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by TJ Klune
Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
Description: Book One of the Elementally Evolved series Set in a world that closely resembles our own, Burn is a story of redemption and betrayal, of family and sacrifice, which leads to the greatest question of all: how far would you go to save the ones you love? Fifteen years ago, Felix Paracel killed his mother with fire that shot from his hands. Since then, he has hidden from forces bent on exploiting him and his fire and wind Elemental abilities. But Felix's world is about to change, because he is Findo Unum--the Split One--and his coming has been foretold for generations. Though Felix's arrival brings great joy to the Elemental world, it also heralds a coming darkness. No one knows this better than Seven, the mysterious man who rescued Felix from that horrible fire years ago and then disappeared... who now has returned to claim what's rightfully his: Felix's heart. But even as Felix begins to trust Seven and his feelings about his place in the world, the darkness reveals itself, bringing consequences no one could have predicted.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [782 KB]
Reading time: 549-769 min.
A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit.
My name is Felix Paracel, and when I was nine, I became angry at my mother and killed her with fire that shot from my hands.
At this, the beginning of my story, you must understand one thing: I had no control over it. Call it a fight-or-flight reaction, call it an egregious upwelling of adolescent fear, call it the result of the chemical cocktail that was my being finally breaking free from the confines of itself; I don't know. Looking back, I don't know that the reason matters. What's done is done and can't be undone, as my father likes to say. But I would have you know that for all that is to follow, for everything that will happen, it all started with a child who was unable to control the conflagration burning within him. I would have you know this, at the very least.
The day things changed was one like any one before it. I was home alone with my mother, as was often the case. It was a dusky day in June, and the world seemed such a mighty place, what with the imagination that a child can summon. It's funny, really: the older you get, the more you know about the world. The synapses in your brain fire at a higher level and quicker function, your knowledge expands. But you lose part of yourself, that part able to imagine great armies that wait for nothing more than your command; the dragon that hides under your bed that only you can see, its long emerald tail flashing in the darkness; the ghost that lives in your attic that only moans at 3:23 in the morning. When you lose that innocence, the world's hues become dark and muted, and you know that dragons aren't real. There is no army. There is no ghost in the attic. But when you're nine? When you're nine, it's all probable, it's all realistic, and even more so, it's all true. But sometimes it's possible to lose it all, even then.
"Keep your chin up and eyes forward," my mother said. "Look straight ahead and focus."
We were in the middle of one of my lessons. These sessions always took place when we were alone, away from the prying eyes that she said wouldn't understand. I was never allowed to speak of these lessons, never so much as to breathe a word of it to anyone for fear of her retribution. She told me if anyone found out about what we did, I would be taken away from my parents, I would be locked up and tested on with needles and machines that whirred like the gasps of a metal monster. I would never again see the light of day. My imagination was able to see this clearly, so you can bet your ass I never said anything. To anyone.
"Close your eyes," she said, "and take a deep breath and focus. Find the space within you, the space where it lives and breathes. Can you find it, Felix? Is it there?"
I nodded, not just meaning to please her, but because I'd actually found it. It was there, in that space. It was becoming easier every day.
I could hear the smile in her voice. "Good. Good. Now, I want you to grasp it gently, and hold it, and feel your hands warm. They won't burn because it is your fire and you can never be hurt by it."
Behind the darkness of my eyes, I could see the flare and a tenuous connection was made as my fingers slid around it. It began to coil around my hands, licking my palms, heating my core. My mother was still speaking, her voice low and masculine, but the words were a blur, a haze heard through a filter of smoke. My grip tightened and my world became brighter, a flash in the oily blackness. The burnt afterimage that imprinted on my retinas danced and flitted its way lower and lower until it became my hands, until it became my fire.
I opened my eyes.
Only then (as it always seemed to happen) did I feel the strength of it. My young brain might not have been able to grasp the full implications of what I held, but I understood the idea of it. It was magic, it was imagination, it was something that I could create, something that belonged to me. My mother looked down at my hands, her lips pursed together in a thin line that slashed across her face. Her eyes were alight with what I could only hope was fierce pride. She waited. I waited. This was part of my lesson. This was a test. A bead of sweat caught on the hairs on the back of my neck, quivering until it fell down the collar of my shirt and became absorbed in the fabric. I didn't know how much longer I could last. My hands rose up in front of my face, my palms raised toward the ceiling. And still she waited. I started to shake.
She nodded. "Now," she said.
And with that word (oh God, how I waited for her to say it), I flexed something deep within me, squeezing a muscle in my chest, my hands, my core. That constriction pushed it to the surface, and as always, I was outside of myself, watching it happen. I saw a little boy, his teeth gritted together, his blond hair hanging around his bowed head. His hazel eyes flashed, then burned. His little veins rose on his little arms, his hands like claws. He put his left foot back and crouched slightly, his knees cracking with the sudden movement. And then, as always (and forever) I was slammed back into me and the fire came.
It started as a small blossom in the center of my hands, oozing from between the life and fate lines on my palms. I urged it forward, wanting it out of me, to put it on display. I coaxed and pleaded as it grew. It began to swirl, and I could feel the room take on heat. Somewhere, a light flickered and a buzzing began to ring through my ears. There was never any pain, only a feeling of release that felt as natural as exhaling. This is mine, I thought. I created this, and I can do it anytime I want. I pushed harder, and the flames suddenly roared out of me, rising five or six feet in the air.
"Felix." My mother's voice a whip-crack of warning.
I resented her then, if only for a moment. Who was she to tell me when to stop? But I obeyed her singular admonishment and flexed again, only this time pulling it back. The roar lessened as the fire dropped until it was the size of a blood orange in each of my hands. I eased back up from my crouched stance and felt the control slowly return. I moved my hands back and forth slowly, watching as the fire followed my every motion. The shakes were gone, the tiny voice in the back of my head silenced.
"Good," my mother said. And then she smiled. "Good," she said again.
I created this and I can do it anytime I want.
* * * *
I dreamt that night of a terrible storm. I stood on a hill, the world below me stretching as far as I could see, bending subtly at the horizon. The wind whipped through my hair and lightning flashed above me. Water splashed my face as it fell from the open sky. Black clouds swirled overhead, heavy and treacherous. The grass underneath my feet gave a startlingly human moan as the wind moved through it. I heard a groaning roar to my left. As I turned, a tree began to grow, taking shape as it cracked through the earth and rose into the air. I expected leaves to burst forth from the branches, but as it grew larger, I knew the tree was dead. The black trunk looked infected and rotted. The branches began to bend with the wind, reaching for me as it snapped and snarled. It stopped only when it reached a height of a hundred feet (how I knew this, I don't know). I stood before it, and an urge blew through me: I wanted to touch the tree. I wanted to feel the infection, the rough, calloused bark, the black sap that spilled like oil.
And then it whispered: This is what you will become. This is the shape of the world.
I felt myself begin to flex, and again I was torn from my body. No sound came from my silent scream. I rose high in the air, higher than I ever had before. I saw my right hand lift, palm up, the claw already formed. I tried to ignore the chill that slid down my spine.
Incendia, the Tree whispered. Ignis. Flamma.
I should have returned then, returned to myself to allow the fire to be born, but I couldn't; I was trapped in the space above the world. I stared transfixed as the fire erupted from my hand and lifted above my head before it swirled down around my back, between my legs. I was never able to do this in reality, and I was shocked at the power behind it, how hungry I felt for it to be mine, how desperate I was to fall back into myself so I could play with the fire. I struggled. Nothing happened.
The Tree spoke again: Ventus. Procella. Omnia.
Those words meant nothing to me. Then, they meant everything.
My left hand rose and vertigo caused my world to spin. No, I screamed. No! She'll find out, she'll find out! She can't know about this!
Ventus. Procella. Omnia.
As the fire continued to swirl around me (Is it alive? I thought hysterically. Oh my God it's alive!), my left hand reached its zenith and then I flexed again, only instead of it being in my chest (the birthplace of all fire), the constriction was in my head, and the storm around me died, the wind ceased to howl. And then my greatest secret (that which I kept from everyone) coiled from my hands. The wind began to scream again, but it was coming from me.
No, I whispered.
Yes, said the Tree. You can control fire. But you also control the winds.
As the gale stormed from my left hand, it touched the fire, causing the air to ignite around me. As much as I screamed for it to stop, I couldn't help but feel the potential of what I was doing, or at least what the other me was doing. Never before had I been able to fully display the faculty I was capable of, the aptitude that I had so long denied myself. I screamed, but now it was in pleasure. I crowed, I bellowed. I begged to go back. I needed to go back. This was my fire. This was my storm.
You, said the Tree. You think this is yours. I am never impressed by hedonism, by the carnality of the human spirit. This is not yours; or rather, it is, but it's a gift. Something that can never be taken lightly.
At that point in the dream (was it? was it really a dream?) I would have agreed to sell my soul to be able to return to myself. My focus was extraordinary only in the fact that it converged on necessity, a desire unlike anything I had ever known. The Tree could speak of gifts and carnality all it wished; I would have done whatever it asked.
Let me back, I said. Let me go back in. I can do this. I have control.
The Tree sighed. Have you learned nothing, little one?
I'll learn whatever you want me to. Just send me back!
No. Not until you see what you are capable of.
My heart broke then, if only for a moment, until I felt myself begin to drop to the ground. I don't know how I kept the joy from tearing apart my face but I did. The Tree had lied. It was going to give me what I wanted. As long as I could maintain the facade, I would be given back to myself and that which I wanted most would be mine. No longer was I concerned whether or not this was a dream, nor was I worried about the warnings that still echoed through my ears. I felt the first sliver of unease as I came closer to the ground and could feel the heat of the Felix in front of me. This was new. In the years since my mother and I had begun our lessons, since I was aware of my singular act of creation, I had never before felt the burn of the flames. How could I, when it came from me? The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as if electrified, and I felt my face grow hot. My feet touched the ground, but still I did not return.
Entranced, I looked upon myself, watching as a flick of my right index finger caused the line of fire to rip up through the air and spin in a hollow circle above my head. My left hand twitched and the wind spun itself upward, filling the void in the middle of the halo. The Felix in front of me looked skyward for a moment, then back at me. His eyes were filled with an empty sorrow, as if what occurred next was inevitable. I raised my hand to touch his face, but he moved just out of my reach.
How? I asked him.
He shook his head and pointed a finger to the swirling halo above him.
It's beautiful, I told him. Are you me?
The question seemed to confuse him.
He is and he isn't, the Tree answered for him. This is real and it's not. Gnopher created the Earth, Salamandeir gave it life. Sylpha gave it breath and Ondine let it flourish. That was their decision, and time may yet reveal that it was also their folly. They made their choice as I have made mine and as you shall make yours. But for all of Creation, there has never been one such as you. And that is why what you will become has brought you here. It is almost time for you to choose.
