Aaron shoved his tray aside and collapsed onto the cafeteria table. “I wish I could speed up time,” he said. “Then I could make this day be over.”
“That bad?” Brennan said, scooping a glob of steaming cheese onto a chip.
“Ooh, heat mine up, too,” Lucia said, scooting her plate toward him. He shook his head and held his hand over the congealing cheese. Soon it was steaming. Aaron stared at it and fought the urge to be sick.
“I had three visions this morning,” Aaron said. “One of them was about those nachos. I had a vision about nachos.”
“I guess this is a bad time to talk about Molly,” Lucia said.
“You can talk about it, but I’m not sure I can think right now,” he said. Maybe it was his own fault. After the disaster with the baseball, Aaron had promised to ease up on his powers, but he’d kept practicing on his own. That and a couple of nights poring over obscure scientific data had taken its toll.
“What did y’all do last night?” Brennan said.
“Oh, you know, just shopping.” Lucia shoved a cheesy tortilla chip in her mouth. “Do you know she knows karate? Like, she’s legit a ninja or something.”
“It came up, actually,” Brennan said. “Did you find out why she got expelled before?”
“Not exactly. But— Hey, Aaron, are you sure you’re okay?” He felt Lucia’s cool fingers on the back of his hands. “Do you want me to—” she started, but he pulled it away.
“No. I’ll be all right. Just, you know, carry on or whatever.” He waved his hand vaguely and closed his eyes, zoning their voices out until their conversation was a low buzz somewhere overhead that mingled with the general cacophony of the lunchroom.
Until something slammed down right next to his ear. “Ow.” He winced and glared toward it.
“Sorry,” Molly said, dropping into her seat with an irritated huff. Without any other introduction, she dug into her food, eating like the world itself had offended her.
They all stared at her.
“What?” she said.
“You’re sitting with us now?” Brennan asked. “When did you get downgraded to the reject table?”
Moly flushed bright red and glared across the cafeteria. Aaron followed her gaze to see Kylie smirking back. “I don’t think I’m welcome anywhere else,” she said.
“I can talk to Carter—” Aaron offered.
“Don’t bother,” Molly said. “I don’t want to be a part of any group that includes Kylie. Or Selena, to be honest.”
“Still mad about yesterday?” Lucia asked.
“Well, yeah,” Molly said. “Doesn’t it bother you, her acting like your friend and then stabbing you in the back?”
“But we’re not friends,” Lucia said.
“Okay, whatever,” Molly said. “You can be in denial if you want. I’m over it. She wants her popular friends; she can have them.” Molly took a few more bites before she noticed that they were all still staring at her. “Is that a problem?” she asked.
Lucia and Brennan exchanged a long glance. “No,” they said, unconvincingly.
Molly stabbed her meat with a fork. “If you don’t want me here, I’ll go,” she said.
“It’s fine,” Aaron said.
“Yeah, sure.” Lucia leaned against Brennan’s shoulder, crossing her arms. “Just don’t embarrass me.”
They fell into an awkward silence. Aaron laid his head back on the table, trying to ignore the nauseating fumes of fake cheese sauce.
“Are you okay?” Molly asked.
“Oh.” She finished off her food. “Are you going to eat that?” she asked, pointing at his plate.
“Go nuts,” he said, shoving it toward her. Molly devoured half of it in about a minute.
“Wow,” Brennan said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone besides Carter eat that fast.”
“At that speed, I doubt she’s even tasting it,” Lucia said.
“Swam three miles this morning,” Molly said. “Didn’t have time for breakfast.”
“You swam three miles?” Brennan said. “Before school?”
“Yeah, I was a little keyed up this morning,” she said. “I mean, after last night—”
Aaron looked up in surprise, and caught Lucia rapidly shaking her head. She winced as Brennan turned on her.
“What? You said you went shopping!”
“We did,” she said defensively. “And then we, uh, ran into a little trouble after dinner. Hey, it wasn’t planned. See, what happened was—”
“No, stop,” Aaron said. “I don’t need to know. I don’t want to know.” His headache suddenly seemed about ten times worse.
“What don’t you want to know?” a voice said from behind him. “Wow, Aaron, you look terrible.”
