Colin woke up in a daze a few times to stagger to the bathroom and back, but otherwise stayed in bed. Nothing felt real. Time didn’t feel real. The carpet under his feet, the cocoon of blanket around him- none of it felt real. He drifted in and out of sleep until cold water hit him in the face.
“What the hell?” He jumped out of bed, ready to fight.
Andreus threw his hands up defensively.
“You’ve been out for a while. I needed to know that you were still alive.”
“There are drier ways to do that,” Colin grumbled. Already, the idea of a warm bed called to him, promised to wrap him in comfort and unconsciousness, to take him away from everything.
Andreus snapped his fingers. “Come on.”
“At least let me dry off.” Colin started toward the bathroom for a towel. A warm, fluffy towel sounded perfect. Much better than wet blankets.
“I got it.” Andreus raised his hands and the water in Colin’s hair and clothes flew away like a massive blow dryer without all the noise.
“Can I change my clothes, or do you want to do that for me, too?”
“If I have to,” Andreus said. “I made you coffee. It’s probably cold but there it is.”
Colin touched the cup on the nightstand. Still warm. He took a sip. Perfect. He set it down. “Can you go so I can change?”
“If you’re not downstairs in five minutes, I’m coming back up for you.”
Colin grunted in reply, but Andreus left the room and shut the door. Colin stared at the wall and laid back into the bed. He jumped up when cold water soaked through his shirt again. Andreus must have left it there on purpose.
Colin washed his face and changed his clothes and took the coffee with him downstairs. “What’s up?”
“You need to talk about what happened.”
“I did the job.” Colin downed the rest of his coffee and set the cup on the counter. “I think.”
“You made a mess,” Andreus said.
“Is Mary pissed?” Colin searched his friend’s face for a reaction.
“Is that what that was about? You’re trying to get her attention? Carmel said you were just going to check out Millie and suddenly not only is Millie dead, but her bird is dead, her appliances are all on fire, and her neighbors are half scared to death.”
Colin was afraid to ask, but he had to know. “Was anyone else hurt?”
“No, but it’s a hell of a lot to clean up. Did you really do that because you’re mad at Mary or she’s mad at you or whatever is going on between you two?”
“No! I panicked. Millicent was going to kill thousands of people. Maybe hundreds of thousands.”
Andreus looked up for a moment and drew a breath. “Didn’t they tell you she was planning something like that? Isn’t that why you went to check her out?”
“You don’t understand,” Colin said. “She was on her way to the airport to do it. I didn’t have time to report back. She spotted me and I panicked. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
“She was going to get in a car, get on a plane, and destroy an entire city so she could rebuild it into some kind of elemental utopia for the Terrafiers.”
“I’m glad you think this is funny,” Colin said.
“It’s not funny. Who told you what her plan was?”
“She did! Well, she didn’t tell me, she told some other guy, Rupert.”
“Was he in the house with her?”
“No, he left somewhere near the bar.”
“What do you mean ‘good’? I fried a whole building, I hurt a security guard, I killed a little bird and that’s good?”
“Look,” Andreus pushed Colin gently toward his shoes. “It’s good that no one got away. It’s good that you weren’t manipulated into killing Silly Millie, the kooky little old lady with a bad temper. It’s good that you acted fast. You scared a lot of people, including me. You inconvenienced a lot of people, including me. But it could have been so much worse. Come on, we’re taking a field trip.”
“Where are we going?” Colin pulled his shoes on.
“You need to eat.”
They drove through a burger place and ordered enough food for six people. Colin ate fries out of the bag while Andreus navigated.
“It could have been worse,” Andreus said between directions. “Imagine if an actual fire made that kind of a mess. We’d have a lot bigger problems than what you caused. Fire tornadoes aren’t the easiest thing to explain. The cleanup would have been about the same for me, but the overall damage would have been so much worse. Make a left up here.”
“We’re going to the beach? You were just pissed off at me for making your job difficult and now you’re praising me and taking me to the beach?”
“You’re taking me, technically. I was only pissed off because I thought you and Mary were both being bitches about whatever little fight you had. She’s going to try to give you another contract. You need to decline. Park wherever, I’ll grab the food.”
“What do you mean I need to decline? I can do it. I’ve shown that I can do it.”
“No one doubts that you can kill. A human can kill. A dog can kill. A fucking hamster can kill. What it does to you is the problem. It changes you, and not for the better. It fucks with your mind. You need to deal with what happened before you agree to do it again. Especially this job.”
