Chapter Seventeen: Perfect Day

Molly had run out of clean clothes.

It hadn’t occurred to her until about ten minutes ago, but the only things left in her dresser were baggy t-shirts and jeans with holes in them.

She rifled through the clothes on her floor for a minute before resorting to the closet, where she’d stacked all the boxes she was too lazy to unpack. The one on the bottom had “clothes” scribbled across it, so she wrestled it out from under the others and tore it open.

It was mostly sweaters. She delved all the way through the box and managed to find a pair of faded jeans and a plain raspberry-colored shirt that was only sort of wrinkled. She started to put everything else back when she saw a familiar blue fabric crumpled in the bottom.

Her jacket.

She pulled it out and shook it, smoothing away the wrinkles and feeling over the patches where it had been ripped and repaired. Oil stains. Blood stains. It wasn’t that special—just a jacket she wore when it was raining. But the rain always got her into trouble, and the blue jacket had become her trademark, if unintentionally.

The last time she’d worn it, she’d jumped off a bridge.

I’m not Azure anymore, she thought, and threw it back into the box. She had friends now, people like her. She wasn’t alone anymore. Molly dumped the sweaters on top of the jacket, shoved the box in the closet, and went to get dressed.

* * * * *

“Thanks for giving me a ride,” Molly said as she got out of the car. “It’s a long way to ride a bike.” She stretched and breathed in a lungful of humid air. The smoky smell of a new fire drifted up the hill.

“No problem,” Carter said, popping open the trunk. The back was packed with bags of food and an ice chest.

“Do you want help carrying—” she started, but he slung two bags over one arm and hoisted the ice chest with the other. “Show-off,” she said, and he grinned.

“I left you one,” he said, nodding toward a single bag of chips. “Be careful; I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

“Watch out, Carter,” Lucia said, coming up the hill to meet them. “Molly could probably take you in a fight.”

“It wouldn’t be that hard,” Molly said, shouldering the bag. “All I’d have to do is dodge his punches until I could get a good hit in. If he was super tough or something, it would be harder—”

“I am tougher than a normal person,” Carter said. “At least I am when I’m using my strength. Otherwise I’d injure myself every time I used it.”

“Really? I guess that makes sense,” Molly said, then shrugged. “I could still do it. I’d just have to get you in a good hold. No matter how strong or tough you are, if you’re pressured in the right place, you’ll break.”

“You see, when she says stuff like that, it creeps me out,” Lucia said.

“What do you mean?” Molly asked, following them down the hill.

“And the fact you don’t get why is worse.” She shook her head and turned on Carter. “Did you bring the jalapeños?”

Yes, Lucia, I brought them. You only sent me eighty reminders.”

“Well, you forgot them last time.”

“If it bothers you so much, bring them yourself.” They continued bickering all the way down the hill, but there was nothing bad-natured in it. They just sounded like… old friends, she guessed. It made her absurdly happy.

Everyone else was already there, even Brennan’s sister, Ivy. The girl was hunched over her tablet, chewing the end of a much-abused green pencil. Selena lounged in the hammock nearby, filing her nails. She gave a lazy wave to them and went back to her manicure. Brennan sat cross-legged by the fire, strumming absently on a guitar.

They all looked so normal.

Except for Aaron. He stood apart from the others, on the big boulder by the shore. Even from here, Molly could see the tension in his shoulders. It was more pronounced than usual, and she started to wonder if there was more to this meeting than they’d told her.

Carter dropped the ice chest heavily on the ground. “Let’s get these things started; I’m starving.”

“Grill’s hot,” Brennan said, without looking up.

“Awesome,” Carter said, crouching down to unpack the food. “Guess there’s a benefit to getting here last. Hand me that bag, Molly?”

“Yeah, sure,” she said, tossing it to him absently as she passed around the group. toward the shore. Aaron glanced over as she walked up beside him.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, you know, hanging out, recovering from my concussion, hoping a crazy mercenary killer isn’t about to show up and kill me.”

“So normal stuff.”

“Ha. Yeah, it’s getting to be,” he said. “Ivy’s been trying to do a sketch of the guy from what I remember. I don’t know if it’ll turn up anything, but…” He sighed and frowned at the water. It was a beautiful, calm day, and even though some dark clouds had gathered overhead, sunlight still sparkled across the rippling surface of the lake. “I don’t really have any better options.”

