The new Asylum Tower, a few years in the future.
Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow, dragged forward in time.
“So where’s the team?” Frank asked his older self. After being dragged into the future by Janus, the teenage Fifth Gen sitting on the couch next to him, Frank was curious. The tea he sipped was helping, though; his older self knew just how he liked it.
“What do you mean?” The older Frank asked him in return. “Look around; everyone here’s on the team.” He gestured around the tower lounge at the twenty or so people on the floor. It was still strange for the younger Frank to see it – after all, in his own time, Parker had just blown up the tower yesterday. The new tower had a few different furnishings, but appeared to be identical in the floor plan to the one Frank had just lost.
Frank shook his head. “I know that,” he said. “I mean where’s my team? Natalie, E.B., Granny, Agent, and all them.”
“Agent?” the older Frank said, surprised. “Now that’s complicated…”
“And he isn’t supposed to know it yet,” Janus piped in, leaning forward. “The timeline – ”
“Pshh,” the older Frank scoffed. “The timeline. You’re the walking paradox, Janus – if you were worried about the timeline, then you shouldn’t have brought me to see me.”
Janus crossed his arms and sat back on the couch. “You know damn well why I needed to bring you here,” he said. “He’s the one who doesn’t. Why don’t you start with that?”
“First, can I ask about Earthborn, at least?” Frank asked. “Do we get him back?”
“I can say that, at least,” the older Frank said. When Janus gave him an exasperated look, he rolled his eyes and added, “He’ll find out as soon as he’s back anyways. Yes, the team rescued David.” The older Frank turned back to the younger one, and a weight seemed to lift off of Frank’s shoulders. “Haley led the team for a few months after the tower blew up while Agent got his head on straight. She led them into the tunnels and got David back to his family.”
Frank was relieved. “Okay, so how do we do it?” he asked. “Shouldn’t I know the details so I can make sure we get it right?”
The older Frank and Janus looked at each other. “Actually, they’re doing it without you,” the older Frank admitted. “Janus, this is the part where you tell him.”
“My time travel isn’t entirely precise,” Janus admitted. “If it was, I wouldn’t have picked you up right after the riots. I’ll take you back, but you’ll have been gone for a while.”
“How long is a while?” Frank asked, looking between the two of them.
The older Frank rolled his eyes. “Four months,” he said, “and by the way, watch out for Natalie’s right hook. She’s been working on it.”
“Four months?” Frank repeated. “How could I have been gone for four months?! I just ran into Janus an hour ago!”
“Time travel,” the older Frank reminded his younger self. “You’ll learn to hate it.”
“I think I already do,” Frank muttered, before asking, “So what was so important that you dragged me away for four months to tell me?”
The older Frank leaned back on the couch. “Where to begin?” he asked. “Well, you were asking about Agent – I can’t say too much about what happened, but I can tell you he’s not here.” He gestured around the tower floor. “I’m in charge now.”
“What?” Frank looked around. “You’re kidding, right? I’m no manager.”
“You’re not,” the older Frank agreed, “but I am. That was the biggest reason for pulling you forward.”
“Really?” Frank raised an eyebrow at his future self. “You pulled me out of my time just to tell me that I’ll be leading the Asylum in a few years?” They stared at each other for a moment before he shrugged. “Cool. What else?”
“You aren’t going to ask any questions?” Janus interrupted.
Frank looked at the teenager next to him. “It’s not hard to figure out,” he said. “He is me, after all, right? I’m no leader – but now that I know I will be one, I’m going to go back and learn everything I can from Agent while he’s around. I wouldn’t have done that unless I told myself that I was going to need to learn stuff, and I’m really hating time travel right now,” he added, getting a headache from trying to keep himself straight from his future self while talking.
“You figured all that out?” Janus asked, taken aback.
“You seem surprised,” the older Frank said. “I’m not an idiot. I just don’t like it when stuff is super complicated.”
Janus straightened up in his seat. “Your younger self was just asking me a hundred questions about time travel,” he said. “I thought he was a bit slow on the uptake.”
“Myeh,” Frank shrugged. “Time travel’s complicated. My own reasons for doing it aren’t, though.”
Janus just shook his head, waving for the older Frank to continue. The older Frank grinned, and kept going. “There are a couple other things that you need to know,” he said. “In your time, Parker just blew up the tower, right?”
Frank’s mood sobered. “Yeah,” he said. “The guy killed eleven people, and injured a couple dozen others. I’m not really sure why, though.”
“He was pressured into it,” the older Frank said. “Agent’ll find that he’s very helpful where he is now; Claw put him in charge of Eon City’s Fauns.”
“Seriously?” Frank asked. “Why?”
“You’ll find that out soon enough,” Janus interrupted. “It’s part of the stuff we can’t tell you yet.”
“Okay, what’s with the secrets?” Frank asked. “You keep saying ‘we can’t tell you yet’ like you two are in some secret club and I’m not invited. You brought me here, remember?”
“I told you,” Janus said, “the timeline – ”
“Screw the timeline,” Frank exclaimed. “If it was really so important, then why change it by bringing me here?!”
Janus stared at him. “We want to change some things, but others need to stay the same,” he said quietly.
“It’ll drive you crazy if you think about it too much,” added the older Frank. “All I can say is, you’ll understand someday.”
“Fine then,” Frank said, leaning back on the couch. “What can you tell me?”
“We’ve already covered the whole ‘leadership’ thing,” the older Frank said. “The rest isn’t a matter of telling; more like showing.” He looked out towards the kitchen and called, “Razor!”
As a man wearing a metallic bird mask came over to the living room they were sitting in, Janus glared at the older Frank. “Him?” he asked. “Really?”
“Who better to show me around than my best friend?” the older Frank asked, giving Janus a cheeky grin as he gave the newcomer a fist-bump. “Frank, this is Razorwing. He’ll show you around the tower.”
“‘Your best friend’?” Frank repeated. “What happened to Parker?” Even though his best friend had just committed a felony, Frank couldn’t imagine giving the title to anyone but Parker Fawkes.
Janus looked like he was about to say something, but the older Frank talked over him. “Janus, I know exactly what he needs to be told and shown around here. Will you just trust me?”
Janus’ mouth snapped closed, and he stormed off without another word. Razorwing shook his head; Frank couldn’t tell if he was smiling under the mask, but he seemed amused.
The older Frank was grinning. “I’ve been waiting years to put him in his place like that,” he said. Turning back to his younger self, he continued, “As for your question, Parker died a short while back. He finally took down Claw, but was killed in the process. Razorwing joined the team a couple months later, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
“You moved on pretty quickly,” Frank said curiously. As a sinking feeling took hold in his stomach, he pushed the news that Parker would die within the next few years to the back of his mind; he could freak out about that later. Given recent events in his time, he wasn’t even sure he knew how to feel about that.
The older Frank just shrugged. “Razor here will show you to the War Room. There’s a projector in there we can use to help explain the situation. I’ll join you in a bit.”
“Come on,” said Razorwing, his voice sounding muffled from behind his mask. “Lots to see.”
Frank followed him out of the room, shaking his head as he went. “Lots to see” was an understatement.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, last month.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
“Three and a half months,” Natalie said, shaking her head as she crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s been three and a half months since Frank disappeared, and we still have no idea where he is.” She stared Agent down in his temporary office, standing over him as he sat at his computer.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Agent asked. Only his Agency etiquette training kept him from rolling his eyes at her; he might be taking a break from the Asylum, but he was still an Agent.
Natalie raised an eyebrow at him. “I want you to come back,” she said. “Haley’s in over her head, and luck only gets you so far when trying to find someone who’s vanished off the face of the planet.”
Agent glanced at her, but otherwise kept his eyes trained on the three-monitor set-up in front of him. “I’ve kept an eye on things,” he said. “She’s not terrible; the patrol schedule she’s set up works, in any case.”
“Yeah, now that David and I are back,” Natalie told him. “But we’re barely keeping the city afloat right now; we need to recruit, so we can take on more side projects – like finding Frank!”
“So recruit,” Agent shrugged.
Natalie marched around his desk and pressed the power button on his computer. Slamming her hands down on his desk, she put her face close to his as she said, “We’ve tried, but we can’t. We have no money and no resources, so nobody has the time to help us out. So far, Butterfly is the only one hanging around, and he says that’s only because somebody else is paying him to.”
Agent could smell the slightly burned aroma of her fire tricks – she must have just come off of a shift, and while she had changed out of her uniform she hadn’t taken the time to shower before coming to see him. Her braided ponytail whipped behind her as she shook her head, and Agent briefly wondered what it would be like to tug on it.
