I was tense as Dragoon raised her hand at the interlopers, “Who the fuck are you?”
While I like Dragoon’s bravado, I knew she was bluffing. Unless this guy was an idiot, he was not someone we wanted to fight. Her armor couldn’t have tons more juice left, Lightshow was having issues walking, and I was tapped for mass. One tonne wouldn’t protect me too well if he was as strong as any of the guys we had just fought. Even Mutant was beaten pretty bad and panting for air; he needed to sleep to reset his forms and grab the slug he used regenerate.
The only ones of us who would be able to hold up in a fight right now were Parasite and Geyser…though I didn’t know if he’d be able to keep it together. Even though the stranger assuring us she was alive was nice, it didn’t make stomaching Menagerie putting herself in a coma any better.
“Dig through that big Cognate brain of yours and think,” he insisted, “I know you do obsessive research for anyone who might come strolling into town!”
“How about you shut the fuck up,” Parasite snapped, grabbing his staff from the little pouch on his waist, extending the reinforced metal.
He cocked his head to the side, “You know, this is the one day I can’t fight you. But some of the people behind me could,” he said, confident.
“Parasite, don’t,” Dragoon cautioned. “I don’t know that is.”
“I don’t give a shit who he is!” my friend shouted, lunging forward at alarming speed.
“Bargain!” the ringleader shouted, “Twenty minutes!”
Behind him, one figure nodded. He was a big guy, standing nearly 6’3” and quite fit with shoulder length hair. It seemed strange that he would just wear a tank top and cargo pants to go with a cloth around his mouth that mirrored that of Psycho.
In fact, now that I could see them, they all had it. It was the only commonality between the quintet.
Psycho skipped backwards and ‘Bargain’ took his place, letting the staff crack against his collarbone. I knew how hard Parasite hit, and even with a tonne of Neklim on, it would hurt.
This guy didn’t budge.
Wordlessly, his hand shot forward and grabbed my friend’s collar, his fist smashing Parasite’s face hard enough to throw him onto the ground, the staff clattering against the pavement. Our Enhancer growled and spun, pushing his hands against the ground to try and kick his silent opponent like a mule.
Again, nothing. It was like Parasite wasn’t even hitting him.
Bargain grabbed Parasite’s ankle, throwing him into a cement column hard enough it would have killed a normal person.
Parasite groaned and pushed himself up to his feet, blood leaking from his lips, “Fuck-“
“Parasite,” Dragoon snapped, “Enough.”
“ENOUGH!” she shouted, surprising all of us. “That’s Psycho, the guy who escaped an Asylum. Which makes them,” she said, pointing to the rest of the ground, “the Lunatics. We die if we fight them.”
I could swear that Psycho was smiling under that cloth. “See, I knew you could figure it out.”
Asylums were what people referred to as the Snatchers’ clandestine labs scattered across Tso’got. Snatchers had to be careful when they apprehended Adapted since many were damn dangerous and hard to contain, but they were needed for study. As a result, Asylum’s were made with more layers of security than a super-max prison and kept secret enough that you couldn’t find them.
It was speculated that most Asylum’s were kept in Tso’gots wilderness where no one would ever look.
Psycho and the Lunatics were the only people who had ever escaped from one of those places. Supposedly, before they were apprehended, they were completely different people; people guessed being subject to the inhuman conditions, it changed them.
Her epiphany suddenly gave an alarming amount of credibility to the interloper; given some of the people who had been abducted by the Snatchers and never been heard from again, Psycho wasn’t someone we’d want to cross.
“What are you doing in Ciel?”
Psycho stepped forward and patted Bargain on the shoulder, “I’m here for the same reason you are: I want to see Beleth deposed. He seems like an awful arrogant prick on that big throne of his, doesn’t he?”
He didn’t seem dishonest, but that clearly wasn’t the whole story.
“So why threaten us in a parking garage instead of offering to help?” Lightshow asked, clearly sharing my suspicions.
He turned to her, “Simple. I want to replace him. I could hardly ask you lot to help me on standard terms.” Psycho turned his attention to Geyser who was visibly seething, “Perhaps you have something to add?”
“You want to strongarm us, after we stand up to Beleth? You want to antagonize me after she puts herself in a coma?”
He turned, glaring. “I thought that was quite obvious. Maybe the unfortunate circumstances have made you a little bit slow,” Psycho said, condescending.
