World’s Finest

by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
illustrated by calintz

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/93799.html)

The first thing Keith Manning had taught him was the workings of the Lair’s database.”You’re the one who wanted to be useful to me,” he had said when Elias had complained. “Utilizing your existing skills, that’s useful.” It had taken months of system administration before Keith finally relented and began schooling him in field work. Even then, Elias’ first martial arts lesson had been breath control.

“Breath is the foundation of life,” Keith’s arms had been loosely folded, hands buried in his gi. “You can’t throw a punch if you can’t breathe through it. There are myriad uses besides. If you’re undercover or being interrogated, for example. It helps you regain your rational mind in times of panic. Control is important in all things.”

Revenge had been Elias’ occupying obsession at the time. He felt as honed and purified by it as sunlight through a magnifying glass. But he was still eleven, so when he said, “Interrogated?” it came out in a broken squeak.

Keith had nodded, shadows from the subterranean waterfall playing fractals on his face.

Elias went to push up his glasses. He was always forgetting back then about the lasik. “I guess it’s good to be prepared for any possibility.”

The hard line of Keith’s mouth didn’t change. “Or eventuality.”

So Elias, now an expert in three distinct styles of martial arts, had enough control over his breath and heart rate that when the door opened and Zac entered his first-period homeroom there was only the slightest flickering in his inhale, the tiniest ragged edge of surprise. Zac heard it though – of course – and spared him a little smirk from where he was standing by the teacher’s desk. Freaking Ultras.

“We have another transfer student today, guys,” Klingerman said, distracted but not entirely despondent for once. His under-eye circles had lessened some; Elias considered the possibility he had been able to pay off his gambling debts. “Welcome to Sinclair Wellington Prep. It’s not always fun being the new guy as a junior so I expect that the other upperclassmen will do their best to make you feel welcome. Why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“Sure!” Zac said, like this would be the supreme pleasure of his life. He leaned back against Klingerman’s desk, just soaked with confidence. “Hey, I’m Zachary Stone. Zach, really. My parents just moved to Idaho but I didn’t want to leave Connecticut, so we compromised on boarding school. I was on the soccer and swim teams at my old school. I guess you could say I like to have a good time. I’m looking forward to being here. Enjoying the Sinclair Wellington experience. And stuff.”

Elias couldn’t resist giving one small pointed cough. Zac shot him a face, a split-second’s worth of exasperated urgency. Elias kept himself from rolling his eyes. He couldn’t begin to understand why Paragon had given Zac this assignment. Even if the age range was appropriate Zac was terrible at undercover work, always had been. His disguise today was particularly last minute, pretty much a pair of glasses and a haircut. He wasn’t doing a thing to sound like he wasn’t from California. What, he thought these kids didn’t watch the news? The better Ultras, among whom Zac counted both by blood and mettle, made a practice of going unmasked. They had nothing to fear from exposure, nothing to hide. So their camouflage, when employed, was generally ineffective. Zac’s regulation dress shirt strained at the shoulders and there was nothing anyone could do about the line of that jaw. His signature glow was muted of course; he was in civvies but there would always be something effervescent about him. Although maybe Elias was just especially attuned to it.

Anyway, the East Coast was Nightmare’s jurisdiction, always had been. Elias wasn’t looking forward to reporting this.

“Great,” Klingerman said. “Go find a seat, Mr. Stone.” There were a couple empty desks in the room, painfully and radiantly so, and Zac chose one on the same row as Elias. The rustle from the other boys was more anticipatory than resentful at Zac claiming a dead man’s seat. Boyd Waters was already introducing himself. Of course Zac would fit in here, he was the preppiest alien Elias had ever met. He popped his collars during their downtime at the Commando Tower.

“Okay,” Klingerman was saying. “We’ll pick up from yesterday. Mr. Jacobs, please start reading from page forty-three.”

Elias waited out the rustle of turning pages. Once Jacobs was safely droning, Elias tapped out code with his pencil against his desk. 1:15. Meet me in the abandoned lab in the south wing. Zac didn’t so much as twitch, just kept doodling in his notebook, his eyes slowly glazing over. Elias tapped it out again, as loudly as was unsuspicious.

Two minutes later he felt his civilian cellphone buzz in his pocket. When he snuck it out and snapped it open, the text read dude, what the hell, like I remember ur freaky nitemare spy crp. anyway u want to hook up/ not like that tho ha ha ha.

Breath control gave you the power of calm. Elias inhaled steadily and texted back. 1:15. There’s an abandoned chem lab in the south wing. And, after a moment’s consideration: douche.

***

Elias’ old school, back before he had set up the dummy homeschooling reports, had been a public one and given students forty minutes for lunch. He wasn’t by any means a populist, but there was something inherently obnoxious in how Sinclair students had an hour and fifteen minute block, starting at 11:45. The lunch itself was provided by the institution and compulsory, but they could spend the time anywhere on campus. Seniors could go into town. Keith had been raised by this sort of institution, which probably explained his fetishistic insistence on order.

Elias supposed he could have met up with Zac during the time, but he had been nurturing a routine. It would look suspicious if he abandoned the public parts of it now. After the bell he snuck into the swim team’s unused weight room and did twenty-six minutes of circuit training. Keith pyramid-lifted; Nightmare had to be a looming presence, but Elias devoted a lot of effort to keeping himself lanky and unassuming. Another fourteen minutes to shower and complete any crucial or interesting homework and then he joined Josh and Braiden for lunch.

The boys at Sinclair Wellington complained about their dress-code, so Elias made a note not to wear his jacket outside of class, to keep the knot in his tie loose and sloppy. Not gunning for popularity, just unobtrusivity, which was both harder and easier at an all-boys school. So far he’d had to talk his way out of three fights, but no friendships had been destroyed competing over him either. When he was fifteen, Elias had hesitantly brought up the idea of plastic surgery, widening his nose maybe or filling out his cheeks, just something small to make him less noticeable. But Daphne had been in the Lair, and he had just ended up getting a lecture about the sane amount of investment one should have in the work.

Back upstairs and emptying out his books into his cubby, Elias heard weighted, measured footsteps behind him and then heard them stop. He faked a start after he turned around. “Headmaster Strong! Hi!”

“Hello, Mr. Barnes,” Strong said pleasantly. “Off to lunch?”

Elias shifted his weight. “Just about, yeah.”

“Good,” said Strong. He rubbed his massive slab of a hand over his pockmarked cheeks. “It’s good to see you adjusting so quickly to life at Sinclair Wellington. But then again, why wouldn’t you? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” Elias agreed.

Strong took two deliberate steps towards him and laid his hand on Elias’ shoulder, the movement choreographed, ritualistic. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, young Mr. Barnes.”

“Actually,” Elias said, making eye contact. “There is. Coach said no and I know it’s bad timing, but I was really into the track team at my old school. I was hoping, maybe, tryouts would be soon…?”

It was a moment before Strong spoke. “You’ve become close to young misters Sanders and Gregory, haven’t you?”

It was cocky, but Elias let himself give into the impulse to narrow his eyes. “Yes.”

Strong pursed his mouth, stormy and strange, before breaking into a smile. “At your age, it’s very tempting to do the same activity as your friends. But you seem a… precocious young man, Barnes. Surely you have the patience to wait until spring tryouts. Just more respectful that way. Show some decorum.”

Well it had been worth a try and it certainly had never been plan A. “Yes sir.”

Strong squeezed his shoulder, a beat too hard, a beat too long. “Good boy. Put your jacket back on before class. And don’t forget lunch.”

Elias watched his footfalls as he walked away. Strong had good balance.

“Dude, Freddie,” said a voice behind him and shamefully enough this one kind of did take him by surprise. Braiden Gregory had a father who ran a Fortune 500 Company, a bag of weed on his person essentially at all times and an easy smile. Elias might have been drawn to him even if he hadn’t proved to be a convenient in. “Was that the Headmaster? What did he want to talk to you about?”

Elias smoothed over his features into something bland. Braiden raised his hand for a fist pound and he followed suit. “Aw, you know, nothing big, just how I’m settling in and shit.” It wouldn’t be the first time he had to keep himself from offering a warning or the first time he knew a warning wouldn’t do any good.

“What’d you tell him, Barnes? You tell him about how you sleep with a nightlight?”

“Oh fuck you, fucking hilarious, Sanders,” but Elias’ laugh caught in his throat when he saw Zac scowling at him as he moved down the hall, not quite remembering to put each foot down completely as he walked, skimming the ground below him.

****

Zac was ten minutes thirty-two seconds late so far, most probably purely to prove a point. What the point was, Elias wasn’t entirely sure but he had guesses. Showing he was innately more popular and likable to their fellow students; that he wasn’t at Elias’ beck and call. Any number of extremely juvenile statements. Elias took the time to write down the morning’s observations into the electronic notebook he and Keith had built into his iPod, the digital imprint of each stylus stroke fading after precisely .3 seconds.

He heard a rapping on the window, four quick beats, and felt dread drain into his stomach. Sure enough, when he turned around Zac was hovering outside, perfectly vertical, like he was bobbing gently on a string. Elias scrambled over with embarrassingly little finesse to open it.

“What are you doing?” he hissed as Zac floated in and landed on the floor ball of his foot first, like a ballerina. “Blow your own cover, fine, but I’ve been cultivating mine for two weeks.”

illustrated by calintz

“Chill, Stalker, jeez,” Zac drawled. He was grinning slightly; his dimples were showing. “No one saw me, it’s cool. And I’m sure your ‘cover’—” he actually did fingerquotes, the tool— “is just you being a total nerdhole some more. It’d be a crying shame to compromise that.”

