Molly stared at her father’s car with dread.
Okay, maybe not dread. But apprehension, at least. She had gone to Carter’s without explicit permission, was home an hour later than she should have been, and had multiple injuries she couldn’t explain. She’d borrowed a long-sleeved shirt from Brennan’s hoard of clothes to cover the scalding on her arms, even though she had to roll the cuffs under twice. She also had a killer bruise on her side, and maybe a cracked rib. It took some effort to walk without wincing.
She smelled cooking as soon as she walked inside. Stir fry, from the sizzling, with Dad’s spicy honey sauce, from the smell. Her stomach grumbled as she followed it toward the kitchen. She paused there, leaning against the wall while her anxiety grew into a solid lump of fear in the pit of her stomach.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she slipped it out to see a text from Aaron: home yet? need to talk. She put it back without answering. Did he ever stop planning and just take a second to rest? She had enough to deal with right now.
Lying she was used to, but lying to her dad? Part of her wanted to confess everything, to have him just fix everything like he’d done when she was small. But he couldn’t fix this. Could he? They would just run away again, like they’d always done before.
Molly was tired of running.
She took a deep breath, steeled herself against the pain in her ribs, and turned the corner into the kitchen.
Dad was at the stove, stirring with a little more vigor than was strictly called for. Clarissa was at the counter, humming while she sliced peaches.
“Hi, Molly!” Clarissa called. “Did you have a good afternoon?”
“Yeah, it was fine,” Molly said.
“You’re late,” Dad said, without turning.
“Sorry,” she said.
He gave the veggies a final toss and turned on her, wiping his hands against each other. “A moment,” he said, gesturing to the hallway. Reluctantly, Molly followed. Once they’d left the kitchen, he turned on her. “You were supposed to be here this afternoon, helping Clarissa.”
“I spent the last three days helping her!” Molly said. “She said she had a phone conference this afternoon and needed a quiet house. I know I’m late getting back, but—”
“Where were you?”
“With some friends,” she said.
“What were you doing?”
Thwarting professional mercenaries from committing industrial sabotage. “Playing computer games.”
“Computer games? You can’t even sit still long enough to read Harry Potter.”
“I can,” she said. “I read, like, four of those.”
“Whose shirt is that?”
A blush lit her cheeks so fast she’d swear she was glowing. “It’s—uh—I was cold,” she said. “Didn’t have a jacket.”
He raised an eyebrow. “It’s eighty degrees outside.”
“We were inside,” she said. “Come on, don’t embarrass me like this! I’m sorry.”
He crossed his arms and stared levelly at her. Something in his set expression told her he doubted her story. Maybe it was the long crease over his eyebrows. Eventually, he asked: “What’s wrong, Molly?”
“I—” She bit her lip. It was hard, lying to him, and not just because he was suspicious. It was actually painful. Especially since she knew how to manipulate him. “It’s just that… Well, one of my friends is in the hospital,” she said, feeling guilty.
The crease melted into sympathy. “Oh, M, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“There was this—uh—accident—at Lartech.”
“I heard about some big fuss going on there.”
“Well, he was there when it happened.”
“Is he all right?”
“He will be. I was just—I was with his brother when it happened—and I couldn’t just leave—” The awful feeling multiplied. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Geez, M, nothing can ever be simple with you.”
She endured another long stares, and at last he turned back toward the kitchen. “Go set the table,” he said. Molly took the escape with a huge rush of relief. As she gathered plates and forks and carried them to the table, she found her hands shaking. If Dad found out what they’d done at Lartech, she would be under house arrest until she was eighteen. And she would deserve it.
“Here, Molly,” Clarissa said, “let me help you with that.” She set to organizing the flatware that Molly had flung haphazardly across the table. “Did you have fun with your friends?”
“Um, yeah, it was great.”
“Clarissa!” Dad said. “Don’t encourage her!”
“Why not? She’s sixteen, Toby. I’m sure she’s thinking about boys by now.”
