… EPISODE SIXTEEN…
….. Posted by uc beverly…..
“Tell me again why we need three containers of chocolate milk to break into the lab?” Draven asks suspiciously. Not that I blame him—the whole cranberry juice debacle is still fresh in all our minds.
“Because Jeremy is hypoglycemic and it helps keep his blood sugar steady if he loads up on chocolate milk when he’s stressed out,” I tell him.
Draven rolls his eyes as he drops the bottles of Nesquik into our cart. “That’s some kind of ex-boyfriend you’ve got there.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a genius. Through the years, I’ve learned not to question his bizarre beverage choices as long as he gets the job done.”
Draven nods and adds an extra bottle of chocolate milk to the cart. It makes me smile as I push it to the next aisle and pick up a box of Froot Loops for Rebel and a pack of chocolate chip cookies for Nitro.
It’s been eight hours since Rebel, Jeremy, and I failed to find Deacon at ESH labs, and we’ve spent most of that time holed up in a hotel room at the Extended Stay a few blocks from my house, trying to come up with a new plan. It’s not the optimum situation with six of us crowded into a two-room suite, but it was the safest option we could come up with. Right now, not showing up on hero radar is a lot more important than comfort, especially since we have to go back in to find Deacon.
And this time we’re all going. That’s nonnegotiable, at least according to the villains. Considering the overwhelming guilt Rebel feels over our failure and the knock-down, drag-out the guys got into in the nightclub parking lot, I’m inclined to agree.
Which means we need a really good plan, one that won’t get us killed before we can rescue Deacon…and my mother. Thankfully Jeremy has some ideas on where to start, because I’m pretty much tapped out. I’m so freaked out about my mom and everything else that I can barely think.
In the produce department, Draven and I pick up some apples and oranges. I know the guys think all we need is junk food to survive, but a little nutrition never hurt anyone. I’m reaching for some grapes when I get a weird tingle down my spine. I glance up just in time to catch someone watching me. Watching us.
I don’t recognize him and he’s too far away for me to see if he has a tattoo beneath one of his ears, but every instinct I have screams that he’s a super. I start toward
him—but Draven wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me in to his side. Then he ducks his head and starts whispering absolute gibberish to me.
I’m about to shrug him off, but he whispers, “Don’t.” His arm tightens around my waist. He half smirks, half snarls at the guy watching us and—to my surprise—the guy flushes before walking away.
“What was that about?” I hiss as Draven grabs a couple of bunches of grapes without even looking at them, then tosses them in the basket.
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
I dig in my heels, refusing to budge. “This isn’t going to work if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“I told you the truth.” He sighs and runs an exasperated hand through his hair. “It was nothing.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t believe you.”
“That’s your problem then, isn’t it?” He reaches for the cart and steers it down the aisle away from me.
I follow him, grabbing his arm. “Draven, if there’s something I need to know—” “He was looking at you, okay?” The words seem to burst from him. “He was looking at you and I didn’t like it.”
My mind swirls. He can’t be implying what I think he is. “What-I-he—” I stumble for a moment, trying to come up with an appropriate response that won’t make me sound like an idiot. Finally, I clear my throat. “You mean, he recognized me or something? Should we be concerned? Who is he?”
“Just a guy I know from school. And he wasn’t looking at you like he recognized you, Kenna. He was looking at you like he wanted to recognize you. Like he wanted to get to know you. So I took care of it. Sorry.” He turns and starts pulling random junk off the shelves.
I’m left staring after him, feeling all strange inside. Because Draven just admitted he didn’t like another guy being interested in me. Which means what? That he’s interested in me? Suddenly, it’s hard to breathe. Not because I don’t like the idea of him thinking about me in that way. But because I like it too much.
He’s a villain and I’m…not. I’m not technically a hero either. I guess that makes me majorly confused. And more than a little attracted to a guy I have no business falling for.
Draven doesn’t say anything else about the other guy—or what he’s admitted— and neither do I. Partly because I don’t know what to say, and partly because this isn’t the time or place for that kind of discussion.
