Everything with the daycare checks out over the weekend so I go with Rowan to drop her off for the first time Monday morning. The three of us take the train to her school in the morning. Bella sits on Rowan’s lap while her and I play patty cake while he looks on in adorable amusement the entire ride there. The sun is just beginning to settle into the sky and it’s shining in brightly through the windows of the train when we go over the elevated tracks. I have a feeling that Bella doesn’t really know where we’re going. She knows we visited a new place with new people, but the whole concept of school is alien to most kids who’ve never been in that environment. I’m sincerely hoping that her reaction isn’t too bad when Rowan and I actually go to drop her off. Any kind of sadness on the little munchkin’s face is bound to break Rowan’s heart.
Molly is happy to see us when we get there. She smiles with bright red lips as she checks us in at the front desk.“We’ll be giving you an ID with her name and picture on it sometime at the end of the week,” she informs us. “It’s got the chip so you can just swipe it past the reader outside her classroom when you drop her off starting after that.”
“Oh, great.” Rowan smiles as he takes Bella’s hand before she can wander off. “What room is she in?”
“She’s going to be in the cyan room with Ms. Reyes. She knows you’re coming today, so she’ll be excited to see you,” Molly replies before gesturing to the opposite hallway we went down last time.
“Thank you so much,” I thank her as I move past the front desk to follow Rowan’s lead down the hall.
Bella toddles along at Rowan’s side. Her and Rowan went out over the weekend and so he could buy her some school stuff. He made sure to explain where she’d be going during the week from now on and what she would get to do there, but he told me that she still doesn’t completely get it. Nonetheless, she appears just as perky and adorable as always. She has a super cool Captain Freedom kids’ backpack slung over her shoulders and a matching lunchbox in one tiny fist. Apparently Rowan urged her towards something more traditionally girly like all the Crimson Phantom and Golden Ray stuff, but it didn’t take much convincing after Bella persisted. He wants nothing more than to make her happy.
A short woman with long, wavy brown hair that reaches all the way down past her rib cage greets us at the door. The door is painted a light blue and has multi-colored cutouts of child-sized hands with their corresponding names stapled all over the front of it.
“You must be Bella,” she says, crouching down despite the way the skirt of her turquoise dress brushes against the floor. “I’m Ms. Reyes and I’m gonna be your teacher for a while.”
“Teacher?” Bella’s tiny voice says, wavering slightly. Uh oh.
“Yeah, we’re gonna do lots of fun stuff like finger painting and puzzles,” Ms. Reyes confirms although she is clearly playing everything up for the sake of the kid. I would normally cringe at her behavior but it’s also obvious that she loves what she does for a living. I bet Rowan suddenly feels a lot better about handing Bella over to this woman for up to twelve hours a day. “How’s that sound?”
“S’okay,” Bella replies. “Can Row stay?”
Ms. Reyes’s eyes flick back up to Rowan who smiles hopelessly.
“Not today, but maybe some other time. He’ll be back later, though,” the woman says smoothly, handling her own quite well. “We were just gonna start making slime, though, so how about I get you set up with a table and some new friends, huh?”
A set of wide brown eyes swing back to look up and meet Rowan’s gaze. He smiles and nods encouragingly. The eyes drift to me and I grin, as well. She looks back to Ms. Reyes and slowly lets go of Rowan’s hand.
“Okay,” she agrees. “But he’ll be back later?”
“Of course,” Rowan pipes up. “You won’t even notice I’m gone, Bella-bear.”
She takes a few small steps into the room and looks around as she goes. Ms. Reyes rises swiftly back to her feet. I peer inside, as well, to get a look at the classroom. There are five tables with four plastic chairs at each. Each chair has a child’s name taped onto the back. Laminated letters of the alphabet are displayed proudly on the wall. There’s also what looks like another teacher sitting over in the approximate center of the room who’s watching over the kids and grinning ear to ear. She waves when she notices us standing in the doorway and the yellow sundress that she’s wearing, a beautiful contrast against her dark skin, shakes as she does so.
“That’s our teaching aid, Miss Delia,” Ms. Reyes says as she gently ushers Bella further into the room, “she helps out a lot with the kids and they all love her.”
“This is all great,” Rowan says. “She’ll be okay?”
“Of course, she’s in great hands,” Ms. Reyes confirms. “You can pick her up any time before seven.”
We exchange a few more words before Rowan hugs Bella goodbye and we leave. She still looks a bit apprehensive but the teacher aid has pulled out bins of glitter so the kiddo’s attention quickly shifts away to the new task at hand. She really does love glitter, though, so I’m not surprised.
