The look on the faces of the team all replay in my head the entire trip down to mission headquarters on the elevator. Could they really be that disgusted over someone non-League getting into the tower? I don’t think so. There has to be something else.
“I’m sure there’s an explanation for all of this,” Rowan says at my side as if he can read my thoughts. Wendy knocked on Rowan’s door to tell him that she was taking Bella to daycare earlier this morning. Luckily she didn’t even open the door or she probably would have gotten an eyeful, let alone the fact that the team still doesn’t know we’re together.
Actually. I don’t even know if we’re together.
“Row?” I say quietly.
“Hm?” he hums back.
“Are we...together?” I mutter.
“Yeah, of course,” he replies. “Why?”
“I just wasn’t sure,” I say with a light shrug.
“Well, you’re it for me, Lake,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re together.”
The elevator doors slide open just as I’m pressing a kiss to his cheek. We make our way to conference room eight where Wendy told Rowan they’d be meeting. I’m sure one of them looked for me, as well, but didn’t find me. If I go off of their reactions from yesterday, though, they probably didn’t look too hard.
The entire team is already sitting around the cherry wood conference table when Rowan and I get into the room. They all look up when we come in and my heart pounds in my ears as I struggle to find a seat to sit down in without passing out. I’ve never liked being the center of attention so this is like my worst nightmare.
“I already told Moon that she was here. Footage shows her teleporting right into the elevator. He put her ID number into the system for blocked entry, but, you know the Blackwells,” Max says, and he’s speaking as if they were already in the middle of a discussion. They probably were. A pang of betrayal flashes through my chest. They didn’t even wait for me to start.
“What about Lake?” JD says, his typical cheer unusually absent.
“I already contacted D.C. about Christen and the situation with Lake. Lake, you’re suspended from active duty until further notice.”
“I’m what?” I exclaim, bursting out of the fog of confusion just in time to be outraged. Putting aside the fact that they’re calling my mother by her first name, why the hell should I be suspended?
“Listen, Lake,” Max says, sighing and running a hand down his face before actually making eye contact with me, “this situation is very complicated. D.C. isn’t taking any chances with this. They’ve taken you off the roster as they would if there is any chance of corruption.”
“This doesn’t look good, Lake,” Flint pipes up from a few seats down. “They think you’re working with her.”
“Working with her? As far as I knew 24 hours ago, she was six feet under. Based on yesterday’s display of affection, I’m sure all of you can come to the conclusion that I’d have preferred if she stayed that way!” I shout. My hands start to shake against the table so I clasp them together and squeeze before dragging them under the table to hide them. Embarrassing.
“Well, given her history, we never know what to expect,” Max tries to reason.
“Her history?” I say lowly, glaring down at my lap. I look up and to look at them again with my face set and blank. “Okay. I really don’t know what’s going on anymore. Christen died five years ago in a car accident. Before that she worked some shitty nine to five that she always bitched about while she beat the shit out of me. I have no idea what kind of connection to the League she could possibly have, so please, enlighten me.”
There’s silence as the entire team exchanges multiple looks. Rowan’s hand has found my clasped ones under my table.
“You didn’t know she was a League agent?” Max says carefully.
“No. She doesn’t even have powers.”
Max sighs tiredly.
“She does. She’s a teleporter. I figured you’d have known. The Blackwells are a quite famous bloodline within the League.”
“Of course they are. What does that have to do with my mom?”
“She is one. I guess by extension so are you. Christen Blackwell. Her father was Richard Blackwell.”
“So she’s a Blackwell? I had no idea. I never knew her real maiden name. Smacked me anytime I asked. And I always thought her whole family was dead. Our parents would always tell us that we had no grandparents.” I stop and think before narrowing my eyes slightly. “If she was a League agent, then why do you always look at her like she’s so toxic?”
Max sighs again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sigh so much in one sitting before.
“I was on a different team in New York when I first started in the League. I was still green and everything. Newest on the team. Her father, Richard, was a seasoned agent on the team, so I kept my mouth shut when I noticed him start doing some questionable things. He wasn’t the captain, but he got power hungry. Our captain, Damien Orwell, mysteriously took a walk off the roof of our HQ building.