“What are you doing here, Ivy?” Brennan said as his sister dropped into the empty chair beside him. “Is there a sign somewhere that says ‘come bother me?’”
“I’m not here to talk to you,” she said, plopping an overstuffed binder on the table. “I’ve got some stuff for Molly.”
Lucia groaned. “Not this again.”
Ivy ruffled through the binder and drew out a sheaf of drawings held together with a neon green paperclip. “If you don’t like it, I can redraw it,” she said. Aaron caught a glimpse of blue and green colored pencil as she passed it to Molly.
“What am I looking at?” Molly said eventually.
“Your alias,” Ivy said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Every superhero needs one.”
“I’m not a superhero,” Molly said.
“But you’ve got super powers,” Ivy explained. “It’s practically the same thing. Unless you want to be a villain?”
Molly arched a brow at her. “No thanks.”
“I told you not to bother her with it,” Brennan said.
“She does this to all of you?” Molly asked, glancing around the table. When her questioned garnered nothing more than an embarrassed shrug from Brennan and an eye-roll from Lucia, Ivy dug a few more sheets of paper from her binder and thrust them at Molly, whose expression went from confusion to something closer to panic as she cycled through them.
“Relax, Molly. It’s no big deal,” Brennan said. “Indulge her and she’ll go away.”
“It’s just for fun,” Ivy said. “But she needs a name. I was thinking of something kind of forceful, you know. Like Floodgate, or Tidal Wave. Aquarius? Some kind of blue something—”
“No color names,” Molly said quickly. She hesitated over the drawings again. “What names did you guys choose?”
“Really, Molly?” Lucia said, smirking. “I thought you were cool.”
“If I remember, you already had four names ready when I asked you,” Ivy said, and Lucia rolled her eyes again.
“So what did you choose?” Molly asked.
No one spoke for a second. Brennan gave in first, thanks so some enthusiastic nodding from his sister. “Heatseeker,” he said. “He’s pretty much like me, although he can actually make fire, and I need a fuel source. Lucia’s on her third name now, so whatever she’s calling herself, if probably won’t last.”
Lucia shoved him with one shoulder.
“Well, he’s right,” Ivy said. “Personally, I’m leaning toward Mindfury.”
“It has a certain badassery to it,” Lucia admitted.
Molly turned to Aaron. “What about you?”
“Farsight,” Aaron mumbled. “Selena’s Codex, and Carter’s Gladius.”
“Gladius?” Molly said. “Like, gladiator?”
“It’s a kind of Roman sword,” Aaron said With a shrug. “He’s kind of into classical history.”
“He’s such a closet nerd,” Lucia said. “He’s got a maxed rogue and an alt mage, too.”
“I can’t even pretend to know what that means,” Molly said.
“Bet he’d teach you,” Lucia said with a grin.
“Uh, okay,” Molly said, flushing bright red. She quickly turned her attention back to the illustration. “I…um…I’ve never really thought about it,” she said. “Maybe you should pick something for me.”
“Just call her Aqua-girl and get it over with,” Aaron said irritably. “It’s just a stupid comic book character. It’s not like anyone will ever read it.”
“Wow, Aaron, thanks,” Ivy said. He heard the injury in her voice, but his head ached too much to feel very guilty. “Maybe I’ll kill your character off if you don’t care so much.”
“He’s just being a baby because his head hurts,” Brennan said. “He doesn’t mean it.”
“Is it really that bad, Aaron?” Lucia said. “Why don’t you just let me—”
“No,” he said. “I’m dealing with it. Can everyone just mind their own business and stop trying to fix me?” He pushed away from the table.
“I’ll see you later,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Don’t follow me.” He stormed away, ignoring the sideways glances as he shoved past tables and out of the cafeteria. The hall outside was quieter, and he stalked aimlessly down it until he reached the band room: empty right now, and dark. He slipped inside and slumped against the wall. The pounding in his head seemed to echo.
He heard someone move up beside him, but didn’t look. It hurt too much to open his eyes. It was probably Lucia, or maybe Carter. After a minute she cleared her throat. “Hey.”
He sighed. “Just because we let you sit with us doesn’t mean you get to be my therapist,” Aaron said.
