I come to on a park bench. My head is throbbing and my arms are burning intensely. It takes me a second or so to sit up and get my bearings through the delirious haze of pain. I’m at a small park only a block or so from the apartment I’ve been staying in for the mission.
It takes me a few more minutes to drag myself to my feet and begin the walk to the apartment. The journey takes me a good ten minutes longer than usual because of the pounding in my head that’s making me dizzy. The cool night air feels better than the stuffiness of the Rivera house, but my arms are still burning like they’re on fire.
The door is obviously locked when I finally get there. I struggle with getting my keys out of my pocket with shaking hands but eventually I make it inside. There’s a surprisingly well stocked first aid kit under the sink in the bathroom so I set in on treating the burns on my arms immediately.
I run each arm under cold water in the kitchen sink for far longer than strictly necessary. There is plenty of gauze in the kit so I wrap both arms securely before I bandage them. None of the burns look like third degree and they all generally hurt so I should be fine for now. They’ll heal in less than a week at the worst with my advanced healing. If they’re still giving me a problem after this operation is officially over, I’ll have them all checked out. Probably.
My face starts to feel wet as I cover the gauze wrapping in bandages. It takes me a moment to realize that there are tears slipping down my cheeks. I wipe them away multiple times while I finish wrapping the wounds.
A knock on my door startles me so hard that I drop the first aid kit on my way back to the bathroom. I stare at where it landed on the hardwood flooring and breathe harshly through my nose as I struggle to maintain control. My eyes dart to my wrapped arms. They’ll definitely be difficult to explain to most of the people I know.
I pad across the floor to my front door and check through the peephole to see who I’m dealing with.
My breath gets caught in my throat so fast that I nearly choke. I shut my eyes and breathe long and hard through my nose, resting my palm against the closed door. Of course.
I open my eyes and stand back up straight before opening the door. If this was anyone else who had hurt me, I’d greet them with a gun to the head. Removing the fact that this is Rowan, this is also my counterpart. I’ll at least give my counterpart a chance.
His eyes are shining wetly when I open the door. I don’t say anything and just hold open the door so he can come in. I don’t think I’d say anything even if I could think of words. He rounds on me once I shut and lock the front door.
“Lake, I am so, sorry—” he begins, stepping forward with a hand out.
I slap the hand away.
“I have no right to be angry, babe,” I say lowly before pulling in a long breath. I might as well come clean at this point. He’ll either forgive me or not. If he doesn’t, it won’t matter. His entire gang will be in jail within the next day. “I’ve been lying to you since the moment I met you.”
Rowan’s sincerely apologetic face screws up into confusion. I open my palm and generate a small amount of snow before blowing it gently into his face. A small amount of understanding crosses his face, but it’s obvious he’s still lost.
“I have powers, too,” I begin. “It’s why I’m a League agent. I’ve been undercover with you guys to find out important information and aid in your eventual dismantlement. There won’t be much of a Rivera gang empire in a couple days max.”
The betrayal explodes outward as I expected it to. He throws his arms into the air and turns away from me, pacing a few steps as he drags his palms down his face. I stand and wait, allowing the suffocating guilt to steal my air and clog my lungs.
When he finally turns back to face me, his jaw is set and he’s grinding his teeth slightly.
“If you think this is going to make me throw you away, Lake, you’re dead wrong.”
Well. That’s not the response I was expecting.
“You know about Bella. She’s the only reason I’ve stuck around,” he says. “I’m not happy you’ve lied, but so have I, and I just burned layers of your skin off, so I think we’re kind of even now.”
“I can’t trust you, Row,” I say quietly. “Your father is a real advocate of blood being thicker than water. Until my operation is officially over, I can’t take anything you say to heart. At least not on record. You understand that, right?”
“Well, then, tell your boss that I’ll be by to pick up another supply tomorrow.” Rowan gazes at me in complete disbelief.
“You’re gonna continue working with them even after tonight?” he says incredulously.
“Loyalty is the only thing keeping me safe right now, Rowan. If I end up on his bad side and in a deadly situation, my cover is blown. I could have frozen all of you solid, but I didn’t. I need to keep my cover until I am given the okay to remove myself.”
“This is insane, Lake,” he says seriously.
“It’s my job, Rowan,” I say before gesturing to the front door. “Hopefully I’ll see you again.”
He gets this really desperate look in his eyes before he grabs me and drags me close. His fingers dig hard into the fresh burns and I hiss in pain, jerking in his grip. He doesn’t let go, though, forcing me to meet his eyes.