Elias crossed his arms. “Look, Paraboy-”

He had always thought it was one of the more tragic elements of Lutractiann physiology, that they flushed. “It’s Beacon, asshole,” Zac said. “I changed it last year, you know that.”

“What are you doing here?”

Zac shrugged, terribly faux-casual. “Followed the body count. You don’t get to call dibs on cases just because you quit the team.”

“Mysterious murders at a boarding school aren’t usually your thing. Don’t you have a twelve-story tall lizard to punch?”

“Sorry, they’re all at a twelve-story tall lizard convention,” Zac said sullenly. His eyes went bluer, like a pool lit up at night, which meant what he was going to say next was intended to be cruel. “Or hey, I’m a swinging single now, maybe I came to an all-boys boarding school looking for a little slice of rebound pie.”

Elias kept himself perfectly still. “This is a serious mission.”

“And I’m a serious hero,” Zac snapped. “I was trained by the best, same as you. Sterling and Silver say hi, by the way.”

Elias stared at Zac for a beat. Zac just stared back, ruggedly solid and defiant as Elias remembered him, chewing his lip.

Elias uncrossed his arms and reached for his backpack on the table. “Fine. I won’t let this start another pissing contest between Paragon and Nightmare. But we work as a team on this. You check in with me.”

“You check in with me,” Zac said. And oh there were so many ways to interpret that statement.

Elias chose to ignore all of them. “You were late, so we don’t have enough time to go over the details with the attention they deserve. What dorm were you assigned?”

“Why Stalker, I do declare,” Zac said. “Do you intend to sneak into my personal chambers unchaperoned?”

Elias raised an eyebrow, keeping himself granite-faced.

Zac wilted slightly. “I’m in Jefferson Hall. I told them I had a learning disability and needed privacy to concentrate on studying, so they gave me a single.”

That was grudgingly impressive, although it would have been more so if Zac hadn’t learned it from Elias. Still, he had paid attention. “We’ll meet there then. After dinner.”

Zac nodded and picked up his own messenger bag, shouldering the weight gingerly. “Yeah. We’ll meet up then.” He went to move and then paused, chewed his lower lip some more and Elias felt his own gaze sliding down to track the motion, the wetness there. “It’s good to see you again,” Zac said finally, hesitantly but like he had just decided on that fact. “I mean, see you. No mask.”

It was a rookie mistake to get into the emotional sphere when working, and engaging Zac on this level always led there. “You saw me without the mask all the time.”

“Yeah,” Zac said grinning, a little ruefully. “But even then it was, you know, Stalker, just not wearing a mask. Now you look more like… you. I don’t know. Like a normal kid.”

“Neither of us has ever been normal.”

“No,” Zac said. “But at least I wanted to be.”

***

Elias had hidden his equipment and the suit under floorboards he had wedged open in his dorm room. It was pretty embarrassingly crude, but the accommodations were spartan in that manful, WASPy New England way, the furniture cheap and breakable besides. Not a surfeit of options. He had managed to rig an unsophisticated trigger lock at least, keyed to his thumb print.

He knelt on the floor to fish out his transmitter, winced a little as it met resistance going into his ear. Elias adjusted the frequency with his thumb and it crackled to life, Keith saying, “Six twenty-one?”

“Alpha black,” Elias said. “Beautiful day.”

“Stalker,” Nightmare said. “Report in.”

“Body count remains the same,” Elias said. “I picked up from the police scanner that they’re taking a lack of a corpse for the third victim to mean he’s a runaway. Ruled out kidnapping completely.”

“Hrm,” Nightmare said, which mean useless. The police generally had to be exceptional to satisfy Keith, but that wasn’t nearly exclusive to them. “What else?”

“I don’t think it’s anyone local. Your rogues leave more clues and this guy’s been pretty thorough. I’ve narrowed down the site to the cross-country course, definitely. Can’t get in to investigate without blowing my cover yet, though. Still working on that.”

“Cover good in general?” Nightmare asked. “Making friends?”

Keith had been the one to insist Elias join the Young Commandos, implacable in the face of all of Elias’ careful arguments and, later, his caterwauling. “What can I possibly learn there that you couldn’t teach me yourself?” Elias had finally offered, shamelessly flattering in the last few minutes as he trailed Keith to the jet.

“These Ultras are the eventual successors to the current generation. They’re inevitably going to be your comrades and your teammates,” Nightmare had said. His cowl had been on although they were in the Lair, Elias remembered, making his silhouette amorphous and unsettling in the dark. “You need to learn how to work with them. Besides, it will do you some good to socialize with people your age.”

“No it won’t,” Elias had pointed out, but of course it had in the end. Elias had been relatively new to it at the time, couldn’t exactly recognize its shape, but Nightmare was an old hand at loneliness. His kindness came in strange and unexpected ways.

“There’s been a new development,” Elias said. “Beacon has also enrolled.”

He heard Keith murmur thoughtfully, the sound uncomfortably intimate in his ear. “Investigating too, I take it.”

“Yeah. We’re working together.”

“Are you sure you’ll be able to do that?” Keith was always blunt. “You led me to understand there was some friction between you and your former teammates. You might have trouble keeping a clear head.”

Which was one way of putting it. Keith knew – or at least he had to know, his entire life was built on an empire of knowledge – but this wasn’t something Elias was talking to him about ever. He made his own decisions, especially his own mistakes. Keith wasn’t responsible for bailing him out.

Elias said, “I don’t see that there’s another choice.”

“Maybe not,” Keith said. “I’m going to talk to Paragon though. He’s overstepping his bounds. Be careful, Eli.”

Keith had used that, ‘be careful’, as his signature sign-off to him for years, stopping abruptly on Elias’ sixteenth birthday. He had started back up again, just as suddenly, two months ago. Elias was tempted to draw attention to it, to get indignant, except it had become a relevant piece of advice. But alone in his small, anonymous room, Elias grinned. “I’m not just careful. I’m amazing.

Keith grunted again. Maybe he was amused, or maybe he disapproved of Elias’ youthful enthusiasm; it was hard to tell over the phone. “Pythia is requesting to be patched through. Report at 2100 tomorrow.”

“I will,” Elias said, but Daphne’s voice was already coming in, sweet and sleepy. She was always awake these days.

“Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey Pythia. You wanted to talk to me?”

“Just checking up on you, shorty. You’ve been away from home for a long time. Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I’m good. Pretty standard stuff over here.”

“You little liar,” Daphne said affectionately. “But yeah – I also wanted to tell you, there’s been noise in the local news about pollution in the river. Weird chemicals showing up in the water. Couldn’t hurt to see what’s what.”

“Thanks, Pythia. I’ll check up on it. Anything else?”

“Nope, that’s all. You’d better get going. Don’t want to be late for your date.” She cut off the transmission before Elliot could control his sputter. In lieu of anything more constructive to do, Elias took out his ear piece and glared at it.

***

To prove Daphne and her surveillance network wrong, he didn’t change out of his shirt and tie when he went to Zac’s room. Never mind what she would have to say about a disheveled school uniform, the key here was creating the impression of complete lack of interest. When Zac opened the door, Elias saw he had changed, out of his stupid fake glasses and into his stupid blue polo and his stupid khaki shorts. They were standard issue for him slouching around the tower, which implied a lack of effort on his part too. There was no reason why that should be annoying.

Out of the room trickled the sounds of… “Are you watching Garden State again?”

“Zach Braff had a vision,” Zac said, shutting the door firmly behind him. The Commandos had given Zacir-Sto Fahn a crash course in the kind of Earth culture his uncle wouldn’t know better than to neglect. Parts of it had imprinted more deeply than others. Elias had never gotten him into Mahler, for example. But Zac’s laptop, teetering on a beanbag chair, wasn’t playing a movie. Elias looked behind him, but Zac had made the good strategic move of placing his uniquely giant mass between Elias and the door. Elias didn’t have much of a choice but to take a step forward towards the Skype window and give a little half-hearted wave. “Hey, guys.”

The music ended abruptly, like one of them, most likely Falconette, had turned off the CD. “Stalker!” Silver said. She, her brother and Falconette – Wielder was conspicuously absent – were jockeying for space in front of the camera, but she was winning. The pearly cast to her eye came through in full digital splendor. “Oh wow, Stalker, hi! It’s good to see you!”

“It’s good to see you too,” Elias said, meaning it.

“I just happened to be talking with the guys,” Zac said, his voice dripping with lies. Elias didn’t even do him the favor of looking at him. “Lost track of time, I guess! You know, talking to the team. About all the good times we’ve had.”

“Uhuh,” said Elias.

“How you doing, man?” asked Sterling. “Keeping out of trouble?”

Elias felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “You wish. No way.”

“Beacon says you guys are working a case,” said Falconette. She must have just taken off her helmet; her hair was a disaster of curls. “Sounds pretty big! Call us in if you need help or anything – we’re still your friends. And it’s been way too long.”

Elias tucked his hands in his pockets. “It’s only been two months.”

“Still too long for Commandos,” Sterling said. “Even Ex-Commandos.”

“You should have been here last week,” Falconette said. “Brian got himself dyed blue for two days.”

“Shut up,” said Sterling. “Whups, that’s the bell, gotta go! Catch you later, guys!”

“Take care!” Silver chimed in.

“You too,” Elias said as the screen went black. He cut the connection on Zac’s end before turning towards him. “Subtle.”

Zac shrugged like a cartoon character. “What?”

Elias didn’t have the time or energy or even really the safety precautions to delve into this conversation. “Whatever. Nothing. You want to get to work?”

