Haley Prince and Eli Howard, otherwise known as “Outlier” and “Butterfly” respectively, were coming back from their patrol of the city to find a commotion in the lobby of Asylum Headquarters. Shadow, Earthborn, and Nightmare had just returned from a capture mission, and had one of the Zatvor Prison escapees in custody. They looked exhausted, more than they should have been for capturing one prisoner. Everyone passing through the lobby gave the Watchers a wide berth as the frog-marched the prisoner to the prison guards that were waiting for them. It seemed like a normal occurrence for the end of a mission, until they all were startled by a sudden shout.
“What the hell just happened, Shadow?!” Agent asked, storming out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened. “You guys were supposed to wait!” Haley had never seen the usually calm and collected Agent this upset before. The look on his face was alarming, if not downright terrifying to see.
The team didn’t answer him. Shadow looked at the floor, and Nightmare was watching Shadow with a worried expression on her face. Earthborn was pushing a girl with leathery, bat-like wings along in front of himself – Haley recognized Erinyes from the description in her profile. The Faun lieutenant’s arms were tied behind her with a layer of rock, but she was grinning as if she had won the fight.
“Take her away!” Agent shouted at the nearest security guard. A team of guards led the escaped convict to the holding cells, until they could transport her to Zatvor prison.
“Agent, we tried – ” Nightmare started to say, but Agent interrupted her.
“You tried,” he snarled. “I know you tried. But trying isn’t enough. Where is she?!”
Earthborn stepped forward. “We searched the cliffs, Agent,” he said. “We couldn’t find her.”
“Then get back out there and search again!” he shouted. “She has to be there!”
“Hey, what’s going on?” Haley asked. “Agent, why are you down here?” It was unusual for the team’s leader to be out of his office during the day, much less on the first floor as the Watchers returned from a mission.
Shadow shook his head at her, pulling her away from the scene. “We just took down Erinyes,” he said.
“Erinyes?” Eli repeated. “The bat-satyr Faun that’s been giving Trick so much trouble?”
“One of the Zatvor escapees,” Haley nodded. “So why does Agent look like he’s about to kill somebody?”
“Who died?” Eli asked, staring at the scene in the middle of the entranceway. Shadow looked sharply at him, so he explained, “I know that look. He doesn’t look like he’s about to kill somebody – he looks like someone he’s responsible for just died. So, who was it?”
Haley gave him a questioning look, but Shadow looked away and whispered something. “What?” Haley asked.
“Natalie,” Shadow said louder, looking back at them. “Trick is dead.”
* * * * * * * *
“Okay, start from the beginning,” said Jones, the psychologist that Pharos Industries had brought in to evaluate the team.
O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had agreed to send in a professional to talk with the team about the loss of their teammate; it had been a failing in their predecessors, Team Ark, that the team had fallen apart after a member had died. In fact, Frank realized with a start, it had been Natalie’s mom who had died back then. Well that’s ironic, Frank thought sardonically, staring at the psychologist as he took his seat at the conference table. Frank was surprised that Jones had gotten there so quickly; it had been only a few hours since they had captured Erinyes.
None of them wanted to speak up first. If they said it out loud, then it would be real. Frank looked around at the others, but they all seemed to be staring at him expectantly.
“Shadow?” Jones asked kindly. “Do you want to start?” Frank was starting to hate the shrink’s too-calm voice already.
Then it hit him – the others were waiting for him. Haley, Granny, Reiki, and Eli had not been there, and Nightmare and Earthborn had joined later. Agent had been on comms the entire time, which left Frank as the only Asylum teammate to have been present for the whole story.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked, resigned. “There’s not much else to report. We chased after Erinyes, and Trick went over a cliff. Then Nightmare and Earthborn showed up and captured Erinyes. End of story.”
“Start with why you guys went after Erinyes without waiting for backup as ordered,” Agent said, glaring at him.
Frank shrugged. “I heard you give the order to wait, but Nat had already taken off,” he explained. The memories seemed to blur together – chasing Erinyes through the city, trying to catch her, Trick going over the cliff – and suddenly Frank felt really tired. He looked down at his hands on the table to see that they were still shaking, but he didn’t know why.
Dale noticed, though. He spoke up from the corner of the room where he was observing the meeting. “Jones, maybe this should wait ‘til tomorrow, aye?” Frank caught the look that passed between the two doctors, and the slight nod Dale gave at his shaking hands.
“I’m fine,” Frank insisted, pulling his hands off the table and shoving them onto his lap. “Just – I didn’t expect…” he trailed off. What didn’t he expect? Frank had been to the future, where Natalie had been alive and well – or at least that was what Razorwing had told him. But then again, he was also told many times on that trip that the future could change – in fact, he had been brought there for the specific purpose of changing certain things. Did that mean it was his fault? Could he have changed the future so Natalie – ?
Thinking like that would only drive him crazy. He ran a shaking hand through his hair, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. “I’m fine,” he repeated, hating how the doctors gave each other that look again.
“It’s okay if you’re not,” Jones said in that annoyingly calm voice. “It’s perfectly natural to feel angry, or upset, or sad. You’ve been through a traumatic experience, and I’m here to help.”
“‘Traumatic experience’?” Frank scoffed, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on the table. “We chase down bad guys every day. Nothing traumatic about that.”
Haley raised her eyebrows and looked at his feet. Frank had changed out of his rocket-skates, but his practice shoes were also worn out and filthy. He just raised an eyebrow back at her, daring her to say something.
In response, she mimicked the movement, putting her feet up as well. The look on her face was amused, as if she were silently saying, “I can play that game, too.”
Frank sighed and sat up straight again, taking his feet off of the table. Nothing ever got past Haley. “Look, I just don’t have anything else to say. It’s all in my report. Can we go now?”
Dale stood up, and the team followed. “Frank, I’d like to see you for an after-mission check-up,” he said.
Before Frank could respond, Jones added, “And I’d like to see each of you individually for an evaluation. Shadow, how would – ”
“I’ll go first,” Rina piped up, giving Frank a slight wink behind Jones’ back. “Frank, you should probably go to that check-up.”
Rina stayed with the shrink, and the others all left the room. Agent pushed Frank with his shoulder on the way past, but Haley was the one to speak up. “If you’re going to be a jerk, Agent, maybe you should stay with Doctor Jones,” she said.
Agent paused, then turned around to face them all. “Outlier, Reiki, Granny, I want you to check the base of the cliffs again. Earthborn and Nightmare will join you as soon as they’ve been checked out.”
Haley closed her eyes and took a deep breath before responding. “Agent, I don’t know what you think we’ll find that we didn’t the last fifty times we searched,” she said. “If her body was washed out to sea – ”
“She’s not dead,” Agent said, shaking his head. The team looked at each other, their thoughts clearly written on their faces. “I’m not crazy; I’m telling you, there is no way she’s dead. Not like that.”
Frank took a step forward, his own grief showing through his eyes. Natalie had been his friend since high school, long before either of them became Watchers. He didn’t want to believe it either, but he had been there when it happened. “Agent, I know you two were close,” he said reasonably, “but Erinyes threw her off a fifty-foot cliff into the ocean. There were sharp rocks at the bottom. No human could have survived that fall.”
“Natalie’s no ordinary human,” Agent told them, pointing his umbrella at Frank. “She’s pulled off miracles before. She is not dead.”
“We searched the area,” Frank started.
Agent cut him off. “Then search again!” he shouted, his emotions finally breaking through his normally calm demeanor. “Natalie isn’t… she can’t be!” His voice dropped to a whisper as he added, “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“What makes you so sure?” Haley asked him reasonably. “Frank saw it happen; Erinyes was gloating about it when they brought her in. All the evidence tells us that Natalie is dead – so why are you so sure she’s not?”
“Casey had a vision,” Agent said. “It hasn’t come true yet, so Natalie can’t be dead.”
“‘Casey had a vision’?” David repeated skeptically, speaking up for the first time that day. “Agent, Casey would be the first to tell you that her visions aren’t a hundred percent accurate. The farther out in the future they are, the more likely they won’t happen. I’m telling you: Natalie’s gone. We need to talk about how to inform her family…”
“She’s not dead,” Agent repeated.
“Then why hasn’t she come back yet?” Reiki shouted, pushing Agent back. “If Natalie were alive and well, she should have come through that door by now, cussing us out for leaving her.” He marched past them and opened the door to the stairs before turning around and adding, “But she didn’t. She won’t. She’s gone!” The others looked away, but they knew what he was doing – ripping off the band-aid the way Natalie would have was the only way to get through to Agent.
Agent closed his eyes for a moment, then grabbed his umbrella and marched out the door without another word. The team looked at each other, but nobody followed him.
* * * * * * * *
Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was clearing the tables after closing when the door burst open. “Agent,” she said, not surprised to see him. She knew he was going to come in, and that he would be angry about something, but she wasn’t sure what – her ability to see the future didn’t always show her everything.
“Nat’s dead,” Agent said expectantly, sitting down on a stool at the bar. He didn’t believe it – that much was obvious from his tone and demeanor – but he wanted Casey to confirm it.