Other Felix looked sadly at me, a tear drifting down his cheek. The tear reflected the red glow of the fire spinning above his head, turning it to blood dripping down his face. I wanted to comfort him (me. us?) but I couldn't get my legs to move, to close the last bit of distance between that separated us. It suddenly seemed very important that I stop whatever was about to happen.
What choice? I whispered.
The Tree shook gently, the branches sounding like bones as they knocked together. See, Child of Omnia, Child of Incendia. See what it is you've been given. It shook again, and the rattling became louder and stronger until I could feel its roots, entrenched deep in the earth, begin to quake. The Other Felix began to smile, the tears gone. I had never seen such an expression on my own face and cringed as it stretched and pulled, showing more teeth than any human ever had. I didn't want to comfort him anymore. He was every fear I ever had, every darkness ever made, all rolled into one tiny body. He raised his left hand and his finger twitched again, and I was thrown to the side, my body slamming against the Tree. The roots breached the earth and ensnared my ankles; the branches lowered and wrapped me in a dusty embrace. I could feel the sap sticking against my back, fusing my skin into the trunk.
As the Tree spoke again, I could feel the voice rumble deep from behind me: The choices humans make are like a ripple in a pond. They carry from one to another, bouncing, dancing. Colliding. And still they go on. But you. The choices you make are like a tsunami in the ocean.
An arm of the Tree circled my head, forcing it to turn right. I looked down the hill from where we were perched and saw the lights of the world. Up here, there was a crown of fire that circled the Other Felix; up here, there was a Tree that had become my jailer. But down there, I could feel them all, all the people of the world. They moved with such dark organic grace, each on their own path, their individual lifelines stretched before them. Sometimes they intersected, sometimes they drifted away. Their thoughts began to race through my head, and they were full of love and anger. They hated and worshipped. They saved others, they committed genocide. I screamed at the weight of it all, the weight of everything, but no sound tore from my throat.
Are you ready, little one? the Tree asked me gently. I would show you this one last thing. And you must remember. For everything that I've shown you, everything you will see in the time to come, this is the one thing you must remember. While all of you are capable of such compassion, such blind devotion, there is a part of everyone that has the power to destroy.
I don't want to see! I cried. I want to go home!
It's too late for that. It has already begun. Watch.
God help me, I watched.
The words came again: Incendia. Ignis. Flamma. Ventus. Procella. Omnia. I heard a grunt and snapped my head to the left and saw Other Felix was raising his hands again, the pressure of doing so appearing almost too great. The nimbus of fire and wind above him broke apart, the fire roiling right, the wind gushing left. As soon as each reached Other Felix's outstretched hands, they flashed brilliantly and formed eddying coronas, circling above each hand. His arms were completely stretched out in front of him, and he faced his palms in toward each other. The fire became a conflagration, the wind a hurricane as they began to snap and fissure. The flashes lit up Other Felix's face, and that horrible smile returned.
He spoke: I created this and I can do it anytime I want.
And then the end of the world began.
As the Tree roared behind him, its appendages squeezing me tightly, I was able to make out two other words that Other Felix shouted: Tempestas Ignis. When the last syllable fell from his lips, his hands flared again, and I could feel him flex because it came from within me. His (my) chest constricted and his (my) head contracted, and he slammed his palms together. The sound of his hands striking was anticlimactic; what came from them was not. At first there was nothing, and then what could only be the sun erupted from his hands. It thundered skyward, and as he raised his hands, a great wave of fire rose up behind him. It quickly outdistanced the Tree in its race to touch the curve of the earth and continued higher. I felt my skin begin to blister and soften, my hair ignited, but I couldn't turn away. I could feel my eyes cooking in their sockets, and my fingernails began to liquefy. I was in hell, but I could not ignore the storm before me.
Flares burst from the wall of fire, jutting out with terrifying intensity, almost solar in nature. Tornadoes that ignited as they broke away howled and shrieked as they dropped to the ground and exploded. The force as they slammed into the ground tossed dirt and gravel in muddy arcs, dividing the earth into great trenches. The grass smoked and grew black as it charred. I heard an animalistic shriek above me and looked up with the last strength I had and saw the sky was on fire, birds crying out, their flaming bodies plummeting toward the earth as if they were meteorites that had gotten stuck in the magnetic pull of the world. As they hit the ground, their bodies fell apart, stringy ropes of intestines sizzling as they unfurled with the time-honored tradition of force meeting an immovable object. I tried to close my eyes but I no longer had eyelids.
With the last burning breath I took, I saw Other Felix bend his elbows at his sides, his palms facing forward, as if he was ready to push something out of his way. His mouth grew into a thin line, and his hair whipped around his face as his eyes narrowed. And then he did push, his arms shaking, his hands almost too bright to look at. As his arms moved forward, the great wave behind him began to move, advancing with an almost dangerous beauty for something so large. As it came closer, I snapped back to his face before he was engulfed and saw the smile had returned. He was enveloped, and another flare shot out as he was consumed. Even as I died against the Tree, I could see Other Felix smiling in the middle of the firestorm, his arms outstretched in front of him. The wall roared its way down the hill, and as it reached the lights below, all of the people of the world took up a great cry, and I knew my time here was ending. It had to end, didn't it? I was--
the cause of all this
--dead, and when you die in a dream, you either wake up or die in real life. But even so, I was held where I was, and the screaming of the world raped my ears as it burned and collapsed in on itself. I had a fleeting thought--
burn the tree
--but it was quickly tossed away as my hands turned black and the skin sloughed off my arms.
And just when I couldn't take any more, I felt the Tree lift my burning figure up its trunk, the bony branches slipping in the river that was my body. I was passed up until I reached the Treetop, and before I could fall apart, the Tree spoke again: This is the way of the world. This is what you will become. You must remember what you have seen, little one. The power to destroy will always be in you, and there will come a day when you will have to make a choice.
I had died, but I was given the chance to ask one last time: What choice?
There will come a time when you will have to choose between the world and him. What comes after six and stays before eight, and you must not choose him. Your heart will tell you otherwise; it will tell you it's real, that you must believe that your fate lies with Septem. He will give you strength, he will show you domination. He'll make you think he can protect you and that you no longer have to make a choice. And that will consume you, and you will love him for it. You will think that he is yours and you are his. But that was never your destiny; it was never our destiny. We are meant to change the world, we are meant to alter the course of things. We were never meant to love, little one. We were never meant to be loved. We are what we are, who we are: we are power personified, given name and form. There is darkness in you, an opposite that must counteract the will of the world. And if you turn your back on it, if you let it crawl up behind you, to snake its way into your being, the great Corruption will finally be born. And Septem will have been the cause. Do not believe his lies.
The branches that held aloft my melting body suddenly tensed. I felt the rattle up through the remains of my stomach, my heart, my head. She comes now for you, little one, the Tree whispered urgently. Things have changed. She can no longer wait as her hand has been forced. You must wake now. You must wake and remem--
But its words were cut off. The sky above me ripped open and a blackness poured down, and then I snapped awake, alone in my bed.
And I had already begun to forget the dream.
* * * *
I wonder now, with everything said and done, if things would have been different had I remembered what the Tree had told me. Would I have made the same decisions, the same mistakes? Where would I be, had I remembered? Had I listened? I have learned in my short time here on this world that we as humans are all capable of a great many things, our minds able to process so much. Too much, really. But our greatest curse, our greatest folly, if you will, is our ability of hindsight.
Oh, Seven. How I wish I would have known.
* * * *
As I awoke, only a fleeting memory of fire followed me out of the dream. I drew in great gasping breaths, my lungs craving the air that I could not seem to take in quickly enough. It was dark and I was blind, as if I had been staring into a great flashing light and then been consumed by blackness. I didn't know if it was real or if I was still trapped somewhere deep in the confines of sleep.
Then, footsteps. A banging on my door. The doorknob rattled.
"Felix!" my mother shouted. "Unlock the door! Now!"
I hesitated only for a moment, but then my feet moved and I was at the door before I was able to process that I had risen. I twisted the lock, and as it clicked, the door flew open, knocking me to the floor. My mother burst in, flicking the switch next to the doorway. Light instantly flooded the room, and it stung my eyes, causing me to hiss.
I felt her grab my arm and haul me to my feet. Her eyes were wild as she said, "We must leave."
I felt chilled. "What? Go where? What's going on!"
She dragged me out the doorway and toward the stairs. My little legs kicked and scrabbled for purchase, but my socks only slid along the hardwood floors. I tripped and fell against her as we reached the top of the stairs, and she lifted me with surprising strength into her arms. I pressed my head against her shoulder, a tear trickling down my cheek. "Where are we going?" I asked quietly, feeling her heart race against mine.
We reached the bottom of the stairs before she spoke, and by then, I had already seen the luggage propped near the front door. Fear blossomed in my head and heart as she said, "It's time for us to leave." She set me down near the bags and opened the front door quickly and quietly. She stuck her head outside and then pulled back in and looked down at me. I had never seen such an expression on her face, one of anger and desperation, of terror and elation. I could not understand. "Wait here while I load these," she said. She grabbed a bag in each arm and disappeared out the door.
I closed my eyes. And in the darkness, I felt something flare.
Either she ran the whole way or my eyes were shut for longer than I had thought, because she came back in quicker than I thought possible. She reached for me again, but I took a step back.
"Felix," she snapped. "We don't have time for this. We have to go now!"
I took another step back. "Where are we going? Where's Dad?"
Something flicked behind her eyes, something that I couldn't quite place. "He's going to meet us there," she said, taking a step toward me.
"Where?" Another step back
"You'll see when we get there." Another step closer.
"Felix, come to me. Now. I promise, this will all make sense shortly." Closer.
I cocked my head to the side as I knew. "You're lying," I whispered.
And then I turned and ran.
I heard her shout behind me as I tore through the archway into the living room. I passed our table and knocked a chair down behind me, trying to do anything I could to block her path. I could hear her thundering after me, and I knew I did not stand a chance of getting away from her. But I also knew I had to try. I ran through the kitchen, and I tried to think of anywhere I could hide, anywhere that she wouldn't find me. My eyes lit upon the cellar door at the end of the hallway ahead. There were dark corners, crevices that ran deep under the house. Just maybe I could--
I could think rationally no further. I ran down the hallway, away from the woman who had given me life. I knew she was right behind me. I could almost feel her hands reaching for my shirt, my hair, anything she could grab to stop me. I screamed again and felt a shift within me, and as I approached the cellar door, my body began to take over, my survival instinct kicking in. Even though I knew it meant she would see, that my one and only secret would be exposed, I raised my left hand as I ran and flexed in my head, and I felt the air around me pull toward me as if I were a black hole. The photographs hanging on the walls began to rattle, the doors to bathrooms and bedrooms on either side of me shaking in their frames. As soon as I pulled enough of the air around me to me, I pushed... and once again I was torn from my body. I watched as a tornado the size of my body roared from my hands, and time slowed even further. I saw the great burst of air travel down the hallway, tearing the plaster from the walls. I saw the floorboards beneath it snap and rise, sucked in by the howling winds. My right foot touched the floor, and the last door on the left was ripped off its hinges. My left foot touched the floor, and the blast reached its target and the cellar door disintegrated. Even as I stared in awe, I was pulled back into myself as my right foot touched the floor again. Then time snapped, and I reached the entrance to the cellar and jumped.
