I’ve never been thrown a birthday party.
I’ve been to other people’s parties, of course, but never had the slightly surreal experience where I’m the cause for celebration. All the attention my older brother, Derek, and I ever got from our parents was negative. The only way they would have ever thrown a party is if they were replaced by different people entirely. I definitely can’t expect anything from then now considering they died five years ago. It was all on Derek to take care of us from then on and we barely managed to scrape by as it is.
This party isn’t just a birthday party. It started off as a congratulatory get together to celebrate my induction into the League. Someone must have caught wind that it also happens to be the day after my birthday, though, and things escalated from there. They even went as far as to blow up balloons.
I’m sitting on the couch on the common floor of our team’s base of operations. I have to fight back a yawn for the third time in five minutes. I’m a kind of dead tired that I haven’t been in a while because of the entrance exam I had to take yesterday. Two days ago I was just Lake. Now I’m Agent Ford, an integral part of a defense and response team charged with protection of New York City. It’s particularly weird for me due to the fact that I happen to be the youngest person to ever join the League. The minimum age is 21 and I turned 21 just yesterday. Most people wait a couple years until they’re ready which makes the average age of induction 23, but I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
“So tell me how it feels, Lukas,” JD says, grinning at me over a plastic cup of soda that I’m almost completely sure he spiked just for fun. He tosses my new League badge at me and I barely manage to catch it before it hits me in the face.
The corners of my eyes crinkle as I screw up my face at the sound of my legal name. I stopped going by “Lukas” when I was barely six years old. I fell into a lake near my best friend’s house and was under for just over ten minutes. By the time my friend, Atlas, had ran back with paramedics in tow, all the adults figured I’d be dead when they pulled me up onto the ice. I was blue and hypothermic when they finally did haul me out, but I didn’t suffer any brain damage and only spent two days in the hospital. The local paper wrote a story about it and called it a miracle. I shouldn’t be alive and functioning by most medical accounts, but when I presented with my powers a month later, I had my answer as to why I survived. When I got back to school after the hospital, all my classmates had already started calling me Lake. The name stuck.
My parents hated it, though. The nickname was nothing but a reminder to them that I was one of the “enhanced freaks” we saw on the news all the time. The news reports were rarely ever showing people with powers in a bad light, but my mom was always weird about powers and people with them. She would spit out the word “League” like it was acid.
“Come on J,” I whine. “You know I hate people calling me that.” He’s never called me Lukas before, but he’s also been unconvinced my real name was “Lake” since the beginning. I’m not really surprised he’s so smug about finding out he was right.
“Why? It’s your name, isn’t it?” he says reasonably, quirking a blond eyebrow. “Even says that on that fresh new ID badge.”
Well. He’s not wrong. It is my legal name after all. It’s unreasonable that I’m always so defensive when a legal document is printed with “Lukas” on it, but something has always stopped me from legally changing it. I’ve gotten as far as filling out the paperwork, but they always end up in the trash.
“I’m being serious.” I say a little more seriously. “There’s a reason I don’t go by it.”
His honey colored eyes flick all over my face for a second before his gaze drops back to his cups and he nods.
“Right,” he says, clearing his throat awkwardly. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I reply, taking a sip from my own cup. “Anyway, what’s it like? It’s crazy, that’s what it’s like. Youngest member, blah blah blah, they’re going to release the most updated roster and people are going to lose their minds.”
JD’s face splits into a goofy grin.
“Of course they will,” he agrees. “A new, fresh face? Literally? Even behind a domino mask, that’s gonna be hard to hide.”
“We better pick a good codename for me then, huh? Might as well, if they’re gonna be talking about me so much.” I hide my smirk with my cup as I take another sip.
Being the youngest League member has its perks. I’m the “baby” of my team, Nebula, and none of my fellow team members try to hide the fact. Everyone wants to keep me safe despite what our job entails. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, like gaining a whole new family that fills the spot where my actual one was supposed to be. I have Derek, sure, but even he would agree that we’re both severely lacking in the family part of our lives. It kind of sucks. Christmas has always been lonely, even when we were kids.
Well, I don’t think Derek will be lacking for very longer. He found his counterpart last year, a sweet woman named Alexandra with the other half of his moon-shaped pendant. Their counterpart pendants come together to make a full circle, half moon and half sun. It’s quite adorable, really. She’s working towards a degree in meteorology and him in astrophysics.
