“Do you feel that?” Aaron said, halting suddenly. Lucia stopped just ahead of him and glanced back. He crouched on the sidewalk, hands out like he was catching his balance.
“Feel what?” she asked. But as soon as the words were out her mouth, she felt a tremble through the sidewalk. It was barely strong enough to be more than a brief sense of movement, and if she hadn’t been paying attention she would have missed it.
“She’s nearby,” Aaron said. “Can you sense her?”
Lucia closed her eyes and exhaled, focusing on her power. Behind her, she could sense the tight ball of tension that was Aaron. To the left, vague, wandering presences that would be the car they had just evaded. And…there. A spark of fear and caution.
She opened her eyes. “This way.”
Aaron padded silently after her, a tangle of apprehension and excitement. Lucia wasn’t sure how much of her own dread was compounded by her awareness of him and her focus on the presence ahead of her, but it grew with every step. The girl was close, but how close? Would she hear them coming before they found her? What if—
Realization struck her, and she stopped with a gasp. “I know where she is. You’re not going to believe this.”
She gestured down the row of familiar shop fronts. The spark of fear had coalesced into a solid presence just ahead. “She’s in the cafe.”
“Molly’s place? You’re kidding!” He squinted down the street. It’s not a cat or something again? A big dog?”
“Nope, it’s her. She must have come here for food.”
Aaron considered it. “Well, the back lock’s still broken, so it would have been easy for her to get inside. And there’s definitely food in there.” He reached up toward his non-existent glasses, frowned as he realized it, and shoved his hands in his pockets with a sigh. “How do you want to handle this?”
“You’re asking me?” she said. But then again, he’d screwed up twice. Maybe it was better if he didn’t lead the charge this time. Lucia glanced between him and the shop, and thought it over. “I’ll go in first,” she said. “Your power seems to set her off, so it might be better if I’m the one she sees. You can stay back until we’re sure she won’t instantly bolt.”
“Sounds good,” Aaron said. He gestured toward the narrow alley that led behind the buildings “Shall we?”
As they went, Lucia couldn’t help worrying about everything that could go wrong. They could scare her and cause another earthquake. Tara could come out and spot them before they were ready, and cause another earthquake. The patrolling suits could find them, scare her, and cause another earthquake. But they reached the broken back door without incident. Lucia took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, trying to find a calm place to anchor herself. She rested her hand on the doorway, hesitating one last time.
“Just…try not to startle her,” she said. “And don’t even think about using your power. She’s scared enough without you setting off another earthquake.”
“Okay, okay,” Aaron said. “I get it.”
She motioned for Aaron to stay back and cautiously nudged the door open. “Don’t be scared. It’s just me,” she said in a soft voice, lingering in the doorway.
From the corner, she felt a spike of terror, followed by a burst of emotions so chaotic Lucia couldn’t discern them all.
“I’m not going to touch you,” she went on.
After a long silence, there was a brief rustle of movement, and Tara sidled into view. Somehow, she was even dirtier than she had been last night. She had a half-eaten bagel in one hand. “Why are you following me?” she said.
“Because…” she glanced back at Aaron, who had hung a few steps behind her. “…We want to help you…Look, there are other people searching for you. I don’t know what they want, but—”
“They found me?” Her eyes lit up with fear. “I have to go—”
“Wait,” Lucia said, thrusting her hands out to stop her. “If you run, they’ll find you. They’re out there right now.”
Tara whirled toward the front of the store, hand clenched hard around the bagel. A soft rumble shook the room.
“We can help you,” Lucia said. “We have a safe place. No one knows about it except us, and you can hide there as long as you need to. We’ll protect you.”
“You don’t have much time to think it over,” Aaron said. He was looking past them, toward the front of the store. A flash of headlights lit up the windows.
“They found me,” Tara breathed. “I have to hde.”
“Fury, how many do you sense?” Aaron asked.
Lucia concentrated. “Six, I think. They’re too close together to tell for sure. I feel…concentration, caution… I think they know she’s here.”
“They probably felt the tremors,” Aaron said. “That or they have a tracker after all.” Aaron turned to Tara. “Do you know why they’re after you? Is it because of the earthquakes?”
“No! I don’t know!” Tara trembled so hard she dropped her bagel. Lucia sensed something deeper behind the fear: an exhausted despair. And grief. “I don’t know. They just keep showing up. Ever since they took—” She shook her head, swallowing back the words.
“We can talk about it later,” Lucia said. “And we’ll help you. Right now we’ve got to go.”
“Can we get out the back?” Aaron asked.
Lucia shook her head. “They already know we’re here. They’ll be watching the exit.”
Aaron nodded. “Then I’ll have to distract them.”
“Distract them?” Tara asked. “How are you going to—Ow!” She broke of as Aaron blurred out of sight and clutched at her ears. “He’s doing it again!” She collapsed to the floor, clutching at the ground.
“Tara?” Lucia asked. “Are you okay?”
Tara didn’t answer, but the ground trembled underfoot.