If only she had the power to turn invisible. “No boys,” she managed, praying desperately that she wasn’t blushing again. “I mean, there are boys, you know. Around. But none of them are, um, mine. I’m going to go change clothes,” Molly said, and bolted for the stairs.
“M, wait a sec,” Dad said, stopping her before she’d reached the first tread.
“What?” she said. “I already said I’m sorry—”
“Thank you,” he said.
“For giving this move a chance. I know you didn’t want to come here, but…it’s good to see you making friends, doing normal things.”
The scalds on her arms itched. Normal. Right. “Okay,” she said.
“Clarissa said you were a lot of help this week.”
“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” he said. “I’m going to need your help Saturday morning, moving furniture. We’ve got to get the floors refinished upstairs.”
“Uh… Okay.” She resisted the urge to rub her injured ribs. How was she going to get out of that?
“Afterward, you can consider yourself off probation,” he said. “As long as you don’t get in trouble again.”
“Yes,” he said. “I wanted you to calm down and fit in, and it looks like you’re trying.”
Fitting in, yes. Calming down… not so much. She looked away so he wouldn’t see the guilt in her eyes. “Okay,” she said, feeling like she should offer something in return. “It’s not so bad here.”
“Good,” Dad said. “And the boy’s nice, by the way.”
“Okay—wait, what? What boy? Wait, Brennan? He’s not—”
“It’s okay, M. I was only joking before. That’s one area I do trust your judgment in. Just… don’t start dying your hair weird colors. I’m not sure I could handle that.”
* * * * *
Aaron slumped over the kitchen table, trying to drown out the sound of the television. Normally, sports at dinner was only a minor annoyance, but today it felt like every play call was being screamed directly in his ear. Worse, he was bored. Any time he tried to do something, someone would tell him to sit down and rest. Everyone kept treating him like he was going to shatter, just because he’d almost been blown up. He wasn’t allowed to read, or watch TV, or even do homework, which meant that the mediocre slice of pizza in front of him was pretty much the most interesting thing that had happened to him today.
“Do you need a drink?” Dad asked. “Carter, get him a drink.”
“I can get—” Aaron started.
“Sit down,” Dad said, pushing him back into his seat. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I have a concussion, not broken leg,” Aaron said, but Dad ignored him. He stared at the congealing cheese and tried to summon an appetite.
“Here,” Carter said, shoving a half-cup of warm soda in front of him before sitting down with his own plate. Dad sat on his other side, effectively trapping him between them while they commented on the game. Loudly.
Aaron ate the pizza, mechanically, staring at the empty seat across the from him. He was still eating when they finished, and kept picking at the crust while they cleared the table.
“Did you get enough to eat?” Dad asked. “We’ve got apples, and, uh….” He opened the refrigerator and peered inside. “Grapes. Juice. Eggs….Soy milk? What are we doing with soy milk? Some leftover salad—”
“I’m fine,” Aaron said. He probably would have called out the whole contents of the refjrigerator had Aaron not cut him off.
“Do you want some dessert?” he said, opening the freezer. “We’ve got ice cream. Well, it’s low fat, but it’s chocolate. You like chocolate, don’t you?”
“I’m fine,” Aaron said, nudging a loose pepperoni around his plate. “Thanks.”
“I like chocolate!” Carter called from the couch.
“You can get your own!” Dad called back.
“Can we all stop yelling?” Aaron asked.
“Sorry,” they both said. The next few minutes were eerily silent; the two of them tiptoed around him, not speaking, and Carter even turned the volume down on the TV.
Aaron decided that he was done pretending to eat, and went to throw it in the trash. Which was full. He wedged the pizza crust in and started to pull out the bag.
“Aaron, leave that alone,” Dad said. “Carter, take out the trash.”
“Okay. In a minute.”
“Do it now.”
“I’ll do it,” Aaron said.
“No,” Dad said. “Carter—”
“We’re in the middle of a play! They’re on the fifteen!”
“If you don’t do it now, you’ll forget.”
Aaron ignored both of them and started to tie the bag together.
