear in her eyes and mouthed 'please' to me.

Crouching down, I winked at her and grinned at the boy.

"Hi buddy," I said with an amicable tone as I put the bars and soda on the floor.
My body blocked them from view of the cell camera. I placed a hand on the giant candy bag.

"Why don't we put all of this back," I said in almost #sing song and tapped the money wad in his hand, "and I'll buy whatever mom approved candy you want?"

"I...don't know how."
I maintained my calm. "That's okay. I'll help. Put your hand in your back pocket. Was it a pull feeling before?"

He did as I asked and said, "Yeah. A pull."

"Imagine a push back to there." I eyeballed the register.

A quiet, high-pitched screech like a #banshee began.
The tone was on the edge of my perception. It changed into a whispy swoop and a pop. I thought the boy had transported the bills and coins back into the till. A rustling inside the bag of #chocolate grabbed my attention. Two pieces collapsed into themselves and vanished.
Any second now, the cashier could gaze up from her handheld addiction #machine, checkout someone else, and see the missing money replaced by fun-sized sweets.

"C'mon man, I can't see the kid," the impatient idiot said.

"How long we gonna wait?" asked his girlfriend.
I looked back at the couple and lied. "Until it's done. It'll be worth it. I promise."

Turning to the kid, I realized what I neglected.

"Other hand. And concentrate on the register. Remember push."

I was hopeful, but #even if he couldn't do it, I'd protect his secret.
He focused with furrowed brows and determination. The sound was quick - a fizzy swoosh and a snap.

"I did it!" he said with a face full of joy.

"Good job, sweetie!" his mom sighed in relief and hugged him.

A noise like ten #beads falling came from the checkout counter.
I got up quickly and placed my parcels on the counter.

"The hell was that sound?" the clerk asked while putting her phone away.

"Someone's ring tone, I think. Just this and whatever they want."

The mom browsed the candy. "Look, #Seaside Taffy! Yum! Let's get this box."
The boy smiled and put the small box on the counter. He ran to return the giant bag of chocolates.

With a dubious expression, the clerk scanned the items and shook her head at me.

"I don't know what y'all are up to, but you're making me miss the #graveyard shift."
I used my company card to pay, hoping the cash drawer wouldn't open or that she'd shut it before it did. Luck wasn't in my favor. She saw the two candies sitting in the change compartment.

"C'mon, Jen!" she shouted holding up one. "You know these are #dangerous to me!"
Jen, clearly a pranking coworker, wasn't in the store. I grabbed my bags and handed the box to the boy. His mom clutched my forearm and looked at me with an #oneiric smile.

"Thank you for you kindness."

I handed her my A46 card. "Of course. Use it if you need anything."
The boy waved bye as he and his mom left.

Giving me a dirty look, the guy behind me said, "What was that? You didn't call 'em out or nothing."

His neck had a lot of #ink on it with a familiar symbol hidden amongst the dark collage - a DNA strand with NBT in the helix.
In spite of their PR spin, Normals for a Better Tomorrow were considered a hate group. They believed powereds weren't just dangerous, but that our very genetics made us corrupt.

Part of my mind #voted to smash his phone in my bare hands. I knew subtlety would be better.
I had a plan.

"Let's see it," I said and pointed at his smartphone.

He loaded up the video and hit play.

"Look! You can't see squat. You were blocking the view."

"What?! Let me see that." I said with mock surprise.

He handed his phone to me. I smiled #exuberantly.
I tapped the screen to play the video. Not one frame showed the boy or his mom's face. Good. I wanted to toy with him a bit. It would give me great #solace.

"You didn't think to move to get a better shot?" I asked as I slowly made my muscles grow and increased my height.
"You said I'd see somethin' real special. Why would I move?" he said while pointing at his chest exaggeratedly. His camouflage jacket flailed wildly behind him.

"All right. Check this out." I held up the phone and deleted the video.

Anger #poured out of his very being.
The redneck snatched his phone out of my hand.

He yelled, "This ain't no #joke, man! Freak boy was trying to steal!"

I glared down at him. "An eight year old criminal mastermind. Sure. His mom was on it. He doesn't need you outting him. You should be thanking me."
#vss365 #divine
"Are you freakin' kidding me?" he said with burning rage in his eyes. "Why would I thank you?"

He paused mid-pointing and took note of my new size. To anyone in NBT, my gifts were not #divine, but an abberation.

"Oh. You, too, huh? I know who and what you are."
"No, you don't," I said with a furious edge.

He scoffed. "What? You gonna #fudge some BS story about how you're such a big badass? You ain't nothin'. Not to me."

I leaned down to be in his face and grunted. "Did your brethren ever tell you about Belmont? That was me."
"I dunno what you're talkin' about, but you better back up."

His girlfriend appeared #excited and frantically waved her hands. She knew.

"Baby. Carl! Stop!" she said.

"What, Becky?" he shouted, disliking the interruption.

"We need to go. Now!" she said imploringly.
Carl seemed confused. Becky leaned in and whispered into his ear. As she held her hand up, I spotted a tattoo of #Scotland on her inner wrist. I saw no other body art.

Carl's eyes shifted to me as his stance became passive. With hands raised, he took a nervous step back.
Appearing like white bulges, his eyes became wide. This contrasted with the dirty, gray #print-like smudges on his forehead and cheeks. The couple cowered back towards the door.

"No NBT tat, Becky? Not a true believer in the cause? Are you okay with that, Carl?" I asked.
Both scowled, but said nothing. I had some run-ins with NBT members, including the nasty one Becky just shared with Carl, which made me particularly enjoy this #miniature revenge.

I took out my A46 badge, opened it, casually held it near me chest, and normalized my body.
"What's that mean?" asked Carl. "You a freak and a fed?"

"Your #superstition's showing," I said as
I tilted my head and put away my ID. "That means if I hear about you harassing anyone again, especially kids, I'll find you."

I made my eyes bioluminesce.

"Now leave."
Becky gave Carl a furious look that said, "Shut up and let's go."

They rushed to their dirty car and sped off noisily. Cal was leaning on his green Challenger and texting.

"What took you so long?" he asked.

"A special kid and his mom needed help."

"I #understand."
"You do?" I asked, surprised by Cal.

"Out here, the boy kept telling his mom he did it and how the nice man bought the candy. I saw you flash your badge to that druggie looking couple, too."

"You're observant."

"Psychology's a #translational science. So what happened?"
I recounted what occurred in the store. Cal uprighted himself and pocketed his phone.

He shook his head and pulled in his lips. "There hasn't been a peep from NBT since I started at the agency."

"They faded away after my situation," I said. "I hope they're not #reborn."
We sat back inside Cal's car. After handing him a soda and a bar, I placed the bag on the floor in front of me.

"I could ping Ethen. Maybe he's heard-" Cal began to say through his chewy morsels.

"Please. No."

We shared some much needed #laughter at the jocular suggestion.
I reached back to grab my laptop.

"It's two hours to Iverson's. I wonder if those two are on our watchlists," I said.

After opening his Cheerwine bottle with a crack and fizz, Cal took a swig.

"They were #jam-packed in that rusty heap. I doubt they're funded." he said.
While most members of anti-powered groups struck me as ignorant due to their false beliefs, some were highly intelligent and diabolically dangerous. They would #prevaricate tales of how non-normals caused all the strife in their lives. We were the enemy. Marks to attack.
There was a significant difference between Carl trying to #plump his social media reputation and someone bludgeoning a person because of who they were. While Becky didn't appear in my A46 searches, he did. He was in the background of a single photo from an NBT meeting.
It was taken three months ago by an agency informant. He seemed to be a wallflower, perusing the snack table. His DNA tattoo wasn't there, making his recruitment recent.

A couple that can't hate #together can't love together. A breakup was imminent for Becky and Carl.
"Well?" Cal said. "You got something?"

Realizing I had been distracted, I glanced up at the road and shook off the past.

"Sorry. I didn't even know we left."

"You want to tell me about the trip you just went on?"

Some memories don't easily #yield to the present.
I forced my mind to refocus and answered with a half-truth. "NBT makes me uncomfortable. I don't like them."

Cal raised a brow. "They don't like you either. They really don't like me. Can't change the past no matter how much we #pine away. There's no power for that."
"Yet," I said. "Is that sound psychological advice?"

With an incredulous look, he said, "Naw. It's just good advice. Look, helping the kid. Scaring off trash. There's more to you than Aurora let on. If we want to #collaborate, we have to know what isn't in our files."
What had Aurora told him about me? I'd wager she chose the parts of my record for him to scrutinize. Still, I welcomed easing tensions.

"That Belmont situation," Cal said as he checked the rearview #mirror. "It's marked classified in your record."

"Yes, it is," I said.
Cal looked at me sideways while taking a deliberately slow bite of his bar with his exposed molars.

"Why? Or should I expound on the pitfalls of negative affect?" he asked.

I took a slow sip of my drink.

"I could #wax poetic about why, but it was an Upstairs decision."
Cal grumbled. "You mentioned it in the store to perfect strangers, but can't share with a coworker?"

"I only said the town name," I corrected.

"I'm surprised you don't #parade around that victory. You beat 'em, right, champ? You shut 'em down?"

I scratched my chin.
He wasn't going to drop it. After several seconds, I thought of a response.

"You'll appreciate this metaphor. Imagine every moment of my experience as a #mosiac of broken shards. They're together making an image. A memory. If I start exploring the artwork, I'll get cut."
Cal scoffed. "It might be nice to be able to think about it without it stressing you out."

"I could say the same about your ring," I retorted pointing near his #heart.

"I wouldn't," he warned. "What did you find?"

Turning my laptop around, I showed him the pic of Carl.
He studied it briefly and returned his eyes to the road.

"Notice something about everyone there?" he asked.

"I must be missing it. What?"

"They're all #young. No authority present."

"Last I heard, no one knew who was in charge. Are they looking for new leadership?"
The right corner of Cal's lips upturned. "Their #despair is that great that they'd look at that skinny boy and see upward mobility? My mom could sneeze and he'd fall over."

"No, he's a pawn trying to prove himself."

"Then he'll be easy to find."

I nodded in agreement.
End of chapter 5
Start of chapter 6
Motivations for incivilities are varied. Anger, greed, and #sex - or the promise of it - are common. Wanton selfishness and cruelty are others. It's exceedingly rare for someone to make others' lives more difficult for altruistic reasons. Iverson will be no exception.
I've seen people justify their actions by devaluing powered life. He may be doing the opposite: trading his #dear niece's happiness for the value of withholding the identities of her supposed tormentors. Did he truly want to protect her or did he want to be on the news?
His file failed to provide answers. Why did his marriage end? Why was he watching Lila? Her father wasn't listed and her mother was her sole guardian. I needed to know Scott's full history. Something there would be a #portent of the present and future. I needed the why.
As Cal drove, he listened to a voice stream of Scott and Lila's file. We sat #silent absorbing and processing the collected data.

Cal tapped his earbud. "I guarantee he was tormented in school. This is his long overdue revenge."

"Maybe. How do you want to handle this?"
His gaze told me he was pleased by the question. "He's confident. Sharp minded. Detail oriented. We find his emotional triggers and push them. Hard."

"He may be steadfast and unmoved by that. We won't #overturn his opinion of us," I said. "Make him change ours of him."
With a finger in the air, Cal said, "That could work. We'll accuse him of something terrible. Put him on the defensive."

"Exactly." I nodded. "Lila's going to require some finesse."

"There's an #expanse of difference between the boy you helped and a 17 year old girl."
"I understand that," I said. "She'll probably say several sharp-tongued things neither of us likes. But I doubt she's as #zealous as her dad."

"Uncle," Cal corrected.

"Uncle. Right."

"There's no way she wants to out her classmates or friends. If she still has any."
My eyes widened. "Damn, man. That's harsh."

"Kids are petty. You think they want to be friends with someone whose uncle made a video like that?"

"All right," I acquiesced. "Do you think the list is real or #imaginary?"

"I bet it's real," said a voice in our earpieces.
Cal and I exchanged a look and tapped the touch pads on our communicators.

"Is...Is this Ethen?" I asked.

I could practically hear him smiling at my question. "Yes. I was auto-connected a few minutes ago. I'm doing baseline #measures."

"And eavesdropping," said Cal.
Ethen blew off the accusation. "You're new, Cal, but I would be remiss if I wasn't in your heads during this mission."

"There are better ways to make your presence known."

"Like Iverson," he answered, "a #stalwart isn't going to compromise. Let's prove he has the list."
Did Cal enjoy being miffed at people or was Ethen just an expert at making people lose their patience? Their back and forth made a predictable #melody.

I chimed in with: "He won't tell us if he actually has it nor where it is."

"I just need him to answer," said Ethen.
"Don't worry. We'll ask," Cal answered.

"Thank you. I'll let you know if he's lying," Ethen replied. "You don't have to be so flustered. We're on the same team."

Cal #altered his posture and tightly gripped the steering wheel. I raised a finger and mouthed 'hold on.'
"What about Lila?" I asked purposefully changing the subject. "Jack implied he'd like us to carefully find out if she's special."

His hands loosening, Cal leaned back into his seat and glanced at me.

"Her file is lacking," said Ethen, "but she seems like an #outcast."
Cal raised his hands and mouthed 'what?' to me before he said, "Why do you think that?"

"She comes from a broken home and stays with her uncle. You're aware abandonment issues aren't going to make her a #golden child. I'm shocked her grades are high. Now add in powers."
As if his mind found a way to achieve zen, Cal rubbed his goatee and sucked his teeth. "You're right. It'll be tough to get her to trust us when two of her male role models broke hers."

"The list is the mission," Ethen added. "She isn't #vital. She's a side quest."
"This is real life, not a video game," I said. "Lila needs our support and likely our help. If the list is the #treasure, how do you know she won't lead us to it?"

"I don't. Aurora set the mission parameters. I'm going by that."

Her name was like a drill to my forehead.
She was an expert at being unreadable with a stone face that could have outclassed every champion poker player. None knew her agenda. Ethen may be as bright as he believes, but she cast him in his role. Aurora's #cunning was fathomless. What parts were Cal and I playing?
She told me Upstairs wanted me back for this case. Why? Any experienced agent could investigate Iverson. What was the truth?

I asked, "Did she tell you why I was rehired?"

"No, but her dislike of you felt genuine," Ethen said cooly.

Cal said, "So no #lies detected?"
"Wait, how did you -" I began to ask.

Ethen chuckled once. "David, everyone asks me if someone is lying to them. I knew you were about to. And Cal, everyone lies far more often than you'd imagine, even Aurora and Jack. His #infernal calming smile is one of his tells."
"I've known Jack for nearly a decade. He is not a liar," I retorted.

"He's an omitter. So is Aurora."

"We're close," said Cal as the GPS beeped. "It's their job not to #release certain info to us. Need to know is a hierarchy. You act like they're doing it with malice."
Ethen sighed heavily. "I'm not trying to be an argument instigator. Unfortunately, it is human #nature not to be honest even with ourselves."

"Your theory and your powers are about to be tested," said Cal.

"Speaking of that, do you think should I look older?" I asked.
Cal half-shut his left eye and gave me an exaggeratedly confused look. "Why? Iverson wants validation, not connection. Lila sure won't relate to an old man. Be yourself."

Ethen seemed to consider it. "The idea isn't #misplaced, but I'd suggest a more meek appearance."
Reserved wasn't my style. When I was younger, I'd alter my looks to see the reactions I'd get. Bright blue eyes, dark hair, six feet tall, and a little muscle tone received the most female attention. I couldn't #imagine being a fraud and maintaining a false appearance.
Similarly, I never mastered intimidation. If I was standing in a line, people would cut through it by excusing themselves as they passed in front of me. No matter how mean I tried to look, body language spoke louder.

"I'll find another use for my powers on this #voyage."
It was rare for Jack to follow protocol to the letter, but five minutes away from our destination, he got on the stream.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I like to be hands-off and let ya do what ya do best. The bosses are especially interested in this one. Hence, the #change.
"The Agency's assumes Iverson has the list. I'm not gonna harp on it. When ya have it, transmit it to Ethen stat. We don't want to be chasing this down in #winter."

"Is it true the niece isn't a priority?" I asked.

Jack humphed. "You'll talk to her. I'll handle Aurora."
He clicked off as Cal turned up the final street. The afternoon sun shone warmly on upper-middle class suburbia. The shiny SUVs and chemically treated lawns looked #radiant.

"Welcome to Brightwood," said Ethen. "Homes built in the last ten years. It's mostly families."
I used to have an aversion to neighborhoods like this. Living in one meant you submitted to society. Ava changed my mind. A nice place to live and a future to build with someone was more important.

My mind daydreamed about raking #vermilion leaves while the kids played.
It was another cut off thread of reality - a hopeful vision existing only in retrospect. I wondered if Scott had similar regrets. Did Cal? They're not #rare.

"Ethen," I asked, "when did Iverson move here?"

After a moment of loud typing, he said, "Nine years ago. Why?"
"When did he get divorced?"

Cal's head bobbed. He knew the connection I was making.

"Eight years ago," Ethen answered. "Don't think I didn't feel your avoidance hanging in the air like a shiny #ornament."

"Buddy, that's great," I lied, "but use it for him, not on us."
"Don't take it personally. I'm warming up."

"He couldn't even last a year with his ex," Cal whinced. "His #resiliency won't stand a chance to my questions."

He slowed down and pulled to the side of the road.

"That's his house," he said and pointed across the street.
It was a two story with a dark red brick facade. The landscaping appeared perfectly pruned, but the grass had a couple brown patches. A trail of bare ground led back to a rusty gutter drain that had clearly #overflowed. A late model blue Toyota Camry sat in the driveway.
Cal shut off the engine. "Any updates, Ethen?"

A beep sounded through our earpieces. "The news covered him all weekend, but he refused to speak with anyone. No developments are the #worst for ratings. They dropped the story. This line will remain open for the duration."
Sunrays hitting the car made the flecks in the green paint shine with an iridescent #splendour as we exited it.

Up the road, two streetlights were lit. The one closest flickered intermittently. I checked my watch: 2:30p.m.

"It's early for the lights to be on," I said.
"It makes my baby look great," Cal said while patting the hood. He looked up at Iverson's car with disappointment. "A few things fall by the wayside when you #aspire to ruin your niece's high school rep."

"That's a new car!" I indicated.

"Why is it covered with pollen?"
Was Cal new to the South and what a #poetess would describe as its constant barrage of green mist during the warmer seasons?

"I know you're trying to make behavioral connections," I said, "but he could have cleaned his car yesterday. Where were you working before A46?"
Reaching into the backseat, Cal grabbed my laptop bag and nearly threw it into my arms. He locked the doors with the fob.

"I uh," he hesitated. "I was freelance consulting in Florida. I needed a change. Jack said North Carolina would be a perfect place to start #anew."
I expected Ethen to flash his powers again by pointing out Cal's ambiguity, but I only heard typing and mouse clicks.

Instead, I said, "I sense there's more to that story."

"If you're looking for me to get all #verklempt, you'll be disappointed. I'll tell you later."
As I gave Cal a vexed look, I saw a neighbor start his lawnmower. Nearby, a boy and girl on bikes circled in the street. A woman jogging approached us.

"Nice car," she she said with a finger #point before taking a sip of a sports drink. "Are y'all here for Scott?"
"Yes, we are," I said, curious about her intentions.

She huffed and put a hand on her hip. "We've had all kinds of media and police around bothering everyone. Now y'all come circling like #velociraptors to pick at the scraps. He doesn't want to talk with you. Please go!"
"Miss, we aren't law nor journalists. We're with Agency 46," I said as Cal and I flashed our badges.

"#Vampires is what y'all are," she spat.

"Not the first time I've been called that today." I raised my brows at Cal. "We're also here for Lila."

"Why? What'd she do?"
"Get her name so I can run her info," Ethen said.

Cal turned and spoke into his hand. "All right, you #vulture."

"She lives with him," I said calmly. "We're simply doing a welfare check. What's your name so we can thank you properly for your much appreciated concern?"
"Marcia Chen," she said as she folded her arms, tilted her head causing her ponytail to bob, and had a thoroughly #vexed look on her face. "Talking to me like PR really helps me believe you so much."

"She doesn't." Ethen said.

"I know," I said.

Cal sniffed. "Ms. Chen?"
She rubbed the back of her neck as she faced him. "I'm only listening because I like your Challenger."

"How vapid," Ethen snorted. "Her social media indicates she has a #vendetta against police and people who don't recycle plastic bottles."

Cal's upper lip twitched.
"Excellent taste in cars," he flattered.

"Thanks. My brother had one, but it wasn't a Hellcat." She loosened up slightly.

"Are you friends with Scott?"

"We've been neighbors since I moved in. We don't hang out or any-" she paused. "What the hell is #violating my nose?"
The vile stench of plastic melting and off-gassing surrounded us. I sealed my nose internally to block it.

I shrugged. "I don't smell anything."

Cal remained stoic. "There's a giant overlap on the #venndiagram of people who avoid questions and people with information.
Why are you trying to protect, Iverson?"

Marcia looked cross as she held the top of her hand to her nostrils. "Feds. Cops. All the same. You #arrange data to fit whatever story makes your job easier no matter who it hurts. It took my brother years to clear his name."
I said, "We're just trying to -"

"Pretend you didn't pass gas," she said.

Cal's mouth dropped open. "Ma'am, I swear."

"So you're a fart #ventriloquist?"

Ethen chortled as I held back my own amusement.

"We apologize," I said. "Why do you think Scott is doing this?"
She pointed at each of us as she took another drink. "You're disgusting. I don't get paid to do your job. Ask him yourself."

She jogged a short distance and turned to face us. "Brightwood may look safe, but there's been some vehicle #vandalism. Don't leave it overnight."
Ethen said, "Her brother was charged with complicity in a car theft ring. His former friends were the culprits. He's merely an auto enthusiast."

"What was that smell, Cal?" I asked as I picked up four #vellum business cards littering the the grass near Iverson's mailbox.
Cal sighed. "She wasn't going to help, so I convinced her to leave. Have you ever had a plastic bag stuck to your exhaust? Smells real bad."

"Gross," I said as I examined the cards.

"It worked, didn't it? They don't exactly give the medal of #valor to people like us."
"Not so far," said Ethen. "You'll be happy to know car break-ins are extremely low in the area. Even I feel a #vicarious sense of relief."

"Thanks for your support," Cal said with sarcasm. "Anything special there, David?"

"All known media outlets except 3P on The S."
After the clang of keyboard strokes, Ethen said, "I'm not able to decode that. It sounds indecorous and purposefully nebulous."

"You have quite a #vocabulary," I said, "but I doubt illicit websites want to work with him. It's someone new looking to establish themselves."
Cal held out his hand. "Could I see that card?"

I handed it to him. He read it then held it under his nose.

"A woman left it," he said.

"How can you tell? It was mixed in with every other card left by reporters who #vacated the story."

"Purfume and long nail marks."
The Agency stayed apprised of anyone reporting on supers, especially for controversial events. Public opinion affecting case engagement rules was a common #phenomenon.

I took the card back and placed it in my pocket. My cellphone vibrated as the ring tone pealed.
Taking out the device, I glanced at the screen. The heat of blood rushed to my face as my heart pounded in my chest. It was Ava. Why now? What did she want?

"Are you gonna answer that?" Cal asked.

I refocused on my #reflection in the glass and bit the tip of my finger.
Was she still mad at me? Disappointed? Would it be an anxious conversation with so much silence between the words that the #moon could fill it?

"No," I said as I swiped her call to my voicemail. "I need to stay focused."

Cal looked concerned.

"What? I'll call later."
"Better not keep her waiting."

Weary of his off-putting comments about Ava, I said, "Do you want to call her?"

"Naw, I just know when someone's special. Like Alice."

"I'll face the music soon enough." The #shadow of my mistakes hung on my voice. "Now, let's do this."
We walked up the walkway towards the door. As I rang the bell, I increased my density in case of an attack. Even though an #ego like Iverson's was more prone to use his intellect, not physicality or weapons, I liked to be prepared. He already thought he won. Maybe he had.
The door opened revealing Scott Iverson wearing a dark green untucked polo shirt and jeans. He had five o'clock shadow and unkempt thin, wispy hair. His eyes shifted from Cal to me.

"If you're going to #filter through the detritus in my yard, at least pick up all of it."
"Sir," I said noticing the oddly relaxed look on his face, "are you Scott Iverson?"

"You tell me," he answered with raised brows. "You're not sanitation employees. If you're media, let me alleviate your #stigma of curiosity. I have nothing to say, and there is no story."
Ethen said, "Positive voice ID. It's him."

"We're not media," I said as we presented our badges. "I'm Agent David Anders. This is my partner Agent Cal Zayne. We're with Agency 46."

Scott touched his chest and said with bogus #euphoria, "Federal superheroes just for me?"
Cal grinned pleasantly. "Sarcasm's a healthy coping mechanism."

Scott's tired, hazel eyes calculated. "The #experiment of having a whole agency for powered affairs seems to be going swimmingly." He checked his watch. "You're only two days later than everyone else."
"You're right, Cal," I said, turning to Scott. "Next time, please use #telepathy to alert us to your actions."

Iverson's expression soured.

"Unlike your other unwanted visitors," said Cal, "we know how to help you and your niece. Could we come inside so we can chat?"
The bags under Scott's eyes blended into the wrinkles in his cheeks as he scratched his chin.

"That's a unique angle," he said.

"Your video had us concerned for her well being," Cal said.

Scott held the door open. "In here, you're not the world's #idols; we're equals."
As I adjusted the laptop bag's strap, the streetlight's flickering increased until it #jumped to a permanently on state.

“How long has that light been like that?" I asked.

Scott peered past me, frowned in
contemplation, and said, "That's fairly recent and intermittent."
"There's his first lie. He knows more," Ethen asserted as Cal and I walked into the house.

"Don't you want it fixed?" Cal asked. "It seems annoying."

"There isn't much #danger in a failing light. You met Marcia. She'll take care of it. I've had other things on my mind."
The interior had warm decor including a dark brown leather sofa and light gray hued LVP flooring that resembled hardwood. Minimal clutter was on his kitchen counters. A large TV mounted on the wall in the living room displayed a show about foods from a topical #paradise.
Scott led us to the sofa where a modern wooden coffee table sat in front of it.

