Ethan woke to the smell of brewing coffee and homemade french toast, cinnamon and sweet syrup floating to his nose. He peeled open his eyes and sat up, mouth parched and head pounding. At least this time he didn't have anyone hovering over him. It was a small favor.
Feeling exhausted, Ethan forced himself out of bed. He wobbled around what he recognized to be his bedroom at his mother and stepfather's house. A change of clothes and a quick trip to the bathroom later and Ethan headed downstairs, feeling oddly detached. Yesterday's events seemed like a far away memory, or a nightmare that hadn't actually happened.
The low murmur of conversation was accompanied by a steady hum of emotions as Ethan descended the staircase. It felt like deja vu, especially when Ethan stepped into the dining room and found his family plus four Kinetics gathered around the table, only two of whom he knew by sight. All of those at the table were talking over plates of french toast soaked in syrup.
For a moment, Ethan wondered if he were still asleep. He lifted a hand, touched his neck, and felt the harshness of bandages. Hmm, not a dream. It was all too real.
"Ethan! You're awake!" Bubbly Melanie was the first to spot him and she waved as though he were further away than just hovering in the doorway.
"What happened?" Ethan asked, or rather croaked. His voice didn't want to work right.
"A very long story," Charlotte answered, or at least and Ethan assumed she was Charlotte. The blue eyes seemed to match. She also had brown hair, long enough the ends of it couldn't be seen thanks to the lip of the table. Her features were sharp, high cheekbones and thin lips. "So sit down."
Ethan sat. Something in her voice precluded an argument. "What happened to Sheila?"
Several glances were exchanged across the table.
"We don't know," Jaiden answered. "The news says she is missing. No one's seen her since that night. We'd assumed the police would apprehend her, but..."
"They're not claiming to have her in custody," Charlotte finished for him. "There's a possibility that Kryptos took her, but we can't be certain. It'll be days before our spies can bring us word."
Ethan felt a little sick. "That doesn't help me. The police will think the serial killer is still loose and I'm their favorite suspect."
"Not exactly," said an unfamiliar voice from behind Ethan. He turned to find a man in the doorway, dressed to the nines in business attire and wearing thin-rimmed glasses. "The local authorities are now aware of Miss Locke's involvement in the murders. They seek her as a culprit, not a victim."
"Who are you?" Ethan demanded. Information was nice to have, but he was sick of it appearing belated and out of thin air. "And why do the police think Sheila did it?"
The stranger fully entered the dining room, moving around the table until he hovered by Mel, who took it upon herself to answer Ethan's question.
Mel smirked, popping her gum and wiping at a smear of syrup on her chin. "You've got Baskania to think for that. Our hackers dug up some surveillance video."
"And Ektos sweepers recovered some evidence from Sheila's home before it was destroyed in the firefight," Charlotte added, tucking a loose auburn strand of hair behind her ear. "It all links to Sheila and her accomplice."
Ethan chewed on his inner cheek. "You mean Stephen. Have they found him?"
"No. He's missing, too. Which is the real mystery." Mel gulped down some orange juice, somehow not choking on her chewing gum in the process. "Kryptos wouldn't have bothered with taking a Norm. He could be hiding but," here she shrugged, "who knows?"
"Okay," Ethan said slowly and shifted his attention back to the unidentified man. "That still doesn't tell me who you are."
Mel giggled. "Remember when I said I had backup, too? Well, this is him." She nudged the bespectacled man with her elbow. "Ethan, meet Louie."
The name didn't fit, at all. Louie better resembled someone poncy, like Maximilian or Clauncy, not something simple like Louie. He stood with shoulders back, as though his spine were made of a steel rod, and his grey eyes were dark.
"Nice to meet you," Ethan said politely.
A dark eyebrow twitched. "You need training," Louie replied in lieu of a polite response. "Preferably before you kill someone."
Ethan bristled. He was an Empath, not a freaking pyrokinetic for God's sake.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
"Remember this?" Charlotte asked, and fingers suddenly flicked the side of Ethan's side, an annoyance but not pain. He scowled, rubbing at the affected temple and –
– He smiled, giddy with power. Ethan opened his palms, closed them again, felt the wave of warmth over his fingers. Like water, but there wasn't any in his hands. He could still feel it though. Feel the potential.
It was warm and liquid, the beating of someone's heart. Beyond him, someone screamed. Pain was thick on the air, thick like blood and just as coppery. Ethan smiled again, this was-
Ethan gasped as he dropped out of the memory, stomach roiling with nausea. Yeah, he remembered last night. Even if it was little more than a blur of sound and emotion and the feeling of holding life in the palm of his hands...