Natalie’s next words brought him back to reality: “It’s a sad day when we have to work with that two-faced mercenary because you’re too scared to come back.”
“I am not scared,” Agent said. He stood up quickly, forcing Natalie to take a step back as he grabbed his umbrella and stormed out of the office.
She followed him out. “If you’re not scared,” she asked, “then what do you call it? Why’d you just leave us in the lurch?”
“I didn’t leave anybody in the lurch,” Agent said. “The Agency paid your hospital bills, didn’t they? We’re taking care of Rina, and Dale’s still researching a cure for David.”
“And the Asylum?” Natalie asked. “Nobody’s gotten paid since the riots. The tower is being rebuilt by Pharos, but there are signs saying that the lease is open for negotiation. We have no headquarters, and the only reason the team’s hanging in there is because Haley – bless her heart – still seems to think you’re coming back!”
Agent stopped in the middle of the hallway, turning back to look at Natalie. “I take it from your tone that you’re not so sure,” he said. If Natalie didn’t know him better, she might have thought he was startled.
“I keep telling her that we can’t hold out like this,” she admitted. “Even Watchers have to eat, you know. Haley’s killing herself over a pipe dream.”
Agent smirked at her and kept walking. “Yet the rest of you keep following her,” he pointed out.
“For now,” Natalie said. “We all still believe in the work we do.”
Agent stopped outside of another office and knocked on the door. “Nat, some things take time,” he said. “For now, just keep up the good work.”
“And you’ll come back?” Natalie asked. “When?”
“I can’t say,” Agent said as the door opened.
Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Corporation, stood in front of them, slightly surprised. “Agent,” he said, “and Ms. Fawkes. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Agent looked at Mr. Hannah through a mask of indifference; Natalie knew him well enough to see the disdain dripping through the cracks in Agent’s demeanor. She didn’t know what had happened between them, but Agent looked like he hated the CEO more than anyone else in the world.
“I need to talk to you,” Agent said, folding his hands over his umbrella handle in front of him. “Alone.”
Mr. Hannah raised his eyebrows and glanced at Natalie. “Is Trick going to join us?” he asked. He seemed to know exactly what Agent was there for.
Agent shook his head, stepping through the doorway. “Trick, go home,” he ordered.
Natalie bristled, but he shut the door in her face before she could say anything. She had half a mind to pound on the door and make a scene, but she knew that wouldn’t help.
There were other ways to get information.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Tower, sometime in the future.
Frank Mejia, from our time.
Time travel sucks.
“There have been some changes to the tower since your time – at least, that’s what Frank told me,” Razorwing said, showing the younger Frank around the tower. “Some things are the same. We’re still mostly funded by Pharos Industries, but the Meta-Human and Vigilante Task Force was kicked off the project. Long story short, we had an emergency and they didn’t do so well in taking care of the city. Now we’re preparing for a war.”
Frank stopped in the entrance to the kitchen – which was admittedly nicer than the one he’d lost. “Hold up,” he said. “War? With who?”
Razorwing shrugged his shoulders, stretching them as much as it was a noncommittal gesture. It was a familiar movement, but Frank didn’t quite know what it reminded him of. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said, shaking his head. It was hard to tell what he was thinking with the mask on.
“Do you ever take that mask off?” Frank asked.
“Nope,” answered the vigilante.
That was confusing. “So how do people know who you are?” Frank asked. “Watchers are supposed to be in the public eye, registered with the government.”
Frank couldn’t see it under the mask, but Razorwing again sounded amused. “You actually changed that,” he said. “By the way, since they told me about Janus bringing you here, there’s a whole lot more that makes sense.”
“At least one of us knows what’s going on,” said Frank, following Razorwing again as they continued the tour of the tower. “But really – how did I change the entire Watcher system? Watchers’ identities are a big deal to the Task-Force.”
“You showed people how important it was for vigilantes to keep their identities secret, especially ones working with the Asylum,” Razorwing told him. “Some of us need to stay off the radar so we can go undercover. Others just aren’t that comfortable being celebrities – we might do this for a living, but we’d rather not do the fan service. You remember Reiki, right?”
He had a point. Reiki had never been comfortable being in the spotlight, for all that he could put on a good light show. But Frank had other questions.
“You know Reiki?” he asked.
Razorwing made the noncommittal shrug again, and Frank was again hit with a sense of deja vu. “We’ve met,” he answered. “Reiki’s not exactly sociable.”
“Where is he?” Frank asked.
“Up north,” Razorwing told him. “The Asylum is still based in Eon city, but we have another team in Coppice.” He named a city to the north of Eon. “From your time, I think you’d know Reiki, Rina, and Natalie up there.”
Frank raised his eyebrows in surprise. “All three of them?”
“Sure,” Razorwing said, leading him up the stairs. “Asylum North is our secret force – they take care of things when we don’t want people to know the Asylum is involved. Reiki works best away from the limelight, so it made sense for him to go up there. There are a few other Fourth Gens on the team, so Rina’s helping keep an eye on them, too. Your team is pretty well-known, so you couldn’t send many of them, but they’re the best to train the new Watchers.”
As he talked, they came out of the staircase onto a new floor. In the old tower, the training floor had been above the living area; here there was a large open room with white walls and a high ceiling. The only furniture there was a huge wooden office table, and about forty chairs sitting around it with plenty of space for more.
“Welcome to the War Room,” Razorwing said, spreading his arms out. “In your old tower, this was the training floor. When they redesigned it, they realized that training should probably be on ground level, especially for Third and Fourth Gens with destructive powers.”
“Earthborn,” Frank said as he gazed at the room.
“Exactly,” Razorwing nodded. “He might not have been himself when he made the old tower collapse, but it drove home the idea that some of the people training here might not be in full control of their powers. Others have since joined with similar problems, so they moved the training room to an underground bunker a few blocks from here.”
“Makes sense,” Frank said, taking a seat at the table. “So about Natalie: she loves the spotlight; why would she go to a secret team?”
“You’re still on that?” Razorwing paused for a second, as if he were considering his answer. “There were a few reasons,” he finally said, “chief of which was her brother dying; she didn’t want to stay here after that.”
“Oh, yeah,” Frank said. “Okay, how did that go down, anyways?”
“If I tell you that, you’ll try to change it,” Razorwing pointed out.
“Heck yeah I will,” Frank exclaimed. “Parker’s always been one of my best friends. I’m not just going to sit back and let him die.”
Razorwing cocked his head to the side. “You really feel that way?” he asked. “Didn’t he just blow up the base in your time?”
Frank hesitated. “Yeah, he did,” he admitted. “But it was a Faun operation. Just because Parker pressed the button doesn’t mean he wasn’t set up.” His voice grew more confident as he added, “Either way, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t at least hear him out before writing him off?”
“You’ve never made a rash move in your life, have you?” Razorwing asked curiously.
“Well, I’m not gonna start now,” Frank shrugged. “So come on, how did it happen?”
Razorwing shook his head. “Sorry buddy,” he said. “Aside from the fact that I don’t think you can change it, it kind of needs to happen for a bunch of other stuff to fall into place.”
Frank pressed his lips together irritably. “You’re just as bad as Janus, with his whole ‘don’t screw with the timeline’ stuff,” he said. “Why would my older self tell me something that big if he didn’t want me to change it?”
“That’s for you to figure out,” Razorwing shrugged, shaking out his shoulders again as he sat down across from Frank. Suddenly, it hit Frank where he had seen that movement before. He shook his head and grinned as the pieces fell in place.
Before he could ask any more questions, Frank’s older self entered the room. “Good, you’re here already,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”
* * * * * * * *
Casey’s Bar, downtown Eon City.
Haley Prince, AKA “Outlier”.
“Okay, milady,” Eli Howard, also known as “Butterfly”, said as he sat down next to Haley at the bar. “I’m here. I could be in the garden right now, but you dragged me all the way to Casey’s. Why?” He leaned his rifle up against the counter as he ran a hand through his messy blond hair. The smell of grass and dirt mingled with the aroma of the bar’s food, and it was obvious that he had just come from the Gardens.
“The butterflies will be there when you get back,” Haley said, rolling her eyes at him. “We need to talk about your mysterious benefactor.”
Eli shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
Haley signaled to the bartender to get him a drink. “Well for starters, who is he?”