Cal noted what was on the TV. "Do you enjoy exotic flavors or are you planning your next vacation?"

"Perhaps it's both. I deserve a break after creating a cure for the #disease of bullying."
Frown lines formed in Cal's brow. "You're going to #run with that?"

Steadying my composure, I added, "Does your niece agree? Removing one ailment while spawning a thousand more wasn't a solid plan."

Scott signaled with his hand and smiled. "Have a seat please. Drinks?"
"I'm good," Cal responded immediately.

With a cloth, Iverson cleaned his glasses which had been hanging from his shirt's button placket. "A warm tea can be a #comfort during times of strife. I'm not trying to poison you."

"It wouldn't work on me, anyway," I said.
"He doesn't intend to kill you," Ethen comforted.

"I see," Scott said. "I'll make some chai. Non dairy if that's okay."

"That'd be great. Thanks," I said as I looked around the room. A framed painting of a blue morpho #butterfly adorned the wall. "Did Lila paint that?"
Iverson, who had wasted no time rushing to his kitchen, peeked around the corner and said, "Wonderful, isn't it? I encourage any healthy creative outlet she thinks is #dope."

Cal stood up to closely appreciate her work. "She's very talented," he shouted. "Where is she?"
Scott said over the sound of running water, "She's in her room upstairs probably having the equivalent of a second #lunch as an after-school snack. You know teenagers."

Whipping around with shock, Cal said, "You sent her to school three days after posting that video?"
"Her education is paramount," he said as the clinking of mugs resounded. "#Nothing will prevent that."

"Not even her uncle threatening her powered classmates?" I asked. "How was her school day?"

Iverson returned to the living room, hands on his hips with another smile.
"Agent Zayne, was it?" he asked while adjusting his glasses. "And Agent Anders?"

"That's right," said Cal.

"The tea is steeping now. I don't expect us to #hug and act like old pals, but I've not heard how you'll help Lila and me. You're making me question your intent.
"You're not here to arrest me. You'd have already done it. Are you here to fish for incriminating information and to cast aspersions in a failed effort to get a rise out of me? #Dream on." His tone had an edge. "I like efficiency. You have questions; I have answers. Ask."
Ethen whistled loudly in our earpieces. "Better get on with it."

Cal cleared his throat.

Scott's career in finance required precision. He allowed that and impatience to seep into his less than #friendly attitude. I think I'm starting to understand why his wife left him.
As I hastily setup my laptop on the coffee table, I stared at Cal who nodded at me. I sensed he also recognized Scott's #cunning by trying to control our conversation. If he wished to be questioned sooner, I had no problem with it. Or did that mean he was in control?
Iverson had called us federal superheroes. Most people weren't familiar with our agency, which was how the bosses liked it. Its name had changed over the decades, making it difficult to learn its history. What had he discovered? Did he #believe all in A46 were powered?
After laying three mugs on the coffee table, Scott lounged across from us in an armchair.

He said, "Someone in this #room will drink the extra."

I aimed my laptop camera towards him and clicked the red button. "I'm required to inform you that we're recording this."
Flipping his hand in the air and tilting his head to the side, Scott said, "Of course. I'm sure you'll do a more thorough job than the media did with their #fluff pieces."

Cal rubbed an eyebrow and said, "You wouldn't speak to them. Our attention isn't public. Why us?"
"The news wanted a story, and they have it. Answering their inquiries only helps them. You, #sunshine," Iverson nodded and stifled his laughter, "are proof of concept."

My eyes darted to Cal whose look of disbelief matched my own.

I scratched my temple. "Uh, excuse me?"
Scott leaned on the right armrest and stroked his chin. "The press rushed here like spawning #river salmon only to leave unsatisfied. Your delayed presence means the law and government aren't concerned. You're here for show. My message is out there. The plan succeeded."
I picked up one of the cups of tea and held it in the air.

"Here's to your success," I said.

I took a prolonged sip while using my abilities to filter out any potential toxins. Ethen was right. It was clear.

"Mmm. Delightful," I drawled. "But you've made a #mistake."
Scott's eyes cut through the air to me. "I doubt that."

Cal nodded. "Of course you do."

"Your witless justifications will not back me into a #corner," he replied.

"A46 is a contracted agency. A gap in response is normal," I said. "The only show being put on is yours."
Cal pointed at the laptop camera. "Is it starting to #register? Everything that happens now is a consequence of your actions. It's like when Susan divorced you."

Appearing peeved, Scott paused as he lifted his own tea. "By all accounts, I'm doing better than she is."
"I'm getting mixed results," said Ethen. "He's deflecting."

"You barely lived together a year before your marriage dissolved," noted Cal. "That had to be tough knowing you #lost her. Verbal abuse is quite a betrayal of trust. It wasn't worse than that, was it, Scott?"
He put the cup down with a thud. Pointing his finger, Scott said, "I did not-"

Cal smirked and interrupted, "You have a spacious house, stylish furniture, and a large TV. She wouldn't say #goodbye unless she felt she had no other choice. Maybe it was your personality."
Looking absolutely exasperated, Scott spoke with an explicit tone. "I don't abuse my loved ones; I protect them. I don't see wedding rings. Do you have kids? Families? Are you still into #random hook-ups?" He made air quotes. "Experience life before you judge another's."
Did Iverson see through our plan to throw him off guard? Cal's glum face told me we had to #curtail our accusations and redirect.

"I had a wife." Cal's baritone broke the silence. "Longer than you did. No matter how much you want to shield someone from harm, you can't."
I was enthralled. Any comment I could have made would have been perceived as a #shoddy platitude.

Scott's brow wrinkled as he rocked back and forth. "I'm sorry for your loss, Agent Zayne. Was she ill? Cancer?"

Was that compassion? Had Cal found a way to relate to him?
My partner stared into the air for a moment. "Doesn't matter. The #mean truth is bad things will happen to Lila no matter what you do."

"You're right." Before taking a sip, Iverson inhaled his drink's spicy cinnamon and clove scent. "But not caused by her classmates."
My earpiece beeped twice for private mode.

"David, Scott had authentic sympathy. Don't waste that because Cal's scared of sharing," Ethen urged.

I used the mug to block the others from hearing me. "He's a #scramble of frustration and sorrow. I'll try to steer us back."
There was no guarantee Cal would open up again about his wife. I had only known him for six hours, but he had already cracked the door of his past opened several times only to slam it shut.

I wasn't even in a relationship. How could I make a #connection with Scott?
Everything he had planned, risked, and endured was for Lila. I didn't have kids, but I knew what it was like to endure bullying.

"Scott." His fatigued eyes stared through smudged glasses. "I was tormented in school. I know the heavy burden of carrying a #load of shame.
"All the words, spoken and written, penetrate your being. Muscles ache and #tendons lock. Who do you trust when friends turn on you? You're no longer you; you're what people say about you. Your parents know something is wrong and want to help, but rules are in the way.
"With a camera on every device, someone is always watching. Why should Lila get in trouble? That leaves few risky choices. You found a way to work the system to your advantage."

Iverson raised his cup. "You understand. I weighed my options and #plunged into this plan."
"Both of us do. No kid should have to deal with this." Cal softly pondered, "Were you bullied, too, Scott?"

"I was great at math, loved sci-fi, and had this face."

"I'm sorry. Had to be tough," Cal sympathized.

"My niece will not #cower in fear. This is role reversal."
After trading silent understanding with Cal, I said, "What is endured in youth can pick and #scratch at the memory until it must be soothed. Is the list your mental salve or Lila's?"

Scott shrugged. "Both."

"Then which roles were swapped? What's hers? Yours?" asked Cal.
"Lila refused to be controlled and became a target. She's out of the game. If they play"-Scott grabbed the remote and turned off his TV-"my #darts won't miss." He pointed upwards. "Victim." He spread his arms wide. "Perpetrators."

Cal lowered. "Unintended repercussions."
Scott threw his hands in the air. "Explain."

"#Fold this over in your mind." Cal inhaled hard. "How many others want your list? NBT, journalists, hackers? How many innocent kids are being harassed due to your video? The powered are attacked daily. You think you helped?"
Using the remote to point at himself, Iverson said, "Surely, you can't #blame me for the last forty years. Or is my role now the target? NBT isn't knocking on my door. As if I'd give them or you the list."

Ethen chimed in with, "Oh, now we're getting somewhere."
He continued. "People can use my example as a solution for antagonism. It makes me happy thinking of my niece and the myriad of high schoolers who can cross the stage with pride in their graduation #gowns without any fear of whispered comments or snickers. Just cheers."
Cal #rotated his chain back and forth in front of his neck while he chewed on his thoughts. Scott's arrogance was fed by our attention. Knowing we couldn't arrest him, he felt he could say anything without consequence. He freely mentioned the list. Why? Was that an error?
"No matter what #spice we add to our arguments," I stated, "you aren't going to waver."

"When you find a hit recipe, you don't change it."

"Is the list real?" I asked, paying close attention to his reaction. What flavor of sweat, avoidance, and deception would he use?
Cal leaned forward, his eyes fixated on Scott. I was glad Ethen, the height of #smooth subtly, wasn't in the field when I heard him gasp loudly.

Scott folded his hands and sunk in his chair. "Of course, it is."

With giddy eagerness, Ethen said, "Guys! Guys! It's true!"
I should have anticipated his admission, but my enhanced calm prevented me from displaying how off-guard that caught me.

"Copy." I cupped my ear as I responded to Ethen.

Scott tilted his head. "Oh, is home base listening? They want to get their grimy #paws on the list?"
Cal looked at the dog bed in the corner. A thoroughly chewed toy was flopped on its edge. He pointed at his earbud. "They are and they do. It's a comfort knowing we always have support." His eyes shifted to Iverson. "I have a #request."


"Tell us who helped you."
If one wanted #proof that another's fury could create a visceral reaction, a look at Iverson would be all it took. My face flushed as blood rushed to it.

"You think I needed help? Huh?" he asked with repressed wrath. "These kids virtually brag about their powers daily."
"You stalked them online," I realized.

"Give them the negative connotations," Scott spat. "They're too ignorant to know to be #anxious about revealing their powers. They freely post videos to their accounts while simultaneously taking advantage of a legal gray area."
While it was illegal to reveal a child's power, it was within one's rights to show and discuss one's own.

"Finding a technicality," Cal derided. "Isn't that what you did? You're so slick giving them a taste of their own medicine. I'm not impressed. Give us the #names."
Iverson had a self-satisfied smile. "I've been called every name imaginable and some creative new ones the last few days. If taking cheap #shots is the best you have, Agent Zayne, I'm afraid our feelings are mutual. You want the names? Ask Lila to show you her yearbook."
Ethen typed frantically. "There are 2,250 students at Raintree High School. Her class alone has 500. That means 11 likely powered."

"You don't want our help. Fine," I stood up as I spoke gently. "Sending us on a wild goose chase doesn't put you on the moral high #horse."
Scott walked to the edge of the room and motioned to the door.

Cal slid the untouched mug to the middle of the table as he rose. "Thanks for the tea."

"We're talking to Lila. Now," I said. "I bet she has names."

"No, you're not." Scott flung his #arms in my direction.
With one fluid motion, Cal grabbed Iverson's wrist, pulled him off-balance, and pushed him onto his sofa. He put his hand near his nose and spread his fingers towards Scott. It was smelling salts.

Cal pointed in Iverson's face. "Your ass better stay #stuck right here!"
With a look that was beyond irate, Scott roared, "How dare you put your hands on me! And what the hell was that-"

"Me getting your attention," said Cal.

"Get the hell out of my house."

"Did we #wear out our welcome? Sit there. Don't talk." I smiled. "Nice moves, Cal."
"Thanks." He turned to Scott. "Be glad I stopped you instead of him. Consider it a #present."

Iverson gritted his teeth. "What a strange power you have." He whistled with a high pitch. "What about you, David?"

A heavy thud came from upstairs followed by a noisy patter.
I examined Iverson's face. Hiding within his vexation was a gross, sinister curiosity. I wondered what it took for him to ignore the polite #limits of society.

Cal asked, "Is that your black lab? I'm sure she's a vicious creature. Look what she did to her chew toy."
"Sadie's a #great and well trained girl. So protective against strangers," said Scott.

Cal put his hand on my shoulder leaving a trace of cooked bacon and steak. He winked at me.

The dog scuttled halfway down the stairs and stopped. She barked twice and sniffed the air.
Sadie cautiously came towards me growling lowly. I crouched down and let her smell my hand. She was very interested in me, thanks to Cal, and licked my hand. I pet her head and called her a good girl.

"Most pets like me," I said.

Scott withered like a spoiled #grape.
I patted Sadie lightly on the side and asked, "Did that not go how you planned, Scott?"

"It's dispiriting," he said and slumped into the sofa. "While dogs are masterful judges of character, you're still no better than your #peers using your abilities to take short-cuts."
I whirled through scenarios to determine why he'd test us. I came to two possibilities: scrutiny or ammo.

"Why are you so curious about our abilities?" I asked.

"I'm not," he said smugly. "You arrived #accoutered for investigating but succumbed to your baser instincts."
Cal folded his arms. "We're not #greenhorns. You're wasting our time on purpose. I'm done with that."

I frowned in approval. "Me too." I grabbed the armrest next to Scott and pushed down on it with enough force to tilt the entire sofa. "Stay here and behave yourself."
Deep grooves formed in Iverson's forehead. "Don't speak to me as if I'm a pet."

Cal thumped his nose and walked a complete circle around the couch. "If you move, the fetid filth of a waste treatment plant will hit your olfactory like a #kerf. Please try it. I dare you."
I released my grip letting the sofa legs hit the floor.

Scott said, "It's not sagacious for strange men to enter my niece's bedroom."

"There's that #rapier intellect," I retorted. "What does her mom think of your video? And your company? Do you still have a job, Scott?"
Iverson clicked his tongue. "I haven't heard from Miri since last week. She's hypercritical with family. Do I look concerned about that or my work?"

"He could easily retire comfortably," said Ethen.

"It's a lonely #path you've taken. Where does it end?" asked Cal.
An absurd, self-indulgent fantasy about sipping a fruity mixed drink on a tropical beach in satisfied solitude was what he shared. His goals were different than hate groups, but like them, his #hawkeyes were unable to see inwardly. His actions wouldn't lead to gratitude.
Seeing the futility of engaging with Iverson's brand of #jazzy justifications, I left him with one tidbit of advice.

"Others won't be as gentle when asking for the list. Some won't take no for an answer. Some will demand it." I placed my A46 card on the table. "Use it."
Sadie lazed in her bed outside of the fabricated pungency as Cal and I went to the front staircase. Scott only #quavered at the suggestion that he had a partner. Did he feign disinterest in our gifts or was he literal in not personally caring? If he didn't, then who did?
I pinged Ethen to scour Scott's communication records for any clue.

"You were particularly quiet during the interview," I said.

"I was finding his tells," he replied. "He didn't lie much. Let's hope Lila's mom isn't a #Xanthippe. That tends to propagate generationally."
Cal looked disgusted as he tapped his earbud. "Did you use pretension to cover up calling Lila and her mom, people we've never met, bitchy? Unbelievable."

"No. No. I uh-. I'm just saying if her uncle and mom are like that, her life wouldn't be an #idyll," he spluttered.
"Right," Cal uttered cynically. "That's not what you said. Don't use social awkwardness to #fog the truth. You're lucky your capability only works on others. Iverson's a jerk, and I don't trust him, but we need to rely on you. You're our teammate. Do better with Lila."
End of chapter 6.
Start of chapter 7.
In the near decade I've worked for Agency 46, one constant has been present in every case: the #ubiquity of surprise. Scott didn't arouse my curiosity; he was sanctimonious as he was in the video. Lila was an enigma. Did she need protection? Was it from others or herself?
Iverson's dodgy answers and feeble charge at me were minor hindrances. He had #advanced intelligence, but he knew nothing would prevent us from speaking with her. He made me suspiciously uncomfortable. Was the stress making him crack or was it part of a larger ploy?
At the base of the stairs, I observed Cal studying me.

"Is there something you want to share?" I asked.

"You have a blank, #xyloid look on your face."

Realizing the problem, I said, "Sorry, I was speed sorting thoughts."

"Don't do that. You're going to freak her out."
I brushed off Cal. "That's what you think I'd do? Real nice."

"If she feels threatened, like her uncle, she won't be open and honest. "

"That's true," said Ethen. "People become #fabulists to rid themselves of threats."

"What do you suggest, Cal? Lavender and lemon?"
"It's better than dog food." Patting my shoulder, he nodded and exhaled as if he just had a refreshing beverage. "Mix in birch and bergamot. It'll smell like a calming body wash."

"Guys?" Ethen's #vacillant voice grabbed our attention. "I have two alarming discoveries."
In school, he never hesitated to give unwelcome news: canceled concerts, surprise quizzes, or that a crush was in a relationship. He savored our clique's reactions, sucking the marrow out of our crestfallen bones with #porcine delight. His reluctance picked at my anxiety.
His attitude towards work and superiors struck me as barely #obeisant. Something had him rattled.

"What did you find?" I shot Cal a worried glance.

"Scott received two encrypted texts. One Friday after the video posted. Another a minute ago. He just checked his phone."
Peering down the hallway, Cal crinkled his lips. "Who sent them? Can you decrypt them?"

"Sure," Ethen snickered, "just let me #prepare some activities during the months it would take to break the security."

"Do you hear yourself? I'll make Scotty tell us," he snorted.
"Wait." I raised my hand in front of Cal. His eyes richocheted from it to my own.

He pointed back with his thumb. "We need to know."

"Cal, you can't #paint the air until he shares. He hasn't broken a law, and we have no warrant. He's being recorded. He isn't a threat."
"Not physically. He planned this meticulously for a long time, and we don't have all the pieces. This is more than a desire for #attention and payback."

"I agree, but his top priority is to protect his niece. He's not going to put her at risk."

"You better be right."
"Maybe you'll find this illuminating," Ethen added.

"Now you want to be helpful," Cal countered.

"Always. The sender chose to #hide. They fear being known, seen, and wish to remain a cipher even to Iverson. If he is only a hazard to bullies, the sender is less of one."
I could sense the gears turning in Cal's mind, but all he uttered was, "Hmm. You better be right, too."

"If Iverson's concerned, he knows how to contact us." I scratched my chin. "It could be spam messages about his car warranty. We can let Ethen #hunt down this lead."
"Me?" Ethen sounded put out, but his tone transferred to optimism. "It will make me look good if I crack this #egg open. I've been wanting field experience. Let me see if I can send shellcode to the phone through the laptop."

Cal muted his mic. "He cannot be serious."
"Just a second, Ethen." I tapped my earbud for privacy and gestured my hand towards Cal.

With jagged forehead lines and sucked in lips, he said, "Every part of what he just said drives me nuts. Field training? He'd cower in a laundry #basket at the first sign of trouble!
"Doesn't he need authorization to hack a phone? #Whose decision is that? Jack's? I didn't hear him ask."

While Jack trusted me to do my job without direct supervision, he would not be pleased to have our analyst shirk the rules.

I enabled my mic. "Did you talk to Jack?"
"You sound concerned." Ethen said with curiosity.

"We're all trying to fly together. None of us are solitary #birds," I explained.

He squeaked. "You don't need to cosset me with metaphors. If it helps the case, he said he'd support us. I'll have the texts in an hour."
"Why didn't you-" Cal arced his neck sideways as if he was trying to shake off his dissatisfaction with Ethen. "Get the messages, help with Lila, and I'll let it go."

"Fair enough," he said.

Hanging from the wall of the staircase were two more of her artistic #pictures.
One was of a tropical scene. Palms lurched over a beach. Calm ocean waves rippled on the sand as small crabs and seagulls scavenged. Neon parrots and macaws swooped across at mid-level. Skyscrapers loomed in the background. Was this a fond memory or a #viable escape?
Further up the stairs was a framed drawing of a cartoon #hippopotamus dancing next to a flamingo. It was wearing a denim jacket, a crop top, and pastel pink and green capris yoga pants. In its hairy ears were a pair of headphones with the wire going to a purple cellphone.
Cal analyzed the two pieces as we walked up the steps. "Art is her refuge. It's good she has an outlet. I can't imagine having to live with that as your uncle."

"He's supportive of her but pushed it too far," I said. "She's in #exile in her room. It's her sanctuary."
Cal rocked his head back and forth. "This isn't her home even if she's a wanted guest. There's a limit to how comfortable and #free she feels. It's her room in a strange house, and we're invading its sanctity."

I took out my badge. "We walk gingerly and speak softly."
At the top of the stairs, Scott's dim room was on our right. A disarrayed bathroom was on the left. Bottles and purple wash cloths were strewn around the sink. Next to it was the lamplit guest room. With white headphones forming a #halo on her head, Lila lied on her bed.
Her black hair with front purple streaks was every bit as thick and wavy as the picture we saw at Ethen's workstation. Even with enhanced hearing, I couldn't discover the song making her bob her head. Propped up on elbows, she was drawing a fantastical, woodsy #bungalow.
I rapped on the doorframe. No reaction. I knocked louder and regressed a step. Her wide, brown eyes glanced up startled. She removed her headphones and brushed her hair from her face. A lyric trailed off as she paused the music: "makes me #feel like a madman on the run."
I mused if she felt lonely, betrayed, and #invisible. Why had her mom left her with her uncle for the bulk of this school year? Did she have powers or was she bullied due to a lack of them?

"Um...hello?" Lila asked with trepidation as she held a stylus. "Who are you?"
Cal and I couldn't employ our usual introduction #dance. The act of displaying our badges carries an authoritative panache.

"Hi, I'm David Anders. This is Cal Zayne. Our agency wanted us to check on you." God, I hoped that sounded friendly. "Do you want to see my ID?"
Lila turned her head in confusion and suspicion. "Agency? Like the government?"

Cal handed me his badge. I placed both delicately on the corner of her bed and backed away.

Cal chose specific #language. "That's right. Ours looks after people involved in powered events."
She placed her stylus on her tablet causing it to enter charge mode. Keeping her eyes on us, she grabbed the IDs and examined them.

"Agency 46," she said as she held them out for me to take but didn't let go. "I'm good. Great. So thanks for #blessing me with the visit."
Cal grinned in the doorway. "You could be fine or think you are. Everyone responds to stress differently. We'll keep a #watch on you just to be sure. Right, David?"

He nudged me. "Right. Would it be okay if we had a chat with you? We want to understand your situation."
She looked at us sideways with an exaggerated combination of offense and flabbergast. "No!"

"Obviously, she isn't fine," said Ethen. "She's just scared to get #personal with strangers."

I swiftly gauged our best response. "Anything we talk about stays in this room."
Still giving us the side-eye, she asked, "You're not going to tell Scott?"

"Naw," said Cal. "He wasn't in a sharing mood, and I believe in the Golden Rule."

Her head turned to look directly at us. "Okay. It's #only between the three of us?"

"Four." I showed her my ear.
"Who's that?" Lila asked.

"Ethen, our support back at base," I replied.

Lila stared brightly at Cal and back to me. "Is he as handsome as you two or do I have to #settle?"

Cal stifled his laugh. My eyes drifted around her room in embarrassment. "Um no," I said.

"Okay, let's talk." She smiled coyly and let our badges go.

Cal said, "You're funny. Where will you be most comfortable?"

She bit her lip in thought and let her eyes wander. "Here. The door stays open. If you try anything, Sadie will #thunder up here to bite you. Hard."
"She means it," Ethen added. "It's #unfair I'm not there to defend my striking visage."

"It was a joke," Cal said.

"It didn't feel like one."

We entered Lila's room. I sat on the black and violet chair near her standing desk. Cal leaned on the wall near the windows.
Through it, we saw the Challenger across the street. A white dresser sat in a corner with fantasy novels stacked on top. The bed was made haphazardly as the spread hung on the floor on a side. A tree shaped lamp with silver #rings hanging from it sat on the nightstand.
They were all ornate celtic knots. Her right middle and ring fingers were each adorned with one. The end of each twig had a tiny golden light.

On her desk were incomplete pictures of elvish woods she had #drawn.

"The detail is astounding, Lila," I said. "What a talent."
"Thanks," she responded as she got up and put her art in a folder. "Could you not? They're not done."

"I'm sorry." Dang! I didn't think she'd be sensitive about that.

Cal took over. "Your uncle has a lot of #adoration for your creativity."

"I'm not talking to him now."
He gave her words the comfortable silence they earned before Cal continued. "I think we know, but will you tell us why anyway?"

He was good. Now we're #cooking.

She looked down at her desk and shook off her sadness with a forced grin. "You've seen it. The damn video."
"You're right." I noted the trash bin full of wrappers and food waste. Was her metabolism ultra high, was she soothing herself, or was she like me? "How are you?"

Lila scoffed. "A million views and ten #thousand comments, but no one else wants to talk to me. I'm alone."
Cal clicked his fob in his pocket and watched the Challenger's lights blink.

"He changed your life without permission, and then he sent you to school. Bet you wouldn't #describe today as the best." He observed her face.

"No." She looked at the ceiling. "It was...weird."
I folded my hands between my knees and leaned forward. "Weird how?"

Lila's eyes had an energetic vividness to them.
"Everyone avoided me and whispered when I was near. Even my supposed friends ignored me. Are they afraid of me?"

I #nodded. "You don't seem scary to me."
Her arched eyebrows raised. "I'm not. I just-" She shook her neck to move a stray curl. "My teachers were shocked I was there. One checked if I was okay. And some senior guy I've never met acted like he cared."

I felt a growing #similarity between Ethen, Lila, and me.
"Ethen and I went to school together. We each know the judging looks you received today."

Groaning, Ethen complained, "Do you have to share that?"

Ignoring him, I asked Cal, "How about you?"

"We'd be here past #nightfall if I shared how many stink eyes I've had on me.
"It's a good thing a couple people checked on you. It means not everyone heard the #warcry of the ignorant."