“You look exhausted,” Molly said. “Not feeling any better?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t really been able to sleep well,” he said. “It kind of made it worse being home alone all day. Knowing this guy could show up at any second… that he knows my name and where I live…”

“Wait, what?”

He glanced at her. “Carter didn’t tell you?”

“All he said was that we were meeting here. What happened?”

As Aaron told her about his meeting with the guy from the lab, Molly felt the anxiety that had been plaguing her multiply from an annoyance to something closer to panic.

He ran his hands over his hair. “What’s worse is… We ended up helping him. We made it easier for him to escape. And since Selena deleted all the security footage, no one at Lartech saw this guy at all. We effectively blinded them. If we hadn’t gotten involved—” He clenched his fists together and dropped them at his sides.

Molly joined him in staring out at the lake, chewing on her lower lip. “We couldn’t have known that,” she said after a minute.

“That doesn’t really make it better,” Aaron said. “Not if we can’t fix it.”1701

“Then we’ll fix it,” Molly said, more confidently than she felt.

He gave her a wry smile. “Any ideas?”

“Can I get back to you after my ribs heal up?” she said, rubbing at her side.

“I don’t know if we have that much time.”

“He has to recover, too. Even if he’s working for someone else, they have to regroup, make new plans—”

“Maybe,” Aaron said. “You can bet they’re not having a cookout.”

Molly wanted to reassure him, but she felt just as lost as he was. Even as Azure, she’d only dealt with minor stuff—street fights, car accidents and fires. That robbery in Illinois. It had been… crisis management. Reactionary. Not the kind of thing you made plans for. And it had rarely gone smoothly. She didn’t know why he was turning to her, instead of his friends. “I don’t know what to tell you. You’re better at this than I am.”

He let loose a breathless, humorless laugh. “Yeah, right.”

“Aaron, I mean it—”

“You know, I’ve been having these visions since I was ten years old. Sometimes they’re not bad. Sometimes they’re even nice. I saw my surprise birthday party once. Mom was so annoyed. She couldn’t figure out how I’d found out about it.” Another faint smile that faded fast. “But sometimes it’s worse. I’ve seen people assaulted, murdered…car accidents… but it’s always been in flashes— like snapshots. They leave pretty intense impressions, but when it’s over, that’s all it is. It’s different when it’s real. I almost got myself killed. I almost lost—” He stopped abruptly, swallowing. “The others keep looking at me like I know what to do, like seeing the future means I know how to deal with it.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought you handled things as best you could. What you did was really brave.”

“Brave and stupid, maybe.”

“Believe me, I’ve done plenty of stupid things.” She rubbed at the sore place on her side.

He frowned at her. “Is it bad?”

“Could be worse,” she said. “I thought they were cracked, but Lucia says it’s just a bruise. The hardest part is dealing with my dad. I’m not used to lying to him.”

“Yeah. It’s hard,” Aaron said. “Sometimes I wonder if they’d ever trust me again, if they found out about all of this.”

You and me both. “Do you ever think about telling them?” Molly asked.

“Sometimes,” Aaron said. His voice was quiet, almost wistful. Then he shook his head. “But they can’t know. It’s not just my secret; it’s all of ours. And no matter how my parents might take it, Selena’s parents or Brennan’s parents might not take it well. The six of us here are the only people we can trust. Well, and Ivy.”

“You trust me?” Molly didn’t mean to sound so surprised.

He almost smiled. “I think I’m starting to,” he said. “After everything we went through last week… It’s hard to believe it hasn’t even been a month since we met. I feel like I’ve known you for ages.”

“Well, a lot’s happened,” Molly said.

“I never thanked you,” he said. “For coming with us the other day.”

“You don’t have to,” Molly said.

“Yeah, still,” he said, and resumed staring at the lake. Nothing she’d said had seemed to reassure him; if anything, he looked even more tense than he had before. “Come on,” she said, holding out her hand. “Let’s go eat, and relax for a few minutes. You aren’t going to get anywhere staring at that dam and worrying.”

She thought he would refuse, but after a second, he sighed. “All right,” he said. “I could use a distraction, I guess.”