Rowan and I leave on such a high note that we nearly forget where we’re on our way to next. The testing building that the League holds the entrance exam in is a static location since so much of the test employs expensive systems and technology. There’s generally a facility in every state unless it has a lower population. A decent amount of the exam is nothing simulations that are so realistic it’s hard to remember that it’s fake. That part of the facility can’t just be picked up and moved around like it’s nothing. Despite the fact that the exam location is supposed to be confidential and unknown to the public, it’s also pretty hard to keep a secret that large. Some people just know and some people just don’t.
I walk with Rowan to the facility. It’s a good few blocks from Bella’s preschool but Rowan and I enjoy the walk. He slips his hand into mine and it settles my buzzing brain a bit. I don’t know why I’m so insanely nervous. It’s not like I’m the one taking the test today. Maybe it’s because I know what Rowan is in for. The test lasts from eight in the morning to five at night, so he’s going to be spending the rest of his day struggling.
Maybe my nerves have a more selfish origin. Could it have something to do with the fact that if Rowan doesn’t pull this off, he won’t have any reason to stay in the tower? Possibly. I’ve just started to believe Rowan when he says he wants me. We’ll all find ourselves in boiling hot water if the League were to find out that our team is housing a League reject were Rowan to be denied entry.
Rowan and I eventually come to a stop when we get to the front entrance of the building.
“I would kiss you, but, you know, people talk. This isn’t the place,” I say quietly without quite meeting his eyes. Ever the meek, I am. “I’ll pick Bella up later and we’ll see you back at the tower.”
“Thanks so much for this,” he replies with a sweet smile. “For all of this, really. I don’t deserve it.”
“Hey, now.” I run a hand down his before stuffing both of mine into the pockets of my jeans. “I’m supposed to be the one who puts himself down all the time, not the other way around.”
This sparks a smile onto his face.
“Good luck. Go get em,” I command.
I watch him disappear into the building and stand around for a few more moments before deciding that I might as well take a run around Central Park. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to so I enjoy the break from my life the entire time. I wore running shoes this morning just for the hope to get to use them today. The weather isn’t exactly ideal, though, so I’m sweating profusely in only a few minutes.
My t-shirt is soaked through completely by the time I decide to call it quits and head back to the tower for a shower. The water is cool and refreshing against my overheated skin. I relax into my bed and fall asleep for a few hours afterwards. As much as I insist that I’m all healed up, my healing factor is still chugging along and pouring resources into improving all of the scars. The energy it continues to sap makes me tired pretty fast and it’s starting to get quite annoying. I know from experience that it will eventually plateau and stop trying to heal what can’t be healed, but I sincerely wish that it would get on with it already.
I pick up Bella at around 6:30 and we talk all about her day on the subway ride back to the tower. She’s excited to go back to school tomorrow so I think it’s safe to say that the day was a success. They made slime, built towers, played some games about the alphabet on the SmartBoard, and even took a nap. Rowan has to send her to school with sheets and a blanket for nap time every week. All in all, “Operation Preschool” went very well.
Nick and Tony are already putting together a party for when Rowan gets back from his exam when Bella and I get back to the tower.
“There’s basically no question,” Nick throws the words over her shoulder at me as she whirls on by. “The League eats fire benders up. Elemental benders are actually quite rare. All the teams in Jersey are jealous as hell that we’re about to have two.”
“How do you know they’re jealous?” I ask.
“We have a group chat,” she replies with a smirk. “Maybe you’d know if you ever checked your phone more than once a week.”
I roll my eyes and go to sit on the couch in front of the TV. I put in an obscenely large order of pizza to be delivered a few hours from now upon Nick’s request. All the enhanced healing factors around here also means multiple people with superhuman metabolisms. Cecelia blows up some balloons and Nick pulls a blueberry pie out of the oven. It’s kind of a strange choice for a congratulations party dessert, but alright.
When the elevator opens and Rowan steps out with a huge smile on his face, Bella sprints right up to him. She throws her arms around his waist and presses her face into his stomach. He scoops her up and swings her around a bit as she laughs loudly.
“How’d it go?” Max calls out the question everyone’s thinking.
“Placed in the top five,” he replies with a cocky smirk. “Kind of surprised, though, to be honest. I barely hit the mark for the running portion.”
“Guess we’ll just have to keep working on it then, huh?” I reply with a loud laugh before turning to go back to the kitchen.
We all get our party on for a while. The pizzas eventually arrives and devouring them takes up a lot of the time. The entire team sits around the TV and watches a new video that JD found on YouTube while we eat. We’re all laughing hard and shouting our way through it when the elevator dings again over all of the noise. Tears are pooling in the corners of my eyes from the laughter as my gaze swings to look over at the metal doors as they slide open.