After grasping our implications, Lila waved her finger at us. Cal may have to add another to his count of ogles.

Her mouth fell open. "You guys all have powers?"
"Very good," Cal complimented and stayed focused on her. "What do you think about that?"

"It's cool!" She beamed and added a caveat. "I mean it depends what you can do, but it's cool."

"It sounds like you haven't been #brainwashed to think negatively of us like Scott."
Her smile transposed to a corner of her mouth as she looked up at Cal. "I don't let anyone tell me what to think."

Ethen confirmed, "She believes she's no #waxwork simulacrum, but doesn't every kid think they're original?"

Even so, I wish I had been that cool as a teen.
Seeing her have such strong convictions impressed me. Cal was grinning, too. She was no pushover. Before she'd share more, I knew what she'd ask.

Cal suggested, "Are you a good #storyteller? We want your side."

"Wait. Aren't you going to tell me what you can do first?"
With a smirk, he flashed his "go ahead" face at me, but I wasn't falling for it. Did he think his august powers were somehow diminished by mine?

"Don't look at me. Tell her," I directed.

His grumble told me he wished he had a #timewarp to alter this dialogue's course.
"I'll show you," Cal puffed.

"Careful," I gently urged.

Lila was uneasy.

"What's your favorite food?" he asked.

Her face contorted into ever increasing levels of bewilderment. I was afraid it would be #everlasting until she spoke. "Pizza. Mexican. Do you create food?"
Cal breathed in calmly. "I don't need powers to cook. Pizza, huh?"

The room filled with the spicy aroma of baked sourdough crust, sizzling herbed tomato sauce, and bubbling cheeses. My tongue tingled.

"Oh my God! Is that your #talent?" Lila shouted. "Cuisine smells?"
Ethen choked on his laugh.

"Naw, girl," Cal blew hard to dismiss her guess. "I can make any smell at any strength or combination."

"Wow. That's so...different," Lila feigned the compliment. "How does that #lockdown bad people?"

"They can't fight when they're gagging."
Looking repulsed, she said, "Gross."

"Minds can only be nostalgic when we encounter certain scents. I trigger that with enough information and redolent essence."

The odor in the air made my hungry stomach rumble. "You're triggering my desire for a #supersized pizza."
"Your stomach isn't #soundproof. We all hear it, David," Cal pointed out sarcastically.

"You know I need a lot of fuel," I said as I turned to Lila, "especially if I use my abilities."

She raised her brows and clicked her tongue at me. "So, what do you do, Hungry Man?"
I had ambivalence about describing my powers because it always led to numerous questions, but I knew her sharp wit wouldn't take a simplification. After being a #jailbird in her room for days, her mind was craving the mystery. I was curious if she could pierce through it.
Plus, it would be a good repose from the consequences of her uncle making the powered #scapegoats.

I held up my bare arm. "Take a guess."

Lila stared with gaping mouthed wonderment as I morphed my flesh to shiny titanium, wood, furry like a sheepdog, and back to normal.
She snapped out of her shock, and it changed to awe. "You can alter your body. That's such a dope #superpower. Can you grow wings? Can you fly?"

Amused, I signaled for her to slow down. "No, I can't fly or grow wings. There's more to it, and some unpleasant limitations."
Sympathy crossed Lila's face. "Like power limits? Still, that has to be the top power I've ever seen. You can do more?"

"Power limits? Funny. It's not even the #penultimate power." Shut up, Ethen. "I can control one or two things in my body at a time. Any more guesses?"
She giggled, covered her mouth, and cleared her throat. Is it my fault everyone turns discussions about my powers into innuendos?

"I'm being serious." My tone failed to match. "You remind me of someone."


"Why are you two #lollygagging with games?" Ethen griped.
"It's called building a rapport, Ethen," said Cal with restraint. "This might throw you for a #loop, but showing empathy, being kind, and sharing experiences is a positive thing."

"My ex, Ava," I admitted.

"Sorry. Was it recent?" Lila inquired.

"Three months ago."
Cal folded his arms. "Guess how he got over the breakup."

Her face scrunched into puzzlement until the clue helped her #poleaxe through the riddle.

"You used your powers for that?" Lila asked with consternation. "That means you can control your thoughts and emotions."
"You've got it," I said.

"What did you do? Make yourself forget the pain?"

"No. You're familiar with the stages of grief?"

"I learned about those in psych."

"For five days, I snacked and raced through each stage."

"Did it work? It sounds like a #colossally bad idea."
"My boss said the same thing. I guess we'll see."

"You mean no. Jack's right." Cal cocked his head and looked at Lila. "You're only seventeen and you know he's full of it."

Lila's gaze shot to the side as she rolled her eyes. "Great #conversation. What does ear guy do?"
Not wanting to appear to be using my powers in a foolish, selfish way, I added, "Wait. I can do plenty more with my mind."

"Sure. Yeah. I get it. Fast thinking. Photographic memory. Logic," Lila said while rolling her hand.

Ethen was elated. "You're not her #idol, pal."
Knowing it would perturb him, I said, "I'll put you on speaker, and we'll see if your hers."

He hesitated.

"You wanted field experience," said Cal.

Before he spoke, I switched him to my phone's output.

"My abilities are #perpendicular to yours. I'm just an analyst."
Ethen never struck me as shy, but perhaps his experiences over the last ten years soured his taste for discussing his powers with strangers. I decided it was more likely he was fishing for a compliment.

"C'mon," I urged. "You've more than developed that #mustard seed."
"Whatcha got," Lila asked, "Ethen?"

He breathed heavily. "If you insist I join the demonstration club, let me give you a #conundrum. How do you persuade someone to give you information without directly asking for it?"

Puzzled, she looked at us. "Is that about the list?"
"Partially yes, but that isn't the question you truly want to ask," Ethen said.

"Are you reading my mind?" Lila asked with excitement.

Ethen humphed. "No, I can't hear your thoughts. #Concentrate. What is it you think I'm asking?"

"I know what y'all want to know."
"A refreshingly honest statement. Proceed."

"Wait. Honest? Truly?" I could see her put the pieces together. "You're a lie detector?"

"Aren't you shrewd?"

"Don't they make apps that do that?"

"This isn't a #tawdry gimmick. I'm more accurate and detailed even remotely."
Lila put her hand up and looked away from my phone. Her lamp's light made the brown #iris of her right eye glow.

"Does everyone with powers have to act so superior?" she asked with a tinge of anger.

I put ear guy on mute. "I'm sorry. Ethen's being an insensitive jerk."
I begrudgingly returned his audio to our earbuds. At least she wouldn't have to hear him.

As Lila worked her curls into a messy #ponytail with a hair tie, Cal said, "You had a negative comment about each of our abilities. Have you had bad experiences with the powered?"
She regarded us through her brow with a squint. It was #quaint seeing someone attempt Cal's perpetual scowl but with a more adorable result.

"Yeah, you could say that. Scott really didn't tell you anything, did he?" she said. "My so-called friends were trying to use me."
Cal said, "I can't imagine you'd let them."

"They wanted me to help them steal. I told them hell no."

"What did they want to take?" I asked.

"Clothes, a #wine bottle, and electronics."

Ethen typed, but thankfully he kept his abrasive, distracting comments to himself.
Cal half grinned. "Teens are selfish. Why did you say no?"

Lila held up her tablet and tugged on her collar. "I have what I want thanks to my mom. I don't care about drinking. They aren't hurting either."

No one could make a #doppleganger of someone this independent.
"She's telling the truth. Commendable," Ethen said loudly.

Cal and I winced and lowered the secure call volume.

"What happened when your admirable strong-will clashed with their egos?" I asked.

"They ah-" Lila stroked her left #earlobe. "They got desperate and cruel."
"You're the kink in their plan's weak #design," Cal said. "We've shared our powers with you. You're giving your story piecemeal. Three for one specials are rare. Will you give us the whole dish instead of appetizers?"

Taken aback by his boldness, she scowled at him.
This time her dirty look easily bested Cal's.

Concerned, he asked, "What's wrong?"

"You sound like Rosa and Sean!" Lila yelled. "Trying to manipulate me? I don't owe you or anyone anything."

"Oof. A #valiant effort, Cal," Ethen quipped. "Now we have two partial names."
Cal grabbed his temples between his forefinger and thumb. "I'm trying to understand you, not manipulate you." He pointed at me. "Find a way to be a soothing #dessert pudding for her, David. And Ethen, be happy you're back at base."

How was I supposed to connect with her?
Seeing Lila confused, hurt, and angry made me remember my late teens in high school. Memories of judgment, knots in my stomach, and anxiety came flooding back. The #finality of the moment tightened my shoulders worse than a touch from Alice, but it was all I had to share.
Lila crossed the room and sat on the edge of her bed, eyes averting contact.

"Lila, I—" Her sullen face turned towards me. "I don't know exactly what you're going through, but I know you're not #happy. School isn't something I reminisce about fondly. I was sick a lot."
She stared at me blankly as she rolled her jaw side to side. Was it #vanity to think my past could make a difference to her?

"Did you have a disease or something?" she asked.

"I didn't know what I had. When I exerted effort, my body starved. My stomach muscles twinged.
"Feeling weak and being anxious made me act #demure and different. My classmates weren't understanding and picked on me. Fighting back helped stop that, but only made me feel worse. I wish someone had helped me figure out my powers. It would have saved loads of anguish."
"You worked it out. I'm sure people get super #covetous when they see what you can do. Too bad my mom didn't enroll me in one of those schools for weirdos like us."

"Like us?" I gestured between Cal and myself.

"No no. Sorry, not like...weird."

"Us implies inclusion."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not like y'all."

Cal nodded at us approvingly and said, "Maybe not exactly like us, but you're in the same #district."

Silently, she frowned and shook her head.

"Admission's good for the soul," he added. "It's freeing."
"It's worthless. This may as well not exist."

"That isn't true," I urged.

"She thinks it is," Ethen said.

"Watch." Quickly she stood. "You'll see."

With the #virtue of a crumb faced child devouring a package of cookies with gluttonous glee, Ethen said, "Yes, show us."
Lila's hand was perpendicular to the floor. "Stand back a little." Her honey gold eyes surveyed the room and closed.

Cal jabbed, "Thought you didn't care and only the list mattered, Ethen. Feeling #generous?"

"The moment's hysteria is irresistible. Describe what she's—"
The tiny bulbs in the tree lamp had a momentary afterglow from turning off suddenly. Lila's tablet and cellphone's LEDs were dark. It was as if the coming dusk had an #avarice for all light, natural or man-made.

My earpiece was silent.

Cal tapped his. "What happened?"
After lowering her hand, Lila opened her eyes. "I happened."

Cal and I swapped overtly stunned expressions causing her to glance at the ceiling in exasperation.

"I'm basically a human version of The Clapper. I'm a cheap novelty. Not exactly the most #noble power, huh?"
"There's nothing wrong with with you nor what you can do." Cal leaned down and poked at the tree lamp. "That's pretty damn amazing. How long does it last?"

"I don't know. Could be fifteen minutes. Could be hours. It depends how much #wrath the universe has against me."
"Try to see it more as the universe granted you a #loving gift because it knew only you could handle it." Cal tried to assure her, but her head tilt and downshifted lips said "yeah right."

"When you depower things, do they always come back on?" I questioned.

"So far."
Cal was surprised. "You think they won't?"

"Once, I accidentally turned off my mom's phone for a day. She said I had to work on my #eros energy - whatever that is."

I nearly giggled when I realized Ethen couldn't hear that.

"Sounds like she's understanding," said Cal.
Lila put up two fingers. "It's just the two of us. We're #survivors, so we can't stay mad at each other."

Cal asked, "Why? Where's your dad?"

My voice overlapped his. "Why? Does your mom have powers, too?"

We quickly understood our roles and nodded at each other.
She looked between us and smiled, her eyes brightened for a moment and then faded. "My dad left when I was little. I never knew him. My mom has zero #envy for superpowers. She's tough as nails and doesn't need them."

"I like her already," I approved with a small laugh.
Cal stayed serious. "I sense your family life isn't simple and #chaste. Tell me if I'm wrong. Your mom left you with your uncle in a hurry probably for work. He was the quickest, best option."

Lila nodded. "Yeah. How'd you know?"

"No pictures and Scott's lack of charm."
As the pieces revealed themselves, I started to better understand her story. Too much fog remained. My #hunger for answers wasn't satiated.

"Your mom's job must be incredibly important for her to have you here for the last three months," I indicated. "What does she do?"
"Consulting in Europe until early June."

"Consultants are typically experts in their field. What's hers?"

"Um...I'm not supposed to say."

"I can bend rules a bit—hell, we're doing it now since our equipment is off—but I'll look #lazy if you don't give me something."
"It's with the government. I think."

"Whew. Good. So not a drug dealer or hitman." I smiled in case she thought I was serious.

Lila tried to resist, but her lips turned upward. "No."

Cal figdeted with his #chain. "What's your mom think about the video and your uncle?"
She picked up her phone to check if it was still dead and let it flop onto the bed. Like ours and everything else in the room, it was.

"She said he's projecting his issues onto me. He's on a power trip instead of getting therapy."

"He's on a #ride to ruin," said Cal.
"As soon as she's back, I'm out of here." Lila looked through the window and back at us. "Do you guys want to talk to her?"

"Maybe later." I had to keep her chatting about herself even if it meant cutting to the chase with a #sword. "That light outside. Did you do that?"
Approaching the window, she looked at the lamppost, its flickering a reflection of the fugue state of the murky, dusk sky.

"No, I can't feel it right." She put her hand on the glass. The light jumped weakly. "I can't even #impress the dog. God, why do I suck at this?"
"Are those your thoughts or your friends'? Everyone sucks at it at first," Cal assured. "You think it was all roses and fresh pastries for me right away? That's a #dream, not reality."

I stood next to her. "It takes practice and learning. How long have you had yours?"
"A couple years. I should have it down by now, right?"

Cal stood on her other side admiring his car's gleam as the sun set. "Girl, who #tattooed that BS on your mind?"

She stared up at him. "My friends can all control theirs. I couldn't help them even if I wanted to."
"Lila," I grabbed her attention, "your friends may think they're badasses, but they're not sophisticated if we're already onto them. What exactly did they want you to do?"

She took a long breath. "#Summer wanted me to disable security cameras or she'd leak my ability."
"She sounds like a real peach," Cal said, his tone, laced with sarcasm, #rose.

"Is she the leader of the kid crime ring?" I asked. "Anyone else?"

She rolled her eyes. "There's also Quentin. He's mostly harmless. She chooses the targets and gives everyone their jobs."
Using powers to break the law was nothing new, but high schoolers? We'd get a rare one who took advantage of #golden opportunities. One boy used his hyper speed to clear out cash drawers. He left green play money under the top bills. This was worse. It was a whole group.
Cal leaned back from the window, turned towards me, and jutted his head sideways as if to say, "Keep going."

I had to be thorough. "You didn't join them even once? You didn't take a single #dollar?"

Her mouth hung open. "No, they did a demo after school. Summer's idea."
"That was at your school?"

"Yeah. They broke into lockers to show me how easily they could do it. I #wish I could tell you who did what, but ya know. The law." She breathed hard and shook off a thought with a grin. "I didn't exist to them today. Summer looked so pissed."
With a grunt and plentiful chin rubbing, Cal said, "In some ways, good 'ol Uncle Scott saved you from their torment. They're scared or their parents made them scared of the consequences."

"I am not his effing #partner!"

"You don't seem too annoyed by the results."
"Are you freaking kidding me?" Lila yelled with rage as she got in his face. "You think being made an outcast by your own family member is fun?"

"Hey!" We heard Scott shout as a #crash came from downstairs. Sadie barked and galloped into the room, her teeth on display.
Without breaking eye contact with Lila, Cal closed his hand as if he were holding a #pencil, put it to the side towards Sadie, and opened it. The growling was replaced with a whimper and air sniffs.

"What are you doing, Cal?" I asked.

"Same thing we did with her uncle."
I waved Cal into the hallway as Lila pet Sadie gently.

I stared at him intently, a taste of his own medicine.

"What do all teenagers have in common?" Cal asked. "They lie."

"What truth is she hiding behind that gray #cloud of yours?"

"I don't buy her lack of control."
"Your pessimism was quaint at first. Now it's concerning. She's a mopy teen sitting in her room listening to cool #music. She's us thirteen years ago."

"She turned off everything in here no problem. You're taking her at her word. Why? We're off the grid. Let's test her."
My pupils dilated as I unpacked that. "Other than being a teen, what's the reason not to believe her? Ethen didn't detect a single lie. Her non-verbal queues are all in line with what she's experienced. You want to shirk the rules the second HQ can't listen. How #prompt."
Cal's brow tightened as if each line carried a thousand #stories of tribulation. Suddenly, his whole body relaxed and he grinned.

"Damn. Thought I had you," he marveled. "Relax. You passed."

My expression tensed as I discerned the truth. "Aurora ordered you to test me?"
"She's the boss." He shrugged. "She told me to push your buttons and to temp you to break the rules. You have quite the resolve."

If this was a new personality trait on display, it was as grating as the rest.

"Excuse my #oppositional words, but you make a poor idiot."
Cal flashed his straight, bright white teeth. It was the first time I'd seen him with a wide smile. In another situation, he'd appear charming instead of arrogant.

"I weed out the weak links. Problems. It's why I was hired. Your tarnished record made them #uncertain."
"The bosses wanted me back. She didn't," I corrected. "We can have a #spirited debate later." I made a fist and cracked my knuckles. "Or go another round."

His eyebrows raised. "What do you want to do, David?"

"Plenty. I'm helping Lila. If you're not, go babysit Scott."
As I reentered the room, I didn't quiet my mind. I thought Lila may relate better if she thought we were having difficulties.

"Y'all okay?" she asked me as Sadie stared.

"Just a disagreement."

If Cal had a grain of remorse, he'd help in an attempt to make #reparations.
Lila was concerned. "About me?"

"No, about us," I said as Cal trudged into the room, his positivity dimmed. "He was testing you, but that's risky and not #compliant with Agency SOP. We can't cause a neighborhood wide blackout."

"I couldn't. Right?"

"We don't know yet."
Cal clicked his lips. His face was a combination of unease and self-reproach. "You haven't a clue. She could be upstairs level. Your plan's already becoming #unraveled."

"Dude, don't bring your negative energy into my space. It's rude." Lila scolded with a waving finger.
Cal was momentarily dumbfounded, but lightened up quickly.

"That was a good one," he said.

I couldn't hide my schadenfreude and beamed at her. "Lila, years ago in #therapy, I learned a technique that can help anyone like us improve their control. Do you want to try it?"
Surprised, Cal mouthed, "Therapy?"

"What do you think, Sadie?" Lila asked as the dog wagged her tail. "Okay, but don't be surprised if it doesn't work on me."

"I'd be more #crestfallen than you if that happened," I admitted. "Come to the window again. Watch the sunset."
Cal's Challenger reflected blue and purple light as we watched day become night. The yellow moon shone brightly in the smooth sky.

"You always have the #freedom to enjoy the beauty of the world," I said. "There's serenity in taking a deep breath and smelling the air."
After closing her eyes, she inhaled, lifted her head, and peaked at me. "I feel silly."

"It's a relaxation technique," Cal informed. "It'll help."

"That's right." No snide remark? "Powers are like being an #artist. Being calm and in control gives the best results."
Lila shut her eyes again. "Tell it to the people on my music stream."

Cal and I laughed, our smiles nervously evaporating the moment our eyes met.

"That #inelegant, chaotic energy can make something beautiful," Cal said, "but without inner peace, it tears itself apart."
Lila looked more at ease and asked, "Did it work for you, David?"

"Powered therapy was the key for me. I was wound too tight to gain meaningful control without it. Over time, it became natural and #refined.

"Picture your favorite place. Is it a beach? A cruise ship?"
With her eyes still closed, she hummed in thought. "You saw my pictures in the hall. We went on a trip to Cozumel. The beaches were like a dream."

"Imagine the warm breeze. Toes in the white sand."

Cal's #antagonistic attitude faded. "Relaxation visualization. Nice."
After a few minutes, Lila said the tension in her shoulders had eased.

I continued, "Slowly reach out to feel that flickering light. Let it come naturally even if takes a while. There's no rush and no judgement."

Placing her hand in the air, her fingertips #sparkled.
Her eyelids peeled back revealing her irises #almost shimmering. I could have sworn her purple hair streaks glimmered for a split second.

The light stabilized and brightened.

"Got it!" Lila cheered.

She turned up her hand and clenched. The bulb inside the lamp burst.
With shock, Cal took a step back from the window. "Did you just..." he trailed off, overcome with wonder.

"Yes, I did." She turned towards me with a smile, and then aimed at the next streetlight down two houses.

"Wait. That light pole was just #beyond my Green Machine."
I wanted to laugh at how ridiculous that was but managed to contain myself. "The car has a name?"

"Don't act surprised. It also has electronics. Did your EMP hit my car? That wasn't exactly a #clear shot. I hope nothing in it blew up."

Lila gave him an incredulous look.
With a tone soaked with an attitude only a teenager could convey, she said, "I don't make EMPs. I did something amazing, and all you care about is your stupid car."

"It's an expensive piece of equipment." He pointed.

"It must have more than a #few light bulbs. Pop!"
Cal side grinned.

Before he could demonstrate more oddly questionable tactics, I calmly spoke. "Guys, don't make me turn this car around. Cal, your Green Machine is parked. It's fine."


"Will try the next light. Remember, flick a switch. Don't light #dynamite."
As Lila concentrated, arm outstretched, on the streetlight a couple houses away, I wondered how she'd be affected by these recent months. Would she end up cynical and sour? Would she adopt a shiny #persona while internally battling acceptance? Will her art keep her level?
The pain of a past not dealt with #echoes through time. The violent reverberation rattles the soul until walls attempt to contain it.

That's how people like Lunar lash out. It's what lets villains like Meridian dehumanize those without powers. Leveling becomes a weapon.
No one knew the future, yet I wasn't #afraid for Lila. She was tough, bright, talented, and had a good sense of humor. She didn't even let Cal get to her. Was that was he was testing? Her resolve?

She slowly faded the light until shadow crept into that area of the road.
Sadie immediately took note of the darkness, growled, and barked in its direction.

"It's okay, girl. It's a good thing," Lila told her with a smile, taking #pleasure in her achievement.

Sadie stared outside a few more seconds, her hackles faded into her shiny black fur.
I smiled. "Great job!"

Cal clicked his fob making the car lights blink. "I'm glad you didn't #miss." He swept his hand across the room. "Any guess about when all this will come back?"

"Aww, are you afraid of the dark, Agent Zayne?" she taunted. "Fifteen minutes maybe?"
"We'll see. Why did my fob work?"

"I can only affect #technology that I can see. That was in your pocket."

The explanation made sense, but I wondered if she was right. Like any developmental skill, powers can evolve over time.

I handed my A46 card to her with a pen.
I told her to jot down Ricky Tine #Memorial Center, Dr. Mahdi, and a phone number.

"What is this?" Lila asked.

"If you want help with your power, call her." I tilted my head and put my hands in the air. "If you want to talk to me, use the card. I'll listen to you."
With twisted, thoughtful lips that reminded me of Alice, she said, "You're going to want my classmates' last names, aren't you?"

I grinned. "Absolutely."

She grabbed a scratch piece or paper from her desk. "Okay, but I'm keeping this pen. It writes smooth as #butter."
"That's a fair trade," I said as she wrote each of the four names along with screen names.

Lila held out the paper and again didn't release her grip. "So that's it? I give you this, you leave, and I'm back to my #lonely life?"

Cal cleared his throat. "Temporarily yes."
"Aren't you supposed to help me with all your psychobabble?" she asked with a confused vexed stare. I shared her sentiment.

"I had conflicting priorities, but I am helping now. After trauma, you're supposed to feel alone and angry. You don't need anyone's #permission."
"What if I don't want to be alone?"

"It's not a requirement," Cal said.

I added, "No one's done anything #illegal as far as we know, so you can talk to or see whoever you want. Just be careful about it. Your uncle's in the public eye.

Who's the senior guy? Is he cute?"
Lila let go of the paper as she rolled her eyes. "Ugh. Yes. Parker, I think?"

"You think?" I asked.

"Hey, a guy has to make an impression or it's #farewell for me." She paused with a coy smile. "He is cute.

How does dating even work for us? Are y'all seeing anyone?"
"Ava was recent, so I haven't tried to meet anyone." With only a hallway nightlight's glow entering the room, I saw Cal shake his head no. "What a #coincidence. On the drive over, Cal told me he's also recently single."

His head rocked back as he sighed with annoyance.
"Veronika. Our relationship—if you can call it that—was a disaster. Ever work with someone on an #art project, but they think their vision's the only one? Collaboration requires compromise. She preferred jealousy and anger. I didn't.

Dating is balance and attraction."
Shocked by Cal's frankness, I shrugged and raised my open palms. "It's only slightly different for the powered. You want someone that's the #complete package, understands that your tiny difference spins complicated webs in our society, and likes you for who you are."
Lila flipped her new pen between her upper and lower teeth. "That isn't much #comfort. I want him to ask me out."

"That's on him. Best you can do is create opportunities," Cal said.

"Make sure Parker's intentions are honorable. Or we'd be happy to have a chat with him."
"I can handle him," Lila said as sparkles in her irises #ignited. "Not sure he can handle me."

"Smart girl. That's how it should be," I said as Cal and I smiled with satisfaction.

I read the names on the list: Rosa Vilas, Sean Donahue, Summer Winters, and Quentin Lane.
Moments later, Lila with Sadie behind led us downstairs. #Gloom spread in my mind like an inkblot when I realized we'd again have to deal with Scott. It spread as I looked over my shoulder at Cal. He wasn't a completely bad guy, but I wanted him on my side, not Aurora's.
The darkness of lingering tensions failed to #eclipse the successes we had with Lila, their light burst around the penumbra. Helping her focus her ability led us to the list—the four most important names from it. Iverson was a minor nuisance. Cal was right: we would talk.
End of chapter 7.