Zac beetled his brow at having his plot so neatly foiled, but shook it off. “Yeah, sure. Sit down. You want a pop?”

“I’m okay, thanks.” But Elias noticed about himself that – even though it was with the utmost scorn – when Zac suggested he do something Elias generally obeyed. He sat gingerly on the bed, since the beanbag was occupied, his back ramrod straight. Zac gave him a resigned and amused sort of look, irksome in its familiarity. He pulled up the desk chair and straddled it. “Okay, Stalker-bot. Fill me in on your detectiving.”

illustrated by calintz

Elias unslung his bag and pulled out a manila folder. “March 3rd, Jonas Brandine was found rigor-mortis in the Sinclair Wellington pool. Autopsy revealed however that the time of death predated his dunking by five hours. The coroner also found that samples of Jonas’ lungs, heart and liver tissues had been recently removed.” Elias raised an eyebrow. “However, there were no other signs of any recent invasive procedure.”

“Gross,” Zac commented.

“Over the next three weeks there was one other body and one disappearance among the student body. The corpse belonged to Howie Sibell, also, upon autopsy, found to be missing organ tissue. Jerry Valetti’s body so far hasn’t been recovered yet. The police are chalking Sibell up to a suicide and Valetti as a runaway or kidnapping. But I think a killer just got better at hiding his tracks.” Elias handed the folder over to Zac, whose fingers brushed his with the exchange. He would never have callouses and the softness of that skin, as always, felt like an abrupt invasion of privacy. Elias folded his hands back carefully in his lap. “All three students were on the track and field team.”

Zac flipped through the evidence, his eyes moving quicker than Elias could follow. That’s what always made this so dangerous; at the end of the day, Zac was a consummate professional. “So what are we looking at here, a serial killer who gets off on jocks and organ meat?”

“I thought that might be the case at first. But the deeper I looked, the more the pieces didn’t add up. The track thing was a good lead, but there weren’t any obvious connections or motives there. So I did some blood and saliva work and found that four of the eight remaining members of the team had really bizarre hormone levels. Like they were experiencing liver failure. With no one reporting having recently undergone any surgical procedure of any kind.”

“You got blood? Jesus, how did you manage that, you little freak?”

“So I expanded my sample size,” Elias continued gracefully. “To include more of the general student body. I got similar results for over half the school! There’s no discernible pattern in the victims, believe me I’ve checked. The track team was just affected more because of their higher levels of physical activity! Their organ damage just finished them off quicker, but this whole school is under attack. Someone is basically stealing these kids’ organs without them knowing it! What?”

“Nothing,” Zac said. But that was a reoccurring condition, Zac looking a little dazed when Elias got excited about something. “Wow. That’s fucked up. Who would do that?”

“I don’t know,” Elias admitted. “The headmaster here is seriously sketchy, but his background check is clear. Whoever it is, they’d need a major facility to do it in. I ran a thermal scan across campus and there’s a big hot spot underneath the cross-country course. It could be another reason the track team was the first to be exposed to whatever this is. I was planning to investigate tonight after we were done with this briefing.”

“Awesome, I’m briefed,” Zac said. He basically twirled out of his chair, the showboat, and Elias barely had time to shield his eyes before there was a flash, a supernova gone local. When he blinked himself back to normal, Zac was in his suit, white and silver and glittering like fish scales. “Time’s a-wasting. Let’s go!”

“I left my uniform in my room,” Elias said, more sheepishly than he would prefer.

“It’s cool.” Zac collapsed on the bed beside him, all undignified limbs. “I’ll wait.” Elias shrunk in on himself a little, faced with all that heat. Zac turned towards Elias and paused. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“That kid in the hall called you Freddie.” Zac wrinkled up his nose. “Freddie Barnes. It’d be totally retarded if it was, but still, I thought… is that your real name?”

Elias thought about what to say. In the end though, all there was still was, “No.”

Zac laughed without humor, like there was just nothing else to do. “Yeah. Figures.”

***

New Corum nights were backlit and dour with pollution, but at least they were home. Not that Elias was unprepared for the wilderness – he sure had bitched about survival training, mostly because Saskatchewan was a cold and lonely territory to be air-lifted to and abandoned in for over two months – but he wore the city like a second cape, crumbling buildings and oily river and all. This crisp, efficiently bucolic New England countryside took some adjustment.

Zac didn’t comment when Elias returned suited up, but he looked a little relieved to see the uniform. Elias didn’t blame him. All that exposed skin; it got uncomfortable. Elias nodded at Zac before unholstering his grapple and firing it off into the trees. Zac nearly kept pace for once, slowed down by branches. He was glowing slightly, enough to light the distance without giving away their location. The effect was phosphorescent, like traveling somewhere subterranean and claustrophobic, suggesting something a lot more romantic than the cut-away patch of cultivated forest they were using for cover.

“You haven’t lost your touch,” Zac said, watching Elias flip open his scanner in free fall, firing his grapple at a tree three hundred feet away four seconds before impact.

“I still patrol,” Elias said, clipped, not sure if he was more annoyed at himself for showing off or at Zac for noticing. “We’re close to where I picked up the irregular readings. Way too hot.”

“Right,” Zac said. “You patrol New Corum. You didn’t hang up the cape.” He alighted on a solid branch where Elias had been aiming a landing, forcing him to skitter into a crouch. “Just not interested in the Commandos anymore.”

Elias kept himself down low. “The Commandos were never my primary responsibility.”

Zac took a deep breath and said earnestly, rehearsed, “Just because we’re not together anymore, it doesn’t have to mess with the team. We’re both professionals, we can deal with it. The Commandos need a Stalker.”

“Do we really have to do this now?”

“Yeah, uh, we do!” Zac said, his nimbus flaring slightly. “Because you’d never do it otherwise! I know you. You’d rather cut all your friends out of your life than have to deal with the fallout of us breaking up.”

Elias wanted to point out that leaving the Commandos was the fallout. That they and Zac were sacrifices he had had to make. “That had nothing to do with it.”

Zac sneered. “To do with what?”

“With us,” Elias stopped and tried again. “With our… we had a disagreement.”

“With us splitting up! God, listen to yourself! You can’t even make yourself say we broke up! Nevermind make yourself say we were ever dating, you autistic little freak. Out of the two of us, who’s the real alien here? Because I don’t think it’s me.”

“If you really feel that way,” Elias said snidely. “I’m surprised you want me back on the team at all.”

Zac’s nimbus dimmed down to almost nothing, the gray light off a staticky TV. “We were good together. On the team and off. I don’t see why that had to stop.”

Elias realized abruptly that he was still squatting, hiding his face. He got on his feet, matching Zac’s height as best he could without going on his tiptoes. “I don’t know, maybe because you dropped me in a volcano?

When Zac blushed in this light, it turned his face purple. “For the last time that was an accident. You’d just dumped me, I was startled, my hands slipped. Who dumps someone who’s carrying them in midair anyway?”

It was a valid point. It hadn’t been Elias’ best strategic decision. Flying to the mission had been one of the few times in weeks they were absolutely alone, that was a good justification. But in the moment, Elias had been wrapped in Zac’s arms, surrounded by his solidity, his smell, and it had felt unspeakably disrespectful to delay the inevitable any longer, a travesty of that forming memory. “You just happened to be startled right as we were flying over a volcano.”

“You were fine,” Zac grumbled. “It was dormant.”

Elias was about to rattle off statistics about the the human body’s reaction to sudden impact, but he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, a detached mass drifting through the larger darkness. “Shut up.”

Zac flared down abruptly, nodding when Elias motioned he would take the lead. Elias holstered his grapple now that the gentle whistle of it would give him away. He dropped to ground level, feeling the adrenaline rush creep in, welcoming it.

“He’s carrying something,” Zac murmured through the comm. He would be the one to know. Now that Elias was closing the length of his tail, he could see it too, the ragdoll jerk to it.

“It’s a person,” Elias said, barely more than a vibration in his throat. Zac would pick up on it. “Unconscious. Must be a student. Okay, getting a look at the face now, it’s – shit.”

“What?”

Elias took another second to confirm, tension tight in his throat. “It’s Braiden.”

“Braiden? Who’s Braiden? Is that that kid from the hall?” Zac sounded more anxious than genuinely concerned. “What’s the big deal about it being Braiden?”

Elias let the noise fall into background murmur. The man – masked of course, but nothing ostentatious or identifiable – was large and moved easily but with deliberation, putting Braiden’s limp body down. He kicked over a rock, revealing an indentation in the ground. A sudden play in the shadows and Elias could see the dead grey regularity to it, the color of metal at night.

“There’s a trap door. Complicated lock, can’t make it out just yet.”

“Count of three?” asked Zac.

“Wait until he opens it,” Elias said, watching him do just that. Retinal scan, tricky. “On my signal. I’ll get Braiden and distract the kidnapper, you go explore what’s down there.”

“What? No! Other way around!”

“We don’t have time for a debate,” Elias said. “Now!” He threw his knife.

It pinned the man’s sleeve to the ground, giving Elias enough time to land a punch. He ripped himself free, though, just as Zac roared into the clearing, a stream of glitter in his wake. The kidnapper’s eyes widened behind his mask. Criminals were often awed by that move, although in Elias’ opinion it was pretty much the gayest thing ever.

“You think stealing kids’ livers is fun, huh?” Zac bellowed, landing another punch. This one knocked the guy down, where he ricocheted upon impact. “Think again, jerk!”