“I’d make a terrible therapist,” Molly said. After a pause, she added: “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m great. Happy?” Aaron waited, hoping she would go away. But she didn’t, and she didn’t say anything either. She just stood beside him.
“It’s hard to be unreasonable when you just accept it,” he said after a while.
“My dad gets migraines,” Molly said. “They suck. Why don’t you go home?”
“Can’t miss school every time I get a headache. I’d never graduate.”
“You get them that often?”
He shrugged. “Usually after a bad seizure, or when I’ve had a few episodes close together. Using my power too much tends to trigger them.”
“Oh. You’ve been using it a lot?”
Aaron hesitated over his answer. He took of his glasses and wasted a minute pretending to clean them on his shirt. “I’ve been practicing,” he admitted at last. “I kind of thought it might make it easier.”
“That makes sense. Has it?”
“Well, no. So far it’s just gotten worse.” He turned his glasses over in his hands. “Everyone else seems to just… get their powers, you know? I’m lucky if I can use mine without triggering a seizure or a three-day headache.” Embarrassed, he sighed and thrust his glasses back on his nose, hard enough that he managed to stab his ear with one end before he got them all the way on. So much for impressing the girl. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared fixedly at a trombone.
“Do you, uh, want help?” she asked.
“Practicing,” Molly said. “Look, I know you’ve got your friends, and I don’t want to be—but sometimes having an outsider’s perspective helps.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Aren’t you grounded or something?”
“Only technically,” Molly said. “I’m supposed to be helping Clarissa, but I think today she’s working on her travelogue. As long as Dad doesn’t come home early, no problem.”
His instinct was to mouth off another sarcastic reply, but for once he managed to restrain it. He crossed his arms and frowned at the floor. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll try it. Just… do me a favor and don’t tell the others.”
* * * * *
Molly walked out of school fighting a headache of her own. If it wasn’t enough navigating a new school, getting detention, and finding a whole group of super-powered kids in her new backyard, she had somehow gotten caught in this complicated social tangle that she had zero idea how to work through.
She still hadn’t figured out whether Lucia actually liked her or not.
Meanwhile, Selena had been texting her all day. Molly had stowed her phone deep in her backpack for the last two periods just to stop the incessant buzzing.
Molly unchained her bike from the rack and walked it down the sidewalk. Aaron had agreed to meet her at home after school and she had mixed feelings about that, too. Sometimes Aaron seemed to like her, and sometimes he seemed to like her, and sometimes he seemed annoyed that she was around.
Molly ignored the sound of Selena chasing after her.
“Just wait a minute, will you?”
Against her better judgment, Molly waited. “Careful,” she said. “Someone important might see you talking to me.”
Selena halted a few steps away from her, breathless from exertion. “Are you still mad at me?”
“Gee, I wonder what gave it away?”
“You know I didn’t mean any of that,” Selena said. “I was just—”
“Sucking up to the little witch who got me detention. I get it,” Molly said. “You want to be a normal, shallow little airhead, and you’re doing a great job at pretending.” She started to turn around and leave it at that, but her anger made her turn back. “You know what I don’t get? How you can hang out with people on the weekends—people who, for some reason, actually kind of like you— and then turn your back on them for Kylie. It’s like you don’t even understand the concept of what friends are for. Even I understand that, and I don’t have any!”
“I’m your friend.” Selena had the grace to look ashamed, at least. “I mean I want to be.”
“Just not in public.”
“No, I do,” Selena said. “I can make it work. Give me a couple of weeks and I can fix it. I just need some time to—”
“Fix it? You mean find some way to ‘forgive’ me for choosing the wrong side? Give me a makeover like we’re in some stupid movie? And what about Lucia? And Aaron? Are you going to fix it for them, too?”
“Oh, come on, they don’t care about that.”
“Sure. Because they’re not your ‘real’ friends. Just the people who really know you.”
“It’s not that easy, Molly.”
“It is for Carter.”
“Carter’s a boy. And he’s Carter. The rules don’t apply to him.”
“The rules are all in your head, Selena,” Molly said. She turned her back on the other girl and swung a leg over her bike. “If you want to be friends, okay. But I don’t have patience for all the games and pretending. I’m done with Kylie and her gang, and I’m not going to sit at that table. I’d rather not have any friends than have them.”