Carter already had a row of skewers on the grill, and Lucia was basting them with sauce. “Spicy or sweet?” she asked as Molly walked up.

“How spicy?” Molly asked, suspicious of the glimmer in Lucia’s eye.

The other girl grinned. “How much do you like your tastebuds?”

“I’ll have sweet,” Molly said.

“And here I thought you were braver than these losers,” Lucia said, shaking her head sadly. “I am so disappointed.”

Molly settled into one of the camp chairs, close to where Selena lounged in the hammock. The other girl looked over at her briefly and went back to filing her nails. They hadn’t really talked since the lab— Molly knew she’d have to deal with the tension eventually, but she didn’t know how.

After a second, she noticed Ivy scrutinizing her over the top of her tablet, like she wanted very, very badly to say something.

“What?” she asked, wondering if she’d spilled something on her pants somewhere.

“Nothing,” she said, unconvincingly. “Just, you know. Is it true? What Brennan says happened?”

Of course she would know about it. Molly sighed. “You mean at the lab?” she asked.

Yes,” Ivy said impatiently. “You didn’t tell me you were a ninja. I’m going to have to completely redesign your costume now.”

“Okay, I’m not a ninja,” Molly said. “First of all—”

“Yeah, yeah, same difference,” she said, waving a hand. “So what was it like? Did you really take out three guys by yourself? This is going to make an awesome comic.”

“It wasn’t really like that,” Molly said. “I don’t want to talk about it. Wait, you’re going to write about it? Ivy—”

“Don’t worry, I’ll change around the details. It will be totally comic-ified.”

“Is that even a word?”

Ivy shrugged. “I’m a writer. Making things up is what we do.”

“Don’t make me a ninja.”

“Sure, sure. It will look cool. How about some kind of street fighting costume? You want to stick with the blue theme? It kind of seems like your color.”

“I guess,” Molly said, feeling uncomfortable. Street fighting hit a little too close to her past. She still hadn’t figured out how to tell them about Azure, or if she even wanted to. “She’s fine like she is.”

“But you can’t fight as well in it, can you? You need more practical boots. Military style, maybe—a jacket—”

“It’s fine like it is,” Molly said, a little sharply.

Ivy cocked her head. “All right,” she said, and settled back.

“I told you not to bother her,” Brennan said. “Sorry, Molly.”

“It’s fine,” Molly mumbled, fighting back a rush of anxiety. “I’m just a little tense. Kind of a rough week, you know.”

“Guess it’s a little more exciting than you’re used to,” Ivy said. “Even after living in LA.”

“I’m not from LA,” Molly muttered.

“Oh, right,” Ivy said. “So where are you from?”

“Huh?”

“If you aren’t from LA, where are you from?”

“All over,” Molly said. “I mean, I was born in Michigan, but we’ve moved a lot.”

“Ever been to Portland?”

“Portland? Uh, a few times,” Molly said. “Never lived there.”

“Cool place,” Ivy said. “Any other big cities?”

“Boston. New Orleans.”

“Chicago?”

“I—what? How did you know that?”

Ivy shrugged. “You mentioned it, pretty sure,” she said.

Had she? She’d talked to Ivy maybe twice, and she didn’t remember telling Brennan any of that. Then again he had looked at her school records. She tried to catch his eye, but he was absorbed in his guitar again. “Yeah, maybe,” she said. “It’s not important, is it?”

“No, I guess not,” Ivy said. “Hey, were you there when that robbery happened?”

Okay, that was way too close to home. “What robbery?” she said, trying to look confused rather than alarmed. “It’s Chicago. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“You know, last year. They caught Azure messing up some guys in a convenience store. Owner said she was trying to rob it. They got her on tape and everything.”

“Oh,” Molly said. She remembered. She’d been lucky the camera had sucked. She’d been less lucky that it had only caught the end of the fight. She tried to sound casual. “Guess I missed that one.”

“I don’t know how you could have missed it,” Ivy pressed. “Okay, it wasn’t in Chicago, but it was in the area. It was the thing that got the police after her. I mean, when she was just an internet rumor, okay, but they said she took out a cop and after that—”

That’s not how it happened, Molly thought. “Hadn’t heard about it,” she said shortly. “Must have been after I moved.”

Drop it, Ivy,” Brennan warned.

