Pharos Tower, nine years ago.
Natalie Fawkes, way too high.
How did I get into this mess?
Fourteen year-old Natalie Fawkes was hanging on to the tenth-story window ledge for dear life. Her hands ached with the strain of holding her, and she wondered once again if she really could finish her climb, or if she would fall to her death on the pavement below.
The book bag shifted dangerously on her back. As flat as it was against her spine, it wouldn’t stay still with its bulky contents. Natalie bit her lip and grunted as she pulled herself up onto the foot-thick ledge. She sat there for a minute, massaging her arms and hands to bring some life back into them. The air on the ground was deceptively warm in the spring; eleven stories up, the wind nipped at her skin and froze her sweat-soaked shirt to her body.
“Wish I’d worn sleeves,” she muttered, looking down at her black tank top and sighing. She felt a gust of wind beside her as her brother appeared.
Natalie’s twin brother was a satyr – in this case, half-man, half-bird. Large, flexible, black-and-white speckled wings grew out of his shoulder blades, allowing him to catch the breeze and fly up to where his sister perched on the ledge. His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at her. “You okay?” he asked as he tucked his wings in to stand next to her on the ledge.
“Yeah,” Natalie grinned up at him. “I’m just resting a sec. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many muscle-ups in a row before.”
“And you’re only halfway up,” Parker said, giving her a worried smile. “You know, you don’t have to prove anything to those idiots,” he said, nodding his head at the ground below.
“’Course not,” Natalie told him, standing up next to her brother and looking out over the city. “But I do need to shut them up.” She looked back at her twin, adding, “I’m fine; really. I can do this.”
Parker gave her a half-smile and an ironic salute before leaving his sister to her mission. Natalie watched as he allowed himself to fall off the ledge, catching the wind as his wings unfurled.
Shaking her head to clear it from the height, Natalie turned back towards the building and jumped for the next ledge. As her fingers caught the stone edge, she bit her lip and thought, Maybe I am crazy after all.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City High School.
Earlier that day.
Natalie had been working on a chemistry project when the whole situation began. One of the instructions had not been very clear, and she needed the teacher to answer a question. Unfortunately, the teacher seemed determined to ignore her; he went around to every other person first, even after looking directly at Natalie’s stubborn hand. Natalie had been raising her hand for twenty minutes, unable to continue with the work, when she snapped.
Slowly, methodically – she needed to be obvious about what she was doing if she wanted to get away with it – Natalie began coating her hand with the dish soap next to her lab station.
“What are you doing?” Parker hissed next to her. The question was rhetorical; he grew up in the same house, and had learned the same trick from their dad. He knew exactly what his twin had in mind.
“If the teacher’s going to ignore what goes on right in front of him, then he deserves a little scare,” Natalie said, matter-of-factly, as she doused rubbing alcohol over the soap-covered hand.
Parker looked around at the class, some of whom were watching her with expressions that said she was being weird. “You’re going to get in trouble for it,” he muttered, but he didn’t try to stop her as she turned on the Bunsen burner at their table.
“Maybe,” Natalie whispered back, running her free, non-soapy hand through her short dyed-black hair. With one fluid motion, she ran her alcohol-drenched hand over the flame of the Bunsen burner and raised it up like before.
It took nearly five seconds before people registered that her raised hand was on fire. Then chaos erupted in the classroom.
The alcohol only burned for about a minute, and didn’t even hurt. But, as expected, Natalie was sent to the principal’s office as soon as she rinsed off her hand. Parker went with her, and marveled at how she talked her way out of trouble – she turned the tables on the teacher, asking the principal what her father and mother might say when they were told that the teacher hadn’t stopped her.
They didn’t even call her parents.
“You know,” Parker said as they walked home after school, “that was risky. If they’d called Dad, he would have been all for you getting suspended for that stunt; you know the rule.”
Natalie nodded. Their dad had ingrained one rule of thumb into them since they were old enough to copy his magic tricks: never show off. “‘True power requires subtlety,’” she quoted. “‘Your audience should never know all of your secrets; your strengths should be as well-guarded as your weaknesses.’”
“Right,” Parker said, acting as though he was ten years older than her instead of ten minutes. “And you just gave away the trick by doing it in front of the whole class.” He grinned wryly at her. “Not to mention,” he added, “the entire class got extra homework assigned because you got the teacher in a mood. They aren’t going to like that.”
“Like I give a damn what they think,” Natalie retorted. “We graduate in two years, and then we never have to see any of them again.”
Parker sighed. “You know, eventually you’ll have to learn how to get along with people.”
“Uh-oh,” Natalie said, but she wasn’t referring to Parker’s lecture. In front of the twins stood seven of their classmates, and all of them looked like they wanted a fight.