The person who steps off of the elevator and onto the common floor nearly makes me cough up my heart. The plate holding my fourth slice of pepperoni pizza slips from my grip and hits the floor.
Everyone else on the team follows my gaze after witnessing my strange reaction. A shocked noise escapes Max’s mouth before he springs to his feet. The woman ignores all of our facial expressions and surprised noises, stalking across the floor until she’s barely a foot from Max. She’s got short brown hair cut just above her shoulder blades and brown eyes to match. Freckles dot their way across her nose irregularly. There’s a fire lit behind her eyes and she doesn’t even spare me a glance.
My mother. My dead mother. My dead mother who isn’t actually dead, actually.
“I’d like a word with you, Armstrong,” she says in a loud and demanding voice. “Now.”
Max’s mouth opens and closes a few times as he tries to process exactly what’s happening right now. I’m in the same boat. Derek and I went to her and dad’s funeral. We wore black and it rained the whole day. Nobody came but us and a couple people from dad’s office. We both watched with blank eyes as they lowered her casket into the ground. If it’s really her standing here right now, then who the hell did we bury in her place?
How the fuck does she know Max? The paranoid part of my brain immediately jumps to the idea that he’s been working with her this entire time. The rational part insists that the mere idea is absurd. Max would never betray me like that. They clearly know each other at the very least, however, and I can’t even think of a scenario in which their paths would ever cross.
“Christen, what are you even doing here?” Max’s voice somehow knocks me out of my trance. I rise to my feet slowly and deliberately before stepping around the couch to get between her and Max.
“You’re supposed to dead,” I spit out venomously. I can practically hear everyone’s eyebrows soar into their hairlines in surprise.
My mom smiles calmly at Max before she turns her gaze to me. The sting doesn’t even register until I’m already on the ground in a heap. She backhanded me hard enough to send me crashing to the floor.
“You know you don’t speak to me like that,” she hisses before taking a second to straighten her clothes, “you know better.” A collective inhale comes from the group of super humans behind me, a tense held breath lasting seemingly hours until Max explodes into movement.
“Grab her!” he shouts. “Grab her before she can get away!” Before anyone can move, though, she’s already gone, disappeared into thin air. Anyone within the League would call it teleportation, but that’s my mother, and she’s no League agent. She didn’t have powers. She worked a boring nine to five job until my dad grabbed the wheel of their car one day and ran them off the road.
I stare at the empty space where she was while the rest of the team moves quickly around me. Bella is whisked off in Cecelia’s arms towards her bedroom and Max is talking fast but his words aren’t registering with me.
She’s supposed to be dead. I’m supposed to be free.
“How did she get in?” I say lowly. The talking stops. “How did she get past without League clearance? This place is supposed to be safe, I thought it was supposed to be safe.”
The group of agents still in the room move around the couches to stand in my line of view. They’re all staring down at me as if it’s is the first time they’ve ever seen me before.
“How about we start with how you know here in the first place,” Max’s voice has taken on a hard edge that I’ve never heard him direct at me from before.
I look around at all of their faces. Rowan looks as clueless as I do, but the rest of them, the ones who have been in the inner circuit of the League for a while, are staring at me like I’ve kicked a puppy in the ribs.
“She’s my mother.” I say, my words stilted and awkward. They sit in the air for a while and the silence slowly suffocates me. “Or. She was.”
The room explodes into chaos. All of the shouting quickly starts to fry my brain. My mom rising from the dead was enough to set me on edge. The strike of her hand was like a slap back into my childhood when I spent a majority of my days living in fear. Raised voices meant danger and, when things got really bad, severe damage to my person. The arguing is just making everything worse.
Hands grasp my shoulder and I nearly smack them away until I realize they belong to Rowan. I let him pull me carefully to my feet. He meets my eyes and takes my hand before jerking his head towards his room down the hallway. I follow, stumbling over my own feet more than once as I go, and try to ignore the burn of seven pairs of eyes staring as I go.
Rowan pushes me to sit down on the edge of his bed. He turns to close the door to his room when I finally comply. I press my head forward into my shaking hands. I can’t feel my feet. The room is spinning. She’s supposed to be dead.
“She was dead. She’s been dead. I’ve been safe, Row,” I mumble, and my words are watery and all over the place. “This can’t be real.”
“I’m really sorry, Lake, but she was here,” he says, pausing and swallowing thickly, “I knew she was dead, but you didn’t tell me it was like that—” his breath gets caught and he clears his throat.