I knew him...quite well. He wasn’t suicidal. Richard could control minds, and I realized a little too late that all the weird stuff that had started to happen was him. Once Damien died, Richard was in charge. I was on leave for a few days after Damien and while I was gone, Richard got the entire team to go on a killing spree. You’ve probably heard of the whole thing. I got back and I was the one who took him out. Christen lost her mind. I guess this was around the time she started going rogue.”
“So her dad died and she lost it?”
“Yes. She started associating with anti-League organizations. Covertly, of course, but she disappeared in 2014. I’m guessing that’s when she died?”
“Yeah. I was seventeen. She faked it? How do you fake a car accident?”
“She had some friends in dangerous places. Faking a civilian car accident wouldn’t have been very difficult for them. The League kicked her out in 2011. We kept tabs on her for a few months, but whoever was in charge must have been new if we missed her having an entire family.”
We lapse into silence for a little while. Then a thought strikes me.
“What was her codename?”
I suck in a breath.
“I’ve heard of her.”
“I’m not surprised you have. The Blackwell family was one of the elites until Richard went crazy and Christen quickly followed suit. The mother wasn’t gifted but the rest of Christen’s siblings were. The brother, Ashton, was Songbird. Dead. The estranged youngest, Joseph, was Coma. He’s retired.”
“No idea. Blackwells practically burned his named off the family tree, though.”
“And did you say Ashton?” I nearly choke on the guy’s name.
“Yeah. Died a while ago doing something dumb. Just another example of the bloodline crashing and burning,” Nick says from Max’s left. “Why? Did you know him?”
I blink rapidly and look down, clearing my throat before shrugging my shoulders.
“I knew he was my uncle. He used to come around when I was a kid. Babysit and stuff when my parents had something to do. I hated him.”
“No love lost, huh?”
I bare my teeth in the attempt of a bitter smile.
Rowan makes a noise beside me and I look over. He raises his eyebrows in question and I shake my head minutely. I can tell him later if he really wants to know all of the dirty details.
“Anyways. I killed her father. I destroyed her family in her eyes. Clearly she was already violent and corrupt before then based on how she raised you and your brother, but we had no idea on the League end. She was a model agent before she lost it.” He shrugs his shoulder before rolling them back. “She was here for me. You must have just been an added bonus.”
“Great. So what do we do now?”
“We continue touching base with D.C. I’ll see if I can get your status changed based on this new information. You didn’t register as a Blackwell. You registered as a Ford. We should be treating you as such.”
The resounding nods and genuinely sorry expressions scribbled across the entire team’s faces makes my hands stop shaking. My stomach feels warm. I can think about the fact that they were all so quick to throw my character under the bus later. I have bigger things to deal with right now.
I wait until after the meeting to call Derek and tell him that our mother is in fact not actually dead. There’s a lot of explaining to do which takes a while since Derek tends to interrupt people whenever he’s overwhelmed. I feel bad telling him everything and ruining whatever progress he’s made in fixing his life after her supposed death, but it’s a necessary evil. If she knows I’m a League agent now, she might try to track him down. I won’t risk Derek’s safety just to spare him some anguish no matter how much I want to.
Rowan and I spend some time just hanging out together for the next couple of days. We drop Bella off at preschool at seven each morning and then relax at the tower. I manage to avoid the topic of Ashton Blackwell for exactly 36 hours before he decides to bring it up.
We’re sitting on the softest couch on the common floor when he looks over and asks. I sigh heavily and curl the fleece blanket I’ve wrapped around myself into my fists.
“You already know what happened, you know, when I was a kid. It was,” I say, stopping to swallow the words caught in my throat, “it was him.”
“I’d kill him,” Rowan says seriously. “Too bad he’s already dead.”
“Hey, sorry if I keep pressing about this,” he says, running a hand down my arm, “I’m just...angry. So much bad shit has happened to you, it’s almost unbelievable.”
“Yeah, I know. My life’s felt like a bad drama since day one.”
“So...was I, like, the first one, you know, your first, or whatever?” he says awkwardly.
I practically guffaw in amusement.
“My first? Oh, no. Sorry, Rowan, that position was already filled,” I say through my laughter. I sober a bit on second thought, though. “Why? You’re not, like, one of those crazy counterpart traditionalists, are you?”
“Oh god, no,” he replies with a shake of his head. “Absolutely not. Just wondering.”
“What about me, huh? Was I the first?”