Whew, that was a long one! Thanks for sticking with it!
Start of Chapter 8.
My mind disliked emotions put on hold. It wanted to process feelings, fire the appropriate neurons, and return to a state of relative calm. To temporarily #sunder mental pathways created an unwanted fault line. When the path reopened, an ocean of thoughts filled the void.
No strategy, shortcut, nor trick could dam that river. Nothing could #decoy emotions away forever. That's why I had to force myself to speed heal from my breakup—okay, I was dumped by Ava. I never tried to steal energy from her. I loved her. Still, I kept that from her.
She noticed I was far more energetic and positive.

I told her a half-truth: "It's because you make me happy with that feisty personality."

"And not wearing pants? I know that helps both of us."

I'd have to #defy my own reluctance to return her call. I owed her that.
Cal, Ethen, and I had hiked past Iverson's obstacles. We reached the #peak where we gave Lila a way forward. In exchange, she gave us ours.

As we returned to the living room, Scott sat on the sofa, remote in hand, his lined forehead relaxed at the sight of his niece.
He muted the TV news stream. "Are you okay? Why did Sadie bolt up there?"

"I'm fine." Lila rolled her eyes. "Like you care."

"I did this because I—" He noticed the paper in my hand.

"Surprise." I waved the sheet.

"Unlike Agent Zayne's stench, that won't #petrify me."
Ignoring his own words, Scott quickly stood up but yelped as he hit Cal's smell circle.

With a hand on his nose, he said, "Do you mind?"

"What do you think, Lila?" Cal asked.

She paused for a moment.

"This is precisely the behavior I'm trying not to #nourish in you."
"Lighten up, Scott." Cal lifted a hand into the air removing his previous work.

Scott marched directly to us, put his finger in Cal's face, and spat, "You trapped me on the sofa with your power. What example did that set for her, Cal? You want to #condemn me? Screw you."
With wide eyes, Lila dug her hands into her hair and let out an exasperated shout. "Why do you do this? You can't let anything go and #revive every argument! Everything isn't about you! You blackmailing specials like me make you a bully."

Scott's face sunk at the irony.
Even as he stayed silent and backed away from Cal, I doubted his own family could #pacify him.

"Scott," I said as I held up the Lila's list, "she gave us the names."

His eyes scanned the paper and returned to my own. With a grin, he replied, "Your earpieces are off."
"I showed them what I do," Lila admitted while putting her hand up to stop him from speaking. "It was my choice, and they—David helped me control it better."

Glancing through the window, Scott replied, "I see. Agents, I appreciate your attempt to #reave victory from me.
Since you're cut off from base and not receiving updates, you're lacking information."

He unmuted the TV. A roundtable discussion featuring reps from Powered Progress, NBT, and a psychologist with expertise in specials played. The quarrelsome mix would #mend no hearts.
"He put a target on the back of every powered. 'Step out of line. Be punished.' He set us back twenty years," said the PP spokeswoman.

"Specials want special treatment while we pay the price. Mr. Iverson has done a great #service by holding adolescents accountable."
The psychologist tilted her head. "NBT feeling #empowered to come out of the woodwork after years of silence only adds undue stress to powered youth. They're already held to the same standard as everyone: the law. Like any minority, they don't need your double-standard."
Jumping in at the end of her sentence, the salt and pepper haired male host said, "Is the law working? Iverson can't be the only one to see a #surge in powered crime."

"What increase?" yelled the PP rep. "He overreacted to bullying, and you want to trust his judgment?"
The NBT man spoke with a gravelly voice, his handsome face and smile belied by dark lines. "You don't need to #search to know the law fails to account for the immoral acts of non-normals. We should all commend him for his honorable, courageous act of civil disobedience."
Like during an accident, #time slowed as Cal, wide eyed and drawing a deep breath, turned towards Scott.

Lila pushed past her uncle and quickly depowered the TV. She glared at him with disappointment and frustration.

"Civil disobedience?" mocked Cal. "You are not MLK."
"I never said I was." Scott adjusted his glasses and had an uncomfortably relaxed demeanor.

"You liked the comparison. Made you feel important?" Cal snarled. "You'll be another forgotten #song."

"That PR guy hates everyone like me, Uncle Scott. Do you agree with him?"
Iverson's face morphed to concern as her words broke through his facade and #furrowed into his heart.

"Of course not."

"What was the point of showing us that?" she probed.

"He's gloating and being pointlessly eristic," I accused. "TV and social media aren't reality."
Iverson's brow tightened. Cal and I braced ourselves as Lila folded her arms.

"Perception is reality. In what flowery truth paradise do you live?" Scott's tone stabbed the air. "In the #sea of zeitgeist, I'm trending. Bullying. Powered rights. They're being discussed."
Lila sighed and excused herself. "I'm starving. I'll get y'all something."

"Don't zap the appliances. We need to #use them for dinner."

Once she was out of earshot, I said, "If hate groups loved what I did, I'd cower at home, too."

"NBT are scary people," said Cal.
"They're ruthless," I added. "There must be half a dozen other groups."

"You stuck it to the specials, right champ? It's a good thing kids like Lila are a protected class. Imagine if they found out she had powers," Cal shuddered. "I hope you don't have to #face them."
Iverson reached towards his #pocket, his fingers grazed the outline of his phone on top of it.

"You'll protect Lila's four rapacious friends who I'm sure you'll visit soon," he said. "And as long as they adhere to my abundantly clear rules, I won't reveal the other six."
"You're lying." Cal's tone was more hopeful than accusatory.

"Am I?

Swiftly, I grabbed my cell to check if it would start. Damn. Where was Ethen when we needed him?

The laptop on the coffee table beeped. Over my shoulder, a #note appeared on-screen: "He's not lying."
With a wicked grin, Scott snickered. "I'm glad they're listening. Whatever they're using to examine my voice has confirmed"-his timbre lowered-"I am serious."

I scratched between my brows and groaned. "No, you're not. We know your #history. You're all talk. Zero action."
"You've defiled my home and invaded my niece's #space because my actions went against my history," Iverson said with scorn.

I laughed at the man's lack of self-reflection. "I've dealt with far more serious threats than you—people who didn't just post threatening videos.
"People who didn't hesitate to throw a punch, use weapons, or employ powers to reduce others to #dust and ash.

"You don't have the conviction to follow through. You're lazy and scared."

"Violence is a tool of the desperate, Agent. Don't mistake my efficiency for sloth.
"It's no surprise two men with no families fail to grasp the most #shallow understanding of my plan." Iverson held his thumb and forefinger close together.

Cal clicked his tongue. "I don't suppose you'd give us the other six names."

He smiled. "Go get your snack, boys."
He was a rock trapped in the marsh, blind and unmoved by anything but time. There would be no #battle.

I told Scott to stay in the room and reminded him that HQ was still watching on the laptop. He rolled his eyes.

On the keyboard, I typed, "His texts?"

"I'm close."
"Ping you soon," I typed and immediately closed the note after ensuring only Cal saw the exchange.

To Scott's surprise, the TV clicked back on when he used the remote. Ever the #portrait of modesty, he enjoyed another self-indulgent fifteen minutes of fame on the news.
The kitchen was spacious and modern with a large center island. Gray marble counters adorned every surface. The brushed metal appliances had nary a fingerprint or #flaw on them. Five blue pendant lights provided a warmth to the otherwise sterile, model home appearance.
Lila placed three plates on the island with two pizza slices on each. Cal savored my gaping #stare as much as I did the steamy smells.

"I figured we all had a craving after using our powers." She took a healthy bite. "Bright Wood Fired is the best," she said through it.
She was right; it was absolutely scrumptious. Cal, who had apprehensively sniffed his slices, made a high-pitched, approving "mmm." The oregano aroma had #drifted to Sadie who whined at Lila's side.

"Sit. Good girl." She ripped off a small piece and let Sadie gobble it.
After we finished our snack—dinner really—we helped Lila clean the counter. The #clock on the double wall oven read quarter to seven.

To my astonishment, my phone started when I checked it.

As Cal turned on his, I suggested, "Let's reconnect ear guy once we're outside."
He consented while we avoided eye contact.

Lila pulled out her hair tie and shook her mane loose. A sharp #shock hit my chest. She giggled as I looked down to see the band.

"It's a few more weeks. I'm going to be fine, guys. Really. Will you?" she asked us with concern.
Like a million dollar yacht tied to a dilapidated #dock, our tension became palpable. Cal crossed his arms while I rubbed my left shoulder.

Lila gasped. "OMG." She grabbed a sticky note and jotted something down. "Here's my mom's number and mine. Talk in here for a few."
"What about Scott?" Cal asked.

She paused before she left the kitchen and smiled, her bright eyes widening. "Maybe he'll get up to eat, but I doubt it. Let me know before y'all go, okay?"

Since Aurora joined the agency, I've felt an #eternal scrutiny over my career.
Praise was rare. Criticism, correction, and fault-finding were a talus pile collecting until it collapsed. The weight of thousands of pointy #rock gibes were becoming unbearable. What was her game? Did she simply find me intolerable?

I kept the island between Cal and me.
I cracked my neck. "So glad I passed your test, Cal. Are you my partner or Aurora's?"

"Why can't it be both?"

"After that show of incredible irresponsibility upstairs, you think you can be a #jock playing for both teams? You're lucky I stopped you."

"You stopped me?"
"Risking the control of a teenage girl's power to test my restraint is the definition of you not having any."

"I push boundaries. Never cross them."

"Yet," I paused. "When, not if, you screw up, Aurora will #lock you out. You won't be her teammate. You'll be her pawn."
"Are you sure you're not projecting your experiences and issues with her onto me?" Cal asked with a compassionate tone that made me clench my fist.

I took a breath before speaking with an even tone. "Don't #mock me with your psychoanalysis. I know how she treats people."
"David, when you put your #socks on in the morning and think about the day, do you worry about Aurora? I mean without your super mental calmness."

Did I?

"No. She's halfway predictable. What do you think about, Cal? Veronika? Your wife? Your magically vanishing ring?"
Cal had again been fidgeting with his necklace. He held up its end. Nothing was there.

"I guess I had that coming." He let the chain drop to his chest. "I don't want to start a #war. I'm sorry. It's hard to balance the two sides of the job without looking like a tool."
His palms faced outward and his head tilted down during the apology. When I saw his irises weren't enlarged, I believed he was genuine.

"Apology accepted, Cal." We shook hands firmly.

"Let's get the hell out of here. You need more food? My energy #store's still low."
I grinned. "I could eat, especially since you're buying."

"Oh I am?"

"You are. We better enjoy ourselves before Ethen finds a way to #beam his signal into our heads."

"All right. My treat."

"And I want the ring story."

Cal whinced. "Dessert, too? So demanding."
His wit didn't convince me, but I knew I'd get the truth eventually. Did he wear it as a tribute to his late wife? As a momento to #shore up his strength and luck in emotional times of need? Was he pocketing it to ween himself off of it or to toy with my inquisitiveness?
On the way to the living room, I texted Lila so she'd know we were leaving. Her uncle gazed sideways at us through his brow, his tired eyes shined with newfound delight. My stomach churned at the thought of him adding to his #score.

"All through with your lover's spat?"
Raising a finger, the right corner of Cal's lips curled upward.

"This is how mature people resolve conflict in a healthy manner. You get back what you put into the world. Susan walked out the #door, Lila can't wait to, and you had nothing good to say about your sister. Cal Zayne from David Doesn'...
"Your history with women isn't looking good, Scott. I'm curious what kinds of relationships with females you had in your youth. Like #lore passed down through generations, our families teach us how to treat others." Cal rubbed his goatee. "Some people are just uncivil."
A look of shock came over Scott's face as he clutched his chest.

"Oh gee. I guess you really got me," he deadpanned. "Here. I'll be civil. After you leave my house and turn mother nature to #gore with that obnoxious vehicle, send my warmest regards to Ms. Aurora Calais."
"Who's that?" Lila asked as she stepped off the staircase into the room.

Iverson's #glib words struck me with satellite tracked missile precision. I had never heard a soul outside the agency utter her name.

"I believe she's their boss," he replied with a mocking tone.
#Alight with purple arcs, Lila's eyes widened with fury. Unable to resist my frustration, I moved to Scott and slammed my hands on the sofa's back cushion pinning him.

"How the hell do you know her name?" I said through gritted teeth.

He smiled. "A little bird told me."
I moved close enough to see every red vessel in his uncaring optics and the valleys of lack of sleep under them.

"Tell them," Lila yelled.

He stared at me.

"Do you even care about anyone else? Friend, #relative, powered, normal? Anyone, Uncle Scott?"

He swallowed.
A bead of sweat rolled down his temple.

"Hey Cal," I said keeping my focus on Iverson.


"A little birdie told me about his texts."

"Me too. And we're going to see them. Real soon. You think Aurora gets name dropped?"

A #splat came from inside Scott's stomach.
I prayed Ethen would have typed on the screen, but a hallelujah moment with an angelic #choir was not meant to be.

"I'm starving, so unless you have a warrant."

"You think we can't get one?" I said.

"Why are you lying to them?" Lila sounded as tough as an interrogator.
Keeping a threatening presence over him, I removed my right hand and moved slightly to the side.

"Lila, I know you're upset. My #venture to protect you requires my silence."

"Your convictions don't negate your lies, Scott," Ethen's voice came out of the laptop speakers.
I turned away to muffle my amusement.

With a confused and indignant look, Scott raised his palms in the air.

"I'm sorry, random computer tech," he said, "who are you to judge me while you hide behind a keyboard?"

"How #contemporaneous: a liar using hackneyed insults."
Iverson stood, put his hands on his hips, and looked at us.

"Friend of yours? He completes the diarrhea of the mouth trifecta," he said.

Lila gasped. "Rude!"

"Certain thoughts are best said #aloud rather than internalized," Ethen retorted, "like your phone messages."
Scott's head canted. "Who are you, witty voice man?"

"Ethen Simon."

"Ethen, you're not going to #carve out a name for yourself and get ahead in your career by using me."

"As a minor curiosity of avoidance and concealment, you're of miniscule use to me."

Scott laughed.
He pointed at the screen. "You're bold enough to be honest unlike your coworkers who feigned concern for Lila."

His niece looked ready to tear off his head.

"I'll #expedite this," said Ethen. "You concern me far more than her. Let me—let the agency protect both of you."
Iverson contemplated with a high-pitched "hmm."

"You'll have to explain. We aren't in danger. I saw to that," he replied.

"You're seeing the situation from the present's #limited scope. Supporters will starve for stimulation creating detractors who feed off anger."
"Their outlet will be those who tease and exploit others. Unless you have #prior knowledge, I think your prophecies will prove false."

"That's not my power," Ethen stated. "Anti-powered groups desire a sequel. Failure to deliver will be seen as an insult to their creed.
"It only takes one overzealous follower with desire to show his or her commitment. Add in the supers you've riled, some of which could harm you from afar, and your objective backfires."

While Ethen's words were #brash, they were filled with truth only experience granted.
What hard lessons had life taught him since school? Was there a depth to him I hadn't noticed?

"You remind me of my younger self." Scott grinned and let his folded arms relax by his sides. "You needn't #fret about us, Ethen. I have travel plans once Lila's mom returns."
After letting out a breathy grunt, Ethen replied, "Even on your beachy escape reverie, I get the impression a #rivulet of doubt will babble through your thoughts."

"What else do I impress upon you, Mr. mind reader?" Scott said.

"He doesn't do that," Lila added quickly.
"Thank you, Lila. I'm aware."

Not a soul in the room believed that. Even Sadie gave him a funny look.

"No, you weren't, Scott," Ethen informed.

"It's barely a difference to be an empath."

"You err with your #aim. I sense when you chose to lie, omit, or are truthful."
Iverson turned towards Cal and me. "Is he your secret, #crepuscular weapon released only at the twilight of hope's exhaustion?" He faced the laptop. "I've changed my mind, Ethen. We're nothing alike. Who needs to cheat when most liars are obvious?"

"They certainly are."
"Gentlemen, you tried your worst with me and allegedly helped her."

"They did! I have a doctor I can call," Lila shouted.

"Great. Your mom will take you. You two, piss off out of my house. Now. And take th— w-whatever he is with you," he #stuttered waving at the laptop.
Knowing we'd call Ethen outside, I slipped the computer, Lila's list, and her contact info into the carrier. We had made zero headway with Scott. Had he been right? Were we there merely for show?

Lila #writhed, her anxious arms unable to remain still.

"Um hey guys?"
Cal asked, "Are you all right?"

She shook her head, frowned, and more pushed than escorted us to the door out of the #shadow of her uncle.

"Am I safe? Do people want to hurt us? God, I just want to be a normal freaking girl. Why do I have to deal with the crap he did?"
Her heartbreaking words were like icy hands on my shoulders. I wanted to tell her not to worry, that it would be okay, but I couldn't lie.

"Lila, he thought his list buried all concern in the #cemetery. He's wrong. Yes, the consequences could also affect you. I'm sorry."
Her sparking eyes widened as her hands clenched.

"Make him talk! Why did you stop?" she shrieked.

"Unless he breaks the law, we'd #wind up right back here," I explained. "We know you don't want to stay with him. Family's supposed to protect you. If he won't, we will."
"How? You're about to leave."

Cal gently held up his hand. "The agency has contacts that can assist with having you moved considering your special circumstances. It won't be instant. It could take days or weeks. Likely before #autumn."

"My mom will be back before that."
"It's the best I have," Cal said.

"You're a minor with powers. The media won't risk revealing your name," I said. "They'll talk about your uncle plus the social implications. You're a #dandelion in a vast field. Anonymity protects you."

Lila half-smiled. "I'm a weed?"
"Cal could make you a lily," I said.

She looked at the ceiling and #staggered her feet to act as if she was becoming faint. "Such gentlemen."

Cal held out his cupped hands. "How about jasmine?"

"I'd like that." She paused. "Will ya'll check on me no matter where I go?"
As she sniffed her arm, I said, "Of course. Call us for anything."

"I will. Someone has to make sure you're getting along."

Cal gave her his card. "And call the doc."

She smiled and opened the door. Something, a #blackbird or bat, flapped its wings away from the porch.
We reeled and shrugged off the #mystery creature as the darkness absorbed it. Cricket chirps and the rolling hum of cicadas crescendoed in the muggy evening air.

Lila surprised us with a tight farewell hug. She'd be fine once the melodrama of her junior year passed.
Like a #sliver of mirror among the monotony of asphalt, pruned trees, and repeated house models, Cal's Challenger stood out even bathed in night.

My stomach rumbled.

"Check your welcome back bundle. Jack may have slipped some new bars in there." Cal unlocked the doors.
I retrieved my parcel taking note of the #woods next to the car. Leaf covered branches silently swayed hiding any other potential avian visitors.

Inside the A46 jacket I found still warm tin foil wrapped food and a folded note taped to it. The smells made my mouth water.
Cal craned his neck at the aroma. "What is that?"

Unfurling the paper, I read aloud, "Dave, welcome back. I made your favorite. Tech created an ultra insulating foil. Did it work? Share with Cal. Be a tranquil #heron as you wade through life's shores. Enjoy hun, Alice."
"She cooks?" Cal asked.

Steam wafted out of the wrapping. "Killer empanadas." I handed one to him, and we each took a bite of ours.

"Damn that's good. You've been friends a while?"

"Since I started at the agency."

Crap. I didn't want to get #tangled in Alice's secret.
Cal turned his head quizzically. "Did they hire her fresh out of middle school?"

I ate another piece to buy myself time. "She's been there longer than I have."

In the distance, I spied the streaky afterimage of a pair of oddly late season #fireflies.

"She's a prodigy?"
Warmth flowed to my flushed face matching my #river of worry. I couldn't break my word, but I didn't want to appear evasive. At least we hadn't reconnected Ethen. He'd spoil the whole thing.

My tone raised as I held up an empanada. "Maybe? She's a multi-talented woman."
"Uh huh," Cal said, an edge on his voice. "She is. You're not good at this. What aren't you telling me?"

𝘚𝘩𝘦'𝘴 𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳. I drew on a little energy to #ebb my unhelpful thoughts.

"She seems to like you. Ask her."
Cal's eyes narrowed and opened as he smiled. "Right away, she felt comfortable and familiar like someone I've known forever. I feel like I can move on from my #grief and enjoy whatever we're doing."

I nodded. "That's great, man. Don't keep her waiting. Ask her out."
"Any red flags I need to know about? Any crazy exes?"

I laughed. "She's probably wondering the same about you. Go out, have #fun, and learn about each other. I can't do that for you."

"All right," he relented. "You should call Ava. I'll check in with Ethen and Jack."
The idea of speaking with Ava, someone I loved, someone I hurt so deeply she left, made me want to collapse into myself like a #turtle hiding in its shell.

I paced away from the car and firmly grabbed the back of my neck. I took a deep breath and looked down at my feet.
Glancing at Cal in mid-conversation in the driver's seat, he flapped his hand in a "go on" motion.

Would Ava and I treat each other like #strangers, timidly tip-toeing around subjects to not wake spirits of arguments long ago put to rest? It reminded me of a first date.
Not our first date. If she had a question, she did not #hesitate to ask it even if it broke social norms.

As I tapped my phone screen to call her, my happy memories dissipated. Fearlessness, one of my favorite things about her, scared me to death.

"Shit." The line rang.
"Hey." Ava's voice lacked its usual exuberance.

"Hi." I matched her tone.

"Took you a while to call back."

"I'm on a new case." That felt too casual. "But you knew that." Too snarky?

"How's the new partner? Jack said, '#Trust me. Cal's the perfect match for David.'"
"How you do his voice so well?" She had the perfect accent. "Cal tested my patience, but we had a recent breakthrough."

"He gave me good vibes. The brooding and the whole smell thing is pretty cute. Putting two heartbreakers together has to #signify something, right?"
"Heatbreakers?," I said with hesitation.

"What? Oh God. No no. I wasn't— It's because you two are handsome. Sorry. Bad joke. I didn't go to the #cafe this morning."

"Right. Thanks, I guess." Purposeful or not, her sharp tongue stung. "The agency always has a reason."
"Are you two investigating that video with the guy threatening kids?"

"Ava, you know I can't tell you."

"He's reprehensible. Did you make him #cower? It's exactly the kind of case you'd take."

"Is it?"

"Did you help the niece? You were always great at that, David."
She amped up #innocence and distracted with compliments, but I couldn't leak information, especially on the day I returned to A46.

I could defect as well as she could.

"Have you saved the day with your designs yet?"

She scoffed. "Always. That's what comic art does!"
She #radiated confidence but needed an occasional booster. At the very least, I owed her that.

"Your talent makes people happy and gives them a needed escape from reality."

"Thanks," she cooed quietly.

I wished I could have seen her smile. I decided to take the risk.
"So...um, do you want to get lunch or some drinks, catch up, and talk?" I suggested.

After an eon of silence that caused my chest to ache with worry, Ava answered. "Uh. David, I'm not ready for any #intimate chats or encounters. I'm sorry. It's only been three months." Image
My heart felt as if a belt had prevented it from exiting my body from the impact of my emotional #accident.

"No. You're right. It-It's fine." I wasn't. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

In the background, I heard an indistinct voice talking to her. "Hold on, David."
Muffled voices spoke with her and paused.

"I need to go," Ava nearly whispered. "I can't do this. Maybe in a month or two. I'll call you, okay?" Her soft tone tried to lessen the blow, but her sadness broke through it.

My damn heart #betrayed me as it was stomped flat.
I stared at her contact picture, a shot I took moments before she tackled me at the start of a steamy night. Her eyes were gorgeous. It shrunk to nothingness as she ended the call.

The #treacherous gauntlet I forced myself through to heal placed more obstacles in my way.
As if my shoes were full of stinging cold mud after my #hurt legs had endured and lost a marathon, I galumphed back to the Challenger.

Upon noticing me, Cal tapped his earbud and exited the car. "What happened?"

I forced myself to look him in the eyes. "I screwed up."

"We were joking around to break the tension. I knew I made her smile, so I asked her to get together." I frowned and shook my head.

"I'm sorry, man. You know it was too soon for that." Cal placed his hand on my shoulder. "Luckily, heartache isn't #terminal."
"I thought I was past this. I did all that work. All that healing."

"You did. But some thoughts and feelings need time to be sorted. There's no way around that no matter our powers."

I nodded.

"Most guys would #flee instead of talking with their ex. You were brave."
"I was trying to make up for breaking her trust."

Cal patted my shoulder. "People think they owe an emotional debt because of remorse. You apologized. You didn't mean to #spook Ava just now. She'll heal. We all make mistakes. Will you forgive yourself for yours, David?"
If my #inscape were a pitch black passageway in a cave, his penetrating words were the elements eroding away the rock to allow light to flow.

"I...never thought of it until now," I admitted.

"Try it." He removed his hand.

"I will. Is that why you wear your necklace?"
Cal's brow remained relaxed, his demeanor calm. "Sure. That's part of it." He placed the end of the chain in his open palm. The ring dissolved into reality with a glint as his lips curled.

His evasiveness did not #foreshadow this.

"What?" I uttered with my gaped mouth.
The ring dropped from his hand and swung like a pendulum until it hit his chest.

"Did you make me smell a hallucinatory? Am I #sleepwalking?" I tapped my jaw. "I've seen the incredible and the astonishing like the boy in the store, but I've never seen anything do that."
Cal chuckled. "Naw, it's real. How is this any different than the kid?"

"He made tiny wormholes to warp nearby objects." I pointed. "That materialized out of thin air. After testing me, I want to know what's real with you. Don't #sugarcoat. Are you hiding more powers?"
"Even I'm not that good." He tucked the necklace, ring first, into his shirt and added with hesitation, "Let's get in the car, I'll make it smell like a piney #campfire, and we'll share whatever stories the other wants to know. Deal?"

"Full details?"


Before I took a step, Cal grabbed my arm. "Hey. What you did for Lila, that was good. Real good. Not everyone can do that. I bet that's why the bosses wanted you #active again."

Still weary of him, I said, "Thanks. I don't want kids having to experience what I did."
"That makes sense with your...upbringing," Cal said, his voice becoming staccato as his eyes drifted to something behind me.


"Someone's there."

