“You talked him up to this much?” Max asks as he sorts through the tiny baggies of pills that I dumped on the dining table on the common floor. Flint picks one up and examines it with a curious look on his tan face.
I left school as early as I could in the morning. I know that flashing my pretty little League ID to any police officer on campus or off would keep me out of trouble for carrying around Valiant, but it would take a little while to verify my story. Getting stopped on broad daylight also wouldn’t be good for establishing a good relationship as a reliable dealer with the Riveras.
“Yeah,” I confirm with a nod, daring to be a little smug about it. Things went pretty well for my first day undercover if I do say so myself.
“How much is this?”
“Two-fifty,” I reply, crossing my arms over my chest. “I talked him up from a hundred.”
“Damn,” Flint remarks, eyebrows raised in surprise. “You charm his pants off or something?”
I snort and shake my head with a roll of my eyes.
“Kid was seventeen, so, no, absolutely not,” I say with shrug, “guess I just have a way with words or something equally as stupid.”
Max nods in approval before sweeping the many plastic bags into a yellow legal envelope. He marks it with the date and amount in black Sharpie before tying it closed and setting it aside.
“How much do they go for each?” he asks, pulling over a white version of the yellow envelope from the other end of the table.
“Typically forty a pill.” I run my fingers through my mess of blond hair and survey the massive amount of twenty, ten, and five dollar bills that are in the white envelope. When the League goes in, they go in all the way. Someone in the communications department managed to scrounge up the dirtiest and most destroyed paper bills they could find to fit the part.
“Let’s say forty-five, though,” I say as an afterthought, “I want to impress the big guys and get in good with them as soon as possible.”
Max eyes me for a second before asking if I’m sure. Selling the Rivera’s supply at a higher price than Chris told me to is a risk, but if it pays off there will be a great deal of rewards. The cut I negotiated with Chris is only ten percent, but I figure that goes along with my story quite well. I’m a “broke college kid” who “just needs to pay his tuition” so a grand and a half or so every week before August is more than I really need. He bought the story pretty easily if his reaction and behavior is anything to go by.
Max counts out the money to me and I shove all of it into a smaller envelope once he hands the stack over. I folded it a few times on the subway ride here for good measure. Every small detail matters when it comes to these people, apparently. If I mess up anywhere at all, it could blow my cover and cost people their lives. Even though Chris deals drugs for the largest Valiant cartel on the east coast, he doesn’t deserve to die because of me.
I put the envelope in my backpack and pull out a couple textbooks and a notebook before placing them on the table. I grabbed them on my way out the door this morning and figured I’d get some studying done at the tower to give Atlas some space. He’s stressing over his last few tests and we don’t work really well in the same room together when tensions are running high.
“What the hell is this gibberish?” JD says, jabbing a finger down onto a page in my notebook.
“You’re a creative writing major,” he deadpans. I shrug, rifling around in my bag for the mechanical pencil I know I tossed in there this morning.
“It’s for fun. I needed the credits, anyway.”
“Fun? My god, Max, this kid like running and complex mathematics? Where did we even find him?” JD moans as he throws himself into the chair across the table from me.
Max only snorts and walks away to do whatever it is does Max gets up to.
“Just because your brain can barely comprehend basic math doesn’t mean that other people’s are the same,” Flint says from over on the couch without even looking up from the newspaper he’s reading.
“You don’t have a say in this mister one and a half degrees,” JD says, looking up sharply and poking a finger in Flint’s direction. “You’re an actual scientist.” Flint shrugs in response and JD sighs loudly in exasperation.
The math doesn’t require too much studying since the entire subjects tends to just click with me like it normally doesn’t for most people. JD mopes around the entire time I’m going over the material, scrolling through his phone and surfing around on his laptop across from me.
I finally slam my textbook and notebook shut at around noon, shoving them both back into my backpack and zipping it up tightly. If I lose the ten grand inside, Max and the Rivera gang will have my head for it.
“God, you know what I really don’t want feel like doing?” I whine to JD, who looks up and puts his phone down. “Go all the way back to school.”
“Is is that far?”
“Not really, it’s just annoying, the back and forth,” I reason. It really isn’t that bad. I’m just tired of it.
“The semester’s over this week, isn’t it? You should move into the tower after the undercover work is over,” he suggests. His suggestion reminds me that while the team knows I’m on an undercover job, they aren’t allowed to know what it is. I’m not supposed to tell them about it, either, so I have to remember that whenever I talk to them.