The thought of counters sends a pang through my chest right around where my own pendant rests against my skin. I slip a hand into the collar of my t-shirt and close it around the cool metal.
The concept of counterparts is quite simple. Well, aside from who exactly decides them. When a child is born, a pendant is generated, half of a whole. The exact origin of the system isn’t known, but a lot of people believe that it’s alien. Before they were enclosed by government buildings, the place the pendants would appear were marked by beacons of light.
There’s no registry for them since that would be interfering with the whole concept and counterpart tampering is illegal. Counterparts are supposed to find themselves when the time is right, when their pendants start leading them towards each other. They warm up and increase in temperature until they’re burning the person’s skin because their counter, the person they’re supposed to spend their life with, is right there.
It hasn’t happened to me. I’m not sure if it ever will. I’m 21 and most of my friends already met theirs or at least felt the damn thing warm up. Neither has happened to me, which isn’t exactly rare, but less common. The chances of you briefly passing your counterpart or coming into the range the pendants have are high, and yet I’ve never experienced the thrill of it. It hurts my head to think about it, so I try not to.
“Lake?” I startle at the sound of my name. It’s Max, or as the League refers to him as a Captain Maxwell Armstrong. He’s basically been my mentor of sorts since I came into contact with the team for the first time.
I drop my hand from my pendant, keeping it hidden like always. Everyone on the team finds the way I hide it so carefully kind of strange. Most people don’t really view it as a private thing. In fact, the more people who see it, the more chance of them knowing someone with the other half. I think it’s more personal than that.
The way my parents tore each other part, two people who were supposedly two halves of a whole, has almost kind of ruined the concept for me. How can two people meant to work so well together act like that? They didn’t work out in the slightest, and yet I’m expected to blindly subscribe to this whole soulmate business. I don’t think so.
“Yeah?” I clear my throat and shake my head a bit as if to clear it.
“We’re cutting the cake,” he says, smiling warmly and offering me a hand up, “come on.”
I let him help me to my feet and follow him to the kitchen where everyone is gathered around a large cake. There are 21 blue candles lit, the wax melting quickly down the sides. Wendy, the shortest and quietest member of the team, starts to sing the traditional birthday song. She’s the last person who I expected to have a beautiful singing voice, but I suppose that makes hearing it a treat. The rest of the team joins in, casting surprised looks at the short woman while I try to not disintegrate from embarrassment. Atlas and our other friend, Maggie, sang to me on my birthday every year but that’s not nearly as awkward as a group of nearly a dozen. I’m not used to that much attention.
“Make a wish!” Cally shouts from the right. I glance over at her and momentarily watch the glitter on her face glint in the candlelight. She can manipulate the cosmos and has always been drawn to space. Sometimes she paints silver dots on her face or brushes on glitter. Tonight she’s done both and the color contrasts brilliantly with her dark skin tone.
I look back into the burning yellow of the candle flames and try to think.
I wish that this whole League thing will go well for me.
I blow out the candles and everyone cheers. It’s the best wish I could think of.
I feel warm all over as Flint uses his powers to cut the cake. A floating knife cutting slices of cake would be a strange sight in ordinary kitchens but we’re not ordinary people. It’s typical kitchen behavior when a bunch of enhanced people get together in one place.
A slice of red velvet cake floats my way and I take it, smiling gratefully at Flint who grins back with a mischievous glint in his hazel eyes. He winks and then continues on, delivering plates of cake to each member of our team a couple at a time.
The cake is really good. Max has been asking subtle questions about my favorite this and that since the team took me under their wing. He’s definitely good at casual interrogation because I don’t even remember him asking anything about cake.
I met the team when I stumbled my way into one of their more public fights between a rogue, unregistered enhanced man who had the ability to melt rubber. I actually ended up being the one to save the day. All I had to do was freeze the guy where he stood, it wasn’t exactly hard, and then help everyone whose shoes had been melted to the floor by freezing and cracking the rubber. The team just couldn’t let me walk away after that apparently, offering me a small probational position on their team. It was completely unofficial up until yesterday when I finally took the entrance exam. I passed with flying colors. Max said he expected no less but I wasn’t so sure going into it.
