That unbelievable son of a bitch. I snapped awake, rolled to my feet, then confirmed I was alone. The Lynx roiled around me, its hunger for blood and death sated for the time being, but my momentary lapse in control roused it to action. So soon after killing, and already it strains against the cage of my mind. It will be stronger, now that it knows I’m so weak.
I looked back at the water, where I had so let it off the leash. Twenty seven men and women, all dead. Were they all guilty? Did they all know what they were doing? A surge of passion, smug certainty, came from heart of the Nowhere. Some were guilty, of that I was certain, but now that the heat of the situation had died down, I couldn’t convince myself that every last one of them were monsters.
If the Lynx could vocalize, or even think, it might have laughed at me, or perhaps offered me temptations and bargains like the stories of its namesake. Instead, it responded with Nothing.
I dipped my head into the Nowhere, and as always the Lynx replaced my sight with its own. The non-vision of the Lynx showed all movement and all life around me in vivid detail, while nonliving matter was faded and indestinct. I spotted Claire’s beach on the other side of a cliff, and now I knew exactly where I was.
I braced myself as I stepped into the maw of the beast, letting it swallow me whole and alive. I walked freely into the Nowhere, the land that, when God said ‘let there be light’, he silently added ‘except there, fuck that place’. I stepped forward using its feet, and fell into the earth. A moment of panic, wondering if today was the day it might slip its leash and leave me here, trapped in the Nowhere to die, but it obeyed my will as always. I started to run through the nowhere, pushing myself hard in a futile attempt to forget the turmoils of the day.
I felt no soreness or unresponsiveness in my limbs or other, private, areas that my police training warned was sign of sexual assault. I’d dealt with more than one rape case in my years as an officer, but I never thought I’d need to apply that concern to myself. Up until him, I never met a living thing that could touch me without paying for it with a literal pound of flesh.
For some stupid, unexplainable reason I think I’d have been less angry if he had done something inappropriate. I didn’t like feeling used for something as cheap as his investigation, as if I had nothing to offer him beyond his damn job. A rumble pulled me from my thoughts, as a tree collapsed above me. The Lynx used my lapse in concentration to destroy the roots of one of the pines clinging to the rocky soil.
I took a slow, calming breath of the stale air stored in the Nowhere. If I don’t clean it out soon, there won’t be enough oxygen in here for me to breathe. I kept up my breathing exercises, ten seconds at a time. I can’t allow another lapse in judgment, not after tonight. Never again.
With force of will alone, I pulled the Lynx as close to my skin as possible; it slowed me down, but it was a way to keep my mind off everything that happened tonight, and prevent Lynx from killing more things. At least we got Claire out of that hellhole. Claire. Fuck, how big a bitch am I that it took this long to think about Claire?
Somehow, I trusted Andrew was making sure she got the best care possible. I found myself half-smiling despite myself; his knight in shining armor routine may have been infuriating, but it managed to be endearing all the same. As long as Claire was safe, I could forgive him for playing me the way he did. I guess I did come on pretty strong, and never bothered to find out his thoughts on the matter. It’s not like I can even claim he owed me an explanation. We were basically strangers.
The Lynx returned to my full control now that my emotions weren’t a distraction, and I made it to my vehicle without further incident. I pulled my cell out of the glove compartment to check messages. It was an impressive piece of work, being able to get enough signal for a text even this far from civilization. Of course, I paid a premium for it, with some low-grade Gadget or another doing the legwork where standard cell phone tech couldn’t. Which was why I didn’t carry it with me; Lynx protected me, but sometimes didn’t protect my equipment.
Some stupid part of me hoped that Andrew at least left a message, but the only message I had was from Chief Byron.
Lynx. Call immediately. I don’t care what time.
The time stamp said the call was only twenty minutes ago. Doubt she’s in bed. I hit the speed-dial even as I started the truck.
“Lynx? Where the hell have you been?! The CSIS is here looking for you!” That was the closest I’d ever heard the Chief come to swearing. She was normally a stern, humorless shrew, but she was a stern, humorless shrew with a sense of decorum the Queen would find impeccable.
Holy shit. “Already?” My brain caught a moment later, and decided the mouth had the right of it; Andrew was here on someone’s dime, and Imbued with his strength and versatility could not be cheap, which suggested government involvement. Include the involvement of what were essentially First Nation terrorists, and this became the concern of the Prime Minister. “I’ll be there in an hour. Find out if they have Vine.”