I turned and saw a dim, orange ember floating in the air like a #snowflake of firey ash under the unlit streetlight.
It raised and burned brightly as smoke drifted behind it.

I tried to bring the person into focus.

"Can you see who it is?" Cal asked.

"No, I can't even see a silhouette. It's just blackness. No details. Not even a motion #fingerprint to say if it's a male or female."
Cal yelled, "Can we help you?"

A flash of yellow #primrose light darkened to the blueshifted hues of a phone screen. I saw a man with long dreadlocks take a pull on a cigarette. He looked at his phone, laughed, and flicked the butt away causing it to spark on the ground.
He pocketed his cell in his striped athletic shorts and swaggered closer.

"Park your #retrograde ass right there." Cal ordered.

The man in a bright tank top snickered.

"He's not stopping." Cal frowned and snorted.

"He isn't." I made my clenched fists hard as stone.
After reconnecting my earpiece to the call with Ethen and Cal, I said, "We have company. Might be a problem."

"I hope this won't turn into a #saga, gentlemen, but I'm here if you need me," Ethen replied.

Letting out a beastly, guttural scream, the man sprinted at us.
His skin looked like it had been dipped in a black inkwell. His hands grew, lengthening his fingers by more than a foot. As he leaped in the air over us, his hair moved independently like gorgoneion locks. I had never seen a super with these awakened #dormant abilities. A new villain from David Do...
The man landed with a punch to Cal's chest.

Unfazed, Cal promised, "I'll stop you." His words were not #hypothetical. He struck the man's face with forceful impacts. Right. Left. Uppercut. He opened his hand an inch from the attacker's nose releasing vile, spoiled milk.
Head back, eyes shut, our adversary stood frozen in a #trance-like state. Cal balled his fist to deliver a final blow.

The man's eyes opened wide. His hand, already on Cal's shirt, lifted him off his feet.

"Tasty," he mocked and slammed his forehead into Cal's nose.
The loud crack caused blood to leak down Cal's lips.

"Put him down," I #implored.

The monstrous man turned to me. With a smile, he tossed Cal into the driver's side door of his Challenger, putting a significant dent in it.


"He's down. Hope you'll do better."
"I don't know you or what you want, but I'll make you regret not walking away when you had the chance," I said with #resolve.

I channeled the red hot rage that coursed through me to increased the muscle mass in my upper body.

"Confident like him." His fingers beckoned.
Our circular steps mirrored each other as I sized up my opponent: over six feet tall, trim, and stalking me like prey. His eyes and teeth appeared stark white against his obsidian skin. He sneered and #plumed his thick hair.

I intended to hurt him no matter what it took.
"Enough dancing." He smacked my face with his oversized hand. I wiped a bead of blood from my mouth and closed the wound.

I preferred peaceful solutions, but my job had #normalized using violence when required.

I returned the favor with a granite hard punch to the jaw.
He rubbed and shifted his mandible to each side with a crunch before it settled in the middle. Furious brown eyes focused on me.

I dodged two jabs but caught a solid hook in a floating rib. Hunched over, a roundhouse kick to its #neighbor knocked me fully off-balance.
Instinctively, I reached out and caught several of his hair twists in my hand as they whipped in front of me. The immediate electrical burn of twenty barbed stingers forced my fingers open.

I screamed.

"That's a #shame." He pointed at his head. "Don't touch the hair."
With his hands placed in an attack position, his locks, which looked more like sharp carbon fibers, somehow copied the pose.

"You should #consult a stylist. That look isn't working for you," I said.

"How's this one?" A thick spiked tendril appeared over his shoulder.
It had a telson-like tip with a prong aimed at me. Did he have any other nightmarish surprises?

"No, less is more. That's too #extravagant. All that just for me? At least tell me your name."

"When you're on the ground next to your friend, ask HQ. They'll tell you."
"You're not #kind nor bright, are you?"

Every hair and the demon spike coiled backwards. "We can't all be agents, Anders."

He corkscrewed through the air like a drill, tendril extended fully.

Dashing sideways, I grabbed his shins and flung them skyward to topple him.
He tumbled until the foot-long stinger #stuck in the ground. He crashed, back first, into Iverson's mailbox shattering its post on impact.

I took advantage of the reprieve. "Ethen, tell me backup's coming."

"They are fifteen minutes away."

"I may not have that long."
The jagged edge of the mailbox post scraped above my ear as it flew past me.

"Now you're throwing things. I'll wager you don't have a #spouse with anger issues like that."

With a growl, the inky man leaped to his feet and yanked the spike free with a jerk of his neck.
"You're almost a worthy foe," he said as he walked towards me with malice in his eyes, "at least until you waste all your energy on me."

He knew my name. My #vulnerability. He's no leader. Someone sent him to do a job. Who? Why? He wouldn't say even if I beat him bloody.
Would he stop with me? I had to protect Cal, who stirred with a labored moan, Lila, and Iverson. I couldn't #worry about running out of stamina.

I transformed my arms into gauntlets of craggy stone. With a dull thud, I slammed my fists together. "Let's finish this now."
He surveyed me and laughed. "Whatever you say."

His elongated hand shoved pages from the local news #journal in my face. While blinded, he pummeled me. As I peeled the newspaper away, his bladed hair sliced my cheek and nose. The giant stinger shot at me with a scream.
I side-stepped and used a taekwondo outside block to knock aside the appendage. My kick to his inner thigh only resulted in him roaring in anger.

A nearly silent #conversation of kicks, punches, and violent strikes that would land most in the hospital replaced all words.
Cal rolled onto his side and lightly touched his broken nose. His eyes watered onto his red, swollen cheeks.

"David," Ethen said in my earpiece, "I have the #text messages."

"Not a good time," I answered through gritted teeth while holding back my enemy's strong hands.
With all his might, he attempted to muscle me to the ground. My arms returned to their normal appearance before stretching like taffy around his wrists, locking them in a python grip.

"It's the wrong #place and time, but it's vital you have this intel," Ethen replied.
"Fine. Say it."

My eyes shifted from the left where my earpiece sat back to the inky man's. He noticed.

"First text: 'Thank you for identifying an important #crisis. We support you.'

Second text: 'A46 is led by Director Aurora Calais. Delay the agents. We're coming."
"Damn," Cal groaned and coughed. "I knew it."

I looked the man in the eyes and spoke in a steely tone. "You're not getting the list."

My foot slipped backwards as he pushed. With a side grin, he said, "Why waste effort? Could be like me. More than weak #genetic makeup."
His hands shrunk and slipped out of my coiled grip. My strength failed as his hair stabbed into my deltoids. He shoved me into Cal's car, breaking the rear driver's side window.

"You're #worthy of this." Cal, still on the ground, jammed a post shard into the man's calf.
The man grimaced and tilted his head to the left with a grunt. With a hard yank, Cal removed the sharp wood. A #ribbon of black ichor leaked out of the hole. As Cal raised his hand to drive the stake again, the man pulled out a hair and launched it at him like a dagger.
Barely missing as he rolled to the side, it drove into the Challenger's quarter panel. Cal darted the wood piece at the man's face.

"Dodge this."

He snatched it out of the air, crumbling it to dust. "Good telegraph, #oracle." The thick tendril collided with Cal's torso.
His legs dragged on the asphalt as he landed several yards away in the brush.

My #rival turned towards me, his arm pinning me in place. He didn't notice I had already removed one of his carbon fiber quills from my left shoulder. With a swift motion, it went into his eye.
While dirty, the strategy worked without #fail. He howled in pain and clutched his head.

I needed the moment to slip his grip and calm the stings in my reformed hands.

Before I could take three steps, he caught me and hurled me onto the hood with a giant clawed grip.
His stinger jabbed into my torso. Pain, shock, and terror filled my being. My attempts to filter out the neurotoxic effects were in vain.

His wicked smile changed to a stern, triumphant look under the #mantle of his living hair.

"I won't kill you. Just give you a gift."
With a #shift of his neck, a muscle engaged in the appendage. Another poison traveled to the spike. A deep burning began to build in my chest.

I mustered every bit of effort I had to clutch the tendril like a vice with both hands. I screamed wildly as I tore it in half.
Cloudy liquid poured out of the part still attached to his head. His eyes were full of disbelief and fury as he shrieked. Lacking the #gravity to remain, the black ink faded from part of his face revealing an olive complexion.

I gazed at the piece embedded in my chest.
Pull it? Leave it? Do I need an antidote?

My thoughts halted as extended fingers wrapped around the spike?

A thunderous, metallic crash interrupted the grip. Cal whacked our enemy's head with the mailbox. #Crude oil droplets under his skin's surface trickled downward.
#Steeped in sweat, I rolled off the hood landing on my side.

The man, unmasked except for his lower jaw, performed a spinning back kick so fiercely it thrashed Cal into the rear corner of his car.

Seeing me on all fours, he roared and landed his sneaker in my stomach.
Starbursts in my eyes formed #constellations as my grip on consciousness held on by a thread. What did he inject into me? Every time I reduced my pain and anxiety, it was as if a spark flared into a blaze. I'd have to fight through it.

"Cal?" I weakly called out to him.
The inky man gnashed his teeth while pulling the hair out of his eye leaving a visible hole. He shivered repulsively and slowly turned his head towards us.

"Cal," I said louder.

My earpiece shattered as the quill blasted through it.

I would #starve for energy and help.
Not until this #pause in the action did he convince me that I kept my word. He shouted into the air in pain and frustration. I had hurt him, and I knew he regretted facing me.

Glass shattering and a scream—Lila's—resounded from Iverson's house. Blood rushed to my face.
A hulking shadow leaped from the house and landed with a ground-shaking thud next to the inky man. My wide eyes took it in: an over eight foot tall man with dark slate gray skin, bulging muscles, and striped athletic shorts.

"Did we #invest in band-aids, hermano?" A new enemy in David Doesn'...
Grabbing the end of his torn hair limb and examining a black #string of fibrous tissue, the inky man said, "I got the job done."

The slate man, likely his hermano with their similar skin tone, chuckled as he gazed at us. "Cost you a bit."

"Si. I'll be taking it back."
Even though I felt like an inflatable #float bouncing on the edge of a waterfall, I did not want to know how Inky Man intended to do that.

I forced myself to my knees. "Cal!" I shouted.

"What?" he croaked while lying on his back.

"Lila. Iverson. They need us to fight."
Cal, face puffy from swelling, rolled onto his side and looked up at the slate man. He grabbed the post with the dented mailbox still attached and slowly rose.

"Can you #charm them with a not so inviting scent?" I asked as I made it to my feet.

"My nose is broken, man."
"You can't?"

"I don't know." He said as he looked at me. "You have a scorpion tail in your chest. What are you going to do?"

"Aww, look at them," the slate man laughed. "They're like Tia's scrappy puppies. One hard pop from their mom to #guide them back to their place."
With a pained face, Cal frowned and inhaled through his nostrils.

Inky Man pointed at us and had a dead serious stare. "You're outmatched. Is it really worth the #risk, agents?"

Slate Man held up a data stick. "Iverson gave the names to me. You're protecting nothing."
"Not willingly," I said.

He shrugged and replied, "I'm real persuasive."

"If you hurt Lila—"

"Didn't have to. This time." He pocketed the stick.

"What the hell does that mean?" asked Cal.

"It means we're your #enemy today," Inky Man imparted, "Tomorrow? Who knows?"
Cal and I exchanged curious looks as we tried to #wrap our minds around their cryptic words.

"You take the big guy. I'll take Mr. Hair Appointment," Cal said with a weak snort and a quick wink.

I didn't feel confident about our chances, but I nodded. He had a plan.
"You two earned this," Cal threatened with a closed fist in front of him pointed at Inky Man.

Our adversaries smiled.

"Switch!" he yelled as he shot a nauseating stench at the Slate Man's face: thousands of rotting fish at a #market blended with hellish, volcanic air.
As Slate Man recoiled, Cal leaped towards him and swung the post like a Louisville Slugger into where the sun didn't shine. The blow made him bend over reflexively, setting him up for a #barrage to his head. Pieces of metal and wood broke away with each sickening strike.
Inky Man glanced indifferently at his brother and back at me. He tried to snatch his broken tendril, but I dodged his grasp.

"You can barely stand. Don't try to #disguise it, Anders. More you move, more it affects you."

Slate Man breathed heavily and looked up at Cal.
He didn't have a mark on him. Even his buzz cut looked perfectly straight.

Cal dropped the splintered remains of the post. "No hard feelings?"

Slate Man lifted him by his shirt and contorted his face.

"No #badge for failing," Inky Man taunted, "No honor in weakness.
"Zayne's about to be broken. You want to do something. Mind goes #quiet. No noise. You'll be like us."

I felt my body and mind losing control. My knees shook. My focus became burry.

With the last of my willpower, I grabbed the stalk in my chest. "You want this back?"
His hair and torn appendage stretched towards my hands. Stingers burrowed into my fingers and wrists.

Using both hands, I pulled the giant spike out of me. The pain was beyond #reason.

Like a magnet repelling its opposite pole, a force pushed the oily man away from me.
I wheezed and clutched the wound with my left hand. Air entering it felt like a raw nerve being tapped. A lightning yellow flash of agony triggered a memory.

A #flashback.

I couldn't move. My arms felt heavy and trapped. Someone approached.

"David, do you like snakes?"
It faded as quickly as it came. With difficulty and unfiltered torment, my body slowly forced the gash closed. How much poison has I absorbed?

"#Give it to me now!" screamed the man, the black oil down to his clavicle.

The torn carbon fibers in my right hand shifted.
Like metal shavings around a magnet, every black hair in the limb up to the spike spun. It was as straight as a #birthday candle and resembled a sword. I held it up in front of me.

"No," the inky man muttered.

His brother stared wide eyed and dropped Cal. "Vamos ahora."
"This not over." Inky Man pointed at me while his hermano put his hand on his shoulder. "You a #passenger in life for now."

"Until then, you best hide somewhere deep and dark," I said as I brandished the sword.

Cal glowered. "We will find you and take your asses down."
The larger brother smiled. "Buena suerte, agents."

He slammed an open palm on the asphalt. A shockwave knocked Cal and me on our backs. With his oily brother held in his arm, he leaped away into the darkness.

We didn't win, and I knew a #spotlight would soon be on us.
End of chapter 8
Start of chapter 9
When experiencing exhaustion and pain, the mind can focus more easily. The distractions of daily life and every neuron-firing reminder of what you should do cease.

Instead of wondering what #motive the two high-powered assailants had, I thought about my first manager.
Ray Walker. He had his whole life together when I met him: a lovely family, successful career, and the best power #bundle. He never got sick, healed ultrafast, and always had a positive attitude. People called him Mr. Everyday because he hadn't ever missed a day of work.
The world chose the right person to #reward with a perfect immune system. I admired him, especially after being stabbed, stung, and poisoned. None of that would have phased him.

He showed me the ropes and prepared me well, prior to his unforseen, forced early retirement.
Two and half years after I started at the agency, Mr. Everyday coughed. Everyone assumed he swallowed wrong or a speck of dust entered his throat. The fits stayed and worsened until the bosses had an expert medical team examine him.

"My powers are #becoming a problem."
He explained that while I could resupply and maintain my abilities through nutrition, he had #one finite resource. Fifty-nine years of use had drained the well. The bosses felt uncomfortable keeping him as investigations manager at the news of his impending decline.
While Ray claimed he chose to semi-retire and consult from home, he had little choice.

A46 supplied treatments that gave him a boost and temporary sense of #renewal. Like most ailments of the powered, nothing would cure it.

Mr. Everyday faced the unknown with a smile.
It's been a while since I checked in with him. In the #infinity of specials, I hated to see such a bright star dim.

Without his training and Jack's pleasantness in taking over the role, I would have quit days after Aurora's arrival. I dreaded her wrath upon our return.
I rolled my stiff neck to the left to see Cal push himself onto his elbows. A halo of brightness like the first glimpse of morning #solar light burned my eyes. The streetlight Lila had depowered relit.

"That was longer than fifteen minutes," Cal said.

"Hm," I agreed.
Scott's house had a massive hole in it.

I allowed myself a few #tranquil seconds of breathing with closed eyes. I visualized a candle in darkness. Its flame an inferno fueled by anxiety. I reached out and calmed the blaze. It moved far away until it became a mere speck.
My insides screamed with ripping sensations as I slowly rose to my feet. I hadn't felt unrelenting hunger like this in years.

Lila stared at us through the wreckage of the living room, her #curly hair covered with debris.

Cal flicked one of the quills stuck in his car.
It bounced like a spring.

"We need to check on them." I pointed at Iverson's house.

"Look at my car!" Cal threw his hands in the air.

I took in the damage: dents, broken glass, scrapes, scratches, and holes. Fond #memories couldn't overcome it being completely wrecked.
With my head lowered, I said, "I know you loved your car. I'm really sorry. Jack might—"

"Get me a new one? My family struggled like hell so I could get where I am. I'm the first of us to buy a new #house and have a solid career. The car's my reward for my hard work."
"It's your baby. I understand."

"It has custom work. You heard the sound system. The engine. That's not standard. Can Jack magically remove the #impact dents? People will say, 'Look at this idiot with his fancy, smashed up car.' Hell, I'm still making payments on it."
"I appreciate having more #perspicacity into you, Cal. It sucks, especially on our first day as partners. Bad things can happen even to us, but we survived."

We both looked at the Challenger.

"Maybe it can be fixed," I said.

The rear bumper hit the ground with a thud.
As if snapping out of a state of #hypnosis, Cal spun around to focus on Iverson's. He tapped his earbud.

"Damn thing's dead. Yours?" Cal asked.

"Lost in the fight. We'll call HQ once we assess Lila and Scott."

"He better be in worse shape than me since he caused this."
"Are you okay?" I asked with a gentle tone, "Take a breather if you have to."

Cal peeked back at his baby with a mournful and #amorous look like a parent watching her only child leave for college.

"Yeah," he said with a heavy breath, "I want to watch the worm squirm."
As we trudged towards the house, Cal marched ahead of me. I stepped in a sticky, black residue and wiped it off in Scott's patchy lawn.

While I knew Cal had the best intentions with Lila, I feared his automotive #infatuation would be replaced by a vendetta for her uncle.
Cal entered through the hole in the wall. I followed a moment later.

The TV had been pulled off its mount and lied in a smashed heap. White pieces of drywall, wood, and brick littered every surface in the room. Sadie stood by Lila whose eyes lacked their purple #glimmer.
Standing out from the gray grit that covered half her face were two red scratches on her forehead and one on her cheek.

Cal stopped in his tracks.

"Jesus. Are you okay?" I asked.

"Are y'all? What were those guys? That fight was crazy - like something from my #comics."
"I have a feeling the agency knows them." I wiped the hole in my shirt which had half-dried gore on it that resembled masticated #watermelon. "We took some damage. Don't worry about us. A46 has a top level medical bay. EMS will be here soon. You need to be checked, Lila."
"We should check Scott." Cal's tone contrasted his words as he scanned the room. "Where is he? Did he #duck under a table to hide?"

Lila pointed to the sofa which sat askew with its right side against the wall behind it. My face sunk in concern. Cal remained stoic.
We edged closer. Cal craned his neck and scoffed. On the floor wedged between the couch and wall, an anguished Iverson clutched his dangling right arm.

"Look at that, David," said Cal. "#Serenade the world with hate, and it hits back. Do the consequences hurt, Scott?"
A push with one hand by Cal moved the couch.

"Thank you, Agent Zayne. I didn't know you cared."

He crouched to be eye level with Scott and pointed to the wall hole. "My car's trashed and we almost died because of you."

"A bus could have you in Charlotte by #midnight."
"Let's #leap past the avoidance and deflection. Even with a broken nose, I can smell your bullshit."

Lila marched to her uncle. Before she could speak, Iverson said, "I don't want to involve you in adult matters."

"Too late," I said. "Let her hear the truth. All of it."
Scott looked at us with incredulity which faded as his eyes met Lila's.

He grunted, "You're going to ignore my injuries? Fine."

"Your mouth still works. Did our safety concern you or were you hoping they'd put us down?" Cal accused. "This #daisy chain started with you."

"The 'we're coming' from the texts." My voice seethed. I tugged on my shirt. "One of them did this. You gave the list to the other."

"You knew they were coming?" Lila asked her uncle with consternation and disappointment as the sound of far off #sirens began.
His head wobbled like a joystick on an #arcade cabinet. "Given under duress, agents." He paused and swiveled to Lila. "I received texts from an unknown sender that implied new visitors. How was I to know of its authenticity? Weren't you two here to protect us from peril?"
Lila rolled her eyes. "You were supposed to protect me."

"I did."

My arms raised to put the ruined room on display. "I'd hate to see what would have happened if you didn't."

Cal, still squatting, said, "I don't need Ethen to know you're the worst kind of #liar, Scott."
He nursed his arm. "The #absent Agent Lie Detector doesn't concern me."

"He's not an agent yet," I corrected. "You lied to us, yourself, and her, your own family."

Lila folded her arms. "If it's not about him, he doesn't care. I'm done. Please get me out of here."
She turned away from him.

Scott braced himself with his good arm to stand. "Lila, I gave the list so that freak wouldn't hurt you."

"None of this chaos would have happened if you hadn't made the video," Cal said. "You deserve exactly what's about to #rain down on you."
I cupped my ear. "You hear that, Iverson? It should sound familiar."

His face told me he did. "I'm not afraid of the #devil no matter what form of false authority it takes."

"The response heading this way was activated by Ethen," I informed. "I wanted you to know that."
"You'll be answering questions far after the #fall of midnight." Cal tapped his watch.

"Lila, I need to get his account of what happened. It's your choice to stay or leave," I said.

She turned and gave her uncle a final, bittersweet look. "I'm going. Bye, Uncle Scott."
"Go pack what you can," Cal said. "We'll get you somewhere safe."

As Lila headed upstairs, she said, "Want to be my bodyguard?"

He followed and complained about the designation.

Iverson spoke with scorn, "No more #duet of the demigods? Need to pour salt in my wounds?"
My hunger pangs surged causing me to groan as I grabbed my stomach.

"I'm going to raid your kitchen," I said through gritted teeth. "After stopping those two, I need a #mountain of food to refuel. You owe me that."

"Fine." Scott looked defeated. "How did you beat them?"
Why did he want to know? I'd let that be figured out by the local affiliate agents who would soon arrive.

"Luck. Skill. Be happy we did," I answered. "What happened with Slate Man?"

"Slate Man? That as insipid as store brand #cherry cola. You don't know his real name?"
"Instead of criticizing my mnemonic devices, worry about yourself. Your video was a #beacon for them to come. What led to giving him the list?"

"He appeared behind me, grabbed my arm, and said he'd consider not ripping it out if I handed it over. He disliked my answer."
"No surprise."

"I used some of Lila's phrases. No sus tool who tresspassed on my property would get squat. You have to love how kids constantly #update language." He nearly laughed but whinced as his shoulder moved. "He smashed the TV and threatened to go after Lila."
I feigned surprise. "Not the TV."

"I had a data stick hidden inside it."

My face said all the words my lips did not.

"He thanked me by flipping the sofa into the wall."

"You may as well have had a neon sign: come to Brightwood #Hills. What were you thinking, Scott?"
He looked agitated and confused. "I protected her. He got the list and left. I did the right thing."

I stared at him blankly. "Your house and street are crime scenes. It's your fault the list is out there. You won't be able to #breathe without the government knowing."
I walked off to the kitchen where the dust hadn't reached. Between the fridge and pantry contents, I made a gigantic bagel deli sandwich with veggies and chips. Not exactly gourmet, but it got the job done.

Clear, late summer #starlight caught my eye through a window.
With my hunger satiated, I could think clearly. Before the red and blue emergency lights polluted the night and the #revel of authority as loud as an irresponsible high schooler's party began, I needed to check in with Jack.

He answered prior to a single ring sounding.
"David, Ethen said ya were attacked. You and Cal okay?" His voice sounded dry and gruff.

"We're all right. There were two male assailants. One broke Cal's nose and stabbed me. The other crashed through Iverson's house."

"Dammit. Tell me you have that #godforsaken list?"
Hesitation would not soothe Jack's curiosity. "Yes and no."

"Not a good answer."

"We know the four involved with Lila's situation."

"Aurora's smitten with the list and wants all ten. If ya leave her #lovelorn, she's gonna be on a rampage."

"They got it. I'm sorry."
Jack breathed hard and clicked his tongue. "I'm glad you're back with us, but she's been #weary of you and me for years. She's never seen what I do. I need to know how someone else has the list."

"Ethen didn't tell you? They had powers and knew our names and abilities."
"Part of that got lost in translation," Jack said. "Ya have to be #patient with Ethen. Plus your earpieces stopped responding. Hold on."

I heard him giving orders.

"Do what ya need to get back here with the names. Don't use that phone anymore. Don't talk to anyone."
"Cal's car is—"

"Hire a ride. It's on us. Don't #sweat the details until you're back." His tone masked the seriousness of maintaining security.

"See you in a couple hours."

"We'll all talk then." He hung up immediately.

This whole situation had Jack spooked. Me too.
Iverson sulked in a chair at his kitchen table as Sadie licked his hand. I hoped a #pang of guilt had struck him as I met Lila and Cal outside.

EMS cleaned her scrapes while Cal begrudgingly allowed them to bandage his nose. A cursory exam found me to be in fine shape.
To avoid additional questions, I explained how I could walk away from a #brutal attack with only a bloody hole in my shirt. They didn't need to know I had an unknown toxin in my system doing God knows what to me. I'd only trust that with Dr. Catawnee and her team at A46.
Surrounded by emergency vehicles, I signaled to Cal to stay with Lila as I approached a detective and affiliate agent. The latter I recognized as Tom Miller, an old friend from the agency. He had a #keen interrogation style that would be a nightmare for Scott. I smiled.
Miller clutched my hand to shake it. "What's up, Dave? This is Detective Sherman."

"Hi. Dave Anders." I shook his hand. "I can't say much, but you're going to love Scott Iverson."

"I #crave tripping up self-righteous pricks like him. What can you tell me?" Miller asked.
"You'll have his personality profile down in minutes," I said. "His relationships with females have all gone poorly. He has a soft spot for his niece, but it's like sandstone on quartz."