“What did Dodson’s face look like when he found out you placed higher than him?” Flint appears at my side with his own slice of cake, grinning like a little shit.
I smirk, as well, taking the sunglasses from atop his head and pushing them up the bridge of my nose. Flint always has a pair with him whether they’re hanging from the collar of his shirt, perched in his hair, or occasionally actually positioned on his face.
“He was pissed,” I say, tone dripping with satisfaction. “Serves him right after clipping me in the shoulder. He had it out for me the second he realized I was taking the exam alongside him.”
Dylan Dodson is a snobbish guy with daddy issues paired to the ability to induce hallucinations. He’s also a complete and utter asshole who I only had the dear pleasure of finally meeting in person yesterday. I had heard a lot about him prior to the exam from the team. Apparently he’s made quite the name for himself throughout the League for being exactly what he is: an entitled rich boy. There was even talk about them Banding him, which is when League officials place a power-inhibiting metal band around an enhanced person’s wrist. It’s only used on past League members who have gone rogue or enhanced people who decide to use their powers for evil.
“Did he get anything else on you? Make you see stuff? I heard he’s wreaked quite a bit of havoc on the NYU campus.” Flint’s right. “Quite a bit of havoc” is putting it lightly since there’s a rumor he’s been expelled from his school completely. I’m not particularly shocked after meeting him.
“Yeah,” I say quietly before taking another bite of cake, “it’s definitely not...pleasant.”
“I can’t even imagine something like that. If I ever come in contact with that little shit, gosh, I swear, I’ll dropkick him,” Flint jokes. “I mean, he can make you see anything he wants, right?”
“He can, yes,” I swallow thickly, suddenly uncomfortable. “He can also dig up old stuff, your own memories, and twist them as he pleases.”
Flint’s mouth pops open for a second but then clicks closed just as fast. I must have some kind of look on my face because the conversation about Dylan Dodson ends right there.
I have been quite closed off when it comes to my personal life. The team knows that I’m in my junior year of college for writing and that I have an older brother. They know what my powers are. They know that I like to run. They know my dry and occasionally dark sense of humor. That’s about it. Nothing much about childhood. I only mention my friends outside of the team sparingly and usually by accident. Absolutely nothing ever comes up about my parents. It’s just been easier that way.
Nick joins us by the couch with Cecelia at her side. She’s holding a small box wrapped in holographic paper. I take it warily, smiling shyly up at her. Nick is practically vibrating with excitement as I open it, curly black hair bouncing against her shoulders. I rip the paper away quite delicately, tearing the tape off in a way that they’ll be able to salvage the paper. Wendy comes into view behind Cecelia’s shoulder, the woman materializing out of thin air. She’s come up behind me before and nearly scared me into an entirely different dimension with her damn invisibility abilities.
The box contains nothing but a baby blue strand with a silver clasp. It’s clearly a necklace string meant for counterpart pendants. It’s more common than not to have a personalized strand. I guess it makes sense, considering we all wear the same necklace for basically our entire lives. I’ve never subscribed to it. I don’t want a new strand. In fact, I’d rather not call any attention to the damn necklace ever. This is clearly just Nick and Cecelia trying to catch a glimpse of the pendant I insist on keeping hidden.
“Oh, thanks, Nick,” I begin, trying to not sound annoyed and kind of disappointed. “This is nice.”
“You aren’t going to try it on?” she actually sounds kind of surprised which only makes me feel worse for not liking her gift.
“You know that—” I begin, but stop to clear my throat and swallow thickly, “you know that I don’t show anyone,” I say smally. I hate the way the quiet admission makes me sound like a little kid. There’s also downfalls to being the “baby” of the team. Sometimes they treat me more like a child than an equal. I’ve noticed a fair amount of hovering when I’d accompany them on smaller missions, but I always figured it was a sort of training wheels. I’m seriously hoping it doesn’t carry over to now when I’m actually considered a real agent. Reminders to them like this where I sound like the kid aren’t working in my favor at all.
“Oh, Lake, c’mon—” she begins, but Max appears and holds out a hand to stop her.
“You heard him, Nick, you’ve heard him. Leave it,” he orders. “Trying something like this on his birthday? That’s kinda low.”