“What makes you think it’s a he?” Eli countered, grinning at her. “It could be a she, or a they, or an it – ”
“I don’t have time to play these games with you, Eli,” Haley said sternly, crossing her arms. “I want answers.”
“And I’d love to give them to you,” Eli replied, shaking his head, “but I can’t. Money shows up with instructions, and I get more money if I follow the instructions. It’s as simple as that.” He ordered a fruity cocktail from the bartender before spinning around on his stool to lean his back against the bar.
Haley raised an eyebrow at him. “Why don’t I believe you, then?” she challenged. “You forget, Eli – I’ve gotten to know you pretty well this past year. You don’t actually care about money; you only care about your butterflies. So what is it really?”
Eli looked taken aback. “You’ve been paying attention,” he said, before recovering. “I’m flattered that you take so much notice of me, but I really don’t know who is giving me the money. Why does it matter?”
“Is it Ayu?” Haley asked, grabbing his shoulder and turning him to look into his eyes.
“The crazy robot chick?” Eli asked. “I doubt it. She said she ‘wouldn’t need my services for a while’, remember?”
“She could have been lying,” Haley said.
Eli turned back to the bar as the bartender put a drink in front of him. “Doesn’t seem like her style,” he shrugged, “but since I don’t know who it is, I won’t argue.”
“Darn,” Haley cursed. Eli raised a questioning eyebrow as he took a drink. “If someone out there’s willing to pay you to help the Asylum, then they might be willing to help us recruit others.” She took a thoughtful sip of her own drink and added hopefully, “Maybe it’s Agent?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Eli said. “I doubt it.” He set his drink down and pulled a few crumpled pieces of paper out of his pocket for her to read.
The papers looked like he had once folded them, but they had been in his pocket for so long that they would never again be smoothed out. The contents were standard instructions, though; Haley skimmed them, but couldn’t understand what Butterfly had meant.
“These seem normal enough to me,” Haley said. “They’re paying you to help me defend and protect the city.”
“Not quite,” Eli pointed out. “Pay attention to the phrasing. They’re paying me to defend and protect you, Haley Prince, specifically, in your crusade to help the city.”
Haley read them again. Sure enough, the notes did specify that he would be paid to protect one Haley Prince, otherwise known as Outlier of the Asylum, as she defended Eon City.
At that, Haley only had one question to ask. “But why?”
Eli shrugged, turning back to his drink. “Somebody out there likes you,” he suggested. “Though now that you mention it, it could be Ayu; she was interested in you before, too.”
The bell above the door rang more insistantly than usual; somebody had entered the bar, throwing the door open hard enough to make Haley and Eli turn around to see who it was.
“Outlier, you’re here; good,” Natalie said, storming up to the bar and sitting down next to her. “Merc, you can stay if you don’t talk.”
“Excuse me?” Eli started. Haley held up a hand, giving him a look that said, I’ll handle this.
“Natalie,” Haley asked in a determinedly patient tone, “is there something you’d like to talk to me about? We were in the middle of something here.”
“Information,” Natalie said, raising her hand to call the bartender over. “Hey, is Casey in today? We need to talk to her.”
The bartender was taken aback by her rude tone, but said he would call Casey out there. As the bar’s manager, she was in the back doing paperwork that day.
As the bartender scurried off, Haley turned back to Natalie. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why do we need to talk to Casey?’
“Sparrow gets visions of the future,” Eli said. “I’m guessing you want to know if she’s seen when Agent will be back.” Natalie glared at him, so he shrugged and added, “I mean, it seems like something you would do.”
“Why is he here?” Natalie asked Haley pointedly.
“I invited him,” Haley said, her patience spent. “I didn’t invite you, so the better question is: why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be patrolling?”
“Earthborn and Reiki are out now,” Natalie said. “I’m currently trying to track down our MIA teammate; or did you forget about Shadow?”
Haley bristled at the insinuation. “I didn’t forget,” she said. “I don’t forget anything, remember? I’ve been kind of busy trying to keep the city in one piece; or haven’t you been paying attention?”
Eli put a hand on her shoulder. When she turned to look at him, he shook his head and gestured towards Natalie’s face. “She’s on a mission,” he whispered just loud enough for Haley to hear. “Yelling at her won’t help anybody.”
He was right, of course. Haley took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Not for the first time, she reminded herself that her outburst was probably due to lack of sleep; if she didn’t start taking care of herself, she’d start being rude and dismissive of everyone – just like Natalie.
When she’d gotten a hold on her temper, Haley tried again. “So you’re just here to ask Casey for information?” she asked.
“Pretty much,” Natalie said. She leaned an elbow on the bar and began idly twirling her fingers in the air, stretching them out. “Butterfly’s right – Casey has visions. But I care less about when Agent will be back than I do about how we can find Frank.”
“It’s been nearly four months,” Eli pointed out. “If he was alive – ” he cut off that train of thought, gulping at the glare Natalie was giving him, and switched tactics. “If Shadow wanted to be found, don’t you think he’d be back by now?”
“Heroes don’t give up on people that easily,” came a new voice. Casey came up from behind them, pulling another stool over to join the group. “Pete said you were asking for me?”
“Yeah,” Natalie said, turning her attention to the ex-Watcher. “I need to know where Frank is.”
Casey sighed. “You know I don’t just turn it on and off, right?”
“You don’t,” Natalie agreed, “but you can. And I’d like to know what you see about Frank.”
“Wait,” Haley said, her eyebrows knitting in confusion. “You can control when you have your visions? I thought they were more of a random thing.”
“They come when they want to, even if I don’t want them,” Casey explained. “But if I concentrate hard enough on one person I can sometimes get visions of their future. It gives me a killer migraine for a week, though – which I assume is why it took you four months to ask me?” She turned back to Natalie, who shrugged without any remorse.
“I’ve been through all other options,” Natalie said. “I’ve gone through all of our contacts, I’ve seen his parents, I’ve checked every camera in the city from the day he disappeared – twice. Last anyone ever saw of him was the morning after the riots. A camera caught him outside the ruins of the tower talking to some guy in a hoodie. He walked away, looking pissed off, rounded a corner, and poof – he was gone. The cameras on that street weren’t working, and no other cameras picked him up.”
“He probably used his shadow powers to sneak away,” Eli said, taking a drink. “He’s pretty good at not being detected when he wants to be.”
“He wouldn’t have left without telling anybody,” Natalie insisted.
Casey nodded in agreement. “You don’t know his family,” she explained to Eli and Haley. “They’re really close. Even if he wanted to give up Watcher work and run away, he’d have run it by his mom and dad first. They’d have supported him no matter what; it’s who they are.” She shook her head, finishing the thought. “Frank wouldn’t have left without telling them.”
Haley remembered being told the story about how Team Ark had broken up: after Natalie’s mom had been killed, Casey’s brother disappeared through a portal created by the villain Jaunt. Casey, who used to be known as Sparrow when she was a Watcher, left Team Ark to look for him for four years, before giving up and returning to Eon City to open the bar. Frank’s mom and dad, who were also on the team as Star and Kindred respectively, retired after Star was crippled by an injury. Agent taught a class at his Agency’s academy for a year before being tasked with creating the Asylum, and their other teammate, Marauder, became a mercenary. Casey knew Frank’s family well after working with his parents for years; if she said Frank wouldn’t have disappeared without telling them, then she knew what she was talking about.
“Okay, fair. But maybe he did tell them,” Haley offered. “Maybe they’re lying when they say they don’t know where he is. If they’re that supportive, then why would they tell us if he asked them not to?”
“Because Star’s in a state,” Casey pointed out. “Kindred has been searching everywhere, trying to find word of him. They both already came to me asking for a vision, and for me to run down my contacts from my search for my brother. And before you ask,” she added, “I got nothing. Not for Steve, and not for Frank. Those contacts are worse than useless.”
“So we have nothing?” Natalie asked, folding her arms. “I can’t accept that. He’s got to be out there somewhere.”
“I said the same thing about Steve when he disappeared,” Casey said. “But Butterfly here is right: if Frank’s alive, he’d have contacted us by now.”
“He is not dead,” Natalie countered.
“How did you hear what Eli said when you were in the back?” Haley wondered aloud. The others ignored her.
Eli took another sip of his cocktail. “I hate to disagree with myself,” he said, “but there is one more option.”
“What?” Natalie demanded.
“He could have been abducted,” Eli said. As Natalie rolled her eyes, he continued, “No, really: Haley here was taken by Ayu for a test, right? Maybe Frank was taken for the same thing.”