Before Selena could say anything else, she kicked off and pedaled hard until she could coast down the sidewalk. Wind blew past her, taking the edge of the late-summer heat. That, she thought, felt kind of good.
* * * * *
Aaron got to Molly’s house before she did. He’d had to invent all kinds of excuses—where he was going, why, when he’d be home–and then there was Molly’s stepmother, who seemed to be composed of nothing but curiosity. Somehow, he found himself on the porch with her, drinking painfully sweet lemonade over a barrage of questions about the town and the school and what teenagers were up to these days.
Molly slammed open the screen door and practically ran inside. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, a look of abject horror and apology on her face.
“Oh, he’s only been here a minute,” Clarissa said before Aaron could reply. “Do you need to go inside and clean up? I can keep your friend company.”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Well, I’ve got tons of work to do, so I’ll leave you guys alone.” She gathered up the pitcher of lemonade and extra cups. “I’ll put this in the fridge if you want it. Have fun!”
“Wow,” Aaron said as Clarissa disappeared into the kitchen. “She’s… intense.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Molly said. “What did you tell her we’re doing?”
“Group project.” He shrugged. “I figured you can’t get in trouble for doing homework.”
“Thanks,” she said. “There’s a good spot in the backyard that you can’t see from the house. Or we can go to the basement.”
“Outside is good,” Aaron said. “I don’t really like enclosed spaces.” He set his half-empty glass on the table and followed her off the porch and around the house.Molly led him around a clump of overgrown shrubs and through what appeared to be a miniature forest of birch and dogwood between the house and the lake. They stopped in a clear space on the lakeshore, partly sheltered by the trees. It was a windy day, and the rippling water made steady waves against the cattails in the shallows.
“So,” Molly started, sitting cross-legged in the overgrown grass. “You said you’ve been practicing. What exactly have you tried?”
He shrugged. “Just… using my power. Turning it on and off.”
“Could you— do you mind showing me?”
“On our first date? But we barely know each other,” Aaron said.
“Meanwhile, I’m being completely serious.”
“Okay, okay. Here goes.” He took a breath, focused on his power, and twisted.
Molly froze in front of him. Behind her, water rippled across the lake, so slow it seemed to not move at all. Aaron wondered how long he should delay coming back. Would moving forward startle her too much? He took a few quick steps backward, and started to release his power.
Something stopped him.
Molly looked…different. She stood with one hand on her hip, the other falling to her side. Shifting weight, maybe. Aaron ventured closer. For some reason, she didn’t look quite like herself. He’d caught something inadvertently, trapped in this moment of suspended time. Something in her expression. A confidence, maybe, or an intensity that seemed unlike her.
But still strangely familiar.
And you shouldn’t spy on people, a sudden thought scolded. Ashamed, he took a few steps back, and released the power.
Molly blinked at the empty space where he’d been, and then quickly at where he’d ended up. “That is so weird,” she said. “In a cool way.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said, taking a few deep breaths. He’d held it too long. “It would be cool, but it feels…unpleasant. Constricting,” he said. “Like I’m being squeezed and can’t get a good breath. There’s pressure in my ears, and I get headaches and nausea if I hold it for more than a few seconds.”
“Sounds like the bends or something,” Molly commented.
“The bends. You know, decompression sickness? Like when you dive without pressurizing.” She regarded him thoughtfully. “Do you have to slow it down that much? Can you slow it down just a little?”
“You mean like this?” He took a breath and bent time— a small push that did little more than warp the sounds around him for the few seconds he held it. He ran a circle around her and dropped it. Molly whirled around, following his motion with an awestruck expression. He couldn’t help grinning.
“Sure,” he said, breathless from the effort. “It doesn’t suck as much, but it’s still like being punched in the stomach. And not as useful.”
“Are you kidding? It’s basically like having super speed! It’s awesome.” She motioned eagerly at him. “Do it again.”
He decided to humor her. “Okay. One time.” He held it longer, running circles around her until the pressure started to pinch in his forehead. A lurch of nausea assaulted him as he dropped it. “Yeah, it’s awesome,” he said.