“The last time I took your psychological advice, I got my ass handed to me. I’m fine.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Callie’s parents,” Colin prompted.
“Oh, no, some dead girl’s parents were mad because you reminded them that their little girl was a teenager with teenager feelings. Guess you’d better kill more people. That’s clearly the right thing to do!” Andreus held the door handle and the bag of food, along with a reusable grocery bag filled with something, waiting expectantly.
“I thought we were friends. Friends have faith in each other. I’m not about to go stomp on some newborns, I’m saying I will listen to the contract Mary presents. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. And if I have some shit to work out, I’ll go tell it to the horses and the haybales. Or I’ll call you or Carmel, or I’ll go play in a lightning storm. I’m not some crazed lunatic with a chainsaw.”
“Fine,” Andreus said. “Don’t fuck around with lives, though. Especially your own. If you need time to regain your balance after this, take it. It’s too hard to get back up when you fall far enough.”
“You sound like you have some experience with this.”
“I almost went too far. Kurada is constantly on the brink of going too far. A lot of our people do. They listen to the Purest, they listen to Mary and they don’t think either have any faults. They don’t think about the consequences to anyone. They don’t think about right and wrong. They turn into mindless worker bees and do what they’re told. They take the easy way out and pretend they aren’t responsible for their own actions.”
Right and wrong. Andreus sounded like Rupert. Did that make Colin Millicent? “What’s wrong with wanting it to be easy?”
“Everything. Look at the people who take the easy way. The addicts, the stagnant, the people who do the same fucking thing every fucking day and then complain to anyone who will listen about how shitty their life is because it’s fucking easy. They hurt themselves, and they hurt other people, and they say they care but they don’t change. All you need to do is open your eyes and pay attention. Do you know what happens to the people who don’t? They fail to live, and then they die.” A vein popped out on Andreus’ normally smooth forehead and muscles twitched under the skin on his jaws.
“Maybe I’m not the only with some shit to work through,” Colin said. He couldn’t deny he’d seen the same thing. He’d lived in enough crack dens and shelters to watch people turn into zombies and then turn into corpses. He’d seen enough of them slide into illness and death, leaving no one behind to remember. And he’d seen enough of the people left behind who did remember to know that was the look in Andreus’ eyes.
“It’s some shit I’ve worked through,” Andreus said. “Working through it doesn’t mean it goes away, and it doesn’t mean you want to watch other people go through it.”
“Who did you watch?”
Andreus opened the car door and Colin had to turn from the blinding afternoon light that suddenly invaded the car. He grabbed the drinks and followed Andreus to the spot on the beach where Zep was killed. Most people seemed smart enough to avoid the cold, windy beach.
“Why are we here?”
Andreus didn’t answer as he walked across the sand toward the roaring waves, wind whipping his hair around his head. He turned back and smiled. Andreus’ eyes reflected the ocean and the ocean seemed to reflect him back. He had the surreal beauty of a mythical creature returned to its magical home. Colin shook his head at himself. Isn’t that exactly what Andreus was? An elemental returned to the most abundant source of his element?
Andreus spread a towel on the sand and set the bag of burgers in the middle.
“Why are we here?” Colin asked again.
“I want to tell you about my wife, but you’re not the only one who needs to hear the story.”
A smooth, female voice interrupted. “You’ve never told anyone the whole story before, have you?”
Colin turned to see Carmel pulling a thin cotton dress from Andreus’ grocery bag. She slipped it over her head and grabbed a handful of fries.
Andrus shook his head. “I’m assuming you already know.”
“I have suspicions, but I was new and no one tells me more than they think I need to know. Which is usually how much they’re willing to pay me and my people. One of these is for me, right?” Carmel grabbed a burger.
“Yeah,” Andreus said. “Brought you lunch, too, Cuz.”
The tide lapped closer, and when it rolled away, it left Kurada behind, brushing wet sand from her naked skin. She also took a dress and a burger, but she threw her arms around Andreus from behind, giving him a big hug. “I’m glad you finally want to talk about it. You, know, to me. Your family.”
“I love you, too, cuz, but get off me.”
Kurada didn’t let go. Instead, she took a bit of her burger over his shoulder. “Gross, onions,” she said through a mouthful.
Andreus gave her a playful shove.
