Chapter Nineteen: Risk Assessment

Brennan poked the logs in the fire and tried hard not to think. He’d wanted to keep searching for Aaron, but Molly had stubbornly insisted he needed to rest. Annoying, but now that he was sitting down, he had to admit she was probably right.  The adrenaline that had kept him going all night had faded, leaving him cold and numb to everything except the sharp ache in his side.

Now there was nothing to do except wait.

He glanced toward the shore. Molly and Carter sat together on the big boulder on the shore, shadowed against the water. Neither of them seemed much the worse for wear, and Molly actually seemed to get more energy from taking a few hits. He felt a little envious, watching them talk and chuck rocks into the lake while he sucked extra warmth from the fire and tried not to fall asleep.

The sound of the cabin door creaking open broke him out of his doze. As Lucia pulled it shut and headed toward the fire, arms tight around her jacket, he leaned back and tried not to look as though he’d just been sleeping.

Judging by the quirk of a smile on her face, he wasn’t too successful. But she let him have it anyway. She joined him by the fire, stretching out her hands to warm them by the fire. “She’s still sleeping,” she said with a yawn. “Whatever I felt must’ve been a nightmare. I watched for a minute to make sure she wasn’t faking.”

Brennan frowned toward the cabin. He could just sense the faint bundle of heat nestled in the ambient warmth of the cabin. When they’d gotten here, she’d already been asleep, and although Lucia claimed she hadn’t done anything to help her along, they were all glad they didn’t have to face that obstacle until morning. Brennan didn’t know how to feel about having her here. He’d been prepared to dislike her after everything she’d done, but the most he could manage was pity and unease. “Guess she gets those a lot,” he said, drawing some extra heat from the fire. It sputtered, and he reached for his stick to stoke the flames. The movement tugged at his scar, and Lucia must have noticed his wince.

“You’re hurting,” she said, creasing her brow. She leaned closer and pulled the flap of his jacket aside.

He caught her hand as it came to rest over his shirt. “Don’t,” he said. “You don’t have to fix it. Just… just let it hurt.”

2ch19.jpgFor a second, he thought she’d argue. But she withdrew, tucking her hands in her jacket pockets and leaning toward the fire. Cold, or angry? He couldn’t tell. Maybe she, like him, was just too spent to feel much of anything. Dealing with Tara must have taken a lot out of her, and even she had only so much she could give. He glanced at the cabin again, and then went back to poking the fire. “I don’t like having her here,” he said. “It’s a big risk.”

“I know that.” Lucia drew her hair over her shoulder, twisting at the ends. “But what are we going to do? Hand her over to Molly’s psychotic grandma? Let her get snatched off the street like her friend?” Brennan didn’t have a response ready for that, so she went on. “Maybe it’s because I connected to her, but I can’t help feeling like… that could have so easily been us.”

“Getting snatched?”

“No, I mean her whole situation. Being shifted around. Not having a real home, or anyone to help her out. If you hadn’t ended up with such awesome parents, what would have happened when your powers got out of control? And if they hadn’t helped Sonia with the custody hearings, I’d have probably ended up in a psych ward. Or jail.”

He’d thought of it, too, and it hit too close to home. “I know. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s dangerous. And don’t forget, you’ve only heard her side of the story.”

“She wasn’t lying.”

“Didn’t say she was.”

The sound of an engine interrupted him. They both turned to watch the headlight flash across the dead grass as Selena’s motorcycle came riding down the hill.

Lucia leapt up and rushed toward it. Brennan followed more slowly, and Molly and Carter caught up by the time the bike had come to a halt. Before Aaron could even get off the bike, Lucia collided with him, throwing her arms around him so hard he rocked backward.

¨You idiot!” she said. “You completely stupid person!”

“Glad you’re okay, too.”

“You were just supposed to distract them! You weren’t supposed to get caught!”

“Sorry, Lu. I’ll do better next time,” he said.