“What happened?” she asked, putting her rag down. Her eyes turned white for a few seconds as she heard what he would say next with her powers. “Trick was thrown off a cliff, and the team thinks she’s dead. But I take it you don’t?”
Agent sat with his back to the bar, leaning on his ever-present umbrella as Casey pulled up a chair. “Of course I don’t,” he said. “Erinyes threw her off a fifty-foot cliff, true, but you also had that vision of the twins and the Gamemaster, remember?”
“I remember all of my visions,” Casey said. “Even from two years ago. But you know as well as anyone that they don’t always come true, and that vision in particular was vague enough that it could have been anybody; I got a feeling that it was the Fawkes twins, but I might have been wrong.”
“I worked with you long enough to know that most of them do come true,” Agent countered. “She’s not dead.”
Casey walked over to him, pulling up her own chair and putting her hand on his shoulder. “I can’t tell you for sure one way or the other,” she said. “I haven’t had any visions about this. But I can point out to you that we’ve both had this conversation before, when Steve disappeared.”
Stephen Johnson, also known as Striker of Team Ark, was Casey’s older brother. He had disappeared in the middle of a mission seven years prior, and was presumed dead by everybody. Casey spent four years chasing shadows before admitting defeat, realizing that if he were still alive then he would have returned.
“It’s not the same,” Agent muttered.
“It’s exactly the same,” Casey said, not unkindly. “I’d had a vision of Steve standing in a wasteland, and it never came true. But that vision, plus never finding his body, made me spend so much time searching for him instead of moving on with my life.” She gave Agent a wry smile as she added, “You were the one trying to convince me that he was dead before I did that. So now I’m returning the favor.”
Agent closed his eyes again, drawing in a shaky breath. “If… if she is… dead… I’m the one who sent her in,” he said. “Her and Shadow, against a bat-satyr in the middle of a field. No shadows for Frank to use, no cover for Nat’s illusions, no backup, and facing down a terrorist who could fly. It was a stupid call…”
“You couldn’t have known,” Casey told him. “Nat also makes her own choices. If they had any chance of taking down one of Claw’s lieutenants – especially with her grudge against the Fauns – then you couldn’t have stopped her from trying.”
Agent opened his eyes but didn’t look at anything in particular. “She was still my responsibility,” he said. “They’re all my responsibility. I let them down.” He shook his head, adding bitterly, “Again.”
“Natalie was also special, wasn’t she?” Casey asked knowingly. “I don’t need a vision to see what she meant to you.”
Agent shook his head, biting his lip as he thought aloud. “Never acted on it, though,” he said. “I’m thirteen years older than her. She wouldn’t have wanted an old man like me.” He took a deep breath and looked at Casey, adding, “And now it’s too late.”
“I’m sorry I can’t give you what you came here for,” Casey said, shrugging. “Is there anything else I can do?”
Agent shook his head. “No, thanks, Case. I have to go tell Tom now.” Thomas Fawkes was Natalie’s father.
Casey winced in sympathy. “You sure you got this?” she asked. “I remember how it went down last time – if you want, I can tell him about Natalie.”
“No,” Agent said, standing up and heading to the door. “It needs to come from me. He already hates me for what happened to Lyta, and to Parker – I can take this, too.” He did not say the words, but from his tone Casey could tell he was also thinking, “I deserve it.” But she did not say anything as she watched him grab his ever-present umbrella and walk out the door.
Casey watched after him as he got into his car, with a nagging feeling in the back of her mind like she was forgetting something important. She shook her head to clear it and went back to work.
* * * * * * * *
Outskirts of Eon City, near the cliffs.
A very nice memorial service.
Frank fidgeted in his suit. He had not been to a funeral in years, and this one was especially hard. Given the negative reactions Team Ark had sparked in the city with Hippolyta’s very public funeral, they kept the memorial service to just friends and family. City police kept reporters and onlookers away, and Agent had conscripted non-Asylum Watchers to patrol that day so the entire team could mourn.
The yawning space behind the podium seemed to swallow all sound. Frank couldn’t hear the reverend’s words over the roaring in his ears. At first, he thought it was the waves crashing against the rocks below the cliff, but as the service dragged on his mind started wandering back to the incident…
“She’s getting away, Shadow!” Trick called through the communicator in her helmet. Shadow was next to her, using his rocket-skates to keep up with her motorcycle as they chased after Erinyes. The bat-satyr was a Faun lieutenant and a wanted criminal that had escaped from Zatvor prison during the breakout last week. The Asylum members were tracking down the escapees, and they had found Erinyes after an anonymous tip came in – Trick and Shadow had been sent to bring her in, but the bat-satyr surprised them. The wings on her arms actually allowed her to fly – something they hadn’t been prepared for. What was supposed to be an easy arrest had suddenly turned into a high-speed chase out of the city.
They should have known – it was never that easy.
“Agent, we need help out here,” Shadow called over the comms. “She’s leaving the city, heading southeast towards the cliffs!”
“Earthborn and Nightmare are on their way,” came the reply. “Try to stall her, but don’t engage until backup arrives.”
“Easy for you to say,” Trick growled, swerving her motorcycle as the escaped convict threw a rock in her path. “She’s grabbing anything she can and throwing it back at us!”
“Natalie, I mean it,” Agent said. “Earthborn and Nightmare will be there soon. Don’t be stupid.”
Trick grinned under her helmet. “Aw, is Agent worried about us?” she teased. “What fun can we have if we don’t take a few risks – whoa!” Her taunt was cut short when Erinyes threw another rock back at her.
“See what you get?” Shadow taunted her back, jumping over another stone. “Eyes on the prize, Nat.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Trick would have rolled her eyes if she didn’t need to watch the road. They came to the end of the developed part of the city, and Erinyes turned towards the ocean. “Agent, where’s our backup?” Trick asked into the comm. “If she gets out over the ocean, then we’ll never catch her!”
“ETA three minutes, guys,” Agent replied.
“We don’t have three minutes,” Trick said to Shadow. “You got anything we can use to slow her down?” She threw some of her flaming playing cards, but the wind was against her and they harmlessly bounced off Erinyes’ leathery wings.
“I’m running on empty,” Shadow said. “I can bend her shadow into her eyes, but in bright daylight it wouldn’t do more than tint her vision. She’s too high up for me to use my nightsticks!” He glanced over at Trick but had to slow down to avoid a streetlamp. “What about you?”
“I’ve got a couple more tricks up my sleeves,” she said, “but it would mean engaging her before the others arrive.”
“Agent told us not to,” Shadow warned her.
Trick shrugged, stopping her bike before she went over the cliffs and tossing something from her sleeve at Erinyes. “Since when do I listen to anybody?” she asked, grinning.
Erinyes screeched as she slammed against the ground. The tiny grapple that Trick had thrown was wrapped around the bat-satyr’s ankle, connected to a strong cable so thin that one could only see it if they knew what they were looking for.
“Cards aren’t the only things I can throw,” Trick called over, taking her helmet off before Agent could yell at her over the comms.
“Could have fooled me,” Erinyes spat back. “You’re just a one-trick pony, after all. You think this’ll stop me?”
She swiped through the cable with one of the sharp claws on her hands, cutting clean through it. “Yeah, I didn’t think that would hold you,” Trick said, running over to her as Erinyes scrambled to stand up. “I just needed to slow you down for this!”
She flicked one end of the long black scarf she carried in her coat, wrapping it tightly around the convict’s wrist, and twisted it slightly to make it stay. Erinyes screeched again in frustration, and jumped up, trying to take off anyways.
Trick held on, and for a long second it looked like she was flying a large, ugly kite. She threw some of her flaming cards at the Faun with her free hand, but Erinyes had forty pounds of muscle over her and their tug-of-war ended with Trick’s feet coming off the ground as the bat-satyr flew away.
“Trick!” Shadow shouted, speeding up to the scene on his skates. The world moved slowly as he watched Erinyes yank his partner over the edge. Trick held on for a few more seconds, dangling over the long drop. Her eyes were wide as she looked back at Shadow, as if she knew what would happen – then Erinyes cut the scarf with her clawed fingers, and Trick was falling…
“Frank!” came Reiki’s hushed voice next to him. “Frank, look!” He sounded mad.
Frank snapped out of his reverie back to the memorial service and turned to see what had Reiki so angry. In the back of the crowd a single figure stood out – he wore a worn black trench coat to cover his wings, and his face was covered in his beaked Faun mask, but there was no mistaking the feathery blond hair of Parker Fawkes.
“What’s he doing here?” Reiki growled.
Frank put a hand on his teammate’s arm. “Nat was his sister,” he reminded Reiki in a whisper. “Let’s not start something here.” When Reiki continued to glare at Parker, he gripped his arm and added, “Not now!”
“That bastard is in charge of the Fauns right now,” Reiki said, a little too loudly – people around them were starting to stare. “Erinyes is a Faun – he’s probably the one that sent her!”
“Not here,” Frank hissed, yanking on Reiki’s arm to get his attention. “Do you think this is what Nat would have wanted?”
“A fight at her funeral?” Reiki asked. “Yeah, I think she’d have loved it.” He calmed down anyway, and Frank could feel the tension leaving his friend’s arm.