“Oh, sorry, you got a little mustard there,” Kurada wiped his shirt, leaving crumbs behind. “Oh, sorry, did I ruin your super serious mood?”
Carmel laughed and sipped one of the drinks. “It’s the two of us for a bit longer. Vanna’s going to take over for me in a while.”
“Are you sure you want to do this here?” Kurada asked seriously. “And now?”
“Yes. You never know who’s listening unless you know who’s listening. And it’s not the first time I’ve brought you guys lunch at work.”
“You never bring me lunch at work,” Colin said.
“Everytime I show up at the farm, they put me to work,” Andreus said. “I’m not dumb enough to say no to Katrina when she has one tiny little job.”
Kurada laughed and handed Andreus the rest of her burger. “So what happened to Sierra?”
Andreus winced, like the name was a slap in the face. “The official story is that she was killed during a mission. Someone wasn’t where they were supposed to be, and she was spotted and killed by Terrafiers.”
“What’s the unofficial story?” Colin asked.
“It was a suicide mission,” Andreus said. “We were told they kept a strict schedule, she could get in during the shift change. The whole thing was supposed to go off like a heist movie. She was meant to get some documents and get out.”
Colin tried to unwrap his burger slowly, but the wind and waves covered up the sound anyway.
“Sierra was like one of those street urchins you see in cartoons, but you don’t believe they exist. She was like a superhero, she could get in and out of any place, and she loved doing it.”
Colin nodded. “I’ve met a few kids like that. Never known one that grew up who wasn’t on probation, though.”
“You probably didn’t know any who were also elementals,” Andreus said. “But you know they don’t miss things. And the ones who grow up and turn it into a profession don’t get caught. They don’t get lazy. They don’t take stupid chances that would get them killed. At least she didn’t.”
“Until she did,” Carmel said.
“Until she got involved with the Purest. She was more in love with them than with me at first. Then she started to question them. And then she got the mission that killed her.”
Carmel held Andreus’ hand.
He continued. “Mary told her to jump and she did. She didn’t even ask how high. The place was supposed to be scoped out and it was supposed to be a simple operation. Sierra went in and got killed. Someone shot her in the head as soon as she was far enough inside.”
“Oh, shit,” Colin breathed.
“It didn’t even kill her. She kept going. I told her to come back, to get out, but she couldn’t get out, so she kept trying to complete the mission. It was everything to her. She pushed the bullet out and kept going, even though they kept shooting at her. I lost communication with her, but she was burned, stabbed and half-drowned before she died.”
“All for something that wasn’t even there,” Kurada said, barely above a whisper.
“What do you mean?” Carmel asked.
“There was no file,” Andreus said. “Kurada swept the place. Sierra left a message.”
“Mary didn’t know we were related yet. She wouldn’t have sent me in if she did,” Kurada said. “She wouldn’t have sent me if she knew I was good for intelligence, either.”
“You think Mary set it all up?” Colin asked.
“I think it would be impossible to imagine a scenario where Mary wasn’t heavily involved,” Kurada said. “But if you want my honest opinion, she’s just a chess piece for the Purest. Shit, I’ve done things I’m not proud of because of them.”
Colin shuddered at the memory of the mermaids.
“We all have,” Andreus said. “That’s why you need to think about shit like killing people before you do it. If you make it through this war, you’ll still have to live with yourself.”
“Assuming you live,” Carmel said. “I’m guessing you were working up to telling him about Kat and Schmidt.”
“Well, then, allow me,” Carmel said. “They’re better known as the Debunker Buddies. They do videos dispelling myths. They’re crazy popular, they’ve been on like every talk show in existence, and they even had their own for like a year, until they did a series on the entertainment industry and told everyone they lost the show over it.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Everything,” Andreus said. “They’re human, for a start.”
“But they’re planning to expose us,” Kurada said. “You’re welcome for the early heads-up. They’re going to one of those big conventions in a few weeks, and they’ll be filming a very special episode. Their very special guest is an elemental. It will blow up instantly online. Everyone will see it.”
“What makes you think people will take it seriously? I mean, I’ve seen a lot of things on the internet,” Colin said.
“People take them seriously,” Kurada warned.
“Couldn’t we just spread misinformation that it was a prank video? I could fry their equipment. Do they really need to die?” Colin asked.
“To think, just an hour ago you were ready to fry anyone’s brains,” Andreus said. “We could try those things, but it’s a live event so there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of cell phone videos, many of them live streaming. If we let it get that far, we won’t be able to destroy the evidence without a natural disaster.”