“Are you okay?” Carter asked, seizing his arm. “Really okay? You promised you’d stop lying about it.”

“I’m fine. Really. I’m not hurt, just tired from the seizure. Honestly, it’s probably a good thing Avalon abducted me, or I might have ended up with hypothermia. My socks are still wet.”

Avalon?” Molly said, grabbing the arm Carter had just let go. “You saw her? What did she do to you?”

“I told you, I’m fine. One of her little minions was apparently watching us. He grabbed me while I was unconscious.”

“How did you get away?” Brennan asked.

“I didn’t. She let me go. Before you freak out, Selena checked me for bugs. Although, if she’s got more people with powers watching us, I don’t know if we were that safe to begin with.” He held up a thick yellow envelope. “You guys need to see this.”

* * * * *

“Are you sure it’s really from Lartech?” Molly asked. She’d stared a long time at the pages on Azure, and then handed the files off to Lucia, who passed them to Brennan without looking. He was still staring at them in trepidation, seriously considering just passing them on like Lucia had. But morbid curiosity got the best of him. He skimmed through a few pages, dread growing like ice in his stomach. “She could have faked it,” Molly went on. With a huff, she shoved herself to her feet and started pacing at the edge of the circle. “She probably faked it.”

“Stay calm, M,” Lucia warned.

“Yeah, yeah.” She waved a hand in annoyance, and kept pacing, her fists balled up by her thighs. “I’m just so done with all this. She’s just trying to manipulate us.”

“I know she is, but that doesn’t mean the files are fake,” Aaron said. “There’s a thumb drive in the envelope, too. I think she expected Selena to check it, so I don’t see why she’d try to fool me, unless she wanted to get something from my reaction.”

“That’s not all,” Lucia said. “That car you tagged? Three guesses where it ended up.”

“Lartech?” Aaron asked.

“Yup. And based on what Tara told me, they weren’t looking to have a chat. I have a feeling we’re in deep trouble.”

A silence passed over the group as they considered it. Deep trouble, Brennan thought, staring at the old school picture they’d pasted on the page. The text beside it seemed to blur as he read it, but the words fire and dangerous stood out. He flipped the page to get away from it, but the next few were worse. Feeling sick, he shut it and handed it off to Selena. Maybe it was a good thing he was too tired to get angry. Everyone else was quiet, maybe dealing with their own inner turmoil, or maybe too in shock to react at all. He rubbed at his forehead, like he could stop the word dangerous from repeating over and over in his head.

“Okay, here’s the thing that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said at last. “If they know who we are and what we can do, why not come after us?”

“Maybe they’re just observing,” Carter said, but even he seemed to realize his weak attempt at optimism was a thin comfort.

“I doubt that,” Selena said drily.

“As much as I hate to admit it, I’m with Glamour Girl on this one,” Lucia said. “These guys don’t seem to be the “just observing” type. They came after Tara in her home and kept chasing her for weeks. They snatched her friend off the streets. Granted, she’s caused some serious damage, but that was after they tried to grab her. And it’s not like we’re totally blameless either. We broke into Lartech twice.”

Aaron sighed. “From what I saw, they probably suspect that we were involved in the break-in. They knew I was there during the explosion, and if they know what we can do, they probably know that you guys were in the basement. And it’s not a leap from that to realize we were at the dam.”

“But we were protecting it,” Carter insisted. “We helped catch the guy.”

“But do they know that?” Molly asked. “The only witness is in prison, and I doubt he’s going to clear us. I mean, ‘trying to help’ doesn’t always keep you out of trouble. As Azure, I got blamed for plenty of things I didn’t do.”

“We’ve all gotten in trouble for things that weren’t our fault,” Brennan said. “Good intentions isn’t really a good defense.”

Carter didn’t have a response for that, but it clearly made him uncomfortable. Brennan felt a little sorry for him. People generally just liked Carter, and he usually got the benefit of the doubt. The rest of them had been on the other side more often than not. Except for Selena, but that’s because she was usually the one manipulating people in the first place.