Geyser screamed and stomped, but one of the other Lunatics extended a hand and shot what looked like a small jet of glitter around him. Instead of the crag splitting across the ground, the ground split open underneath his foot and Geyser fell in past his knee, surprised. Then the gas erupted and he received a dose of his own medicine.
“Dysfunction here,” he said, gesturing to the portly woman in jeans and a brown jacket, “Has the great little gift of making powers work VERY wrong. Mutant, I wouldn’t,” he cautioned, turning to the Enhancer who was bracing himself, “Allow me to recommend you don’t test it. You rewrite your whole biology; who knows what could go wrong with such a complicated process!”
Mutant paused, clearly debating the validity of his claim; listening to Geyser gag and claw at the asphalt was enough of an indicator that he wasn’t bluffing about her power.
“Smart man,” he said as Mutant relaxed, “And Eldritch, I really don’t want to know what would happen if you tried to grow mass while affected by Dysfunction; I’ve never heard of anyone being literally eaten by a power, but you could be a first!”
I regarded her cautiously as the other two members slowly joined them, the collective squared off against us.
“Psycho,” Dragoon muttered, “What do you really want with us? If you wanted Beleth dead, you could go in after him yourself right now. He’s distracted, injured, and his usual roster is cut by half. This seems like the best time to kill him.”
He shook his head, “Dragoon, do you know what your problem is?”
She didn’t reply.
“You are so short-sighted. What happens when I go after him, and he simply slinks into the ground and slithers away? Does he lose credibility from running away from me? No. Does he lose credibility from running away from you lot? Absolutely.”
“What’s your point?” Parasite panted as a crack pointed out a rib snapping back into place.
Psycho laughed, “Beleth won’t fight me, he’s smarter than that. I’m one of two people in this city who can actually threaten him. Even so, he is still bound by his reputation to some degree; you can’t be the king if you run away like a pussy. However,” he lamented, “I’m the new guy in town. Beleth knows he can avoid a fight and people will simply raise an eyebrow.”
Who was the second?
“But you guys, you he’ll stand and fight; people know who you are, and people will question his authority if he doesn’t stand up to your little rebellious group. If I was on a different illness tonight, I might do exactly what you suggested, Dragoon. But, alas, tonight was ASPD.”
Lightshow raised her hand, “Anyone want to tell me who the fuck this clown is and what he means by ‘different illness’? I’m not as big a nerd as the rest of you with this Adapted encyclopedia stuff. What the hell is he talking about?”
“Psycho is a Peculiar whose power changes based on what mental illness he wakes up with,” Dragoon replied. “Anti-social personality disorder, ASPD, makes him a Cognate who specializes in finding vulnerability. If there is something to exploit, he’ll find a way to do it. It’s why he didn’t attack Parasite himself, he’s smart enough to realize he can’t get a stab through the passenger. That’s why he has extra help.”
“Look at you! More than just a pretty face!”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” I hissed.
He turned to me, “You ever talk back to me, monster boy, and I will have Bargain rip your fucking arms off,” he snapped. “Figure it out, you lot cannot win this fight.”
Parasite glared, “A bold statement from someone who can’t fight on his own right now.”
Psycho ignored my friend and addressed Dragoon. “Now, let’s be serious for a moment. You will work for me, or I will destroy all of you. Nicholas Weld,” he said without looking, “I know for a fact your mother is a great person, and a bit of a homebody. Alexis Trent, I know your parents are still Imperium members, too resolute for their own good. What do you think Beleth would do if it was brought to his attention? Roger, oh hell, you’re too easy to mess with since darling Yuki is in a coma, and probably will for for another two days. Rebecca Akins, your brother still lives in Manda, right? And Ted, Murphy, you two are simply afraid to be alone again. If I take the team out from under you, you two get caught up in the despair without me having to do extra work.”
The leader of the Lunatics didn’t need to go any further with his threats. He knew who we were, and true to what Dragoon had said, he knew where we all were weakest.
“How the fu-“ Geyser started.
“Big Picture,” Dragoon whispered as she took off her helmet, no longer needing to hide her identity. “You used him, didn’t you?”
Psycho shrugged, “Just can’t trust people to stay quiet, can you?”
“What did you threaten him with?”
He giggled, “Do you know the funny thing about him? The guy really wants to live, but he knew you lot wouldn’t kill him! However,” he said, menacingly, “He knew I wouldn’t lose any sleep cutting his throat. Big Picture was really quite accommodating.”
“We shouldn’t have shown our faces!” Ted snapped.
