… EPISODE FOUR…
The elevator doors glide open and I step inside, away from the chaos of the heroes and the Cleaners and the aftermath of the security breach on sub-level one.
Walking away from the lab feels strange. Everything is different now, and not because of the break-in or the explosion. It’s because of him.
For a second the image of his face pops into my head—all high cheekbones and sculpted jaw—but I refuse to acknowledge it.
Refuse to acknowledge him. If I don’t think about what he said, what he did, what he didn’t do, then I don’t have to think about how confusing it all is.
Villains are bad. I know this. I have always known this. I’ve seen them blow shit up on the news a million times.
Seen the aftermath of the earthquakes and fires and devastation they’ve caused around the world.
One of them killed my dad in cold blood while anothe___
I stop myself. I’ve worked too hard to put that behind me. The fact that I’m even thinking these thoughts now is just more proof that Draven and his friends are bad news.
Just because they didn’t kill me doesn’t mean they aren’t bad—and bad for me.
After all, it’s not like I ran into them while getting a milkshake at Sonic or hanging at the mall with Rebel.
They were breaking into a top-secret superhero lab to steal…something. I don’t know what, but they were really pissed that they couldn’t find it.
Not pissed enough to take it out on me, but they were distracted. And in a hurry.
Thinking, even for a minute, that they might not be evil simply because they let me live is stupid. Worse, it’s suicidal.
Draven might have stuck up for me once, but I doubt he’d do it again. Besides, my wrists still hurt.
Which means if I’m around the next time he catches on fire, there’s no way I’m putting it out.
With that promise to myself, I turn the corner into the ESH lobby. The face we present to the public is all very normal looking. Shiny chrome, gleaming leather, and sparkling glass. Just what you would expect from a company that designs innovative technology.
There’s no indication that the ESH has anything to do with superheroes, which is how they’ve managed to keep their power and influence out of the limelight for more than sixty years.
I’m almost to the exit when men start streaming through the front door. It’s the middle of the night and even Mr. Malone, who doesn’t normally have a hair out of place, was dressed down. Not these men.
Each is dressed in a perfectly pressed suit in some shade of gray—… And they’re all wearing sunglasses.
They spread out in pairs, fanning across the lobby like an army. Or a plague of locusts.
“Let me see your ID,” one says as he and his partner approach me.
Who are these guys? I mean, they look like top secret government agents, but that doesn’t make sense.
SHPD has already taken over this investigation. Besides, it’s not like we have a superhero version of the CIA or FBI. We’ve never needed one. Superheroes take care of their own trouble.
“I’m just leaving.” I try to step around the one who addressed me.
“Your ID,” the second one insists, blocking my way. If possible, he sounds even more obnoxious—and determined—than his partner.
“Who are you?” I demand.
“Your ID,” the first one repeats. There’s no emotion behind his voice. No threat. No rage. Just the assurance that I am not getting out of here until I give them what they want.
I’ve had enough. I took enough crap from the villains tonight. I’m not taking it from these guys too. Where do they get off?
I go nose to nose with Suit 1. “Do you have a badge?”
He reaches into his jacket, produces a small leather wallet, and flashes a shiny gold badge and ID at me. I can only make out the initials NTF before he stuffs it back in his chest pocket.
“What did that say?” I ask. “I couldn’t even—”
“If you don’t produce your ID,” Suit 2 says, “we will take you into custody until your identity can be confirmed.”
“Are you kidding?” I’m not the one who doesn’t belong here.
“Counterfeit IDs were used to access the facility,” Suit 1 says. “All personnel IDs must be tested for authenticity.”
When I don’t immediately reach for my badge, he steps toward me and clamps a big, beefy hand around my forearm.
“Don’t touch me!” I yank at my arm, but he won’t let go.
Annoyed all over again, I fork over my ID and watch as Suit 2 swipes it through a small, handheld machine. It beeps, long and high-pitched, and I tense despite myself.
I have a reason for being here. I’m not doing anything wrong. But these guys don’t look like they care one way or the other.
For a moment I have visions of being swept into a nondescript vehicle and taken away to parts unknown.
If that happens though, I’m not going without a fight. I am sick and tired of being pushed around.
“Thank you, Ms. Swift.” Suit 2 hands my ID back to me. “Have a safe night.”
And then they’re turning away, walking away, as if they didn’t just threaten to physically detain me without cause. As if they didn’t just grab me. I guess I should be grateful they’re letting me go, but all I am is pissed.
