“You need to take a break.”
George didn’t have to look to see who was talking, after working with her for so long he knew Persephone’s voice without a second glance. He didn’t spare her a glance, staying in position on the stone floor of the warehouse. It would have been cold, had he been in human form, but his body was metallic, with wires running from his arm to a small computer set-up on a wooden table.
“This thing isn’t going to crack itself.”
“And you’re not going to beat it in the time it takes to come have lunch,” Persephone said. “He’s big on family meals, especially during the holidays.”
“Family. Don’t tell me you’re buying into all that shit.”
“He can be pretty persuasive.”
“Of course he can, look at what he’s talked us all into doing.” George finally turned toward his fellow former coach. She was leaner than she had been at Lander, closer to the fighting shape she’d worn during her Hero days. That wasn’t surprising; almost the only thing to do around here was train. The others, at least, had some ability to move about in the real world. For George, Persephone, and Gerard, such things were impossible. They were wanted criminals, and one person spotting them would potentially bring down the entire operation. At least Globe had the ability to create an illusion that he was someone else, though unless there was business he kept himself confined with the others. He never said why, he didn’t have to: he was the kind of man who would suffer with his troops rather than use his status as grounds for special treatment.
“So save us all the trouble of him walking in here and making a speech, and just come eat lunch.”
“Fine. But only because I’ve been here for twenty hours and probably need some damn food anyway.” George unplugged the connection from his arm to the computer, then stood to his feet. “I don’t buy in with any of this ‘family’ or ‘togetherness’ stuff. I’m here for the job, nothing else.”
“Even though that sentiment is why we spent months planning and executing your jailbreak?”
“Please, you just needed someone to crack the cipher. If you’d managed to find someone else you could trust I’d still be locked up getting smacked around by guards for my smart mouth.”
“No, George, you wouldn’t be. And you know it.” Persephone stared at him unflinchingly, and George felt his stubborn resolve weaken. After what had happened to her, the fact that she was able to trust someone the way she trusted Globe was tremendous. She needed the belief in him the same way George needed his anger and guilt. It was what them keep trudging forward, even though they’d fallen so far from grace.
“Fine, so he would have gotten me anyway. But I bet it wouldn’t have been as quick or flashy.”
“Most people don’t consider a year ‘quick’.”
“Most people don’t know how well guarded that fucking hellhole was. Of course, it would have been a lot easier if he hadn’t been determined to avoid casualties.”
“Yes, but that wouldn’t be him. And you know you wouldn’t have wanted to get out that way. Not by killing people doing their jobs.”
“I don’t know, a few were pretty enthusiastic with the discipline, I might not have minded seeing them get put down.”
“And if you were working there you wouldn’t have done the same?”
Persephone had him there, so George decided to change the subject.
“What’s for lunch, anyway?”
“Dressing, green beans, potatoes, the usual sides. Oh, and Gerard made a Turducken.”
George shifted back to human just in time for his face to scrunch up in a mix of worry and disgust. “Christ, isn’t that the abomination of a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey?”
“It is, and you’ll eat a big portion. Gerard worked all through the night on it.”
George shook his head but followed Persephone out of the room anyway. “I know we live in a world where people have the powers of gods and demons, but even to me that just seems… wrong.”
* * *
Chad sat on the porch, staring up at the stars. Though the crisp evening air tried to invade his skin, he kept his body at the optimal temperature. Sometimes he wondered what it was like to have a normal body; one that bucked and ran wild, doing whatever it pleased despite the brain’s commands. It always sounded terrible when other described it, but then again so had emotional entanglement. Angela had proved that not to be nearly as unpleasant as he expected.
“See any new constellations?” Blaine, only Blaine while here in the house, stepped out from the kitchen and looked up at the sky. His power afforded him no protection from cold, so he wore a thick jacket that was a bit too small in the shoulders for him.
“Nothing so far. Has Mom calmed down?”
“Moderately. She’s at least stopped trying to pry Angela’s contact information out of me to invite her over. Honestly Chad, you really didn’t tell your mother you were seeing someone this whole semester?”
“It didn’t seem relevant to my progress.”
“Look, you can pull the total oblivious act around the other students, but I know you’re smart enough to realize your mother would care about you having your first girlfriend.”
“Perhaps I was worried her reaction would be a bit more… enthusiastic than I wanted to deal with.”
“So you let me blurt it out over Christmas dinner. Smooth.” Blaine sank into a wooden chair next to his godson, eyes still sweeping the heavens. “How have things been going between you two, anyway?”
“Chaotic. We both were so caught up in end of the semester training that we saw each other infrequently. Normally I would be concerned, but Angela seems to fare well in a chaotic environment.”
“She’s a… special one.” Even amidst the menagerie of students Blaine dealt with year after year, Angela DeSoto was a rare creature. He wasn’t sure he’d have set her up with his godson if given the choice, but that’s why it wasn’t his to make. Part of love was finding odd combinations that somehow fit, and part of being young was making painful mistakes in pursuit of that pairing.
“Indeed she is. I seem to have a large amount of interesting, special people in my life.”
“You’re still mad I told you not to ask what Mary and the others were doing, I take it?”
“Ah, good. I worried I hadn’t used the right tone on to convey my annoyance.”
“No, you did a surprisingly good job,” Blaine said. He meant it too; Chad was slowly getting more adept at the subtleties of human interaction. It was the sort of thing he could have mastered as a child, if he’d ever cared. “You just have to trust me for now. If you ask them, they’ll tell you, and then you’re involved in something you don’t need to be. I’m trying to keep you safe.”
“I have not spent my life training to be safe. I’ve done it to be the one protecting others. While I respect your sentiment, it seems to me very misplaced. If I am unable to handle the danger of what you’re facing, then perhaps I don’t possess the qualifications to be a Hero.”
“Not all danger is physical, Chad. And not everyone is meant to handle the same problems. You wouldn’t claim to be able to fill in for a Ranged Combat Hero, not adequately, so don’t assume your skill means you can deal with any problem.” Blaine turned his eyes from the sky to the young man sitting next to him. Had things gone just a bit differently, this would be his house, Miriam his wife, and some incarnation of Chad his son. But they hadn’t gone that way, and now he was just an visitor to the life he might have once possessed. Even looking in from the outside, he still couldn’t help but love them.
“We’ve been working together to make you a Hero since you were a child. Has my training or advice ever steered you wrong?”
“No. Not once.”
“Then believe me when I say that right now, the ignorance is for your own good. There are things going on, things that can end careers. The only way for you to be blameless is for you to be knowledgeless. I’m already risking a lot, please don’t make me risk your future too.”
Chad looked at Blaine and nodded. Much as he disliked being kept in the dark, he knew without question that Blaine would never do something without good reason. He’d always been there for Chad, always watched over him. There was zero doubt in Chad’s mind that Blaine would never betray him. “For now. I don’t like it, but I will abide for now.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Blaine said.
“Chad!” Miriam’s voice rang out from the house. “I found your cell phone and got this Angela girl’s number. What day do you want me to invite her over for a visit?”
“I blame you for this,” Chad muttered as he rose from his seat.
“Maybe Angela won’t come?”
“Certainly, the chance to meet my mother, dig up dirt on me, and cause mischief. That is exactly the sort of thing Angela is likely to turn down.”
For better or worse, Chad was definitely getting better at sarcasm.