“Ayu only kept us for little more than a day,” Haley said. “Frank’s been gone four months. Why would she take him for that long?”
Eli shrugged. “Maybe she found what she was looking for in him. She said that you ‘weren’t ready yet’ – who knows how long she would have kept you if you had been.”
“And who knows what it was she was looking for,” Haley said thoughtfully. “You know, that makes sense. If Frank was abducted, he wouldn’t have been able to contact us.”
“You guys are talking about that day Haley went missing, right?” Natalie said. “You showed up passed out on our doorstep with a seriously burned hand, having lost a ton of blood.”
Haley shrugged. “Yeah, but I only burned my hand to stop the bleeding.”
Natalie stared at her. “My point is, you nearly died when you were abducted.”
“True,” Eli said, talking over Haley’s protest. “And it’s also possible that Shadow did die in Ayu’s tests. But it would at least explain why we haven’t found a body.”
“He is not dead,” Natalie repeated. “Come on, Case, back me up here – Casey!”
Casey’s eyes had turned white, and she didn’t respond to her name. She slumped back in her chair, nearly falling out of it, as her body went limp. Haley and Natalie immediately went to her side, while Eli took another sip of his drink.
“Must be a big one,” he commented.
“A big what?” Haley asked. Natalie just sighed in understanding.
“She’s having a vision,” Eli explained to Haley. “You’ve never been around when she had them before?”
“No,” Haley shook her head, relaxing a bit now that she knew the bartender wasn’t dying. “I’ve been pretty busy. No time to hang out in bars.”
Natalie went back to her stool. “I’ve never seen one this big before,” she said. “Usually her eyes just turn white for a few seconds before she snaps back.”
Before she finished talking, Casey shook her head to clear it. When she looked back at the others, her eyes had returned to their normal green. “I saw Frank,” she said.
“You did?” Natalie asked, hopping back off her stool to kneel in front of Casey’s chair. “Where is he?”
“He – it’s not very clear,” Casey hedged, sitting up straight and rubbing her temple. “He’s in the Asylum Tower.”
“The Tower?” Natalie asked. “You mean the pile of rubble where the Tower used to be?”
“Or, you know, the construction site that’s there now,” Haley pointed out, glancing at her teammate.
Casey shook her head. “Frank was in the completed Tower, talking to… himself?” She stood up. “Or at least a carbon copy of himself. Separate body, same face.”
“Time travel?” Eli ventured, raising a questioning hand.
“Don’t be stupid,” Natalie waved him off, still staring at Casey. “Come on, Case – that can’t be it.”
“It’s all I saw,” she said brusquely. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got paperwork to finish.” With that, Casey walked back to her office.
Natalie swore, watching her go. “Bitch’ll be on the phone with Agent in a minute,” she muttered.
“Is that such a bad thing?” Haley asked, turning back to her drink. “Agent might know what it means.”
“What have you got against Agent, anyways?” Eli asked, finishing his drink and leaving the glass on the bar.
Natalie raised an eyebrow. “You mean, aside from the fact that he left us in the lurch?” she asked.
“He’ll be back,” Haley insisted, not for the first time. “He’s just working through some stuff.”
“See, I’ve talked to him,” Natalie said, “and I don’t think that’s true. He could come back, but he’s refusing to.”
“He probably has a good reason,” Eli said. “Everything I know about Agent says that he wouldn’t just abandon your team.”
Natalie leaned against the bar and started twirling her fingers again. “The point is he’s not here,” she retorted, “and I don’t think we can count on him coming back, whatever his reasons.”
“What are you doing?” Eli asked suddenly, mimicking her finger twirls. “That’s a weird gesture to make.”
Natalie sighed, putting her hand down. “It’s a new trick my dad’s been teaching me,” she explained, “but it’s obviously not working.”
“What’s it supposed to do?” Haley wondered aloud.
To her surprise, Natalie answered. “I’m trying to hypnotize Butterfly into shutting up,” she said, glaring again at the mercenary.
Eli just stretched his arms over his head. “And with that, I think I’m going back to my butterflies,” he said, standing up. He grabbed his rifle and, slinging it over his shoulder, he said by way of farewell, “Milady. Witch.” Natalie rolled her eyes at him; Eli just grinned and turned to leave.
BEEP BEEP BEEP… BEEP BEEP BEEP…
“What’s that?” Eli asked, turning back to the girls.
“Communicators,” Haley told him, pressing a button on her watch. “Someone’s trying to talk to us. Go ahead.”
“Outlier, we have a situation,” came Reiki’s voice over the comm. “There’s trouble brewing in the southeast – looks like a gang fight. We’re going to need backup.”
“The southeast?” Haley repeated. “That’s Faun territory.”
“Yeah,” Reiki said, “I know. The Skels seem to be making a move on it. We’re going to need all hands on deck, especially if Nightmare’s still out.”
“Trick and I are on our way,” Haley told him. She glanced at Eli, who nodded. “Butterfly, too. I’ll call Granny en route. ETA five minutes.”
Natalie had already left money on the counter to pay their bill. Casey understood the Watcher life, so if it wasn’t enough she would just keep a tab open for them. “If that’s all,” Natalie said, leaving the sentence hanging as they rushed out the door. “If the merc is coming, he better keep up,” she added, hopping onto her motorcycle. She revved the engine and left without waiting for a response.
“She still hates me,” Eli sighed, going to his own bike. Unlike the Asylum-issued motorcycles that Haley and Natalie rode, which were sleek, aero-dynamic models, Eli’s motorbike was a small, compact design – one that was definitely not meant for speed.
“You did shoot her in the back,” Haley reminded him, rolling her eyes at his ride. “Hop on,” she added, sitting forward to make room on her bike for him. “You’ll never get anywhere fast on that.”
“I don’t usually need to,” he said, getting on Haley’s bike and grabbing her waist for balance. “I’m usually already out patrolling with you guys on foot, or else I take jobs that have a set timetable I can plan around. This whole ‘coming to the rescue’ thing is new for me.”
“Just hold on,” Haley sighed, revving the engine. She put her bike in gear and took off after Natalie.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Tower, sometime in the future.
Frank Mejia, from our time.
“Let me get this straight,” Frank said after being briefed by his future self. “Something big and bad is coming, and you can’t tell me what it is, but I’m supposed to stop it. Did I miss anything?”
“No, that about sums it up,” his future self nodded.
“And that’s all you brought me here for,” Frank said incredulously.
His older self gave him a knowing grin. “That, and some other stuff,” he said vaguely, glancing at Razorwing.
Frank followed his gaze and nodded. “Okay, fair. So now what? Janus just takes me back to my time?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” the older Frank shrugged.
Janus, who had joined the briefing halfway through, asked, “What more do you want?”
“I don’t know,” Frank shrugged. “Usually, in the comic books, whenever someone time travels there’s some kind of big fight happening, or something. This just seems a little… anticlimactic.”
“Why would we drag you here just to get you caught up in a fight?” Janus asked. “I chose a peaceful time so we’d have time to explain things.”
“And then you explained absolutely nothing,” Frank said dryly, folding his arms. “I don’t know. I was just expecting… more.”
Janus and the older Frank looked at each other. “You want more?” the older Frank asked, nodding at the time traveler.
“Not this trip,” Janus said, holding out his hand to Frank. “Right now I need to get you home. Next time we’ll go on a field trip, and you can have your big fight.”
The older Frank nodded as Frank narrowed his eyebrows at Janus’ outstretched hand. “Last time I shook your hand, I ended up in the future,” he said.
“Exactly,” Janus said, giving him a friendly grin.
“Go on,” his older self said. “You’ll see this place when you reach this time.”
Frank sighed. “Fine, okay,” he said, grabbing Janus’ hand. “See you in a few years, I guess.” The room disappeared as a grey haze fell over his vision.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, present day.
The Southeast side, A.K.A. Faun territory.
As Outlier and Butterfly pulled up to the scene, Earthborn and Reiki were squaring off against a large crowd. Half were satyrs – most likely Fauns defending their territory – who faced a slightly larger group of Third Gens. The Skels wore black masks, hiding their faces, and were armed for war with molotovs, spiked bats, stones, knives, and handguns. Outlier didn’t see any rifles in the crowd, which was a relief, but it probably also meant that the Skels’ Third Gen powers could probably make up the difference. The Fauns never fought with weapons bigger than the small, sharpened gauntlets known as Talons, but judging from the growls and snarls she could hear on that side of the divide, Outlier figured that most of the crowd were barely more than feral, and would be ready and able to tear their enemies to shreds if given the chance.