Although for a villain and an ordinary, is there really ever going to be a perfect time?
We’re pretty quiet as we pick up other supplies—sandwich fixings, carrots, granola bars, a few different bags of chips. As we pass back through the dairy aisle on the way to the checkout counter, I grab a couple more bottles of chocolate milk. It’s going to be a long day, and the last thing we need is Jeremy running out of his very particular, very peculiar brand of fuel.
Draven helps me unload at checkout, but when I reach for my wallet, he insists on paying for the groceries. I try to fight him on it. Owing a villain doesn’t sit easy with me. But by the time I get my debit card out of my wallet, he’s already handed over the money.
A hundred and fifty dollars. In cash. Of course. We’re lying low. Under the radar. I stare at my debit card with horror. I almost messed everything up. I don’t think our visit to the lab raised any red flags last night, but there’s no guarantee the guards won’t mention it to Mr. Malone. No guarantee that he won’t start putting the pieces together and trace back through our digital trail. After all, my house didn’t get ransacked for nothing, and the last thing I need is for the heroes to know where I am or where I’ve been. Or worse, who I’ve been with.
Jeremy is adamant about leaving no tracks. Avoid cameras, keep cell phones powered off, and above all else, don’t pay with credit. I should know better. “Thanks,” I mutter as we walk to the car. Draven looks genuinely perplexed. “For what?”
“I almost ruined everything back there. I didn’t think about using cash.” That’s not like me. I’m the planner, the one who thinks about every detail from every angle. The one who doesn’t make mistakes. But ever since Draven broke into the lab, ever since my life turned upside down, I seem to be making blunder after blunder.
It makes me feel like I don’t know myself anymore. Like this whole situation is turning me into someone I’m not.
Three days ago, I was an ordinary girl in a superhero world. It wasn’t ideal, but it was tolerable. It was normal. It made sense. Black was black, and white was white. Good was good, and bad was…bad. Villains were bad.
Now, everything is topsy-turvy. Nothing makes sense. And as for life being black and white? I feel like I’m drowning in a million shades of gray. Like the suits of the Ray-Ban brigade.
I don’t know what’s right anymore. How can I when I might be falling for a villain? And he might be falling right back?
But I have more important things to focus on right now. I have to find my mom. Stop them from torturing Deacon. Figure out how to stop what I’m beginning to think is an entire hero agenda—not just one project with one villain, but a massive program that spans decades, has had countless victims, and involves bugging the house of the League’s most prominent scientist and then kidnapping her. That’s a pretty big freaking agenda.
I don’t know how we’re going to do what we need to, or what’s going to happen after. Who knows. My whole life could fall apart completely. But I can’t stress about that now. There are too many other things at stake.
“Don’t worry about the debit card,” Draven tells me as he transfers the bags from the cart to the van. “You did fine.”
“No. I didn’t. If you hadn’t been here—”
“But I was.” He stops and looks me in the eye. “And I’m going to keep being here. I’ll save you from mistakes; you’ll save me from mistakes. That’s how this whole partner thing works.”
“Partners?” I repeat, rolling the word around on my tongue, trying to decide if I like the way it feels. Turns out I do—maybe too much.
“Partners,” he reiterates. “Unless you lock me in a refrigerator again. Then it’s every person for him or herself.”
“Are you still stuck on that?” I demand with a roll of my eyes. “I already told you, it was the most logical—”
“No.” He leans forward so his face is only inches from mine. His beautiful blue eyes glow with intensity and determination as he stares me down. “It really wasn’t.”
Eight hours ago—hell, eight minutes ago—I would have argued that point with him. Would have told him I only did what I needed to keep everybody safe.
But after everything that has happened, standing right here, right now, breathing the same air as him, working on the same side as him, it’s impossible for me to form any other thought. Impossible for me to do anything but stare at Draven and wonder what it would be like if he leaned forward just a little and—
I cut off the thought. I mean, seriously, what am I even thinking? That I want Draven to kiss me?
