Carter set the box down and heaved a sigh of relief. The room was really starting to look like a cafe. The walls were painted, cabinets installed, and brand new appliances sat gleaming on the counters. And despite the temptation, he’d hauled every single thing in without using his power at all.
Beside him, Molly ran her hands through her hair and sighed. “Well that’s the last one,” she said, glancing around the room. “I guess we could start unpacking them. Or take a break.” She leaned against one of the round tables.
“Break sounds nice,” he said. “Some of these boxes are heavy.”
“Yeah?” she said with a grin. “That shouldn’t be a problem for you. All you have to do is—”
“Hey, if I used my power for everything, I wouldn’t build up any muscle tone.”
“Plus he’d have to eat his weight in pizza,” Lucia said from behind the counter. Ostensibly, she was helping, but had veered away from the heavy lifting to experiment with the espresso machine. She ripped open a bag of coffee and inhaled its contents. “Mmm. Nothing like fresh coffee beans.”
Carter did his best to ignore her. She was just teasing him, probably because she had a pretty good idea of what was going through his head. Being this close to Molly made him feel like the world was spinning.
It wasn’t until she started chewing on her lip again that he realized he was staring. Smooth, Carter, he berated himself. So smooth.
She cleared her throat and started playing with the lid of a box, picking at the packing tape with her fingernail. “So, you really didn’t use your power?” she asked. “Not even a little?”
“Nope,” he said.
She cocked her head. “How does that work?” she asked. “How can you even tell?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Actually, now that he thought about it, he really couldn’t say how he knew. “It just feels different. Like how running feels different than walking. Don’t you ever swim without using your power?”
“No,” she laughed. “I don’t think I’d know how. It’s just a part of me.”
He risked a step closer. “Maybe we could go together sometime.”
“Swimming?” she said. “It is December. I mean, I can take the cold, but I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“There’s always the gym’s pool,” he said, inching closer. “Or we could go running. There’s this gorgeous trail that I go on sometimes. It’s pretty much empty this time of year.”
“Yeah?” She took the step this time, tilting her head back to make up for the slight difference in their height. “No cheating?”
“I won’t cheat if you don’t,” he said.
“Hmm, that sounds like a challenge. What do I get when I win?”
He was tempted to lean in and kiss her right then, but he had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate it. Instead, he just shifted closer and said, “Who says you’re going to win?”
She just smiled. He didn’t know what that meant at all. Was she teasing him? Was it an invitation? Was it… Before he could decide what to do, she backed up quickly, brushing both hands through her hair.
“What is it?” he asked. “Did I—?”
“No,” she said, “No, it’s not that. I just…” She bit her lip. “I like you,” she said.
“Yeah?” Carter said. He grinned, hoping he looked cool and relaxed instead of on fire. “I like you, too.”
“Yeah, but I… um… are you sure Aaron is okay with it?”
“Sure,” he said.
“It’s just… I don’t have a lot of experience with, you know, having friends. And I don’t want to mess it up.” She was chewing her lip so hard he was surprised it wasn’t bleeding. “You know?”
“He’s fine with it,” Carter said. “Really, it’s cool, Molly. We talked about it.” He started to close the distance that had grown between them. “So if you want to, you know…”
“Hey, you two!” Lucia called. “Stop flirting and get over here and help!”
Worst. Timing. Ever. Annoyed, he turned to glower at her. “Like you’re helping!” he said. “You’re just playing with the espresso machine!”
“Well, someone has to make sure it works right,” she said. “Come try this latte and tell me if there’s too much foam.”
He was tempted to tell her off, but Molly had already pulled away, and was making a show of straightening a precariously high stack of boxes on the table behind her. Maybe she wasn’t ready for more than flirting. Like I know how to tell. People always assumed he was experienced with girls, but all he’d really had was his fake relationship with Selena, which had gone about as far as he’d gotten with Molly.
He trudged over to the counter, grabbed the drink, and took a long swig. Burning his tongue and throat in the process. He grimaced.
“Yeah?” Lucia prompted.
“Tastes like coffee,” he said. “With like, vanilla or something?”
Lucia snatched the cup away in exasperation. “You are no help. Molly?”
“I’ll pass,” Molly said. “If I have coffee while I’m this wired I might explode.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that to happen.” She slid the unwanted coffee beside a pair of similar drinks, and turned back to the machine. “What’s got you all worked up? You’re more tense than Aaron during finals.”
“It’s all this stuff with Avalon,” Molly leaned heavily on her elbows, smoothing back her cropped hair with a sigh of frustration. “Part of me kinda wants to meet her. There’s so much she could tell us about our powers, and the side effects. And about my mom… But I don’t want all the baggage that comes with it. Avalon, and secret experiments, and whoever she’s in hiding from. I don’t think getting involved with all that is worth anything I’d get in return. I just wish there was some way I could convince Dad to stop looking for her, but explaining why would mean…” she trailed off.
“Explaining everything else?” Carter finished.
“Here,” Lucia said, shoving a cup of steaming coffee in front of her. “Decaf, dosed heavily with tasty syrup.”
