Lucia was waiting for him when he got to the cabin. Outside, in the battered blue armchair, a mug of something hot in one hand.
Brennan wrapped the ambient heat in the car around himself as he climbed out and trudged across the wet leaves to join her. It was cold today, and for some reason it made the ache worse than usual. Lucia waited until he stepped onto the porch to talk.
“Did it go that badly?” she asked. He didn’t need her powers to see how scared she was. Her fingers were white around the cup in her hands. “What did he say? Are we—”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I mean, it went as well as it could have gone. It was just hard.”
Even though she clearly wanted to ask more, she hesitated. “The others are inside,” she said. “Except Selena’s late. She’s on her way.”
Lucia hesitated. “She’s…overwhelmed. Meeting so many people at once was too much for her.” She glanced past him, toward the woods. “She’ll be back.”
“She left?” Brennan said, alarmed. “You let her just walk off after all that trouble getting her here? What if she—”
“Calm down. She went for a walk. Geez, Bren, she’s not our prisoner.”
“I know, but…” He stopped, and shook his head. Lucia was right, of course. The girl just made him nervous. He didn’t really trust her any more than he trusted Avalon. “You’re sure she’s coming back?”
Lucia waved a hand. “Hello? Human lie detector,” she said.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Let’s go inside, where it’s not so cold, and I’ll tell you everything.”
* * * * *
Not long after he’d started talking, the door slammed open. Brennan was halfway to his feet before he realized it was just Selena. She stormed in and slammed the door again, so hard it sent a second jolt of panic through his chest. He exhaled slowly as he sat back down, flexing his hand against the rough fabric of his chair. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded.
She glared at him as she stalked past him to her chair and collapsed into it. “Nothing,” she said, and sighed. “Everything.”
“What happened?” Lucia asked. “You look awful.”
“I didn’t sleep.”
“You never sleep.”
“I sleep some,” she said. “Usually.” She tugged out her messy ponytail and started grooming it back into shape. “I looked everywhere. All over Papa’s office. In his computers. I couldn’t find anything to link him to the suits.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Carter said. “That means he might not be involved.”
“No. It might just mean he knows better than to leave evidence at home. Positive evidence would have meant something. Negative evidence just means I have to keep looking.” She pulled her hair tight and leaned on her elbows, rubbing at her temples. “You didn’t hear him this morning,” she said. “It sounded like he knew. Not just about our powers, but that we had been in town last night. It sounded like he was warning me.”
“Don’t read too much into it,” Lucia said. “Sometimes we hear what we expect to hear, whether it’s there or not.”
“Yeah,” Selena said, frowning at the wall, but she didn’t look as though she was listening. After a minute she turned back to Brennan. “You look miserable enough. Did you go through with it?”
It took a monumental effort not to start yelling at her again. He took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, I did. I’m not sure he believes me about the danger, but he’s agreed to keep it to himself for now. Ivy and I convinced him he should go into work and keep everything looking normal.”
“Did you tell him about the meeting tonight?” Molly asked.
“No, I kinda figured he’d had enough shell shock for one day. Are we still going through with it?”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Aaron said.
“And what if it’s a trap?” Molly said. “Just because she promised not to hurt us doesn’t mean she can’t coerce us in other ways.”
“All of us shouldn’t go,” Carter said. “If we get trapped, we’ll have back up.”
“Sure, because splitting the party never ends badly,” Lucia said. “Someone besides Selena has to stay behind. Otherwise she and Tara will murder one another. Trust me, they ain’t gonna get along.”
“We’ll need you there to read her,” Aaron said. “And Molly has to, for obvious reasons.”
“I’m going,” Brennan said.
Lucia laid a hand on his arm, and he could feel her pity through the contact. “Bren, I don’t think that’s a good idea—”
“Selena should stay at base to coordinate,” he went on, “and if you get trapped, you need Carter to break back out. That leaves me and Aaron.”
“You pushed yourself too hard last night,” Lucia said, gripping his hand. “You need to rest tonight.”
“You’re hurt, Brennan,” Molly said bluntly. “I saw it last night, too. You’re still healing, and it shows.”
He glanced around the room for allies, but no one seemed willing to defend him. “It’s just for tonight,” Aaron said. “Anyway, if your dad calls to check in, you need to answer.”
It was a thin excuse. But with everyone set against him, there was no point in arguing. He didn’t know which was worse: the pity, or the small part of him that felt relief at being left behind. At being safe. “Fine,” he muttered, pushing himself out of his chair. “Do whatever you want.”
Lucia hurried after him, catching his wrist just as he reached the door. “Bren—”
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Let me know in advance next time you decide to throw me under the bus.” He wrenched his arm free and stalked out the door.
* * * * *
Coxton Road barely deserved the name. It was more of a lane—a narrow, winding country road that skirted the lake and ran through the woods before meeting up with the highway. Not a bad place for a meeting,
Molly eyed the bridge from a distance, unable to shake the feeling they were walking into a trap. She’d worn her azure jacket with her water sword strapped to her back. It didn’t do much to make her feel more confident. Instead, she felt exposed. Aaron and Lucia walked on either side, but Carter kept behind them, glancing to each side as if he expected an ambush. That was only fair, considering that last night he’d been chased across half the town by mysterious unmarked cars.
“I don’t like this,” she said, shoving her hands in her pockets.
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Lucia said. “But she’s got us and she knows it.”
“I know. That’s the thing…” She bit her lip. “She’s made it clear we don’t have much of a choice but listen to her, but she set the meeting here. Near water.” The creek was narrow, but swollen with enough rainwater that Molly felt energized by its presence.