"What does it mean?" Ethan asked, his voice oddly tight. He looked at his hands, opening and closing his fingers. They didn't quite feel like his hands at the moment.
"Initially, we thought you nothing more than a low grade empath," Charlotte explained. "But then, you'd also never been exposed to a situation of sheer stress."
Ethan gave her a blank look. "Low grade?" he repeated. What the hell? He wasn't gasoline!
"Basic abilities. Low talent," Jaiden clarified. "Limited scope." He leaned back in his chair, looking far too casual and at ease. "But that's not the case anymore. You're a little more useful than we thought you were."
Ethan's eyes narrowed, but it was his mother who spoke up, indignant.
"Useful?" she hissed, rising angrily to her feet "Ethan is not some weapon or tool for your organization!"
"Calm down, Mrs. Taft," Mel said gently, patting the air. "That's not what Jaiden meant. Ethan's actually quite lucky. His ability is rare."
Ethan twitched. "What ability? You can't tell me I'm the only empath in the whole world."
"No," Louie said, adjusting his glasses. "We've known of at least two dozen empaths, but only ten percent have displayed the unique trait that you showed us the night before last."
Rubbing at his aching forehead, Ethan sighed. "What unique trait?"
Mel grinned, almost bouncing in her heat. "See, empaths can sometimes be special. If they're higher grade, they can temporarily align themselves with the nearest, strongest Kinetic."
Darryl made a confused noise. "What do you mean by align?"
"A more accurate word might be absorb," Charlotte clarified. "It means that he can use their powers for a short while."
A cold shiver danced down Ethan's spine. "You mean... that night?"
"You unconsciously latched onto Sheila and almost aligned with me," Jaiden replied. "You nearly killed everyone accidentally, in the same manner that Sheila was doing it on purpose. Which is why you need to be trained."
Training, Ethan could agree with. But he had the strong suspicion that this training came with strings attached. All he had to do was avoid other Kinetics, right? No dangerous Kinetics nearby and Ethan had no one to latch onto. Easy enough.
"Um, Ethan, you might want to reconsider," Mel said, trading glances with Louie. "This is not exactly something you want to let fester."
He shook his head. "I'm sure this training requires that I leave, right? It'll leave me more in your debt. I'll have to join your organization or something. Right?"
His mother got a hard look in her eyes. "That is not happening," she said firmly, moving until she stood directly behind Ethan. "Ethan's staying right here."
Warmth blossomed in Ethan's chest.
"You wouldn't have to leave," Charlotte said, a touch of amusement in her voice. "Though that would make it much easier for you."
Darryl frowned deeply. "I'm sorry, but I find it difficult to believe that you'd help our son without any sort of payment in return."
"It wouldn't be for free," Louie clarified and gestured toward Charlotte and Jaiden. "I don't know about Ektos here, but we at Baskania are willing to allow Ethan to be based out of Valda. After a brief and emergency training period."
"Allow?" Ethan's mother repeated with a sharp stab of outrage spiking through Ethan's senses. "You don't own my son!"
Charlotte chuckled darkly, treating Louie to a glare that spoke of a long standing grudge. "Baskania is just one rung above Kryptos, Mrs. Taft. Don't be fooled by their pretty words. Baskania seeks to own the Kinetics as much as Kryptos wants to kill them."
"As if Ektos is any more altruistic," Mel spat, fire dancing in her eyes. "You woo Kinetics with pretty words of safety, and lure them into all manner of unethical experimentation. All under the guise of a cure." Her tone, too, spoke of personal grudge.
Jaiden worked his jaw. "We seek to help, mind-reader. We're not the villains here. Don't poison something that is voluntary."
"Enough!" Ethan shouted, jerking to his feet, his voice thundering through the dining room. "I don't care, okay? I don't! My best friend's dead and apparently my mutant powers are even more freakish than I thought. Your squabbles don't matter to me!"
Silence swept through the room.
Ethan sucked in a breath, feeling like someone was squeezing his throat. "I just want to be left alone," he added, losing some of his anger, letting exhaustion and apathy take its place. "You can all go back to whoever you work for and just leave us alone."
Ethan whirled, finding Chrissy in the doorway, rubbing her eyes sleepily. His yelling must have attracted her attention.
"What's going on?"
Jeanine and Darryl exchanged glances, but it was the latter who got up from the table.
"Nothing, Sprout," Darryl said, gently herding Ethan's sister away from the tense dining room. "What do you say to Denny's for breakfast, hmm?"