In retrospect, jumping into a pitch-black room and down a flight of stairs was probably not the best idea I had ever had, at least up until that point in my life. I felt my feet leave the ground, and the blackness before me opened up and welcomed me into its depths. There was a dizzying sense of weightlessness, an apex reached where I thought it was possible to just keep rising, then the bottom dropped out and I fell. I somehow landed on my feet on the second landing where the stairs then turned left to reach the bottom floor. My chest hit the railing, and for a moment, I believed the cracking sound upon impact was my ribs. Then the wood of the railing gave way and I went through it, falling ten feet further, flipped head over heels and landing on a pile of boxes on my back. The air was knocked out of me, and I lay stunned.
"Felix?" my mother called from the top of the stairs. Her voice was low and heady, breathless. "Oh, Felix, we were told, but I never could believe... you... you're a Wind Elemental too?" She sighed. "This... this changes everything." I heard her hands sliding along the wall, attempting to find the switch that would flood the cellar with light. I forced myself to move and raised my right hand, pulling the fire out of me into my hand. I felt myself ready to leave my body once again, but I screamed in my head, forcing myself to stay where I was. There wasn't enough time. The blood-rose bloomed in my hand, and the cellar flashed brightly. In that flash, I looked up and saw where the light bulb dangled from the ceiling. I ground my teeth together and pushed gently as I raised my hand toward the light. Fire shot in a slim line and crashed into the light bulb, causing it to shatter with an electrical pop. The fire spread quickly and quietly across the ceiling, but before it could ignite the wooden struts, I pulled it back down into my hands and snuffed it out. The room again was black. I leapt off the box and fumbled my way along the wall, finding a long stretch behind a row of boxes. Then I stopped. And listened.
"Are you hiding from me?" she asked quietly. "I am your mother. Come out. I know what's best for you."
I took only the shallowest of breaths. And then I heard one step after another as she began to descend the stairs, the wooden slats creaking slightly under her weight. She reached the landing where I had fallen through the rail, and I could feel her eyes searching the darkness, adjusting, watching. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing them to adjust to the black cellar. My mother started moving again, down the last flight of stairs to reach the ground floor. I opened my eyes and almost sighed in relief as I could see the outline of boxes in front of me. I quickly turned right and moved through the narrow corridor that existed between the wall and the refuse. I reached a corner and waited.
"Felix, how could you have never told me?" she asked, her voice closer than I would have expected. "How long have you been able to manipulate the air? Why would you keep such a thing from me? Do you know what it means to be a dual Elemental? No. No, of course you don't." I could hear her moving boxes five feet to my left as she spoke. She was close, too close. I rounded the corner and moved further into the cellar, absolutely sure each step I took would be heard.
She paused. Then, "I am trying to save you, Felix. You don't know the people who are coming for you right now. You don't know what they are capable of. I am your mother, and therefore I am your protector. You must let me help you." Even then, at that young age, I recognized something off in her voice, some breathless quality that caused her words to sound like the crackling of dead leaves. She was my mother, she had helped to raise me, she had taught me to control the fire burning within me, but she had ceased to be that woman the moment I had awoken from some forgotten dream--
oh God the tree
--that I couldn't seem to shake. Her voice was not conveying the need for help, but the need to possess. I closed my eyes again, and another flare occurred inside me.
"Felix!" she suddenly shouted.
I cringed and sank to the floor. Help, I thought. Oh, please, won't someone help me? I can't do this anymore! She's here and oh god my mother is coming for me--
Above me, a box shifted. I slowly raised my head and looked up. My mother stared down at me, eyes glittering, a small smile on her face, our game of hide-and-seek over. I'd lost. Her head disappeared, and the next box moved. Two more and she would be able to reach me easily. My hands began to shake, my heart to pound. I was going to go with her, and I would never see my father again, that much I knew. Imagination took over, and the machines that my mother had warned me about, the ones that I would be hooked up to if anyone ever found out what I could do, were all inevitable. How I knew, I don't know. A premonition, a hunch, call it what you will; everything I knew was coming to an end.
No, a voice whispered from somewhere in the recesses of my mind. No, it will not come to this. Move. Use what you were given. Move!
And then, my left hand lifted of its own accord, faster than it ever had before. I didn't have time to even prepare, to ready myself for what was to come. There was no constriction, no need to flex. The air around me took on shape as I called it to me, a sighed exhalation that sounded like a song. The atmosphere felt seismic as the room began to shake and shift around me. I barely felt the push as it ruptured from me, smashing into the room with a howl that I could only imagine the center of a tornado sounding like. The cellar exploded around me, and I heard my mother's shout of surprised rage as she was thrown across the darkened room, lost in a cacophony that continued to rise.
I leapt to my feet and screamed at what I had done. Regardless of what she was doing, regardless of where she was trying to make me go, I had never thought it was possible to use this power against one that I loved. I felt the anger and terror rise, and the storm in the cellar grew louder. My feet were glued to the floor, and still I did not lower my hand. I felt love, yes, I felt horror, oh yes, but even with all of that swirling around me, the one thing I knew even more clearly was that I had been betrayed. I had been betrayed, all the while that hunch, that premonition, that knowing shouting through my head. The cellar moaned and trembled, and I heard the wall behind me begin to crack.
Enough, it whispered. Enough, Felix. Now it's time.
Now you must run.
Somehow, I was able to pull the air back toward me, feeling it blow through my hands and my hair as it rushed its way home. As soon as it disappeared--as quickly and loudly as it had come--the room took on its new shape. Shreds of paper fluttered in the air around me, the wood of the house groaning from the exertion. I trembled at the destruction, listening for the tell-tale signs of movement, anything that would show me where my mother had ended up. There was nothing.
I jerked forward, tripping over a beam that had fallen from the ceiling. I sprawled to the ground, shredding the thin pajamas I wore, scraping my knees. The pain was sharp and glassy as I felt the cuts form, the skin parting. I grunted as I pushed myself up again and frantically searched for the stairs. I saw the bottom steps to my left and ran toward them. As I neared the first step, something behind me shifted, and I knew she was awake and rising. I reached the stairs and scrambled up them... only to reach the first landing and see the remaining way up had been destroyed in the storm. I jumped pointlessly, the nearest edge three feet from my hand. I was trapped in the dark with my mother with no way out.
And then her hand fell on my shoulder.
* * * *
What happened then... well, what happened then is something I have never really told anyone before. Sure, there are a few who know it completely, another few who may have filled in the missing pieces. Even now, though, it's hard to speak of, to drag it into the light for all to see. I told you that hindsight is our greatest downfall, that regret can overwhelm us as it sinks us lower. This next is my grandest sorrow, this grief I brought my own to carry, the weight of which threatened to crush all I had.
It's followed, fittingly enough, by him. While I was at my darkest, he came for me.
* * * *
Her hand tightened on my shoulder as she spun me around. My mother bent down into my face, blood dripping down her cheek from a gash across her forehead. Her eyes were dark and wild, her fingers digging into my shoulder, bruising the muscle beneath. I gasped at the pain, the puff of air I exhaled slipping through her hair as her face met mine, her nose touching my nose, her forehead against my forehead. I felt the blood smear between the two of us.
"Now," she hissed, "if you're done playing your games, we will leave."
There was a flash then, a bright spark that chased the shadows away. Her eyes widened as she looked down at my hand. I glared at her and felt my chest burn as it contracted, feeling the irresistible flare pouring into my grip. She snapped back up to my face, and whatever she saw caused her to recoil and release her hold. I had never felt that before, that rage, that scorching swell of anger that escaped from its confines and pushed into my hand. I felt my left foot crouch behind me.
Burn her, something dark whispered, a voice I had never heard before.
And then I pushed.
What came from me then was like nothing I had ever done before. The fire exploded from my hands, the shockwave visible and palpable. The conflagration arced around my body in crisscrossing ribbons that gathered in intensity as they grew, forming a half sphere with me at its epicenter, the white brightness almost impossible to look at. I pushed again, and the sphere detonated, striking my mother in the chest, knocking her across the room for a second time. As she flew, her clothes lit on fire, her hair blazed, and the scream that wrenched from her throat shattered what last bit of innocence I might have had. The darkened cellar immediately took on a fiery glow as the remains of the storm caught and burned. The fire licked up the walls and spread to the rafters in the ceiling. The house began to groan again, the floor above me cracking as it split. And then I felt the heat.
I choked on the acrid air as I tried to pull the fire back to me. Part of it came, but not all. I tried again, but the effort was too much, the realization of what I had just done too great. As the room blazed around me and as my mother's screams stopped, I turned to move to the farthest corner away from the fire.
"Help! Oh, please, help me!" I screamed, but my voice came out weak, and I began to cough as smoke filled my lungs. I fell to my knees and crawled to the corner and waited to die. As I wrapped my arms around my knees, I wondered if it would hurt to burn. I wondered if the house would collapse on top of me before that happened. But above all this, I wondered if there was a special place in hell for little boys who set their mothers on fire. I huddled there, coughing as the black oily smoke entered my body, causing my vision to brighten as my brain began to shut down. I remember thinking what I believed to be my last thought: This is what you will become. This is the shape of the world.
And then, a voice.
I looked up, disbelieving what I saw, sure that it was the last illusion of my asphyxiated brain: a giant knelt on the ledge above me, a large hand stretched out to me. "Come on, kid! Grab my hand!"
I stumbled to my feet, knowing he wasn't real (how could anyone that big truly exist?) but I raised my hand anyway, reaching for his fingers. I heard the ceiling behind me finally let go with a loud crash, and a great wave of heat smashed against my back. I was lifted off the ground and thrust into the wall. My head rapped against it, causing stars to arc behind my eyes. Dazed, I looked up.
The giant lowered his hand again, a determined grimace marring his face. His blue eyes were wide and shiny, his black hair falling around his cheeks as his forehead scrunched in concentration. "You have to jump! I won't let you go!"
And for some reason, I believed him.
