Ferne’s gifts were the only thing allowing me to keep a clear head during this sham of a negotiation. They were out to get me from the beginning, and their body language screamed it. The District Attourney and my public defender gave each other the casual regard that meant they were friends. They even looked a little alike, both being somewhat overweight, middle-aged white men. I was willing to bet money after work they’d go out for drinks, or golf, or whatever they did.
The mystery in the room was the teenage girl in the blue sun dress and party mask, the police hero known as ‘Sympathy’. Ferne’s augments gave me no insights into her mind. Something about her unnerved the hell out of me, reminding me more than a little of Ferne. They even had pretty much the same skin color, although Sympathy had to weigh another thirty pounds over what Ferne did.
My so-called lawyer pushed the paperwork into my hands. “It’s as good a deal as you’re likely to get.”
I shoved the papers away as best I could. “In what world is life in prison the best deal?”
They had my arms chained to the table, a precaution in case I had Brawler powers. Not knowing exactly what Ferne gave me, they just assumed I was equivalent to an expert in every combat field. There were even times, like when I was giving training to Zach, where that was true. Everything came back to what he did.
My lawyer’s eyes briefly turned toward the DA, as if he wanted to apologize instead of actually doing his job to help his client. “The one where it keeps the death penalty off the table. A trial would only-”
“A trial for what!? All they have is me arguing with a god damn Imbued and a tape that’s so questionable that a dead chimpanzee could make sure it’s inadmissable in court.”
“Be that as it may,” the DA interrupted. “Our investigation is ongoing, and all we need is to find that singular bit of circumstantial that connects you to even one of these murders.”
I knew it wouldn’t work. Ferne had the same perfect memory she gave to me, so we never wrote down anything incriminating. “And when you can’t, you’ll plant it, right?” It was rhetorical, and I didn’t bother waiting for an answer. I’d be making an argument of that nature in court anyway. “I helped Ferne find recipients for her powers, but that’s not a crime. We’re going to trial, I don’t care if I have to represent myself.”
“You can’t represent yourself,” Sympathy spoke for the first time during this meeting. “Whatever power Ferne used on you is still in your system. I estimate sharpened senses, perfect memory, cold reading skills and probably even tweaks to your body language. Or maybe you just used the advanced learning powers she gave you to pick those other skills up unnaturally.”
She can learn all of that? What is her power? I said nothing.
“Her power will continue as long as you want it to, right?” Sympathy asked. “A voluntary bond that lasts until either party wishes it dropped.”
Either party? I had always thought only I could- no, she’s just trying to make me suspicious of Ferne and force the bond to break. Either her power told her that weakness, or she talked to Zach or one of Ferne’s other partners. I kept my mouth shut and watched Sympathy. Now that she was talking, maybe I could get a read on her.
After seeing I wasn’t buying her bullshit, she continued. “In any case, it’s explicitly forbidden by I don’t even know how many laws to use powers to circumvent the natural proceedings of the court. You easily qualify as Infiltrator 1.4, so you may not defend yourself in court.”
What I would not give to punch her right now. “Your average non-powered talk show host could be ranked at a 1.4 and we both know it.”
“A trait they’ve acquired through years of effort and training.” Her retort was without malice, but the accusation was there. “Can’t risk your powers cheating the system.”
“Yeah, you should only be allowed to cheat the system through the power of money. A kid from the poor side of town like me gets nothing.” I looked directly at my supposed advocate. They knew this was a sham, I just wanted them to know I knew it, too. I took the papers they’d offered in both hands, and relished the sound as I tore them in half. “I think we’re done here.”
The DA sighed as he stood. “Have it your way.” He tried to act tired, but in reality he was quite nervous. It was so achingly obvious that they didn’t want this to go to trial that I expected they would drop almost all the charges just to hush it up.
I waited until my lawyer stood before clearing my throat. “Oh, and I’d like access to some law books. I know the deck’s stacked against me, but I’d at least like to know the rules of the game.” If nothing else, maybe I’d get an appeal on the grounds that my lawyer was corrupt.
“I’ll have the basics to you in the morning,” he said as he waddled after his buddy.
The guard, a mountain of a man named Roberts, approached. “You know the drill, Bennett.” I put both my hands palms down on the table, allowing him to clip the cuffs together before undoing the chain. Even if I tried to fight back, it’d be useless. Even if I had my combat or lockpicking skills, there were still men armed with guns and walls made of concrete and steel to stop me.
I took another shot, but the basketball bounced off the rim and off into the yard. I’m useless. I don’t have the coordination. I glanced back at my house, I knew Dad was in there watching me, making sure I didn’t slack off. He doesn’t get it, I’m not an athlete. I jogged after the ball, the cold air hitting my lungs as I breathed deeper.