Chrissy cheered, and her agreement was the last Ethan heard as they left
Mel looked hurt. "Ethan..."
Jaiden remained stoic, his expression set in stone. "If that is your decision..."
"It is," Ethan said firmly. "It's what I've been saying since day one."
Chair legs screeched against the wood floor as Charlotte scooted back and stood. "Mr. President is not going to be happy about this." She sighed, gesturing for Jaiden to rise as well. "But freedom of choice has always been our policy. We wish you well, Ethan McCormick."
Moving to her side, Jaiden nodded. "Our offer is always open."
"We at Baskania are the same," Mel said loudly, as though refusing to be outdone by her rivals. "Though I do wish you'd reconsider, Ethan. Taylor was not the only threat."
He lifted his chin. "Then I'll deal with whatever or whoever comes next."
Louie shrugged, spreading his hands. "You see? This is why I tell the boss not to bother with the older Kinetics. They think they're invulnerable." He reached up, adjusting his glasses. "Rest assured, if the situation calls for it, we will return."
"I still don't like this," Melanie grumbled, casting a glance Ethan's direction. Was that worry? "Kryptos won't give up."
"I know," Ethan said, hiding the fact he was seriously uneasy. "Thank you for your help. I'm not ungrateful."
Louie pulled a card out of his pocket, handing it over. "Don't hesitate to call if you change your mind."
Ethan accepted the card, pocketing it. He doubted he'd use it, but they didn't need to know that. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it," Mel said, grinning brightly, still too chipper for his comfort.
Ethan watched as the two different factions of Kinetic traded unfavorable glances before exiting from the dining room.
"I'll walk them to the door," Ethan's mother said, and she hurried after them, taking the suffocating press of relief with her.
Left alone with a table covered in the remains of a half-eaten breakfast, Ethan drew his first relaxed breath. He closed his eyes and laid his head on his arms, ignoring the ache in his body. For all that had happened, his mind was surprisingly blank. He felt oddly removed at the moment, like the events of the past week were only a distant nightmare.
What was he supposed to do now?
Taylor was dead. Sheila was missing. The world should return to its proper course now. Everything was right again.
Except for the fact that it wasn't.
Adrayan was dead and Ethan was apparently a bigger freak than he ever knew. What about any of that was a relief?
He stirred at the sound of his mother's voice. "I'm fine."
He sighed. "I need to be."
"That's not the same thing." The floor protested as she pulled out a chair and sat beside him. "What's bothering you, sweetie?"
"I don't want to talk about it right now."
Ethan let a sharp bark of sarcastic laughter spill past his lips. "Never if I can help it." He straightened, staring dully at a plate of cooling scrambled eggs. "I'd like to move on, pretend none of this ever happened, but that's not going to work, is it?"
"No, it's not. But you didn't need me to tell you that," his mother said, and her soft understanding helped ease something tight in his chest. "Besides, the boy I raised isn't the sort of coward who'd run away from his problems.
Ethan looked at her. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You're past the age where I can answer that for you," Jeanine said quietly, squeezing his shoulder. "I'm confident you'll figure it out yourself."
"To be honest, Mom, that's not much help."
She laughed. "That's the curse of these things. Now have some breakfast. You look like you've not had a good meal in days."
A week passed before Ethan was healed enough to return to work and school. A case of the flu was a good enough excuse to keep him from being penalized, though Ethan suspected a good dose of pity was also involved. The sting of Dray's death was still fresh, an open wound bleeding with guilt and regret.
Ethan spent a week avoiding his television and the Daily News' hourly coverage of the Valda Bomber investigation. The first day, he'd watched with a masochistic sense of curiosity, but after that, he couldn't stomach the lies anymore.
Dray's death was being treated as an unsolved mystery. The police didn't connect it to Sheila's other work because the circumstances were too dissimilar. Ethan hated that he couldn't give Thomas and Tiffany that closure. He found himself fingering Louie's business card on more than one occasion, debating on asking them for help. Maybe make some sort of trade.
Baskania had found a way to give evidence pinpointing Sheila as the serial killer. Surely they could do the same again. Surely Dray's parents could have some peace.
Every time Ethan picked up the phone, he worried about the price they might demand of him. It might be more than he could afford. Was that selfish of him?
A week passed and the world continued to turn. For all that Ethan had endured, no one else knew a thing. They were blissfully ignorant and sometimes, it all felt like a very bad dream to Ethan.
Everything was the same, except where it wasn't. But Ethan moved on anyway. It was all he could do.