“Well, do you have to tense up like that when you do it?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like this.” She took a breath and clenched her face and body up. It looked a little like someone had thrown a bucket of ice water over her.
“Is that really what I look like?” Aaron asked. “All…”
“Tense,” Molly said. It was a nicer word than Aaron was going to use. “It might not hurt so much if you relax a little bit.”
“Wow, I didn’t realize it would be that easy,” Aaron said. “All my problems are solved.”
“I’m just saying is maybe at least some of it is psychological,” Molly said. “If you’re anxious about it, it’s going to make it more unpleasant than it really is. I mean, being pushed underwater is terrifying if you don’t know how to swim.”
“You don’t have to make a water metaphor out of everything,” he said.
“That’s still what it sounds like. Like being underwater.” She bit her lip, shrugging. Aaron wondered again about the instant of time he’d caught of her: not a shred of that self-doubt had been present. She shoved her hands in her pockets. “Look, I know I’m being kind of bossy, but… I could teach you some relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises and things. It really helped with my anger issues. Even if it doesn’t help with your power, it might help with your migraines.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked. “That you might relax for once?”
“Very funny.” He sighed. “All right, I’ll try it. What do I have to do?”
* * * * *
“Where’s Aaron?” Selena asked as she swept through the door.
Carter grabbed an extra apple and shut the refrigerator with his foot. “Most people say hello when they barge into someone’s house.” He dumped his pile of snacks on the counter and sorted through them. Three apples, a banana, protein shake, and two sandwiches from the “emergency” food stash. Probably enough.
Selena glared at him for a full minute. “Hi, Carter. Nice to see you. Where’s Aaron?”
“I don’t know. He went somewhere with Bren, I think.” He opened it and downed it in seconds.
“But I need him!”
“Really? I didn’t know you two were so close. Set a date, yet?”
“Ugh. Not funny, Carter. I need his help with something.”
He grinned. “Is it something I could help with?”
To his surprise, she actually considered it. “No, probably not,” she decided, shoving her bag onto the counter. She slipped her phone out of the side pocket. “It’s about the files.”
Carter felt a twist in his stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. “Oh,” he said.
“I’ll text him.” Sparks flickered between her fingers and the case as she sent the message. Carter unwrapped his sandwich. It was some kind of Rueben with bacon in it. He stuck it in the microwave.
Selena glanced at his pile of food. “You sure all that’s going to fit in your stomach?”
“I’m hungry, okay?” he said, taking a bite out of an apple. “Got caught with a granola bar in class yesterday, and I can’t take any snacks for a while. You want something?”
“No, you’re pretty much ruining food for me right now.”
He shrugged and munched on the apple, and she went back to checking her phone compulsively, waiting for Aaron’s reply. When it came, she sighed. “Are you kidding me? He’s with Molly.”
“Says she needed his help with something. Cryptic. And annoying. How am I supposed to figure this out without any help? No offense,” she said, glancing at him. “Not that you aren’t smart or anything, but—well. Anyway, you made it pretty clear you don’t want to be involved.”
“You found something?” Carter asked.
“Sort of. Aaron asked me to look into something for him. Which makes it doubly annoying that he’s not here to talk about it. I mean, come on, she’s just a girl. You’d think he could prioritize a little.”
Carter tried to avoid thinking about it. “Maybe it was important.”
“Yeah, uh-huh. I know what was important.” She rested her head on her hand and glowered at the lacquered countertop. “Weird though. I thought she was into you.”
“Guess I’m a little too normal,” he said, as casually as he could. Selena flashed him a sympathetic smile and he pretended not to notice. “You could still tell me about it,” he offered.
“Really? But you said you didn’t—”
“Well, I don’t,” he said. “I think that this is illegal and borderline insane,” Carter said. “Just because we have these abilites doesn’t mean we can’t get arrested, or blown up, or—”
“Okay, okay. Point taken.”
“But I don’t want Aaron getting in trouble without me there to get him out of it. So. Tell me what you found.”
Selena hesitated for a long minute. Finally, she gave him a slow nod. “All right.” She pulled out her black box. “The thing is,” she said as she opened the laptop. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with Aaron’s catastrophe, but it might have something to do with our powers. It’s called Avalon.”