“I don’t know what to do,” I slur. “What do I do?” He pulls me into his side and I let him. We move back even farther until he’s laying on his back and I have my face pressed into the fabric of his t-shirt. There aren’t many tears. It’s screams instead, which is a reaction unlike any other I’ve ever had, but they’re muffled by his shirt and body.
I drift for a while. When I come back to myself later, Rowan and I just lay there together in the quiet, dark room for a while. It’s almost peaceful for a while. I try to rationalize my new situation and figure out a way to make it seem not so bad. I always used to be able to do it as a kid, but now it doesn’t work.
I eventually sit up and look down at Rowan before mustering enough energy to smile smally.
“Thanks for pulling me out of there,” I say quietly. “I’m still not really sure what’s going on, but I was starting to lose it.”
He sighs heavily and runs a hand through my hair. I press my face into his hand in response, closing my eyes briefly and enjoying it.
“They were all looking at me like I had murdered someone in front of them,” I add, frowning deeply and looking down.
“I’m sure this all just a big misunderstanding,” he reasons. “A huge miscommunication at the very least.”
“I hope so,” I mutter. I lean down to place a soft kiss on his lips, thankful to suddenly have someone so amazing in my life.
He kisses me back easily and it’s nice and sweet for a good while until I let him pull me up onto his lap. All bets are off after that. I chase his mouth desperately and he throws the energy straight back at me. A jolt of excitement runs through me as I seriously considering letting this carry on. I’m no virgin. I haven’t been for far longer than it’s legal, but that’s just how my life panned out. This means more, though, because Rowan is supposed to be it for me. If I fuck this up, it’s pretty much over for me.
I curl my fingers under his shirt and pull. He lets me take it off and toss it to the side of the bed. His hands land on my forearms, though, fingertips brushing the healed burn scars, before I could get any farther.
“Do you want to?” he breathes. My heart jumps into my throat.
“I want to,” I agree with a slight nod.
His fingers trail down to the bottom of my t-shirt where they clench around the fabric, but he doesn’t pull it off just yet. He meets my eyes and doesn’t actually tug until I nod minutely. This isn’t like how it went with Danny. Danny shoved his tongue down my throat and I unbuckled the belt around his jeans without even thinking about it. My shirt was just the most obvious next step. It was never about romance or love with Danny, at least not in the beginning. The lines got very blurred toward the end right before I joined the League and met Rowan. Was Danny my first love? Quite possibly. I try not to think about it too much, especially not when I’m about to sit on Rowan’s dick.
The shirt comes up and over my head until it’s bunched up into a ball in my hands. I drop it onto the floor and stare at a place just below his eyes when he starts running a gentle finger along one of the white scars. His face holds nothing but curiosity instead of the disgust I was afraid of.
“From the way you talk about them, I thought they’d be worse, baby,” he says, and a smile quirks onto his lips.
“They were ice skates,” I murmur. “An old pair of Derek’s.”
“Your brother did this?”
“No.” I actually laugh a bit in response. “My dad.”
“Oh my god,” he says, but I take his hands and murmur some reassurances until we move past it. He unbuttons my jeans. I unbuckle his belt, tugging it through the loops and shoving that aside just like his shirt.
I’m on my back with him hovering above me when we finally get down to it.
“Wait,” I say, and he freezes instantly.
“Yeah?” he replies. “What’s up?”
“I don’t...I don’t like when it hurts,” I murmur.
“Of course you don’t, why would you want it to—” he begins, but then he stops suddenly. “Why would you even ask me that?”
I look down and avoid his eyes.
“It was a long time ago,” I mutter. “When I was a kid.” Ashton. Mom’s brother.
He makes a hurt noise and his fingers tighten on my thighs.
“Lake…” he trails off.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say quietly. “I’ll tell you if something’s bothering me, okay? I just don’t wanna bleed or anything, alright?”
“Of course not, jesus fucking christ,” he curses before groaning and running a hand down his face. “Never. I’d never, Lake.”
“I know,” I say, smiling softly up at him. “I wouldn’t be laying here with my shirt off if I didn’t trust you.” I kiss him hard on the mouth and bite his bottom lip hard enough to make an impression.
The sex is as good as I thought it would be. Rowan has the exciting potential to be as rough as I want him to be, but he sticks to careful and sweet for now. Maybe he’ll even let me pull on his hair. He bit hickies into the soft skin of my neck that I’ll admire later when I’m alone. For now I just curl into his side and try to fight off the sleep for as long as possible. Rowan hums absently, his chest vibrating against my ear as I draw invisible circles on his skin with my index finger.
If this is how things will be with Rowan and I forever, then maybe I’m crazy enough to believe that this counterpart thing will work out.