Frank grinned in spite of himself. “Not at the memorial service. Wait for the wake,” he whispered. Both teammates started giggling, earning a glare from Agent and Haley. Frank subtly pointed back at Parker with his thumb; Agent missed it, but he could see Haley stiffen as she saw him.
She leaned over to David on her other side and whispered something, but then the reverend called Natalie’s father up to the podium to give the eulogy, and Frank’s attention was drawn back to the speaker as Mr. Fawkes stood up in front of him.
Thomas Fawkes was a bird-satyr, like his son. He didn’t have wings, but his arms and face were covered in black-and-white speckled feathers, and he had bird eyes and a beak in place of a normal human nose and mouth. His hair, similar in style and just as feathery as Parker’s, was jet-black, and he wore a simple black suit for his daughter’s memorial service. Frank watched his friend’s father slowly mount the podium and thought of his own parents.
Frank’s mother and father had been a part of Team Ark, along with Casey, Agent, and the twins’ mother, Lyta. He had known Mr. Fawkes since grade school, and it was difficult to see him this way. Thomas Fawkes was a stage magician, and so was usually a bright and cheerful man. He had always worried about his children becoming Watchers like their mother, especially after Lyta had been killed in action, but he had always greeted them with a grin and a joke. But time had taken its toll on the man; within the last few months, his son had become a terrorist on the city’s Most Wanted list, and now he was speaking at his daughter’s funeral. Mr. Fawkes moved more slowly, and there was no trace of a smile on his tear-streaked face. Frank knew he should say something to him after the service was over, but he had no idea what he might say.
Mr. Fawkes started the eulogy by hoping his wife and daughter were together again in the afterlife, looking on from wherever heroes went when they died in the line of duty. He told the audience about Natalie’s love for her work. He spoke a little about teaching her his stage tricks when she told him about wanting to be a Watcher, hoping that they would keep her safe. He even spoke warmly about her friends, particularly Frank and his sister.
Frank looked over at Miranda, who was sitting with their parents, and saw her staring unblinkingly at Mr. Fawkes as he spoke. Her jaw was clenched, and Frank looked away before she caught him staring. He hadn’t spoken to his family since Natalie died, afraid that they would blame him as much as Agent did. He blamed himself, but he didn’t know if he could take his sister or parents looking at him with the contempt Agent had been showing him these last two days.
He looked down to see his hands shaking again and clenched them into fists. Maybe Reiki was right; picking a fight with Parker might give him someone else to blame; Natalie certainly would have loved the drama of a fight breaking out at her funeral.
At that thought, he took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the speaker. She also would have killed him if he interrupted people saying nice things about her.
“My – my daughter wasn’t the easiest person to get along with,” Mr. Fawkes was saying, “but she was fiercely loyal to her friends. Those who knew her could always count on her to drop everything to help, even if she did it with a sarcastic remark.” The audience chuckled. “Thank you all for being here; I know it would have – have meant the world to her.”
He gave them all a curt nod, pursing his lips and walking back to his seat quickly. Frank leaned forward and patted him on the shoulder. Those who didn’t know him would have thought that was a sweet speech, but Frank couldn’t help but notice that he never once mentioned Natalie’s twin brother. Frank stole a glance at Parker, and noticed David and Rina standing behind him. So that’s what Haley had been doing; they weren’t going to interrupt the service, but they also weren’t going to let him get away.
Two more people spoke. One was Frank’s mother, who had been particularly close to Natalie over the years after her mother’s death, and the other was Agent. While Sara Mejia spoke for a bit about the kind of girl Natalie had been growing up, she seemed to cut her speech short on purpose. Frank saw her glance to the back and knew she had figured out the situation with Parker; as an experienced Watcher in her own right, she knew that the sooner the service ended the better.
When Agent got to the stage, he first looked at Mr. Fawkes – which was a mistake. Natalie’s father was glaring at him with such hatred and animosity that Frank had never seen before. Agent stumbled over his greeting and looked away – and visibly stiffened.
Even Agent had noticed Parker in the back. He froze for what felt like eternity, then said a few short lines about how Natalie had been a great Watcher and teammate, before rushing off the stage. The reverend then had Mr. Fawkes throw a wreath of lilies over the edge of the cliff, and the service was dismissed.
The team immediately turned to Parker, ready for a struggle, but Parker just stood there watching his father sadly through his mask. He didn’t try to run or fly away now that the service was over. He didn’t do anything until Rina spoke to him.
“What are you doing here, Fallen?” she asked, using the name the Fauns had given him.
Parker didn’t seem to notice the insult. “I’m paying my respects to my sister – what else?” he sounded calm – too calm for having just lost his twin. He looked around at his former teammates, who were surrounding him.
Frank strode over, keeping his shaking hands clenched at his sides. “I told you last time,” he said, “the next time I saw you I would have to take you in. Did you think I was bluffing?”
“No,” Parker agreed, “but I also know you know my sister better than to think she’s actually gone.”
“What are you talking about?” Agent demanded, coming over with the former members of Team Ark in attendance. Mr. Fawkes also came but didn’t seem to know what to say or how to feel. A few of his friends, whom Frank recognized as the boarders who lived with him, also stood near him for emotional support, and as Chip and Dale also approached Frank wasn’t sure how to protect so many civilians if this escalated into a fight.
“Nat said it so many times I lost count,” Parker replied. “’No body, no death’. Until we find her body, I’m not going to believe she’s not still out there. It’d be just like her to pull a Tom Sawyer and show up to her own funeral, and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
“You’re wrong,” Frank said, painfully aware of how many eyes turned towards him. “She wouldn’t put all of us through this for a prank.”
“Not on purpose,” Parker agreed, “but you have to admit she has a talent for dramatic timing. Besides,” he added, tapping the side of his mask, “she’ll never forgive any of us if no one was recording this.”
“I watched Erinyes drop her off the cliff,” Frank said, his voice raising as his emotions took over. That alone caused Parker to take a step back; Frank wasn’t usually an emotional guy. “You know, Erinyes – one of your lieutenants?”
The crowd watched Parker expectantly. Parker looked over at his dad, who looked away from him. “You guys can’t honestly believe I had anything to do with that,” he asked, looking from face to face as if he were hoping for some sympathy. Finding none, he tensed up. “Erinyes is crazy,” he added. “Even the other Fauns hate working with her.”
“You’re in charge of the Fauns in Eon City,” Frank reminded him. “Everything they do is your fault, whether you ordered it or not.”
“Claw is still in charge of the Fauns,” Parker snarled. “The only reason I’m still with them is because I have nowhere else to go. I’m a figurehead, nothing more, and there’s someone else pulling the strings from behind the scenes.”
“Let’s all take a breath here.” Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, stepped forward. “A funeral is no place for violence.”
“You!” Parker’s eyes widened, then narrowed in anger. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Frank saw Agent’s eyes looking between the two of them, but before Frank could wonder how Parker knew the CEO, Agent said, “Mr. Hannah here has graciously paid for Natalie’s service, and is hosting the wake later this afternoon.”
“Is he now?” Parker said suspiciously.
“I feel that it’s only proper, to honor those who pass in the line of duty,” Mr. Hannah said. “After all, it is my company that helps run the Asylum; it’s only fitting for me to help take care of the expenses.”
“Right,” Parker said, raising his eyebrows. “Anyways, I can see I’ve overstayed my welcome.” He turned to his father. “Dad, I’m sorry things turned out this way,” he said softly. “I hope someday you can understand.”
Mr. Fawkes looked at his son for the first time and nodded once, then turned away without a word. Parker tensed as if he were about to run, but David put a hand on his shoulder. “Not so fast, buddy,” he said. “You’re under arrest, for acts of terrorism against the city.”
Parker sighed. “You really think I came here without an escape option?” he asked. “You see, buddy,” he added, using the same address as David, “I’ve been training this last year.”
In one swift motion, Parker crouched down and jumped up, using his Third-Gen strength to break out of David’s grip on his shoulder as he flew up into the air, letting the overcoat flutter behind him as his wings stretched out. With an ironic salute at his former team, he flew out past the cliff and over the ocean. Dressed for a funeral and not a fight, none of the team were equipped to follow him.
“Not fair!” Reiki cried. “Since when does he take off like that?”
He was right, Frank realized. Parker used to need a running start to take off; he had never been able to jump into flight like he had just done – at least, not that he had ever told the team.
“Let him run,” Haley said. “He’s more useful where he is anyways.”
“So, you believe that bull he was spouting about not being in charge?” Reiki demanded.
Haley glanced at Agent, who was quietly leaving before Mr. Fawkes saw him. “I do,” she said slowly. As everyone stared at her, she added, “Come on; with everything that’s happened this year, don’t you think it’s strange how many things seem to be connected? I’m like ninety percent sure that someone else is organizing things behind the scenes, and I think Parker just got caught up in it.”
“Your loyalty to your friend is admirable,” Mr. Hannah said, “but misplaced. Parker is currently the leader of a terrorist organization in this city. As a Watcher, your job is to bring him in and dismantle his organization.”