“Maybe it’s because of who we are,” Lucia said. “Well, who you guys are. I doubt it would get a lot of attention if I disappeared, but y’all are all in stable homes. Your folks are well known. It would get noticed, especially if more than one of us went missing.”

“No,” Selena said, in a hushed voice. She’d stopped skimming the files, and was staring at the open page with the kind of intensity she usually reserved for computer parts. “It’s because of me.”

“Okay, sunshine, everything is not about you,” Lucia said.

“Think about it,” Selena said, running her finger along the text beside her picture, all struck through with thick, black marker. “Everything in my file has been marked out. Here at the bottom someone wrote, ‘not a threat.’ Obviously, they know what I can do. Why am I the harmless one?”

“Pride hurt a little bit?” Lucia asked.

Unfazed by the interruption, Selena went on: “If they know Aaron was there during the breach, they’d have to suspect I was involved with the camera failures. And the hacking. The power failure at the dam… None of you could have done that.” She shut the file brusquely and shoved it back at Aaron. “Someone is protecting me.”

“We’re tired,” Molly said. “We shouldn’t rush to conclusions…”

“One of my parents is involved,” she said. Her voice shook, but Brennan could tell it was from fury, not fear. “That’s the only reason my file would be covered up and not any of yours. And they wouldn’t go after you, because they know I’ll get involved if they do.”

“You don’t know that,” Carter said.

But it made sense, and Brennan could see the certainty in Selena’s face. It was the same expression she got when she solved a difficult puzzle. All the pieces had clicked into place. Perfect clarity, is how she described it.

“I’m just trying to be rational about it,” Selena said. “This came from Lartech. Our parents have important positions there. Both of mine are on the board. Mom’s a geneticist that specializes in mutations. Dad oversees most of what goes on there. It’s not a stretch.”

“But they’re your parents,” Carter said.

“And I know them,” Selena said. “They aren’t bad people, but they aren’t perfect. When people feel threatened, they’re capable of a lot of things you wouldn’t expect. Especially when you’re accustomed to a certain level of influence. Sorry, Carter, but we can’t rule out the possibility that your dad is involved, too.”

“Not a chance.”

¨He’s the head of security. You can’t ignore the possibility because you don’t want to face it.”

“Sorry, Carter,” Aaron said. “Sel’s right.”

Aaron. He’s our dad.”

“I know that. But…Look, he may not know everything,” Aaron said. “I can’t see him being complicit in locking kids up, but it depends on how much he knows. If they say the kid’s dangerous, then what? If he’s a criminal? A terrorist? He was military, Carter. I’m not trying to condemn that, but in the military they teach you to follow orders. You know there’s stuff that goes on that he’s not allowed to talk about, and he’s supposed to know about classified projects. We can’t risk it.”

Molly looked at Brennan. “I hate to ask, but…”

“No,” he said firmly.

“He built the Resson generator,” Molly said. “The one that Avalon targeted last time? The one that could cause more people to get powers? That’s a big coincidence.”

“You don’t know Dr. Haley,” Lucia said. “He has zero guile. Of any of the people that I know there, he’s the least likely to be involved in any kind of conspiracy.”

“But he would be useful,” Selena said thoughtfully. “Now, if I was part of this conspiracy and I needed someone to study Resson waves, I wouldn’t bring in someone new. I’d slip some hints to someone who could do the work, who wouldn’t make waves.” She pointed her pen at Brennan. “Someone I could blackmail if I needed to.”

“So you’re saying they tricked him into building the generator, and they picked him because they knew about my powers?” Brennan asked.

“Yeah, basically.” She gave him a look of pity. “Sorry.”

“Molly’s right,” Aaron said. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we’ve had time to process things.” He hesitated, and then said: “Avalon wants to meet tomorrow night.”