I quietly put the top of the box back on, placing it on the coffee table and forcing a smile onto my face.
“It’s not a big deal, Max, she was just trying to do something nice,” I lie. “Don’t worry about it, Nick.”
Tony joins the rest of us, appearing suddenly with his own slice of cake and looking completely out of the loop. He takes a bite and when everyone turns to look in his direction, raising his eyebrows.
“What’d I miss?” he says around a mouthful of cake.
“Nothing,” I announce, getting to my feet, “I was just about to head home, actually. My brother wanted to go out tonight to celebrate, as well. I promised.” It’s a lie, but they don’t need to know that. I’m doing exactly what I know best when I feel hurt: removing myself from the situation completely.
It’s embarrassing to even admit to myself that this situation has me feeling hurt. All Nick and Cecelia did was buy me a gift for my birthday. I should be grateful. I can’t help but feel betrayed, though, thanks to my messed up head. If I wasn’t so weird about counterparts, this celebration would have gone just fine. Instead, this feels like an attack in a place where we’re supposed to be family. I should be used to that, I did live with it for over sixteen years, after all.
“No, Lake, you don’t have to do that,” Max protests. “Stay a little longer.”
I shake my head and look around for my phone. JD disappears and reappears in a flash of super speed, the device in hand. I take it with a thankful smile before shoving it into the pocket of my jeans.
There’s a loud rush of air and I look over to see Nick’s full wingspan out, feathers a beautiful array of white and gold. She smiles sheepishly and offers me a hand.
“Let me fly you back?” she requests.
This, too, is one of the those situations that would seem strange to the average person. Nick’s codename isn’t Angel for nothing. Nick is actually part of an angelic bloodline. People who develop wings like hers are extremely rare and since she’s only one of two people in the League with them, calling her “Angel” seemed the most logical. There’s a lot of tricky things that go along with people with angelic genes, but the only thing the League really cares about is that she can fly. That’s a superpower if I’ve ever heard of one before.
I consider it for a second, unsure and unsteady around the team for the first time in a while. We’ve all grown quite close in the past few months. The ground hasn’t felt like it’s shifted so much beneath my feet in a long time and the feeling isn’t exactly missed.
“Okay,” I agree, taking her hand, “thanks.”
Flint opens the large window across the room from where he’s standing with a single flourish of the hand. He waves as I move towards it with Nick. She wraps me in her arms tightly and lifts herself off the ground. I get one last look at the team before Nick has us out of the window and up in the air.
The night air is cool against my skin as we glide back to my college’s campus. We pass one dorm hall until reaching my own. Nick lands smoothly on the roof and lets me go, wings retracting into her back as her arms come to rest at her sides.
“Listen, about tonight—” she begins.
“It’s fine, Nick, let’s just forget about it,” I say, dismissing what is clearly the beginnings of an apology. All I want to do is curl up in my dorm room and sleep for a century.
“No, it’s not fine,” she insists. “It was a shitty thing for me to do. Cecelia and are always talking about counterpart stuff, so naturally, you come up every once in a while. We know you don’t like bringing attention to it or anything, I don’t know what we were thinking.” I set aside the fact that Nick just cursed so I can figure out how to respond. Nick never curses. She doesn’t exactly look the part of an angel with jet black hair and blue eyes so dark they’re nearly black, but she sure acts like one. Unless we’re on a mission, of course. Then she’s sweet and adorably sheepish until she’s found the perfect opportunity to snap a man’s neck with graceful ease.
“I do,” I reply, sighing heavily and crossing my arms, “I get it. Everyone is always super open about it. I just...have a rare perspective on the whole system. It’s changed my view on it. I’m not against counterparts. I just find it more personal than most people. Secrets basically exist to be found out, though. It’s human nature.”
Nick smiles, blue eyes glinting against the moonlight. She has a silver chain upon which a silver wing hangs mid-stomach as her pendant. It’s always out for the world to see; she’s entirely unafraid and unbothered. Sometimes I think about whether life would be easier with a counterpart and if it would be, whether advertising my own charm would make it easier for him to find me.
“Whoever your counter is, Lake, they’re super, super lucky,” she says fondly.
My lips wobble a bit until curling into an almost-smile.
Her wings slide back out and she casts one last smile over her shoulder before disappearing back into the night sky.