“No, no stop.” Lucia stooped down beside her and wrapped a hand around her wrist. “You can’t cause another quake, Tara. Please.”
“Stop doing that to me,” the girl said through gritted teeth. “You can’t just make people feel things.” She jerked her hand out of Lucia’s grip. “How do I know I can trust you when all you do is manipulate people? How can I trust you when you can just—”
Lucia held her hands up. “I know, and I’m sorry. But don’t think you have any spectacular options at the moment. So let’s get out of here, and we’ll figure all this out later.”
Tara scowled at her, but the shaking ceased. She reached out, and Lucia helped her up.
* * * *
If Carter had felt nervous about riding the motorcycle through town at night, he found riding it in a rush absolutely terrifying. Selena hadn’t even warned him before starting down the hill, and he’d have sworn they hit fifty before they reached paved road.
He didn’t even have the presence of mind to feel ashamed at how hard he had to hold on as they veered around corners. The town whizzed by in a blurry, dark nightmare, and he was too concerned with hanging on to recognize anything. All he heard was wind rushing past and the occasional “lean right” and “sharp turn” over his earpiece. When they finally slowed, he pried his fingers loose from her leather jacket, swallowing back a wave of motion sickness.
“You all right back there?”
“Yep. Great.” He gained enough clarity to figure out that they were about two blocks from the gas station where Molly and Brennan had fought the other kids.
“Good. We should be close now.” She gunned the engine, but this time they went more slowly—probably to avoid the patrols that Carter kept expecting around every corner. He searched the abandoned street for some sign of their targets, wondering if Selena had a better way to track them apart from just looking around.
Luckily, it didn’t take long. Half a block down, he caught sight of the three of them, limping in a huddled group through a back lot. Selena veered the bike toward them, speeding up as the boy spotted them and tried to hurry the other two along. But there wasn’t really anywhere for them to go; the lot ended in a chain-link fence. The bike cut them off, skidding to a halt with a spray of dust.
The girl—Maya, right?—snarled like a cornered tiger, and probably would have lunged if she hadn’t been relying on her friend to keep her standing. Her face was white with pain, and he figured the aggression was as much an act of desperation as anger. For his part, Ethan looked more scared than anything. The third member of their group—a little girl who couldn’t have been more than ten—hung on his other arm, barely awake.
“Wait,” Carter said. Hurriedly, he pulled off the helmet and held up a hand. “We’re here to help.”
“Yeah? Well, who are you?” Ethan demanded. He’d tensed for a fight, but burdened with his friends, he couldn’t do much. Unless he used his power, which Carter wasn’t sure he could counteract.
“Friends,” Selena said. “Well, technically I’m a friend of the guys who just beat you up. But let’s be honest: you don’t have a better option at the moment.”
“Those guys you warned Tempest about? They’re here,” Carter said. “We spotted at least four cars searching the town. If you don’t get out of here fast, they’re going to find you.”
Ethan glanced back fearfully—the opposite direction of the danger, Carter noted—and exchanged a glance with Maya.
“We can take care of ourselves,” Maya said. She attempted to pull her friend away, but as soon as her weight landed on her broken leg, she grimaced and clutched at Ethan’s arm to keep from falling.
“Get on the bike,” Selena said. “You can’t walk.”
“Not a chance,” she said. “I don’t trust you and I’m not leaving them behind.”
“You’re slowing them down,” Carter slid off the seat and offered her a hand. “Don’t worry about your friends. I’ll help them get out.”
Maya gave him a long, wary look.
“You don’t really have time to think it over,” he added.
“Go on, Maya,” Ethan said. “I don’t think they mean to hurt us.” He sounded exhausted, and now Carter could hear the notes of pain under his composure. Looking at his hands, he could see the skin had started to blister. Maya’s glance toward him was pure anger. “I can’t carry you all the way back. I can barely carry her.” He lifted the little girl higher with a grunt.
“Let me,” Carter said. Ethan hesitated, but clearly the pain was a lot worse than he’d let on. He glanced at the girl and said, “Sky?” The little girl looked up at Carter, creased her brow in thought, and nodded. Reluctantly, Ethan let Carter take her. He was surprised at how little she weighed—he barely needed any extra strength to lift her onto his hip.
“The rest of us will have to run. Don’t argue,” Carter said as Maya opened her mouth. “We may not be friends, but right now we’re on the same side.” Maya gave him a smoldering glare, but he didn’t back down. She grit her teeth and shoved away from Ethan. Carter offered her a hand, but she ignored it. Instead, she staggered white-faced toward the bike and eased her broken leg over the seat.
Still fuming, she jammed the helmet on her head and leaned in, glowering at the back of Selena’s jacket..
“I can try to get their attention, make enough of a diversion to give you guys some space,” Selena said.
“What if they shoot at us?” Maya asked.
“Can’t you turn into metal?”
“Well…yeah…But they could still outrun us…”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Selena said. “No one outruns me. Especially not some dumbass white sedan.” To Carter’s surprise, that coaxed a quirk of a smile on Maya’s face.