Ivy cocked her head, and then shrugged again. “All right, all right.” She went back to poring over her tablet, but she didn’t stop the surreptitious looks.

Molly did her best to ignore it, tuning in to the argument Carter and Lucia were having over the best way to grill vegetables. “Blackened isn’t the same thing as burned—” Carter was saying.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” she said. “No, actually, it’s not. You’re wrong.”

“Just because you like your food raw—”

“They are vegetables, Carter. It’s not like I tear into a raw steak with my bare teeth.”

“What? You don’t even eat meat.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“I… That doesn’t make any—” He stared at her for a second, and turned to Brennan. “I can’t win this argument, can I?” he said.

Brennan didn’t even look up. “Nope.”

“I’ve told you before,” Selena said, “you can’t argue with a crazy person.”

“Give me that sauce bowl,” Lucia said, not bothering to contradict her. “These are getting dry.”

Carter sighed and handed it over.

Brennan grinned to himself and started a new song on his guitar, humming softly along with it. Despite everything, Molly felt herself relaxing. The music, the smell of cooking food, even the bickering—it was perfect. Maybe she didn’t fit in yet, but she was starting to feel like she might. This is what I’ve been missing, she thought. This is what I need.

17021

“Aaron,” Ivy said abruptly. “I need to talk to you.”

“Huh?” he said sleepily, rousing from whatever deep thought—or sleep—he’d been immersed in. “Okay. What is it?”

“Uh, alone,” she said, nodding toward the cabin.

“Don’t take advantage of him, Ives,” Brennan said. “He’s mentally challenged right now.” He dodged Aaron’s mock kick and grinned.

Ivy wasn’t smiling. She looked worried. A sliver of anxiety wormed its way through Molly’s good mood. “Yeah, I’m coming,” Aaron said, following her toward the cabin. Molly watched, the anxious feeling growing.

“What’s that all about?” she wondered.

“Probably something for her comic book,” Brennan said. “Aaron’s the only one who indulges her.”

“Yeah, okay,” Molly said. She shook away her doubts. “Hey, pass me those chips. I’m starving.”

* * * * *

As soon as Aaron followed Ivy into the cabin, she turned and bolted the door. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Okay, that wasn’t subtle or anything. What’s up?”

Ivy hopped onto the rickety table and propped her tablet up in her lap. “I need to show you this, and I don’t want anyone else to see it yet. Not until I get your opinion.”

“Uh…Okay.”

“It’s the security footage from the lab. I went through it last night, and…” She halted suddenly, running her fingers through the wild cloud of hair around her face. “You need to see this.”

“Is it about the guy? I’ve already watched—”

“No,” she said, turning the tablet toward him. A video was queued to play. “Just watch it.”

He took the tablet and peered at the screen. He could make out much, but he saw dim shapes that looked like pipes, and dark, blurry clouds. “This is where the others were? When they fought the mercenaries?”

“Yeah,” Ivy said. “Watch.”

The steam obscured most of the room, but Aaron caught vague shapes, moving wildly in and out of visibility. The security team, in black fatigues. Brennan hurried out of the steam, Lucia huddled under one arm.

And there was Molly, in the middle of the chaos, fighting all three of them on her own. Her rmovements were so fluid and precise, it almost looked choreographed. He could see what Lucia was talking about now. There was no anger or fear in her face; just cold concentration.

“She’s really good,” he said, and then, “Wait, that looks…”

Familiar. Really familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“I watched it a dozen times, trying to figure out where I’d seen something like that. It’s…” She took the tablet back and pulled up another video. “You remember this?”

He recognized it immediately. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s that video of Azure, from Chicago. That was like a year ago, Ivy. Why—”

“Watch it again,” she said, pressing play.

It was shaky and grainy, filmed off someone’s phone during a rainy night. The dark shape in the film. It was a fight, one person against three others. The rain and darkness and bad quality made it impossible to make out any features, or even whether the fighter was male or female.

But waching it now, he could tell that it was startlingly similar to the video of Molly: the same grace and precision. And the rain moved with her, as if responding to her movement, the same way the currents of water in the basement flowed around Molly’s feet.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “That can’t—” He started the videos over again, side by side, and the resemblence was undeniable. “It’s the same person,” he said. “Molly is Azure.”

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