“Oh my god,” Elias muttered under his breath. Zac was trompling merrily over the plan, but there wasn’t much he could do about it now. Instead he checked Braiden’s pulse – sluggish but miraculously steady – and dragged him away from the danger.

He propped Braiden up by a tree and turned back. Zac was having a good time at least, wailing on the guy. From the way he had moved earlier, Elias would guess the kidnapper was a pretty solid fighter, but a good enough punch from one of the Paras and no regular human would be oriented enough to retaliate. This one was curled into the fetal position, arms up and cradling his head, but no, Elias saw one slab of a hand creeping towards his waist, towards his pocket, and this guy wasn’t fighting back because he was stunned but because he was smart.

“Beacon, hang on,” he said, but the man had already pulled out something cylindrical. Zac held one fist back, ready to punch, confused for the second it took for the man to throw it on the ground.

Smoke ballooned out, black and acrid. Elias scrambled but had enough time to pull out and put on his gas mask. It still reduced visibility near to zero. He had put Braiden roughly twenty paces northeast and retreated back as he remembered, strapping a mask on him as best he could by feel. “Beacon? You still there?”

“I am. The guy’s gone though. I can’t see a goddamn thing.” Zac sounded angry but not particularly nervous. Elias also doubted the gas was laced with anything capable of hurting him. “You okay?”

“Just peachy,” Elias said, fishing the mini-fan out of his utility belt. “Although I can’t tell you how much better I’d be if someone ever stuck to a plan.”

“Oh bite me,” Zac said, sullen somewhere in the fog. “It was a dumb plan. I wasn’t going to leave you alone with that freak.”

The cloud began dissipating with the fan’s high nasal drone and Elias waded through it towards the sound of Zac’s voice. “I could have handled him.”

“Right,” Zac said skeptically.

This was all so frustratingly familiar. Who lead the Commandos has always been the major point of contention between them, a four year long, smoldering, low-grade argument that pretty much culminated in their making out in the Commando Tower locker room ten months two weeks ago. Which itself lead to Elias’ constant and higher grade state of anxiety since then. Even before calling an end to it, this thing between them never lessened the fighting. There hadn’t ever been any concrete benefits to it except, Elias supposed, maybe that it had made him happy.

Elias put Braiden in a fireman’s carry over his shoulder. Whatever he had been dosed with, it was alarmingly thorough. His breathing hadn’t even changed. He went over to where Zac was aimlessly poking at the hidden door, the last of the smoke snaking around his feet. The door was shut tight, the seams almost invisible. Elias could try to override the retinal lock but he was sure failsafes had been installed against that sort of thing.

“We could blow it up,” Zac said, almost an apology.

“No point.” Elias sighed, slipping off his gas mask and shaking his hair out. “He’s long gone by now and that would cause too much of a scene. We’ll just have to try again tomorrow. Fuck.”

Zac ran a hand through his own hair, not meeting Elias’ eyes. “Give me the kid. I can take him back to his room. You should try to get some sleep.”

Nothing would get resolved tonight and seven-thirty breakfast was mandatory. Elias pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his mask. “Yeah, thanks.”

Zac shouldered Braiden’s weight comfortably, cradling him like a newlywed. He spared a second to study Braiden’s slack face before screwing up his own. He was flaring up slightly, unconsciously, like he always did when he was lost in thought. He used to do that in Elias’ room in the Tower, lounging on the bed when Elias was working, reading a comic book or doing his geometry homework. The effect was about equal in luminescence and comfort to that of a candle.

“Beacon,” Elias said, and stopped. He wasn’t sure where he had been going with that.

Zac quirked a smile. “I know, I know. Reconvene bright and early tomorrow, Stalkatron. We’ll take it from there.” Zac took flight and hovered for a moment, shifting Braiden in order to throw Elias a lazy salute. “We’ll get the bad guys. We always do!”

“Right,” Elias said to himself, watching Zac leave a comet’s trail in his wake, shining and subtle like constellations, like an equation written by an ancient god. “That’s exactly what I was planning to say.”

He took to the air himself, blending in with all the other unnoticed aspects of the night.

***

Elias generally took stimulants when he was working, just enough that grogginess would never be a performance factor. Daphne fretted, but they were really only equal to a strong dose of caffeine. They were similar in withdrawal effects as well. Elias woke up the next morning with a headache and a slimy tongue and an intense grudge against the concept of motor control. He groaned and dragged himself to the closet, sighing a little with relief as he jabbed the syringe into his neck.

He had showered the night before when he got back, didn’t bother with one this morning. Just dressed in time to get him to the dining hall at precisely 7:25. His budget didn’t quite stretch enough to accommodate running into Strong halfway across the quad, but at the moment, squinting in the weak sunlight, it seemed largely unavoidable. The man had planted himself in the middle of the sidewalk like a monolith.

“Barnes.” It was not a polite word. “Sleep well?”

“Very well, sir,” Elias said, smiling. He was feeling mean today. “Yourself?”

Strong smiled back or at least bared his teeth. “Like the dead.”

He couldn’t have used makeup. The pores and craters of Strong’s face were too well-defined and ugly. But there were only faded signs of long-term abuse, broken capillaries in his nose, yellowed teeth. No fresh bruises at all. What the hell? “Always good to hear, sir.”

Elias made a move to pass him but Strong feinted at the same time, leaning forward to tower over Elias in full. “Refresh my memory, young Barnes. Where did you transfer from again? New Corum?”

“Boston, sir.”

“Oh yes,” Strong said. Elias wondered why he was confronting him outside, in full view of the campus. If Strong were a savvier operator, Elias might have thought he was making a statement about his dominion over the school allowing him this sort of brazen show of power, but really he suspected it was just poor planning. Strong lost his head when he was angry, that was good to know. “Thank you for reminding me. Please, don’t let me make you miss breakfast.”

Elias took a step and was allowed to pass this time. “No, sir.”

“Eat up,” Strong called after him. Elias didn’t change pace. “You’re a growing boy.”

The shot had left him faintly nauseous, mornings did in general, and Elias just helped himself to a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. He planned to make the most of lunch though. Despite everything you could say about Sinclair Wellington, the food here was plentiful and good. The main dining room wasn’t too posh but clearly used to be, an odd mix of plastic trays and oak tables. Braiden and Josh usually sat at a four-seater in the corner but accessible to the rest of the room, suitable for introverts who weren’t really. Really, Elias thought as he ambled his way over, it just indicated that he wasn’t ever alone in wanting the assurance of having his back was to the wall.

Elias wasn’t expecting Braiden to be at breakfast, which on reflection was pretty dumb. But not as dumb as the spike of shock that sliced through him when Zac merrily waved at him by Josh’s side and gestured for him to join the three of them. He looked as cheerful and innocent as a puppy, clearly pleased with himself.

“New kid adoption program,” Josh said by way of greeting as Elias pulled out a chair. If either he or Braiden noticed Elias shooting daggers at Zac, they didn’t feel compelled to mention it. “It worked out pretty well for you, right Barnes? Hobnobbing with the best and brightest of Connecticut society.”

“Right,” Elias said, breaking his toast into four perfect squares. “Hobnobbing. That’s definitely what I’d call what we did Thursday.”

“What’d you do Thursday?” Zac said, the other’s laughter not quite covering the discomfort in his voice.

Braiden mimed a joint, invisible between his thumb and forefinger. When Zac just looked at him blankly he pretended to flick it away. “Nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about,” he said, and went back to eating. Braiden had a double helping of bacon in front of him and an omelet that oozed bright orange cheese.

Elias eyed the spread. “You in training, Gregory?”

Braiden shrugged easily. “Nah. Just woke up hungry.”

“Didn’t sleep too well?”

“No, I slept fine,” Braiden said. “Just hungry today.”

Elias put his toast down on the tray. “How are you feeling in general though? Tired? Any headaches? Don’t clot as easily when you get cut?”

Braiden looked at him incredulously. “What are you, my mom? You want to kiss it better, Freddie?”

“He asked you a question,” Zac said quietly. Dangerously.

It only confused Braiden more. “Yeah. And I answered it.”

Yeah you did,” Zac said, and that was the tone he used to talk to his mirror-universe counterpart; a rogue Zac hated, Elias largely suspected, because he was uncomfortable with their similar desires.

“Man, no coffee, Stone?” Elias said brightly. “You can’t survive til lunch without caffeine. Come on, I’ll show you where the machine is.”

Zac gave Braiden another thunderous look before getting up and following Elias out of the dining room. Elias waited until they were out in the hallway before grabbing him by his tie and dragging him to the nearest bathroom.

“You need to calm down,” Elias informed Zac over his sputtering. He locked the door. It was a single stall handicapped bathroom. They could stay there until the bell. “These kids are supposed to be our classmates. They’re definitely not our targets. We need to assimilate. And how was Braiden so healthy in there? Strong was too. I bet you anything it was him last night. You were pounding him for over a minute but I saw him this morning and he didn’t have a scratch on him.”

Zac ignored his tangent, muttering under his breath something that sounded suspiciously like, “Looks like you’re doing enough assimilating for the both of us.”

Elias raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Zack said, extensively facetious. “The mind can’t help but wonder what exactly you guys were doing on Thursday.”

Elias stared at him for a beat before cupping his forehead in his hands. Maybe it made more sense to Zac, who came from a bisexually normative and all around more swinging culture, but still. “My god. I have no idea how you can be so retarded.”

Zac put his hands on his hips, the gesture hilariously and unconsciously queeny. “So prove me wrong.”

Elias had researched breakups. Jealousy made sense, but flights of fancy were not an entirely uncommon reaction either. Still there was no reason to indulge this. “We were smoking up, dipshit.”

