Chapter 312

                The biggest fault of Heroes was that they were exceptional, and as consequence, they tended to look for exceptional tactics or solutions. To hide meant using illusions, or mind-control, or shifting form. Outside of the ones trained in Subtlety, few Heroes would ever think to consider a mere change of clothes as enough to hide from their amazing powers. And yet, it was a strategy that worked, when employed properly. One more guard, in an ocean of them. One more man in body armor that hid his form and a helmet that obscured his face. Another pointless drone in the swarm, nothing more than a target to be knocked down.

                Charles Adair was not a man born to feel exceptional. Not with Phil in his life, Phil who could seemingly do anything, even before he got that incredible ability. Phil who was brave and bore their father’s wrath to spare his little brother. Phil who was determined and came out on top in a class so strong they would go on to be called legends. Phil who was kind and loyal, making it impossible to even properly hate him for setting such an impossible bar. There were days Charles had resented his older brother, but they were long past. Now, Charles could see that living in such a shadow had been a gift. Without the illusion of being exceptional, Charles was forced to find other ways to succeed. He had to think like a human, leaning on strategy, forethought, and trickery. In the end, those were assets Charles prized more dearly than mere power.

                After all, Phil might have been the one who protected them in the short term, but Charles was the one who found a way to keep the family safe for good. True, it had meant hiding his gift, not letting anyone, even his loving brother, know about his power for two entire years after the murder, but it was a sacrifice worth making. Even when he showed them, he never let on that if he got close enough, he didn’t actually need physical contact to transform something. It rarely mattered in the HCP or his life as a Hero. The sole time it had really been an issue was when he laid his hand on a sealed bottle of whiskey and turned a substantial amount of it into poison. Phil got the adoration and respect, but Charles got the results.

                Today was different, though. Charles was not a madman or a megalomaniac, he fully understood that he was capable of losing, and that was exactly what had happened here today. Shelby was gone, the research was stolen, his entire enterprise was burning around him. The guards didn’t know it, but they were fighting for nothing at this point. They had no path to victory. All was lost, and had been for some time now. The only reason Charles kept them going was for the distraction. He needed the chaos, needed the identically clothed bodies to give him cover. If it was all over, then he still had one thing left to do. One more task for the unexceptional brother before he could rest.

                Gun still carefully holstered, Charles raced across the battlefield, following the streak of silver hair bounding around. In his arms was Phillip Adair, knocked unconscious, betrayed by his own willingness to trust yet again. Charles had watched it  happen from the sidelines, waiting patiently for his opportunity. Hopefully it would come soon.

                Some matters could only be settled between siblings.

*             *             *

                Many miles away, Alice finally came to a stop. She needed to rest, if only for a few seconds, and the empty stretch of land seemed a good place for it. Nowhere for anyone to hide or sneak up on her from, no tall structures where a sniper might be able to line up a clean shot at her or her mom. Even as she fled, the Subtlety training in her refused to stop whispering, reminding her of vulnerabilities and places for potential ambush. It didn’t matter that no one else knew where she was, or even that she had Shelby Adair in her possession. Alice was on guard, ready and waiting to deal with any poor stupid bastard that dared try and take her mother away again.

                It was Alice’s awareness that let her react quickly when the new figures showed up, one vanishing as quick as it appeared while the other remained behind. Alice was about to slam the intruder to the ground with enough gravity to break more than a few bones, when she realized who it was. No, who it looked like. She could take nothing for granted, not now, not when she finally had Shelby in her grasp.

                “Not one fucking step or I’ll shatter you.” Alice was glaring, only looking away for brief instants to make sure she wasn’t being surrounded.

                “Whoa, calm the hell down.” Sean Pendleton put his arms up, trying to calm Alice. “Oh… right. You’re not sure I’m really me.” He was staring at Shelby, visibly restraining himself from moving closer. “Fine, I guess this is as good a teaching moment as any. How do you discern if I’m the real Professor Pendleton or not?”

                Steadying herself, Alice thought it through. This wasn’t some unforeseen possibility, it was a situation she’d been trained for. “First, show me your power. Three seconds of it, no more.”

                “Good start,” Sean said. He shifted in form, turning to a cloud of fog for precisely three seconds before reforming. “That all?”

                “No. Powers can be duplicated as easily as faces when dealing with mimics, so next I want you to tell me something only the real Professor Pendleton would know.”

                “Shit, take your pick. You went dream-diving to find out your mother’s situation, taking Nick and Mary with you twice this year. You aced last year’s Subtlety final by pairing with Will Murray and tricking the rest of the class. You spent near-days on end in the Blonk after finding out what Charles did to Shelby. You cheated on your tailing exam by-”

                “Fine, that’s enough.” Alice waited, thinking it through. “A powerful enough telepath might have been able to get all that, but the odds of a mimic stealing Professor Pendleton’s image and finding a telepath to scour his mind in the brief time since I left Lander are staggeringly low. It’s far more likely that you’re the real thing, although that still doesn’t explain how you’re here.”

                Lowering his arms at last, Sean started forward, eyes on Shelby. “I called in some favors. As soon as I realized what Nick was doing, I knew it would be a shitshow. So I had a few friends with tracking and teleportation abilities lend a hand.”

                “And you knew to track me how?”

                “I didn’t. I was tracking Shelby. Once she was out of that bunker, my friend was able to get a lock on her. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for you to stop.” Finally reaching Alice’s side, Sean laid a gentle hand on Shelby’s forehead, pushing the blonde hair from her face as his eyes grew moist. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting, hoping, to see her again. Once I found out about the attack, I knew my only job was going to be looking after her.”

                The soft crunch of a lone footstep behind them was the only warning before the voice. “An excellent idea; unfortunately you’re not the only one to have it.” Professor Blake Hill was now standing near them, expression inscrutable as he stared at his lost sister, half-brother, and fearsome niece.

                “I suppose it was to be expected. Family does tend to think alike.”