“My job is justice, Mister Hannah,” Haley replied coolly. “I’ll bring wrongdoers in to face their charges, but I will find out the truth to make sure those charges are correct. Everything Parker has done this last year flies in the face of everything I know about Blackbird,” she added, using Parker’s Watcher name. “Given my own experiences with an alien A.I., a girl who could alter reality with a sentence, a prison breakout from an inescapable prison, an organized riot, my own brother’s testimony, and these portals that are popping up everywhere, it all seems too… clean.”
“What’s your definition of ‘clean’?” Rina asked incredulously.
“It’s chaos, but it’s organized chaos,” Haley explained. “Parker said that someone’s pulling his strings, and frankly that’s made more sense to me than any other explanation I’ve heard.”
Frank considered for a moment, then added, “She’s right.” As the onlookers turned their attention to him, he said, “I recently came back from the future, where a future version of myself said that Parker’s going to be of use where he is in the Fauns.” He shrugged, adding, “If I can’t trust myself, who can I trust?”
“We should get ready for the wake,” Rina said. “What’s done is done, and we won’t get anywhere speculating about it now.”
Everyone agreed and turned to leave. Frank looked for his family, but his parents were talking to Agent. Miranda stood off to the side, appearing to be lost in thought. Frank took a deep breath and walked over to his sister.
“Mom and Dad aren’t ready to leave yet,” she said. She still was not crying but was staring at the edge of the cliff. Ever since she had been kidnapped earlier this year, she had been different – but this was a new situation, so Frank did not know if her behavior was normal.
As if there was anything “normal” about Natalie being dead.
“I’m sorry,” Frank said, not sure what else to say.
“For what?” Miranda asked, looking at him for the first time. He could not be sure, but her eyes seemed more feline than they used to appear. Her gaze was steady, but she seemed upset. “For not letting me know? For not talking to me until now?”
“I… Yes, for all of that,” he said. “I got it into my head that you might… you know, blame me. For what happened.” He had not even considered it before, but Miranda would have been told by their parents, and not her brother, that their mutual friend had died. He kicked himself for his selfishness; even if she had hated him for it, he should have been the one to tell his family. They all loved Natalie like a favorite cousin, and he was off moping on his own – and that was after he had disappeared shortly after Parker’s treason. He shook his head slowly as the realization came to him. “I’m an idiot,” he said. “How do you put up with me?”
Miranda shook her head. “My silly, stupid brother,” she said, chuckling. “Everyone who knew her knows that Natalie was an unstoppable force.”
“Still,” he said. “I feel like there must have been something I could have done.”
“Nope,” Miranda said, stretching her arms behind her head. “Natalie’s… she was a hard-headed dope. You remember that time she climbed Pharos Tower?” They both laughed at the memory of fourteen-year-old Natalie climbing a twenty-story building to launch fireworks off at the top, just to prove she could. It had been before they were friends, but they had known Natalie back then as their parents’ teammate’s daughter, and Frank had snuck out to watch with the rest of his class. “She could have died – nearly did, right? – but she did it anyway.” Miranda shrugged to finish her point.
“Myeh,” Frank said, shrugging himself. “I guess you’re right.”
“I know I am – ” Miranda was cut off by a girl stepping in front of Frank. She seemed oddly familiar, but Frank was distracted by the bright green top hat she wore over her dark green suit.
“Shadow, right?” the girl asked. “We met once, but you were wearing your outfit at the time.”
“Oh, my uniform,” Frank said, turning on his PR charm. “I’m sorry, I’m really bad with faces, miss…?”
“Alice,” the girl said, smiling politely at him. “Alice Winters. I have something to tell you,” she added.
“We’re not taking interviews today,” Frank said dismissively, turning back to his sister.
The girl called Alice shook her head. “That’s not why I’m here,” she said with a grin that was slightly too wide for her face. “See, I owe Trick my life,” she added.
“Oh,” was all Frank could think of to say, but the girl spoke quickly over him.
“That’s why I’m here. Trick saved my life about a week ago, in the Zatvor breakout, and I absolutely hate being in anyone’s debt, so I’m coming in to change the story.” She still stood in front of Frank, leaning in a little too close.
Frank looked confused. “In the Zatvor breakout?” he asked. “Were you a guard? And what do you mean by ‘change the story’?”
“He’s a bit slow, isn’t he?” the girl asked.
Give him a second; he’ll put it together.
“Maybe,” Alice said. “Of course, I don’t think I ever said my real name before.”
“Who are you talking to?” Miranda asked, looking at the girl as if she was crazy.
“No one of consequence,” Alice said. Ouch. “As for ‘changing the story’, I guess the story will stay mostly the same as before, but I’m hurrying it along a bit. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck doing these melodramatic funeral and wake scenes for the rest of the issue, and after that we might get derailed into a montage of psychiatric sessions with that creepy Jones guy. No, thank you – I want to get back to the action, so I’m bringing the segue!”
That was when Frank realized where he had seen the girl before. “You!” he said, his face draining of color.
“’Bout time,” the girl said with another grin. “Anyways, I know we were in the middle of a touching family reunion, but there’s something you really ought to know about your dead friend.”
“Frank? Who is this girl?” Miranda asked. “And can I hit her?”
Frank’s face had widened in shock, and he began wrapping his shadows almost possessively around himself as he stepped between the villain and his sister. “We call her Hatter,” he said. “She’s one of the Zatvor escapees. When we put her away, she switched my powers with Reiki’s, and made Haley and Natalie swap bodies!”
“Oh please,” Hatter said, waving a hand airily. “I wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place if it wasn’t necessary to the story. Like what I’m about to tell you.”
“What could you possibly say that I’d believe?” Frank demanded.
“Honestly.” Hatter rolled her eyes, using her Third-Gen powers of narration to say, “Shadow then believed the next words out of Hatter’s mouth without question.” She paused to look at Frank before telling him:
“Trick is alive, you know.”
* * * * * * * *
A dank, dark cave, a few days ago.
Natalie Fawkes, somehow alive.
Natalie woke up with a pounding headache. She nearly retched, but managed to keep her stomach from turning as she looked around. She seemed to be in some kind of medical facility, but the lights were artificial, and the ceiling cracked in places to reveal stone underneath.
“Oh, she’s awake,” came a woman’s voice from the doorway. “You shouldn’t be sitting up, you know – you had a nasty crack to the head.” A cool breeze wafted over towards Natalie, gently pushing her back down onto what appeared to be a hospital bed.
“Where am I?” Natalie asked. “Who are you? What happened?”
“Those are all very important questions,” came a different voice; this time a man spoke, chuckling at his own joke. The speakers came into her view, and Natalie realized they weren’t much older than herself. “I’m Leo,” the guy introduced, “and this is Nadia. We kind of rescued you from the cliff.” Leo grinned sheepishly, brushing his shaggy black hair out of his wide face.
“He says ‘kind of’ because he hit your head against the rocks on the way down,” Nadia said, elbowing him. She wore a pastel-pink hijab over her hair, and her face was friendly as she teased Leo.
“As for where you are,” Leo added, “you’re home!” He waved his hands, dramatically gesturing around them, but all Natalie could see was the underground hospital room.
“And by home, he means we’ve brought you to Paracelcus, the city of Primordials,” Nadia explained practically. “It’s the ruins of the old city that Eon was built over; we call it Paracelcus because only Elementals like us live here.”
“Elementals…” Natalie mused, trying to catch up. “You mean Third-Gens, right?”
Nadia laughed. “Of course, that’s how we started,” she explained. “After being drafted to terraform the cliffs for Eon City fifty years ago, many of our people were chased down here by those above. But everyone who lives here has some kind of elemental power, so we call ourselves Primordials – people who can control the powers of nature.”
“Our city keeps us safe from the overlanders,” Leo said proudly. “I’m a water Elemental, and Nadia here is air. We were on patrol outside when we saw you fighting the satyr girl with your fire powers. When she dropped you over the cliff, we used our elements to save you from the fall.” Nadia elbowed him again. “Ah, right,” he added. “You hit your head against the cliffs on the way down (sorry), so we brought you to our doctor to recover.”
“You’ve got a nasty concussion, so try not to sit up for a while, okay sweetie?” Nadia put a blanket on over Natalie in a very mothering fashion, tucking her in. “You’re safe now.”
“Thanks,” Natalie said, still confused. She didn’t seem to be in danger, though, so she figured she could just roll with it until she recovered. “How long have I been out?”
Nadia smiled. “A few hours,” she told her. “Our doctor is running some tests to make sure you’re okay.”
“Hours?!” Natalie shrieked. “I need to contact my friends. Where’s my comm unit?” When Leo and Nadia gave her matching blank looks, she added, “The watch-looking thing on my wrist? Where is it?”
“We had to take it off for the scans,” a new voice explained. A young woman with long red hair walked in. “The water seems to have logged it, in any case. You two – we have a problem.” She gestured to Leo and Nadia, her expression suddenly stern.
“What’s wrong?” Nadia asked, her grin fading. “Oh, this is Doctor Brianna – ”
“She’s human,” the doctor interrupted the introduction, and Nadia fell silent.