I hit the gas, driving as fast as I’d allow myself through these awful backroads; no sense in doing something stupid this close to the finish line. Thanks to the Lynx, I had nothing to fear from even the worst crash, but it was a long walk home where one could go hours without seeing a single vehicle going either direction.
A quarter past eleven, I walked into the precinct. I’ve been up for over twenty four hours now, I should be exhausted. No, wait, I’ve had two ‘naps’ courtesy of Andrew. I don’t know how his sleep power works, but he could make a killing as the cure to insomnia. I made a line straight for the Chief’s office; Lynx’s senses already showed me she had two guests with her.
Chief Byron didn’t look too stressed by the circumstances, more annoyed than legitimately upset; but annoyed was her default expression at all times, so that didn’t reveal much. “Glad you could finally make it. These young gentlemen are quite eager to meet you.” Did I mention she also had a sarcastic streak in her?
Both men were in suits you’d expect of feds, but unlike the movies they didn’t wear glasses. The younger of the pair stepped forward. He was handsome in an ‘uptight executive’ sort of way, with a strong jaw, blond hair, and the confidence of a man who knew he could get whatever he wanted with the right words and a smile. I hated him immediately. “Sorry to inconvenience you at this hour. Your country owes you a debt of gratitude. I would shake your hand, but we’ve read up on your abilities.”
An apology, a compliment, and a warning all in the same breath. This guy is everything our government wants its operatives to be. “I wasn’t planning on getting much sleep tonight, anyway. Just tell me that Vine is okay, and I’ll consider us even.”
The older man spoke next. “She’s receiving some of the best medical care in the world, including healer support. I can promise her physical wellbeing, but the emotional scars are more complicated. She will, of course, receive any and all therapy we can provide, but it will be a long road to recovery.”
I wasn’t certain if he was in charge and watching a junior officer, or if he was outranked by man roughly half his age. I felt the Lynx churn within me, ready to be unleashed again. I quashed it back into the furthest recesses of my mind. This is not the appropriate time. There will never be an appropriate time. “Thank you for your honesty.”
The first guy, I noted that neither gave me a name, spoke next. “Our reports indicate you participated in Vine’s rescue, along with another Imbued. We were wondering what details you could share about the man who helped you.”
The question surprised me. They don’t know? Or they do know and want to know what I know. “I know very little, sorry.”
The older guy nodded. “We understand, it was a rough night and he was likely vague. Any details you can offer would be appreciated.”
I still couldn’t be sure why they were asking, nor was I certain why I still felt the need to protect Andrew. I decided to reveal something obvious. “Well, he’s got the full physical package. Enhanced strength, speed, durability, if a trained athlete can do it, he does it better. And he has real combat training, he doesn’t rely on his powers to carry him in a fight.”
They didn’t appear surprised in the least. They want more. Sorry, Andrew, I have to give them something. “Boosted senses, too, and more than capable of blind fighting. And I know he has some kind of teleportation ability. Though I’m not sure if he was doing it himself, or had silent partners do it for him. He used a gun, and took a metal spear from one of the Thassans, so I don’t think he has any direct damage powers. That’s all I observed.”
The older gentleman nodded along as I spoke, though he didn’t take any notes. More likely than not, the earpieces they wore were recording everything I said to go through Esper scrutiny later. “Thank you, ma’am. Now, our information is bit sketchy, would you mind giving us a detailed description of the events from your perspective? You’re not in any trouble, but this is a sensitive situation that could have far reaching consequences. We need to know everything before moving forward.”
“I understand,” I said. If I don’t talk, they might try to interrogate Vine. I took a seat and began recounting the last week. “It began when Vine didn’t report in after her weekend off, followed by an attempted bank robbery. I’m afraid I don’t know what her abductors thought that would achieve…” For the next hour or so, I went down the list of events, including Andrew walking into our trap. I left out how his power canceled mine, and the healing he did for me, a small bit of loyalty even if it was misplaced.
When I finished, the younger man spoke. “That fits with other intel we’ve received. Thank you for your cooperation, Lynx, and let me say again that you’ve done your nation a great service. Which is why it pains me to inform you that you will never receive credit for your heroism. We have already fabricated a cover story explaining Vine’s attack as the actions of a powerful Imbued who killed himself rather than be captured.”