So at seven AM on Monday morning, he rolled out of bed as though life were business as usual. He took a shower, got dressed and ate Corn Flakes in the silence of his new apartment. The crunch of the cereal echoed in his ears, but otherwise, he heard nothing. Not even the emotions of his neighbors.
For a week now, Ethan's world had been blessedly muted. It was easier to block out the random feelings of the masses. This new development was one of the few good things about the whole fiasco. And it proved that Ethan didn't need any special training after all.
Spoon ringing on the rim of the bowl, Ethan set both in the sink, giving it a quick rinse with the faucet. This all felt so damn mundane. So normal.
It made his skin crawl.
Brushing his teeth, Ethan finished his morning routine, grabbed his school bag and the keys to his mother's Jeep, and was out the door before he changed his mind. Valda was sleepy and quiet as he drove to class, Ethan's passenger seat noticeably empty.
The campus was abuzz with morning's usual flood of activity. People were still gossiping about Sheila being the serial killer, but Ethan ignored them. Their theories and speculation would never match to the truth.
Mr. Alowl's class was first on the agenda, and Ethan trickled in with the rest of the students. He found an empty seat and stared resolute at the whiteboard. He'd have to borrow someone's notes later if he even hoped to pass the class.
When the lecture started, Ethan couldn't dredge up any interest. Instead, he doodled in his notebook, somehow missing the buzzing background noise of a dozen different emotions. He'd become so used to the white noise that without it, his ears were ringing.
Pen idly scraping over paper, Ethan carefully opened his senses. He hoped that he could control his empathy without it being overwhelmed by emotion. It was like peeling away layers of varying thickness inside him. Some thin and gauzy, others thick like cotton.
The emotions were muffled at first, like hearing a next door neighbor's TV through the wall. Most of his fellow students were bored, with no particularly vibrant emotions. Ethan stripped away another few layers, the murmur of boredom seeping through. The professor was a happy chirp of excitement and a few students were hums of mild curiosity. The shift away from silence was comforting.
He smiled to himself and tried to pay attention to Mr. Alowl, but something nudged the back of his senses. Like the drone of a muted TV. Ethan's brow furrowed. There was a noticeable "empty" spot in the classroom. Like a null space.
Ethan's eyes widened and a stab of concern rocked through him. Null emotions could only mean one thing in his experience. Had Kryptos already come after him again?
Swallowing thickly, Ethan accidentally knocked his pen to the floor. He leaned over to pick it up, glancing in the direction of the null space out of the corner of his eye.
Melanie's grinning face, eyes at half-mast, came into view.
Ethan snatched his pen and returned to his seat, suppressing a scowl. He'd gotten all worked up for nothing. What was Melanie doing here? She said that Baskania was done!
Squaring his jaw, Ethan tried to focus on the lecture, but he knew it was pointless. He was too distracted.
It was a relief when Mr. Alowl ended the class early. Ethan was one of the first out of the room, and he waited just outside the door. Once Melanie emerged, he grabbed her arm and steered her out of the mob of escaping students.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
Melanie grinned, noisily smacking her gum. "Do you really want to talk about that right here?" she asked, pointedly glancing at the curious bystanders.
Well, Ethan manhandling a poor, defenseless young woman was certainly not a common sight.
Gritting his teeth, Ethan pulled Melanie into an empty classroom and shut the door. He hoped there wasn't a class scheduled here soon.
"Okay, we're alone. Explain," Ethan hissed, letting go of her arm.
She scrunched up her nose. "Well, to be short, my boss sent me back." Melanie shrugged. "He nearly ripped me a new one when he found out we'd left a high grade, class one empath unattended."
"Unattended!" Ethan's outrage seemed to echo in the empty classroom. "I'm not a toddler. And what do you mean class one? What happened to low grade?"
"I sort of thought that was obvious. Eery Kinetic is divided into classes, with one being top of the class." Her gaze shifted to the side, the tops of her cheeks burning crimson. "We originally had you classed as a four. Low grade is... kind of an insult."
"I'm trying to be offended, but at this point, I'm just pissed off," Ethan muttered. "That means what exactly? Before I was pyrite, now I'm solid gold?"
"For the most part." Melanie dragged her eyes back toward him. "And once Kryptos figures that out, you'll be toast. They'd do anything to boost their cognitives."
Another unfamiliar word. "Cognitives?"
Melanie made some vague gestures with her hands that looked like a half-restrained flail. "You know, like seeing the future and the past. Post-cogs. Pre-cogs. Except, they're notoriously rare and... unstable."