I pushed away from the wall and jumped as high as I could, and I felt his monster paw wrap around my forearm. There was a moment of alarming vertigo as I was pulled up through the smoke and out of the burning cellar. The momentum the giant created in that movement caused him to fall onto his back. I landed on his chest, my hands on either side of his head, my knees and legs digging into his stomach. I looked down at him and was shocked to see that the giant, while still massive, was in fact a teenager, his boyish face betraying his size. He stared up at me, and even as the house fell apart around us, even as drops of fire rained down from the sky, his hand raised and brushed a lock of hair out of my face, and I felt his stomach rise as he breathed in deeply.
"You," he whispered. "You're a boy?" His hands cupped my face, and a tear streaked down my cheek onto his fingers. "I dreamt of you but... but I never thought...." I closed my eyes against the gentle touch of his enormous hands, feeling submerged in the depths of calm waters. I dropped down onto him, curling up into a ball, my head under his chin. His hands wrapped around my back. We both breathed in. We both breathed out. He smelled of pine.
The moment was broken as he trembled beneath me. We rose as one as he sat up, curling his legs underneath him, and stood. He pressed me into his chest even harder, and I clutched at his shirt. I felt his legs moving beneath us as he tore down the hallway. Again, as if by some unseen force, the world slowed around us. We passed an open doorway as his hand found the back of my head and slid through my hair, and the room through the door ignited. I turned my eyes up to the giant. As if he felt me staring at him, as if I called him to me, he looked down, his eyes meeting mine. The ceiling above and beyond his head was on fire, the orange-red rippling in rage as it cast his face in shadow. Another shudder ripped through him and entered me, and together we quaked.
Then the hallway behind us exploded.
We were thrown forward by a hot rush of air that buffeted against his back, but somehow the giant managed to hold onto me as he fell to his knees and slid across the floor through the kitchen. I peered over his shoulder as we skidded over the tile and watched as my home blew up behind him. The fire seemed alive as it chased after us, biting and destroying everything in an effort to reach us. The giant's impetus brought us to the edge of the kitchen, and he vaulted to his feet and ran to the open doorway. I saw the luggage sat next to it still, waiting for a trip it would never take.
I closed my eyes, thinking of what I had done.
I felt the cold air surround us as he tore outside. We both took in gasping breaths that filled our lungs, and it was the sweetest thing I'd ever known. He collapsed onto the wet grass, and I jumped off of him, feeling my gorge rise. I gagged and heaved, the bile pouring out of me in a noxious stream. I did this again and again and again until there was nothing left. I felt the giant's hand fall on my back, rubbing small circles as he whispered in my ear, his words a blur against the roaring in my head. As soon as he was sure I was empty, he pulled me onto his lap and rocked back and forth as the house burned before us.
All I could do was clutch at the giant as I broke.
* * * *
Sometime later, he pulled back and put his hand around my chin, forcing my eyes to his. He smiled as I sniffled and rubbed my cheek against his palm.
"What's your name?" he asked gently.
"Felix," I whispered.
"Felix," he said, closing his ocean eyes as if savoring the word on his tongue. "That's a nice name."
"Who are you?" I hiccupped.
He laughed quietly. "My name is Seven."
"Like the number?"
"Yeah, little man, like the number."
I thought on this for a moment. Having a number for a name seemed pretty stupid. And awesome.
"Why Seven? What happened to one through six?" I asked him smartly.
He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against mine. "They ran away."
"Because seven ate nine."
I pulled back sharply and scowled. "I've heard that joke before. That's not even funny."
"You have, huh? I'll have to learn a new joke for you, then." He crushed me to him again and lifted me off his lap, making me stand on the ground next to him. He pulled himself to his full height and became the giant once more.
"You're really big," I told him.
Seven grinned down at me. "I know. I have to be."
He pulled me to his side, and I wrapped my arms around his tree trunk legs. "Because I have to protect you," he said quietly.
"Why? How old are you? Do you live near here? I've never seen you before."
He laughed again. "You ask a lot of questions."
"That's 'cause I like you," I said.
"Yeah? I like you too. I'm sixteen, and no, I don't live near here."
"How'd you know to find me?"
This caused him to pause. Then, "I'll always be able to find you, Felix." He said it with such reverence that another tear slipped from my eye. In the distance, there were sirens.
"I burned my mother," I whispered, suddenly filled with shame and the need for him to hear my confession.
He knelt before me, his blue eyes wide and solemn. "You had no choice," he said forcefully. "She would have taken you away. Away from your home, away from your father." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Away from me." He shook his head as if to rid the cobwebs from his mind. "How can it be so strong already?" he whispered. "How can I know...." His voice trailed off as he opened his eyes.
He reached up behind his neck and his fingers twitched; then he pulled a chain out from his shirt. He brought it up around my head and fastened it behind me. I pulled the heavy medallion up to look at it, a small silver heptagon etched with a red flame on one side and a green tornado on the other. Each design had words written over it in some other another language I didn't understand. "What's this mean?" I asked him, showing him the letters that spelled Es Cor Meum.
"One day when you're older, you'll find out what it means," he told me. "And when you do, you will know it to be true."
This made no sense, but I nodded anyway. "Is it for me?" I asked, testing its weight in my hands.
He ran his fingers over the top of my head. "It is, little man. It's a gift, from me to you. It's... a promise." He stood and looked down at me. "Your father will be here soon, and then things will change. You need to be brave, Felix. You need to be strong and brave for me. I have to go now, but I will find you. Someday, I'll see you again."
My eyes filled with tears. "I don't want you to go," I told the familiar stranger.
Grief etched across his face as he picked me up for another devastating embrace. I felt my chin grow wet as his eyes began to leak. "I know," he whispered. "I don't, either. But someday soon, I promise. You and me aren't done. Not by a long shot." He pulled back away from me as he said his last: "Always remember, little man: you are not alone in this."
And then as quickly as he had come, he escaped back into the night. I screamed after him, but he never stopped.
Behind me, the house continued to burn. And I was alone.
* * * *
But not for long. Even as the sirens grew louder, my father came for me.
I stared off into the distance, willing the giant, Seven, to return for me. The squealing of tires broke me out of my reverie as a car stopped inches from my right arm. My father threw the door open and wrapped his arms around me, asking questions I could not answer. I saw the fear in his eyes, the hint of dawning truth as he pulled me away from flames that had started to stretch along the lawn. I was shoved into the car, the seat belt pulled across my chest. That was the night I learned my father had been expecting that very moment, that he'd understood more than I'd ever thought. That was the night we ran away and never looked back.
* * * *
Three days later we had new identities, sold to and prepared for us by a dark man in the back room of a bar that looked like a dream. Felix Paracel was gone. My father, Thaddeus Paracel, was gone.
He became Lucas Vanesco.
I became Atticus Vanesco.
And then we disappeared.
* * * *
You are not alone in this.
When I was eleven, well hidden under my new name, a new city, a new life, I translated the runes on the necklace Seven had given me. It was Latin, and even when I understood its meaning, I was no closer to understanding what it meant. I never took it off.
Es Cor Meum.
You Are My Heart.
* * * *
I can feel the wind go by when I run. It feels good. It feels fast.
Fifteen years later
I woke from a dream I couldn't remember in an unfamiliar place that smelled of sex and dust. My head ached, my mouth felt filled with cotton. A strange blanket stretched across my naked skin, itchy as it caught against my nipple. I opened my eyes, and as the world came back to me, the room I was in swam into focus. Early morning light gleamed weakly through the window, and it was then I knew there would be a naked man next to me, whose name I wouldn't be able to remember.
I lifted my head and looked at the large, heavily muscled man next me, lying on his stomach, his head turned away as he snored softly. Todd? Eric? Fuck, what was his name? Staring at him brought no clue to his identity so I reached down off the side of the bed, getting ready for the inevitable walk of shame. My hands grazed the carpeted floor as I searched for my pants. And apparently my underwear, I thought as I lifted up the blanket. I felt something wet and slick and grimaced as I thanked God I hadn't been so far gone last night that I had forgotten to demand protection. I let the used condom slip between my fingers. Pants, pants, pants.
I slid my legs quietly off the bed, not wanting to wake the man who, given the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure had been a great lay. At least from what I remembered. John? Is that his name? I thought as I found my underwear in my jeans. I quickly slid them on, standing and jumping a bit, and my knees popped as I pulled them up and over my ass. I glanced around and saw my shirt had ended up being made into a bed for his cat. I shuddered. I hated cats. I flicked my wrist at the little monster, and it raised its head and yawned widely, obviously not caring that this annoying human wanted it to move. It was about to curl back down when I flicked its head, and it snarled quietly at me and rolled off my shirt. Cat hair. I hated cats.
As I slid the shirt over my head, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw a text from my best friend, Jason Taylor.
Where the fuck did u end up last nite Addy?
I rolled my eyes. U don't want to know, I wrote back.
The response was immediate. Again? What was his name this time?
Jeff? I think. Or maybe Carl.
I looked down at Jeff/Carl/John/Todd/Whoever and knew I would never be in this room again. Ever since discovering the joys of no-strings-attached fucking at the tender age of seventeen, I hadn't looked back. I was smart about it but never had the same one twice. It was easier that way. There weren't many people that were a constant in my life, for good reasons. It was better to grab a few moments of pleasure and then cut my losses and run. I had learned a great many things over the years, but never letting anyone get too close was the most important.
Most of the time, I mused as my phone vibrated again.
Let me guess. Jeff/Carl is the biggest guy u could find & ur trying to sneak out.
Sometimes, it seems people know me way too well. Maybe, I typed back.
I found my hooded jacket (more goddamn cat hair!) and left the bedroom. I wandered down the hallway, looking at the framed photographs that hung from the wall. The man I left sleeping in his room grinned at me from frozen moments in time. Here he was at a wedding, here he was surrounded by half-naked men at a beach, his body ripped and tan. Here he was between two people who must have been his parents, his grin wide, his huge arms wrapped around their shoulders. I smiled quietly to myself. These were a stranger's memories, not mine. At least he had that.
Coffee? was Jase's response.
Hell yes. See ya at the usual.
* * * *
As I left the apartment building of He Who Can't Be Named (No Matter How I Hard I Try), I pulled my sunglasses out of my coat pocket and covered my eyes from the damnable sun, whose sole purpose seemed to be to mock my hangover. I joined the crowd on the sidewalk, immediately surrounded by the group of faceless people that always seemed to haunt the streets of Terra City, which had been my home for the past fifteen years. I knew its hidden alleys and dark causeways like the back of my hand. I raised my arm, signaling for a taxi. One screeched to a halt, the driver waving me in. I slumped into the backseat.
"Where you go?" the driver asked, his accent indistinguishable as it poured out of his mouth.
"Potio's. Eighth and Campana."
"You got it."