I flash back to the intensity when he said he didn’t like that guy looking at me. My heart beats faster. It gets harder to breathe.
A part of me is screaming that this is impossible. He’s a villain. He’s dangerous. He left me tied to a lab table. I can’t trust him. I just can’t. I shouldn’t…
Then again, I locked him in a refrigerator and he still wants to be partners. That has to count for something. Right?
I don’t know anymore. I focus on Draven’s lips and think about what it would be like to kiss him. He shakes his head as if he’s waking from a trance. Then he steps back and slams shut the back door of the van.
“Time to go,” he says.
I nod, wiping my suddenly sweaty palms along the legs of my jeans. Right. Go. We need to go. And I need to focus on the job at hand. Things are messed up enough. Adding any additional complications to the mix would be absolutely crazy.
Except, as I climb into the front passenger seat of the van, I can’t help thinking about how warm his body felt next to mine. How his eyes had that crazy, sexy look in them. How much I really, really want to know what he tastes like.
“Here.” After starting the van, Draven drops a small bag in my lap.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Open it and see.”
I stare at him uncertainly before reaching into the bag. I pull out three of my favorite chocolate bars. They’re the same kind that I was trying to get out of the vending machine the night we met.
“I don’t understand.”
“You never got your candy the other night, you know, with the break-in and all. So”—he shrugs—“I figured I owed you.”
His voice is steady, but his fingers tap nervously against the steering wheel. He doesn’t put the van in gear. Is he waiting for something?
I want to reach over and cover his hand with my own, press a kiss to his darkly stubbled cheek. But neither is a smart move. Not now when everything is such an uncertain mess. So instead, I just say, “Thank you. That was really nice.”
“It’s a couple candy bars, Kenna,” he tells me with a smirk. “Not world peace.” True. But he didn’t have to buy them for me. They aren’t necessary, not the way Jeremy’s chocolate milk is. That he did it anyway, because he was thinking of me, feels…nice. The simple gesture makes me feel special and that’s not an emotion I’m usually acquainted with.
“Well, thank you, anyway.” I open one of the bars and break off a piece. Then I hold it out to him. Instead of taking it from me, he leans toward me. Opens his mouth a little. My throat goes desert dry as I feed him the chocolate.
His lips brush against my fingers as he closes his mouth around the candy, and suddenly I can’t breathe.
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To hell with everything I just told myself about villains and complications. I want to kiss him.
I lean forward, nearly falling off the van’s bucket seat in the process. But I don’t because he’s leaning forward too—meeting me, catching me. We’re so close that I can feel his warm, sweet breath against my cheek, my lips.
He stops, though. He doesn’t move any closer, and I know he’s waiting for me. Making sure this is what I want. This villain, this self-proclaimed “bad guy” is turning the control over to me, letting me make the decision. It’s something no other guy—not even Jeremy—has done.
This sends me over the edge, and I close the last of the distance between us in a rush.
I brush my lips over his, my eyes fluttering closed. And then nearly jump through the roof when his cell phone explodes with the old Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle.”
He groans and curses, but pulls away. “Dante,” he mutters bitterly before yanking his phone out of his jeans pocket. “What?”
He listens for a second. “Slow down, Rebel. What’s going on?”
I sit up at the mention of my best friend’s name and give him a quizzical look. He holds up a hand for me to wait.
“They’re doing what?” His voice gets louder. “We’re on our way.” “What’s wrong?” I demand as Draven throws the van into drive and barrels through the parking lot and out onto the street.
“Nitro,” he spits out.
All kinds of visions flash through my head. “Did he burn down the hotel?” “Not yet. But give him ten minutes.”
I’m a little afraid to ask what that means, so I keep my mouth shut for the rest of the ride except to ask, “Is Rebel okay?”
“She’s fine. Dante won’t let anything happen to her.”
We squeal into the parking lot, and Draven barely takes time to turn off the van before he’s racing through the lobby to our suite. We’re in the back corner of the top floor so it’s a bit of a run, especially when Draven refuses to wait for the elevator. We asked for that room because there were no close neighbors—a fact I’m grateful for when I follow Draven inside to find Jeremy hanging from the spinning ceiling fan while Nitro lobs small orange fireballs at him.