I nodded along. That’s even close enough to the truth to fool the Espers. Chief Byron looked ready to object, but I spoke first. “That’s fine. I’d prefer not to get any recognition. Just make sure Vine gets the help she needs.”
“You needn’t worry about that,” the older man said. I wondered if they had a code for which of them would talk about a given subject. This seemed like the sort of tag-team that took practice to pull off. “We take care of our heroes. In that spirit, you will be recieving a promotion for your efforts.”
In short, a bribe to keep my mouth shut. Not that I was complaining. Chief Byron, however, had something to say. “We can’t afford an unscheduled promotion. Finances are stretched to the limit as it is.”
The younger guy offered a smile that could have been on a toothpaste commercial. “Naturally, your department will be given a stipend to compensate for Lynx’s promotion, as well as a bit more for discretionary purposes. In fact, plans are in the work to bring in some additional law enforcement to protect Vancouver, as part of our anti-terrorism task forcs. While it appears the Thassans responsible for this attack are no longer a threat, that’s no excuse to let our vigilance lapse. If nothing else, it helps to keep law enforcement presence strong while Vine recovers.”
“I see,” Chief Byron said after a moment to collect herself. She knew as well as I did that she was being bribed for her silence. “Strong points all around. I would like to see your plan for releasing your account of events to the public.”
The older man pulled a manila envelope from his briefcase. “This is the basic outline. Naturally, we’d be appreciative of any suggestions before we put the plan into action. Thank you in advance. We’d best get going, and we’re sorry for troubling you so late. Incidentally, Vine may need someone to stay with, it would help the emotional side of her recovery.”
“I can move in with her for a while,” I said. It wasn’t as if I had anyone waiting for me in my apartment; I couldn’t even own a pet more needy than a goldfish. “Vine and I are friends in our civilian lives.”
“Then she’s lucky to have you,” the younger one said. It wasn’t until after they left the room that I wondered just what he was assuming.
“Shannon, it’s fine, I’m not a porcelain doll!” Claire sighed in exasperation. An offshoot of her ficus shot forward, pushing me toward the door. “If you keep fretting over me, I’m going to start worrying that something’s wrong, and then I’ll snap and strangle you in your sleep!”
The chunk of ficus met the Lynx and died almost immediately from both our powers killing it simultaneously. Even so, it was the closest thing to touching another human being I could experience, other than Andrew. “Fine, fine! I’m going! Yeesh.”
“Good! Now off with you!” She followed me to the door, fanning me with her hands the whole way. “And remember to wait until the third date before you put out.”
I spun around, only for the door to slam in my face. Granted, that was no obstacle to me, but Claire was a master of always getting in the last word. I looked down at the casual clothes I was in. No makeup, not dressed up, why does she think I’m on a date. Will he think I think it’s a date? I made my way to a certain little house not far out of town. In the unkempt front lawn, a man relaxed against a tree, his eyes closed.
He’s actually here. My heart jumped in my chest. He looked different, now wearing Caucasian features with sandy brown hair. I noted that he kept his face clean shaven in every form, perhaps as part of the limits on his shapeshifting. Either way, I knew he couldn’t change his height or impressive musculature. I pulled myself into the Nowhere, using the lack of sensation in the maws of the Lynx as a splash of cold water on my face.
I moved in silence, watching him through the Lynx’s senses. For its part, it writhed in anticipation, aware that soon it would get its claws into new prey. In part, that’s how I knew there was no true intelligence in the Lynx; even a rodent knew to avoid self harm, while Lynx would attack Andrew forever if I allowed it to.
I stepped out of the Nowhere, my left foot near his right elbow. “I should arrest you for vagrancy.”
His eyes opened, a small smile on his face. “Perhaps I own the house?”
The Lynx reached for his face, which I allowed for the satisfaction when it shuddered and flickered away. The texture of my shirt became clear as the forever-present shield created by the creature melted away from my skin. For a moment I drank in the sun’s warmth on my skin, as the monster I contained lost some of its presence in this world for a few precious seconds.
“I suspect one of your powers is carrying around a giant load of complete bullshit.” Just because he was good looking and was my only chance to touch another human being didn’t mean I was going to let him off the hook that easily.
“You take that back.” He hopped to his feet in a single, smooth motion. “I have never once been an elected official.”