“Hey,” a girl’s voice from the other side of our privacy fence. “You need to learn to be more gentle with the ball. Handle it like a fruit, not your dad’s face.”
I stood up straight, my head barely came up over the fence so I stood on my tip toes to get a look at the voice. She was small, at least a couple years younger than me, perhaps as young as twelve, her skin a light shade of brown. “How’d you know?”
She looked up at me and brushed the hair away from her face, revealing some nasty looking bruises and a black eye. That gesture told me everything I needed to know. Her thin lipped smirk asked if I had any more questions.
I looked up at the neighbor’s house. “I didn’t think Mrs. Sinclair had any children, let alone grandkids. Besides, I’m not seeing the resemblance.”
“You mean the Asian chick living with the black woman?” Ferne’s smirk never left her face, but she didn’t seem offended.
“That, and she’s like six-one and one of her arms weighs more than you.” Pretty sure one of her legs weighs more than I do. “But while we’re on the subject, what is your ancestry? I mean, Asia’s obvious, but you look different than what I’ve seen.”
Ferne just shrugged. “Hawaiian and French, actually.” Ferne licked the cut on her lip. “I don’t have any family, and the foster system’s complete shit, especially for mutts like me. Mrs. Sinclair’s my caseworker, says she’ll look after me for a few days until she can find something more stable, but I think I can convince her to let me stay here.”
“Ah, okay,” I wondered what words I could offer her in comfort. I decided there weren’t any. “So, what do you know about basketball?”
“My dad was a fan.” She jumped up and caught the top of the fence, then easily pulled herself up and over, all in a matter of a couple seconds. “I think I’m more cut out for gymnastics, myself, but I can give you a few basketball pointers.”
How did she? “Uh-umm,” She was already walking to the hoop. “My parents are pretty strict, maybe you shouldn’t-”
“Do you think they’re going to mistake me for your girlfriend?” Her voice didn’t change in tone, keeping the same even level as always.
“Uh, no, I don’t have a girlfriend,” I admitted. “It’s just my parents are big on school and sports. I don’t exactly have free time.”
“Then I’m just a neighbor that’s going to be a classmate. You go to Adams, right?”
“How’d you know?”
“No one who can afford a better school lives in this neighborhood.”
She had a point. “So, you’re a freshman?” She barely looked old enough to be in middle-school.
She just raised an eyebrow, the one that wasn’t bruised up. “Soph, actually. Yes, I am well aware I look younger. My dating life will consist exclusively of closet perverts. Guess if they’re hitting on me, they’re not hitting on real twelve year olds.”
“That’s taking life’s lemons, making lemonade, and dumping it into your own eyes.” Yeah, she was small, but she wasn’t ugly by any stretch. The parts of her face that weren’t sporting bruises both new and old suggested she was very cute. Maybe she’d never be a classic beauty, but she had a wit and confidence to her that made her seem more mature than most of the adults I knew. “But it’s not really going to help with my parents.”
“Then I’m your basketball coach,” she answered smoothly. “If your dad doesn’t believe me, we’ll see how he does in a game against me.”
“You think you can beat me?” I tossed her the ball. “Tell you what, I’ll let you take the first shot.”
An hour later, and I was ready to throw in the towel. Getting your ass handed to you by a little girl was humiliating. “How are you so good at this?”
She shrugged and offered a half smile, what seemed like the only smile she knew how to make. “Well, I’d say practice makes perfect, but that’s a lie.”
I waited for a minute, wondering what I could do to unlock this girl’s mysteries. “Well, if practice making perfect is a lie, then what’s the truth?” I smiled, and probably looked like a dork for it. “Speaking as someone who’s only ever heard that lie. Well, and steroids, but you don’t look like the type.”
“The truth is, I made a wish, and it came true.”
The girl was weird as hell, but it just added to her charm. I laughed at her joke. “I’m pretty sure wishing is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do if you want to succeed.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I didn’t wish for success.”
“Oh, then what did you wish for?” I moved a little closer to her and whispered the question. It felt like the right thing to do. I was hoping it was something I could compliment her on, maybe give her a kiss. Just on the cheek, innocent enough.
“I wanted to know why my parents did what they did,” she whispered back. It was the first time she didn’t seem to have complete confidence.
“Oh.” The hope for that kiss was gone, and in its wake I had more questions than ever. What can I say? What can I do to make this better, to help her? “And did you? Get your wish, I mean?”
She nodded. “All that and more.” Her eyes started to glow, a soft red-orange light.
She’s Imbued. I moved back on instinct, she could probably kill me with just a thought. A moment later, I scooted back in, hoping she didn’t notice my moment of stupidity. “Well, at least I don’t have to feel so bad about losing now.” I hoped acting casual about it would help make her feel at ease.