Zac’s eyes got theatrically wide. “You did drugs?”

“Yes, I did drugs,” Elis said patiently. “To get close to them. Because they are both drug dealers.”

“You’re friends with drug dealers?” Zac yelped. Being raised by Paragon had had more of an impact on him than Zac would ever acknowledge. Elias sometimes envied him that, the simple certainties Paragon had given him about the world.

“They’re just rich jocks who sell pot on campus, it’s not like they’re crime lords,” Elias said. “I always make friends with drug dealers on assignments like this. They have their ear to the ground in any school, plus they provide access to the criminal community. In any case, I definitely didn’t have a giant gay orgy.”

“Wait, you smoked pot?” Zac said, this clearly just sinking in. “You got wacky on the junk! Did that mean you loosened up for once?”

Elias studied the sink. The cleaning staff must have been by less than two hours ago, from the soap scum. “I’ve deliberately built up my tolerance to marijuana over the years.”

Zac leaned against the wall, tilting his head slightly. “Of course you have. That’s just creepy enough to fit the bill. But you’re affected by those weird shots you give yourself. Still using those, I see.” When Elias shot him a look that must have been alarmed, Zac smiled, his hair falling in his eyes. “Your pupils get funky after you take them.”

“You’re the only one who can see it.”

Zac shrugged. “I know enough to look. I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, well, they give me an edge. At the end of the day some of us are still just glorified monkeys, Night Light.” It took Elias a beat to realize his mistake, not understanding at first why Zac’s eyes got wide or why his smile went secretive and triumphant. Throwing back his own words at him, a quote from when they were thirteen and didn’t trust each other that had become part of their personal mythology, usually didn’t make Zac smug. It was only when he turned his lounging into something more deliberate and provocative, canting his hips out, making the light play off the perfect angles of his face, that Elias realized that dumb nickname had subtler shades of meaning for Zac than he had anticipated. According to the warmth unfolding low in Elias’ stomach, it had a specific meaning for him too. Elias felt himself flush. “Anyway, Braiden has to be missing a chunk of his liver by now-”

“The thing is,” Zac interrupted, moving towards him, big and blocky in his navy blazer. “You never told me what I did, Stalker. And I know you, there had to have been a reason in that giant robot brain of yours. You wouldn’t have dumped me over nothing.”

This was quickly escalating out of control, particularly as measured by Elias’ dwindling grasp on his anger. “Will you stop saying I’m a robot? I hate that. I’m not a robot.”

“You’re right, you’re not a robot,” Zac said. “You just act like you’d rather be one sometimes. Is that why you called it off? You were feeling things? It got too real and it scared you?”

The thing Zac would never get, would be horrified by if he even could wrap his mind around it, was that Elias didn’t have the capacity to understand things as real the way Zac understood them. Look at him now, so utterly and gorgeously in the drama of the moment. But part of Elias’ mind, a calm, cool murmur, would always be a place apart, cataloging and judging, deducing and planning. He observed the situation, he didn’t actually live in it. Keith had trained that quality in him, burnished it to a mirror shine, but Elias had always been like this. Even at his most dedicated it wasn’t like Elias could be capable of giving Zac what he deserved.

“I’ve had two months to think about it,” Zac said. “And I’ve come up with a lot of theories. You’d be proud. You got scared and ran away, that’s one. I though maybe you were called off to a long-term dangerous assignment you didn’t want me to know about, although if you did you obviously came back fine and still don’t want to be with me. Maybe you got back together with that girlfriend of yours, but I think then you would have had the guts to tell me. Maybe I asked too many questions. Probed too much about you and Nightmare. I mean, it seemed pretty reasonable to me, wanting to know certain things about my boyfriend, like his name but it always pissed you off.”

“It’s not like I have a choice in how much of my identity I can reveal,” Elias shot back. “I made a promise.”

“You made a promise to me too,” Zac said fiercely. “Us, that was a promise. I’m sick of you pretending you don’t see how we fit together.”

Which was an odd thing to say about a deposed alien prince and a blue-collar kid from Eastside New Corum, and untrue besides. Elias had mostly tried to ignore their connection but he never deluded himself that it wasn’t there. The air felt sticky on his skin. Something about the plumbing maybe. “You don’t know everything about me. Maybe you just think we fit because those are the parts of me I let you see.”

He was expecting Zac to get angry, but instead his face drained of everything except sympathy. “Did something happen? Something too big to tell me about?”

Zac was as subtle as a boulder – when had he learned to read him, why had Elias allowed it? Eli measured where they were in relation to the door and said to Zac, “Move three feet to your left.”

“Uh why?” Zac said, thrown by the change in tone but shuffling over.

“Cracks in the doorway,” Elias explained. “We’re far enough away now that your glare won’t show too much.”

Zac examined his hands. “Dude, I’m flared down.”

“You won’t be in a minute,” Elias said and sank to his knees.

Zac bit off a sound, gritty and surprised, automatically bracing his legs wide against the wall. His hands went to Elias’ hair, combing and petting, and Elias couldn’t help a little sound of his own, a purr. He noticed his fingers were shaking slightly as he unbuttoned the fly of Zac’s regulation slacks. They kept bumping against Zac’s growing erection, each touch making Elias’ own dick swell in sympathy. His breathing was shaky too, but Zac’s was already heavy above him and drowning him out. Sometimes he liked to wait, drive Zac crazy with teasing and take him in into his mouth when he was fully hard. But he didn’t have the patience for that right now or the time either, homeroom started soon. Besides, feeling Zac get harder in his mouth, having concrete evidence that he was responsible, that was good too. He didn’t pull Zac’s pants down, just drew his cock out through the fly of his boxers. Zac hissed and his nimbus flared hot-white before flickering down as he got it back under control.

Elias reared to a full kneel for leverage from where he had been sitting on his haunches, and drew the head of Zac’s cock into his mouth, flickering his tongue around the foreskin. Just cradling it gently as it swelled. He wrapped an encouraging hand around the base. Zac made another little sound and Elias looked up at him curiously. Zac was bright red with the effort of keeping still. He looked terrified and elated, and when he caught Elias staring he smiled and tugged on his hair. Zac could tear it out by the roots with ease but he was as gentle as a whisper. Elias couldn’t help but smirk back, feeling his mouth growing wet in anticipation.

“Oh god,” Zac said looking at him, almost stricken, and Elias began to suck him in earnest, with a fast and frantic rhythm.

There’s was never any way he could get the full length of Zac’s cock down his throat, but today he wanted to try. He wanted Zac’s hands on him harder, holding him in place, trapping him. He wanted to pry his jaw open on Zac’s dick, to be filled up, to be used. His jaw already ached and it was hard to breathe but there were still inches, untouchable inches of Zac’s dick left, and he whimpered in frustration.

“Oh god,” Zac said. “Oh Jesus. You make those sounds. You get so into it and you make those noises, God.”

Elias closed his eyes, let his throat relax. He wormed his free hand up beneath Zac’s dress shirt, splaying a hand over his upper abdominals, feeling the warmth of the muscles there, feeling them twitch. Zac flared up again, swallowing convulsively, but managed to tamp it down. Mostly though, he took the signal for what it was and began to drive into Elias’ mouth, biting his lip hard to keep quiet, not quite succeeding.

And this was being used. This just felt wanton. Elias felt tears forming in the corners of his eyes from the pressure, breathing when he could in gasps and snorts, hearing himself whimper whenever Zac hit the back of his throat. This part never lasted, it couldn’t last. Zac didn’t have the control and Elias didn’t have the patience. Elias told himself with each thrust, this is the heat of it, this is the smell, this is the size. He told himself, this was a time when things were good.

Zac came with one last broken gasp and a shower of light, staggering against the wall. Elias swallowed as best he could. He slipped Zac out of his mouth with a wet noise and buried his face in the valley between Zac’s hipbone and his groin, panting humidity there, breathing in the sharp sex smell. Zac kept quiet, just ran his hands over Elias’ hair gently as Elias fumbled at his own pants, and then at his own cock, and came after twelve quick strokes.

They stayed like that for forty-three seconds, Elias’ come cooling on the floor. Elias finally turned his head so his cheek was resting against Zac’s hip. “I don’t think they’ll go after Braiden again tonight. Hormone levels indicated they give each kid time to regroup.” He had to wince at how hoarse his voice was.

“Yeah,” Zac said, dreamy. He cleared his throat. “Yeah?”

With one last tiny, definitive sigh, Elias got to his feet, buttoning up his fly as he walked to the sink. He turned on the faucet, working his jaw. “The best option at this point is for one of us to act as bait.”

“It’s not going to be you,” Zac was watching him in the mirror with something a lot like caution. His voice was firm though. “Strong’s already suspicious of you. He practically follows you around.”

Elias quirked a smile, washing his hands. “You mean, he’s stalking me?”

Zac did up his own pants. “Ha. Good one.”

Elias studied his reflection. His hair was passable but his mouth was already showing signs of bruising. The effect was red and garish in his narrow face, and he noticed Zac staring. When they were fourteen and Elias had first been forced to take off his mask to prove he hadn’t been infected by Dreamweaver’s psychosis-inducing neurotoxin, Zac had just said, stupidly, “I thought your eyes would be blue.” Right now he saw Elias had caught him watching and looked away.

Elias turned to face him, bracing his hands back on the sink. “You’re right though, it can’t be me. We need someone who can stand up to a tranquilizer in order to play possum. Also you’re new. I bet they’ll go after you before me.”

“Why?”