His cheeks ignite into red and he suddenly looks sheepishly uncomfortable.
“I was, wasn’t I? Oh my god, this is gold. Nothing against you, baby, you just don’t look the part.”
“What? What part do I look then?” he says, the embarrassment taken over quickly by a pout.
“You were in a gang that dealt Valiant, Row. Your father was one of the most feared men in New York City, maybe even the eastern coast. You look like that would be your story. Too hot for your own good. There must be a long list of girls from your high school who would be disappointed to this day to know that there’s another man on the other end of your counterpart pendant.”
“Oh, come on,” he scoffs, rolling his gold eyes. I poke him playfully in the nose and watch him crinkle the bridge of it in response.
“No, I’m serious. Let’s see…” I trail off, trying to think of how he must have have been in high school. “You played football. Must have. Varsity jacket and everything. You’re smart, too, though, so graduated in the top ten percent? Honor roll?”
He’s grinning but nodding as he does so.
“And scholarships offered to colleges I wasn’t allowed to go to. Dad didn’t want me out of the house and he wanted me in the business. Guess I lucked out with this whole League thing. No idea what kind of job I could have gotten without it.”
“I’m sure you would have figured something out, Row.”
“Maybe,” he reasons, nodding in agreement, “doesn’t matter, though. This is where I am and where I want to be.”
I press a kiss to the side of his neck and he practically yanks me, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito and all, into his lap.
Christen Blackwell. That’s what I’ve decided to call her. The woman who died in 2014 was my mother. She wasn’t even much of a mother to begin with so I don’t feel bad about disconnecting her from who Christen is now. She has nothing to lose and those who have nothing to lose are often the most dangerous.
A picture of her and some other people known to the League as anti-League radicals running down the streets near Central Park appear all over the news. Apparently they went on a murder spree in the park, killing eight and seriously wounding twelve.
Both the higher ups in D.C as well as Max were hoping that Christen only wanted revenge on him, but it’s clear that’s not her only intention.
It’s five days after Christen’s big comeback to the League’s radar when Director Scofield calls an assembly of every team in the United States. It’s not just Christen he’s worried about, but the growing activity and blossoming of new anti-enhanced an anti-League organizations, as well. She has connections to them, too, which just makes it all more dangerous. An enhanced on the side of anti-League people can do nothing good.
D.C is asking for two representatives to attend the assembly because gathering all of the teams together in one place would just be insanely reckless and stupid.
“You’re going with me,” is the first thing Max says when he sees me after the announcement.
“Are you sure?” I say a little too quickly. “I mean, come on, apparently my mother is, like, the arch nemesis of the League. I’m pretty sure I’m the last person you should be taking with you.”
“Lake,” he says patiently. “You’ve already been cleared by D.C. You offered to go under the Veracity if there’s a question about your truthfulness. If anything, you’re more valuable than anyone else. You know her better than anyone here.” Veracity is the truth serum that the League developed. It’s foolproof unlike the outdated polygraph tests. It’s still strictly for League usage only but they break the rules under extenuating circumstances like big, headline cases that are causing nationwide panic or outrage. The drug isn’t pleasant but it does its job and it does it well. I have baggage upon baggage that follows me everywhere I go, so the prospect of taking it wasn’t exactly something I was excited about. I was willing, however, because there’s no way in hell that I’ll let my name go down with Christen.
“Apparently not,” I mumble, but agree to go with him tomorrow. It’s not like he’s giving me much choice, anyway.
I wander off after the entire team shares a huge dinner of fettuccine Alfredo that Cally decided to make in a spur of the moment decision.
Rowan goes off to give Bella a bath and get her into bed for the night. He’s started making it a point to read her a story every night now that there’s no one around to stop him. Apparently she’s loving it and school, as well. She’s can’t read just yet, but I have good feeling she’s going to learn how to on the early side. Well. More than a feeling. I am a creative writing major after all. I knew that I had the League waiting for me before I even started college so I wasn’t really concerned with picking a major that would lead directly to a career. Studying something that you do for fun may make it a little less fun, but I’ve certainly honed my craft. Hopefully after all this settles down I can sit down and start to seriously write a novel like I’ve always wanted to. I suppose I can settle for slowly integrating reading into Bella’s life for now.