* * * * *
Aaron stretched out on the grass, eyes closed against the bright sunlight, and listened to Molly talk in a soft, hypnotic voice. He tried to do what she told him—to push everything out of his mind and concentrate on breathing, but unbidden thoughts kept popping into his head, like “this is stupid” and “I wonder what’s for dinner.”
“Breathe in,” she whispered. “Breathe out.” She was close enough he could almost feel her breath against his ear. He kept thinking he could reach out and brush his hand against her arm. It was extremely distracting. He exhaled, too loudly.
“You’re not relaxing,” Molly said. “Your shoulders are all tense.”
“Tense is my natural state,” he said.
“Well, no wonder you’re getting headaches all the time,” she said.
Aaron sighed. “You sound like my mother.”
“Your mother, the brain surgeon?” Molly said. “I’m sure she has no idea what she’s talking about.”
“It’s not a matter of just relaxing,” Aaron said, pushing himself on his elbows. “It’s not…You don’t understand what it’s like—”
“Just stop,” Molly said, taking hold of his wrist. There was too much pity on her face. He looked away.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she went on. “Yeah, you’ve got problems. All of us do. My powers make me violent and hyperactive. Lucia seems like she’s always one step away from some kind of mental overload. Brennan—”
“I know,” Aaron said. “I know all those things. But it doesn’t—” He rubbed his hands against his temples. He thought of all the things he’d seen—murder and violence, accidents, disasters— “It doesn’t help,” he said. He fell to the ground, still clutching at his head. Pressure closed around his chest. “I feel like I’m always just waiting for the next attack. And when I see something terrible, and I don’t know when it’s going to happen…”
His father in danger.
Glass on the ground, tinted red with blood.
“Aaron…” She sounded far away, distorted. He heard ringing in his ears. “Are you okay?”
“Something terrible is going to happen—” He said it without thinking. “And I have to just wait for it. I can’t stop it. I can’t—”
“Aaron, calm down. You’re going to—”
Fire. Sirens. Blood.
He felt something slam into his shoulders. The force jolted his head into the ground hard, and he heard a different kind of ringing. “Ow.” He blinked, and squinted up to see Molly’s face framed against the afternoon light. She’s scared, he thought. Why does she look so scared? She straddled his hips, pushing both palms into his shoulders with surprising strength.
He was suddenly very, very aware of how hard she was breathing.
“Just relax,” she said.
“Not likely to happen, with you sitting like that,” he said.
Molly blinked, and flushed bright red. She moved away, tugging her shirt strap back up her shoulder. “Sorry,” she said. “I just… you were kind of…sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Aaron said. Very slowly, he sat up, pinching his nose to relieve the sudden ache between his eyes. The world swam around him, and he–very slowly–decided to lie back down. “Most of the time it’s better not to do anything,” he told Molly. “I’ll be all right as long as I don’t hit my head or something.”
For a while, he did nothing but lay still and breathe, trying to find the energy to get up. He pushed aside the images, forcing his brain not to obsess over them. He hadn’t seen anything new, anyway. Just echoes of the old vision.
“Was that..one of your…vision things?” Molly asked. “I thought you were having a panic attack. It didn’t look like a seizure.”
“Maybe not a full blown one. Usually it’s more of a blink–I just kind of go away for a few seconds It’s not always…theatric.” He rubbed at the back of his head. “I don’t think the cure is bashing my head into a rock, though.”
“Sorry. You scared me. And um…” She fidgeted with her shirt. “You kept saying something… that you knew something bad was going to happen…”
Great. He swallowed. Time for half-truths. “I see bad stuff sometimes,” he said. “I usually can’t do anything about it.” This time I can, he thought. But I have to get control of my power. I have to get control of myself. Aaron took a long, slow breath and pushed himself to his feet. “Okay, I want to practice some more.”
She followed him more slowly. “Maybe you should rest—”
“Actually, I feel okay,” he lied, rolling his shoulders back. “I’m really ready this time. No self-pity and no sarcasm.” He attempted a disarming smile. “Promise.”
“Okay,” she said, but she didn’t sound sure about it at all. “Just promise you’ll stop when you need to.”