“Aaron, put it down. You’re supposed to be—”
“I’m not helpess!” Aaron shouted. “I can handle taking out the trash!” He heaved the bag out and hauled it through the backdoor, letting it slam shut behind him. It was heavier than he’d expected, and he had to stop and adjust it before taking it out to the driveway.
It was kind of nice outside: warm, twilit dark and quiet except for the nearby barking of the Peterson’s dog. Aaron felt himself relax for the first time in hours. He dumped the trash in the bin, shut the lid, and paused to take a deep breath.
Terror washed over him like a wave of ice. It couldn’t be. He swallowed, took a shallow breath and turned toward the voice. A figure emerged from the shadows by the fence, stopping to stand where the porch light could just barely illuminate his features.
He looked different: the cheap suit and tie replaced with a black shirt and trench coat, his hair slicked back instead of in casual disarray. Aaron fought back the panic, and hoped his hands weren’t trembling.
“Relax, kid,” he said. “If I wanted to kill you, I’d have shot you already.” He raised his right hand, showing Aaron the cast over his hand. “You broke all my fingers, by the way. It’s going to take a while to heal, even for me.”
Confirming he has powers. “How did you know my name?” he asked.
The man shrugged. “It’s not a big town, and there aren’t that many black teenagers around. It was easy to narrow down.”
Is he here to kill me? Why would he waste time talking? “Then what do you want?” Aaron asked.
The man raised both arms in a gesture of surrender. “Just to talk,” he said. “We didn’t get much of a chance before.” He took a lazy step forward, letting his hands fall so they slid naturally into his pockets. “Nice house,” he said. “Picture perfect. Just like the family. Loving mom and dear old dad, older brother—”
“We’re twins,” Aaron said, annoyed.
“Really? I don’t see the resemblence.”
“Right. I still don’t see it.” The man shrugged and glanced toward the house again. Through the window, Aaron could see the flash of the TV, and the shadows of his brother and father moving around inside the house. “They aren’t much like you, are they?”
“You haven’t given me a good reason not to just kill you yet. You know I could.” Aaron doubted he could even use his power in his condition.
“Yes, you could. Technically.” He shrugged. “So go ahead.” He took another step closer, and stopped. “Your ability is exceptional, you know. With the right training—”
“Is this the part where you ask me to join the dark side?”
A thin smile crossed his face. “Not yet,” he said. “I just figured you had questions.” When Aaron didn’t respond, he went on. “Like what I was doing there, whether I had help—”
“I already know you weren’t working alone,” Aaron said, and immediately kicked himself for it. Lucia had mind-wiped the guys in the basement, and now he’d all but blown the fact that he wasn’t alone either.
But the man just cocked his head, confused for a second, and then smiled. “Well, I guess I did tell you I was getting paid.” He shrugged.
Aaron frowned. He’d taken the wrong meaning from his slip-up. But why would he bother covering up accomplices? It wasn’t like Aaron was going to report them, and Lartech’s security would have found them in that basement anyway.
“Someone did hack the security system, which definitely made my job easier…. Your friend on the phone? Does he have powers, too?”
Aaron just crossed his arms.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I don’t expect you to trust me. But you should at least listen. You have a gift, but you don’t know where it came from, or how to use it. I’m guessing your perfect family in there doesn’t know what you can do. You think I was wrong to sabotage that lab? You have no idea what kind of things they do in that place. What they would do to you, if they knew what you are. If you knew what was really going on, you’d help me.”
Aaron’s nightmares flooded backed to him. What if they weren’t dreams, a voice whispered. What if they were visions…He shook his head. “You’re a killer,” he said. “You admitted you were doing it for money. Why should I listen to you?”
“Hey, I’m not here for myself,” he said. “I’m more of a… representative. To tell the truth, I was going to wait a while to contact you, but Avalon wanted me to come now.”
Aaron couldn’t his his surprise. “Avalon?” All his searching had turned up nothing, and he’d given up on it; decided it was nothing…
He raised a brow. “Now, where have you heard that name?”
“I… Nowhere,” Aaron said. “Around.”