“So?” Molly said. “I thought we all agreed we wanted nothing to do with that witch.”

“Things are more complicated now,” Aaron said. “She knows things we don’t. At the very least, we need more information.”

“It’s not just about us, either,” Lucia said. “Tara came here to find her friend, and she’s not going to give up. She thinks of him like a brother. Think about what you’d do, if your brother was in trouble.” She looked directly at Carter as she said that, and then at Aaron. Brennan frowned and looked down before she could turn that gaze on him. He still remembered that gut-wrenching fear he’d felt when Ivy had been kidnapped. He didn’t need to imagine it.

Carter cleared his throat. “Ethan and Sky… they weren’t really all that different from us. I mean, they were scared, angry, maybe a little desperate. And in over their heads. I don’t know how they ended up with Avalon, but I get the feeling their stories aren’t that much different from Tara’s.”

“Avalon gave me the impression they’ve taken people before,” Aaron mused. “She may have just been trying to scare me, but… Listen, I know I didn’t bring it up earlier, but before I blacked out, I had a vision.” He rubbed his hands on his knees and took a deep breath. “I don’t remember a lot of it,” he started. “I think maybe whoever picked me up drugged me or something, because everything’s blurrier than it usually is. But a couple of things stand out. The first one is Avalon. I saw her, Molly. She was in Lartech. I’m not sure how I know that, because it was a room I’ve never seen before. But she was there. And the walls were shaking, cracking open…” He swallowed. “And I saw our dad,” he said, turning to Carter. “Just a glimpse, but he had a gun, and he was shouting something…and I saw a kid. I don’t know who he was, but I had this feeling like it was important…”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know. Skinny. Kind of sick-looking. Black hair. I think he was Asian, but it was just a glimpse. And everything around him was kind of shimmery, like in a heat wave, you know?” He rubbed at his nose where his glasses usually rested, and then sighed. “I don’t have anything else. You think it could have been Tara’s friend?”

“Kai,” Lucia said with a nod. “She called him her brother. She’s not going to let this go, Aaron. If she even hears a hint that he’s in Lartech, she’ll tear down the place to get to him. We brought her here; she’s our responsibility now. We can’t just hide anymore.”

Carter sighed and crossed his arms. “I guess we’re involved whether we want to be or not.”

“We are not going to Avalon,” Molly said. “Not a chance. She’s a psychopath.”

“And she has resources we don’t,” Selena said. “Knowledge we don’t. You don’t have to forgive her, M, but we can’t do this on our own.”

“I don’t like it either,” Aaron said. “But she needs us, and we need her. We have to consider it.”

“And what if she turns on us?” Brennan asked. “We can’t trust her. She knows everything about us. The only leverage we have is that she wants to protect Molly.”

“She doesn’t want to protect me,” Molly said. “She wants to control me. She wants me to need her. Asking for help gives her all the power, and leaves us nothing.”

“I don’t see much of a choice,” Selena said. “Looking at it logically, we’re the ones at a disadvantage. Avalon knows what we can do. These suits at Lartech know what we can do. We know almost nothing about either of them. Even if it weren’t for Tara’s friend, we can’t let them hold this over our heads. But Brennan’s right. We need leverage.” She shoved the files into the folder and looked angrily around the circle. “We can’t rely on Avalon. We need someone else on our side. Someone who can help us from the inside, that we can also trust.”

“What are you saying?” Brennan asked, but he had a feeling he knew.

“I can’t go to my parents,” she said. “If I’m right, and I usually am, they’re involved. We can’t risk going to them, or to Mr. Lightheart.” She glanced meaningfully at Brennan. “But we’re going to need help.”

_____________

Hey, folks! Sorry things have been a little slow lately, but I’ve been working on some other projects that have taken up some of my time. One of these is my new website! If you’d like to see some of my non-LTH artwork, it’s displayed there, and I plan to have some excerpts from my other writing projects there soon. https://melissakmoore.wordpress.com/

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