He slammed his foot on the gas pedal, jerking us out into the flooded Sunday morning traffic, blending in with the rest of the movers and shakers. I slid further down in the seat, playing with the medallion around my neck. My phone vibrated again. I looked down. I knew who it was immediately by the context.
Did you know that lipstick has fish scales? You're lucky you're gay.
My dad had this really weird obsession with off-the-wall facts. Hardly a day went by that I didn't learn something useless. I rolled my eyes and smiled to myself. At least he tried.
Very lucky, Dad.
What are you doing?
Come over when you're done. There's something I need to show you.
I snapped the phone shut and stared out the window. The monumental buildings of downtown Terra City rose from the landscape, shading the streets from the sun. Most people that come here only visit the touristy stops: Quadratum Plaza, the Victorio Building, the Grandis Statue. And then they leave, knowing they've seen wonders of this world. But those who live here look below the slick sheen and can see the grime and dirt that have infested this place. The homeless that sleep in boarded-up doorways, the trash that piles up daily, the smell of ozone and gasoline and rubber that is distinct to the City. It was that smell that I breathed in deeply then, that smell I somehow loved. So what if it was the murder capital of the world? So what if the government was corrupt and the police ran rampant, seemingly answering to no one but themselves? This place was my home. It had become my refuge after... well, after that night. With twelve million people, it wasn't that hard to get lost in the mass that swarmed the streets. People disappeared here every day.
The cabbie tossed a newspaper back over the seat, and I picked it up, disinterestedly scanning headlines. War here, famine there. A man with explosives strapped to his chest entered a crowded market place, killing forty-seven in some exotic-sounding country three thousand miles away. A train had derailed, leaking chemicals into a river. Someone had cloned a monkey. A celebrity got caught with a hooker, a child prodigy solved a thousand-year-old math proof. Gays could legally get divorced in yet another state. And then, buried on the seventh page, a headline caught my eye:
THE ELEMENTAL REGISTRATION
ACT PASSES IN THE SENATE
In a move that surprised no one, the Elemental Registration Act, or the ERA as it's known, passed with a unanimous vote by the United States Senate. Calling it a "victory for moral America," Senate Majority Leader Ross Edmonds called upon the House of Representatives to follow the Senate's potentially groundbreaking move that would require the five-thousand-plus Elementals currently residing in the US to register for tracking and what is being referred to as "scientific pursuits," though what these pursuits may be is still unclear. The proposed legislation would also require those with Elemental abilities to report to a government official on a weekly basis and to notify the neighborhood they reside in of their presence in that particular community. Reverend Gary Sharp of the Church of the White, known for picketing the funerals of soldiers who have died in combat with anti-Elemental rhetoric, spoke highly of the bill, calling it "the work of the one true God. Those who attempt to control His creation shall know no quarter."
I closed the paper and then my eyes.
It was easier not to think.
* * * *
I threw a couple of bills over the seat at the cabbie, hearing him mutter something in his native tongue. I opened the taxi door and slipped into the crowd, pushing my way to Potio's. Jase stood out front, his hands shoved into his pockets.
"You look like shit, Addy," he said, grinning at me.
"And you look like you didn't have sex with anyone last night," I retorted, pushing past him. The coffee house wrapped me in the promise of caffeine. There was a line. I hated lines.
I felt Jase reach up and brush off my shoulder. "Cat hair? You hate cats."
"I think the little fucker rolled over my shirt while I slept," I groused.
He arched an eyebrow. "Slept? Or passed out?"
I wave my hand dismissively. "Same thing."
"Didn't you see it there when you got to The Incredible Hulk's house last night?" He saw me hesitate and laughed. "Liquid again?" he asked, naming my frequent hunting ground. I drank too much when I went there. It was simpler to be drunk and to look up into some random guy's face like it actually meant something other than a warm body to lie next to.
"Liquid again," I agreed. "I thought you were supposed to meet me there."
He rolled his eyes. "No, you didn't. You know we were supposed to meet at the Cantina. If I'd known having a gay best friend meant I had to go to clubs with names like Liquid and Bulge and Cockhole, I would've had second thoughts about this whole thing."
"Liar. I get you more play than you would ever get on your own. Women just love you for having a gay best friend. It makes them think you're sensitive. And there's no bar called Cockhole. I would know if there was."
He played hurt. "I am sensitive," he said earnestly.
"Right," I muttered. "Mr. Sensitive, that's you. Now buy your best friend coffee so he can go into the bathroom and attempt to look presentable for the public eye."
"It's going to take a lot more than what you'll find in there," he assured me. I scowled at him over my shoulder and pushed my way into the single toilet, closing the door behind me.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Shit, I thought. Jason had been right. I looked like I had been ridden hard. By a cat. I scowled again and reached up to brush the infinitesimal hairs off my shoulders and chest. I took off my sunglasses and stared at my reflection. The person looking back had bags under his dark hazel eyes, gaunting his already thin face. His blond hair was buzzed short, almost militarily so. I rubbed my hand through the stubble and saw him do the same. I bared my small white teeth. Nothing was stuck in them. I turned on the faucet and cupped my hands together, letting it fill before I brought it to my face, knowing the splash wouldn't help the reflection I saw.
I had been told many times in my life that I was attractive, but I tossed it aside like any other compliment I received. I was small, five foot seven (or nine, depending if I felt like stretching the truth), and this caused an overwhelming desire in people to crowd me, to want to provide protection. No matter where I went I could see it in their eyes, as if something drew them to me, needing to surround me and shelter me from the outside world. I was skinny ("too skinny," both my father and Jase admonished), but when I moved, I carried myself with an almost catlike grace, emanating what I'd always thought was confidence, but in reality, the stalky movement was telling everyone to go fuck themselves. I had been called attractive, yes, but cold, as well. It didn't help that I went through guys like I was on an assembly line, and while I'm sure the nickname "Ice Queen" stuck for a reason, it was only because they were pissed off that they couldn't screw me again. Whatever. I know I'm a good lay. Ego be damned.
I saw my reflection reach in the collar of his shirt and pull out the medallion that adorned his neck and twirl it in his hands, an almost unconscious habit that I recognized as being my own. The origins of the pendant were lost in that great sea that was my childhood. I remembered bits and pieces: the fire, my mother, the giant whose face I could no longer remember. I remember reaching for him, his wide blue eyes, and the way he had held me. I thought what I remembered was a lie. I shoved the ensign back into my shirt, its weight comforting against my skin.
Comfort? my damnable conscience asked. Comfort indeed.
I felt a heat begin to rise in my chest, and I closed my eyes. In the darkness in the bathroom of Potio's, I saw a familiar flare ignite and burn quietly within me. I caressed it gently as it begged for release. I opened my eyes and looked over my shoulder, reassuring myself that the door was still shut tight. I turned back, and the reflection smiled briefly at me, his warm smile never reaching his eyes. That man was a stranger these days, smirking as if he knew something I didn't. He nodded and I nodded back, agreeing that the itch needed to be scratched. I raised my right hand and closed my eyes again, and the sunburst in my chest exploded in an incandescent brilliance. I pushed gently and felt the familiar ripple as the fire radiated from my hand. There was no out-of-body experience, no gritting of my teeth: mere child's play, that. I opened my eyes, studying the flame with an almost empirical resolve. It glowed so much brighter than it ever had when I was a child, its white hot center capable of melting steel. I became lost in that flicker, that creation in my hands. I brought it out rarely now, keeping the source of my ignominy buried deep.
There was a knock at the door.
I sighed and extinguished my hand, pushing it back down.
I went back out into the world.
* * * *
"Better?" I asked Jase as I took my seat across from him.
He slid my latte across the table and studied me for a moment. "Than before?"
"Much. Although I do have to say, Addy, this can't go on forever."
I snorted into my coffee, causing a backdraft of foam to rise toward my face. "And what's that?"
Jase rested his hands on the table in front of me and studied me. I glared back, trying not to smile. He always did this, much like the others I'd met. He felt the need to protect me, and being at least six inches taller than me and outweighing me by a good eighty pounds allowed him to do so. Or so he thought. But with him, it was different. I didn't feel suffocated, I didn't live in fear of what he would find out (although it would be a cold day in hell before he ever knew I was an Elemental--I couldn't take the risk of what that knowledge would have done to his life). We were fourteen when we met in the hallways of Luda High out in the Meridian Borough. I was a freshman and he was a sophomore, and he happened to witness my welcome to the school as some dumbass grabbed my head and smashed it into a row of lockers. My nose broke and began to gush, but I didn't notice. My attention was on my rescuer, this older boy that I didn't know, as he snarled, his fists flying as he bashed in my attacker. It took one punch to the side of said dumbass's head and he was out cold on the floor.
Jase skipped the rest of the day with me, sitting in the emergency room, my nose leaking. He told me his father had been a cop with the TCPD and had died the year before in a routine traffic stop, a shotgun blast to the face. I told him my mother had died in a fire. We became inseparable over shared tragedy, over my broken face. He was my hulking shadow, and against my better judgment, I let him be. It helped when he didn't bat an eye when I told him I was gay four days later. "And?" he'd asked.
"You know what I mean," he growled now, breaking me out of the past. "You're running yourself ragged with all this fucking around you're doing."
"My libido is a dangerous thing," I told him.
"You're a big boy," he barked at me. "Control it."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Where the hell is this coming from?"
"Years of watching you drown yourself in booze and dick. Don't you think it's time you grew up?" He sat back in his chair, grimacing as if the words pained him. "What are you trying to find out there?"
"The best way to get off."
"Wow, that semester of Psych 101 is really working wonders for you. Maybe you should have followed that instead of becoming a cop." I was annoyed, and I let it show on my face. He had always been able to hold some form of restraint when it came to my extracurricular activities, regardless of how he felt about them. If I didn't know how absolutely straight he was (an awkward drunken pass I made at him years ago, rejected with such tenderness, was more than enough evidence for me), I would have thought he was jealous. And maybe he was, in his own way; the few people in my life did seem to need to possess my undivided attention. I don't know what I did to call it to me, it just happened.
"You're funny when you're hungover," he said.
"One of us has to be," I replied smartly.
He chuckled. "It's always fun to talk to you when you haven't gotten any sleep and you reek of sex."
"Is this why you called me? To berate me?"