“Fine,” she said. “But if I get shot, you’re buying me a new shirt.”
“I’ll buy you a new shirt anyway. That one’s awful.” Ignoring Maya’s frown, she glanced back at Carter. “Meet you at base.”
“Good luck,” he said.
“Like I need it.” She pulled her own helmet on and revved up the engine.
As the bike veered out of the lot, Carter hoisted the girl in his arms an turned to Ethan. “Come on,” he said. “I know a shortcut.”
* * * *
Aaron exhaled as the world slowed around him.
Tara’s face was caught somewhere between confusion and surprise. Lucia had already started to reach a hand toward her, anticipating Aaron’s plan.
Well, it was more of a vague idea than a plan.
He ran back through the bakery, hopping a fallen chair and almost stumbling over a pack of spilled jars. The door was closed, but the broken window only had a loose tarp pinned over it. He pushed his power further, slowing time as close to a standstill as he could. The pressure was like a vise around his chest, and it took concentration to keep breathing regularly. You practiced this, he reminded himself. Panic makes it worse.
Cautious to avoid the shards of glass still embedded in the frame, he slipped past the tarp, ruffling it as little as he could manage as he stepped over the sill onto the sidewalk outside.
It was more than a little unnerving to find himself surrounded.
The empty street was now occupied by a pair of black vans, parked in front of the storefront like a barricade. The six people Lucia had predicted was about right, although the glaring headlights made it hard to be certain.
Of course, he had to do more than just distract them. He had to cause enough a disturbance that they wouldn’t notice Lucia and Tara escape. Easy enough.
First, he’d take care of the vans. He ran past the two guys standing guard, glancing at them only long enough to reassure himself it was no one he knew. Whether they were military or something else entirely, they were dressed as civilians. Some kind of weapon was hooked to their belts, but he couldn’t tell if it was a normal gun or something less lethal. Aaron stopped by the tire of the first van and fished his pocketknife out his jeans. He jammed it hard into the rubber, yanked it out, and did the same to the second van. Even if he failed at everything else, at least he’d hampered their mobility. As he stood, a wave of dizziness hit him, and he had to lean against the car door to steady himself. Breathe. Just breathe.
Next, he had to keep anyone from heading toward the back door. Two of them had started heading that way. Aaron darted around the back of the van to intercept them. He didn’t want to kill anyone, and he knew how dangerous it was to touch someone while he was shifted. For all he knew, these people were normal folks—police or military who thought they were after a dangerous criminal. And they almost definitely had no powers of their own. So Aaron had to hinder them without doing any permanent damage. He had a few fleeting thoughts—push a trashcan in front of them, tie their shoelaces together—but the simplest plan was always the best. The quakes had left plenty of debris in the road, after all. He snatched a branch that was about the length of a baseball bat, pulled his hood down to obscure his face, and dropped his power.
They didn’t have time to react before he swung. He wasn’t that strong, but he’d played enough baseball with Carter that he had decent aim. As soon as the first one went down, he shifted time again, darting behind the second man, who’d already reached for his weapon. Aaron dropped his power again, swinging the branch as hard as he could toward the guy’s legs. Then he shifted time again, tossed the branch, and ran like hell.
His head felt like it was going to burst, his lungs were on fire and all the practiced breathing was doing nothing to keep him calm. But he had to make it to safety before he lost control. He raced down the street, staggered around the corner, and dropped his power with a gasp.
Behind him, he heard the chaos—shouts of surprise, pain, someone barking orders. Well, he’d succeeded in causing a diversion; hopefully it would be enough for Lucia and Tara to get away. Now he had to worry about himself. As tired as he was, he was still pretty much out in the open. He made it to his feet, forcing himself to breathe through the pressure. Just find a place to hide, he told himself. Somewhere to catch your breath. All the shops were locked, and breaking in would cause too much noise. Besides, they’d be probably be searching everything on this strip. But there was a ditch behind the parking lot, and a storm drain big enough to crawl inside of. He forced himself to his feet and headed down they alley into the back lot.
Unfortunately, the chain-link fence at the edge was in great condition, and it took a couple of tries to jump it. He slipped as he came down the other side and landed hard on a tree branch. The dizziness was getting worse, and the pounding headache had started to ring in his ears. As dark as it was, he couldn’t see much past the shapes of trees and the gleam of wet mud at the bottom of the ditch. He groped his way down the hill, grimacing as his shoes squelched into the ankle-deep water. The storm drain was about ten yards to the left. He trudged toward it, grasping the branches of trees to keep his balance. The ringing in his ears had grown worse, and he felt a tingling chill that had nothing to do with the cold water seeping into his shoes.
Not now, he thought desperately. Not now, not now. He reached for the edge of the drainpipe, stumbling over the caked mud at the entrance. I just need to sit— The whine drowned out the thought, and he had the vague sense of hitting the ground hard before he blacked out.