“Oh please,” Psycho said with a dismissive wave, “You discredit the man. He knew who you all were once you took him to your little hideout. He had you show him your faces as a show of good faith and so he could be ‘honest’ with Beleth. There’s a reason people pay through the nose to talk to him.”
“So…why are you using us? If you guys outclass us so much, why bother with the extra hassle? You should be able to chase down Beleth if you are all as strong as you claim.”
Psycho turned back to Dragoon, “Because our power sets are perfect to deal with you, but not perfect to deal with Beleth and his goons. Dysfunction can’t affect Hive after she splits, nor can she easily hit Beleth since he can make so many barriers. Once Goliath is sized up, he’s immune to her effects as well. Sure, Bargain can probably take one or maybe two of them, Shock and Awe are tricky to deal with as well. Spectre,” he gestured to the slender woman beside Dysfunction, “can mimic people, but if she tried to get close to Beleth he’d make sure she couldn’t make good use of his gift, and if she was to grab Shock and Awe, she would only get a small fraction of what makes that duo so problematic. Pacifist could stop one, but Hive inflates their numbers, and if Dragonfly is stopped, that leaves Stag to charge her. If Bargain goes to outmuscle Stag, that leaves Goliath running loose.”
“Rogue Sentires however, different story entirely,” he continued explaining, “Three of you are immediately crippled by Dysfunction. Geyser drops himself for minutes at a time, Eldritch is locked into one size, and Mutant can’t do his famous ‘form dancing’ which makes him so scary. If he’s limited to one shape, he is really not that threatening. While Parasite can win out over Bargain in a long fight, he will make sure there isn’t one. Pacifist can keep you docile, Spectre can snag Lightshow’s power and could keep her from making us all blind. The thing you folks do well is a war of attrition, it made you much better suited for fighting with Imperium, but much less tailored to fighting people like us.”
Our captain kept a firm expression, but I knew she had to be worried; he’d thought this out long before approaching us; he wasn’t kidding when he said we couldn’t win.
“I don’t know if you missed the show,” Lightshow laughed, “But we just got our asses kicked, even after Eldritch grew to be the size of a damned house.”
“You say it like I’m expecting you to win. I’m not wagering on you, but I am betting on you to do some damage. All I need you to do is weaken him and make him vulnerable for me to hunt on a better day. If I had a Schizophrenic or Narcissistic day, I can challenge him; if he is a bit weakened and beat up, I can kill him.”
“We’re here to make a vulnerability for you,” Dragoon muttered, “You know we can’t kill him and steal your limelight, but we can make taking his head possible.”
“And the girl gets a gold star.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Mutant whispered, “We aren’t the only players still left in Ciel.”
Psycho frowned and then snapped his fingers, “That’s right, Vermin! How could I have forgotten about Rat and his band of freaks,” mused, scratching his chin. “Oh wait, I didn’t! Mutant, don’t worry, you’ll get your wish to go hunting. That’s the other reason I am bullying you idiots: I need some people to chase down Rig and Reflection for me. Without his sowers of discord, Rat loses a surprising amount of power and makes him a non-factor for the time being.”
“You expect us to go after them now?”
Psycho let out a bark of a laugh, “Oh, God no! I’m not sending a broken bunch of toys to die, you’re way too valuable for me to just throw away like that. You’re going to go back to your ‘hideout’ and get some sleep, with chaperones of course,” he added as Dysfunction, Spectre, and Bargain stepped forward. “And here, for your leg,” he called to Lightshow as he snagged a vial of something yellow from a pocket. “A little boon from Organelle. It should fix your leg up in no time. Give half to Menagerie and it should have her getting out of her coma by midday tomorrow.”
She snagged it from the air but still looked dubious. Organelle was an Adapted who could repair cell damage and bodily harm; she wasn’t a Reckoner or criminal but a neutral player who simply made medical salves to sell..and they weren’t cheap, but they were better than any medicine in existence. It seemed suspicious he’d spend so much on people he was keeping prisoner.
“Oh stop. I need you able to fight for me; I’m not about to poison my prize workhorse before the job is done.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about being referred to as a workhorse.
“So, will the Rogue Sentries behave?”
We directed attention to Dragoon, trusting our captain to make the right call, to determine whether or not we should try and stand up to Psycho. But, she glanced at Menagerie, unconscious on the ground and Parasite who was still a bit rattled.
“We’ll play along,” she finally said, defeated.
“Smart,” Psycho replied as he turned to leave. “Oh, one last thing,” he called over his shoulder, “If you pull any funny business overnight with my Lunatics, I’ll make good on my threat. And do make my friends feel at home!”