Ethan chewed on the inside of his cheek. "How does an empath come into this?"
"Not just any empath," Melanie corrected. "At the very least, a class two, someone capable of piggybacking, I guess you could call it, on another Kinetic's ability. You could boost them, stabilize them, make 'em more sane. Kryptos would only need to look through your eyes to see what their crazy cognitives can't interpret on their own. And a class one..?"
"Makes for a clearer picture," Ethan said with a heavy sigh. He slumped, leaning against the nearest desk. "I should have known I couldn't go back to a normal life."
"Not anymore." Melanie stopped her energetic bouncing. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. But at least you'll be protected. Right?"
Ethan grunted. "I guess that means I'm stuck with you."
She grinned, executing a sloppy military salute. "Sir, yes, sir. Though I don't mind. I kind of thought we were starting to be friends."
He'd gotten used to her but Ethan didn't know if he'd call her a friend, although he'd never say that out loud.
"You'd better have your own place to stay," Ethan said, shifting off the desk and heading for the door.
"Aww, c'mon Ethan. Your new apartment is huge," Melanie pleaded, following him as he escaped into the empty hallway.
"Too small for me to have a roommate." He adjusted his book bag on his shoulder, heading out the exit and into blinding, bright sunlight.
Melanie trailed after him like a wayward puppy. "There's an entire room that you're not using."
"It's reserved for someone else."
The unexpected but familiar voice startled Ethan and he whirled toward the speaker, nearly losing his balance on the stairs he'd been descending. "Jaiden?"
Sure enough, the aerokinetic was there, leaning against the side of the building, arms crossed over his chest.
"You don't look shocked," Jaiden said.
Ethan jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Melanie. "Baskania showed up. Figures Ektos would sooner or later."
"Then you know why I'm here." Jaiden pushed off the wall, striding toward Ethan and Melanie.
Ethan raised a brow. "Because I'm a Class One Empath?"
"Ektos uses slightly different terms, but yes."
Sighing, Ethan started back down the stairs, quite certain both of his Kinetics would follow. "At least my mother will be relieved." She'd been concerned about the possibility of another Taylor showing up.
Ethan hadn't wanted to admit that he was, too.
"This doesn't mean you're going to get that spare room," Melanie huffed.
"I don't recall Ethan allowing you to have it either," Jaiden said mildly.
Mel reddened. "Baskania got here first!"
"Really?" Jaiden replied loftily. "Because I've been here for three days already."
"Doing what?" Ethan asked.
"A sweep. Charlotte wanted to make sure there were no other Kinetics, aware or otherwise, within Valda."
Jaiden shoved his hands in his pockets. "You're the only Kinetic resident left."
Ethan chewed on the inside of his cheek. It was a small comfort. It certainly didn't mean Kryptos was going to leave him alone.
He paused at his car, toying with his keys, before turning to face the two Kinetics. "I'll suffer you two without complaint on one condition."
"Name it," Melanie said hastily, sticking her tongue out at Jaiden.
"Make sure the police can solve Dray's death. His parents deserve that closure." He eyed them, leaving no wiggle room. "Or I'll make sure that your time spent guarding me is as hellish as I can possibly make it."
"No problem," Mel agreed.
"Done," Jaiden said.
Both of them hadn't hesitated for a second. Ethan wondered if they'd already anticipated his request.
"Good. Glad we agree," Ethan said, and unlocked the car doors. "Get in."
Jaiden threw himself into the front seat before Melanie could bound for it, and the telepath pouted as she climbed into the back, glancing longingly at the coveted front seat.
Ethan felt a bit like he was babysitting children as he climbed into the car, closing the door behind him. He turned the key in the ignition and aimed the Jeep toward his apartment, resigned to his fate.
Which was worse? Meeting another Taylor without Jaiden and Melanie, or enduring their protection for however long it took?
He couldn't go back to his life. It didn't exist anymore. Not with Dray dead and Jeanine aware of his abilities, which were growing steadily stronger. Whatever Ethan had lived prior to three weeks ago, it was gone now. He had to look to the future. He had to make the best of things as they were now.
"So..." Melanie said cheerfully. "What's for dinner?"
His life was now, officially, hell.
a/n: Yes, I do intend to write sequels. I have two planned already though I haven't started them yet. Too many projects on my plate. I'd also like to get the final draft of this one finished first. Any critique on this story would be most welcome. I'll use it as I make my plans for the second draft, adding scenes, deleting some if needed, rewriting others. Etc.
Thanks to everyone who's read and reviewed. Your help has been most appreciated!