“No, that makes no sense,” Leo said. “We saw her throwing fireballs…”
“Fireballs?” Natalie asked. She tried to shake her head, but it hurt too much to move. “No, that was just a trick. See, I have these playing cards that I covered with flash paper – ”
“Human?” Nadia asked, cutting off the explanation. “Did you tell – ”
“Yes,” Brianna said, putting her hands on her hips. “I had to. You know the rules – Primordials only in the city. You shouldn’t have brought her here.”
“Hang on,” Natalie said. “Maybe it’s the concussion, but I’m not following. So what if I am human? What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s bad,” Leo told her. “Humans aren’t allowed in the city.”
Natalie scoffed. “What are they going to do, lock me up?” None of the others answered, but Nadia nodded. Natalie looked between them, realizing how bad her predicament was; she couldn’t fight with her head hurting so much, and they had taken her communicator so the team didn’t know her location. She had no back-up, and was apparently in a whole city full of Third Gens who wanted to throw her in prison.
“Aw, fu – ”
* * * * * * * *
Sean Hannah’s Mansion.
“So Hatter, a known criminal, told you that Natalie is alive,” Haley summarized, raising an eyebrow at Frank. “And you believe her?”
Frank and Miranda had just finished reporting their encounter with Hatter to Haley, who seemed skeptical. They hadn’t yet told the rest of the team, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up in case Hatter was wrong.
“Why else would she come to the funeral?” Frank asked. “Besides, Natalie saved her life in the Zatvor breakout. What could she possibly gain by lying to us?”
“She could be trying to distract us,” Haley pointed out. “Keep us searching the cliffs while she and the other Zatvor escapees wreak havoc in the city.”
“I don’t think so,” Frank said, shaking his head.
Miranda sighed from next to him. “Of course you don’t,” she said. “She told you to believe her in a funny voice, and then you just did. That’s a Third Gen power if I’ve ever seen one.”
“Hatter told us that she had ‘limited powers of narration’, whatever that means,” Haley explained. “All I know for sure is that anytime she spoke in an unusually deep voice, anything she said came true – including making me and Trick switch bodies.” She turned back to Frank, adding, “Sorry to say it, but I think she hit you with some kind of hypnotism. That’s not helping me believe her.”
Frank gave an annoyed exhale. “Okay, you like logic, right?” he asked, changing tactics. “Let’s look at it logically then. What’s the best-case scenario if Hatter is telling the truth?”
Haley nodded, playing along. “If Hatter is telling the truth,” she stressed the “if”, “then best-case scenario, we spend more time searching the cliffs until we get Natalie back.”
“And worst-case?” Frank prompted.
“We waste time searching the cliffs until Natalie dies from exposure, or starvation, or injury, or a myriad of other things that would have killed her by now if she really was trapped down there,” Haley said, trying to point out the folly in that line of thought. “If she’s alive, then she’s been stuck somewhere we can’t find her or even hear her for days. Even if she survived the fall, it’s highly unlikely she’s still alive.”
“Okay, okay,” Frank said, waving for her to move on. “If Hatter is lying, what’re the worst- and best-case scenarios?”
“If Hatter is lying, which is much more likely,” Haley said, “then best-case scenario is we ignore her and keep protecting the city, and either she calls off whatever she’s planning, or we catch her and send her back to Zatvor.” She shook her head and added, “Worst-case scenario, we believe her lies and she messes up the city while we’re off on a wild goose chase. Do you see the problems here?”
Miranda nodded, but Frank kept at it. “If Natalie is alive, and we give up on her, do you think any of us could live with ourselves?” he asked loudly. A few of the wake-goers looked in their direction curiously, and he lowered his voice. “The worst scenario would be that Hatter was telling the truth, and we ignore it!”
“Frank, don’t you think you might be conflating logic with what you want to believe?” Haley asked, not unkindly. “I want her to be alive too, but this is the job: we can’t abandon the city to search for her. We all knew that when we signed up.”
“I know!” Frank snapped. “You think I don’t know that?” He gestured to where his parents stood, talking to Casey and Agent. He didn’t say it, but the story was well-known around the city: Team Ark officially broke up after Frank’s mother, formerly the hero Star, was shot in the kneecap by an ally when they faced off against the villain Jaunt. Sara Mejia still used a cane to walk, even years later, so Frank was well-informed of the consequences of mistakes in their line of work. “I’m just talking about not giving up on her yet.”
Haley sighed, beginning to get visibly annoyed. “Look, Frank, I don’t want to be the bad guy here,” she said, “but she’s dead. There is no part of those cliffs where she could be where we wouldn’t have found her already if she were alive – Earthborn even used his powers to search for her in the rocks. Now you’re talking about not giving up on her at her wake, when her funeral was this morning. How many times are we supposed to check those damn cliffs before you wake up and realize that?” She shook her head, seeing the defiant look in Frank’s eyes, and sighed before adding, “Get your head out of your ass, Frank; she’s dead, and your survivor’s guilt won’t ever change that.”
Frank was stricken, and even Miranda winced. Haley put her hand to her head, rubbing her temple as if she had a headache. She seemed to know she had gone too far, but was refusing to apologize. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, she added, “Don’t give people false hope.”
Frank slowly shook his head. “You’re an unfeeling bitch,” he said before walking away. He refused to look back at her, but felt rather than saw Miranda silently following him over to where the remnants of Team Ark were talking.
“ – don’t know what you’re talking about,” Agent was saying. “How could Casey have that vision if it wasn’t going to come true?”
“It was recently brought to my attention that I could have misinterpreted it,” Casey said. “My visions aren’t an exact science; they show me what could be, and what probably will be, but they don’t always come true.”
“Even Parker seemed sure about her still being out there,” Agent said. “The Director and Hannah decided to go ahead with the service because of what happened last time, but I’m not giving up just yet!”
Sara folded her hands over her cane, using the same gesture Agent used on the Asylum team when he was trying to convince them of something. “You’re not considering all of the consequences,” she said calmly.
“What consequences?” Agent asked.
“Tom, for one,” Frank’s dad said. Kevin Mejia, otherwise known by his Watcher name, Kindred, was a satyr/Third Gen hybrid. He had cat ears and a tail like Miranda, but unlike his daughter his eyes were also yellow and shaped like a cat’s, his teeth were pointed, and he had the Third Gen ability to create mirages. He put a hand on Agent’s shoulder to remind him to keep his voice down. “If we told him that there might have been a mistake, that his daughter might still be out there, and we’re wrong, it would shatter him. He’s barely hanging on as it is.”
Agent’s shoulders deflated under his old friend’s words. “I… I don’t want to hurt him anymore,” he said, “but what if she is still out there?”
“I actually have something to report on that,” Frank said, speaking up so the older generation noticed his presence. He told them about how Hatter had shown up at the funeral and told him and Miranda that Natalie was still alive.
“Hatter?” Sara asked. “Isn’t she the one who made you guys switch bodies?”
“She also did something so that Frank believes everything she said without question,” Miranda added. When Frank glared at her, she shrugged. “What? If we’re going to tell them, we ought to tell them everything,” she said.
“I’m fine,” Frank insisted. “From what we know about Hatter, she’s a thief, not a murderer. She also seemed to think the whole switching-powers thing was a game. From what I can tell, I don’t think she wants to hurt anybody, and she does owe Natalie her life.”
“So she says,” Miranda muttered.
Frank shut his sister up with a glare. “Anyways, I think it’s at least worth looking into,” he finished.
Agent grinned. “See?” he told the others.
Sara shook her head. “I don’t think your team should keep searching on the say-so of s criminal,” she said. “However,” she quickly added before either Frank or Agent could protest, “our team can help. Discreetly.” She looked over at Natalie’s father, who was talking to another group. “No raising false hope to anyone else, okay? Kevin, Casey, and I can search the cliffs again, and we’ll let you know if we find anything.”
“Thanks, Sara,” Agent said, looking as if a giant weight had been taken off his shoulders.
Sara shook her head. “Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “If we can’t find her, then she’s probably dead – and it’s not going to be any easier to accept.”
Agent nodded, sobering a little. “Fair,” he said. “And Casey, you’ll tell us if you – Casey!”
Casey’s pale eyes were white; she was having a vision. A long one, from the looks of things. It took her nearly a minute to come back to the present. “What did you see?” Agent asked as she shook her head to clear it. Frank and his parents crowded around, partly to obscure her from prying eyes.
Casey blinked a few times before looking at Agent. “You need to get the team together,” she gasped, still shocked by whatever her vision had shown her. “Search the base of the cliffs again.”
“What?” Agent asked, standing up at her alarmed tone. “What are you saying?”
Casey looked straight into his eyes. “I’ve never had a vision twice. Ever. But this was the same as the last one. The Gamemaster chair, the twins fighting over it, one killing the other – everything was exactly the same.”
“What does that mean?” Agent asked her, picking up his umbrella.
“It’s never happened before, so I can’t be sure,” Casey admitted, “but I think… I’m almost positive…”
“What?” Agent asked again, impatiently.
Casey grabbed his hand, a grin spreading across her face. “Agent, I think she’s alive.”