Natalie let her hand hover over her cargo pockets. She kept her flash-paper and lighter in there, which would help if they needed an escape. She was fine letting Parker do all of the talking; anything she said would be twisted around by these bullies.
“Can we help you?” Parker asked as they approached.
One of the gang, presumably the leader, stepped forward. “We don’t have a problem with you,” he said carefully. Even the bigger kids who liked a good fight would never start something with Parker; everyone knew he was the satyr with super-strength. “But her stunt just got us extra homework, so we want her to do it.”
The others piped in with things like “Yeah!” and “It’s only fair.” Natalie rolled her eyes, walking past them without another glance. She knew it drove her classmates crazy when she pretended not to care if they existed.
As predicted, the movement just stoked the other kids’ ire. “You think you’re better than us?” asked the leader. “You’re nothing but a wannabe – you think you’ll be a Watcher, but you’re all talk.”
Natalie stopped, and Parker put a hand on her shoulder. “Nat, don’t,” he warned under his breath, but it was too late – they had hit on the very thing that Natalie herself was afraid of.
“I will be a Watcher,” she said, clenching her fists and whirling around to face them.
The leader smirked, knowing his barb had hit home. “Oh yeah?” he asked. “Prove it.”
Later that evening, Natalie was climbing the tallest tower in the city, a book bag full of fireworks on her back.
* * * * * * * *
Pharos Tower, that night.
Natalie Fawkes, fifteenth story.
Each story of the building took two muscle-ups to climb: one to a bar in the middle of the window, where Natalie had only about two inches of space to grab on to, and one to the larger ledge in between stories. The ledges of the twenty-story building were nearly eight feet apart; meaning that they were two to three inches above Natalie’s outstretched arms. This made the jump to the larger ledges especially difficult, as she couldn’t stop to rest between stories.
Natalie got into the rhythm of the climb early on, but now she was fifteen stories up and getting tired. Her current strategy of jumping straight from the window-bar to the larger ledges wouldn’t hold up forever, as the cold and the workout began freezing her aching muscles.
She reached up to the next window-bar. Sixteenth story, she counted to herself, biting her lip as her arms shrieked from the movement. Just do this one, and then only four more.
Her hands gripped the window-bar, and she forced her arms to lift her body up. She put her right foot on the two-inch-thick space, and steeled herself for the difficult part. From this position, she had to jump straight up as high as possible, grabbing onto the ledge above without falling. Her legs were just as tired as her arms, and she shook with the effort of holding herself up.
“Come on,” she told her shivering body, “I’ll let you rest on the next ledge.” She had used the same mantra for the last few stories, and it seemed to be working so far.
She tensed herself, and launched herself with her right leg. She knew as she took off that it wasn’t good, though; her leg had been shaking too much, and her foot slipped as she threw her body straight up. Her eyes widened as her fingers only scraped the ledge above, and she started to fall back down.
Years of practice paid off: adrenaline hit her system, and when her left arm hit the twelfth-story stone ledge she threw her head and chest forward to stop the momentum. Her forehead slammed against the window, but with a great effort she remained hanging from the ledge.
As Natalie swung her leg up, it, too, banged against the concrete. Ignoring the dull ache, she rolled onto her back, leaning against the bulky book-bag. She let herself lie on the ledge for a minute, cradling her left arm against her body and covering her eyes with her right elbow. She forced herself to breathe, fighting back against the shock and panic that her slip had caused, and mentally took stock of her injuries.
Head: aches a bit from the window, but should be fine. Doesn’t seem like a concussion.
Legs: probably bruised, but not bad. Ankle might have twisted a bit, but it’s still usable.
Abs: hurt from catching myself on the ledge, but no worse than before.
Arms: … Right one seems okay. Left one hurts. A lot. Probably more than the adrenaline is letting me feel right now.
She blinked back the tears that had come from shock, swallowing hard as her breathing slowed back to normal. She didn’t sit up, but she uncovered her face when she heard Parker landing next to her head.
“I’m taking you back down,” he said. “No arguments. This whole thing is stupid, and you dying won’t prove anything to anybody.”
“Wait,” Natalie told him, her voice raspy. Throat is dry, too, she mentally added, sitting up. She’d been in shock from injuries before, but this was the first time she’d needed to overcome it through sheer willpower.
Slowly, still cradling her arm, she rose to a crouched position. She winced as her twisted ankle and the bruises on her legs throbbed with the movement, but they weren’t as bad as she had initially thought. Clearing her throat, she stood up and leaned back against the glass of the window.
Parker put his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “I’m fine,” she said again. “I just mistimed that last jump; I can still do this.” One good thing about shock, she thought absently, I don’t feel the cold as much anymore.