So far, it doesn’t look like any of them have hit Jeremy, but with Nitro’s control issues, I’m not sure if that’s by accident or design. Then again, his aim could be messed up by the fact that Jeremy keeps trying to fry him. He’s using his
technopathic powers to send volts of electricity straight at Nitro from every object in the room that is currently plugged in.
The side effect of him using that power is that everyone in the room’s hair is standing straight up. It’s not a bad look on Draven or Dante, but Nitro’s looks even more like a matchstick. And I really don’t want to know what I look like.
“What. The. Hell?” Draven demands over the noise of Nitro and Jeremy’s yelling. “Get him down!” I order Dante, who is watching the scene with a huge smile on his face.
“I’d love to, but I’m not the one who put him up there. He jumped up himself.” “Seriously?”
“I had no choice,” Jeremy howls.
I look around for my best friend, but she’s nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Rebel?” “On the balcony. She got fed up and went outside.”
I consider joining her, but since Draven looks like he’s on the verge of committing murder, I decide I should probably stay—at least if I want Jeremy and Nitro to stay whole and relatively healthy. Mental health is obviously another issue altogether.
Nitro gets set to lob another fireball, but I step directly in front of him and block his path. “Stop it! You’re going to burn down the whole damn hotel!”
“But he—” Nitro starts to argue, but I cut him off with a fierce glare. “And you!” I whirl on Jeremy. “Get down from there this instant.” “I can’t. I’ll be in range of the electricity.”
“Here’s a thought,” Draven bites off sarcastically. “Maybe you should stop trying to electrocute people, then.”
“That’s what I said!” Nitro shouts as he builds another fireball between his hands. I count it as a small victory that he holds it in his palms instead of throwing it straight at Jeremy’s ass.
“Shut up, moron!” Draven snaps at him. “Are you trying to get us caught?” Nitro pouts. “He started it!”
I look to Jeremy for confirmation, but he shakes his head vehemently. “No way, man! He’s the one who turned off my laptop right when I was in the middle of finessing—”
“I tripped, asshole. It was an accident!”
“How do you accidentally turn off a laptop?” I wonder amid the chaos. “Exactly!” Jeremy crows. “I told you he started it.”
“It’s hard to take your argument seriously when you’re hanging from a ceiling fan,” I tell him, as deadpan as I can manage. “It’s like you guys are three years old.”
“Fine.” Jeremy lets go and lands on the floor with a thump that I’m certain our downstairs neighbors don’t appreciate. “But tell him to stay away from my stuff.” The zing of electricity in the room dies down. Seconds later, all our hair settles back to normal.
“Like I’d purposely touch your stuff?” Nitro demands. I’m relieved that he’s snuffed out the fireball in his hands. “The last thing I want is zero cooties.” I scowl at the derogatory hero dig.
“Seriously?” I say again, more forcefully this time. Because, come on. They really are acting like toddlers. “Get it together.”
Besides, if Draven and I can put aside our less-than-ideal first meeting, surely these two idiots can try to get along. For Deacon’s and my mom’s sake, if nothing else.
I leave Dante and Draven to sort out the mess and I join Rebel on the balcony. She’s sitting on one of the two chairs out there, her legs folded up so that her chin rests on her knees. And though she’s right there in front of me, I can’t help thinking that she’s really a million miles away. That she’s lost deep inside herself, tangled up in the mess our lives have so quickly become.
“Nice show,” I tell her, settling into the chair next to her.
After several long moments, she rolls her eyes. “I’m not sure who’s the bigger moron.”
She snorts. “Yeah, probably.”
“No ‘probably’ about it. He just told Jeremy he had cooties.” “Nice.”
“Do you ever wonder how we’re going to break into the lab with these guys when the group can’t get along for more than five minutes at a time?”
“Pretty much every second of the day.” She closes her eyes and blows out a long breath.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one.”