* * * * *
“Avalon?” Carter said, testing the steaming sandwich with one finger. Too hot, maybe, but it looked delicious. “That sounds familiar.”
“It’s the island that King Arthur went to after he died.”
“I know that,” he said. He risked a bite. The pastrami burned his tongue, but it was completely worth it.
“Nerd. I had to look it up.”
“I meant I’ve heard it recently.” He rounded the counter and perched on the stool beside Selena.
“Well, plenty things have been named after it. Including a project at Lartech from, like, forty years ago.”
“Forty years?” he said, leaning over to see the screen. “But the lab’s barely even that old.”
“Hey, don’t get crumbs on my computer.” She brushed them off with a look of utter disgust.
“Sorry,” he said between bites.
“Anyway,” she continued, “It would have had to have been one of the earliest projects they did. It looks like it had something to do with human enhancement.”
“Was it a military project? Like, making super soldiers?”
“Don’t know. I think it might have been a medical project, actually. Like, trying to make people more resilient to diseases? There are references to things like cellular regeneration and radiation therapy. Maybe they were just trying to cure cancer.”
“And accidentally made super powers?”
“Well, I don’t know. That’s the problem. Most of the information has been redacted or destroyed. Intentionally, I think, but they missed bits and pieces. Besides, it was shut down decades ago. It shouldn’t be affecting us now.”
Carter sensed a ‘but.’ “But?” he said.
She pointed to the screen. “Look who was on the project. The head scientist.”
“Matthew Lakefield? I don’t recognize it. Who was he?”
“Well,” Selena said, “He was Molly Young’s grandfather.”
* * * * *
“Here,” Molly said, handing Aaron a glass of iced lemonade. He took it with a breathless “thanks.” She settled onto the swing beside him, cradling her own drink in both hands. She knew she shouldn’t keep asking him if he was okay, but she could tell he’d pushed himself too hard. It was only after he’d gotten physically dizzy that she’d convinced him to stop.
“This is good,” he said, and leaned back with an exhausted sigh.
“Good.” She rocked the swing with her toes, wondering idly what to say. “This is kind of weird.”
“What? Me? What did I do?”
“Not you,” she said, laughing. “Just… This. Hanging out with a friend. It’s not something I’m used to doing.”
“We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. Casually. Easily, like it wasn’t a big deal at all. Molly dropped the subject, focusing on her lemonade and the rhythm of the swing. The creaking chains seemed ridiculously loud.
“So you really never met anyone else with powers?” Aaron asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Thought I was a one-of-a-kind freak. It kind of scared me when Brennan… I still can’t believe there are five of you.”
“And your grandfather definitely wasn’t involved with Lartech?”
“Not as far as I know,” Molly said. “But he died when I was nine, and I didn’t know him well. You really think it has something to do with the lab? Like they… did something that caused our powers?”
“I don’t know,” Aaron said. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for ages. It’s the thing that makes the most sense, considering… I mean statistically, the odds of the six of us having powers when no one else does…” He shrugged.
“Yeah,” she said, drawing her knees up to her chest. “Pretty unlikely.”
“I’ve been looking, too,” he said. “You hear stories about people lifting cars, miraculously being cured—and then there’s Azure.”
Molly froze. “What?”
“You know,” he said. “Azure. That vigilante that’s been around. She showed up in a bunch of different cities, but they think it’s all the same person.”
“Yeah, um, I’ve heard of her.” She fidgeted with her hair for a minute. “You think she has powers?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? I’ve watched the videos. They’re never very good, you know, because she only goes out on rainy nights. But something about it looks… off. Like she has—I don’t know— super speed or some kind of low level telekinesis.”
“Huh.” Molly bit her lip and stared down at her hands. “Maybe.”
Thankfully, Aaron drew the wrong conclusion. “But you don’t think so,” he said. “Yeah, I know, I’m reaching. The others all think I’m crazy, too.”
“I’d kind of given up on it, but then you showed up. Now I don’t know what to think.” He closed his eyes and exhaled. “Man, I’m exhausted.”
“Did I push you too hard?”
“No,” he said. “No, it feels kinda good, actually. Like progress, maybe.”
She thought he might be lying to her, but she let him. “That’s good. Give me your cup and I’ll get you some more lemonade.”