“So who exactly are these jokers?” Butterfly asked, dismounting the motorcycle so that Outlier could get off.
“You’ve never heard of the Skels?” Outlier asked. “I thought you kept your ear to the ground for criminal activity.” Butterfly just shrugged in response, so she explained, “You know how the Fauns are satyr extremists, right?”
“Yeah,” Butterfly said. “They fight for satyr equality, usually through terrorist actions. Like when they stuck up the DMVs earlier this year.”
“Well, the Skels are a gang of Third Gens who blame the government for not being able to hold jobs,” Outlier said. “Unions and such lobbied the federal government to keep Third Gens out of the workforce a few decades back, and while the feds didn’t bite, a lot of states have laws against Third Gens working in certain fields. The Skels hold protests and such to try and change the laws.” She looked at the crowd questioningly. “We don’t normally have a problem with them; they’re usually more civilized about it than the Fauns.”
“Not today,” Reiki growled, coming up behind them. “E.B.’s been holding them back with rock walls, and Trick’s trying to find the leaders to settle this.”
“You let Trick try to talk the leaders down?” Outlier asked incredulously.
Reiki shrugged. “You try stopping her,” he said. “Her attitude aside, she’s pretty good at making people see reason.”
“Except that half of this crowd are Fauns,” Butterfly pointed out. “Did you forget about her brother?”
“No, I didn’t,” Reiki snapped. “If anybody can get Parker to back down, it’s her.” He turned back to Outlier. “You’re probably the best suited to talk to the Skel leader,” he said. “E.B. and I can hold the line until you do.”
“If we can get the two leaders to sit down and talk civilly, it would help,” Outlier answered. She turned to Earthborn. “Hey, E.B., can you give me a platform?”
“Sure thing.” Earthborn stomped the ground, and the ground beneath her rose up over the crowd’s heads. Outlier looked around at the two crowds, trying for a second to pick out who looked like they were in charge. She saw Trick in the midst of the Fauns by the occasional explosions of glitter that her teammate used to disorient her opponents; apparently Trick was having no luck in locating Parker. Outlier stepped forward to the edge of her platform, taking out a small whistle from her utility belt. She gave three sharp blasts that could be heard for blocks.
“Okay, listen up,” she shouted as the din of the shouting mobs died down. “Who’s in charge here?”
“Why should we listen to you?” came a shout from the Skels.
Outlier looked for the source, but the Skels’ masks made it impossible to know who spoke. Instead, she just addressed the crowd. “A few months ago this city was dealing with damage from a riot,” she told them. “I don’t think anyone would want to deal with more damage from a gang war. Let’s try to solve this peacefully – if the leaders of the Fauns and Skels could sit down and talk – ”
Her speech was cut off by laughter from both sides. A muscular guy stepped forward from the Skel side to ask, “What, you think we’ll all just be best friends after a tea party?” His mask had a crossbones pattern on it, but his eyes were a deep brown.
Outlier knelt down on her platform to look directly at him. “We can have tea if you want,” she answered calmly, “and you don’t have to be friends. But our community needs peace, and these weapons are troubling.”
“Oh please,” a tiger-striped cat-faun stepped forward, and Outlier recognized her immediately from her two forays into Faun territory. “They come into our territory, and you talk about peace?”
“I know you,” Outlier said. “You’re Parker’s Lieutenant, right? Kiara.”
Kiara smirked. “And you’re the Outlier, right?” she answered. “You’re the crazy bitch who showed up in our headquarters to talk to Fallen.”
Outlier could feel the incredulous stares from her teammates. While most of them knew she had recruited Parker to help get Earthborn back, only she and Granny had known that she had walked straight into Faun Headquarters to do so. Knowing that she was going to have to listen to another lecture from Reiki later, Outlier shrugged and nodded. “That’s me,” she said. Turning to the Skel representative, she asked, “And what can we address you as?”
The Skel crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’m the leader here?”
“The fact that you’re still talking to me,” Outlier said, raising an eyebrow. She jumped off the platform, and Earthborn made it disappear back into the street. “Now that the two of you are here, can you tell your friends to stand down while we figure this out?”
After a moment of hesitation where the two gang leaders looked each other up and down, they both turned to their respective gangs and gave a signal. The gangs still gripped their weapons, but they stopped trying to get past Earthborn’s defenses to kill each other.
“So how do you expect we do this, oh great Outlier of the Asylum?” Kiara asked.
Outlier ignored the sarcasm dripping from her tone. “First I need to understand the problem,” she said. Turning to the Skel leader, she asked, “Why are the Skels here?”
“Those Fauns are the reason this city imploded a few months ago,” he said, glaring at Kiara. “They need to be taught a lesson.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t answer me,” Outlier said. “Why now? It’s been nearly four months since the riots. What changed?”
The Skel leader’s jaw clenched under his mask. “You’re kidding, right?” he scoffed.
Kiara answered for him. “Those Third Gens are blaming the Fauns for the new bill Congress introduced yesterday,” she said. “Don’t you read the news?”
“I’ve been kind of busy lately,” Outlier admitted, mentally kicking herself for not being more prepared. She used to keep up with current events, but since she took over leadership of the Asylum she barely had time to take care of herself, much less read the news. “Enlighten me.”
“The bill will cut work opportunities for all Satyrs and Third Gens on a national scale,” the Skel leader said. “If it passes, then none of us will be able to do more than the most menial jobs, or else we’ll be forced to register as Watchers.”
“Satyrs already have to register just to live in this country,” Kiara shot back. “Cry me a river.”
“It’s because of the riots across the country!” the Skel leader shouted. “They’re lumping our protests in with your violence, and life’s about to get worse for everyone!”
“Okay, okay,” Outlier said, trying to defuse the tension. “Things are bad all around. But do you really think more violence is going to help things?” She pointed to all of the weapons on both sides. “Won’t this just convince people that you really are violent thugs with no regard for the community?”
“Or it’ll show people that we’re not affiliated with these idiot animals,” the Skel leader said, clenching his fists. Kiara gave a feral hiss at his words.
“Why are we even talking about this?” she asked. “We’ll rip them to shreds, and they won’t bother any of us again.”
“Not in my city!” Outlier said, trying to sound commanding while stepping between the two leaders. “You’re going to hurt the innocent bystanders, and we’ll be right back to square one.” Looking at each of them in turn, she added, “Do either of you really want that?”
Kiara and the Skel leader glared at each other. Neither spoke for a long time. Finally, Kiara broke the silence. “We don’t want any more violence,” she said. “Lucky for you Third Gens, Fallen ordered us to defend only.”
The Skel leader barked a laugh. “You take orders from a wanted terrorist and a madman. You can’t even decide for yourself.”
“Lucky for you, jackass,” Kiara growled, flexing her hands. Her Talons glinted in the fading sunlight, the razors on the tips gleaming in the fading sunlight.
The Skel leader smirked under his mask, looking down on her. “They call me Bulldozer,” he said. “I want you to know who I am, so you can run crawling back to your masters and tell them. I’m the new leader of the Skels, and we’re not going to sit back while you destroy our city.”
Kiara hissed again, but Outlier still stood between them. “It’s our job to keep everyone in check,” she said. “Not yours. If you want to go after criminals, then get your Watcher licenses.”
Bulldozer gave a barking laugh. “Really?” he asked. “Your job? Great job stopping the riots. Oh wait – they blew up your headquarters.”
“That was – ” Outlier started, but Bulldozer cut her off.
“Isn’t the new leader of the Fauns – ‘Parker’ or ‘Fallen’ or whatever you call him – a former member of the Asylum?” he continued. “You don’t stop anybody. You’re just kids playing dress-up, running around the city like you own it. You’re just as bad as them.”
“Outlier,” came Reiki’s voice over the coms. “This is going to turn nasty.”
“Heck, you lost half your team in the riots,” Bulldozer continued. “What, did you think people wouldn’t notice? A human like you isn’t cut out for vigilante work. You can’t stop anything.”
“Can’t I?” Outlier shot back, letting her temper get the best of her. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Butterfly standing behind her.
“Is violence really the answer here?” he asked Bulldozer. “You talk a big game, but can you really stand against both the Fauns and the Asylum?”
“Who are you, pretty boy?” Bulldozer asked.
“They call me ‘Butterfly’,” he answered. “I’m a Third Gen like you. And I’m asking now: are you really going to tear apart our city for a losing battle?”