“Don’t push me away, Lake,” he pleads. “Please. I care about you a lot. You and Bella are all I care about, Lake. Don’t cut me out.” Tears start to gather in my eyes.
“Row,” I croak. “You’re hurting me.”
It’s like my words break a spell he’s under. He releases me instantly and looks absolutely horrified.
“I’m sorry, fuck, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Row. Just go for now, okay? I’ll see what I can do when the time comes,” I say as I straighten my clothes and adjust the bandages on my arms.
He moves towards the door and then steps out into the hall after I open it.
“I won’t tell anyone, Lake, I promise.”
“Okay,” I say. I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth or not. “Bye.”
I shut and lock the door behind him once he’s fully out of the apartment. I stand leaning against the closed door for a few minutes. There are stray bandages still on the kitchen counter but I leave it all there. I crank the air conditioning insanely cold and curl up under the covers in my unfamiliar bed. Maybe I can sleep all my problems away.
Everything in me is screaming the entire walk to the Rivera gang’s house. It’s a reasonable response considering I just had multiple layers of my skin burned off against my will in the same house less than twelve hours ago. I clench my hands at my sides as I grow closer to the house in an attempt to stop the shaking. Shaking is weakness. Shaking makes it clear that I’m afraid, and fear isn’t true loyalty. Alexander Rivera doesn’t look for fearful loyalty within his inner circle; he prefers blind loyalty.
Everyone inside the house once I get inside is very surprised to see me aside from Rowan. His face goes carefully blank when his eyes land on me, but that’s the only reaction. Alexander simply smirks from his spot on the couch. He actually looks kind of impressed. Chris’s mouth drops open before he quickly clicks it shut. Isaiah simply squints up at me through hazy red eyes before he takes another drag from his joint.
“Well, kid, I’ll admit it,” Rivera says before he sighs heavily. “I didn’t expect to see you back here. Ever. Takes a lot of balls. Someone get this kid another supply.”
Chris’s eyebrows raise. He gets up from the couch, though, and disappears down the hallway towards the supply room. I stand tall with a rigid back and wait even though all my knees want to do is buckle beneath me. I exchange the money Max gave me for more plastic bags of the same illegal drug that has contribute to the deaths of thousands and shove them hastily into my backpack.
“This is a business, after all,” I say before zipping up the big pocket of the bag before slinging a strap over my shoulder. “Loyalty means loyalty.”
Alexander now looks thoroughly taken of guard. He nods and raises his glass of scotch as some type of twisted toast before taking a long sip.
“Pleasure doing business,” he says. “See you around, Lakey-boy.”
I meet Rowan’s eyes for a second and nod before I make my way back out of the front door. The sun is out and shining so I decide to walk around for a little while. It’s not like I have anywhere to be right now.
My phone vibrates with a text about an hour later.
code blue, the message reads. It’s from Max. Code blue means they’re calling the team out on a mission.
I turn around immediately to move in the opposite direction towards the tower. It will be at least a ten minute ride on the subway and only fifteen minutes in total if I run. I jog to the station and tap my foot impatiently as I wait for the train. My leg jitters the whole ride and I try not to look suspicious as I nearly power walk to the tower.
Max gives me a quick rundown once I get to missions headquarters. The other team members are standing around nearby with purposeful stances. Something serious is about to go down.
“Police are going to be moving in on the Rivera cell within the hour. They’ve requested our assistance since Valiant makes users so volatile.”
His words make my heart skip a beat. Within the hour? The panic must show on my face because Max pulls me aside and quietly asks what’s wrong.
“Can I talk to you?” I say with rushed words. “Alone? It’s important.”
He looks surprised at the odd request but nods and leads me to the locker room. The rest of the team is already suited up so there’s really no reason they’d come barging in any time soon.
“What’s got you looking so sick, huh?”
“Rowan, the guy I’ve been sleeping with. He’s enhanced. He’s a fire bender. He’s being blackmailed by his father. Rivera hurts him,” I ramble as I drag my fingers through my hair. I take a short second to suck in a breath before continuing. “All Rowan wants to do is keep his sister safe. He doesn’t belong clumped in with the rest of them. I’m sorry for keeping this from you. I wasn’t sure when it’d become relevant.”