Determined to get out of here before things get even more screwed up, I make a beeline for the door, plowing straight into my best friend who is walking in as I’m rushing out.
Rebel wraps me in a vanilla-and-leather-scented hug.
“Oh, Kenna! Thank God you’re okay!” She squeezes me tight enough to cut off my oxygen supply.
And for a second—just a second—I cling to her.
“I’m fine,” I tell her, pulling away. “What are you doing here?”
I keep my voice to a whisper, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because I still have the heebie-jeebies after my run-in with the suits.
Rebel has no such heebie-jeebies—and no such reason to keep her voice lower than a shout. “I was worried about you! My dad got the alarm that there was a break-in. Then I started thinking about how you like to work late in your mom’s lab and I tried to text you, but you never answered. I drove by your house and your car wasn’t there. I freaked out.”
She stops to catch a breath and I take advantage of the pause to get out a few words of my own.
“I wasn’t hurt,” I tell her. “The villains who broke in were looking for
something—I don’t know what—but they didn’t do much damage, at least nothing the Cleaners can’t fix.”
Rebel looks relieved. “So nobody was hurt?”
“Nope. Just some broken glass and scorched walls. Your dad and Riley are on it,” I say. “Oh, and by the way, did you know your brother has taken to wearing a cape?”
Rebel rolls her eyes. “He swears it’s just a coat. But I’m so glad you’re all right!” She throws her arms around me again, and again I put up with it, despite her studded leather belt digging into my stomach.
After all, that’s kind of par for the course in a Rebel hug.
My best friend is about as different from her dad and brother as she can get and still be a member of the Malone family.
In fact, while there’s never a doubt in anyone’s mind that Mr. Malone and Riley are heroes—they pretty much wear it on their sleeves…or their capes—at first glance, most people in our world would assume Rebel is a villain.
She’s the sweetest person I know (to everyone except her dad, at least), but it’s easy to see how someone could make that mistake.
Tonight, she’s dressed in a short leather skirt with ripped-up, melting tights in black and white, a black tank that proclaims “Love is the movement,” and worn combat boots that have definitely seen better days.
Her razor-cut, bleached-almost-white hair is short and spiky, and she’s wearing more jewelry than I even own: four earrings in her left ear, three in her right, a bunch of mismatched bracelets on both wrists, and a ring on every finger.
Even her bright blue eyes—so like her dad’s and brother’s—look punk with heavy, black eyeliner and fake lashes.
“Were you freaking out?” she asks when she finally pulls away.
“You know me,” I say with a meaningful shrug. Rebel is the only person besides my mom who knows about my secret immunity and that I can’t be harmed by superpowers.
Who can a girl trust, if not her best friend, right? “I handled it. I even put one out with a fire extinguisher.”
Rebel bursts out laughing. “You put Nitro out with a fire extinguisher? I wish I could have seen that!”
“I did. It was—” Her words suddenly register. “Hey, I never said it was Nitro.”
Guilt flashes across Rebel’s face, but it’s gone so fast I almost think I imagined it.
“Of course you did.”
“No, I didn’t.” No way would I make that mistake. Not when I’m pretending that I can’t remember who broke in. “All I said is that they were villains.”
“Huh. Well, I guess I just assumed. What other villain actually needs to be extinguished?”
I huff out a little laugh and shake my head. “Good point.”
After all, if I hadn’t been so stunned by the situation, I would have known it was Nitro just from his abilities.
Why wouldn’t Rebel? Especially when life at her house is a daily course in villain identification. I swear if Mrs. Malone would allow it, Mr. Malone would display photos of the twenty most-wanted villains in their house like a museum displays Picasso paintings.
All in an attempt to memorize their faces so he can eradicate them from the planet.
“So, are you going home?” Rebel asks after an awkward silence
I nod. “My mom doesn’t want me here during the cleanup.”
“She’s right. No one wants to be here for that.” Rebel slings an arm around my shoulders. “Too much time with the zeroes…oops, I mean heroes”—she gives me an overly dramatic eye roll—“could cause cavities.”
I ignore the dig. She knows it bugs me when she calls them that.
“But seriously,” she says, “you shouldn’t be alone tonight. Come home with me.”
Normally I would protest, out of pride if for no other reason. But the truth is that I really don’t want to go home.
While I’m not exactly freaking out, I think I’ve earned a night at my BFF’s house.
“Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
Rebel gives me another oxygen-depriving hug before walking me to my car. Then I follow her home.