Outlier shrugged off his hand. “I got this,” she said.
“It’s not a losing battle,” Bulldozer said. “And I’m done talking. Skels!” He backed away into his side of the mob, shouting commands.
Kiara shrugged at Outlier. “We have to defend ourselves,” she said, almost apologetically, before going back to her side and shouting orders again.
“I had that,” Outlier said again, glaring at Butterfly. She stormed over to where the rest of the team had gathered.
Butterfly shrugged. “No, you didn’t,” he said. “The Bulldozer guy wasn’t going to respect anyone who wasn’t a Third Gen. To them, you can’t possibly know their struggles in our society. You didn’t even know about the bill that started all of this; and why would you when it doesn’t affect you?” He shook his head. “There was no talking our way out of this one.”
“Well, I guess we’ll never know now, will we?” Outlier said, turning to the others. Trick had returned while they had been talking to the leaders; she did not look happy.
“No sign of Parker, then?” Outlier asked her.
“No,” she growled. “The Fauns said he’s still in hiding, so he won’t be here today. What was that about you going to Faun Headquarters?”
Outlier rubbed her temple with a free hand. “It was just before we got Earthborn back,” she said. “I was in and out, and I had Granny for backup. It was no big deal. How else did you think I got Parker to join us?”
“That was a stupid move,” Reiki said, shaking his head. “They could have – ”
“Killed me, I know,” Outlier finished for him. “Guys, there’s about to be a major fight, and right now the only one standing between them is Earthborn. Can we table this?”
“We are going to talk about this,” Reiki said, his arms crossed over his chest.
“But not right now,” Butterfly added. “What should we do, boss?”
The only active member missing was Granny, who was supposedly still on her way. Reiki, Trick, Butterfly, and Earthborn looked at Outlier expectantly, awaiting her orders.
“Reiki, report,” she ordered. “Anything change while we were talking?”
“We bought enough time for the police to get here,” Reiki said, pointing behind himself where blue lights flashed, “but this is going to turn into a fight if either side can get around Earthborn’s walls.”
Just as he said it, a loud rumbling noise thundered through the street as the walls came down. Outlier could see Bulldozer’s crossbones mask leading the Skels as he punched through the wall – the Skel leader’s Third Gen ability must have been super-strength.
Reiki cursed. “What do we do?” he asked Outlier.
“Trick’s still over on the Faun side,” Outlier said, making sure the whole team could hear through the coms. Trick might still be listening, and she and Granny were going to need to know where the others were. “Reiki, use your light to disorient who you can. Earthborn, keep trying the walls to separate fighters. Butterfly, get somewhere your sniping ability can be put to use. You still have the blowgun?”
“Nope,” he said cheerfully, “but I do have rubber bullets in my rifle. I’ll shoot to subdue.” He ran off to find a good place to shoot from.
Outlier called over her coms, “Granny, you here yet?”
“Almost, dearie,” came the reply. Outlier heard a loud roar from the next block over.
“Good,” she said. “When you get here, the goal is to separate the fighters. Use Herchel and Louise to pull them off each other.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Granny answered.
With another loud rumble, the last of Earthborn’s walls crumbled under Bulldozer’s strength, and the fight began.
* * * * * * * *
Agency Office Building in Downtown Eon City.
Headquarters of the Meta-Human and Vigilante Task Force.
“They’re getting their asses kicked down there,” Jaunt remarked, looking out of the office window with his hands folded behind his back.
“They’re in over their heads,” Agent said through his clenched jaw. “Is this entertaining enough for you?”
Jaunt smirked, turning back around to face him. “You understand, I needed to test them,” he said. “They could be the greatest heroes in the world, but if they can’t operate without you, then they’re worse than useless.”
“To you,” Agent added, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice. “They were the perfect defenders for the city as they were. Your little ‘experiment’ over the last few months might have ruined them.”
Jaunt rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, Agent,” he said. “I just gave them the push they needed to improve. Like a mother bird pushing her fledgelings out of the nest – and these fledglings flew spectacularly. Until today, of course,” he added with a regretful sigh. “I’m sorry to say that Outlier isn’t much for leadership. She takes on too much by herself, and relies too heavily on luck to be consistently effective.” He turned back to the window, watching the fight on the street a block away. “It’s too bad Shadow isn’t around. Given his lineage, I’d like to see what happens if he took charge of the team.”
“Bring him back, then,” Agent said, leaving the accusation – that Jaunt was responsible for Frank’s disappearance – unspoken.
“I would if I could,” Jaunt said wistfully, ignoring Agent’s implication. “Unfortunately, he was taken by outside forces, and my network hasn’t seen him.”
Agent clenched the handle of his umbrella with white knuckles, but smiled at the villain. “I can’t tell if you’re lying to me or if your cruddy network of thieves, spies, and sociopaths are lying to you,” Agent said pleasantly, “but I’ve been wondering these last few months if this arrangement of ours is really worth it.”
“You want to end our agreement?” Jaunt said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Even after I showed you the dangers out there?”
“I mainly just want to punch you in your smug face,” Agent said, grinning at the thought.
“Hm. That’s fair,” Jaunt shrugged, turning back to the window. “After everything that’s happened between us, I’d be really surprised if you actually liked me.”
“‘Everything that’s happened between us’,” Agent repeated incredulously. “That’s a heck of a way to put it. Are you talking about keeping me away from my team? How about the little ‘tests’ you’ve been pulling to keep them busy? Or maybe the riots you organized across the city – or should I go back farther than the last four months?”
“I was actually talking about Team Ark,” Jaunt pointed out, “but what I’ve done to the Asylum is bad enough, isn’t it?”
“You turned Parker into a wanted criminal,” Agent accused. “Rina might never be the same again, Granny lost her zoo, Earthborn spent a month hiding underground, Frank has disappeared, Natalie thinks I abandoned them, and Haley’s been running herself ragged trying to hold them all together. You destroyed our headquarters, leaving half the team homeless, and you call that ‘bad enough’?!”
“Bad enough for you to hate me, yes. Wouldn’t you?” Jaunt was infuriatingly calm as he surveyed the city from his ivory tower. “You really seem to care about them,” he remarked.
Agent took a deep breath to calm himself. “They’re my team,” he said.
“There’s always another team,” Jaunt told him, “and this one wouldn’t be in such bad shape if they didn’t keep failing my tests.”
“You and your tests,” Agent scoffed.
“Blackbird wasn’t supposed to still be undercover,” Jaunt said. “If he had stuck to the plan, he wouldn’t be a wanted criminal now, would he?”
“He was trying to get information on Claw,” Agent countered.
Jaunt raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t the mission,” he reminded him. “Blackbird was supposed to cess out a mole in your organization. Not only did he fail to do so, but he also failed at that side job you gave him. Either would have stopped the destruction of your tower, but Blackbird was outsmarted by that overgrown lizard.”
“You work with Claw,” Agent pointed out.
“I put up with him because he’s useful at times,” Jaunt admitted. “He’s the main reason the city is in such bad shape, though.”
Agent crossed his hands over his umbrella handle. “Ever consider that the city – the country – probably wouldn’t be in such bad shape if you didn’t play Moriarty with the criminal underground?” he asked.
“‘Moriarty’,” Jaunt mused. “I like that. The criminal consultant who beat Sherlock Holmes.”
“He didn’t ‘beat’ him,” Agent said. “He disappeared, and then Holmes rounded up his organization.”
“Winning is in the eye of the beholder,” Jaunt replied, and left it at that. He left his spot at the window and sat down at Agent’s desk. “In any case, your team looks like it could use some help.”
Agent narrowed his eyebrows in suspicion. “You mean…”
“You’d better go help them,” Jaunt said, smiling pleasantly. “I received reports that the tower – as well as the new training bunker – are finishing up tomorrow. What’s one day between friends?”
“We’re not friends,” Agent said automatically, but nonetheless he started rushing to the door.
“Quite right,” Jaunt said. “Oh, and Agent? Bring her with you too.”
Agent stopped, his hand on the doorknob. “Who?” he asked.
“You know – her. The scary one,” Jaunt said, his tone finally showing his annoyance.
Agent shook his head, opening the door. “I know you like to be mysterious,” he said, “but I need more details than that.”
“Nightmare!” Jaunt said. “Bring Nightmare with you! She can stop a fight like that in an instant.”
“Rina’s still recovering,” Agent said, shaking his head while trying not to grin at Jaunt’s annoyance. “Her powers aren’t reliable.”