I won’t be able to move directly into the tower after the semester ends even if I want to. I can’t even go back to the apartment Derek and I have shared since high school. Unless I want to drag Derek and his girlfriend into the operation I’m involved with, I have to steer clear of the place for the duration of my undercover work with the Rivera group.
“After the mission?”
“Yeah,” he says with a nod. “We can move anything you don’t need at the cover apartment they’ve assigned you into a suite here for the time being. With the way you’re moving on up, it shouldn’t be long.”
“I hope so,” I say with a sigh, standing and picking up my bag. “It’s kind of emotionally draining.”
“Agreed,” he says with a pained smile. “They put me on an op in Germany last year. It ended well but it dragged on and on for weeks.”
“Great,” I say sarcastically. I’m not really thrilled with this whole undercover operation to beginning with. The potential for it to go on for weeks or even months doesn’t make me any happier.
“Oh, well, I’m sure yours won’t get that way,” Flint says in a failed attempt at reassurance.
“I’ll be seeing you around, Mitchell,” I call over my shoulder as I make my way to the elevator.
I’m already on my way to meet with Chris again Monday night. I went home and studied some more yesterday after exchanging the supply for money. Atlas was in a whirlwind of stress and irritability as I expected him to be when I got back to the room. I’m glad I was able to avoid his mood as much as possible.
Chris is waiting for me when I step off the train and onto the platform this time. It’s only about nine at night so there’s still a decent number of people around. The look of surprise that sweeps over his face as I hand him the envelope of money sends a pang of satisfaction through my stomach. I didn’t actually sell the drugs or anything, but he doesn’t know that.
“Damn, boy,” he says, shoving the envelope into the big pocket of his backpack after handing over my cut. “Were people knocking your door down or what?”
“Just got a lot of people who know people,” I reply with a shrug.
“This is more money than what should be here, you know.”
“I sold them for forty-five instead,” I reply and it’s easier to keep my voice easier even than last time. “Figured it’d be okay.”
“Mm,” he hums mostly to himself. “How about we go back and meet some of the guys? I don’t have anything more than one-fifty on me, anyway. Gotta get you more to sell.”
This is the offer I’ve been waiting for. I try not to look as excited as I feel when I agree and we make our way up onto the street.
The walk isn’t too long. We’re definitely in a rougher neighborhood that I’d say is probably somewhere in downtown Brooklyn if I had to take a guess. I ignore the unrest settling into my bones the farther we venture. I’m probably safer than Chris is with any kind of weapon since I can freeze a man solid, but using my powers would ruin this entire operation before it’s even truly begun. I’ve already made the decision that in a case that isn’t life threatening, I won’t interfere with my powers at all. I may get seriously hurt, but that’s simply part of the job.
As we walk, something really weird starts to happen. I almost don’t understand what it is because it’s never happened to me before but once I realize, my heart jumps straight up into my throat. My counterpart pendant is warming up against the skin of my chest. It starts as a warm whisper but as we keep walking, it grows in intensity.
Our journey finally ends at a rather ordinary looking house, at least for this kind of neighborhood. It’s clearly run down. Some of the upstairs windows are boarded up. The grass in the front yard is yellowed from neglect. There’s even one of those Little Tike toy cars for kids laying on its side in the yard, strangely enough.
My pendant is basically burning my skin. My heart is beating at an unhealthy rate and I have to wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans multiple. I’ve thought about the scenario in which I’d eventually come into contact with my counterpart and going to visit the house that members of a major drug cartel frequent was definitely not something I ever pictured.
“I don’t think the boss is around tonight, but some of the other guys are,” Chris informs me as I follow him up the brick stairs and into the house.
There’s a living immediately inside the front door. Four guys are sitting around on two mismatched couches. The pair on the couch facing toward the door are watching the other two play video games on a flat screen mounted to the wall.
They all look up when Chris and I enter. Chris pulls the envelope of money out of his backpack and flings it into one of the guy’s laps. The guy who catches it has sunburnt cheeks and a hard look on his face.
“Kid made an extra grand,” Chris tells him. The sunburnt guy thumbs through the money and even goes as far as sniffing it before nodding in approval. His stony expression opens up a bit into a small smile that I was nearly convinced he wasn’t capable of.
“Kid got a name?” The guy asks before taking a moment to flip his wild dirty blond hair out of his eyes.