Molly wrapped a hand around it, but didn’t drink. “Thanks.”
“It’s like being a bartender,” Lucia said, “without having to deal with drunk people.”
“I just wish—” Molly cut off as the back door opened and her dad walked in.
“What’s this?” he said. “You guys are supposed to be carrying boxes, not having a tea party.”
“It’s coffee,” Molly said. “Want to try one?” She slid one across the counter toward him.
“Bribery will get you nowhere,” he said, but blinked in surprise when he took a sip. “Unless it is this delicious.” He licked his lips and turned the cup in his hand. “What did you put in here?”
“Nothing too special,” Lucia said with a grin. “Hazelnut, vanilla, just a dash of cinnamon. The trick is knowing how to balance it.”
“Mmmm,” he said, taking another slow sip. He regarded Lucia thoughtfully for a long moment. Then he set the cup down and said, “Well, you kids don’t have to hang around here all day. Not that I don’t appreciate the help, but I think if you stay any longer I have to start paying you.”
“We’re not getting paid?” Lucia said in mock disbelief. “I’m going to have to talk to the union about this.”
“Careful,” Carter said. “That kind of talk is going to get you fired.”
“You sure it’s all right?” Molly said. “I can help out more tonight.”
“No, go on,” he said. “Have fun with your friends. Take some of these with you, though,” he said, gesturing toward the coffees on the counter. “If you leave them here I may drink them all.”
* * * * *
Brennan got to the lake a half hour earlier than they had agreed to meet. Aaron was with him, but he’d been brooding for most of the drive. Probably planning how to make Selena’s life hell over whatever mess she’d dragged them into. He hadn’t told them details, but he looked seriously mad. Brennan figured she’d hacked a satellite or something.
He pulled up behind an unfamiliar motorcycle—had to be Selena’s, since there was no way in hell Dr. Lightheart would let Carter ride one of those, and he was pretty sure Molly’s dad felt the same way. Although why she needed a bike in addition to the car she already had, he’d never understand. She just didn’t seem to understand moderation.
“Hey, we’re here,” he said as he shifted into park. Aaron was absorbed in his phone, eyebrows drawn so tight there was almost no space between them.
“Uh huh,” he said. “Just a sec.”
“Who are you texting?”
“Carter was asking me something,” he said. “Just go on. I’ll catch up.”
Brennan sighed and eased out of the car, feeling reluctant at the familiar sight of the old cabin. He hadn’t been here since September. The day, he realized suddenly, when they’d found out Molly was Azure.
Not much had changed. The rotting porch and tattered furniture were exactly how they’d left it. The pine trees looked just as green as they had in the summer, and only a few skeletal trees interspersed marked the change in season. But it was cold, and a fierce wind roughened the surface of the lake. Selena was nowhere in sight, but he could hear the pulsing rhythm of hardcore techno from inside the cabin..
Brennan crossed his arms tighter across his chest and made his way down the hill. Aaron hadn’t been especially generous with information, but he’d sounded annoyed when he’d called the meeting, so Brennan kind of had a bad feeling about it.
The bad feeling only multiplied when he walked inside.
Selena had been busy.
As much as the outside of the cabin had changed, the inside was unrecognizable.
It had the makings of a gamer’s heaven, if right now it was more of a debris field. One wall was completely taken over by screens, and scattered around it were a half dozen computers in various states of assembly. The other side of the room was taken up by her workstation and about a dozen stacked boxes, all meticulously labelled in her precise handwriting.
He halted in the middle of it all, too much in shock to muster up much of a response. Selena herself was perched on the top of a ladder, stapling a bundle of wires into the ceiling, and didn’t notice, him, even when he shouted her name. Annoyed, he crossed the room to the sound system and shut the whole thing off.
She twisted around so fast he thought she was going to fall off the ladder. Instead, she hopped gracefully down, tucked the staple gun into her carpenter’s belt, and glared at him.
“You’re early,” she said, sounding offended.
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “What is this?”
“Sound system, genius,” she said, reaching past him to turn it back on. He grabbed her hand before she got there.
“You know what I mean. All this other stuff? Did you do all of this yourself? What is all this?”
She rolled her eyes and tossed her hair back. “Well, most of it isn’t finished,” she said. She brushed past him and started sorting the boxes into neater stacks. “I was going to wait to show you guys, but Aaron—” She grunted as she shoved a stray CPU under a table. “—Well, being friends with a psychic isn’t always fun.”
“But—” He looked around the room, trying to find something—anything—to focus on, but everything seemed to be blurring together.
“We also get wi-fi and cable, so next time we have a LAN, we won’t have to hide in a basement. Although we will need more comfortable chairs.”
“Carter’s supposed to be bringing a mini-fridge, so we won’t have to haul drinks up here every time. Anyway, we can work out details later, but—”
“Selena, shut up!”
“Wow, you don’t have to shout,” she said, rubbing her ear. “Rude.”