“Baseline testing.” Elias threw a wet paper towel to him. “Whatever they’re experimenting for, they’ll want to establish control results if they’re any good at all. Here. Wipe up the floor.”

Zac grimaced but got down on all fours. “Wait, you’ve been here a while. Did they get to you already?”

Elias made himself look away to fuss at his tie. “Nah. I’ve been out at night investigating. I think that’s what must have made Strong suspicious of me, how I was never around. Three minutes until homeroom, you’d better hurry up. We’ll talk plans in more detail later.”

Zac rolled his eyes. “Yes sir.” He wadded up the paper towel and it disintegrated neatly in his hands. Zac took a step towards him, uncertainly, and reached down to take Elias’ chin in his hand. His eyes were huge, blue like the Earth viewed from an alien planet when it was just a distant star, and uncertain. “Hey.”

Elias turned his face away. He said to the floor, “We really have to go, Zac.”

Zac stepped back again, jammed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah,” he said. Disappointment Elias could have taken in stride, but Zac just sounded like he had expected this. “Yeah, we’ll talk.”

That, Elias knew, watching Zac open the door and walk out into the hallway, was definitely a threat.

***

“Pythia?” Elias said. “Pythia, Alpha Lambda. S-class.”

“Reading you, S-class,” Daphne said. “What’s up? Don’t you have gym now?”

Elias adjusted his foot on the piping, bracing his hand more firmly against the cement wall of the boiler room. “I’m skipping. Is this a secure line?”

“Of course it is, Eli. What’s going on?”

“I just… I wanted to talk.”

“Okay,” Daphne sounded a little surprised, but she was always up for a challenge. “Sure. What about?”

Elias rested his head against the wall, staring up at the catacomb of pipes lining the ceiling. He swallowed before he said, “After you lost your leg, how could you go back to being a cape?”

There was a startled silence on the other end of the channel, even maybe a little offended. Her prosthetic wasn’t taboo, but it wasn’t something Daphne elected much to talk about either. “Well, in a lot of ways, I didn’t,” she said finally. “I never went back to the streets. I just found a way to stay useful. I adapted.”

“Would you have wanted to though?” Elias said. “If you could have kept being Stalker, is that what you would have done? Or would that have been it for you, the point where you just went that’s enough.”

Daphne’s voice got hard. “Are you thinking of quiting, Eli?”

Elias rubbed his nose through the polymer of his mask. “No. I don’t know. No. No, I’m not.”

“Freaking out a little though, maybe.”

“Maybe.” Elias kicked lightly at the pipe below him. “This just… used to be easier.”

“You’ve seen more combat than most capes twice your age,” Daphne said, in that measured way that meant she was formulating her thoughts. “It would be understandable if you were burned out. No one could fault you if you said you’d had enough. But if this is just because things got more complicated than you’re used to, well, that’s not the Eli I know.”

Daphne was essentially his sister, and he still wasn’t sure how well she knew him. That could also just be adolescence though, that sense of isolation and grandiosity. “I’m forgetting how to keep everything compartmentalized. That’s the only way things made sense. Eli’s different from the Stalker Nightmare needs, who’s different from the guy who leads the Commandos, who’s different from Beacon’s…”

“Boyfriend?” Daphne said neutrally.

“From Beacon’s Stalker. Everything’s just blending together on this mission.”

“You had an unsettling experience recently,” Daphne said. “It’s normal to have doubts after a thing like that. But you’ve done something a lot of capes don’t really do. You’ve chosen to really only be around people who can protect themselves. We all do this to take care of the people we love, but isn’t it a good thing you’ve found someone capable of taking care of you back?”

Elias shifted his weight. “Just because someone’s an ultra doesn’t mean they can protect themselves.”

Daphne was quiet for a moment. “Objectively, it gives them a better shot at it.” When Elias didn’t answer, she added. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Nightmare, does it? If he makes a stink it’ll only be because he misses you when you’re not home. You’re the only one who knows where anything is around the Lair. It won’t be because he disapproves.”

Elias snorted. “You can’t tell me he’d condone this.”

“No, but he doesn’t think human emotions are a good idea. That’s why I’ve been in therapy for like five years. The important thing is whether or not you think it’s a good idea.”

Elias flexed his fingers in his gauntlets. He had built the latest design himself; a titanium alloy over a wicking nylon blend. “I don’t know if I’m equipped for this.”

“Bullshit,” Daphne said. She took a breath. “Keith’s the greatest man I know, Eli. But I’ll be so disappointed if you grow up to be exactly like him.”

Elias let his head loll against the pipe next to him. “Yeah. Me too.”

***

Elias spent most of the rest of the day setting up his backup plan if Strong didn’t pick Zac after all. It kept him mostly away from Zac, except for sluggish texting back and forth with the particulars of that night’s stakeout, but it also kept him out of class. If all went according to plan this would be his last night at Sinclair Wellington anyway. They had a mechanical engineering elective, Elias mused, installing his thirty-fourth motion detector to his thirty-fourth dorm room doorframe. That might have been fun.

Technically, even the stakeout should have been avoiding Zac, since he was perched in a tree three hundred feet but a perfect sightline away from Zac’s window, high-powered binocular lenses attached to the eye-piece of his mask. But Lutractianns never seemed to pick up on the subtler steps of the human dance of avoidance, or at least Zac in particular wasn’t that sympathetic. “Hey, remember that stakeout at that superhero convention where we had to pretend we were cosplaying ourselves? That was a good time.”

“You’re supposed to be asleep,” Elias reminded him.

“Relax, my eyes are closed. I’m not talking loud enough for anything but the comm mic to pick me.” Through the window, Zac rustled kittenishly, very much as if in mid-dream, to prove his point or just to be a big handsome jerk. “Or remember when we did this bit with Graham but his sword wouldn’t stop bitching and it gave away our location? Man, classic.”

Elias settled to rest his back against the tree trunk. “Wielder definitely makes things interesting.”

“He says hi too, by the way. Well, he said you were a douche and a pussy, who needed to stop teetering around on your high heels and make up your damn mind, but you know what he meant.”

Elias examined the heavy-duty tread of his steel-toed boots. Some parts of the Stalker legacy were more beneficial to his credibility than others. “He must have forgiven me a little. When I left he told me he hoped I choked to death on my little skirt.”

“Was she your sister?” Zac’s voice was the barest mosquito buzz over the comm. “The first Stalker. I mean, it’s a weird position to be in otherwise, to take over for a girl. Even a kickass girl. What happened to her?”

Elias didn’t answer, just let the crickets cree, organic and oblivious. The night air was humid and Zac looked a little ghoulish through the infrared.

“And there’s the wall,” Zac said. “God forbid anyone ever learn the terrible secrets of the Nightmare family. The rest of us can’t be nearly as deep and important as you.”

“Sure, Beacon,” Elias said. “This is the perfect time to pick a fight. Please, keep going.”

Zac sighed, a scratchy frustrated sound as translated by the mic. When he spoke again the aggression had been drained out of him. “I don’t want to fight. The plan was to get here and be all charming and you’d realize how wrong you’ve been and fall into my arms. Sometimes I think fighting’s all we’re really good at. Fighting and… well. It really messed me up when you left. Silver had to come and drag me out of my room.”

Elias swallowed hard against the collar of his cape. “It wasn’t easy for me either.”

“Then why’d you do it?” Zac didn’t sound plaintive or entitled, the way Elias half-hoped he would. He just seemed sad, tired, on the verge of giving up. “Something happened, didn’t it? Besides the volcano thing. Something big happened. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I could help?”

Of course it had. That had been his first impulse, when Keith had sat him down, grave as a cancer, to tell him the news. He wanted to go straight to Zac for some intangible reason, and that had been the last red flag he needed. Zac was curled up tensely in the fetal position now, his shoulders moving with a steady forced calm. Elias realized, with some relief because there was always some relief in free-fall, that he didn’t have anything left. “My brother’s killer escaped from the forensic psychiatric unit.”

The pause that followed felt heavily weighted, like Zac knew the significance of his next move. “Older or younger brother?”

“Older,” Elias said. “Eight years. He was an ultra, like you. He had a freak accident when our family went camping. He had increased agility and strength, nothing that fancy. But he patrolled for a while.”

“What was his code name?”

Their mother had had made a scrapbook of the brief handful of newspaper clippings. It was hard to make a reputation for yourself in Nightmare’s town, but Mike had been managing. Elias was pretty sure she still had it somewhere. “The Silent Sentry.”

“So who did it?” Zac said, most likely so hurriedly to cover up for never having heard of him. “Manic Mouse? The Whip?”

“It wasn’t a cape,” Elias said. Through the window he saw Zac stiffen up in surprise. “Just a schizophrenic who was off his meds.” Clarence Darby, age 43. Divorced, heroin addict. “He got in a lucky shot. I caught my brother sneaking in through the window his first month on patrol. I was just a kid but I wanted to help and I was good with computers. So I provided ground support, you know, info and guidance. I said from the beginning that he should team up with Nightmare, but my brother wanted to make his own way. Still, I figured that you couldn’t be as good as Nightmare without organizing your data somehow, so I started looking around…”

“You hacked into Nightmare’s computer,” Zac said, with relish. “How old were you, twelve?”

“Ten,” Elias said. “And I wasn’t quite successful. But that’s how Nightmare and I met. When my brother died, I knew I had to… continue his legacy. I was just a kid though, a human kid. I needed training. So I went to the best.”

He could see Zac fighting not to fidget. He was an active thinker. “So… this guy escaped from prison. That sucks, don’t get me wrong, but if it’s just some crazy dude, maybe it’s not worth worrying about?”