We sit in silence until—eyes still closed—she asks, “Do you ever wonder what that’s like?”
I’m not following. “What do you mean?”
“Nitro knows exactly who he is. So do Dante and Draven and Jeremy. Villain. Hero. They wear their labels proudly. Absolutely.” She opens her eyes and gazes off into the distance. “It’s the same at home. Dad, Riley, even Mom. They know which side of the line they stand on. They know who they are and never question the fact that they’re the good guys. And me”—she breaks off and takes a couple
deep breaths—“I’m the black sheep. The rebel. Between the pressure to live up to
the family name and the fear that I’ll never live it down, I don’t know if I even
have a clue who I am. Hero. Villain. Both. Neither? I don’t even know.”
“You’re a hero,” I tell her firmly. “The real kind. More so than your dad or any of
the others working with him are. “
“Why? Because I don’t buy into the bullshit?”
“Yes.” I lean back and stare up at the starry sky. “And because you’re willing to do something about it. You’ve always known the superheroes had a weird agenda. And you’ve fought it. That’s totally heroic behavior.”
“Yeah, well, if I’d fought harder, maybe your mom wouldn’t be missing. Maybe Deacon wouldn’t be half dead in some six-by-six cell none of us can find. Maybe—”
I interrupt her with the most absurd idea I can think of. “And maybe I’d grow a superpower or two. Anything is possible, Reb, but you can’t live in a world of what-ifs.”
I twist in my chair to face her and make sure she’s looking at me before I continue because it feels really important that she understands what I’m about to say.
“I could sit here making up a million scenarios about what might be different. What if I’d bought into Jeremy’s conspiracy theories years ago? What if I’d listened when you’d tried to tell me things weren’t what they seemed? What if I hadn’t left my mom alone, sleeping, totally vulnerable, while I went to the lab to check things out?” I huff out a tight breath, the weight of all those what-ifs crushing my chest.
“If any of that had happened, everything could be different right now. But it’s not. There’s no going back, no power of time travel. So we just have to work on the problem, you know? We have to deal with what is, not what might have been.” Rebel sits silent for a long time. She’s totally withdrawn, totally locked inside of herself, and there’s a part of me that wants to break her out, to smash through the walls she’s putting up in self-defense. But I don’t, because I get what she’s going through. With everything I’ve had to process during the last couple days, I never stopped to think that finally discovering the truth, finally learning that she’s been right all along, must be weighing on her.
Feeling alone led her to seek out villains. I won’t let her feel alone ever again. “You’re right,” she says with a grimace. “Still, sometimes I wish I could be more like you. More like Riley.”
“Riley? You want to be more like your brother?” I ask incredulously. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”
“It may sound crazy, but it’s true. Yeah, my brother drives me nuts, but everything is easy for Riley. The world makes sense to him. He sees the superverse in black and white, good and bad. So do you, Kenna.”
I think back to the supermarket and how nothing seemed black and white
anymore. How complicated everything was and how I didn’t know what to think—
what to feel—about any of it.
Nothing is easy anymore.
I don’t know where this upside-down path we’re on is headed, and I sure as hell don’t know where it’s going to end up. But I’m certain that Rebel is the one person in all of this who shouldn’t be beating herself up.
“But you were right,” I tell her. “Good isn’t always good, and bad isn’t always bad. You’ve always seen the shades of gray.”
I think about Draven, about what a good guy he is deep down, under the long hair and villain tats and that ridiculously obnoxious smirk. Under his screw-the-world attitude. He may be a total badass, but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. How can he be when he spends so much of his time trying to do the right thing?
“Seeing in black and white is highly overrated,” I say. She gapes at me. “I never thought I’d hear you say that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a brave new world, isn’t it? And what do they say about new worlds? Adapt or die?”
She looks at me strangely as she echoes my earlier question. “Who are you, and where’s the real Kenna? What have you done with my best friend?”
“That seems to be the question today, doesn’t it?” I reply with a forced laugh.
Too bad I don’t have an answer anymore.