“Ford, you got a first name?” Chris asks, nudging me in the ribs with an elbow.
My eyes flicker all over the room, landing on the guy with sunburn asking after my name, the flat screen, the wall, and the floor. I’m purposely ignoring the other three guys because my pendant is burning and I don’t know how I’m going to react once I see whoever is wearing the other half. I don’t even need to see the necklace itself. The look on his face will give him away in a second.
“Lake,” I say, finally spitting out an answer.
“Like...the body of water, or something?” the guy next to the one with sunburn says. The words flows out of his mouth in a slurred mess. His face is nearly the exact opposite of the guy next to him, mellow and relaxed without a care in the world. My best guess is he’s high. Heroin? Weed? It can be anything.
“Yeah,” I reply. I even manage a light chuckle.
“Alright, Lake,” Chris says, clearly testing out my name. “That’s Sebastian and Isaiah,” he points from the sunburn guy to the high one next to him, “and Caleb and Rowan.”
I finally look to the other couch when Chris points in its direction. The guy on the left, Caleb, just nods and waves casually with two fingers. The one on the right, however, is practically radiating nervous energy. His eyes widen slightly once I make the mistake of meeting them.
Atlas told me about the day he met Maggie. It was the first day of sixth grade and the same day I met her, as well. We saw her before we even got to talk to her, so when Atlas’s pendant warmed up, we couldn’t be sure who had the other half. Once he got to sit next to her in gym, however, he knew. Maggie tells me the same story about how once they saw each other for the first time, it was like an immediate connection formed. The fact that they can both describe similar experiences is the only reason I believe them. I always figured it was bit too dramatically romantic, but now I understand exactly what they mean.
His pendant disappears under his shirt but I can see the necklace from here. It’s not as basic as mine but tasteful nonetheless with a small thread of metallic gold woven into the black. His face, Rowan’s face, Rowan in general, really, is ridiculously attractive. If this whole counterpart situation is real, I seriously lucked out.
I have to forcibly drag a neutral expression onto my face before I even dare look back at Chris.
“I gotta piss,” I say, and the words come out maybe a little too quickly. The urgency probably works more in my favor, though.
“Down the hall, first on left,” Chris points, stepping back with his palms out so I can race by him.
Once I’ve locked myself into the bathroom, I let the panic explode out onto my face. It’s hard to keep my expressions schooled for so long.
I nearly rip my counterpart necklace off trying to undo the tiny silver clasp. Once it’s off, I shove the whole thing as far into the front pocket of my jeans as I can get it. When the two halves get close enough, they both start to glow. It’s not a blinding light or anything, but it’s noticeable enough that a gang that’s already suspicious about my intentions may notice. All I can hope is that Rowan, that’s his name, has enough sense to do the same.
I actually do kind of have to use the bathroom so I take care of my business and splash some cold water on my face before rejoining the rest of the group. Rowan’s necklace is notably absent from around his neck when I get back and it makes me wonder how he managed to hide it without drawing any attention.
I sit around for a while and watch Rowan and Caleb play video games. Caleb eventually hands his remote to me after losing one too many times. My hands shake slightly as I reach out to take it but thankfully nobody seems to notice.
I am willing to admit that I get a little competitive. My brain gets ahead of me and forgets that it’s Rowan I’m racing against. Once I do, I remember it over and over. It’s like realizing that I’ve found the love of my life every few minutes and it’s kind of absolutely of insane. I keep beating him and when he finally lets out a cry of disbelief after a while of both of us playing in relative silence, a small smile creeps onto my face. Maybe this major curve ball I’ve walked directly into isn’t the end of the world after all.
I eventually catch sight of the time, however, and have to shake myself a bit. I have my second to last final tomorrow and I really need to get some last minute studying in tonight.
“Holy shit,” I say before I hand the controller back to Caleb. “I gotta go. I have a final at seven a.m. tomorrow. Shit.” My test may not actually be scheduled so early, but they don’t know that.
“Right, you’re one of those college kids,” Chris nods from a leather armchair at the other end of the room, eyes cracked half open. “Row, go hook our boy up. Give him as much as he asks for. Kid knows what he’s doing.” The fact that Chris keeps calling me “kid” is kind of strange since he’s four years younger than me, but it doesn’t really annoy me.
Rowan gets up from the other couch and I stand as well before following him down the same hallway as the bathroom. He goes all the way to the last door on the left before shoving a key into the locked doorknob and opening the door. .