He shook his head sadly. "I called you because I miss you," he said. "I haven't seen you in weeks, and even when I do, it's like you're not even there. It's like you're...." He stopped and sighed, rubbing his hands through his thick dark hair, the muscles of his forearms straining against the leather jacket he wore. Jason looked good, even with that annoyed look on his face. I don't know what it was about him that made me toss all my inhibitions out the window, all my fears of getting close to someone seeming like trite meanderings of a confused kid. The women in his life (of which there were a few, regardless of all the crap he was giving me) fell at his feet, tossing curious glances in my direction. They loved that he was a cop, they loved that he was a man's man, capable of picking up each one of their little bodies and heaving them across the room, picturing the way his uniform must cut and cling to every inch of his bulky body as he did so. They loved his smile that would flash quickly, causing momentary blindness. They would whisper in his ear, promising him things that he'd heard before. They would glance at me again, the hard lines around their mouths set, grabbing and pulling until he gave them the attention they craved. Jase laughed at their jealousy, never really clarifying our relationship for them beyond saying I belonged to him. I know it burned him (again, out of what? jealousy? loyalty?) to see me walk off with Mr. Right Now whenever he came on my hunting expeditions. When I was with him, he expected me to be with him. Maybe that's why I hadn't called him in a while; it's easier to walk away when you don't leave someone behind.
"It's like I what?" I asked him.
He sighed again and looked out the window, watching Terra City pass us by. "You'll think it's stupid," he grumbled, uncharacteristically shy.
"Bullshit," I challenged.
His eyes narrowed. "Fine. It's like you're waiting for something."
I rolled my eyes. "Before I say it's stupid, I'll give you a chance to explain."
"Gee, thanks. I enjoy these heart-to-hearts you and I have."
"Stalling doesn't help," I reminded him. He knew as well as I did that I couldn't let things go. It was my curse.
"Ahhh," he huffed out. He was struggling to find the right words to say, and against my better judgment, my curiosity piqued. This was not like him. I waited. "Ever since I've known you," he said, "you always seem to be waiting for something to happen." He didn't (wouldn't? couldn't?) look at me as he spoke, instead focusing his attention on the table as he tore a napkin into tiny strips. "You were always so watchful as a kid, with those big eyes of yours, and I always chalked it up to waiting for the other shoe to drop, for more bad news to come." He stopped.
"But?" I asked him quietly.
"But that wasn't it. I don't know how else to say it. It's like you know something is going to happen someday and that's when you'll really begin."
He was getting agitated. "I don't know!" he said, full of exasperation. "If I knew, maybe I could fix it! I hate this--the not knowing. Fuck, Addy, you see the news: the world's going to shit, this city is crumbling down around us, and nobody cares! I arrested a guy last week that had his four children making meth in the cellar of his house, their dirty fucking house that smelled like shit, and if any one of those kids had been to school in the last year, I would have been shocked. I responded to a call where a woman had been beaten again and again and again by her husband, and she no longer had a face. And nobody gives a damn!" His teeth ground together, his chest heaving. "And then there are the Elementals...."
Careful, a voice warned.
"What about them?" I asked evenly.
His eyes rose to mine, pained and glassy. "Did you know the mayor has already started to put together a task force?"
"For what?" My body felt cold. The mayor of Terra City, the honorable Alex Sampson, had never been a favorite of mine. I certainly hadn't voted for him (I actually hadn't voted at all--low profile and all that) but even I could see how potentially dangerous his militant-like stronghold on the City was. He had run on a platform of change (not just "Oh Yes We Can" but "You Bet Your Fucking Ass We Will") and conservative progression, but it was his staunch support of the ERA that had gotten him elected.
"For that goddamn registration," Jase spat out. "In 'anticipation of the enacted law', he plans on having troops on the ground on day one, ready to make that list of all the Elementals in Terra City. He called for volunteers, and he had so many he had to turn the rest away so he would actually still have cops on the street."
"And you?" I asked, proceeding quietly onto dangerous ground.
"And me what?"
"Did you volunteer?" I already knew the answer, but some part of me still needed to hear him say it, to tell me he wasn't part of the so-called Iron Fist of Sampson. Jason Taylor was the one who knew me best, even if he didn't know everything about me. A small voice screamed again from the depths of my soul, begging me to tell him, to share the greatest secret I still kept. But I pushed it away, telling myself yet again that it wasn't just for me, that I did it to keep him safe. He was one of the few I had let in, and I needed to keep him safe.
He scowled at me. "You better be joking, Addy. You know I would never fucking agree with the ERA. How soon is it before we have to round them all into camps? I would never be part of something so destructive."
I nodded. "But even I know that in your line of work, there's a difference between being a volunteer and being volun-told."
"I won't let it get to that point," he promised darkly, and as if a draft had blown in from the outside, I felt a chill run down my spine.
"Not to be narcissistic, but what does that have to do with me?"
"What are you waiting for?" he asked me suddenly, turning on the cop voice, the voice I knew he used in interrogation. It was flat, almost nasally, and I resented him for it.
Attempting to keep my anger in check, I said, "I'm not waiting for anything, Officer."
He stared at me. I stared back. As always, he broke first. I hadn't met someone yet who could beat me at that game.
"My point," he begrudgingly continued, "is that I'm worried about you."
"And when is that any different?" I teased him gently, trying to erase the anger I felt.
He snorted. "You're lucky, you know."
"Oh, I know. About what?"
He sat back in his chair and puffed out his chest comically. "You've got someone like me to watch your back."
I reached out and patted his hand, relieved that the conversation had been steered in a new direction. "Keep telling yourself that, big guy." I looked down at my phone; it was later than I thought. "Look, I gotta go. I told my father I would see him today." I picked up my coffee and stood. I stopped when he reached out with his paw and gripped my wrist.
"Addy, I'm just worried about you," he said softly. I looked over my shoulder and saw his eyes cast down at the table. It was almost enough to break my heart. "I just don't want to lose you."
"I know," I said stiffly. "You won't."
"And if something was... happening, you'd tell me. Right?"
I bit back the retort that threatened to bubble over my lips. "You'd be the first to know." I waited for him to nod to himself, and he let go of my wrist and stood, following me out of the coffee shop. I signaled for a taxi, hoping he wouldn't want to share. We'd done too much sharing already today, and I needed to do what I did best: run.
I smiled too brightly at him as a cab pulled in front of us. "I'll see you later," I called over my shoulder.
Shit. "What?" I said sharply, frozen with my hand on the door.
"You know what."
"Aren't we a little old for this?"
I felt his hand on my shoulder and knew what his response would be. Ever since that day when he had sat with me in the hospital, my nose leaking uncontrollably, ever since he had told me about his father and how he'd thought his world was going to end (until I found you, the implied words buried in his grief), he'd decided to keep up a tradition his father had shared with him and his mother. You never know when a day will be your last, he'd said to me, as his father had done to him. You never know what call you'll get in a day, whether it will be one that won't allow you to come home. The words, common to most, a mantra to him, were to be said with any parting.
"We'll never be too old for it as long as we mean it," Jase said over the noise of the street. The cabbie tapped impatiently on the steering wheel, looking briefly at his watch. He could wait. I owed my best friend this. And I would mean it.
I turned and reached up, grabbing his head in my hands, and he grinned so beautifully at me that I couldn't believe I would ever deny him this. I brought his head down and kissed his forehead. "I love you," I told him truthfully.
"I love you too, Addy," he said, looking pleased. He looked up to the sky. "It looks like snow," he said as he walked away, mixing into a group of Asian tourists who twittered musically amongst themselves as their cameras flashed.
"Hey!" I shouted after him.
He turned and cocked an eyebrow, a talent I was always envious of.
"You have to work tonight?"
He shook his head.
I sighed. "The Cantina? Seven o'clock?"
"You gonna leave me there if some side of beef looks at you with fuck-me eyes?"
I laughed. "I'm not promising anything."
"Seven," he agreed. Then he walked away.
* * * *
It took thirty minutes to cross the City to my father's house out in Alta, during which Jase's prediction came true and snow began to fall in fat flakes. There was something amusing about the way it fell, determined to cover the hard-edged city under a blanket of pristine white. The cabbie said something and I grunted my agreement, entranced by the sight, Jase's words still echoing through my head: Did you know the mayor has already started to put together a task force?
I hadn't known that, and it disturbed me greatly. I tried to keep my ear to the ground as much as I possibly could, listening to the hushed whispers that spread through the City. I'm sure Sampson wanted to keep his actions as covert as possible, but it seemed unlikely that there wouldn't have been something, anything that would have betrayed his plans. The funding for such an endeavor was not a secret: the ERA allotted billions for the sum of its parts. But nowhere in the bill (which I had read repeatedly, each time feeling a greater sense of unease) did it make mention of financing task forces designed to do... what exactly? Round up those like me peaceably? To ensure cooperation? It seemed to me that if an Elemental didn't want to go anywhere, then he possessed the power to stay right where he was. Fire, air, water, earth, all of those like me could fight back, if they so chose to do so. But at what cost? What would they hold above the Elementals to force consent? Their jobs? Their families?
Maybe it was something I should have expected, something I should have planned for. Only one person alive knew about me, so my fear seemed to be unfounded. But there was still a niggling feeling that I could not shake, a disquiet that followed me as the snow slipped from the sky.
What if they chose to fight back? I thought.
Then there would be war, came the reply.
I suddenly felt confined in the cab, the air too hot, the backseat of the taxi too small. I looked wildly at the window, forcing my mind to gather itself, to recognize where I was. I saw familiar houses, lawns that I had walked past as a teenager becoming buried under white. I was still about five miles away. I told the driver to pull over, wanting to go to ground in the nearest subway. Even though I felt suffocated in the back of the car, I felt too exposed out in the open. I could ride the train the rest of the way. At least there it was dark and everyone only cared about themselves.
I found the nearest subway entrance and walked underneath the city, the cold following as I descended the stairs. As I came to the bottom of the steps, I reached back and pulled up the hood of my jacket. The sound of the subway quieted to a dull roar inside the black fabric around my face. I shoved my hands in my pockets, feeling keys, feeling my phone. I found the subway card and slid it through the turnstile, watching the light change from red to green. People faded in and out around me. I kicked newspapers, flyers, cups that littered the ground. Graffiti etched its way along the walls: Fuck, said one succinctly. i killeD A maN tOday, said another angrily. The last caused a flutter in my stomach: The SCARRED KING Sees You. I thrust my hands back into my pockets, finding a quiet corner to stand in, watching the ticker above. Five more minutes, and my train would come.
I watched as trains came and more people boarded, less people getting off. The platform seemed to empty more quickly than I'd ever seen it before. Even if it was snowing outside, it seemed impossible that the tunnel would be this sparse early on a Sunday morning. Those left kept their eyes down toward the ground, the rumbling of a distant train shaking the concrete beneath us. One man bopped his head back and forth to a beat only he could hear. A woman wrung her fingers nervously, the cracking of her knuckles like shotgun blasts. A baby in a stroller scrunched up its face to wail but no sound came out. His mother bent over, her finger extended as she scolded. I looked up at the ticker again. My train was going to be late. Shit. I closed my eyes.
The silence deepened.
I opened my eyes.