"Sounds like a real #lothario," Sherman snickered as he caught a glimpse of Marcia.
She pointed her finger in the face of a cop guarding the scene.

Miller shook his head. "She's the #perennial neighbor who has a problem with us doing our jobs."

"Wish I had a neighbor like that." Sherman raised his brows twice.

"Inside thoughts, Detective," Tom said.
"She defended Scott earlier and complimented Cal's car," I said. "This attack will cause #attrition to his supporters. I'm curious where she stands now."

"Think she'll be more sympathetic or have schadenfreude?" Miller asked.

"She's tough to read."

"I can help you."
"Don't steal my thunder," Sherman huffed.

"Why don't you have first crack at Scott? See what you can eke out." Miller patronized.

Sherman took the bait and left.

I looked from Marcia to Lila. "Let me bring Ms. Chen into the #hive. I think it'll solve two problems."
Miller grinned and patted my shoulder. "Always a plan. Good luck. I'll be around."

He walked towards the house as I approached Marcia.

She #thrust her middle finger at the cop. "You can all go f—"

"There you are!" I said. "She's with me, officer. Important witness."
The cop stepped aside to let her pass. I gestured for her to walk with me. After a few paces, her side-eye became so sharp, I almost felt her vision bore into me.

"While I'm curious what you saw, Ms. Chen," I said, "I want you to look at Lila. See her hands #tremble?"
Marcia squinted. "They're not moving."

"No, they're not. Unlike Scott, I'm glad you're able to acknowledge reality."

"I don't live in a #sorority fantasy world with a rich husband and a fancy electric car?" She folded her arms and turned towards me. "What do you want?"
Her apprehension didn't surprise me. The law misjudged her family. She deserved the #bare truth.

I looked in her eyes. "I want your help with Lila. What do you think of her? Are you friendly with her?"

Marcia let her arms fall and exhaled. "You're really here to help?"
"This isn't just a job."

She hesitated. "I know why she's here, but I've barely spoken with her."

"Her friends betrayed her to steal." I pointed at the wall hole. "Scott failed her and this community. She's alone. We can't leave her forgotten at the #bottom of a pit."
Marcia stared at me and spoke with suspicion. "Uh huh. You're comparing her to Martin."

"We do our homework."

"You #stripped off my guard to manipulate me?"

Arguing semantics would be fruitless. "Lila needs a place to stay until her mom returns. Will you give her one?"
Waving her hand in the air, Marcia #yelled, "No. No! You can't drop a huge ask like that out of nowhere."

I looked around to ensure no one could hear. "You saw the fight, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So whoever sent those two has inside info. Only we'll know where she is."
She stepped in front of me before we were in earshot of Lila and Cal. "What if they come back? I'm not getting caught #naked in the shower by some weirdos."

"They already have what they wanted from Scott. With no record of her location, they won't know she's with you."
She held out her hand. "Give me your card." I handed it to her. She read it and slid it in her pocket. "You owe me so I'm paying it forward. Expect a call, David."

I didn't like it, but it sounded fair. "You'll do it? Thank you."

"You two can't after that #larruping."
"Be glad we fought back and made them leave," I said and glanced at Cal's car.

Marcia shook her head. "That's going to take more than a #belt and body work to fix. Look at that mess."

"We need to get back to Charlotte. Think it could get us there?"

She laughed. "No."
"Do you know anyone that could make it run even for a few hours?" I asked as we approached Cal and Lila who were seated on the back bumper of an ambulance.

"I might." Marcia's lips curved.

"Sure you do." Cal #swatted the air. "No one can fix that. My baby's totaled."
Marcia tilted her head. "Your broken nose make it hard to believe me, Stinko?"

He stood, his face wrenching against his bandages. "The name's Cal."

"Lila, want to see how fun it is proving Cal wrong?" She rubbed her hands together as if charging defibrillator #paddles.
Lila raised her brows and turned towards me. "Do you know where I'm staying yet?"

I pointed at Marcia who walked to the back of Cal's Challenger and smacked the area where rear bumper attached.

"Um. Is that the best idea?" asked Lila. "Did she just #spank your ride?"
Cal threw his arm in the air. "Is this a prank?"

Marcia smiled coyly as she ran her fingers along the newly indented side of the car and placed her palms above the hood.

"Are you going to massage the David sized dent out?" Cal snarked.

#Rainbows blasted from her hands.
The arc of colors appeared more like what one saw in the mist from a hose spraying in #sunshine. A sound rose like a summer storm's raindrops thundering onto metal. Bright orange sparks rolled off the car as panels popped, creaked, and whined to their original positions.
Cracked auto glass chirped as it reformed. Vibrations from holes closing made the carbon fiber spikes fall to the ground.

Marcia stood back and folded her arms in satisfaction.

Our mouths hung open.

"I believe you now," Cal said. "Why did you #harbor your powers?"
"I don't want everyone asking me to fix things for them."

"What? Why not?" asked Lila. "His car is perfect."

"It looks like it got patched up at the doctor and given a couple #lollipops," Marcia said, "but it's not what you think."

Cal walked around his Green Machine.
"The rear bumper's still on the ground," he said while pointing.

"Hold it near the back," Marcia suggested.

The part snapped into place by itself as Cal lifted it. He frowned in approval.

"Martin's #bullying friends used to ask me to fix parts for them, too," she said.
We watched her forehead tense as her mind wandered.

"What happened?" Cal asked with a gentle tone.

"Even then, I didn't #exude shyness. I told them to go F themselves. They beat up Martin and wouldn't let him go until I agreed to fix their cheap ass, buzzy Civic tuner."
"They forced you to help them?" I asked.

"It must have been awful feeling so helpless," Cal said.

"I fixed it for them." She smiled wickedly. "A few miles down the road, their engine #extruded all its oil and seized. Martin never told them my repairs weren't permanent."
Cal's face dropped as his eyes widened.

"You look like you just got #excommunicated from the car club," Marcia giggled. "It'll get you to Charlotte, but you better leave soon."

"What happens when time's up?" Cal asked.

She patted the roof twice. "Bye bye, Challenger."
After an elongated huff, Cal grabbed his temple and turned to me. "I'm not taking my final ride in her just so the agency can give me some company jalopy like an #expatriate working abroad."

"My mom's driving an Aston Martin in Europe," Lila said. "Pretty good, right?"
Marcia stifled her laugh.

Cal faked his. "Yeah, pretty good. I didn't see a fleet of Aston Martins back at base. Did I miss them, David?"

I stayed silent. Nothing would #decrease his frustration.

He took out his key fob and slapped it in my hand. "You're driving."
My head turned. "Why?"

Cal used his sleeve to blot his face. "I can barely see straight because my eyes keep watering, I'm in pain, and I'm pissed off. If we're going to #exhume old memories on the ride back, then I'm going to be lounged back, relaxed, and comfortable."
"Such an #example of restraint," I joked.

"I'm about to set another." He walked to the passenger side and plopped down in the leather seat. "Don't dally."

Marcia bent down and looked under the car with curiosity. "What's this? A sword?" She reached for the black handle.
"Don't touch it!" I shouted.

Startled, she banged her head and stood. Rubbing her crown, she said, "You need to chill with that #exacting tone. You won't hear me being like that with Lila."

"I'm sorry. That's what the guy stabbed into me. I didn't want you to get hurt."
"I thought you made it. You mean that thing was attached to him?" She looked horrified and grabbed her stomach. "Why does that #exist?"

"It's nasty, but it made them leave." A thought occurred to me. "Lila, it would be mighty friendly if you helped Marcia to her house."
"I think she's okay," Lila said.

I jerked my head to the side.

Marcia interlocked an arm with Lila's. "Just in case, you can make sure. I'll show you how to make a quiet #exit. Let's go."

Lila grabbed her bags. As they walked off together, Marcia mouthed, "You owe me."
Lila turned around and called out, "Thank you. See you soon."

I waved. I'm no #expert, but I felt I had made the right decision having her stay with Marcia.

My chest burned as I bent over to grab the sword. Instant relief overcame me as it forced itself into my grip.
I opened the truck with the fob to place the blade in it. My hand refused to open. I panicked as I thought how dumb I had been for neglecting to use a rag to grab it. I'm not sure it would have mattered. A hot-breathed #examination of my surroundings showed no onlookers.
Black fibers crawled onto the top of my hand like ants swarming onto meat to #gorge themselves. They moved up past my wrist, following my veins. The former limb dropped out of my hand with a thunk and my fingers relaxed.

The shavings rotated and stood on their ends.
"What the hell?" I said aloud as I raised my arm.

Like dominoes, the material fell against my arm and disappeared. I felt a cold sensation from my wrist to my shoulder.

"What's taking so long?" Cal yelled out of the window. "Let's get out of this #exurb while we can."
My arm felt smooth. Had the fibers entered my body? My bloodstream? I didn't want to worry Cal. Hell, I had enough anxiety for both of us.

I imagined Jack would rightfully #extol the value of sharing information. That would have to wait until later.

I closed the trunk.
Disgusted with myself, I whipped off my bloody shirt and threw it in the backseat. We didn't need it to #exacerbate our stress. I put on the new A46 t-shirt from the bundle. The gray athletic mix had a cozy, soft feeling and the new triangular logo had a modern design.
As I sat in the driver's seat, Cal said, "New shirt and a new driver. What a #switcheroo."

"I needed a refresh."

"I appreciate you not getting villain gunk on my seats. Not that it matters now. Hit it. Watch your speed."

The Green Machine thundered out of Brightwood.
End of Chapter 9.
Start of Chapter 10.
The past, with its cherished moments of pure innocence and happiness, gave way to the #mud-filled waters of maturation. Having powers and choosing to be an agent added complications to the mix. My brief respite from work sparked a thought: the conception of alternatives.
I could have had a lucrative career in emergency services, consulting, or even as a stunt-double. Co-workers half-joked that once I got a #whiff of something better, I'd never come back to A46. I didn't want that. Not yet. Even after I left, I knew nothing else compared.
Where else could I be paid to develop my abilities, protect, and help people like myself? Even when I lost, I kept going. I needed this.

I've subdued Upstairs level public threats. I've conquered #jokers following malignant creeds. Belmont always remained raw in my mind.
After a few minutes on the road, Cal eased his seat upright. He reached back to my welcome #pack and took out an A46 cinnamon protein bar.

"It was hidden in a jacket pocket," he said.

"Enjoy it," I said. "Your car drives like a dream. It's a bit quiet in here, though."
Cal ordered his digital assistant to play a track titled "#Uplift."

"Check it out. I'm on bass."

The track had a funky rock sound with a heavy chorus. My head bobbed. An imagine of the band appeared on the dashboard display. Cal had long dreadlocks. I nearly laughed.
With one eye opened, he looked at me. "People liked the dreads."

"It's a huge contrast to the buzz cut." Maybe it suited him better a few years ago. "You guys had a great sound."

"We did." The track ended. "Bearing successful #fruit is difficult for unfocused minds."
"I don't think most twentysomethings are," I said, surprised he wanted to philosophize.

"They're not. I wanted to play music, party, and meet girls." Cal held his ring tightly in his hand. "Janelle didn't #mess around. She knew what she wanted in life and went after it."
"You're in a sharing mood? What made her, Janelle, go after you?" I asked.

"I lied to you and you still fought for me. Plus, the sooner I tell you, the sooner I can relax." Cal's mouth curved upward. "She liked that I was laid back and didn't #bark one-liners at her."
I improved my night vision as I drove. "Tell me about her, Cal. What's the story?"

"She was smart, super creative, and had such a joie de vivre. You could see that #blaze in everything she did. She even argued with passion, but somehow you'd end up feeling better after."
Twelve year ago, I played a gig at a club in Delray Beach. It looked modern and had had a killer sound system, but the stage stunk like #gin. The opening act's singer cared more about getting free drinks than putting on a quality show. We came on to make everyone groove.
I kicked off our first song with a dancy, deep, walking bass line. The song built as the guitar and drums joined. Every head bobbed. I saw her walking closer to the stage, sipping a drink. One guy leered at her and #whistled as she passed him. She was having none of that.
She turned to him, put her hand up, and told him, "No thanks."

His arms outstretched with mock disbelief, he eyeballed her with disgust. I couldn't hear them, but I knew he lobbed an insult about her appearance. The #irony being she looked gorgeous in a tied off t-shirt.
This is what she told me she said. I believe every word of it.

"You've set a new #record for going from interested to abusive. I value myself too much to give you another second of my time."

The walking scrub called her a bitch and feint jumped at her to scare her.
I looked down to hit my overdrive pedal. In that moment, somehow his pants ended up like a toddler's that had had an accident. Janelle gleefully ate the #dollop of whipped cream at the bottom of her glass, but she hadn't tossed her drink at him.

Bouncers threw him out.
Our singer liked to end each set by doing a #flip. He timed his landing with the end of our crescendo and final chord. The crowd cheered, and the show ended.

After loading our gear, I went to the bar to relax with a cocktail and a water. I chatted about bass with a fan.
I thanked her for coming and excused myself when I saw Janelle sitting alone at a table texting. The next band would play in a few minutes, so I had to make a move before the #racket started.

I walked up and said, "Hey. I liked how you handled that guy during our set."
She looked up from her phone with circumspection. "Oh, you saw that?"

"I did. It's a shame you had to waste your mudslide on him. May I get you another?"

She sized me up. "You didn't cat-call or #snarl at me, so that's a good start." She smiled. "What are you drinking?"
Her golden eyes widened as I placed each #glass on the table.

"Water and a frozen passion fruit daquiri."

"That's not what I pictured a bassist would drink."

"What did you think I'd have?"


"Naw, I like my drinks to taste good. Do you want to try one? On me."
"I don't let strangers buy me drinks," she said with upturned lips and scrutinizing eyes.

I held out my hand with #velocity. "Cal. What's your name?"

She paused before relaxing her face and placing her hand in mine. "Strong grip. Janelle. Is Cal short for something?"
I placed my other hand on top of hers. "It's short for Cal Zayne."

She bit her lower lip. "Smooth move, Cal Zayne. Janelle Sampson." As our hands separated, she grabbed mine. "I'd love a daquiri, but I #suspect that band's going to be loud and screamy. Talk outside?"
I slid through the #hail of raised arms attempting to get the bartender's attention. Green talks, so I held up a twenty and had the daquiri in two minutes. With dreadlocks framing the prettiest face I'd ever seen, she looked impressed. I freshened with citrus and jasmine.
She took a sip as we found an empty bench in the courtyard between all the clubs and restaurants. They called it The Porch, a much more chill name.

Away from the Friday #rabble and revelry, she said, "You've got good taste and you smell nice, too. I'm confused, though."
"About what?"

"You just played a show where bright stage lights shined on you. After, you moved heavy amps and monitors. I get you're a big, strong man," she flexed her arm, "and I'm not trying to cause any #division, but you smell like you just got out of the shower."
Janelle had an insatiable curiosity. I thought carefully about my next #sentence. Excuses about washing up wouldn't cut it. I chose the truth with a little spice.

"Oh, you noticed that?" I said with a grin. "You're perceptive and intelligent. What's your favorite scent?"
Her head tilted guardedly. "A #slice of my mom's chocolate layer cake. What's your game, Cal?"

Damn. She saw right through me.

"You caught me. I don't know what her cake smells like. I bet it's delicious."

Janelle laughed and touched my arm. "It's rich and heavenly."
"Not that I'm the #warden of flirting, but is that we're still doing? The mama's cake thing got a little confusing."

Still cheerful, she closed her eyes and breathed out hard. "Awkward or not, you're still here. Any other questions?"

"How'd your drink get on his pants?"
She removed her hand from my arm. "What kind of bodywash is that?"

"Being evasive isn't doing us any psychological favors. What scary result are we anticipating?"

She moved closer to whisper in my ear. "I'm scared how it'll #go. What will each of us think of the other?"
"It's healthy to #take some risks. It can give you an adrenaline rush and release dopamine."

"I'm more into hiking a new trail than jumping out of a plane. You know too much about the mind to only be a bass player."

"You're right, Janelle." I touched my nose lightly.
I pointed to #transfer the decadent scent of warm, dark chocolate cake to her nostrils.

Surprised, she stood with a hand on the bench and breathed it in. "Mmm. That's pretty close to mom's."

As if the seat were pulled out from under me, I fell hard onto the ground.
I shifted position to #stand but bumped my neck on a wooden slat at the edge of the bench. I must have looked like a sloppy drunk. A couple guys walked past and shook their heads.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I did that," Janelle said.

"Yeah. How?"

"I think you know."
Janelle extended her hand to help me to my feet. Her arms were toned, not #rail thin. She didn't use her other arm to assist.

"Thanks," I said. "We each know why we can do what we did. I'm asking how yours works."

She grinned. "I have to touch something to affect it."
"The bench," I pondered, unable to bring it together.

Once more people who passed us were out of earshot, she said, "Cal, I like how we're hitting it off, but..."

"But not here."

"Not here."

I gestured between us. "I got you. #Unity Café. It's quiet. Great desserts."
A block and a half away from the nightclubs, yellow light adorned palm branches swayed in the sea breeze. Inside the café, every comforting #trope adorned the walls and floor: cushy sofas, tables large enough for laptops, warm wood and red tones, and quiet acoustic music.
We grabbed a love seat in a corner and shared a sambucha brownie while chatting for three hours straight. Her happy dance and table smack told me she thought it rocked.

She didn't share her secret that night or on the next two dates. No. She made me #understand patience.
For date four, I invited her to my place for my famous honey-garlic-hoisin sauce baked chicken with rice and fresh veggies. Always a hit. We continued our flirting and lack of #discord until I offered her red wine.

If she didn't like it, I told her she could pour it out.
In the kitchen with her eyes fixated on me, she held up the glass. "And he cooks, too. That chicken was #succulent."

"And she has good taste. It's one of my specialties. Glad you liked it."

"Do you always make it on the fourth date?"

"I made it on ours. Try the wine."
She breathed in the berry and melon aroma, swirled it, and took a healthy taste.

She coughed #hard as her eyes watered.

"Dang. The guy at the store said it was great," I said.

She held the glass over the sink. "Guess he was wrong." The wine fell through its bottom.
My mind #migrated from bewilderment to understanding as Janelle put the glass down with a thunk.

With a hand on her hip, she said, "You just gonna stand there with your jaw on the floor or do you want to ask me something."

I snapped out of it. "You made it permeable?"
"Yes." For a moment, she looked perturbed. "I know you want to ask all the questions about it. That's normal. I don't blame you. It usually makes me anxious to share that part of myself, but you make me feel comfortable, Cal. I wanted to #garnish our evening with that."
We had the kind of night you return to in your mind again and again. Janelle used to say that love was like a magic mushroom. If you nurtured it, the #fungus would spawn and spread. I wouldn't compare love to athlete's foot, but we were absolutely falling for each other.
We weren't perfect, but we were solid. Like a giddy child, I asked her every question about her ability. She answered some of them. She liked to leave me wanting more. Others, I discovered as we reached the #crest of our relationship. I couldn't wait to marry that girl.
We had a giant bash for our wedding with family, friends, and her parents' #akita as a ringbearer. I tried the classic trick of swiping frosting across her nose when feeding each other cake. She used her power to make it fall into her mouth. I got a white vanilla smear.
Our careers started with some successes. She worked for a child education nonprofit. I started freelancing as a powered psychological advisor for police around Delray while gigging on weekends.

We were happy and healthy. Life had #balance and felt right. Until it didn't.
Janelle's baking could have made her world famous. I'm glad we liked working out because I had no willpower with her treats.

I heard a crash and a scream while she tweaked one of her recipes. She played it off as an accident, but they were the first #signs of trouble.
"I guess I wasn't paying attention," she explained.

She had made the shells of two eggs become #diffuse, a handy trick for not having to crack them open. The yolks solidified partially through a glass bowl. As two solids can't occupy the same space, the bowl exploded.
After we cleaned up, I saw her repeatedly clench her hands.

"Did you get cut, baby?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I feel tight and achy from my elbow to my fingers. Maybe I pulled something."

"Yeah maybe. Did you #engage your ability too much? My sinuses burn when I do."
"I don't think mine works the same as yours, babe. Don't you get hungry when you overdo it or does everything cause that?" she asked with her tongue in the corner of her lips.

"I'm a growing boy. I'm #innocent." I put up my palms.

She grabbed my bicep. "No, you're not."
We were young and in the #fledgling years of a loving marriage when, like many couples, we forgot our troubles in the throes of passion. It's a fun and healthy way to maintain a relationship. It can also be a distraction. Months later, reality gifted us with a reminder.
During a presentation about how her company helped underprivileged, powered kids, her hands passed through her laptop and the lecturn. She masked it by having a coworker assist. It lasted a minute, but it shook her to her core.

Issues like this often had #oblique causes.
Visits to doctors led to more questions, especially as Janelle's incidents increased. Some blamed it on stress as if this were a #plain psychosomatic response. They were frustratingly wrong. I refused to let her feel alone, so I went with her to every single appointment.
When pressed for time, she made soap and shampoo fall through her body in the shower. It looked like an elaborate move from an #animated show as her arms floated while she twirled in the falling water.

"Dance of naked cleanliness!" I joked.

"It's ritual!" she corrected.
"What's your drying off move?"

"Rainfall of skin. Duh."

She turned off the faucet and held her towel next to her. Water droplets smacked the tiled floor of the shower pan.

A moment later, she cradled herself and sat. An #odd pain cascaded down from her shoulders.
Her initial symptoms reached their #climax. She knew few moments without pain or discomfort.

Eventually, we found a powered illness and disorder specialist. Every time she used her gift, parts of her body stayed out of phase, blocking nutrients and oxygen to the rest.
A dam #wall built up over time. It no longer mattered if she avoided using her power. The damage had been done and would spread.

I'll spare you the less pleasant details, David. I hope you never have to watch a loved one decline, to see their control fade as they weaken.
I've barely shared this part with a soul, but I'm a man of my word. This stays between us.

Janelle was bedridden and in palliative care. She had no control of when her powers would activate. To give you an #idea, her body and clothes flickered in and out of perception.
The doctors, unable to say how long she had, gave an #ambiguous "soon."

She rallied and forced herself to stay solid. Janelle had unending willpower. She had me place my ring, this one, in my closed hand so she could hold the top of it. We rested our heads on each other.
While #quarantined from unnecessary touching of items and people, an exception had been made for me. I didn't care about the risks; I cared about being with my wife.

I held her. We kissed and said we loved each other.

Through teary eyes, she smiled. "I'm tired, Cal."
She leaned back into her pillow.

"It's okay, baby. Get some rest." I kissed her forehead with my quivering lips and did my best to stay strong.

Even against the impossible, my mind stayed trapped in a #prison of hope. For spontaneous healing, answered prayers, miracles.
Reprieve and remission didn't come. No #mage cast a spell. Only God granted relief.

With the ring in my left hand, I held hers against it with my right. Janelle fell into sleep. Her torso became translucent as she exhaled. She disappeared completely in fifteen minutes.
After having my heart ripped out and balling my eyes out, but before dealing with the nightmare life insurance semantics of #mysterious disappearance versus death, I punched the empty hospital bed. Again and again until my ring rolled out of my aching hand onto the sheet.
I grabbed it tightly and examined the detailing on its edges. It calmed me. As I watched, it dissolved into nothing as if it wanted to #leave to join Janelle. Before I could react, it reappeared. I wish it were a sign more than an effect. It's been six years. I know. Image
I may seem grim or quiet at times. Loss leaves you with emotional tax that no #teaching can repay. Only time, meditation, and therapy have helped me take a few healing steps. I didn't date for years. Janelle would want me to be happy. I'm trying, David. I'm trying hard.
I knew Cal shared his ring story partially because he felt he owed it to me, a penance for his lies and a canceled debt for fighting to protect him. I thanked him for his openness.

"Janelle sounded like a #diamond," I said.

"She was a beautiful rarity. Tougher than me."
"Let me light a #candle in your brain for you to contemplate, Cal."

"That's not a saying, but go on."

"When will you be able to stop carrying the ring?"

He looked like I asked him the most brain-racking mathematical question as he held it in his hand.

"I don't know."
"It anchors you to the past. The #tension will build until it snaps you back." I said clutching my hand.

"Isn't that what your Belmont case does for you?" Cal grunted as he shifted in his seat. "I've had relationships since. After Veronika, I need what this symbolizes."
He rolled his wedding band between his fingers.

"You don't see it as a #barrier to building new relationships?" I asked.

"You're really going to psycho-analyze me, David?" He opened one eye.

"How will it work when you go out with Alice?"

He sniffed hard and scowled.
"The first time I heard of the agency was when a field agent showed up at my door the day after Janelle passed. He said leaving a powered artifact out there created a tapestry I wouldn't want to #weave. He gave me a quantum locking safe for it. I don't wear it on dates."
"I've never heard of anyone being allowed to keep an effected #object. They can be dangerous."

"As long as I kept it in the safe every night and promised to answer when he cashed in the favor, he was good with it." Cal grabbed the space between his eyes and winced.
"That's when you were hired?"

"Yeah. Think I should ask Alice to fix my nose?"

"She doesn't like people asking her to use her gifts on them. Think of how that may #reflect poorly on you. It's risky."

Cal thought for a moment. "It could give me the chance ask her out.
"You're lucky she likes you. Less chance she'll #end you for asking," I joked.

Cal brushed me off with, "Yeah yeah."

"Maybe don't take her to Bentos right away."

"I roll out the special places over time." He tapped his temple. "I kept my word. Let me hear your story."
Five years ago, monitored activity east of Charlotte showed #signs NBT were likely operating in a particular neighborhood in Belmont. Under the cover of bad salesmen, A46 canvassed the neighborhood. On scattered days, two agents did this simultaneously to avoid suspicion.
My turn came. I altered my appearance so I had a scruffy, scraggly beard and messy hair. I wore khakis and a wrinkled, tucked in blue polo shirt.

"Ya look perfect. I wouldn't buy a damn thing from ya," said Jack with a finger gun. "You'll be solo; no #parallel today."
"Why no backup?" I asked.