“She’s better than you think,” Jaunt told him, going back to his mysterious airs. “Better than even she knows. She doesn’t have to be precise – just stop the fighting.”
Agent nodded, and headed out. As soon as he knew Agent couldn’t see him, Jaunt rushed back to the window. “This ought to be interesting,” he said to himself. Looking around Agent’s office, he sighed. “Too bad he doesn’t keep the fun stuff in here,” the villain lamented. He paused for a minute, then chuckled to himself. “I wonder if he left his computer unlocked?”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Southeast Side.
“How the heck are we supposed to end this?” Reiki asked over the coms. “They just keep coming!”
Outlier was busy wrestling a monkey-satyr to the ground, but Earthborn answered, “I wish Nightmare was here; she’d have this place on its knees in seconds.”
“Yeah, well, she’s not,” Outlier said. A rubber bullet whizzed past her cheek and hit the monkey-satyr square in the shoulder, allowing Outlier to zip-tie his wrists together. “Thanks, Butterfly.”
“Just take ‘em one at a time,” Butterfly said over the coms. “They’ll stop coming eventually.”
“Eventually might not be soon enough,” Outlier said, turning to the next brawler as she dodged a swipe from someone’s talons. “We can’t keep this up forever!”
“Says you,” said Trick. “I can do this all – ahh!”
“Trick!” Outlier cried. “What happened? Anyone have eyes on her?”
“She’s okay,” came Reiki’s voice. “A Third-Gen hit her, but they’re seriously regretting it now.”
There was no time to be relieved, as Outlier had two more of the brawlers join into her fight. She hadn’t been prepared for the chaos of the fight – Fauns and Skels seemed to want nothing more than to rip each other to shreds, but they would team up against the Watchers trying to stop the brawling.
As she slipped out of a satyr’s grip and knocked her on the head to get her out of the brawl, Outlier realized that she felt unusually warm. The zip-ties she used to hobble the Faun were sticky and wet – it was then she realized that she was bleeding from a long gash in her arm. She hadn’t felt it when it happened, so she had no idea how much blood she had lost by that point. A lot, she figured, given how dizzy she suddenly felt.
A distant sense of emergency gripped her – this fight needed to end soon. She tried to dodge another blow, but someone clipped her jaw, knocking her off-balance. Another fighter pushed her down, and kicked her in the back. Outlier could hear her teammates talking on the coms, asking her what they should do to end it, but she couldn’t think – much less speak – and they were going to lose.
It was a bad idea to hold the team together, she thought, just trying to protect her face from the barrage as she began to lose consciousness. We’re going to die here, and it’s all my fault…
A sudden wave of fear gripped her, and the blows stopped raining down on her. An unearthly sound pierced the air, and it took Outlier a minute before she realized what it was – satyrs and Third Gens alike were crying and screaming, falling to their knees as their bodies all gave out at once.
Despite her own terror, Outlier managed to uncover her face and look around. All around her, the battle had come to a standstill. Most of the brawlers had fallen to the ground, but those who were still able to move were crawling away from the one person left standing.
Outlier had never seen Nightmare in action before, and so she had never truly understood why she was called “Nightmare” until this moment. She looked the same as ever, covered head to toe in her white uniform, but she radiated fear – Outlier knew instinctively that she couldn’t let this girl get near her.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Nightmare stopped being a monster and Outlier could remember their friendship. She even managed a smile before she blacked out.
The police, who had been outside of Nightmare’s powers when she arrived, began rounding up brawlers before they could recover. Butterfly dashed down the fire escape he had been perched on, expertly avoiding the fallen brawlers as he made his way to Outlier. “Hey, come on,” he said, crouching down next to her figure. “Haley, you can’t die on me or I’ll never get paid. Come on, wake up!”
“She won’t die,” said another girl next to her. Kiara stumbled to her feet, shaken from the experience but still mobile. “She wasn’t hit that badly – I mean, she’ll be hurting for days, don’t get me wrong, but – ”
“I’m talking about the gash on her shoulder,” Butterfly said. “She’s lost a lot of blood.”
“She’s… tough,” came Outlier’s voice. Her eyes were still closed, but she started to stir. “How long was I out?” she asked weakly.
“Less than two minutes,” Kiara answered. “See? I told you she was fine.”
“Need to stop bleeding,” Outlier mumbled, trying to grip the wound. She opened her eyes to see Kiara walking away. “Hey!” she tried to call, but couldn’t get the sound loud enough.
“Let her go,” Trick said, coming up next to Butterfly. Her face was starting to bruise, and she was holding her shoulder carefully as she watched Kiara leave. “We got most of them tied down, and we’re not in any shape to stop any that can still stand after Nightmare got to ‘em.”
Kiara turned back to them, adding, “Parker says hi, by the way.” Then she ran off into a side street before anyone could stop her.
“You know,” Trick said, trying to fold her arms and then wincing as her shoulder hurt, “I do believe that woman is schtupping my brother.”
“What?!” Outlier asked incredulously. She tried to sit up, but a wave of nausea hit and Butterfly helped her back down.
“You heard me,” Trick said, smirking at her. She pulled out a spare handkerchief and tied her teammate’s wound. “By the way, I’m glad you’re not dead. You gave us all a scare there when you stopped talking. The merc told us you went down, and we didn’t know what to think.”
“I’m sorry,” Outlier said. “This was my fault – I shouldn’t have had us go into the fight.”
“As long as you’re breathing, you’re learning.” Agent walked over to them. He tried to appear nonchalant, but the white-knuckled grip on his umbrella showed how scared he had been for them. “Next time, you’ll realize that you have more distance-fighters than just Butterfly here.”
“Agent,” Trick said, sounding like she couldn’t believe he was really there. “You came.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been there,” Agent said. “I’m back now, and the Task-Force is ready to help again.” He picked up Outlier, and, after a glare from Butterfly, allowed the others to follow as he took her to an ambulance that had shown up sometime after the fighting had begun.
“You’re back?” Trick asked suspiciously. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Agent confirmed. “I’ve got other Watchers patrolling the city for the next couple days. You guys need to rest and recover, and then I’ll show you our new headquarters.”
“So we’re back at the tower?” Trick asked. “We can search for Frank?”
“Frank is number one on the priority list,” Agent said, setting Outlier down on a stretcher and letting a medic take over. “As for the tower, we’ve made some changes in the rebuild. We’ll have plenty of room for more members, too.” He turned to Butterfly, adding, “You’re welcome to join the team, if you like.”
“Me?” Butterfly asked, surprised. “I thought I wasn’t eligible. Something about not getting along with the other teammates, and caring more about money than about the work; stuff like that.”
“He shot me,” Trick also reminded them.
“And I shot her that one time,” Butterfly agreed.
“You stuck around when we needed you here,” Agent said. “If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s that this little experiment of ours won’t work unless we have more people – Watchers like yourself, who can help us out. Motives aside, you’re really good at what you do,” he added, holding out his hand for Butterfly to shake.
Butterfly looked at it for a second before hesitantly shaking Agent’s hand. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll try it. If nothing else, it should make watching out for that one easier,” he added, pointing his thumb at Outlier. “I’ve never had a protection detail with a suicidal mark before.”
Agent grinned at him before adding, “Just know that I’m watching you. If you try to shoot anyone in the back again, I won’t hesitate to put you down myself.” He gave Butterfly’s hand a sharp squeeze before letting go, while Trick cackled behind him.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Abandoned Construction Building.
New Asylum Training Ground, a few days later.
“I still can’t believe you sent the helicopter to pick us up,” Haley said as soon as they had landed. Her arm was still in a sling to keep her from pulling her stitches, but she had mostly recovered from the anemia thanks to Dale’s administrations.
“Technically, it’s not a helicopter,” Quinn “Chip” Kaine piped in, stepping out of the vehicle. The Asylum’s tech wizard combed her fingers through her hair as she explained, “Legally speaking, it’s a gyrodyne. It’s a rotorcraft like a helicopter, but the engine and propeller design is more efficient. I designed this one myself; since the Asylum’s jet went down with the building, I figured we could use another aircraft.”
“Much appreciated, Chip,” Agent said, stepping out after her. “And I thought you guys would like the ride. This place isn’t exactly easy to find, for all that it’s in plain sight.”
“Where are we?” Haley asked, looking around. There was nothing here but an abandoned construction site; it looked like it was going to be a hospital at one point, but nobody had ever finished it. Haley had passed it on her patrols dozens of times, never giving it a second thought.