“That, and you’re just bad at basketball,” she added.
“Ouch.” I smiled and laughed it off. “So, what can you do?”
“I can give other people powers,” she answered. “I’m not sure how it all works yet. I think I can do improved strength or healing or intelligence, but I haven’t had them long enough to know for sure. In exchange, I get to be just a little bit stronger than my strongest partner, a little smarter than the smartest.”
“That… sounds like quite the ability…” So she has others already. I found myself disappointed; I wanted to be her first.
She smiled at me, a bit wider than usual. “Would you like to do it?”
For a moment, I thought she meant something else. “Uh. Doesn’t powers mean I can’t be in sports?” In a way, that was part of the appeal. Dad would have to lay off if I got powers, and if they were too minor for me to be a real target for PREP, then I could just go through school and have a normal life.
“I’ve thought of a way around that,” she said. “As long as I don’t boost your body, and you don’t have powers during a game, no one should notice a thing.”
“Y-yeah, I guess you’re the expert,” I agreed. I still wasn’t too bothered by the idea of it not working. I just wanted to be part of this brilliant, weird, beautiful girl’s life. “So how do we do this?”
“One thing, though. Nature didn’t give you a basketball player’s genetics. You’ll be much better off playing football.” She reached her hand out to me. “I’ve got so many plans.”
I didn’t see my dad caring one way or another, long as it was a sport and I was good at it. “I accept.” Her hand was unnaturally strong for something so small and soft.
We were supposed to save the world together. I was supposed to be the shield, using my career and celebrity to save children before the cycles of poverty and substance abuse could claim them. Ferne was supposed to be the sword, culling those who didn’t deserve to be saved. That’s impossible now, I have nothing left. I couldn’t even get justice for her.
You still can.
It was a thought, a possibility, an insight into possible futures. I didn’t know where it came from, just that it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the spark of Ferne’s power left within me. I waited, walking dumbly along in front of Roberts.
The possibilities rippled before me; I could have my justice, I could make Zach suffer the way he made me suffer. There were other, vague possibilities of career and fame and power. I searched only long enough to know there was no hope of bringing her back to me.
I accept. If I cannot have the woman I love, then I will have my revenge on her killer.
Ferne’s power dissipated, leaving me cold inside, only for something new, vibrant, and vastly more potent to take its place. Is this what Ferne felt when she gained her abilities? I still had my intelligence, and I could feel my muscles gaining in strength with each given step. Luckily, I was already big and my clothes were baggy so it wouldn’t tip off the guards.
“Hey, man, I know it’s against regs a bit, but I’ve got a bitch of an itch on the back of my neck,” I lied with perfect expertise. “Do you mind if I?” I lifted my hands a bit, slowly enough to avoid pissing anyone off.
“Keep them down,” Roberts demanded.
“Dude, it’s fucking bad, just a second is all I ask.”
“Then…” and here’s where I deserve the Oscar. “Do you think you can do it for me?”
“Fine.” His fingers hit the back of my neck and a map of his memories snapped into my mind. He has two daughters, one nine and one twelve. He has a wife, Margaret. Their sex life is abysmal so he often hits a bar after work hoping for a quickie from whatever girl might be into jacked, dark and authoritative. Failing that, there was this bar next to a bowling alley that always had a working girl hanging out in the lot. “Happy, now?”
“You have no idea,” I agreed. With my newfound abilities, I nudged his emotions in the direction of the bar, just for a night cap, not something sleezy. From there, it was a matter of the waiting game. I stared up at the ceiling thinking and counting away the hours until roughtly nine at night.
Will Mom and Dad cry? Dad wouldn’t, as far as he was concerned I was already dead. Mom might, but never in front of Dad. It’d probably be the last bit of stress that caused their marriage to break in half. In a way, I was even happy to hurt them; they didn’t even bother coming to my arraignment.
I felt bad for Karen. Hopefully, one day, she’d forgive me.
With that thought, I vanished in a swirl of yellow and red light, my clothing falling onto the bunk.
The air was thick with smoke and the smell of alcohol. So close to the Christmas season, and this place was packed. “After five years, your job will still suck.”
I searched Roberts’ immediate memories. Something about a joke comparing jobs with wives. Right. “Ain’t that the truth,” I muttered, chugging the entire glass of beer. “Speaking of, I’m gonna go talk to Jen about her Christmas bonus.”
“Yeah, I’d better get going before it starts raining again anyway,” Allen said. Truth was, he was a cheapskate, and if Roberts wasn’t paying for the occasional drink, he didn’t have much reason to stick around.
“Hey, lover, long time no see.”