* * * * * * * *
In a cave somewhere.
Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.
“Forty-two bottles of beer on the wall, forty-two bottles of beer; take one down, pass it around, forty-one bottles of beer on the wall!”
Natalie had been locked in this small, cramped cell for days. She could tell the passage of time from how often the guards brought food, but there were no windows or clocks around. She counted herself lucky that there was a flushable toilet and a sink with soap in the cell with her, but the cot was as hard as a plank of wood and the lack of interaction was starting to get to her.
The Primordials had immediately cuffed her to the hospital bed when they found out she was human, and had locked her in the cell the day after she had woken up and the doctor said she would be safe to move. After a couple days of shouting and swearing at any guard that came near her cell, Natalie had switched tactics to singing the most long-winded and annoying songs she could think of to torment her captors.
“Forty-one bottles of beer on the wall, forty-one bottles of beer…” The singing also helped mask any sounds she made while taking inventory of supplies in her uniform coat. She had used a lot of her tricks on Erinyes during that initial chase, but she still had some flash paper, gunpowder, and glitter along with most of her scarves in the hidden pockets of her uniform. They had taken her watch, but had left her rings – which included the magnetic and flint-and-steel ones she used in some of her tricks. The long scarf she had used against Erinyes had been cut, but it was only a foot shorter than usual. As long as she held it from the cut side, it would still work in a fight.
The main problem – which was the biggest reason Natalie was still locked up and hadn’t tried to escape yet – was that most of her stuff had gotten wet when Leo had saved her from the fall. Wet powder, glitter, and paper were useless. Flash paper could dry out in a day or two, but it would take time, and there was no guarantee it would not be ruined by the ocean’s salt. The clumps of glitter would never work properly again, but she luckily found a sealed baggie of it in one of her back pockets. The water had not gotten to it, so while it was much less than she usually worked with, it was something. If the saltwater hadn’t damaged it, the gunpowder could also be dried out and used – but it would take even longer than the paper.
That was where the singing came in. By singing loudly, off-key, and obnoxiously banging on her cell walls every now and then, she could hide the sounds of her testing out the drying concoctions. The paper and powder gave her some encouraging sparks today, so her spirits were lifted into the song.
“Forty bottles of beer on the wall, forty bottles of – ” The song was cut off by the sound of keys in the lock, as someone tried to enter her cell. “Who’s there?”
She scrambled to hide the flash paper under her cot’s mattress as Nadia entered holding a big wreath of white lilies. “Hey, sorry about this,” she said, her nose wrinkling. Natalie silently cursed, just now noticing the distinct smell that the gunpowder left behind. The black powder blended into the rock in the corners of her cell where Natalie had been drying it, but she was used to the distinctive smell – so used to it that she had forgotten just how distinctive it was.
“What’s with the wreath?” she asked, hoping to throw Nadia off the scent by getting her talking.
It seemed to work. “Oh, these are for you,” Nadia said. “The overlanders had a memorial service for you this morning, and they dropped this over the cliff’s edge. Leo and I saved it for you, to apologize.”
“Know what a better apology would be?” Natalie asked rhetorically. “Let me out of here!”
“I can’t do that,” Nadia said. “It’s part of our rules. We can’t have you telling people that we exist.”
“Then why bother saving me at all?” Natalie exclaimed. “If you only saved my life to throw me in a cell for the next hundred years, then why not just let me die?”
“We thought you were one of us!” Nadia told her. “If you were a Primordial, you could have lived a perfectly comfortable life in the city. We didn’t realize you were human.”
“And my life is somehow worth less to you people because I’m human?” Natalie demanded.
“You have to understand,” Nadia said, trying to placate her. “A lot of the elders here remember being forced to work for a pittance when terraforming the land over the old city. They were hunted, and forced to live underground, by human mobs. The rules about no humans are here to protect all of us.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Natalie cried. “Most of my friends are Third Gens and satyrs. Heck, even my brother has Third Gen-level super-strength. Everyone in Eon City lives in peace together, and I’ve never heard of any Third Gen being forced to do anything!”
“It’s an outdated philosophy,” Nadia admitted. “The elders all refuse to go up to the surface, but Leo and I go sometimes just to see what things are like, and it’s not nearly as bad as they told us.”
“What I’m hearing is that there is a way up to the surface,” Natalie said, folding her arms.
Nadia nodded. “Of course there is,” she said. “How else do you think we breathe underground? But rules are rules, and any overlander that comes down here can’t leave – and humans aren’t allowed to live in the city.”
“Come on,” Natalie said. “You said they had a memorial service for me up there – that means my friends, my family all think I’m dead! I have to let them know I’m okay, at least!”
Nadia shook her head, her hijab slipping back a little as she did. She tugged it forward as she said, “I’m really sorry. That was never going to be an option – you died when you went off the cliff.”
“No, I didn’t,” Natalie said stubbornly. “I’m going to find a way out, and heaven help your precious city when I do.”
“There might be a way…” Nadia said, ignoring the threat. “Leo is talking to the elders now, trying to convince them that we saved you because you had the spirit of a Primordial, if not the abilities. They might ask you to do a trial, to see if you belong in the city with us. You’d be under strict guard at all times, but at least you wouldn’t be stuck in a cell.”
Natalie recognized the gesture for what it was, but she would be damned if she was going to live her life in a cave. She just gave Nadia her most petulant stare, hoping the girl would take the hint and leave. Nadia waited for her to speak for about a minute before shrugging and going out the door, leaving Natalie to flop down on the bed with her head in her hands.
She glanced at the wreath, noting that her father must have picked it out. She had often told him when she was little how she loved the smell of lilies, and he used to wear one in his lapel on stage to cover the smell of the gunpowder and fire from his stage tricks. She wondered for a moment if Parker had been at the service, then dismissed the thought – her wanted criminal of a twin would not dare show his face at a public event, much less a private one. Then again, Parker did love a dramatic entrance, so he might have gone just for the show.
Natalie’s eyes began to burn as she thought of her family. They had already lost her mother in the line of duty, and now they thought they had lost her. She wanted nothing more than to hug her father and tell him that she was okay, but there was not even a pillow in the cell for her to scream her frustrations into.
She settled for singing. “Forty bottles of beer on the wall, forty bottles of beer…”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, Natalie’s room.
“Why are we cleaning out her room?” Frank asked loudly as he unplugged Natalie’s alarm clock and put it in a box. “Even Casey said she’s still out there.”
“Sparrow’s visions aren’t always accurate,” Eli reminded him.
Rina also chimed in as she sorted through Natalie’s desk. “Even Casey said it wasn’t definite,” she pointed out. “She and your parents agreed to check the cliffs again, but the rest of us need to act as if Natalie’s not coming back. That includes cleaning out her room and sending the boxes to her dad.”
Frank shook his head. “She’s going to kill us when she finds out we went through her stuff,” he muttered.
Eli, Rina, and Reiki gave each other a look. “Hey, where’d Haley get to?” Rina asked, changing the subject.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Frank grumbled. “I told her not to help with this.”
“Why?” Reiki asked.
Frank sighed. “I’m just mad at her right now, okay?” he told them.
Eli straightened up from his box. “Well, the only reason I’m here is because of Haley,” he said, “and I’m sure Trick wouldn’t want me of all people going through her stuff, so I’m going to get lunch.” He waved as he walked out of the room, grinning at the annoyed looks on the others’ faces. “See ya!”
Eli went downstairs to the kitchen, noting that Granny and Haley were across the hall in the lounge. Granny was sipping a cup of tea, but Haley’s tea went untouched. Eli shrugged, taking out the bread to make some sandwiches.
Granny looked over at the kitchen as Eli worked. She excused herself from the tea table and strode over to him, looking as stern as Eli had ever seen her.
“Does Haley seem okay to you?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Eli asked back, putting slices of ham and turkey on the two sandwiches.
“You’ve been going out on patrol with her for months now,” Granny said, putting her hands on her hips. “I’m asking how she seems to you. Because whenever I speak to her, she seems depressed.” She gestured back to the tea table, where Haley was looking out the window that overlooked the city.
Eli shrugged, popping a piece of cheese into his mouth as he answered. “She lost a teammate,” he said. “I don’t know how she felt about Trick exactly, but they seemed like decent friends. Of course she’d be sad these days.”
Granny shook her head. “You’ve been tasked with protecting Haley, correct?” she asked. Eli nodded, so she continued, “You don’t seem to know too much about your charge.”
“What am I missing?” Eli shrugged, looking at Haley again. Now that Granny mentioned it, Haley looked tired and haggard sitting at the table by herself. She wasn’t crying, or even looking morose, but her lips were pursed, and she was rubbing her temples as if she had a migraine. She was not her usual self, and Eli noticed the distinct lack of the annoyingly perky, friendly, and cocky attitude with which she usually addressed him. “Yeah, okay, she looks tired,” he admitted. “But again, this is the first time she’s lost a teammate, right? Given the circumstances, she’s okay.”