“Hey, I know this place,” Natalie said, crawling out of the vehicle next. Her face had fully recovered from the bruising, and she was pretty chipper as she remembered. “Frank, Parker, and I used to practice parkour here. But that was years ago – why is the building still not finished?”
Agent smiled at them, looking proud of himself. “This is the old Team Ark headquarters,” he said. “Nat, you and Frank met here for a reason. Your parents were in the basement planning patrols while you kids crawled all over the roof.”
“Wait,” Natalie said, turning pale. “You mean to tell me that Mom knew about all the crazy stuff we did here?”
“Yes,” Agent replied, raising an eyebrow, “though, surprisingly, you didn’t get up to nearly as much as Frank did around here. That jump off the roof was particularly cool – and I never did get the courage to tell his mom about it,” he added sheepishly.
“That was after Team Ark broke up,” Natalie pointed out, folding her arms. “Parker and I had just gotten our Watcher licenses.”
“True,” Agent nodded. “How do you think I knew your skills to offer you a spot in the Asylum?”
“I always assumed you could just read minds,” Reiki piped in as he, Eli, David, Rina, and Granny got out of the copter after them.
“Not quite,” Agent laughed. “Here, this way.” He led them to a trapdoor on the bottom floor, tapping the ground with his umbrella until he found the right spot. Opening the door, he gestured for the team to go down first.
After a short ladder, they entered a huge space that resembled their old training room in the last tower. The entrance this time was on the observation floor, but there was a staircase nearby that led to a large gym. There were no windows, but they still had the sparring equipment, the hologram rooms, and the exercise stuff in the same set-up as before. On the observation level near the entrance was a lounge area with couches and a small kitchenette, and across the cavernous training area was Agent’s computer room.
“Welcome to your new training hall,” Agent said, sweeping his arms out proudly. “We replaced the top floors of the tower with another level of dorms and briefing rooms. This is where you’ll come from now on to train – no more putting all our eggs into one basket.”
“So this is the place,” Haley said, looking around. “Not sure that I like the whole ‘underground’ thing.”
“I like it,” David said, grinning.
“You would,” Reiki sighed. “So, what’s next?”
Natalie folded her arms, grinning at them. “Now that we’re back together,” she said, “we go find Frank.”
“Where are we supposed to look?” Haley asked, testing out one of the couches. “Frank’s been AWOL for months – and trust me, I’ve tried to find him.” The others sat down as well while they figured out their next move.
“We’ll figure it out,” Natalie shrugged. “Have a little faith.”
“Is this what I sounded like these last few months?” Haley asked Reiki, who nodded emphatically.
“Sometimes worse,” he said. “Seriously, why did you think Parker and Eli were a good idea?” Eli raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say a word.
Haley sighed, shaking her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Might have been the lack of sleep, or just needing something to go right for once. I get Parker, but why did you think Eli wasn’t a good idea?”
Reiki gave her an incredulous look. “Seriously?” he asked. “He kidnapped you! Your hand was useless for a week after that, and you’re asking why you were the only one who thought it was a good idea to trust him?!”
Haley shrugged. “He’s trustworthy,” she insisted, “once you understand how he works. He likes being around butterflies, and anything that furthers that goal will get him to be on our side.”
“Butterflies?” Reiki asked. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Eli said, shrugging. He wasn’t the least embarrassed by it. “All Haley had to do was get me access to Eon City’s butterfly garden overnight. It had been closed since the riots.”
“You also mentioned another revenue stream,” Granny reminded him.
“Apparently we have a mysterious benefactor,” Haley told them. “Someone paid him off. I thought it was Ayu, or maybe Agent.”
“Wasn’t me,” Agent said, shrugging. “Up until the gang fight a few days ago, I’d labeled him as ‘unreliable’.”
“That’s fair,” Eli shrugged again. “I’ll do my best now that I’m actually on the team, though.” Some of the other members looked like they wanted to say something, but Haley gave them a look and they backed off.
“Whatever,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes. “Doesn’t matter. Butterfly can do whatever he wants. Let’s get back to business.”
“Right,” Haley said. “So that brings us back to Frank.”
“Somebody call?” came a new voice near the door. They all turned around in shock to find Frank Mejia, also known as Shadow, coming down the ladder and grinning at them like he’d never left. “Mom told me you guys were down here.”
The team just stared at him. “Okay, I know I’ve been gone for a few months, but you won’t believe what happened to me!” he said.
The last thing he remembered seeing before the world went black was Natalie pulling back her fist.
* * * * * * * *
Casey’s Bar, Downtown Eon City.
Closed for the night.
“Uh-huh,” Casey said, listening to Agent over the phone. “I’ll keep an eye out.” She sighed, rolling her eyes. “Good-bye, Agent,” she said pointedly, hanging up on him. “Man, that guy doesn’t know how to stop talking,” she muttered, grabbing a bottle of vodka and two glasses and sitting down at one of the tables. The bar was closed, but she had a guest tonight.
“Was he lecturing you again?” the man asked, taking one of the glasses from her and letting her pour a generous serving for them both. He was in his thirties, sporting a thin beard that was a shade darker than his short, unkempt brown hair. Dressed in a long faux-leather trench coat, he would stand out if he went outside. Taking a sip from his glass, he kept his eyes on Casey as they spoke.
“Always,” Casey said, rolling her eyes. “Now that the team’s back together, he was asking again if I wanted to join.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “‘Back together’?” he repeated.
“Oh, right, I forgot,” Casey said, rubbing her temple. “You’ve been away. Frank just returned from his trip to the future, and Rina got her powers back – sort of. She just needs to gain more control before she can use it reliably. It’s been four months since the riots.”
“Ah,” the young man nodded, taking a sip of the liquor. “I remember that. Frank was pissed that four months had gone by.”
“Rightly so,” Casey pointed out. “His parents were worried sick, and I only ever got the one vision of him. If I hadn’t met you last year, I would have been worried, too.”
“Sorry about that,” the man said. “Would have avoided it if I could, but once it’s been done it had to happen.”
“Anyone ever told you that time travel sucks?” Casey asked rhetorically. “Honestly, I don’t know how you keep it all straight, Janus.”
Janus – older than when Frank met him, but still the same time-traveler – gave her a grim smile. “It helps that I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve tried to get this right?”
“And every time you meddle, something else changes irreparably,” Casey finished, having heard it before. “I know. I still can’t tell you if anything has changed yet, so I’m not sure what brings you here tonight.”
“Oh, I just needed a place to crash,” Janus said nonchalantly. “Tell me, is Butterfly hanging around this time?”
“That was you?” Casey asked. “You know, Haley is dying from curiosity. She’s been asking around to see who paid him.”
Janus smirked. “I’ve tried leaving them to their own devices,” he said, “but Eli’s stubborn and anti-social. If I didn’t pay him, he’d never join the Asylum.”
“True.” Casey nodded, shooting her own drink before adding, “I still don’t know what you think’ll come of it all.”
“You’ve seen some of it,” Janus pointed out to her. “That vision of the twins and the Gamemaster?”
“Where one of the twins becomes the Gamemaster?” Casey asked. “That vision was hazy, at best. I couldn’t even tell which was which – which is saying something, since Parker has those wings and super-strength, and Natalie usually uses her tricks. In my vision, they were evenly matched, and they had similar builds.”
“That’s because it’s not set in stone yet,” Janus said.
“What happens if it comes true?” Casey asked him.
Janus gave a short, ironic laugh. “If that should happen, you can rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make sure that it’s not my fault,” he told her, inviting her to share the joke. As Casey laughed, he added, “But seriously: I can’t tell you too much, but there’s something I’d like you to consider.”
“Meaning there’s something you want me to tell Agent,” Casey said pointedly.
Janus shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, that,” he said. “I’m sorry for the roundabout methods, but – ”
“But you have to be careful,” Casey interrupted, finishing his sentence. “I know that better than anyone. What’s the message, then?”
“Consider this,” Janus told her. “Are you entirely sure that there were only two people in that vision?”
Casey looked stricken. “More than… wait, that would mean…” she trailed off, thinking about it. As the implications dawned on her, her eyes became unfocused and turned white.
As Casey became lost in another vision, Janus shook his head. “Sorry, Cassandra,” he said, shooting back the rest of his drink and standing up. “I hate doing this to you, but I need you to start meddling for me.” He turned to leave, looking back only once at Casey’s still form. “I know you have your own curse, but I need you to fix mine, too,” he added.
Then he left, before Casey could wake up.
* * * * * * * *