I was the last one on the platform. I hadn't even heard another train come to gather those last few. I glanced around, attempting to keep my nerves in check. The underground seemed darker than it had when I arrived only a few minutes before. I could hear water running somewhere down the dim tunnel. Above me, a light flickered, crackling as it went on and off, on and off. I leaned up against the wall, willing my train to come through. I should have stayed in the taxi, I thought. I looked up at the ticker again. It said 77777777777777777777.
I heard a rattle from behind me, and I craned my neck slowly, trying to find the source of the noise. Nothing. Was it a rat, one of those big sewer fuckers that urban legend dictated could be the size of a dog? Or was it a homeless person, attempting to find some shelter from the gathering storm? It seemed more likely that my mind was playing tricks on me, as minds are prone to do when you're alone and uncomfortable. The sounds I heard were just a projection of what I expected to hear underneath Terra City.
"Felix," a voice said quietly, from off to my right. I whipped my head around, expecting to see someone standing right next to me but there was no one. The platform seemed to stretch, receding into the false midnight as the lights began to go out, one by one. Beyond the edge of light, I heard feet shuffling slowly, heavy boots dragging along the floor. The next to last light flickered out, the one above me the only one left. The ticker above the tracks said 77777, and then it went black as it died.
"Felix," it said again. From behind me.
I whirled around. Nothing.
"Who the hell is there?" I croaked out. "How do you know my name?"
A deep chuckle spread around me, the reverberations causing my bones to shake.
I'd had enough. Whoever it was knew my real name, was messing with me, and anger rose beyond the fear. If they knew who I was, then they knew what I could do. And I was not one to disappoint, much like I wasn't one to die alone in the dark beneath the City. For the second time in a day (more than any other time in the last fifteen years), I gripped the fire within me and called it out. As it burst from my hand, the light above me exploded in a shower of sparks, their glow dying as they sputtered out on the cold, wet floor. I pushed harder, causing the flames to grow, creating the warming glow I was so familiar with. I spun my hand around, chasing the inky blackness, revealing that I was alone.
"What do you want?" I called, ignoring the waver in my voice.
The ground beneath me shifted and cracked, the cement splitting with a dull roar. I jumped away from the fault line, watching it race toward the far wall. It reached the fold where floor met wall and climbed upward. The fire in my hand sputtered out, reversing without my assistance. But before the dark could swallow me, the crack in the floor began to emit a faint orange light. The dull glow etched its way along the split in the floor, reaching the wall and rising up. As it reached the graffiti on the wall, the words exploded angrily and shone in black: THE SCARRED KING SEES YOU .
The synapses in my brain fired as my right foot lifted and stepped forward, and then my left foot followed and I was walking toward the words, wanting to follow the arrows. How the hell is no one down here with me? I thought as I tried to stop walking toward the wall. I was ten feet away from the graffito when a low groan echoed through the subway station and the debris on the floor rose deftly in the air, followed by the benches against the wall as they snapped out of their bolted feet. The large cement posts cracked, and shards of concrete exploded outward, only to be stopped by some force mid-burst. I stared in wonder as I passed under a five-foot section of the wall as it listed lazily over my head, and I thought--
this is a dream
--it would fall as I passed under it. I reached up and pressed it gently, amazed as it began to spin on its axis, the light from the crack in the ground catching its shadows, sparking along small crystals embedded in the brick. I heard a metal shriek behind me and knew the train tracks were bending and breaking. My feet stopped and I turned, THE SCARRED KING SEES YOU within reaching distance. I lifted my hands, the sudden desire to touch the words overwhelming me, and without even the smallest push, the wind and fire surged from my hands and the arrows next to the words shot down the wall, leaving an arcing trail behind them like the tail of a comet. They rushed away, then up and reversed on themselves until they were above the graffiti on the wall. Quicker than I could have believed, they descended into the SCARRED KING and the words ruptured, shattering along the lengths of the wall. I reached forward still, my right hand blazing, my left hand howling, and I touched the wall, the remains of the graffiti ricocheting back underneath my hands.
The fire faded. The wind subsided.
And new words formed underneath:
Promised to the heart of his desire and fate,
The SCARRED KING stares in wonder.
The Light of the Animo Dimidio too late
to stop the world from tearing asunder;
Half over Half, the darkness sleeps
as the Power of Ventus and Ignis unfurl.
And to silence the cries of those who weep?
The Bringer of Darkness, the Destroyer of Worlds.
As the last line faded into memory, the wall in front of me split and a dark hand burst through the tiles, gripping me by the throat. I was pulled harshly into the wall, my head knocking brightly against it.
Felix, it promised.
A train in the tunnel--
My eyes snapped open, the loud clack-clack-clack of a train arriving at the station invading my ears. I gasped and bent over, feeling phantom fingers around my neck as I gagged. A man standing next to me looked at me curiously before stepping away and opening his newspaper again. A woman to my left talked loudly on her phone. A baby cried, a child laughed.
The subway platform was full.
The ticker above the tracks said my train would arrive in two minutes.
I looked at the ground: no rift. I looked at the wall. Fuck, said one. i killeD A maN tOday, said another. Nothing else. No SCARRED KING, no destruction of the platform. I looked down at my hands, the life lines and the fate lines as they always were, what lay underneath hidden, where it belonged.
What the hell is happening to me?
* * * *
Twenty minutes later I stood in front of my father's door, working up the courage to walk in, schooling my ashen face to hide my inner turmoil. I fingered the ensign around my neck, its familiar presence a solace I could not be without. I took a deep breath and then another and then another.
It was just a dream, I scolded myself. It was just a dream.
Just a dream, a voice reassured me. You didn't get much sleep last night and you passed out against the post in the subway.
But then why did it seem so familiar? It wondered. You've heard those words before. Ventus. Ignis.
It's Latin, I replied. Wind. Fire. I've known that for years.
It chuckled. But from where?
To that, I had no response.
I opened the door.
* * * *
"Did you know that a sneeze travels out of your mouth at over one hundred miles an hour?" my father asked me in lieu of any greeting, his eyes never leaving what looked like a schematic spread out across the desk in his study.
"Honey bees have hair on their eyes," I responded. I was an old hand at this game.
"A man named Charles Osborne had the hiccups for sixty-nine years! Can you imagine that!" He reached up and scratched his head. "Hiccupping for that long would drive a man insane," he muttered.
I loved my father with all my heart.
"What's the word?" I asked as I sank down into an old leather couch, a thin layer of dust springing up around me, causing me to sneeze.
Hearing the noise, my father looked up at me. "Are you getting sick?" he asked me with wary interest. "Have you been eating? You don't look like you've been eating. Do you want to eat? I can make you some food." He studied me with dark eyes that were familiar in the fact that they were my own. The rest of his face was different, changed from what it had been when I was a child. After we'd fled that night, my father had undergone extensive plastic surgery to alter his appearance. I remember changing the blood-soaked bandages on his face as he grimaced and howled in pain. I had asked why. He'd never answered.
Looking at him now, I struggled to remember what he'd looked like before. His hair had long since grayed, the lines around his face deepening gracefully. He towered above me, as did most of the people I knew, and had not yet fallen into the middle-age fat trap, which gave me hope about my future since exercise of any kind absolutely bored me to tears. What's the point of jogging anywhere when I could take a cab and drink coffee while I did so? My father liked to run, the weirdo. I had once told him that he was good-looking for an old man. He responded that he was good-looking for any man. While I didn't get height from his genetics, our sense of vanity made up for it in spades.
"I'm fine," I assured him. "I don't want you to go through the trouble of putting Pop-Tarts in the toaster. We all know how that ended last time."
"Bah," he grumbled as he waved his hand at me. "That was one time, and it wasn't my fault that it exploded. There was either something in the heating coil or something in the Pop-Tarts."
"Now you're just humoring me."
"I sure am. Isn't it neat?"
He scowled and looked down at the paperwork in front of him. "You didn't answer my question. Are you getting sick? You look like shit."
"I'm fine," I huffed.
"What was his name?"
"Addy, don't play dumb. It's not a good look on you."
I sighed. "Todd." I paused, considering. "Or maybe Carl."
"Addy--" he started.
"Dad, I already went through this with Jase. I don't need to do this again," I begged. I didn't know if I could sit through yet another lecture about my sexual proclivities. Once a year was enough, and I'd already had my fill.
"Jase is a good boy," he said as he flipped frantically through the pages on his desk. "Did you practice safe sex?"
"Yes, Dad," I said, resigned. "The image of you putting a condom on a banana to teach me about gay sex is forever ingrained in my head."
"Well, a good father teaches his son about the facts of life."
"You didn't have to put the banana in your mouth," I reminded him.
He grinned without looking up. "Bet that kept you from performing fellatio for quite a while."
"Longer than you'll know."
"So what was wrong with this one?"
"Todd. Or maybe Carl."
I thought for a moment. "He had a cat," I finally settled on.
He looked up sharply. "But you hate cats," he whispered.
"Tell me about it. That little fucker got hair all over my clothes."
"The monster," he agreed. "So, that was a deal breaker, then?"
I nodded. "Well, that and the fact that I didn't even bother to remember his name."
He sighed. "Addy, I'm not getting any younger. I want grandchildren one day."
I laughed. "I don't think that's possible, even if he didn't have a cat."
"Why not?" he asked, his face scrunched in thought.
"I'm a man," I explained carefully. "And so was he."
"Bah. The nice gay I work with, Charlie, went to Africa or Canada or somewhere with his partner and adopted a baby and brought it home. You could do the same."
"Why didn't they just adopt a baby here?" I wondered aloud.
"Because it's more popular for gays to have ethnic babies."
"Says who? And I don't think Canadian qualifies as ethnic."
"I read it on some gay website."
"And why were you reading about it on some gay website?"
He squinted at me. "Haven't you been listening to anything I've been saying? I told you I wanted grandbabies. How else am I supposed to know how you're going to get one unless I read about it?"
I stretched, feeling my back pop. "Well, when I decide to go to Africa to adopt a baby, you'll be the first to know."
"Duh," he said, his gravelly voice amused. "I'll be on the flight with you."
And he would be too. Too bad that it was never going to happen. But I didn't tell him that as I couldn't bring myself to be that mean. My father didn't deserve it. What he deserved was a loving son who would give him Canadian grandbabies (babies, plural, of course; I know in his head, he pictured six or seven), who would find a partner (never a boyfriend, never a fuck, always a partner; he was very forward-thinking, my dad) and settle down and not have to worry about hiding the fact that he could do what only a handful of the world's population could do. I allowed myself to have a pity party for the moment, to wallow in remorse. But then it passed, as those things seemed to do. I could no more change myself than he could force me to change.