“He couldn’t have escaped on his own. The hospital kept him heavily medicated and he wouldn’t have known how to break out of a maximum-security facility at the best of times. It took organization.” Elias felt the wind rustle the edges of his cape. “This was an outside job. Someone went to a lot of effort and expense to free him.”

“Yeah. Wow.” Zac cringed a little, clearly at his own lame response. “That’s bad.”

“He’s a nobody.” Elias assumed Zac thought he was having a crisis of faith, but this was nothing compared to two year ago when he found out that Michael’s killer wasn’t one of New Corum’s gallery of pathetic monsters, just a stain of a man who thought he talked to angels and smelled like urine. Elias had nearly walked away then, staggered by the overwhelming certainty that his life’s work had been missing the point. “That’s the thing, Beacon. No one would have bothered to do that unless they knew who he was to me. Someone out there wants me to know they know who I am. Someone knows who I am.”

“Any leads?”

“No. He disappeared.”

Secret identities never seemed to make a lot of sense to Zac, who had lived in the public eye before coming to Earth. He had never bothered inventing one, just replaced his membership in Lutractainn jet-setting royal society with a different kind of fame. But he must have understood how fundement-shaking it was for Elias by the timber of his voice, harsh and fuzzed like velvet rubbed against the grain. “So you broke up with me because you didn’t want to put me in danger? I mean, that situation sucks, but you get that that’s a little, uh, misguided, right?”

Three hours on watch and Elias gave himself the luxury of rocking back to rest his weight on his heels. “I know you and the Commandos can take care of yourselves. Just, the Commandos… you… I had let myself get distracted from New Corum and the reason I chose this life in the first place. This just – my parents are in danger. I need to focus.”

The silence following was deeply hurt. Finally Zac made a sound over the comm. “Heh.”

“What?”

“It’s just weird to think of you having parents.”

“Yeah, well,” Elias said. “I don’t talk to them much.”

“Stalker-” Zac said, but the sensor on Elias’ wrist took the opportunity to beep. “What was that?”

“One of the motion detectors was triggered,” Elias said. “Shit.

“What’s that mean?”

Elias had gotten out his grapple, was already firing. “You weren’t Strong’s first choice after all.”

***

Elias didn’t have to look back to know Zac was following him; the heat on the back of his neck told him that. The sensor indicated Colby was the triggered dorm. Elias had only been there once, Thursday. He was already sickeningly sure of the identity of tonight’s captive.

Four hundred yards away from the building and moving, his suspicions were confirmed. Josh was dangling over the masked man’s shoulder, a parody of a corpse. Elias didn’t bother for subtlety, just launched himself at Strong’s massive weight feet first, toppling him to the ground with an impact that reverberated up Elias’ chest.

Josh went sprawling two feet away. Elias landed a stomp kick to Strong’s solar plexus before going over to him. “Take care of the Headmaster,” he told Zac, who was hovering several feet above the ground, nimbus bright and faintly orange. “I’ll get the kid somewhere safe.”

“Right.” Zac grinned at Strong, who was already struggling to his feet. “You and me, buddy, we’ve got ourselves some things to talk about.”

Elias hoisted Josh up and took back to the tree covering. Behind them the sky kept flashing the smoky, dangerous blue of a late summer lightning storm or a malfunctioning X-ray, an indication Zac was enjoying himself. Which meant, in turn, Strong was putting up a fight.

Elias flicked on his comm. “Pythia? Pythia, Stalker reporting in. We’ve gone live.”

“Game plan, S-class?” Daphne said. He could hear the clack of keyboards.

“Things still aren’t quite adding up. I’m heading back now to do a full-scale evacuation of the school. Alert any paramedics and law-enforcement officials to be on high alert. We may end up with a fugitive situation on our hands depending on what happens with Bea- hang on.” Over the churning thoughts in his own head, Elias became aware of the small painful noises of Josh moaning.

He dropped to the ground and settled Josh down. “Don’t worry. I’m a friend. You’ve been drugged, you’ll probably be disoriented and in some discomfort for a little while, but that’ll go away. If you can, though, I need you to answer some questions. Did you get a look at who attacked you?”

Josh swallowed with a dry click, his head slumping listlessly. “I…” his voice was barely a whimper.

Elias crouched down closer. “Yes? You what?”

Josh’s eyes snapped open, lucid and hard. “I got a pretty good idea.”

The punch came before Elias could credit the motion. The world crashed into black.

***

Someone was shouting in his ear, high and panicked. “S-class, do you read me? S-class, are you there? Respond now!”

There was a flicker of motion registering in his peripheral vision and the voice was gone. “That should be enough of that.”

Things were starting to regroup now over the pain in his head. Elias was horizontal on some sort of gurney, metal by the feel of it. There were five straps restraining him, two each around his wrists and ankles, one around his neck. The lighting was almost comforting at first, and it took Elias a moment to realize that was because he was surrounded by the florescent shadows created when floodlights were hung in a large, underground space. He must have made it to the hot spot underneath the cross-country course after all.

Elias had about forty-five degrees to turn his head. Josh was standing there, looking at him with a haunting lack of expression. His fingertips were singed and Elias was finally able to connect the tingling along his forehead and cheekbones to the electrical charge given off whenever anyone tried to remove his mask without disarming it. It was lined with a non-conducive polymer, but the technology wasn’t foolproof.

“You’re up,” Josh said.

“What are you doing?” Elias said. His voice came out a rasp. “I’m on your side. I’m trying to help.”

Josh shrugged. “Hey man. I’m just following orders.”

Elias squinted. “Orders?”

And then another voice, powdered with ash, said, “My orders.” And a skinny figure shuffled out of the gloom.

Elias went slack beneath the restraints, heart sick in his throat, suddenly and keenly aware of the vulnerability of being exposed like a cadaver or an offering. For a second he faltered in coaxing his laser cutter out from his wrist compartment, but then redoubled his efforts. If he didn’t get out of here he was screwed, he was so much worse than screwed. He should have called for backup; he should have told Zac he was sorry. “No… no, you’re dead. Nightmare saw you crushed by a temple in Brazil, you’re dead.”

The Mortician had made modifications to himself since the photos in Nightmare’s files were taken. His eyes were milky blue now, his hair blond and sparser. Stitches wound down his yellowed, papery face like vines, twisting his mouth into a mirthless smile. “Ah,” he said, resting a casual, proprietary hand on Josh’s shoulder. “He did see that, but you can’t kill what doesn’t die. You though. A new Stalker. Your existence is much more peculiar.”

Elias snarled. God, he was such an idiot. Just because the Mortician had always taken his replacement parts from the freshly killed didn’t mean he wouldn’t start leaving his victims alive. After all, he hadn’t killed Daphne. “Go to hell, you sick fuck.”

The Mortician tsked. “Temper now. Your predecessor also had quite a mouth on her. Even when I was sawing through the bone, she kept cursing. It was almost impressive in a way. Most people pass out from the shock, but she was conscious until the last of it.”

Elias’ finger could touch the handle of his laser although both were now slippery with sweat. He had to keep the Mortician talking. Elias was alive as long as the Mortician was talking. “What are you doing here? What is this place?”

“Do you like it?” The Mortician waved a gnarled hand – crookedly grafted and darker than the rest of his body – around expansively. Elias could see where his black suit had worn out at the elbows and the litany of scars underneath. “Not much of a lab, but it suits my needs. I’ve made some fascinating breakthroughs, some of which resulted in our young friend Joshua here. And of course the good Headmaster.”

The laser kept skittering away and the back of Elias’ neck was cramping up. “Homunculi.”

“Very good,” the Mortician said approvingly. “They’re not very bright, but they do what they’re told and they don’t feel pain. As your ultrahuman friend is likely finding out right now.”

“You made a huge mistake. Beacon will find me. Nightmare will. And when they do, they are going to kill you.”

The Mortician smiled a little, patting Josh on the shoulder. “You’re off the grid, boy. And like I said, not even Nightmare can kill what won’t die.”

Elias squeezed his eyes shut briefly, trying to orient himself in the dark. He could taste adrenaline, bitter in the back of his throat. “So Josh is the point of all this? You’re building some sort of army?”

The Mortician chuckled, only sinister in how it was almost a pleasant sound. “Heavens no. That was simply a convenient side effect. No no, my purpose remains the same. The endless scientific quest for immortality.”

“By chopping people up and sewing their parts onto you like a freaking monster,” Elias said. He was so stupid. How could he have failed to consider that the students hadn’t been receiving some sort of non-invasive surgery, they had simply been operated on by a surgeon so skillful he wouldn’t leave a trace. “So all those weird hormone levels in all those kids…”

“Amazing, wasn’t it?” The Mortician said, like Elias had been commending him. “An entire school of healthy young specimens, ripe for the plucking. The perfect population on which to test out my regenerative growth hormones. So easy to administer too! Three times a day, neat as clock work, and they would line up to take them.”

All of Strong’s comments rang in Elias’ head. “The cafeteria food.”

“Right again,” The Mortician said cheerfully.

Elias let his head fall back on the gurney. “And the chemicals in the river…”

The Mortician shrugged. “Run-off. Bit of a media to-do, but what a small consequence for the results! Organ tissue growing back at an exponential rate! I can keep my hearts and livers operational four times as long as before.”

“A small consequence?” Elias spat. “Three people are dead.

Josh scowled at his tone but the Mortician waved a hand dismissively. “Imperfections in the formula,” he said. “Immaterial, really. The only real question becomes what to do with you, little Stalker. To be honest, I’m surprised to see another one of your kind. Although maybe I shouldn’t be. Nightmare and I are so alike. It’s fitting that he has his own inexhaustible supply of bodies.”