He took his leave with Pacifist and snuck off into the gloom of the garage, leaving us along with our escorts.
“Your boss is a fucking freak,” Geyser spat at the remaining bunch.
“How about we go somewhere else to talk?” Spectre suggested softly. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but we’d really like to keep things civil tonight, okay? We don’t want to cause any problems.”
Given how horribly brash and malicious her leader was, it was shocking she would be so weirdly polite and…genuinely nice.
“Listen,” Bargain said, hands raised to be non-threatening, “We aren’t here to fight you. We do what Psycho says, but all we are looking to do is make sure you don’t run for it and get help. We don’t want to have to make this harder than it has to be.”
Another series of looks to Dragoon and she nodded; we were just going to let this happen. “Eldritch, ditch the growths. Everyone play nice; we’ve had enough fight for one day.”
We had left today hoping to be conquerors, rebels leading the charge against Beleth’s tyranny over Ciel.
We’d ended up prisoners, pawns in someone else’s play for the throne.
The car ride back was silent, it was a little awkward to have a casual conversation with Bargain sitting next to me; even if seemed like a decent guy, he was still my prison guard. To help distract at least slightly, I checked my phone, surprised to find a few messages.
Xana: Nicky, did everything go okay? I haven’t heard from you guys yet.
Xana: Seriously, u ok?
Xana: Sweetie? Please be there?
My mom’s words felt like a slap. I didn’t think about how nerve wracking it must have been for Xana to know I was going after Beleth. She told me she was nervous when I went against Shockwave, but that wasn’t deliberate. But tonight we had opted to fight the Surface Dwellers on their own turf, knowing full well they’d likely be there.
Me: Sorry for making you wait. I’m okay. Don’t go to Murphy’s house tonight. There’s been stuff.
“Who are you messaging?” Bargain asked, and then abruptly gasped for air, slumping in his seat like he’d suffered a stroke.
“Holy shit!” Murphy yelled, undoing his seat belt to come back to help.
I reached for his neck to check for a pulse, but his hand slapped mine away, “Don’t, touch me. Please,” he requested, his breathing shaky. “I thought we’d have gotten there before my time ran out.”
“Time?” Murphy and I asked in unison.
In the driver’s seat, Alexis slapped the steering wheel, abruptly animated, “I knew I recognized you! You’re Wager!”
“Was,” he corrected. “I was Wager. That guy died in an Asylum. And I mean that,” he said, his gaze looking way beyond me, “Wager didn’t come back out of that place. Bargain did. My powers didn’t even stay the same, just the core concept did.”
Wager was a name I recognized. He had been a Reckoner a while ago in another city cluster, halfway around Tso’got. He was an Enhancer who started every day with a point value sort of system. Spending points allowed him to access powers for a bit of time, or that was roughly how it had been understood. But he’d gone missing two years ago, and now we knew where he’d gone.
“But, you were a Reckoner,” Murphy said, “Why are you working for that creep?”
Bargain shook his head, pulling down the piece of cloth to reveal a sharp jawline dotted with five o’clock shadow, “You don’t understand what those labs are like, what they do to you. They carved out pieces of me to test my ability to regenerate. They literally put me in a hydraulic press to test my resistance and strength; that often broke bones as they continued to up the pressure while I struggled. I had dozens of biopsies done to try and find what kind of genetic anomaly must be driving my Adaptation. I was living in a world of medical torture. Eventually, Snatchers kept me awake for six days in a row, leaving me fatigued and powerless since my old gift had a daily limitation that required sleep to offset…but I snapped. It was like Adapting a second time, but way more unpleasant. I felt everything shift and the original gift was flexed, broken, changed to fit my scenario.”
All of us took pause, remembering just how alarming and disorienting Adapting was; a more violent version of that process sounded like hell.
“What do you mean?” I asked, horrified but intrigued.
“Since they had denied me sleep that I so desperately needed for my old power, my new Adaptation removed those constraints and imposed a new rule: I could buy time of power at the cost of physical malady later. I can theoretically use this gift more often, but overstressing it would kill me in a heartbeat. Earlier,” he said, looking to Murphy, “I made myself virtually immune to blunt trauma and aggressively strong for twenty minutes…but after the time was used, the cost came in. Now, for the next two hours I’m basically a hemophiliac.”
“But what does that have to do with Psycho?” Alexis asked.
