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."

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