And god, thank god, finally, he got a firm grip on his laser. “Nightmare is nothing like you!” Elias said. He wasn’t sure whether he was covering up the click of the on switch or he just believed what he was saying, but either way it felt good to shout. “He’s a great man! You’re nothing! You’re a parasite who skulks in the dark, feeding off other people to keep up some lame excuse for a life! You didn’t stop the first Stalker and you won’t stop me!”

Josh made a start for him, but the Mortician held him back. His own eyes narrowed though, his chalky mouth thin. For the first time in their conversation he stopped looking amused and urbane. “You’re a fine one to talk about lurking in the dark.” Deliberately, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a scalpel, dull with rust. “But I appreciate your flair for discourse. Beyond profanities, your predecessor wouldn’t talk at all. She refused to tell me what I wanted to know. But you, my young friend. I think you’re going to sing.”

“Go to hell,” Elias said.

The Mortician twitched a smile as he advanced. “You’ll be able to keep me company there. Once you tell me this one tiny thing. Who is Nightmare?”

Control over the breath led to control over the heart led to control over the self. Control over the self led to control over the situation. In dangerous scenarios, Elias told himself, working on the binding as the Mortician advanced, the first lessons were the most important. Control. Patience. Zac needed him to be calm now. Zac would smile at him when he saw him again.

“Yes,” the Mortician said, a sing-song musing to himself as he bent over, his free hand tilting Elias’ chin up to expose his throat. “You’ll talk.”

The gurney didn’t afford him a lot of momentum, but fear provided most of the power behind it when Elias punched the Mortician full in the face.

The Mortician was technically immortal but dessicated as a mummy. He went down easy in a soft slump on the floor. Now that the noise didn’t matter, Elias jammed up the setting of his laser cutter, melting his way through the restraint on his neck just before Josh lunged at him. He was able to sit up and get him hard enough to make the homunculii stagger back.

“The difference between us and you freaks,” Elias said, a little drunk off relief, slicing as fast as he could through the band around his other arm. “Is we don’t stay in the shadows to feed off of people. We protect them. We have to hide in the dark sometimes, but we live in the world.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Josh said, grabbing for him again. Elias’ hand slipped slightly, the laser deviating from its trajectory, slowing his progress just enough to give Josh an advantage. Elias went to use the tool on Josh’s face instead, but Josh stumbled back, hissing in pain. A knife was protruding from his shoulder, the handle black, a simple, stylized ghost imprinted on it.

Elias looked over to the corner where Nightmare’s great caped presence was sliding out of the dark. “Took you long enough.”

But Keith wasn’t in a bantering frame of mind. His expression under his cowl was the intent beserker grimace that meant he was somewhere deep in his own head. If Nightmare was stuck in a loop of his own history, it was time to start worrying. “You,” he said, stalking towards the Mortician. He picked him up by the collar, brought him face to face. “You.”

The Mortician just looked dazed at first, but then his gaze focused and he smiled with genuine delight. “Yes, Nightmare. Me.”

“You’re supposed to be dead,” Nightmare growled. “You won’t ever hurt them again.”

Elias had freed his legs and slid off the gurney, but he still had to deal with fucking Josh, who was circling him warily. “Hey Nightmare, come on,” he tried to say soothingly, ducking a blow. “I’m fine. You got here in time. I’m good. I’m safe.”

Just then, the roof exploded.

Elias covered himself against the collapsing rubble with his cape, its titanium ribs flaring out stiff. When the noise had died down, it took his eyes a second to adjust to the sudden blazing light, white and clean. Josh hadn’t fared as well, crumpled and still, his legs under a rock. Elias looked up, flicking a darker covering on the lenses of his mask and saw familiar silhouettes hovering in the air. “Sterling?” he said, voice echo with disbelief. “Silver?”

The metal of the compound’s roof snaked liquid around Silver’s fist and fell leaden to the ground. “Stalker!” she said, flying down. “You’re okay!”

“You’re here,” Elias said. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Keith, angry according to the clench of his jaw but calmer, handcuffing the Mortician to another gurney. The explosion had hopefully rattled him back to himself.

“Beacon called in the cavalry,” Silver said. She wrapped her arms around him tight. Dazed, Elias could see the rest of the Commandos flying inside the crater. “He told us you disappeared and that the creep he was fighting said the Mortician was back. Oh praise Durma, you’re okay!”

“Where’s-” Elias said, but Zac was zooming down, Strong dangling unconscious from his fist. He blazed white and gold like a phoenix, purified by flame and too bright to be anything but an ideal.

“Stalker!” he said, dropping Strong unceremoniously. He hovered uncertainly as the rest of the Commandos swarmed around Elias, keeping his distance as they chattered and hugged. His uniform was torn and dirty, and Strong must have managed to split Zac’s lip. He was the most nakedly perfect thing Elias had ever seen.

***

The Commandos had evacuated the school and Pythia, shaky but professional when Elias had checked in with her, had called in a special unit to detain the Mortician and his homunculii. By the time Elias staggered topside, everything was over but the shouting.

“How’d you find me?” Elias asked Nightmare, who was tinkering with the wing of the jet. Apparently it had gotten damaged during the landing. “The Mortician switched off my comm link.”

Keith smirked out of the side of his mouth. He wasn’t quite back to himself yet, but at least he knew the directions for the way there. “What makes you think that’s the only method I have of keeping track of you.”

“Great,” Elias muttered, making a note to go over his suit with a microscopic lens as soon as possible. Hesitantly he added, “You okay? It got kind of intense in there.”

Keith spared him a look, quick and appraising. “You’re okay.”

Elias would have called him out on avoiding the question, except Keith had answered it, in a way. “So, I was thinking… if it’s all right with you, I want to switch up my patrol schedule again.”

“Wrench,” Nightmare said. Elias handed it to him. “Let me guess. You want to leave your weekends free.”

Elias shifted his weight nervously. “Yeah.”

Keith pried open the damaged panel. “It was never my idea for you to quit the Commandos. If you want to go back, you don’t need my blessing.”

Elias felt himself smiling, kind of drippy. He stopped himself but then a second later allowed it after all. “Thanks. For the rescue and… everything.”

Keith just grunted. “I can make these repairs myself. You don’t need to be hanging around underfoot.”

“I’ll, uh, just go then,” Elias said. When he looked behind him, Keith was watching him but quickly went back to work.

The tail end of the evacuation was still under way. It was nearly dawn now. Back at the campus proper, Elias saw Braiden huddled by an ambulance, wrapped up in a blanket. Elias lifted his hand in a wave, and Braiden stared at him thoughtfully as one of the paramedics led him away.

He knew when Zac landed behind him by the disturbance in the earth. “Hey,” he said without turning around.

“Hey,” Zac said. He flew a half-circle around to face Elias. Zac was still in his uniform too. He crossed his arms protectively. “You… good?”

“Yeah. Nightmare’s fixing the plane.”

“So, the Mortician,” Zac said. “He’s a pretty big bad. You think he was the one who… you know… freed that guy?”

Elias looked down at the ground. “I really doubt it. He didn’t even know I existed before today. Whoever it is is still out there.”

“Oh,” Zac said, disappointed. “But you’re still – you’re okay, right? After everything.”

In truth, Elias wasn’t sure he had the capacity for okay. But he also wasn’t sure he had the capacity not to try for it. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks for calling in the team. They’ve been handling things well.”

“Great,” Zac said. “That’s just… yeah. They’re great.”

“They are.” Elias tilted his face up into the wind. “You know, talking to the Mortician… it gave me a lot to think about.”

“Oh god,” Zac groaned, rolling his eyes. “Don’ tell me you’re going to harvest organs now. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, Stalker, which is bad.”

“I was going to say I want back on the team, asshole,” Elias said. And before Zac could react or Elias himself could lose his nerve, he blurted out, “And it’s Eli.”

Zac tilted his head slightly. “What?”

Elias took a breath. “Eli. Eli Gossling. That’s my name.”

It took Zac a moment for that to sink in, quicksand-slow but inexorable as Zac’s own aptitude for faith. He lit up, a soft blue-tinted glow Elias could feel making him blush. “Eli,” Zac said, savoring it.

Not for the first time Elias wished his uniform had more traditional pockets. He resisted the urge to draw his cape around himself. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know,” Zac drawled. “Eli. That’s kind of a nerd name. Short for anything?”

Elias scowled. But at the same time he felt oddly looser, like something in his chest had unsnarled and disintegrated. Living in the world. “Elias. My name is Elias Gossling, douchebag.”

Zac had so acclimated to human limitations that sometimes when he moved with his true speed it took Elias by surprise. Like now, when Elias was suddenly in Zac’s arms, it left him flailing. “Yeah,” Zac said. His eyes were blue, blue, blue and he glittered like a lake. “Elias Gossling. Nerdy, but I like it. Say, Elias Gossling, how’s about you and me get better acquainted?”

“Okay, just because you know it now doesn’t make it any less dangerous to call me by my name when I’m in uniform-” Elias started, but he had to hold on tight as Zac took off, flying east towards the gathering light of the sun.

illustrated by calintz

***
Thanks to beeblebabe and relvetica for all their help with this, urm, homage. My deepest thanks to calintz who was a joy to work with and whose illustrations really brought this piece to life. Because the girl is a machine, she also drew some initial character sketches, which you really should check out here and here.

If you’re interested in more from the universe, there’s a sequel here.

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