“She’s been looking like this for months, Bug-Boy,” Granny told him sternly, coming around the kitchen island to stand next to Eli, “not just since Natalie died. She was thrown into a leadership position for which she wasn’t prepared, she has been blaming herself for everything that has gone wrong in the city since the riots.” Granny pulled his chin around to make sure he was looking at her as she added, “She is not okay.”
“Okay, first off,” Eli replied, turning around to face the old lady and putting his finger in her face, “butterflies aren’t ‘bugs’; they’re insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera. If you want to insult me, at least get it right; ‘Insect-Boy’ would be better, but Lepidoptera-Boy would be more accurate.” He glanced back at Haley. “As for my charge, she’s had her confidence shaken. That’s all. She’ll be fine; all she needs is a win or two, and she’ll be back to her annoyingly perky self in no time.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m just supposed to keep her alive. Her emotions aren’t my problem.”
Granny shook her head. “Your job is to protect her,” she insisted. “Do better.” She shook her head and turned to head up the stairs.
Eli watched her go with a sigh. He glanced at his sandwiches, then back at Haley. “Damn,” he muttered, rolling his eyes as he made his way across the rooms to her.
Sitting in the seat across from hers, Eli shoved the sandwiches under her nose. “Hey,” he greeted. “You should eat.”
Haley shook her head, swallowing as if she had a lump in her throat. “No, thanks, Eli,” she said.
Eli furrowed his eyebrows. He had never noticed it before, but Haley was still the only member of the team to use his real name. Everyone else called him “Butterfly”, or some insulting nickname. He never minded being called “Butterfly” – he really did like them – but there was something dehumanizing about it that he had never before noticed. Haley knew about his past, but she was the only one who treated him like a person and not a good-for-nothing criminal.
He shook his head. He could not get attached; he knew better than most what would happen to him if he allowed himself to develop feelings, even for a friendship.
But gosh darn it, he was getting fond of the kid.
“How’re you doing?” he asked her. “It’s not easy to lose a teammate.”
“I’ll be fine,” Haley said, giving him a shaky smile. “After all, I don’t have any feelings, right?”
Eli was taken aback by how matter-of-factly she said it. “Who told you that?” he asked. Judging from the look on her face, it was a lot of people.
Haley shrugged. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s true. I spent most of the last year on this team, training with Natalie – teaching her aikido even – and here we are, the team cleaning out her room after she died, and I don’t feel anything.” She sighed, looking back out the window. “It doesn’t feel real to me, you know. Like she was some kind of fictional character who died; except I’ve felt more for characters in books than I do right now.” She smiled sadly. “I really am an unfeeling bitch.”
“No, you’re not,” Eli said. “You’re good at compartmentalizing your feelings, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any.”
“Yeah?” Haley asked, looking back at him. “How would you know?”
Eli thought for a moment on how best to explain it. “Do you remember when we met?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Haley said, raising an eyebrow. She remembered everything. “I was moving into the tower, and you helped me with my lamp.”
“You remember what happened next?” Eli prompted.
“Frank and Natalie came down and told me you couldn’t be trusted,” Haley shrugged.
Eli smiled at the memory. “So why didn’t you listen to them?” he asked.
Haley looked at him, not sure where he was going with this. “I don’t judge people based on hearsay,” she said. “I make my own decisions based on how they treat me, not other people. You might be motivated by money and butterflies, but you always treat me and the others with a kind of… begrudging respect, even when they’re holding a grudge against you.” She shrugged again. “You’re a good guy, even if you make mistakes.”
“Right,” Eli said. He was pleased at the praise, but this was not about him. “So why don’t you do that with yourself?” he asked.
Haley blinked. Eli could almost see the gears turning in her head as she wrapped her mind around the concept. Finally, she said, “What do you mean?”
“I’m a despicable person,” Eli admitted nonchalantly, picking at one of the sandwiches. “It’s true. I shot Trick on that mission after taking two different commissions – one from the Asylum and one from… another benefactor. Agent asked me to help the team break up a Faun ring, and the other guy wanted me to assassinate Claw. I figured the goals aligned, so I took them both. I didn’t count on the stupid nobility of the Asylum Watchers, who stopped me when they figured out what I was doing.” He shook his head. “Trick got in my way, and the team all said they’d bring me in, so I shot Trick to give myself time to get away.”
“So why did Agent keep hiring you after that?” Haley asked curiously.
Eli shrugged. “I dunno,” he admitted. “He covered the whole thing up, under the condition that I take any commission the Asylum asked of me at a discounted rate and provide information on the underworld any time I work for them. That’s why I’m not on the city’s Wanted list like Blackbird. But until you came along, I would never have officially been on the team, because they couldn’t trust me after that.” He looked at her, smiling a little sadly. “So now that you know what happened, what do you think of me?”
“You’re still Eli,” Haley said without hesitation. “That all happened before I ever met you, so it doesn’t change anything you’ve done since. You’re still the guy who got me into – and out of – that maze, and helped me out these last few months, and saved my life probably a half-dozen times by now. And you haven’t shot any of us since, so why would I hold it against you?”
“That’s my point,” Eli said. “I’ve made mistakes, but you still think I’m a good person, right?”
“Uh-huh,” Haley said slowly, still visibly confused.
“So why are you basing your opinion of yourself on what other people tell you, instead of your own actions?” he asked.
Haley shook her head. “I am basing it on my own actions,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out a plan while I was in charge of the team, so I just stumbled around blindly and hoped for the best.”
“Hey, it worked,” Eli pointed out. “You got Earthborn back and kept the city safe while it recovered from the riots.”
“And nearly got the whole team killed at least twice,” she added bitterly. “Agent had to step in and save us from the gang fight. Then I turned down the undercover job in Zatvor, and seven prisoners escaped – one of whom killed Natalie. And now I told Frank he was crazy for believing Hatter when she told him Natalie was still alive, and he hates me – and he’s right to, because I could have just humored him, but I lost my temper.” She put her head in her hands, adding, “I really hate myself sometimes.”
But Eli had stopped listening by that point. “Did you just say ‘Hatter’?” he asked, alarmed.
“Oh, yeah,” Haley said. “Hatter showed up at the funeral and told Frank and his sister that Natalie was alive. Sick, right?”
Eli’s eyes widened as he took the information in. “Hatter is a lot of things,” he said, “but she’s no liar.”
“Come on, Eli,” Haley said. “She’s one of the Zatvor escapees. She’s a dangerous thief, and she’s probably just trying to get us out of the way for a heist or something.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Eli said, standing up. “Hatter can’t lie. It’s her Third Gen power – anything she says comes true, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched. I’ve seen her work miracles with just a sentence; the girl is a walking Deus Ex Machina.” He gestured for Haley to follow him toward the staircase. “If Hatter said that Trick is alive, then Trick is alive.”
* * * * * * * *
Trial in the caves.
Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.
How do I keep getting into these things? Natalie thought as she faced down a giant rock monster.
The “trials” that Nadia spoke of were elemental-based, where four Primordials representing each element tested her to see if she was worthy of being released from her cell. The first of these trials was Earth, and it involved her getting past a rock monster to take a flag from a pedestal.
“Come on, Natalie!” She could hear Nadia in the stands cheering her on. In fact, it seemed as though most of the city had turned out for the event: every seat in the underground colosseum had been filled.
“Must be starved for entertainment,” Natalie muttered, bringing her focus back to the task at hand.
The colosseum arena represented all four of the primordial elements: lit torches sat in a ring around the football-stadium-sized arena, representing fire. Below them, a moat (representing water) cut the challengers off from the spectators. Sand, representing earth, covered the floor of the arena, and the air in the colosseum was constantly being whipped up by elemental Third Gens in a ceremonial gust.
Natalie spat a lock of her hair out that had flown in her mouth at the last gust. She was about to see if her tricks had dried out properly, or if she was screwed – the golem in front of her was twice her size, and entirely made of solid rock. Even with her flash-paper, she doubted that she could put a dent in the golem itself.
She looked around the arena, trying to figure a way around the golem. She saw the Third Gen controlling it standing at one side, just on the other side of the moat. Grinning, Natalie realized what she could do to win.
Turning back to the golem, she ran up and jumped on its back. Using one of her smaller scarves, she tied one end to the golem’s neck to use as reins. As the rock-monster thrashed beneath her, she leaned with all her might to guide it into the moat. The golem resisted at first, but even Third Gens had their limits – it crashed into the water with a loud splash. Natalie immediately stood up on the thing’s shoulders, and jumped towards the Third Gen that was controlling it. She tried throwing flash paper in his face to blind him, but the paper failed to ignite properly.
The unexpectedness of the attack seemed to throw him off-balance, however, and getting paper to the face would distract anybody. Natalie still managed to use her long scarf to tie his arms behind him. The golem in the moat crumbled to pieces.
Natalie jumped back into the arena, rolling when she hit the sand to keep from injuring herself. She ran up to the pedestal at the far end and grabbed the flag, yelling, “What else you got?!” to the crowd.
It was only then that she realized the crowd had gone silent.
One of the elders, an older gentleman with a grizzled appearance, stood up and addressed the arena. He must have been an air elemental, since his voice carried with no special equipment.
“The newcomer has failed the challenge,” he declared. “The task was to get past the golem, but the overlander cheated by attacking one of our citizens. Lock her back up!”