“On the bright side,” Carmel said, taking control again. “Schmidt is the only one who has contact with elementals. From what I understand, Kat knows nothing about us. So if you can’t think of another way out of this, You only actually have to kill him.”
One human, who didn’t stand a chance. It wouldn’t feel all that different from stomping on newborns, after all. At least Henry and Millicent could have fought back, if they’d had the chance.
“He knows about the four basic types. The Balancers have at least one electric, who they try to keep a secret, but the Terraformers still think your kind is a myth. Yes, most of CERT thinks the same thing. We’re looking into what kind of contingency plan, if any, they have. We’re also looking into getting the event cancelled, but Terra controls the venue and the organizers,” Carmel said.
Kurada laughed. “And Mary is still pretending that we can avoid an elemental world war if we just stick to the shadows and play nice.”
“We should try to avoid that war,” Andreus said.
“We can’t avoid it,” Kurada snarled. “It’s already happening. The Balancers have kept Terra in check so far, but how long do you think that will last? I’m betting about five minutes. CERT’s just limping around trying to useful and do some shit, but we’re the smallest and the weakest and most of us don’t even believe in Mary’s message.”
Carmel’s eyes grew wide.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with the Purest,” Kurada said. “Do you know what I see when I look at them? Do you know what I hear when I listen to them?”
Carmel gave a tiny shake of her head. “You shouldn’t tell us unless you’ve got a plan for that information.”
“Do you see that water out there?” Kurada pointed to the ocean. “I’m going in there until my shift is over. Then I’m going to go home and attempt to drink myself into a coma. When that fails, I’m going to do the same shit all over again. You want to stagnate, Cuz? Let’s fucking stagnate and die. Call me when you bitches are ready to do something.”
She ran to the water and vanished, leaving the dress behind.
“What was that about?” Colin asked.
“She doesn’t like it when she can’t share her secrets,” Andreus said.
“She doesn’t understand that some of us can’t fake it like she can,” Carmel added. “She thinks that it should be someone else’s job to decide what to do with her intel.”
“She’s not wrong,” Andreus said. “But if she wants to move against the Purest and Mary, she needs to give us something we can actually use.”
“I hate to ask like this, but what do you think you’re going to say about the job?” Carmel asked. “I mean, until we’re ready to revolt, I’ve still got a job to do.”
“What do you do?” Colin asked.
She shrugged. “The polite term is mercenary. My people and I do whatever pays. I’ve got a contract with CERT and my stupid ass went and fell in love, so we work for Mary right now.”
“Who did you fall in love with?” Colin asked,
Andreus looked interested.
“That’s the kind of thing I don’t share,” she said.
Colin almost asked if that’s why she needed a hug and a place to stay, but he thought better of it. A tanned, stocky woman with a black swimsuit and enormous sunglasses started walking down the beach toward them. Brown hair whipped around her face as she passed.
She stopped, did a double take, and laughed. “Hey, Andreus.”
“Hey, Vanna, I brought you a burger, too.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Thanks for the thought, but I already ate.”
“Sure. Well, I’d better drop Colin off. Have a nice shift.”
“Thanks,” Vanna said. Her glasses hid any trace of emotion except for her vague, steady smile. “Bye.”
“Nothing interesting,” Carmel said to Vanna. “Other than these guys showing up early to pick me up. Accidentally.”
Carmel shot her a look that said it was no accident, and Vanna walked away.
Colin bit back a grin. When they were back in his car, he asked, “What was that about?”
“What?” Andreus asked.
“So you and her weren’t being incredibly awkward?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Carmel laughed. “They boned. My car’s parked behind the restaurant on the next street.”
“You what?” Colin nudged Andreus.
“Oh, look, there are two burgers left, imagine that.” Andreus unwrapped one.
“You had sex with her?”
Andreus took a big bite while his face turned red. “Mm, hamburgers.”
“You did!” Colin laughed.
“Apparently, he was really good, too. Until he didn’t call her back for two weeks. Then his dick shrank about three inches and his skill went from godly to nonexistent.”
“It was a bad idea and bad timing, and I don’t want to talk about it. Ever. Ever again.”
“Riding the waves of Andreus turned into dogpaddling,” Carmel said. “The motion of the ocean became-.”
“I will throw you out of this moving car,” Andreus warned severely.
Carmel laughed louder.