There’s a quiet knock on my door. They don’t wait for a confirmation to come in so I’m not very shocked when Rowan steps into my bedroom. I don’t keep my suite locked for a reason.
“Hey,” he greets softly.
“Kid can’t wait to get back to school on Monday,” he says with a slight huff. “She’d definitely my mother’s kid.”
“She like school?”
“Loved it. Was a teacher before Dad got involved in the mess that Valiant comes with. It was all downhill from there,” he says before pausing to sigh a little. “She’d be thrilled to see Bella so excited like this.”
“What happened to her?” I ask softly.
“A deal gone bad. Dad should have known better than to involve her in it all, especially after Bella was born. The kid was too young to be without a mom, but he didn’t care,” he explains, coming closer to sit on my bed. He moves the blankets absently as he speaks and chuckles lightly. “I went off on him when we got the call from the hospital. Screamed and punched him so hard in the nose that I broke my hand. I paid for it afterwards when he choked me out and beat me so bad I couldn’t walk for a few days, but I couldn’t just, you know, let it stand. He’s the reason she’s dead.”
“I get it,” I agree.
“How bout you?” he says suddenly. “How’d yours die? Or. Your dad.”
“Car accident. You know that. Swerved into another lane on the highway. Two other cars were involved. One had a mom and her baby. They both died. I figured my dad was drunk or my mom had finally had enough of his bullshit and yanked the wheel across traffic.”
“No idea. Doesn’t matter, anyway. What’s done is done.”
He looks at me and jolts a bit before narrowing his eyes at me.
“Are you wearing your pendant?” I look down like the thing hasn’t been burning a hole in my skin the entire thirty minutes I’ve been wearing it.
“Oh,” I say dumbly. “Yeah.”
“I haven’t been wearing mine, but…” he begins, pausing to dig around in the front pocket of his jeans. “I still carry it.” He smiles dopily and holds it up so that it glints in the light. It’s not like we’d need the light to see it, anyway. Both triangles are glowing red and blue. They’d be impossible to miss in the dark.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t normally wear it, you know. I just thought...I don’t know,” I stop and sigh heavily, dragging a hand down my face, “most counterparts in our position would have Bonded already. Why drag it out, you know?”
“Come on, Lake, we aren’t exactly most other counterparts. Who gives a shit what other people do, anyway? We can wait as long as you want.”
“So you want to, then, right?”
“I mean, yeah. But I get if you’re not ready to. It’s a huge commitment.”
I sigh, looking down as he takes my hand, opens it, and place his entire necklace in my palm. It’s burning hot like the one against my chest but I close my hand around it anyway.
“Maybe that’s what I need,” I reason. “Never had a permanent thing in my life. It’s gotta be nice.”
“You’re sure?” he asks again. I take a second to give it serious consideration.
“Yeah,” I confirm, nodding and gesturing for him to come closer. “Come’ere.”
He scoots up the bed until he’s right in front of me. I hand him back his half and take off mine, undoing the clasp so I can hold it in my hands. I meet his eyes, blue hitting gold, and nod minutely. We move the pendants closer and closer, the metal burning hotter and hotter, until they connect, two halves of a whole finally joined. There’s a bright flash and then the burning slowly dims to a faint warmth.
The link that comes with the Bond settles into our brains. Suddenly there’s a nearly overwhelming excitement that I can separate from my own. Rowan. The link is very minimal. It’s not like we can hear each other’s thoughts or anything. It’s not a telepathic kind of GPS, either. There are very small things, though, like being able to know what the other half is feeling. Extreme pain can be transferred through the link with people who have very strong bonds. That’s about it, really, but I understand the purpose. It’s just another way to get closer and stay closer. Forever. The concept of forever can be terrifying, but it’s also quite exhilarating.
I slowly take the pendant from his hand and place both of them on my nightstand using small movements. Rowan watches my careful movements and doesn’t protest when my fingers fall onto the buttons of his shirt. I unbutton them one at a time, deliberately slow. The mood of the room has quickly shifted from joy to desire.
I get to the last button and toss it off the side of my bed. He pulls my shirt up my torso and over my head from the sides before shoving that aside, as well. My heart only skips one beat this time because luckily my mind is on something very different than the ugly slash scars on my chest.
He jams his hand into my pants as an opening act and things only escalate from there.