"Because you have a much broader #imagination than they do." He patted my shoulder. "Five houses left. One has people coming and going from nine to five. Just smile and get a good look inside. Be overeager, wrap up quickly, and get on the horn."
I used my cell's front-facing camera to give my look its finishing touches: brown eyes instead of blue, dark circles under them, and a more round face. Jack stared #awestruck and grinned.

"Park the Spectra at the clubhouse," he said.

"I got it, Jack."

"I know ya do."
On the short drive, a song came on that sent me on a #reverie. Images of a Myrtle Beach trip rolled in my mind like old film: friends, sunshine, and late nights with seafood and music.

One evening, I walked on the beach with Nicole, hoping I had the courage to kiss her.
With the moonlight shining on her soft face and the gentle crash of the waves eroding sand from under our toes, I took the chance. While sweet, we never spoke of it. We were in life's void, the lull between the end of college and work, when you can't #predict anything.
She put her hands through her curly hair and tilted her head back in an #elaborate stretch before smiling.

Silently, we walked back towards our house. We saw a group having a party with a firepit and blasting music.

"Hey! You freaks want a beer?" a girl hooted at us.
"Freaks?" Nicole couldn't let it go.

"Y'all kissed over there and nothing," the inebriated girl in a #periwinkle dress said. "Something's wrong with one of you."

Nicole brought me aside. "I'm moving to Colorado in two weeks. You're powered and I'm not. It's too much."
Lack of maturity and experience—call it ignorance—prevented me from shutting up. "Since when do you care about me having abilities?"

Her next words would #break any notion I had about her.

"I don't, David. It's just scary with NBT on one end and Meridian on the other."
Baffled, I asked, "What are you talking about? You think because they hate or support me that I'm connected to them or want anything to do with their causes?"

#Paralyzed by my words, she stood open-mouthed. Moments later, she walked away leaving me in the same state.
The partying girl draped her arm over my shoulder. "Tough break, cutie." Bleary eyes glazed at me as she bit her smiling lips.

"I'm gonna go." I slipped away from her.

The irony of how I would #surrender to the fates and face the worst of NBT had not been lost on me.
I parked the old compact car at the clubhouse just like Jack had said. Calling it a piece of junk would be a compliment. Its creaky door did nothing to calm my #anxiety as I walked straight into enemy territory.

"It's just recon," I told myself. "No one knows who I am."
Two older sports cars sat in the driveway as I approached the house. It had blue siding, a white front door with a peephole, and a doorbell camera. I rang it and peered into the neighboring yards. I didn't see a soul. With no earpiece and no safety net, I felt #isolated.
While waiting for someone to come to the door, I examined myself a final time in the reflection in a sidelight. As I adjusted stray hairs, I went over my #short sales pitch in my mind.

I put on a fake smile and smoothed my shirt when I heard steps and voices inside.
Silhouettes moving past the peephole caused the light in the center to #flicker. I estimated at least two people inside.

The deadbolt unlocked with a dull thud. A tall, heavyset man chewing a piece of jerky stood before me.

"Can I help you?"

"Hi, sir. I'm Daryll Hall."
"Like the eighties singer?" He smiled.

Dammit, Jack. I made sure I had a #featherlight reaction.

"Yup. With two Ls." I pointed inside and asked, "Who's your internet provider?"

He leaned on the door post, tilted his head to the side, and shouted behind him. "Hey, JT."
Kicked off shoes and muddy footprints littered the entryway. Five pairs. The sound of chairs scraping on the floor, shuffling feet, and the whack of a screen door came from down the hall. What had I interrupted? #Unforeseen complications are the worst when undercover.
Perhaps a #wunderkind could have found a workaround to my limits. I couldn't further exert myself without risking the stability of my disguise. I had to stay in character as a man in a white, short-sleeved, button down shirt and dark wash jeans neared with a posed smirk.
The tall man stepped away without a word.

"Jeb isn't a talker like me," the new man said. "How 'bout you?"


"JT. You look about as fragile as dried #aspen bark. Are you gonna crumble?"

"I like chatting fine, JT, about internet packages"

He scoffed. "Do tell."
I pretended not to be surprised by his interest as I launched into the details of transfer rates versus price. He listened intently as he nodded.

"Unrestricted access and max speeds. That deal good for my friends, too?" He pointed to the decorative #pillar to my left.
I saw no one there. A rustle in the shrubs to my right instantly caused me to look. Nothing.

A muscular arm reached around my neck and put me in a choke hold.

JT orated as I struggled, "I have many friends, Daryll. We all do. Friends from all over this great #nation."
I threw the arm off of me. The man fell to the side as another two grabbed me. Big Jeb returned and punched me square in the nose.

"The #trail of sales people flowing through over the last month raised our concerns," JT said calmly. "We need to be sure of who you are."
My disguise faded as I slammed the two thugs together onto Jeb.

"Now we know you're not like us. You may think the #number of you freaks is increasing, boy, but your kind will not take away our sovereignty. Get him."

As JT pointed, I saw an NBT tattoo over his heart.
Generations of unresolved #angst transformed into hate and blame. Why learn about our beautiful differences when violence and anger are so much easier?

Three more joined in overwhelming me. I felt a sting in my neck as a wave of heat and cold sweat rose up through me.
Crazed energy overcame me. I yanked the syringe out and used it to nail the one who used it to the right column through his palm. I knocked him out when he screamed.

"That won't work on me, JT."

He laughed. "That's adrenaline you feel #invade your veins. We can wait."
They wanted me to burn through my stamina. I could take all of them out well before that.

A young woman with a partial buzzcut, sleeve tattoos, and hate in her eyes kicked my temple with a steel toe boot. The only #limit NBT placed on admission was hating the powered.
"You've gone and pissed off Jules," JT tutted as I shook off the daze. "She don't like non-#native species coming onto our turf."

I blocked a wallop from her and pushed her obliques so hard, she stumbled backwards and sat on the porch stairs.

"Take a breather, Jules."
She cradled her sides and watched helplessly as I soundly beat the hell out of each and every one of her brethren. Bodies lay strewn in the red clay and overgrown grass.

A click sounded as a dart hit my left pec.

"You forgot you could #retreat," said JT holding the gun. Image
I tried to filter the new drugs, but the adrenaline made my body absorb it too quickly. I felt drowsy. Overly lethargic.

"He might need another." JT tossed his cell onto Jules' lap. "Call him."

"What?" she groaned as a #tear fell out of her eye.

"Tell RJ we got one."
The air felt thick as it entered my lungs. My palms were heavy as I gripped the fescue and weeds. I tried to grab a stone, but my muscles wouldn't #engage.

JT stared down at me with sarcastic sympathy. "So pathetic. Feeling sleepy? Don't fight. Give in. It's easier."
I strained to look up at him and speak. "You...stop." I held the rock.

Jules pressed her boot on my wrist with firm pressure. "I'll help you."

A swift heel to my face caused the edges of the world to dissolve to an #ombre of dark red. Blackness overtook all. I was out.
Later, before fully coming to, a female voice said, "I told you he's #secure. Watch the drip or he'll get free. I'm going."

"Wait," said a male. My arms and legs were tested against restraints.


"We have a partnership."

"Had. Now we don't. Don't call me again."
Time passed.

My head throbbed as bright light entered my unfocused eyes.

"David, do you like snakes?" asked the same drawling male voice.


"David, you're smarter than that." He slapped my cheek twice. "Your brain isn't in #escrow. Don't make me repeat myself."
A sharp pain in my left arm caused me to pull it against the tight leather strap. I followed the thin, translucent tube coming from it to an IV bag.

I breathed hard and refused to oblige him with a question.

"Snakes don't only live in the #country. They're ubiquitous."
The clean-shaven man wore dark slacks with a tucked in white collared shirt. The sleeves were rolled up and the top two buttons were undone.

"I respect them and keep out of their way." I prayed my avoidance of a #brave response would delay his plans for me.

He smiled.
"I like that." He clicked his lip and patted my shoulder. "The brethren considers non-normals like you as slinking amongst us spreading fear and venom. I'm not a #maniac like Jules, Jeb, or JT. My viewpoint differs. I want to learn from you. That's why we're here, David."
I shouldn't have left my ID in the Spectra's trunk. Idiot.

"Are you RJ or another J?" I asked.

"No, I'm not a J. Robert Jacobs. The pleasure is all mine."

"Why am I your prisoner, Robert?"

"They yearn for what they fear for."

"Dante's #Inferno. Are we going to hell?"
"I suppose that depends on my intentions." Robert rubbed his hands together excitedly.

I narrowed my eyes at him knowing his were bad.

"Don't #slump. I'm giddy because we're about to go on an educational adventure. I want to know how it works. Your powers specifically."
"That info's out there. Haven't you seen the articles, books, documentaries, and podcasts?"

"I have." He placed his hands on my knees and leaned close. "You can #transform your appearance with a thought. They don't cover that. Imagine how useful that would be to us."
"It works the same for all of us." Why would NBT want what they hate?

His face tightened to a grin. "That's what the government and media want you to believe. 'Absorb our generic, curated content like a #zombie. Don't think. Don't question.' But I do. I trust discovery."
Due to morality and health concerns, genetic studies of enhanced people were highly regulated.

My eyes fell to the tools on the metal tray next to me.

Robert spoke smoothly like an audience #charmer. "For decades, we had the government's ear to our legitimate concerns.
"Attitudes changed over time. Voices of statistical outliers were given undeserved weight. Coverage lacked multiple perspectives. That left scant options to protect ourselves and our interests." He reached for a scalpel. "I truly wish my words didn't fail to #move you." Image
My eyes darted from the blade to the walls. They were empty other than a duplex outlet.

"Take a gander." Robert gestured around the room with the tool. "If you see an escape, take it. Otherwise, this is where I begin to stop the #domino-like spread of non-normal rights."
I tried to boost my strength to rip through my bonds. It felt like forcing a broken toe to move.

"What did you do to me?" I asked.

"The mix going into your veins temporarily prevents you from accessing your abilities. I want to create the #utopia where it's permanent."
"Paradise built on the backs of the bruised," I said.

"Not the bruised. The fixed. Are you surprised that one of you collaborated with me on this?"

"I heard her."

"Another viper under our boots." He grinned as he approached with the scalpel. "I suggest you #freeze.”
He reveled in my horror as he incised the left side of my cheek, opening a red line from my temple to under my ear.

"I know that stings, but it's all in the name of knowledge." He typed on a laptop and adjusted a #widget connected to the IV controller. "Now the fun."
The world slowed. An odd calmness came over me as cool fluid entered my arm. I closed the open wound.

"All better," Robert soothed. "We're off to a positive start. I can repeat this as many times as it takes."

I had an idea, but I'd have to stay #undercover as a victim.
I suffered rounds of cutting, tasing, and burning only to be given enough meds to heal.

Robert wiped his brow. "It's a real shame about Ray. A lifetime of health only for Mr. Everyday to wither at the end. Who's your new boss? Once that #cypher comes, I'll know anyway."
Like any hate group, NBT members were hyperbolic about the systems they infiltrated. Still, he knew about Ray.

"All this show about stealing or blocking powers and you can't even get a name," I bluffed.

"Everything's impossible until it's done. Do you #pray, David?"
"I'm not religious, but I pray people like you will stop fearing our differences."

Robert's false pleasantness faded. "Your generation's lack of faith and spiritual guidance lead to your immorality and irresponsibility. That's why we'll never see a powered #astronaut.
"In nearly every political race, your candidates lose. Not in a landslide but an #eclipse. No one wants an aberration representing us and our values. I can accept red, white, yellow, green, blue and LGBTQ. They're part of humanity. You hide because you know you're not."
My words wouldn't stop him, so I no longer measured them. "Did you always aspire to be in a hate group? Behind the guise of safety, tattoos, and pseudo-science, you're trembling. I'm bound in the suburbs because you're a coward." My voice became #thunderous. "Pathetic!"
Robert huffed, shook his head, and forced a smile upon his lips. "We'll have to agree to disagree. I was going to save the surgical power tools for later, but you've truly inspired me, David. You're no #foreigner to pain, but limb amputation may be a new voyage for you."
He walked behind me and heaved a hefty, silver bone saw onto my lap.

"Smooth cuts, stainless steel blade, dust collection, and a HEPA filter. This puppy does it all," Robert cheered and twirled the black cord in his hand. "I wish your kind had respected our #community."
He walked the plug towards the outlet.

"I'm looking forward to this." He smiled as he attempted to secure the plug.

Something blocked it. That same thing he failed to #notice wrapped around his wrist and entered the power receptacle.

He screamed as arcs shocked him.
The drugs may have been Mr. Jacobs' expression of an #egalitarian perspective, but blocking powers had no difference to losing a sense. He didn't want equality. He wanted control over us to maintain a false sense of superiority, a finger permanently teasing an off switch.
I had used the healing drugs to seal surface wounds. The remainder I used to add onto a thin extension of cells from my ankle around the baseboards of the room. Blue and red blood supply, like a #patriotic horror of vessels and arteries, hid among its translucent path.
While I had temporarily silenced Robert's #tart remarks, four immediate problems persisted. I had internal injuries which required energy I severely lacked to heal. I also needed to break free before any NBT goons checked this room.

I felt famished and desperate, Cal.
Robert began to stir as I struggled against the cuffs. He had taken the brunt of the electricity, but my ankle felt singed. My hunger panged through the cell strand. I felt his energy through it and knew, even if I'd rather have it from anyone else, I could #snatch it.
With a moan, he rolled onto his side. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a syringe full of red liquid, and removed the cap.

As he prepared it, he said, "I'm going to cut out your organs and dissolve them in a #pot of acid. Let's see if you grow them back after that."
Robert tugged the vine of cells taut by lifting his wrist. His eyes traced it to my leg.

With a snarl, he said, "All that wasted effort traded for a few extra moments before you're wrapped up in a #carpet."

With a scream, he brought the needle down towards the growth. Image
To conceal my #intrigue, I had endured torture and agony. I refused to let a hate monger end me.

Adenosine triphosphate, cell energy, sucked out of his mitochondria and directly into mine. Robert froze as fraility overtook him.

"What are you doing?" he asked feebly.
I stopped internal bleeding and rebuilt what he broke. As he turned pale and gaunt, a #cyclone of unanswered emotions stirred in my head.

He lied on his back and tapped his smart watch three times.

The universe, in its infinite wisdom, granted me an outlet to my fury.
A beep sounded and the door opened as three secure locks unlatched. Jules and Jeb rushed into the room and paused to #munch on the scene.

"What happened?" Jeb asked as he bent down to check Jacobs and picked up the syringe.

He clutched Jeb's arm. "Get him, you moron."
Jeb, his white tank top stained with dirt and blood, wiped his nose on a shoulder strap. He ran towards me, tripped over the cell line, and landed on his chest.

Jules took out a hunting knife. "Yer useless. Lemme show ya how it's done," she said with #acid in her voice.
She snorted a black #powder out of a vial and smacked her cheeks. Her breathing increased as she amped herself up to a craze.

"Freaks don't touch me unless I want 'em to."

Two quick gut punches were followed by the edge of her blade on my chin forcing me to look at her.
With a wheezy voice, I said, "You're not my type, combat boots. Remember, you touched me first."

Jeb and Jacob groaned as I absorbed their energy. My right wrist ripped through the metal bolts holding it in place.

Jules recoiled to avoid my grip. "#Screw you, motherfu-"
She cut herself off upon seeing the umbilical attached to my ankle. With a dive to the floor, she sliced through it.

"You won't have balls enough to be the beta boy in a #polyandry relationship when I'm done with you."

"Weird insult. Can we just fight? I'm almost free."
Jules licked her lips and waved her hands for me to bring it. Shards of metal and leather scattered as I escaped my restraints and stood. I cracked my neck.

"Bitch, I'm the Queen B. The #materfamilias. Your ass is mine for Jacob and Jeb." Jules twirled her shiny knife.
Ashy dust remained on her nose.

"If you're the big, bad house mother for a bunch of redneck bigots," I asked, "then why does it look like you've been huffing a fireplace?"

"Mom needs it to #address problems." Jules wiped it on the back of her hand and pointed at me.
She slashed the knife towards my stomach. I jumped back, but she nicked my forearm. A trickle of blood oozed onto my skin.

"Poor baby's too slow," she mocked.

I #yearned for her energy, but that meant absorbing some of her nose powder without being able to filter it.
Her movements were a brisk staccato of attacks. Her shrieks sounded feral like a wild #animal as she cut and slashed me. I couldn't grab her. How could she be so fast?

Jeb and Jacob were unconscious and out of reach. It had to be Jules.

I leaned on the chair's armrest.
"I hate guys with no stamina," she taunted.

A portion of my #arm's imprint was still visible in the leather. Fluffy, cream innards poked out where I had torn off the binds.

Jules didn't wait. As the sharp edge came towards me, I used the armrest to meet it with a clank.
I blocked four more attacks before she faked going for my neck only to instead gash my chest.

Her strategy proved to be so #fine that I decided to copy it. I swung the armrest towards my right and abruptly brought it downward and left to give her stomach a forceful jab.
She didn't budge. With a growl, she tore it out of my hand and let it fall behind her.

A swarm of #flies on a screaming skull, roses with bloody thorns, and a rainbow with the NBT DNA logo hidden inside of it flew at me as her tattooed arms forced me back on the chair.
The backrest broke off causing me to awkwardly lean. I tried to force her muscular arms off of me. Enraged, Jules switched to using her left forearm to keep me pinned as she adjusted the knife in her right hand.

Her savage eyes told me she intended to make me worm #food.
I strained to stop her, but she stabbed deep into my left pectoral with minimal effort. I screamed and pushed to create space between us. The front legs of the chair lifted along with the clamps holding down each #foot. With a metallic whine, our bodies toppled backwards.
The agency would have you believe that in a #brilliant move of genius and bravery, I escaped the room, knocked out all group members, and landed their leader in the hospital. Their local chapter shut down after I, the Beast of Belmont, put the fear of God into them. Image
That's the cover, Cal, a lie spun to #lead the government and public to believe an A46 agent acted like a superhero to defeat the evil enmity of NBT.

The truth is not simpler. While on top of me, Jules hammered on the knife handle. That left her open to a single counter.
She dropped another blow. I pulled her fist to make her torso fall. When she rose, she found my hand already on her face. My cells docked on hers like a leach to #mine for resources. Her rage contorted into shock and paralyzed terror as her head sunk into unwanted sleep.
I rolled Jules off of me, grabbed Jacob's remote, and locked the chamber behind me.

My heart thundered in my chest like an industrial metal beat as I headed up a set of stairs. I wanted to #pick my way through anyone who got in my way. I wanted revenge. Painful and cold.
The basement must have muted the violent #racket. Three men at the kitchen table playing cards failed to notice me enter the room.

"Hello." My own voice sounded muffled against the rhythmic pulse in my ears.

To me, their fumbling, shocked reactions were in slow-motion.
One guy drew a firearm. I ducked, grabbed an empty wooden chair, and spun my body to swing it full force into his. As the two remaining braced themselves from the rain of splinters, l leaped onto the table to drive my #right foot into another's face. Two down. One to go.
His arms outstretched to tackle me. I flipped behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Around he whipped. I clutched his scalp and #saw the vacant look in his eyes as he swayed like a falling timber. Between Jules' drugs and my cells feeding, I felt unstoppable.

The distinct sandpaper crunch of rubber on grit entered my ears. Four doors clicked open. Footsteps. Muffled chatter.

"You've blocked me in," JT's voice said. "Leave it running. Form up. He's coming."

I kicked the side screendoor causing it to #tear off from its frame.
Stepping outside, I used the broken bar on the pneumatic door closer to drag the bent metal with me around to the front of the house. JT stood surrounded by ten men. Some held blunt weapons.

I flung the door at them to announce my #entrance. They ducked near the cars.
A slim guy appeared to #tense up and reacted too slowly. The edge knocked him in the head. He stiffened even more and fell to the side.

"We're going to have a chat, JT," I said.

"I'm booked solid." He looked around and smiled. "Make an appointment with my assistants."
The group cracked their necks and tapped their hammers and pipes in their hands.

"They seem most obliging."

"I value their loyal service, Daryll." He said the name with spite. "I wish I could stay to watch them #tie into you, but duty calls. You're not worth my time."
JT waved and ducked into the car.

A clink sounded followed by tension on my left shoulder as an arrow shot into it. I barely felt a thing as I removed it and bit it in half between my teeth, an #ominous prophecy to the men who also witnessed the red puncture seal itself.
Each took a sniff of the same black powder Jules used. They formed up behind the rear bumper creating a #hallway of bodies, a gauntlet of those dedicated to a drug-enhanced beatdown impeded my way. Nine-on-one hardly seemed fair. Conveniently, they also blocked JT's exit.
With his #silhouette turned to look behind, he honked the horn and called out, "Take him out now!"

The group tightened their grips on their weapons and closed in on me.

"Jacob, Jeb, and Jules are unconscious in the basement," I informed them. "Who wants to join them?"
Wearing a black, metal band t-shirt and frayed cargo shorts, a man holding a metal pipe stepped in front of me. Taped wires ran the length from the tip to a black plastic control box zip-tied to the rubbery grip. He flipped a switch activating a droning electric #circuit.
I tried to alter my hand tissues to rubber #band material to insulate them, but the IV drugs Jacob had administered blocked some of my abilities. Otherwise, we were all on equal ground thanks to the black powder. I prayed I had more training and intelligence than them.
The man brandished his improvised stun baton as his yellow, brown, and black toothed smile paid tribute to a coffee and cigarette #ash lack of dental hygiene. He swung it wildly. Blue arcs sparked in the air.

I wondered if he was NBT's version of an Upstairs heavy.
"I'll light you up, freak," he said, eliciting the mob to share similar jeers. He spread his arms wide. "No one's coming to help."

"You're right. I'm here all alone in my #solitude," I said to buy myself time. "There's only nine of you. Are you sure that will be enough?"
They intended me to be a #transient visitor to Belmont, a nuisance never allowed to leave nor return.

The man looked at his mates and did a combination of a shrug and belly laugh. "Yeah, I think—"

He left himself open so I kicked him in the groin. Dirty and effective.
His brethren cringed as he hunched in crushing pain. I clocked him with a hard right and disarmed him. After I used him to gain even more energy, he collapsed.

The eight stared with slack-jawed dismay. A war cry herded them to a unified attack I had no chance to #block.
A high-speed, syncopated #meter that would make Trent Reznor proud pounded into my flesh. Wood, metal, and feet drove into me in a drug-enhanced wall of sound. Hate had been given form.

Through the tangled barrage of bodies, I searched for exposed skin. My hunger grew.
I tucked into fetal position. I couldn't dull the pain for long. My desperation increased. I saw no way out.

A scrape on the ground landed the stun stick next to me. With hyper speed, I turned it on and drove it into someone's shin. The arc caused his insides to #burn.
"Watch out!" one of the men warned.

Two others withdrew upon seeing their comrade get electrocuted by the #bar. The blows ceased and I felt the air begin to open around me. I peeked two pairs of ankles shying away. A split-second later, what was once theirs became mine.
I felt like a teenager: wide awake with an abundance of vitality and enough indifference to use it on the five remaining.

"I can #smell the sweaty stench of fear on each of you." I inhaled loudly. "Weapons. That black coke ravaging your olfactories. They won't help you.
"No matter how fast your #gaunt frames move or how hard you fight back, I will get to JT."

Pointing a loaded crossbow at me, a tanned man with five o'clock shadow said, "Full house pattern."

Two flanked his rear while another pair guarded his left. Were they trained?
Behind Crossbow Boy, one had a staff with the ends wrapped in razor wire. The other revved a chainsaw. The final two stood near the rear bumper of JT's car with finely sharpened replica black ninja swords.

They would give me no #quarter.

"You ready to dance, agent?"
Unlike the previous five, this more #seasoned crew knew cover maneuvers. Their tactics prevented one-on-one and guaranteed significant maiming. I had been stabbed and cut plenty even at this point in my career, but powered yard tools and swords were new.

They waited.
The #twilight world of Agency 46, with it's hierarchical organization and classification, had that in common with NBT. Every encounter provided a new mystery and danger. Instead of the usual overzealous rednecks, I faced their elite squad.

The crossbow fired into my leg.
Pulled by rope attached to the looped end of the bolt, the man dragged me towards them. The arrowhead felt like a claw in my muscle. He must have been a mechanical #fundi as I heard the whir of a small fishing winch on the crossbow wind up the line.

"I got a bite, boys."
"It needs taming," said the bearded man in a sleeveless flannel vest who hefted the staff high above his head.

With no finesse, my blood and sweat soaked hands tried to dislodge the arrow.

"The catch thinks it's #savvy." the squad leader said as he trawled me closer.
Perspiration drenched my clothes. I screamed in panic as their angry visages filled my vision. The burly man slammed the razor wire end of the bow onto my other leg. It felt like a demon's gnawing jaw.

Cal, I felt no sense of #catharsis from being forced to face my fear.
My whole body tensed at the searing pain. The saw putted as the cutting chain spun. Its handler lowered it with an insidious craving.

"No! Please!" I begged.

I wished for another time. Another place. I had #hiraeth for my school years. Studies, friends, and no violence.
"Tenderized for the cut." Like twenty scalpels shredding my skin, the brawny man pulled the spindle of metal from my ravaged leg.

A primal scream spilled from my throat. I entered a #zone of unrefined pain and terror. My face flushed. I felt cold and hot all at once.
To convince me to remain still, the man placed the end of the bow on my chest. I lifted my arms to brace for the chainsaw. As it dropped, I pushed the end of the bow into it.


A #bubble of shrapnel exploded from the cutting blades sending it in every direction.
The three men each took significant damage from the fragmentation: shoulder, facial, and limb injuries. Two of them collapsed while their leader stood in shock at the site of his arm.

I removed the arrow from my leg knowing my insatiable #yen for energy would overtake.
I crept towards the arbalist. He tried to retrieve the bolt with his mangled digits.

"Stay back." His imperative sounded as #diaphanous as an adolescent's cracking voice.