I stepped a bit closer, enough that even without attacking, the Lynx was repelled just by his power. Even the air smells better near him. I looked up at his hazel eyes, putting on what I hoped was an attractive smile. “I suppose that was a bit harsh. Guess I’ll have to make it up to you.”
He brought his hands up, to rest on both my shoulders. The Lynx couldn’t scream or experience pain, but it acted like it could under the circumstances, pushed as far back into the Nowhere as it ever had been before. A look of worry crossed his face. “Do you mean that?”
What. “Yes. And if you knock me out again, I swear I will hunt you down and leave an armed grenade where your brain is supposed to be. Seriously, I don’t know how blatant I can be without a public indecency charge. What do you want from me?”
He turned his head up, looking away. “I guess I just want to know what you want.”
“I should think that’s obvious.” I fought down a need to cry. “What’s wrong? You could just tell me you’re not interested, rather than string me along like this. Real bastard move, by the way.”
He flinched like I’d slapped him. “Sorry. You said before that you don’t have powers, instead you had a family curse?”
“Not winning you any points, buster.”
“What can I say? I’m an investigator.” His lopsided smile managed to be both adorable and utterly infuriating at the same time. “I get the impression there’s a story there, and I need to hear it. I think you need to tell it, too.”
“You’re an asshole, by the way.”
“Almost every woman I’ve ever known has told me as much once or twice, yes.”
I took a breath of fresh air and the scent of another human being in close proximity; I already knew I’d share the story. “Let’s go inside, first.”
What is with this guy? I walked to the door, stepped through, and unlocked it from the inside. He was on the other side waiting before I had the door open. “I bet you get called a moron by a lot of women, too. So, let’s see if you have some intelligence. Guess my race.”
He hesitated for a second. “Obviously East Asian, but I couldn’t narrow it down further.”
“See, that’s what I thought, too,” I said. I stepped closer to him, just to have a sense of humanity again. His arms went around me in a soft embrace. “My parents died when I was a toddler, so I was raised in the foster system. I doubt the Canadian version is much better than the American. Or at least I hope yours isn’t somehow worse. No, I’m not talking about it. It has nothing to do with my curse.”
“Okay.” One of his hands moved up and down my back like a child rather than an adult woman about to turn thirty. Somehow, it felt wonderful.
“Then on my thirteenth birthday, I find out I had a grandfather. Some bigwig in the tribe. Could have come along and pulled me out of the system any time he liked, or if he wasn’t interested in raising me, hired a damn nanny, but he decided not to.” The Lynx, reminded of its former master, lashed out on its own with every intent of eviscerating Andrew. I smirked at its failure and retreat. If only it could suffer for real.
“Until he decided he had a use for you,” something in Andrew’s voice sounded like he’d had similar experiences.
“Yeah. Seems I’m the whatever-grand-daughter of an ancient Blackfoot warrior who defeated a… well, there’s no true English translation, but it comes close to meaning ‘Great Beast. They’re basically elder demons or some such bullshit. He tried to make me take take it. I told him to go to hell.”
“But it happened anyway.”
“Yeah. The bastard hit me. Used the damn Lynx to keep the caretakers away until he could beat me into accepting it. I refused, I could sense how evil it was.” The Lynx surged at Andrew yet again, smashing itself uselessly against the man’s skin. “It wasn’t until he tried pulling down my pants that…”
“Oh, Christ. The fucker deserved whatever happened to him.”
“I… I don’t think he was actually going to do… that… but it didn’t matter. It was too much, I gave up, and the Lynx consumed him. Now I’m stuck with this monster inside me.”
Andrew squeezed me, saying nothing until I could compose myself.
“But it’s not a real demon, or god, or whatever,” I trembled in Andrew’s arms. “It’s just some sick thing cooked up by some ancient Imbued. Somehow it jumps down the family line every time its host dies. Fucking joke’s on someone else, then, because after me there’s no one else. Why gramps didn’t just have a bunch more kids, I’ll never know, but I’m the end of the line. He seemed to believe some demon would be released from hell if Lynx is unchained. Or the tribal equivalent, I don’t give a fuck about the culture.” Their bullshit is why I have this abomination stuck to me for life.
“Such a terrible burden for a child to bear,” Andrew’s own voice trembled. “It must have been so lonely.”