Bargain shook his head, “My new gift wasn’t enough to break free from the Asylum…and it meant a renewed battery of tests. The scientists who were seeing to me were excited, thrilled to have such a phenomenon on their hands. Psycho,” he paused, “Psycho saved me. He broke me out along with the others.” He shrugged, “I’m not delusional, I know he’s a bloodthirsty bastard. But, I owe him my life, and my debt to him isn’t paid I don’t think.”
Our captain frowned, “I heard all the Lunatics have some kind of mental illness.”
“We do. You can’t survive an Asylum and not,” he said, blunt. “And all of our mental illness reflect our powers now, fittingly enough. I’m depressed and suicidal: self-harm seems fitting. Dysfunction is borderline and causes others to blunder and ‘act out’ of character as it were. Pacifist has anxiety and makes everything stop and slow down around her. And Spectre, she has no sense of self or self-esteem so she takes on the powers of those she touches. A means of gaining identity for her.”
“Do you know what they were like before the Asylum?”
He shook his head, “Never knew them before. In an Asylum, you’re kept isolated. It keeps you more docile and from making any kind of escape plan. I met them as we escaped. Psycho was a strong enough magnet for all of us to stick together, all of us so eager to escape the hellhole.”
As much as I wanted to hate Psycho, this almost made him seem like an almost decent guy. He wasn’t just a nutcase who wanted to see everyone burn, he had saved these people. Right?
We pulled up about the time of the others and the nine conscious people piled into Murphy’s house, filling up the living room in an awkward and tense bundle.
For a solid minute, no one spoke. Roger was guarding Yuki as if his life depended on it, Rebecca and Alexis were glaring at the trio of Lunatics in the corner, and I was stuck in an awkward spot in the middle with Ted and Murphy. I know they had claimed to now want to make problems, but it was difficult to not look at the trio of Lunatics and not feel threatened.
Eventually my best friend groaned, “Fuck it! If we’re all gonna be trapped here, we’re gonna ease the fuck up.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Dysfunction said, snippy.
He rounded on her, “I’m not going to be a fucking captive in my own house, not like this. If you’re gonna stay,” he insisted, turning to everyone present, “You’re gonna drink and lighten the fuck up.”
“Listen,” she started again, “I don’t think you get it, dumbass. We’re here to make sure you don’t run off. I’m not-”
“Dys,” Bargain, said, firm, “Shut up. If they get drunk, they’re less likely to run off.”
“And I don’t know about you,” Murphy continued, nodding gratefully to Bargain, “But I’ve had a long fucking day and plan to forget a lot of it. So, take a fucking glass and drink up.”
Spectre stepped forward, “He, has a point, I think,” she mumbled softly. “We might as well relax while we can. It would do us all some good to unwind, especially since we’ll be stuck together for a while.”
Dysfunction glared at her sideways but waved her hands, “Do whatever, I don’t care.”
“Murphy, maybe this isn’t the best-“ Alexis started.
“I don’t care. We’re in my house and we didn’t die tonight. I’m calling it a win, and I’m having a fucking drink or six to celebrate. Now, imbibe or shut the hell up.”
Taking the initiative, I walked up the impromptu bar between the kitchen and his living room, taking a seat on a stool. “I’m pretty fucking jazzed to be alive; I’ll drink with you.”
He glared over at Rebecca, “You can’t tell me you don’t want a drink after trying to play exterminator.”
She shrugged and joined me by the bar.
Reaching into a cabinet, he pulled out two fresh bottles of whiskey and a handful of high-ball glasses. Wordlessly, he poured a heavy handed double into each one and then took a massive rip off the bottle for himself after clinking against my glass.
Ted joined next, followed by Alexis, and then everyone else in the room partook.
Another round was poured, and then inhibitions peeled away, removing the stifling atmosphere that had been superimposed thanks to Psycho.
“We don’t hate you guys or anything,” Dysfunction said eventually with a slur, “We just don’t disobey Psycho. Seriously, Asylum, a fucking shit show.”
“I told those three,” Bargain said with a wave, being markedly cautious about how wild he was swinging his arm.
Alexis nodded, “It sounds…awful,” she said finally, lacking a better descriptor.
“But we’re out now, thanks to him,” Spectre said softly, nursing her second glass of whiskey. She was so small, I was amazed she was keeping up.
“So why come here?” Rebecca asked, slamming her second glass and holding it up for Murphy to refill, “I mean, Ciel is a juicy city and all, but there are other places you could go if you want to lord over a whole place. I mean, Teltin has way less Adapted clamoring around than we do in the Llendi cluster, and we attract the crazy powerful people. Shockwave, Beleth, Clemency, Vex,” she rattled off.