Clambering up his frozen torso, our eyes met. He turned pale and fell into me.

Another recharge.
Their katanas emblazoned with laser etched #oleander flowers, the two swordsmen guarded JT who leaned out of his window.

His face deformed from vexation to concern as he looked over his fallen men. "What the hell?"

Our eyes met. I stood and pulled a chip from my cheek.
I reconstructed my muscles and skin. Good as new.

JT placed a hand on each guard's shoulder. "Boys, I know you'll have quite a #dilly of a fight."

He put his window up and locked the doors.

With perfectly synchronized motion, the men sliced the air with their swords.
Like a scampering #tokoloshe, the man with the chainsaw, now jammed and inoperable, dragged his fellow #imps off the driveway to the yard.

The blades scraped the gray concrete.

"X-Ray Romeo," the man to the right with tied back long, black hair said in NATO phonetic.
The men changed their stances to offensive and triangle stepped towards me.

"I've already been cut and slashed." My head tilted towards all the fallen men in the grass as my eyes followed.

"Not by us."

"Do you really want to #quibble?"

"No, we'd rather behead you."
The men adjusted their grips and shouted kiais as they started their charge.

The brake lights flashed. The car swiftly reversed with a rumble. The bumper slammed into the men sending them flying towards me.

JT performed the ultimate #grift on those he deemed most loyal.
Adrenaline spiked. I caught them. With a rotation, I cast their bodies to the grass. Inches from impact, I completed the spin and kicked the rear fender. Undercarriage heat scorched my face. Auto glass showered the road as the vehicle became a #rebel against gravity.
I leaned down slowly to the driver's window. "Nice driving. I guess pedestrians don't have the right of way when you're coming through."

JT, upside down, laughed nervously. "I'm such a #lummox. How could I mix up the pedals while a drugged out super attacked my friends?"
"You mean your armed soldiers from your hate group?" I leaned in close and tightened my face. "Let's see if you fail your drug test, JT."

"You caused this car to #whelve, Agent," he said. "I never partake in any illegal substances. What kind of man do you think I am?"
"The lying, kidnapping, and torturing kind. And the kind who needs someone he hates to get him out of this car." I stared at him, curious what devious #muse stirred in his mind. "Stay still."

I climbed inside and reached across his body, up to the jammed seatbelt lock.
JT lifted his arm, I thought, to give me better access to the buckle. He wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me onto him. Something jammed into my ribs. Two shot fired into me.

"As leader of this chapter, cleaning you off the face of the earth is within my #ambit."
Blistering heat and pain radiated from the entry wounds. I felt a sinking sensation as if the earth wanted to pull me to it's core.

JT continued, "You were so close to turning Belmont NBT to #ash. I know. It hurts to fail like every other overly entitled miscreation."
As the #light air in my lungs wheezed out, I collapsed down onto the headliner. Breathing felt broken. Wrong. I coughed involuntarily and tasted metal and oil.

Inverted, JT and I were at eye level with each other.

"I'll pass on your Internet package offer, too, Daryll."
I hated looking in his happy eyes as I took a ragged, razor blade inhale. My hand, still raised onto the buckle, slipped down to JT's shoulder.

He placed his hand on mine. "Sometimes the best of us have to #fall to make way for a better tomorrow. Today, that's you."
I strained to raise my head enough to look directly at him.

"Was it worth it?"

Waving the gun casually as if it were a candy bar, he said, "If it removes a dangerous non-normal, then it's worth it. Hell, once NBT #South hears about this, I'll be up for a promotion."
Groups like League of Ordinary Humans and Citizens Rising Against Powereds believed we existed within their ever expanding #umbra. Our defeats increased their prominence.

With extreme malice, I said, "They won't hear about it because you'll never be able to tell them."
JT laughed. "I admire your fighting spirit even at your #soul's end." He pointed his gun at my forehead. "Think happy thoughts. Repent for your sins. I hear it helps."

My hand shifted to the side of his neck.

"Pull the trigger," I said, "if you can."

"Goodbye, David."
He steadied his aim and breathing. His finger didn't squeeze the trigger. He shook it off and tried again. And again. The triumphant smugness of middle-aged, prejudiced conceit faded like the sun setting in the #west.

"What's wrong?" I mocked. "You can't do it, can you?"
I lifted my shirt to let the bullet fragments fall.

"Good as new." I rubbed my new, smooth skin. "Thanks to you."

Shock and fear filled his eyes as I rose to my knees.

"Normally, I'd take you'd in," I said, "but I can't allow your group to spread its somber #shadow."
"No no no."

JT fidgeted in his seat and released his belt. He fell in front of me and stared up like a dog submitting.

"I built this! You're not taking it away from me."

He frailly swung the butt of the gun which I caught and placed next to me.

"#Kiss it all goodbye."
My fingers dug into his neck to force his cells to give me more vitality and to take his away. He didn't deserve to spit his poison or to be conscious. I wanted him weak, powerless, and haggard like an insignificant #North Carolina ice storm forgotten after a quick melt.
JT's calls for mercy fell on deaf ears. NBT showed me none, so I felt I must strictly adhere to the "do unto others" part of the Golden Rule.

After he allowed Robert's experiments, watching him have no control as I captured his energy until he passed out seemed #just.
A familiar voice stopped me from going too far.

"That's enough," said Jack. "He's done, David. It's over."

The calvary had arrived since I failed to report in a couple hours ago. Arrests were made. Investigations began. NBT became a #ghost, a presence lying in repose.
I had stopped talking long enough that Cal uprighted his seat and opened an eye to stare.

"That's it?" he asked.

I pursed my lips.

"I share my most personal loss, and you clam up? I'm not Ethen, thank God, but I know there's more. Was there #blood? Gore? Addiction?"
#Lambent, late-day sunlight filtered through the trees on the side of the highway. I squinted and moved the sun visor sideways.

"I put JT in a coma for three weeks. I'm not proud of it," I said. "A46's PR team fabricated the story of a hero defeating a hostile NBT cell." Image
"David, isn't that what happened?"

"No." I looked him in the eyes for a few seconds. "That's using our impenetrable wall of secrecy to give the public a #pale imitation of the truth."

"Which is?"

"I could have escaped like JT said. I chose to stay. I chose revenge."
Cal angled his head and raised his brow. "The sun rises in the #east, but it's always changing position even if we can't detect it in each moment. Its arc moves every day and with each of the seasons. We can't control it, so our perspective has to change along with it." Image
Surprised by his philosophical perspective, I said, "That's more insightful and astronomical than I expected from you."

"Me? Naw, that's all Janelle."

"Thanks, Janelle." My tone sounded #dark after a quick smile. "I still can't reconcile Belmont with its repercussions.
"Finally, I found a way to sate my hunger after using my powers: sampling others' energy to boost mine. Great solution, right? Aurora and Jack loved that I could take down suspects with a touch. They'd #play with case assignments just to put me into those confrontations.
"Nothing filled that void of desperation better than allowing addiction to make a grand #entrance. Not drugs. No, I loved always having peak vitality. I never had that when I was young. Imagine the fights and the damage I was willing to take just to climb that mountain.
"Maybe I imagined it, but I always felt a part of those I fed on stayed with me a few days. A #wave of health. Diseases. Genetics. History. Ideas. Being labelled a vampire for following orders, that was the best part."

Cal looked stunned and opened his other eye.
"I'm sorry I called you that even in competition."

"It doesn't matter."

"Of course it does, David. They drugged you. Any effects that had on you aren't your fault."

"I didn't take out an NBT cell because of a sense of duty or valor. I'm no one's hero. I'm no #savior."
Cal sighed. "I don't want to #cwtch up with you, but give yourself credit. You recognized your problem and stopped." Cal took out his ring which reappeared between his forefinger and thumb. "I don't like to talk about this, but I did. And we fought off those hermanos." Art by @rd_blade for @schat...Art by @rd_blade for @schat...
My lips curled. "We survived them."

Cal smiled. His swollen nose and bruised cheeks caused his voice to betray every ounce of pain. "You think Aurora will give us credit for that?"

"No, she'll go ballistic."

"That bad?"

A #pop came from under car.

"We've had worse."
End of Chapter 10.
Start of Chapter 11.
Confrontation does not drive most. Even when it's part of a job, people tend to avoid it unless they find it vital. Few savor those moments and fewer experience #electric ecstasy from them.

Aurora is that statistical outlier who relishes making others squirm and stammer. Aurora Calais, Director of ...
As the new Director of Foundational and Downstairs, she met with each employee privately. My skillset, education, attention to detail, and power set impressed her. She made that confidence boost #wink out when she asked why I continually failed to live up to my potential.
I've never known how to respond to that accusation. No one does. Aurora found fault with everyone.

"Lazy. Inadequate effort. At least pretend you want to be here."

Did she enjoy watching subordinates flit and #flutter around HQ like insects doing their queen's bidding?
At first, I believed she did it to #jam up expectations. Changes of the guard cause anxiety. People either stuck to what they've known or aimed to please. If both of those caused displeasure, it created intense curiosity. She pushed ever further instead of easing it.
By leaving her motivations and expectations a mystery, she manipulated employees to strive for an unobtainable level of excellence.

This scheming behavior struck me as cruel and disingenuous with a #twist of narcissism. I couldn't stand how it reminded me of my family.
The Challenger lurched as if it were driving on uneven #liquid. I steered against the chaotic motions. The speed lowered. Panels pinged as they dented. The hood became concave.

"We're not going to make it," Cal said with breathless concern as he grabbed the dashboard.
I tightened my grip on the wheel and pushed the gas harder.

"We're not that far away. C'mon baby, you can do it," I hoped.

The dash and stereo displayed garbled text and graphics as if they had a malfunctioning #spell.

Cal bemoaned, "What the hell did you do, Marcia?"
Horns blared as vehicles whizzed past us. A constant cymbal ride came from behind. I turned to check our rear before realizing the muffler had fallen.

"She said it would get us here, but that's it," I said.

Cal looked incredulous. "I thought she was being #antisocial."
"She wouldn't have taken in Lila if that were true. You're just in denial."

I regretted the words immediately.

"Are you starting some #drama again, David? Is your car getting wrecked for the second time today? No, it's mine. Pardon me for having feelings about that."
Grinding came from the Challenger as I turned onto the long street that led to HQ. The seats vibrated like an off-balance dryer.

"I'm s-sorry. I didn't think how b-badly this s-sucks."

"N-not your fault. Even with you driving, this still b-beats a #taxi or r-rideshare."
The car hummed and putted into the parking lot. It hesitated and stalled as I pulled directly in front of the main entrance. Hissing steam poured from the engine like a quiet #lullaby as it gave its final clunk of life. Windows cracked. Cold lights fizzled to oblivion.
Outside the car, Cal rubbed his watery eyes. I wasn't sure if it was from his loss or his nasal bones being #cleaved by the headbutt. Maybe both.

He put his right knuckles on his forehead, leaned into his baby, and slapped the roof with his left hand.

"Damn, man."
The rear bumper popped off one bracket leaving it hanging awkwardly until the other followed suit. It scuffed the pavement and seesawed.

"Damn. I needed one more #verse with the Green Machine. Just one, so I could say goodbye."

I put my hand on his shoulder. "I know."
One of the large glass doors to the lobby opened. Jack popped out and hurriedly approached. He paused at the sight of the Challenger.

"Jesus," he breathed with a #shiver. When he saw Cal's face plus the blood and fluid remnant on my jeans, his wordless mouth hung agape.
He adjusted his rolled up sleeves. The top two buttons on his shirt were undone. Likely, he had tossed his tie on his desk hours ago.

"Guys," Jack sighed, "please tell me this is from fighting some perps and not each other. The #ink's still wet on both yer contracts."
"We're going to wait until #October for a rematch." My face stayed stoic.

Cal subtly curved the edges of his lips.

"Thank God." Jack's tension eased, but he got serious. "We need ta quarantine the car in case of after-effects. Any dangers here? What do I need to know?"
"A guy with living, carbon fiber hair, inky skin, and a scorpion tail attacked us."

"He broke my nose," added Cal with a pinched voice.

"And stabbed my chest. He distracted us while his brother took the list from Iverson."

"He #moored ya to him. Smart," Jack reasoned.
Cal grimaced. "Skip to the sword part, so I can get my face fixed."

Jack stared at me with avid curiosity.

"Right. I ripped the tendril in half and pulled out the bladed end. It turned into a black sword, a #hobgoblin that made the brothers retreat. It's in the trunk."
His hands on his hips, Jack huffed. "I don't know who ya fought. Weird #creature."

"The other was a goliath with gray stone skin," Cal said.

"Never heard of anything like them. We'll check the database." Jack looked at my new shirt. "What'd the blade do to ya, David?"
I didn't know what to say.

"Tell him," Cal urged.

"It injected fluid into me. I felt it #spider into my veins and burn my cells. Filtering it out was difficult."

"We'll let Dr. Catawnee assess you."

"The sword doesn't want to be put down."

Cal and Jack glared at me.
"You had that thing in my car?" Cal scolded with a #grave tone.

"We got back here, didn't we?"

Jack shook his head and tapped his phone. "I'm gonna need containment for an item in the trunk: a black sword. Possibly sentient or affected. Use the robot. No contact."
He pocketed his cell and wiped his glasses. "The bosses're antsy. That makes Aurora antsy. Her #endless malcontent is off the chart bad. Ya know what would piss her off even more? Seeing you two gettin' along like old pals, partners, a real team. Can you do that for me?"
I'd relish any chance to irk her without repercussions.

"Sure. We've worked out our issues."

"There might be more, but I'm game," Cal responded.

Jack smiled. "Good. Grab the list. Let's go. Welcome to the scrutinizing eyeballed #nightmare. I'll help ya where I can."
As I retrieved the list from the hulk of the Green Machine, Cal asked, "Jack, what about my car?"

"We'll deal with it later. We have bigger fish to fry."

"Are you driving me home and picking me up tomorrow?"

With a sober tone, Jack said, "#Nobody's going home tonight."
A hazmat suited team hurried past us to the Challenger.

"List." Aurora held her hand out to me the moment we were in the hangar entrance.

She snatched it out of my grip and held it in the air for an analyst to process.

"Couldn't keep an #eye on your teammate, David?"
Cal patted my back as Aurora's frown lines collapsed into her lips.

"It's not his fault. I jumped the gun." He forced a smile.

She examined him with a penetrating look that could have exhumed ancient fears from a long dead soul.

"You're a couple of perfect #seraphim."
With tranquility, I replied, "Cal and I did the best job we could given the circumstances."

A satisfied look on her face, Aurora stood uncomfortably close to me and let it drop.

"Instead of resting, I'm #awake attempting to fathom how you completely botched the mission.
"I read the #words of Agent Miller and Detective Sherman's reports. Iverson's house has a hole in it and Cal's personal vehicle is destroyed."

"Aurora," Jack interjected, "let them give a full report before you judge."

"That's an excellent idea, Jack. Get Ethen. Now."
Jack paged him on his cell. He rushed over to us adjusting his tucked in Polo shirt. He brushed his flaxen hair out of his eyes as he saw the shape of Cal's face and my stained pants. He looked uneasy and #scared while his hands slowly fell to his sides.

"Oh God."
Turning to Ethen, Aurora had a round with him. "Don't stand there with the befuddled #stare of an adolescent in trouble. Apologize to your teammates. Your job was to act. You failed them."

"Our earpieces were damaged in the fight," I said.

"After you asked for help."
Ethen put his finger in the air. "Technically, he never asked for it. Because of the #enormity of the sounds coming over the feed, I preemptively deployed an affiliate agent, police, and EMS."

"Put your finger down," Aurora scolded, "and do not argue semantics with me."
"Aurora!" Jack pleaded and glanced outside where the containment team sprayed #foam on the car. "Give Ethen credit. He had a full response present in minutes. If you're looking for a scapegoat, they're my team. I'm responsible."

She tugged the lapels on her suit jacket.
Ethen blurted, "No, you're not. There's a m—"

"Not one more word!" Aurora hissed.

She caught her volume level, glowered in disgust, and ensured no one else heard. She gestured for the four of us to huddle closely.

"When information leaks, none of us are #unscathed."
Jack added, "When it's not the five of us, keep yer eyes open and yer traps shut."

"Only we will have access to the list," Aurora said. "As for the #hapless dimwit passing intel, like Agent Zayne, I have experience exposing weaknesses." She gestured over her shoulder.
Our gaze #cast to the far wall where Alice escorted the pink haired analyst into the Security Vault, a room with bulletproof, electrochromic walls and a specialized machine. It accepted documents, did a full forensic analysis of them, and became perfect digital replicas.
Fingerprints, residues, paper quality, and even the manufacturer of the printed ink were all databased. The original would be inaccessible except by Jack, Aurora, and Upstairs. It became virtually impossible for anyone else to use the data to further #wound the agency.
Upon leaving the Vault, the recollection of what one fed into it disappeared. I still don't know how that works. Memory erasing beams are a fairy tale. No gas is that specific. Only a #power or residual effect of one could be. It was one of many closed guarded secrets.
The punky analyst appeared disoriented when she exited the Vault. Charlie, who had been inside it likely more than anyone, grabbed her shoulder and pointed the way to her desk.

"I protect our #hive from poison," Aurora noted, "even if it means sacrificing a few drones."
Cal respired disapprovingly.

"Do you have thoughts that aren't about your car?" Aurora asked him.

"What if it's a former employee? An outsider? Hell, what if it's one of us?"

She placed her hands on our shoulders and appeared proud as if she were going to #ennoble us.
"Your injuries must be making you slow. The intel flowed outward from within. Someone in here gave it to someone out there." Aurora let go of us and backed up to include Jack and Ethen. "If it's one of you, I'll enjoy watching you burn like a dried #frond in late winter."
With hands on his hips, Jack looked #molten with repressed anger as hot-breathed steam vented from his mouth. Ethen went wide eyed while I folded my arms and raised my head in defiance.

"Your silence is a gift, Ethen." She turned to me. "You should match his generosity."
"Is it your birthday?" I asked.

Jack coughed into his hand.

Aurora stopped herself from rolling her eyes. "How magnanimous. What does your #indomitable mouth want to share?"

"What are you going to do about Cal's car?"

The shock on her face made the risk worthwhile.
"Mmm," she uttered, not letting a drop of intention spill over the #brim.

Had I stumped her? Had she finally grown weary of our yearslong tit for tat?

"I'm not going to do a goddam thing about it." Humorless and sardonic as ever, she leered at us as Charlie returned.
Aurora stood in front of Cal who stared at her grimly. She pursed her lips and raised her neck.

"No more wasting my time. Medical now. Ms. Rivera will ensure no delays." She pointed at Ethen. "Their full field reports in my hands. One hour. #Handle it. Jack, with me."
Jack and Aurora stepped away to speak.

Alice shook her head in disapproval at me. "Sugar, I'm surprised she didn't have me bring gloves and a shovel. She's ready to #murder y'all three." She breathed in hard at the site of Cal. "Mm. Why's this fine specimen broken?" Alice Rivera aka Charlie Ho...
"Trouble ran into us," I said. "Loved the surprise hot empanadas."

"I'm glad. That ain't the only specialty of #mine. Walk and talk. You first, green eyes."

Ethen led us. Cal hung behind close to Charlie.

"I didn't know about your side gig as a famous chef," Cal joked.
"You must think you're cute if you're still flirting with that face."

"Fine specimen?" Cal questioned.

She smiled. "There's a lot you don't know about me."

"That's what I hear."

She grabbed his arm gently and bit her lip. "David didn't tell you #everything, did he?"
Cal kept her in suspense for a moment. "He said if I want to know you, I should ask."

I turned and put my raised finger on my #philtrum.

She eyeballed me with curved lips. "Are you keen on me, Cal? What do you want to know?" she teased.

"What should I know, Alice?"
With a complex bouquet that blended notes of geniality, curiosity, and wisdom with more than a #mote of confidence, she stood in front of him.

"If you want to ask me something, Cal, I suggest you do it." She raised her brows.

"Will you get dinner with me this weekend?"
Ethen spun around on his heels. He stared at Cal and Charlie with revulsion and turned to me.

"They like each other?" he sniggered. "Maybe they'll listen to shellac records on her #gramophone together."

"He doesn't know, and you're not going to tell him."

"Why not?"
I drew him close.

"She's my friend, and I want her to be happy. It's not your place to share her secret or anyone else's. You don't want to be on her bad side. Trust me."

The gears churned in his mind. "Inappropriate #flirtation notwithstanding, it's a lie of omission."
"You know more than anyone that people lie all the time. It's your choice whether that offends you. This is a secret she's going to share. Can you let this one go?"

"Purposeful disregard? That doesn't feel like a #novel solution. I'll ruminate."

Cal glunched at him.
"Are you two done?" He relaxed and looked back at Charlie. "I want to take you out."

She beamed. "Yeah, I'll go out with you. Ask me the other question written all over your face. I've been around the block a few times, Cal, so let's not make a #caper of it. Go ahead."
Cal tried to steady himself before base-jumping off that #promontory.

"Will you—" He ate his words and started again. "Could you fix my nose please?"

Alice smiled knowingly. "If the doc okays it, I could, but it'll hurt just as much as when it broke."

"I can take it."
Cradling the back of Cal's head in one hand, she waved her other palm in front of his face.

"Mhmm. You can't be #torpid either or I won't be able to feel where everything needs to be," Charlie explained.

Several yards away, an impatient Aurora pointed towards Medical.
"Let's march," Charlie ordered.

We made our way across the hangar towards the far right wall.

Ethen in the lead shouted, "Why not let a medical professional with proper education and experience fix your nose, Cal?"

"Do you know the term ego-#syntonic, Ethen?" he asked.
"I may seem oafish and #ophidian in our interactions, but I am perfectly self-aware." Cocking his head to the side, Ethen added, "Is it habitual for you to deflect?"

Cal rumpled his lips. "You're a marvel to psychological science. I just want to get out there sooner."
Charlie scanned her badge at the keycard reader. A #dissonant alert sounded as latches in the door released. Red lights in the frame flashed as a reminder to keep anything past the entry in confidence. Medical was like Vegas with less gambling and every bit of weirdness.
Spotlessly sanitary, white surfaces and walls gleamed. The remnants of hospital grade disinfectant spray filled the air.

"I have twigs growing out of my face!" a rowdy patient sitting on an exam table protested to his neighbor.

"Shut up or I'll #pelt you with another."
Her labcoat flowing like a white cape, Dr. Catawnee rushed between the two quarrelers and held them back with her hands.

"This is what you choose to use your #capital talents on?" Her eyebrows arched over her thin, gold framed glasses. "You're being petty and selfish.
"This bay is clean, quiet, and calm not because I enjoy it, but for your safety and well-being as well as my staff's. You can either stop or I'll choose a #shellac to bring out that wood tone."

"Ha. Serves you right, Gio."

"And I'll be happy to sedate you," Doc added.
"Do you know what he said to me?"

Charlie stepped to the female patient. "Don't be a security issue, Sandy. It won't feel good if we restrain you."

Sandy folded her arms.

Doc looked us over. "I have others to attend to. #Bail out Gio, and you'll be in my good graces."
"Fine. I'll do it for you, not him," Sandy said. "I can shrink the twigs, but I can't #atomize them."

"Alice, couldn't you seal Gio's wounds?" Ethen suggested.

I cringed at his impropriety.

"I don't ask you who's lying, so please don't volunteer my powers to others."
With a look of offense, he replied, "I'm trying to help."

"You four can help by taking a seat." Dr. Catawnee pointed to the empty cushioned chairs lining the front wall. "Gio, I can have Nurse McClean create a #nebula privacy curtain."

"And deny Sandy an audience? No."
"Since you're both being #ugly, I insist. Plus, I'm paging a teamwork mediator. Every team has disagreements," Doc paused to stare at me, "but it's alarming that your conflict has escalated to where you're on my beds. We can't have partners using abilities on each other."
While Sandy and Gio waited in silence, we watched Nurse McClean setup the colorful gas pillars with her hands. Unlike Dr. C's small frame and shorter height, she had a #sturdy build more like a weightlifter or bouncer, and a stoic demeanor often broken by a caring word.
Ethen's face churned along with his thoughts. "Is each a #sycophant for the other, demonstrating false support in an attempt to impress?"

Jack sunk his face into his palm. "Help him, would ya?"

"Either he isn't quiet," Cal began.

"Or isn't their only kid," I finished.
"Quentin is their sole child," Ethen replied. "If his profile is an #act to conceal, then what is his family hiding?"

"Yer an Analyst. Analyze their pages. Dig into their backgrounds and connections. Ya can't just lie detect in person. There's something there. Find it."
Raven and Tyrrel had daily posts touting powered support group funds. Their updates were all smiles or posed images of studious collaboration. They would have made great politicians.

One short featured a kid who could pull #lightning from the air. It had an odd jump cut.
Flash frames of emerald and #lavender stuttered through the video as the electric surges pulsed into outstretched hands. The girl suddenly had her arms by her sides.

"Did you see that?" I asked the others.

"Yes," Cal said with wonder. "I want to know what they cut out."
Jacked watched Ethen perform a familiar #exercise: loading histrionics and geo-data on the video.

"The original was taken two weekends ago at an Ability Awesome rally. The duration lacks five seconds. And oh—"

"Oh what?" I asked.

Lines of code appeared on the wall.
"Why does that number keep climbing?" Cal pressed.

"It's uploads from the rally," said Jack.

"Permit me to filter the results by a narrower search criteria."

Pages cascaded into organized piles.

"Do ya know why I don't like these #weekend support events?" Jack asked.
"They forgot to invite you?" Cal deadpanned.

"Ha. Ha," replied Jack unamused. "They somehow always #end up forgetting to tell the agency. Guess they don't want our help. And yer about to see why."

Ethen synced half a dozen videos to stream from the same time position.

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Oct 11, 2021
David Doesn't Fly:
While contending with past mistakes, David tries to solve a mystery involving powered kids with new partner Cal. Unfortunately, someone doesn't want that.
#vss3365 #ScifanSat #superhero #comics #serial #novel #WritingCommunity
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Chapter links below David Doesn't Fly by @Schat...
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