“And…” I looked up at him. “And then you come along, the first person I’ve been able to touch since I was thirteen years old, and I… I just want to feel normal, maybe, for once. If only for a little while.” I stood on my toes, bringing my face close to his. Just a kiss, I can settle for that.
He stood taller, so I couldn’t reach his mouth with mine. “And that’s why I’m saying no. It’s not that you’re unattractive. Believe me, you’re beautiful, but I can’t let myself take something so important from you, especially when it’s not even me you really want.”
“I don’t care, I just…” I hesitated. “God, I sound like some pathetic slut, don’t I?” Tears started running down my face, and I no longer cared to fight them. Even the Lynx didn’t have the strength to attack, despite my moment of weakness.
“You sound like someone who’s been through hell and came out hurt.” Andrew’s hands slid down my arms. “I can’t be the one who heals the wound, but I can give you the means to find someone who can.” The Lynx felt it before I did, as two pieces of metal clicked over my wrists. It struggled like I’d never felt it struggle before, and then… it was gone. Instead of the Nothing, there was Everything the Lynx obscured. I was powerless, and it was wonderful.
I looked up at him. “H-how?”
He smirked at me. “I talked to a couple friends. They got a good look at your powers, and cooked these babies up. Gadgeteer bullshit. You wouldn’t understand them if they told you. I didn’t.”
I looked down at the pair of thick bracelets on my wrists. They were simple midnight blue, without any decorations, and thicker than could be mistaken for normal jewelry. If anything, they looked like manacles, but they made me free instead of kept me a prisoner.
“You have to wear both of them, otherwise they’ll only hold back part of the Lynx.” I barely heard Andrew over the realization of what I held. “And there are time limits. It can keep the Lynx suppressed for four hours before they over heat and you get your powers back. Take them off and they can bleed off the power they absorbed. Time between also goes up, the more power they’ve absorbed. Keep them on an hour, they’ll need six to bleed off. Two hours, a full day. Three and it’ll take a week. Let them reach max, and you have to go a full month before they can be used again. It’s not much, but with careful timing, they-”
I slammed into him, holding onto him as hard as I could. “How can I ever thank you?!”
He slid a hand under my chin, tilting my head up. Then he leaned in and gave me my first kiss. It wasn’t passionate, no use of the tongue, just a pressure of lips on lips kept from being a peck on the lips solely because it lasted a few seconds. “Just promise you’ll find someone who deserves you, that’s all.”
“You mean… you’re not?” I could not get my head around this man. “You have to be the only guy on the planet who gives a woman a gift for the specific goal of not sleeping with her.”
“You think I’m weird? There’s this redhead that, well, let’s just say she made me promise to give you that kiss before I left. Several very creative threats that should be anatomically impossible were made.”
“So… you only kissed me because…” What. The hell.
“Well, that’s not to say I didn’t want to, but I don’t want to take advantage of you.” He gestured at the gauntlets. “You should take those off now, save them for when they matter most.”
“Right.” I didn’t want to, but Andrew was right; I couldn’t afford to be wasteful when every moment was so precious.
“And, some of those friends I mentioned might contact you some day, to do real tests on how your power works. They might even be able to ensure that the Lynx is destroyed when you die.” He paused for a moment. “Decades from now, of natural causes, if at all possible.”
“I… you’re sure?” I fumbled with the bracelets, which it turned out were simple hinge and clasp mechanisms with no advanced technology visible. However these things worked, they looked like simple pieces of as far as I could tell. They came off, and the Lynx returned to my senses, more agitated than ever. I will need to be careful with how I use these things.
“I’m not a Gadgeteer, but they seem to think so. Oh, and one last warning. Get yourself on the pill or something. No way of knowing how the Lynx will respond to a pregnancy, so it’s best not to find out.”
Pregnancy. I still couldn’t pull my eyes away from the treasures in my hands. That’s right, I have to think about things like that now. “Thank you.” It felt small, hollow, but what else could I say?
“So, I have to go now. I bet you know the first thing you want to do, right?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Part me felt guilty that I left Andrew there alone in the house, but he was right; I didn’t want him, not really. I drove straight to Claire’s home. She turned her head from the stove where she was cooking lunch. “Back so soon? That must have been one horrible date.”
I just walked toward her while she talked. “Best date in the world.” My arms went around her shoulders. This is what hugging my best friend feels like.
“Shannon? How are you touching me? I thought-”
My eyes started to water. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”