The room must have been an office in its distant past life. There’s a walnut desk and matching bookshelves shoved to the back wall of the room. All of the furniture is covered with stacks of unmarked boxes. There’s a few of those foldable plastic white tables situated closer to the door stacked with boxes, as well. Rowan plucks the top off of one of the boxes and I get a glimpse of what’s inside. Hundreds of the same tiny plastic bags I was given last time. There has to be thousands or maybe even a few millions of dollars in this room.
“How many?” he says quietly in a voice that really doesn’t match his presence at all.
“Three-fifty?” I say with a shaky shrug. He nods but doesn’t say anything.
We stand in tense silence while he counts out plastic baggies as fast as possible. The tiny baggies are packaged into larger bags by the fifty, so it isn’t as painfully slow as it could be.
“So, you’re him,” Rowan says finally. I say nothing. “I’m not really sure what that means.”
I don’t really have a rose-colored view of the whole counterpart system. I’m a bit more grounded in reality when it comes to the romantic filter a lot people tend to see things through. Even with this in mind, I can’t stop the hurt that washes over me at the sound of his uncertainty.
“Well, lucky for you it doesn’t have to mean anything,” I spit out before snatching the stack of packages he hands me and shoving them into my backpack with far more force than necessary. I’m just about to whip around and rip my way out of the house when he grabs my arms at the last second.
“Do you do it?” he says lowly in a tone that I don’t have enough data to recognize coming out of his mouth. He licks his lips nervously. “Do you?”
“Do what?” I shake, ripping my arm out of his grasp.
My face screws up into involuntary disgust.
“No,” I grit out. “I’m not stupid.”
He nods mostly to himself.
“Good,” he says weakly. “The shit’s no joke.”
When I go to leave the room this time, he lets me. I wave goodbye to Chris and the other guys on my way out of the house. Chris tells me to come by whenever I’ve run out and that someone should be around on any given day of the week to re-supply me.
The subway ride back to school is annoyingly long but my mind is on Rowan the whole time. It was hard to ignore the way my pendant went from scorching hot to icy cold in my pocket as I moved farther and farther away from him. I should be used to the metal charm feeling so lifeless but for some reason it feels totally foreign. I’ve barely spoken three words to this guy and yet he’s already managed to shift my entire world around.
Atlas is sitting with his nose buried in a book when I finally get back to our room. When I come in, he looks up with wild desperation set into his hazel eyes.
“Thank god,” he says dramatically. “You’ve got to help me with this.”
I sigh and drop my bag to the floor before sliding onto his bed to help him with the math class we share. He’s required to take the course for his major unlike me but he’s struggling with it way more than me. He scheduled this as his last test specifically because he’s a total mess when it comes to the math. I help him review for well over two hours until he finally sits back in defeat.
“It’s no use,” he declares. “I’m hopeless.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” I reply with a roll of my eyes, jumping off his bed and moving across the room to sit on my own. He squints over at me with a suspicious expression on his face.
“You know, you’re real distracted tonight, Lake,” he remarks. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, why?” He just squints harder and I sigh. “Fine. It’s just the case I’m on right now.” I can’t tell him anything about the undercover operation besides the fact that I’m on it. I really shouldn’t even tell him that, but he’s been trustworthy with my whole League status thus far.
“Not buying it,” he deadpans.
I groan before squeezing my eyes shut and rubbing both hands down my face.
“Lake,” he sing-songs, laying backwards so his head is hanging off the edge of the bed.
“Alright,” I say so quietly that it’s nearly inaudible. “I met my counterpart today.”
His reaction is immediate. He somehow manages to flip off the bed and come barely a foot from my bed in the blink of an eye.
“You what?” he shouts, to which I immediately shush him.
“Atlas, it’s ten at night, shut the hell up!” I whisper-shout.
“So?” he exclaims, but luckily he’s toned it down to a more acceptable level. “You found him!”
“Yes, I did,” I say slowly and calmly as if I’m speaking to a child. “But you have to understand that he actually has to do with the mission and you can’t tell anyone. Things are very complicated and if you even joke about it, things can turn deadly, okay?”
Atlas’s smile falters for a second but doesn’t disappear.
“I’m serious, Atlas,” I press. “Promise.”
The smile finally drops before he nods seriously.
“Promise,” he agrees. “But once you can, you gotta tell me everything.”
A small smile drifts onto my lips.
“Course,” I agree.