“She’s trying to put you at ease,” Aaron said. He’d been more subdued than usual, and Molly hoped it was because he was thinking of ways to get them out of the inevitable trap, instead of that he was still recovering from overusing his power last night. “She doesn’t care as much about the rest of us, but she wants to win you over. Just be on guard.”
“And don’t do anything reckless,” Carter said, with a meaningful look at his brother.
Molly halted, sweeping stray strands of hair back from her face. “Do you sense anyone, Lucia?”
“Three, no two people. One of them is nervous. The other is… guarded. I can’t sense much more than a presence.”
“That’s probably her,” Molly said, squinting at the bridge. She couldn’t see anyone from here. She tapped her ear. “Codex? Any activity?”
“Not really,” Selena said over the earpiece. “There’s some background noise that might be low-grade Resson field, but nothing measurable. If they’re using powers, they’re not doing more than you are.”
“Unless Sky is with them,” Carter said. “She could hide several people at once.”
“So,” Aaron said. “Proceed with caution.”
Molly sighed. “Better get this over with,” she said, and started down the hill. Aaron and Lucia flanked her, and Carter walked behind her. She knew it made sense for her to take point, but for once she didn’t like it. Just the thought of seeing her grandmother again made her stomach turn. And she knew she couldn’t show it.
As soon as they stepped onto the bridge, they saw Avalon coming the other way, dressed in her white coat and black gloves. Ethan walked beside her, both hands wrapped in bandages. As they drew closer, another person appeared, as if he had materialized from the background. A man, Molly thought at first, but as she searched him, she found she wasn’t sure. It was weird, but the person seemed to shift shape the more she looked at him—her?—like a chameleon blending into the background.
“Three,” Lucia whispered. “I thought I felt someone earlier and it slipped away from me. I still can’t get a good read on her.”
“You can see him better if you don’t try to focus on him,” Aaron murmured.
“Hush, we’re almost there,” Carter said.
They halted a dozen steps away from each other, in formation, and it was a long minute before anyone spoke. Now that she was here, Molly felt frozen, like the fear had encased her muscles in a hard shell and wired her jaw shut.
Avalon smiled. “Molly,” she said, reaching out a hand. “It’s good to see you.”
“No thanks you your minions,” she said, with a sideways glance at Ethan. The boy’s face flushed, with anger or embarrassment—Molly couldn’t tell.
“I didn’t expect you to be so melodramatic,” Avalon said, withdrawing her hand. “If you had listened to me in the first place, we could have avoided the confrontation completely.” She glanced at the and said, “Are you sure they came alone?”
A nod, no words.
“Only some of you, though,” she said. “I don’t see Codex or…Heatseeker, is that what you call the firestarter?” Ethan’s bandaged hands flexed into fists. “I expected Ms Marquez to be eager for more information, considering.”
“We’re only here to listen,” Molly said. “If we don’t like what we hear, we’re walking away. And if we don’t come back, Codex has enough information to bring all kinds of hell down on you.”
“Oh, Molly dear, I would never do anything to hurt you. I thought I’d made that very clear.”
“I have a few bruises that would prove otherwise.”
“You would have suffered worse at their hands,” she said. “But I understand. I do. You have no reason to trust me. So go ahead. Ask me anything you want.” Avalon turned her ice blue eyes on Lucia. “I’m sure Miss Clarke will be able to tell If I’m lying.”
“It’s Fury to you,” Lucia said.
“Fury, then,” she said, stepping forward. She pulled the glove off one hand and extended it toward them, palm down. “Go ahead.”
Lucia stared at the outstretched arm like a snake, but after a glance at the others, she reached out and rested two fingers against the offered hand. As soon as her fingertips touched the open skin, she sucked in a sharp breath like she’d been shocked. “Do you have other powers?” she asked, looking up Avalon. “Or is all this—”
“That’s not relevant,” was the answer. “But rest assured, I mean no harm to you or your friends. All I plan to do today is talk, and afterward I won’t stop you from leaving.”
“How many of you are there?” Molly asked.
Avalon shrugged. “That depends on what you mean,” she said. “If you want to know how many people have been affected by the serum… I honestly don’t know. More than twenty, fewer than a hundred—that’s my best guess. If you want to know how many people are with me now, in this town? Seven. How many with powers? I’m afraid I won’t answer that one.”
With a glance at Lucia, Molly went on. “You have your own people. Why do you need us?”
“Like I told you before, my resources are limited. There’s a reason I had to resort to recruiting a mercenary last time. The truth is that most of my—what did you call them? Minions?—don’t have the capabilities the six of you have. Or the control.” she added. “This type of infiltration requires precision and cooperation. I’m afraid they aren’t ready.” Ethan looked like he would speak up, but instead just crossed his arms and glowered at them.
“So you want to send your granddaughter instead?” Aaron asked. “After all that nonsense about keeping her ‘safe?’”
“She will be safe,” Avalon said. “As long as you do what I tell you to.”
Lucia snorted. “Is that what you said to Gravity Well over there?”
“My name isn’t—” he started, but Avalon thrust a hand out to stop him.
“Enough of this,” she said sharply. “You want more answers, and I’m happy to give them to you. But first, we should go somewhere more secure.”
Aaron eyed her suspiciously. “What did you have in mind, exactly?”
“Why, Aaron, I’m inviting you into my lair,” Avalon said. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” She leaned over to whisper to the chameleon, and after a moment, the person melted into the background. Molly could see the shape of him, now that she was looking, but it quickly became impossible to follow.
“Tay will keep an eye out for us while we walk,” she said. “It isn’t far.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and started walking back along the bridge. Ethan took a moment to glare fiercely at them before turning and stalking off in her wake.
Molly exchanged a glance with the others.
No one seemed keen on following her, but the resignation in their faces backed up what she’d already decided. They didn’t have much choice.