"What did you need to show me?" I asked, redirecting the topic. I was curious if it had to do with the schematics he'd been focused on since I arrived. My father... well, I didn't know exactly what my father did. I knew he worked in some capacity for the United States government, working in research and development in some department or maybe in the private sector. What he was researching and developing, I had no idea. He never volunteered information, and I learned never to pry for it. Our whole lives were a secret, so what were a few more? I never got the idea it had anything to do with Elementals, or at least he never indicated it did. His silence about his job never bothered me (or so I told myself), figuring if I needed to know anything, he would tell me. Or, at least I hoped he would. He'd still never explained how he knew so much about my mother and what had happened the night of the fire. He'd never explained how he knew who she worked for, or what her plans had been. He never explained... but I never asked, my own demons of that night still haunting me. I think some part of him knew this, and he attempted to shelter me from the worst of it. Why else had we run across the country and gone into hiding? Why else had we changed our names, our looks, the way we spoke, the way we moved? It was easier not to focus on all that I was still in the dark about.
He brought a finger to his lips as he reached into his desk. He pulled out a small black box and pressed the red button on the top. There was an irritating electronic whine as the machine powered on. He looked back down at the schematic (and I could see now that it was an outline for something) and sighed. His eyes clouded for a moment before he spoke.
"We should be fine now," he said.
I stood up and picked up the box that whirred as I held it. "Scrambler?" I asked. "It's a lot smaller than your other one."
My father nodded. "New tech. A much wider range, almost the whole block. I can't be too careful right now," he said, motioning to the scrambler as I set it back down. "I don't know if anyone is listening in." He rubbed his hands over his face. "I'm getting paranoid in my old age."
I wrapped my arm around his waist and hugged him gently. "Dementia is certainly in your foreseeable future," I agreed.
He hugged me back, lightly smacking the back of my head. I felt his chin rest on top of my head, and it was like I was a child again, and for a moment, the weight of the day lifted from my shoulders. There was no stranger asleep next to me, no Jase wondering what I was waiting for, no dark subway platform with walls that burst into flaming poetry (seriously, could my dreams be any weirder?). There was only my dad and me.
"What's this?" I asked as he released me, pointing down at the charts before us.
He sighed. "This... this is the future."
He picked up the diagram and rubbed his hands over the surface, an unreadable expression crossing his face before it left for parts unknown. He looked tired, resigned somehow, and I wondered at it until he spoke again. "It's called a Suppressor. Rather inelegantly named, but accurate."
"And what does it suppress?"
"Elementals. Or rather, their abilities."
A vise gripped my heart, cold and metallic. "What?" I whispered.
He set down the papers and reached out to grip my shoulders. "You know that I have nothing to do with this," he said sternly. It was not a question.
I brushed his hands away, staring at what my father had called the future. If the scale drawn hastily at the bottom was correct, it would be bigger than the old oak desk I was leaning over. Calculations and shorthand littered the corners, jumbled in their nonsense. I held my hand over the paper, never touching it, an almost inordinate fear caressing my skin. My fingers started to shake and I dropped my hand, hoping my father hadn't seen.
His eyes were sad as he watched me. There were times when I wondered what he thought of me, his Elemental son, and how different his life would be if I had not been born. I had these moments every so often, these crystal-clear instances of self-deprecation. I never allowed myself to drown in them, but they lurked nonetheless. He wouldn't be in hiding, that's for sure, and his wife might still be alive. He would be able to have people call him by his real name. Did he have a family he left behind? I didn't remember there being any grandparents, any aunts, uncles, cousins. There were still so many secrets between us, buried and waiting for someone to dig them up, expose them to the world. And that's what scared both of us the most, even though we never vocalized it.
"Where did you get this?" I asked hollowly.
He shrugged. "Can't say for sure."
"Can't or won't?"
"Does it matter?"
I stepped away, beginning to pace the floor. "Jesus Christ, Dad, of course it matters! You say you have nothing to do with this, and I believe you, but if you have this thing, it has to be for a reason."
He lowered his eyes and rubbed the schematic again. "I may have accidentally walked out with it without anyone noticing."
I stopped and stared at my father. "You stole it?" That was unlike my father, or so I'd thought.
"I'd like to think of it as borrowing," he said defensively.
I scowled at him. "Who'd you borrow it from?"
He looked back up at me, eyes stern. "You know I can't tell you that, Addy. It's for--"
"My own good, I know," I interrupted. "Don't you think it's time for me to decide what my own good is? I'm going to be twenty-five in a month, for Christ's sake. I'm not some little kid that you have to hide anymore. I can take care of myself." I gripped the edge of the desk, feeling nauseous and hot. I closed my eyes and the flare blossomed in the dark. I pushed it away.
My father sighed. "Addy, I know you're grown now, but you're still my son." He reached over and laid his palm over the back of my hand. I wondered if he could feel the heat that was rising from within me. "I don't care how old you get, a father's job is never done. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will fight to keep you safe."
I slid my hand out from under his, knowing it hurt him, but unable to stop myself. "Dad, I can't hide forever. I won't."
"Are you out of your mind?" he suddenly shouted. He'd never raised his voice at me before, but still I didn't flinch. Today had been a weird day, and this seemed perfectly fitting with events so far. "If they found out about you, if your mother's associates knew you were still alive, that you didn't die in that fire, they would be here already! They would take you away and even I couldn't get to you then!"
"Who, Dad?" I growled. "Who are these people you've always referred to? Why the hell do they care about me? There's thousands of Elementals in the world, what makes me so goddamn special?"
I saw a shadow cross his eyes. We'd never been at this point before. I'd never been so brazen, so demanding. We were so good at secrets that it caused trepidation when questions were asked. I waited and wondered if what came out of his mouth next would be a lie. Maybe everything I'd been told was a lie.
"You...," he started, searching for the right words. He raised his hands and covered his eyes, and I felt a shiver roll through me. Was I about to hear a truth? "You," he said again, "are different, Felix." The use of my former name caused my head to hang, angry tears stinging my eyes. He hadn't called me that in so long, it hurt to hear.
"How?" I whispered. He started toward me around the desk, but I shook my head and took a step back. "How?" I demanded.
He stopped, a tremor in his hands. "You have to believe everything I've done, I've done for you," he begged. "Everything that I've kept hidden, I did to protect you."
"I'm sick of everyone thinking they know what's best for me," I retorted, letting my anger creep into my voice. "I have the right to know what I am."
When he spoke, his voice was flat: "You are Findo Unum. A Split One. It speaks to the dual nature of your Elemental abilities. Fire and wind."
I rubbed the tears from my eyes. "So? There have to be others."
He hesitated, checking his words before he spoke. "As far as I know, you are the only one."
I lowered my hands and stared at him incredulously. "Are you fucking kidding me?" I snarled at him. "Elementals are everywhere! Are you saying nobody can control more than one?"
"As far as we know."
This stopped me cold. "We?" I repeated softly.
He realized he had slipped up, and his brow furrowed as he looked away from me again. "You know I can't talk about that, Addy."
"Maybe it's time you started."
He shook his head. "For you to be safe, I can't." He hesitated again. "Not yet."
"I hope you never find out!" he exhaled angrily. "Do you have any idea what kind of danger you'd be in if you were discovered? I've tried so hard to tell myself that your secret needs to be kept, that you cannot be exposed. But things are starting to happen now that are beyond my control. Look at the fucking ERA! The fucking Suppressor!" He slammed his fists down on the schematic, the crack echoing dully through the room. "This is how they're going to ensure cooperation of the Elementals."
"How?" I asked.
He picked up the plans and shoved them at me. They fluttered through the air, and I let them fall on the ground. "It sends out electromagnetic pulses designed explicitly to interfere with an Elemental's genetics. Your powers are hardwired into your genes, your DNA, and this disrupts that connection by interfering with the neuromuscular transmitters in your body, rendering your abilities null while you are within range." He started to pace the floor. "They've tested it on weaker Elementals, and some have been killed in the process. But even with the fear of what you all are capable of, they can't risk the extermination of your kind. I would say it's strictly for humanitarian reasons, but more and more I believe it is politically motivated, a grab for power."
"To what end?" I asked, already knowing his response.
"If they can control your powers, then they can control you. Can you imagine if a country had an army of Elementals at its disposal? People who could burn the air out of the sky, people who could cause earthquakes? Tsunamis? Imagine a populace that was a threat against our way of life. Imagine if we entered another war with these Elementals as soldiers on the battlefield! There would be no chance at survival."
"The task forces," I whispered.
He looked at me sharply. "What did you say?"
Shit. "Jase told me that Mayor Sampson is putting together special teams for when the ERA is enacted. He said it was supposed to help the transition. I bet they're going to use that goddamn machine."
He looked at me in horror. "He's not helping them, is he?"
I shook my head. "Although I don't know how much longer he'll have a choice in the matter."
My father walked toward me, and this time I didn't back away. "Addy," he said gently, "you are the most important thing in my life. I can't lose that." For the second time in a day, a man I loved had said those words to me, that I couldn't be lost. I supposed it should have weighed on me, but a dull warmth began to spread in my stomach, having nothing to do with the Elemental fire I carried within me. It grew because of my father.
Before I could stop myself, I whispered two words I had read in my subway dream: "Animo Dimidio." I was stunned when my father recoiled from me, fear dawning in his eyes.
"Where did you hear that?" he asked, his voice pained.
"What does it mean?" I challenged.
He watched me for a moment, his eyes molten, and then walked and stood before me, his frame dwarfing mine. He reached down and tugged at the chain around my neck until the medallion fell out of my shirt. He held it gently in his hands, twisting it to gaze at either side. Suddenly I wished I had never come to his house, never opened my mouth and brought out this look that rested on his face. He was scared, and I was the cause. I had to get out of there.
"I thought I had more time," he whispered, entranced as the ensign twisted in the light.
I was struck dumb as a thought entered my head. "Dad, do you know what this means?" I asked, referring to the medallion. "Do you know who gave this to me?"
He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the ringing phone. He dropped the necklace against my chest and moved away, flipping a switch on the scrambler as he picked up his cell phone off the desk. "Go," he ordered. "What? When? Shit, I'll be right there. No, no. Don't start without me." He flipped the phone closed and inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly. He turned back to me, his eyes set.
"Saved by the phone, huh, Dad?"
"Addy," he started, then stopped. He shook his head. "I have to go."
"Fine," I ground out, spinning toward the hallway. I stopped when he called my name. "What!" I barked, not bothering to turn around.
"You won't stop now, will you? Now that you know... certain things, you won't stop."
"Stop what? Asking questions? Finally finding out what you've kept from me?"
"No, Dad. I won't stop. Not now."
"Then promise me one thing."
"That you'll give me time to prepare. Give me... two weeks. Give me fourteen days, and I promise I will tell you all I know."
I nodded tightly. "See you in two weeks, Dad."
I walked out of the room.