Max looks reasonably startled at my outburst but nods in understanding after he takes a second to process. I pick at my long sleeves nervously as I wait which draws Max’s attention before he says anything. It’s bound to. I’m wearing long sleeves in late May. Sleeves aren’t exactly common clothing choices this time of year in New York, but they’re the only thing that could cover up the gauze and bandages on my arms. The burns are healing alright but they’re still red and itchy. My healing factor unfortunately doesn’t heal scars, so those marks will be there for the rest of my life. If Rowan and I somehow end up together after all of this mess, I can already tell that the burn scars will be a source of guilt.
“Okay,” Max says finally. “We’re gonna take him into our custody. We’d have to, anyway, since he’s enhanced. We can figure everything out after that, alright?” I nod.
The team joins back up fully once I’ve changed into my gear. Max has decided that this mission isn’t a full team deal, so it will just be him, Wendy, Flint, and I. Less is more in this situation. The police should be taking care of the non-enhanced members, so us four’s jobs are only to subdue Rowan. Max actually considered only bring him, Wendy, and I, but I insisted that there should be at least four. Fire is no game. I have intimate knowledge of just how bad it can be. JD and Nick are sticking behind to run the tech for us from HQ. The rest of the team either hadn’t been called in to assemble at all or are currently out of the tower.
Our tower is connected to an underground parking garage by a single locked door in our building’s basement for this particular occasion. A police officer picks us up in nondescript car in the garage before we actually roll out onto the streets. The man, David, informs us that there are already cars converging on the Rivera house right now. They’ve already obtained Dr. Holbach in Staten Island. The operation went smoothly and she went so quietly that it didn’t cause enough racket to even make the news. Police officers who work with League agents tend to be part of a particular specialized task force and they are eerily efficient at their jobs. Said task force has decided that it would be best for all of us to converge on the house at once. It all happens very fast. One minute the house is just coming into view as our car rolls onto the scene and then suddenly the officers in the collected few cars parked along the street are streaming out all at once.
I’ve been in this house so many times before but this time is definitely different. Chaos erupts the second the captain of the police task force kicks in the front door. The reaction inside is like catching someone with their pants down. There’s a spare minute where the gang takes a second to realize exactly what’s going on. After that, though, all of them have pulled their guns.
Everyone is firing at once. There’s a blaze of bright orange and I can tell it’s Rowan without even having to look in the direction of the source. Sebastian is shouting angrily from the kitchen as three officers tackle him. Chris is cursing up a storm. There are people I don’t recognize here today, though, and it puts me a bit on edge.
I use my power to my advantage and freeze the people where they stand as Flint works on getting the guns out of their hands. His telekinesis seriously comes in handy in times like this. I’ll admit that watching guns float through the air without anything holding them up beside his powers is a sight to see.
There’s a lot of shouting but I barely hear the actually words. Men are being taken to the floor and handcuffed. Fire is blazing around the room. There are bangs of gunshots everywhere. It’s complete havoc.
I don’t feel the bullet land initially. Then, the pain erupts up my chest and I feel the blood start to ooze. There’s a hole right in my chest that doesn’t belong there. My knees buckle and my ears start to ring as I hit the floor. I’ve never been shot before. That’s definitely another one to add to my list.
Shots continue to ring out around me but they’re all slightly muted. My hands are shaking as I press them to the wound, but I don’t have a good enough angle to put the right amount of pressure on it. Someone shouts my name, not my codename, but my real name, and there’s a thud as someone lands on the floor beside me. They push me down so I’m lying flat on my back and swat my hands away before replacing them with their own. I finally get a look. It’s Rowan.
“Hey, Row,” I say breathily as I run a bloody finger down his cheek, “fancy seeing you here.”
He shakes his head in disbelief.
“Shut up,” he says, but his voice shakes a bit. “Shut up, there’s a hole in your fucking chest, shut up.”
I never thought that the blood loss would happen so fast but I’m already starting to feel dizzy. That can’t be a good sign.
“Tired, Row,” I say sleepily.
“Don’t you dare fall asleep on me, Ford, don’t you dare,” he exclaims before he presses harder on the wound than before if that’s even possible.
“S’okay,” I murmur. “S’okay.” The exhaustion is impossible to fight.
“It is not okay,” he says. He moves closer until his face is only a few inches from mine. “Lake, please.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” I say, sighing my way through the words. “I took care of everything.”
My energy is nearly nonexistent at this point. I lay a hand on his thigh and force everything in me out to freeze him from the thigh down to his foot. He won’t be going anywhere. No more running.
I slip out of consciousness despite his protests. He should be fine.