The Malones live about ten minutes from the lab in a house that looks like a giant wedding cake. Big and white, with huge plantation shutters and trees lining a driveway that stretches a half a mile from the street to the front porch.
I park in my regular spot in the designated guest parking area—yes, her parents are more than a little anal—then follow Rebel into her house.
There’s a light on in the foyer but the rest of the house is dark, which means her mother is still in bed. I can’t help feeling relieved. I like Rebel’s family, but they’re all a little high strung.
My half-goth, half-hipster best friend is actually the low-maintenance one in the Malone household.
Rebel and I became friends in kindergarten. On the first day of class, the teacher asked everyone to demonstrate their powers—teleporting, cloud making, even changing the color of people’s hair, which Rebel totally wishes she could do.
When they got to me, I had to admit that I didn’t have a power. It wasn’t unheard of for an ordinary to attend the school for superheroes, but it was unusual.
Enough so that no one wanted to sit with me at lunch.
When she saw me sitting alone at a table, Rebel made a big production of picking up her lunch, skipping across the cafeteria, and sitting next to me.
She said, “You’re special. We should be friends.” We’ve been inseparable ever since.
Once we’re in her room, Rebel loans me a pair of pajamas and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open long enough to change into them. Funny, half an hour ago I was pumped so high on adrenaline that I felt like I’d never come down, and now I’m crashing so hard all I want is to pull the covers over my head and hide for a week.
I reach instinctively for my journal. Even exhaustion can’t keep me from my nightly ritual of scribbling at least a line or two about my day, about my results.
But my backpack isn’t where I usually drop it in Rebel’s room. It’s not here at all.
“Crap,” I say as I fall back into the bed. “I forgot to grab my bag.”
This is all Riley’s fault. If he hadn’t started droning on about security systems and surveillance equipment—while wearing a freaking cape—I wouldn’t have been in such a rush to get out of the lab.
“Get some sleep,” Rebel tells me, crawling in the other side of her king-size bed and pulling out her tablet. “You can go back for it tomorrow.”
I don’t even argue. Instead, I close my eyes and fall into a restless, dream-filled sleep.
I’m not sure how long I’m out before the sound of an incoming text wakes me up.
I’m starting to grope for my phone when I hear Rebel tapping out an answer.
Seconds later, she throws back the covers and climbs stealthily out of bed, so stealthily that I simply watch her instead of saying something, like I normally would.
She walks to the French doors that lead out onto her veranda and pushes one open. Then, after flicking on the exterior light, she steps outside and softly closes the door behind her. I wait a minute, two, for her to come back in, but when she doesn’t, I climb out of bed too. Through the glass, I can see her silhouette walking toward a small copse of trees at the back of her yard.
A tall guy steps out of the shadows and Rebel runs into his arms. They kiss for long, drawn-out seconds, and I can’t do much more than stand there in openmouthed shock.
Rebel has a boyfriend! Rebel has a boyfriend that she hasn’t told me anything about. It doesn’t make any sense.
We tell each other everything. We always have. Every crush, every first date, every kiss. Rebel can list every guy I’ve ever liked, all the way back to kindergarten. And I can do the same for her. She knows about my immunity shots.
We trust each other with our deepest secrets. Or at least I thought we did.
But now as I stand here watching her kiss this guy like they’re the only two people on the planet, I can’t help wondering why I don’t know about him. It’s not like Rebel to keep secrets, so if she’s been hiding this guy, there must be a reason.
Unease crawls through my belly as they finally split apart. The guy wraps his arm around her shoulders and starts walking her back toward the house. My apprehension grows. There’s something about the way he moves that is familiar.
Something about the way he holds himself and his rolling, long-legged stride.
Is he someone from school? But that doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t Rebel tell me about him if that’s the case?
Maybe he’s an older guy and her parents wouldn’t approve. But still, she could have told me. I’d never judge. Or if I did, I’d support her anyway. That’s how our friendship works.
As they get closer, I crouch behind the purple love seat near the doors and peer over the back of it. It takes a couple minutes for them to reach the pool of light from the veranda, but when they do, shock ricochets through me.
Because this isn’t some boy from school.
This isn’t some guy she met at a concert or a club.
No, the guy Rebel is currently leaning in to for one last kiss, the guy whose arms are wrapped around her waist, whose body is pressed flush against her own, is a villain.
And not just any villain. Dante, the guy with the fauxhawk hair who broke into my mother’s lab and who wanted to kidnap me.
Me. His girlfriend’s best friend.
As I stare at them, I’m overwhelmed by a deafening noise—the sound of my mind exploding
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