“And now Psycho, and possibly Titan,” Roger pointed out.
“Right! Add those two to the list.”
“Does Titan really count?” Bargain asked thoughtfully, “The guy moves all over the place.”
There was a pause as we all kind of realized he was right. “Still, decent chance he’s here.”
“Doesn’t change that he’s a nomad. Maybe he’s too powerful to sit still in any one cluster for too long for fear of-“
“Stop being so philosophical, Bargain, drink!” Dysfunction insisted, slapping him on the back.
“Oi, Dys! Hemophiliac for another half hour!” he shouted, irritated. “You think I want to have to develop a healing gift right after this one?”
She shrugged, “No my problem, you’ll figure it out.”
“Not a good reason to make a giant bruise across my back,” he lamented.
“Who said I needed one,” she snapped.
He wasn’t kidding about her; Dysfunction was constantly abrasive it seemed. Say the wrong thing or rub her the wrong way and she was instantly pissed.
Spectre slid off to the side of the room and sat down next to Roger and the still form of Yuki. She was breathing audibly and her color had returned after being given the gift from Psycho. Bargain had insisted she was improving quickly; apparently he had been in a coma more than once as he’d learned the threshold of his newfound gift and stressed it.
It was still perplexing to me that an Adaptation could change. If stress prompted our Adaptation in the first place, did the mean enough stress would make it adjust again or was there something else to it? If so, why hadn’t mine undergone some overhaul? I’d been in several near death scenarios in just a few days.
Then again, maybe I didn’t want to get some kind of overhaul like Bargain had endured. His gift was absurdly strong, but he was basically Overexposing himself every time he used it.
I came back to my senses as Murphy tapped the bottle to my glass, adding to my cup. “Nicky, you’re far too quiet. You clearly need more liquor in you. Hell, you’re the one who actually scared Beleth a little! Man of honor here!”
Murphy was hamming it up; there was no way he was drunk already.
“How big were you anyways?” Alexis asked, “You were…scary big when I saw you.”
I took another sip and felt myself blush, “Ten tonnes.”
“Good lord man,” Murphy exclaimed, “You should really stop compensating! Xana’s okay with you as is!”
“Had you ever done more than six before?” Ted asked, ignoring Murphy’s juvenile joke, “Doesn’t that start toeing the line of losing control for you?”
Had I been close to losing control? Our plan wasn’t necessarily to kill Beleth, but that had been my intent. However, we’d also been in a life or death situation and it did warrant extreme measures be taken.
“I still had control,” I finally decided, “Though it was a little crazy being that huge. I felt…powerful. I mean, I could break cement apart.”
“Shame you kind of decimated your supply,” Roger pointed out, “You can’t hold that kind of weight for long before tapping yourself dry.”
“Unless he had a big reserve,” Rebecca pointed out, “I mean, he’s only bound by what he can consume, right?”
“Yeah, but where the hell am I gonna get all that mass?” I asked.
“Wherever you get it,” she replied with a smirk, “Your girlfriend is gonna appreciate it.”
While I was glad her humor had returned with her leg already looking nearly restored, I hated that I was the one enduring the brunt of her jokes. Dealing with Murphy was already torment enough. But looking around the room, everyone seemed to enjoy having a laugh at me, everyone but Alexis that was.
She seemed, distant, almost hollow now that she could finally relax and didn’t have to command. She was the most spent of all of us, and she kept glancing at me with a nervous gaze; it was a little odd, but I wasn’t going to call her out. It had been a stressful enough day and Alexis had the roughest job of all of us.
“I’ll have you know that I don’t need any help making her happy,” I replied, raising my glass in defiance, “At least I’m not like Murphy, who couldn’t please a woman if he wanted to!”
To my surprise, Ted let out a bark of a laugh, “It’s a good thing he’s into men then, isn’t it.”
People turned to Murphy, expecting a quick-witted rebuttal, but none came. Instead, it looked like someone had slapped him in the face. Murphy’s face flushed completely, and he stiffened up like he’d had sudden-onset tetanus. “How-“
Ted sobered up instantly, his face horror-struck. “Oh, oh my God, they didn’t know, did they?”
“Murphy!” I called out, but he grabbed the bottle and bolted out the back door before anyone could stop him. “Good fucking job,” I shouted back, “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Our Enhancer slumped against the wall and let himself fall to the floor, putting his head in his hands. “I thought people knew…”
I ignored his mutterings and charged out after Murphy, hoping he hadn’t hopped the fence and bolted; if he ran off that would make things way too tense with us supposed to be hostages.