“Interesting.” The killer regarded him for a moment. “So. You don’t trust me, and you don’t have a reason to. Fine. But I’ll give you a couple of hints. The Resson field is one of them. You felt it, when the generator was turned on, didn’t you?”
Aaron didn’t respond.
The garage light flared to life suddenly, and the back door opened. “Hey, Aaron!” Carter called. “Are you okay?”
“Uh…” Aaron glanced toward his brother, and back to the mercenary. He caught a glimpse of the man as he backed into the shadows. If he called Carter over, could they take the guy together? No, probably not. Carter was strong, but he wasn’t a fighter. “I’m fine. I just had a… lapse for a minute. I’m coming.” He took one last look at the dark end of the driveway, and hurried back toward the house.
* * * * *
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Carter said as he wandered into the living room. “You look kind of out of it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “There was just….” Aaron was about to tell him about the guy on the driveway when Dad walked into the room. “…some kind of animal rooting around the trash.”
“Damn racoons,” Dad said. “Next time you see one, smack it with that old rake outside.”
“Um, okay,” Aaron said.
Dad stopped and looked at him, hands on his hips. After a minute, he sighed. “Come here,” he said, nodding toward the hallway. When Aaron followed him, he stopped and said, “You know, you look awul,” he said.
“Wow, thanks, Dad.”
“I mean, you’ve got scratches and bruises all over you, and you keep wandering around like you can’t remember where you’re going.” He laid a heavy hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “I’m not your mom, Aaron. I’m not trying to baby you. But you look like sh— like crap. I promised I’d make you rest.”
“I have been resting,” Aaron said. “But I’m not going to fall apart I I get up and do something for myself.”
“I know you aren’t helpless, kid. I’ve been telling you that for years.”
“Listen, Marianne said you really had it together in there.”
“Faulkner? The woman from the engineering lab? You’ve met her before.”
“Oh.” He recognized the name, but he hadn’t connected the two.
“You probably saved Marc’s life bandaging his leg. Okay? You did good.” Dad looked really uncomfortable saying it, like admitting he wasn’t a screwup actually pained him. “Now you need to rest, because you were hurt too. You…If you’d been—” He broke off as his phone went off, patting at his jeans for a second before pulling it from the back pocket. “I’ve got to take this call,” he said, frowning at the screen. “Can’t get a break for five minutes…go sit down and rest.”
Aaron stood in the hall for a moment, bewildered by the brief conversation. Had… had his father actually complimented him? It felt a little like he was hallucinating. Down the hall, he could hear the beginnnings of a phone conversation. He was about to take the opportunity to go talk to Carter, when he overheard the word “sabotage.” Well, he wasn’t about to resist that. He crept closer, pressing agains the wall next to the half-open office door.
“….lucky nothing else exploded…. Terence insists it wasn’t the generator. But this is new territory, even for the brains… What about the security team? They’ve recovered?…Nothing? None of them remember anything?”
Security team? Aaron wondered. But that meant…
“Yes, I know the pipe burst, freak accident…but mass amnesia?”
The “mercenaries” in the basement hadn’t been accomplices at all, Aaron realized. They had been a security force. Doing the same thing as his friends, probably, skirting the quarantine to get to the threat.
“…Said they found doors in the basement blown open. Someone hacked the security feed. It’s all gone. So someone sabotaged it, but we have nothing to go on. Not even… hang on, I left the door open.”
Aaron had about half a second to react; he slowed time just as his Dad’s hand came into view. It felt like an anvil coming down on his head; his vision doubled and he felt the pizza coming back up. He stumbled down the hall, holding onto his power long enough to get around the corner, where he let it loose and collapsed.
Somewhere through the ringing in his ears, he heard Carter calling his name. His brother was there, hauling him off the floor and helping him to the couch. “—are you thinking?” he was saying. “Using your power when you’ve got a concussion, and—hey, what happened?”
All of it was suddenly too much. The lab, the mercenary, all the secrets, and now… He felt himself shaking. “We screwed up, Carter,” he said. “We are in so much trouble.”