Brennan sighed and crossed his arms. It was moments like this that he wondered how anyone else could tolerate her for more than a few seconds. He took a deep breath and said, “I know I’m not a computer nerd or anything, but this is not all stuff for LAN parties.”
“Well, of course not,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to get into the other stuff until—”
Mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the door opening. Aaron came through, still scrolling on his phone. “Hey, Carter wanted to know if…uh…” He stopped mid-sentence and stared around the room, arching an eyebrow at the impressive display of technology. He didn’t seem as surprised as Brennan had been—he blinked a few times and then rolled his eyes. “Really, Selena?”
Selena set her hands against her hips. “What? You prefer the cabin the way it was?”
Aaron rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Okay, just—just forget the computers and stuff for a second. What else have you been making? You didn’t need an industrial printer to make computer parts.”
“Wait, a what?” Brennan said, but they both ignored him.
“Fine, I’ll show you,” Selena said. She motioned for them to follow her, and crossed over to her worktable. “I’ve been trying to think of ways to make our powers more effective. For instance…” She rummaged through the parts scattered across the table and pulled out something that looked like a small shin guard, made of thin white plastic. She offered it to Brennan. “It’s made of a polymer that’s extremely heat-resistant,” she said. “So you can store pretty high amount of thermal energy in it without it getting too hot to handle. This is just a basic shell, but it should fit around your arm.”
“Okay, that’s kind of cool,” Brennan said, running his hand over the smooth surface. “But why would I need—”
“I’ve been thinking of some toys for Molly, too. I mean, basically, fill something with water and she has a weapon she can move with her mind, right?”
“I don’t think Molly really needs extra weapons,” Aaron said. “She’s—”
“But the main thing I wanted to show you was this.” With another gesture, she strode over to the array of computers on the far wall, swung into the chair and swiveled it toward the center desk. The big flatscreen on the wall glowed to life, and cycled quickly through a few screens before settling on a monochromatic relief map.
“Is that…the whole town?” Brennan asked, leaning in to see it better. It was the town—lake and everything. He could make out the school, the shops down the center of town, the lab, even the dam, down at the bottom of the map. Looking at it induced a sudden, unpleasant ache deep in his stomach.
“Yeah,” she said. “I had to, uh, borrow some satellite data to get an accurate rendering, but I needed it. For this.”
The colors on the map shifted. Most of the map was a flat, dim blue color, but here and there, brighter spots appeared, in gradated circles like seismic waves.
“What is it?” Aaron asked, squinting at the map.
“Resson waves,” Selena said. “The brightness indicates strength. I’m not sure how accurate it is,” she said. “It’s mostly been guesswork, since I’m still not fully sure how they work. I’ve been going off the journals Molly found. But I needed specialized parts—things you can’t buy and that I don’t have the equipment to machine. I tried to use cheaper replacements, but they burned out. The only other place nearby with a decent printer is Lartech, and they actually have security.”
Aaron took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “Why, Selena?”
“Wait, what am I missing?” Brennan asked. “What printer? What did you do?”
“She broke into the engineering lab at the university,” Aaron said. “If I hadn’t gone after her, she would have been arrested.”
“How do you know you weren’t the one who tripped the alarm?” she asked. “Did you even look for sensors before you barged in?”
“You did what?” Brennan said. The ache had heightened to a sharp pain. He pressed his thumb against it. “I thought we were past this! I thought we all agreed not to go looking for trouble!”
“Just because we don’t go looking doesn’t mean it won’t find us,” Selena said. “This way—”
“And you helped her?” Brennan said, looking at Aaron. “Without telling anyone else?”
“I didn’t help her, I just kept her from getting caught. And this was not what I expected,” he added, glaring at Selena. “I thought you were building one or two things. Not a—not a—whatever this is. I swear if you drag us all into another mess like the last one—”
“Okay, none of that was my fault—”
“I didn’t say it was!”
“If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s yours,” she went on. “You and your stupid visions.”
“I can’t help what I see!”
“Yeah, and the next time you drag us into some mess, I’m going to be ready!”
“Both of you stop!” Brennan said, pushing between the two of them. Even though he was about five times as furious as they sounded. “It’s not going to help anything to fight—”
“Like you ever would,” Selena said.
He felt the heat flare up his arm, and he’d taken half a step toward her before he could reign in the sudden burst of anger. He clenched his hand into a fist. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that. Ever.”
Her air of condescension faded into guilt. “I didn’t mean—”
“No, you never mean it,” he said. “Maybe you should think about someone else before you open your mouth next time.” Heat flushed through him, so much that he felt too hot, almost stifled. “You two stay in here and argue if you want,” he said, turning to stalk toward the door. “I’m going to go set something on fire.”
You’re getting a chapter a little early this time! I’ll be on vacation without much internet for a couple of days, so comments may or may not appear. I just wanted to take a quick minute to say thank you to everyone who’s been reading so far. Please feel free to comment with any comments or criticism (or errors). Also, if you could take a quick second to go cast a vote for Less Than Heroic on topwebfiction.com, it would be much appreciated. See you in a couple of weeks!