“What?!” Natalie cried, letting the flag drop to her side. “That’s not fair! You never said I couldn’t beat the golem by going for the source!”
“The goal was not to ‘beat’ anything,” the elder told her. “The purpose of this trial was to test your resourcefulness in finding a non-violent solution, even when faced with a violent enemy. You have failed.”
“Well, then someone should have told me that in the first place!” Natalie said, indignant. Four Third-Gens had entered the arena, including Leo and Nadia, who surrounded the podium. She looked around for an escape route while protesting the unfairness of the verdict, and finally spotted a way out – if she could make it back into the stands.
Nadia saw the way she was looking, and her eyes widened in understanding. Biting her lip, she whipped up a tornado that picked Natalie up and deposited her next to the exit. “What are you doing?!” asked Leo as he followed the escapee. “You’re letting her get away!”
Natalie heard Nadia address the crowd behind her, but was too busy running down a long, dark tunnel to listen.
* * * * * * * *
Tunnels underneath Eon City.
Frank Mejia, A.K.A. Shadow.
“Star told us there was something down here,” Agent said, leading the team into the tunnels. They had been following the map that Shadow’s mom had drawn for them for over an hour and had not found any signs of Natalie.
“Even if there were,” Nightmare pointed out, “how could it be Natalie? She fell off the cliffs – how could she now be in the tunnels?”
“The tunnels go all the way to the cliffs,” Earthborn said. As the team stared at him, he shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know that. I just do. Though I don’t know why we think Natalie was able to get into one.”
The entire team was searching the tunnels under the city, while Agent had left other Watchers to patrol the city again. Most of the team thought it was overkill – particularly since Star had not actually found Natalie herself, but Shadow was with Agent on this: the more eyes they had on the situation, the easier it would be to find her.
“What’s Agent doing here?” he heard Outlier ask Reiki in a whisper as the team descended into the tunnels.
“It’s Natalie,” Reiki shrugged, as if that explained everything.
“I know she’s our teammate,” Outlier said irritably, “but we’ve had other rescue ops before, and Agent usually coordinated from the Tower. Why’s he in the field on this one?”
Reiki stopped and looked her in the eyes. “It’s Natalie,” he repeated. Outlier blinked, shaking her head in confusion, so he added, “She’s different to him.”
“How?” Outlier asked.
Butterfly came up from behind them, giving Outlier a teasing grin. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” he said, laughing at her.
Outlier looked at Reiki questioningly, but he just shrugged and walked on again.
“You know,” Outlier said, catching up to Butterfly, “I really hate it when people say that to me. My older brothers used to use that all the time – ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’. Well guess what – I’m older, and I still don’t understand. Agent coordinates from the Tower because that’s his role – he has to think of the entire city, not just one mission or one person. So why is he down here with us?”
“Agent’s always had a soft spot for Natalie,” Shadow answered from the front. Since he was walking close to Agent and Earthborn, Outlier realized that her voice carried more than she thought it did in the tunnels, and that Agent had probably heard the entire exchange.
“Even still,” she stammered, her face flushing in the dim light from their flashlights, “we can’t just leave the city undefended.”
“Feel free to go back,” Shadow said harshly.
“That’s not what I meant,” Outlier sighed. “I want to find her too. I just think we could use someone coordinating from the tower in case she’s not down here.”
Shadow rolled his eyes. “Oh, you want to find her now,” he said. “I thought you said she was dead, and nothing would ever bring her back.”
“I was wrong, okay?” Outlier shot back. “I’ve admitted it. And I apologize for what I said to you at the wake. I lost my temper, and I’m sorry.”
“Wow,” Agent said sarcastically. “Haley’s admitting that she was wrong about something? That’s a first.”
“No, it isn’t,” Butterfly said. “You’re thinking of Trick. Stop being assholes and just accept the apology already.”
“We don’t even know if Nat’s really alive,” Earthborn pointed out. “This could just be another false hope.”
“Yeah,” Nightmare agreed. “You guys are being d– what was that?”
She had been cut off by a loud bang coming from farther down the tunnel, followed by a bright flash. “That’s not natural,” Earthborn said, stating the obvious.
Another flash lit up the tunnels, and then another. The flashes of light came closer to the team, as if something was running towards them while setting them off. Shadow thought they looked familiar, but didn’t want to get lectured again about raising false hopes from anyone on the team.
Reiki made his own light and held it up, trying to see what the source of the flashes was without getting too close. Sending a pulse down the tunnel, he reeled when it came back to him. “Hey,” he said, his eyes widening as if he’d seen a ghost. “Wait. It can’t be…”
“What is it, Reiki?” Agent asked. “What was that?”
“It’s an echolocation thing I’ve been working on,” Reiki said. “I sent out a pulse of light to see what stopped it, kind of like what Earthborn does when he senses people stepping on the ground, but more accurate.” Joining Agent at the front of the group, he sent out another pulse as if checking to be sure. “It’s…” he still seemed shocked, but he shook his head to clear it.
It was David who finished the sentence with a huge grin, using his earth powers to determine who was in front of them. “It’s Trick!” he shouted gleefully.
Shadow, Outlier, and Butterfly all snapped their heads to look at him as Agent shouted, “What?!” For someone who had been insisting that she was alive, he seemed just as shocked as everyone else to find her.
Sure enough, as the flashes got closer Shadow could see his friend’s outline running towards them as she threw some homemade explosives behind her. Trick stopped as she saw the team, breaking into a huge grin of her own. “Well it’s about time!” she cried, turning around to face whatever was chasing her as she jumped into the team’s formation.
“Nat…” Shadow whispered, awestruck that she was standing there, alive and well.
Trick turned to him and asked, “Did you miss me?” with her usual sarcastic smirk, and he knew beyond any doubt that Natalie had returned to them.
“Natalie!” he yelled in surprise. “But – we saw you fall to your death!”
“No,” Natalie corrected him. “You saw me fall. I’ll tell you all about my little adventure later, after we get out of this frickin’ cave!” She gestured into the dark tunnels, where a large four-legged beast stalked towards them. At first Shadow thought it was dripping wet, until he realized that the beast was entirely made of water. Getting his nightsticks ready, he turned them onto taser mode and waited for the beast to reach them.
“Wait a second,” Earthborn said, peering into the darkness at their opponent. “Leo? Leo, is that you?”
Another figure came running up behind the water-beast but froze when he saw Earthborn. “Uh… David?” he asked. “What are you doing back here?” He looked behind him, seeming to realize that he was alone in his pursuit.
“Ha!” Natalie said triumphantly. “I told you my friends would look for me!”
“You never said you knew him,” Leo said nervously.
Earthborn walked over to him, putting his arm around the other guy’s shoulders. Leo flinched at his approach, and the water beast dispersed. The elemental Third Gen was tall and broad-shouldered, but he seemed to shrink under Earthborn’s gaze, even to the bystanders watching the exchange.
“Leo, buddy,” Earthborn said with a friendly smile. “How’ve you been?” It seemed to be a rhetorical question, as he continued without waiting for Leo to answer. “See, I’ve been holding up my end of our bargain. I leave you guys alone, and you leave me alone. But now I see you’ve been chasing my friend here.” He nodded at Natalie, who waved.
“He did save my life from the cliffs,” she admitted, “but they were going to lock me up for the rest of my life.”
“Is that so?” Earthborn asked. Leo gulped audibly and nodded. “You see these guys?” Earthborn continued, his voice still friendly but with a menacing tone creeping into it. “They’re under my protection. So, you run back to the elders and let them know: if I ever catch you harassing my friends again, I will come back to the city. Got it?”
Leo pursed his lips as the color drained from his face. “Got it,” he said. Earthborn squeezed him in a one-armed hug before letting him go.
“Thanks for saving my friend’s life!” he called as Leo ran back down the tunnels. He chuckled to himself as the rest of the team stared at him. “What?” he said. “Dark David lived down here for a month after the riots, remember?”
“Apparently Leo does,” Natalie said, laughing. “Thanks for the save.”
“Trick!” Her words broke the shocked stupor that had settled over the team, and they all crowded around to welcome her back.
“I can’t believe you’re alive!” Shadow said, hugging her.
“No body, no death,” Natalie reminded him, grinning. “Though I hear there was a memorial service? Please tell me someone recorded it.”
Outlier spoke up from the back. “Parker did,” she said, smirking. Shadow then remembered the harsh things they had said to Trick’s brother when he had shown up at the funeral, and he decided he should let Outlier off the hook after all.
“Parker showed up?” Natalie asked, surprised.
“Yeah,” Butterfly added, seeing what Outlier was doing. “Everyone told him he was an ass for acting like you were still alive – ”
“But you’re back now,” Agent said, glaring at Butterfly. “We can let your dad know, and get your stuff set back up in the tower…” he trailed off, seeming to realize that he had messed up.
“’Set my stuff back up’?” Trick asked. “You went through my stuff?!”
Shadow grinned as they headed out of the tunnels. It was good to have her back.
* * * * * * * *
Next: Issue #18 – The Highest Form of Flattery
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