A sigh of relief escaped my lips; he was just sitting on the ground a few steps outside the door.
“Hey,” I started, “About what he said-”
“He’s right, you know,” Murphy said, his voice strained, “because that’s what I needed. Murphy Pell, he needed one more way to be a freak.” His sentence was punctuated with a another huge swig from the bottle.
“Murphy, come on,” I said, sitting down next to him. “Give me that, you’ve had enough,” I said, forcing myself to sober up in a hurry.
He shook his head, a little ambient light betraying the fact he’d started crying. “I want to be normal, you know? I didn’t ask to be this weird freak, and I certainly didn’t want this bullshit life. I want to have what you and Xana do! I want someone to look at me like that, but no! I had to like men! And of course, we aren’t on Earth anymore where that shit was okay. No, now we’re on Tso’got, a planet that loves to shit on freedom of expression. A place that has shit rules, shit expectations, and worse treatment for those who stand out.” He shook his head, “I’m so tired of this man, I’m tired of looking over my shoulder, for being afraid of who I am.”
I lacked a good response to that. On Tso’got, being homosexual was condemnable, much more so than crossbreeding. In some city clusters, it was actually illegal and could get you tossed in a cell or fined at the very least.
“I would kill to be normal,” he lamented, “To have a normal life, to have normal affections, to be a normal kid. Instead, my parents left me on my own. The only good people in my life were guys…so I started liking them instead of girls like everyone else. You, Basl, and a few teachers that actually gave a shit about me, that was all it really took, and I found myself looking at boys more than girls. When you started dating Xana, it finally dawned on me that I was never gonna be like you; she’s the epitome of what a guy our age should be all over, but I felt no attraction for her, not even a little. No, instead, I felt fucking jealousy for her because she was dating you! Yeah,” he said with a laugh, “How about that shit? But wait, we can up the ante! We can make this little fucker Adapt so his very existence is a defiance to nature! Not only are his love interests criminal, he’s an illegal little brat because he has this dumb fucking thing running around under his skin!”
He went to take another drink and I put my hand over the top. “Come on, that’s enough.”
“Nick, I’m going to get very drunk, and you’re going to let me.”
“No,” I said, firm, “I’m not.”
He grimaced and shoved my shoulder; even with him being a bit less coordinated, it was way harder than most anyone could punch and knocked me over.
I set my jaw and threw myself back at him, using my whole body to topple him and make the bottle hit the ground. “I said, you’ve had enough!”
Murphy growled, “Goddamnit, Nick, get off me!” He grabbed my shirt and twisted, stressing his passenger and launching me, throwing me back into the side of his house. I fell to the ground in a heap, stars twinkling in my vision. “Oh, shit!” he hissed, my friend finally coming back to his senses as he charged over to make sure I was okay.
“That hurt,” I groaned.
“Oh fuck, Nick,” he lamented, his voice breaking, “I’m so sorry, I-I-I just…I can’t…”
As he sat me up, I wrapped my arm around him in a hug, catching him off guard. “It’s okay. You’re not a freak. You’re my friend.”
“I…” he stopped trying to talk and simply returned the hug.
I wasn’t sure how long we were outside, but eventually I became aware we were being watched. Glancing to the side, I was shocked to see Spectre a few meters away, waving politely. “Sorry, but we do have to keep an eye on you.”
Murphy wiped his face off and looked at her, and then to the door that still hadn’t been opened. “How did you get out here?”
She smiled and her whole body turned into an apparition; she glided back through the wall of the house and then drifted back out beside us. “Even though I don’t have any real offensive powers of my own, being able to fly for a little bit and drift through walls is pretty handy. I didn’t mean to interrupt though,” she confessed, pressing her fingers together, nervous. “It’s just…Psycho did say to keep an eye on you…”
“It’s okay,” I said, “You have a job to do. We get it.”
I wasn’t angry at her, but she was an obnoxious reminder that we were prisoners for the time being.
“Hey,” I said, getting back up to my feet, “How about we go back in, yeah?”
Murphy nodded, “Alright.”
I gave him a sideways glance, “You aren’t going to start hitting on me, are you?”
“You’re a fucking asshole, you know that?” he chided with a weak chuckle. “Seriously though man, thanks for being…okay with this.”
“Dude, I grow an alien out of my skin. I’m pretty sure I can handle the fact my best friend likes guys. You’ll need a more dramatic reveal to really get anything out of me.”