“I don’t care,” Parker said, his voice cracking. “You’re done. You’re lucky that you grabbed that ledge; with how fast it happened, I’m not sure I could have caught you.”
Natalie looked up at her twin’s face, not saying anything. She could see the worry in Parker’s blue eyes, even through the angry frown on his face. He had been calling her ten kinds of stupid ever since she made the bet, but she was determined to see it through.
Parker, on his side, saw the determination in his sister’s face. Her short, spiky hair, dyed black to match her closet, only served to accentuate her icy eyes as they stared him down.
People always said that they looked alike, but Parker never saw it. True, they both had blond hair (before Natalie dyed hers), and they had similar coloring and features, but while Parker was usually carefree and sunny, Natalie had a determined look in her eyes that never really went away. He was the Third Gen with wings, the Satyr with power; people both feared and admired him for things beyond his control. But Natalie…
She was the human, growing up in his shadow. Their classmates wouldn’t dare pick on Parker – at least not to his face – but Natalie was constantly teased for being “the weird girl who wants to be a Watcher”. If she had been anyone else, the stunt in class would have been seen as cool, or even heroic to their high school classmates – but because Natalie was a loner, it was just another reason to pick on her.
The silent exchange lasted only a couple of seconds, but Parker eventually blew out a defeated huff. “Fine,” he said, “climb the stupid thing. But I’m staying up here with you, just in case.”
Natalie grinned at him, too tired to speak but still standing up on the ledge. She flexed her arms, testing the injured one to make sure it would still take her weight. I’ll have to put more weight on my right side, but I can manage, she thought. She looked back up at the window-bar, grit her teeth, and jumped.
* * * * * * * *
The Fawkes family’s kitchen.
The next morning.
“ – fireworks display over the Pharos Tower in downtown Eon City is reportedly the work of an unknown party. When confronted by investigators over the illegal pyrotechnics, Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, had this to say…”
Parker looked over at Natalie as the news report played over breakfast. She could barely move her spoon to her mouth to eat breakfast, but a huge grin covered her face as she listened. Parker shook his head; his sister was wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck that she hated in order to hide the fact that her left arm was turning nasty colors.
“You are entirely too proud of yourself right now,” Parker hissed across the table. Somehow they had made it home without waking up their parents. As annoyed as he was with Natalie, he knew that they both would be grounded until they were thirty if he gave away that they had pulled off the apparently-illegal fireworks display.
Natalie stuck her tongue out at him. “I just pulled off the stunt of the century, and didn’t even get caught. Of course I’m proud.”
Parker shrugged his shoulders, stretching them from keeping his wings folded around his waist at the table. “You nearly died for that stunt,” he reminded her. “You’re injured, you got maybe an hour of sleep last night, and you have to act normal today so that Mom and Dad don’t get suspicious. Have fun with that.” Natalie was too tired to come up with a retort, so she settled for kicking Parker under the table. From her wince, the movement hurt her more than it hurt him.
“Hey, have you seen Dad yet?” she asked, realizing how late in the morning it was getting to be. Their father usually got up early, putting coffee on for their mom and cooking breakfast for the family before school.
“No, I haven’t,” Parker said, his eyebrows furrowing. “That’s weird.” He got up from the table and went to their parents’ room to check. He came back a minute later to report, “They aren’t home. Neither of them. On a school day – that’s never happened.”
Natalie groaned as she stood up. Her side hurt more than ever, but her phone was in her bag and she needed to see if she had missed any messages the night before. “I got five texts from Dad,” she told her brother.
“Ooh, busted,” Parker grinned. But the grin slid off his face when he saw the expression on Natalie’s as she stared at her phone. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Natalie ignored him, dialing her phone in a hurry. “Dad?” she said, more timidly than Parker had ever heard her in his life. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t… We were just out with some friends, we’re home now, we’re fine. Dad, what happened?”
Parker piped up, “Yeah, sis, what happened? Is he that mad?”
“… No. No, no, there’s got to be some kind of mistake…” Natalie was close to tears – and Parker couldn’t remember ever seeing his sister cry. “No, she can’t be… Daddy… Okay, we’ll wait here for you. I… yeah, we’ll talk later. Okay. I love you, Daddy.” She hung up the phone, turning to her brother with tears in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Parker asked. He was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach, and he had never seen such a shocked look on his sister’s face before. “Nat, what happened?”
“Dad’s at the hospital,” she said. “Mom didn’t come home last night, either. She was on a mission downtown, and… her team found her ripped to pieces.” The tears started falling freely down her face, as she choked out the horrible truth: “Mom’s dead.”
* * * * * * * *