He smiled, “Maybe I should start hitting on you, you’re way too good for Xana.”
“Aw, come on man!”
He snickered as Spectre opened the door for us. Everyone was waiting, pensive as we came back into the kitchen and dining room, the tension high as Ted stepped forward to Murphy, wearing a dour expression.
“Hey listen, I’m-“
Murphy hit him hard enough to send him across the room. Dysfunction started to step forward, but Bargain held her back, waiting. Ted took a second and wiped blood from his mouth as he got back up, a bit shaky.
“I deserved that,” he said, nursing his jaw. “We good?”
“Yeah,” he said after weighing the idea, “We’re good. Just, fucking think before you open your mouth.”
Ted nodded, “Are you cutting me off due to my blabbermouth,” he asked, reaching over to the table to pick up an empty glass, “Or can I get a refill?”
“If it makes you shut the hell up, I’ll pour you another.”
“Now, kiss!” Rebecca said off to the side with a wicked grin on her face. Murphy turned and gave her a glare, his cheeks bright red. “What, too soon?”
“Fuck you, Rebecca,” he groaned, “Is nothing sacred?”
“Certainly not when it has to deal with you,” she countered.
I let myself fade from the center as Roger stepped away from Yuki, leaving her for now in effort to get another drink and try to relax. He was quiet still, being hyperaware of his girlfriend and her state. However, Psycho might be using us, but he wasn’t kidding about keeping us in good shape. That helped assuage a lot of the rage that he was expressing earlier.
A hand grabbed me and I was surprised to see Alexis beside me.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a bit?” she asked, sounding strangely timid. Ever since really embracing her role as captain, she had been so confident. It was…odd seeing her like this again.
She tugged on my arm and dragged me back to what I assumed was the parental bedroom. It was odd seeing a master bedroom that looked decidedly unlived in. Everything was a little bit out of place, surfaces dusty, and clothing a mess. Murphy told us he refused to use the room, a last middle finger to his parents. They weren’t worth cleaning up after anymore.
“Nick, earlier tonight, I was afraid for you.”
I felt a strange urge to roll my eyes, “Alexis, you had us pick a fight with Beleth. Of course things were going to get dangerous. But, we knew that going in.”
“No, not like that.” She composed herself and stopped looking at the floor. “You made yourself enormous. You grew so much mass, so fast. I was afraid to shoot at Beleth any earlier for fear I’d piss you off.”
“I thought I was going to lose you in that thing,” she said softly. “I was afraid it was going to eat my friend. I was still worried you weren’t you until you went after Murphy.”
“Hey, I’m fine! I maybe got a little murdery and all, but I had a clear focus. I was determined to bring Beleth down, not attack you or just anything nearby. Trust me,” I said softly.
“I do but…it’s just…”
“Just what?” I asked, starting to get frustrated at her being nervous. “Just spit it out already.”
“Nick,” she barely whispered, “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”
“You aren’t going to lose me,” I promised, “I had control over the suit.”
She put her hands on my shirt and balled up her fists, “You…you still don’t get it, do you? How thick-headed are you, Nicholas Weld?”
“What are you-“
And then she kissed me.
My first thought was that I should pull away…but I didn’t. This was wrong, I had a girlfriend and Alexis was…well, Alexis! There were so many more reasons this shouldn’t be happening, why I should pull away and stop this, pretend it never happened, see if we could keep our friendship the same.
But I kissed back, like an idiot.
Alexis finally pulled away, shaking. “Do…do you finally get it?”
I nodded, overwhelmed. “But, how long have-?”
She shook her head, “Nick, you idiot, I’ve loved you since I was thirteen. I…I can’t lose you, okay? I want to hate Xana for dating you, but she’s so fucking perfect, and you two are so cute together. It hurts, but I can deal with that because I see how happy she makes you. I’m not so petty I’m going to ruin a good thing because I’m jealous. But, promise me I’m not going to lose you because of Rogue Sentry stuff, because of what I put you through.” She shuddered and forced her hands to stop shaking, “Nick, if I was responsible for breaking you, I’d kill myself. I was terrified that you wouldn’t be the same after what happened tonight; that you’d push too hard and something would snap. I was mortified at the idea that I’d have to tell Xana what happened to you. Promise me,” she begged, “Promise me I won’t lose you.”
“I….I promise,” I finally said.
Alexis nodded and turned, leaving me to deal with the toll her confession took out of me. How had I been so clueless? How had I never seen it?
And what the hell was I supposed to tell Xana?